1832: A clown and a harlequin are amongst the characters portrayed by King William IV, Lord Broughan, Lord Gray and Lord Eldon at a royal Christmas pantomime.

He's Behind You

12th December 2014

Pantomime is one of those rare theatrical events that doesn’t translate into any other time or place – it is entirely seasonal and, in its current form, essentially British.

Grace Fuller investigates the history of this bizarre Christmas genre.

Pantomime is a surprising amalgam of a variety of rich artistic traditions. It has its origins in the Bacchanalia of ancient Rome (when the word pantomimus referred to the performer, rather than the play) and in the Renaissance Italian Commedia dell’arte, plus connections with medieval morality plays and the riotous routines of the Victorian Music Hall. While it may seem fast, furious and utterly out of control, panto actually has a very structured framework and strong story line, where good battles evil and is victorious, and audience participation – especially booing the villain – is mandatory.

Even in its present star-spangled format, there are elements that link panto with theatrical practices of the past. Tradition says, for example, that the pantomime villain should be the first to enter, from the ‘dark side’, stage left, followed by his adversary, the good fairy, from stage right... echoing the Middle Ages, when the entrances to heaven and hell were placed in these positions. The fairy queen and the demon king – good and evil – appear in pantomime to this day, although their persona changes depending on the storyline (King Rat, Abanazer, Captain Hook… they’re all one and the same).

The loose plots of Commedia dell’Arte reflected the general literary storylines of sixteenth century Europe, as seen in many of Shakespeare’s plays… romantic intrigues, old men lusting after pretty girls, servants outwitting their masters – but with an emphasis on improvisation and knockabout comedy, plus dance, tumbling and acrobatics. Although popular in Italy and France, where they were performed in fairgrounds and market squares by troupes of travelling players, they were less well received here, despite a performance being given before Queen Elizabeth I in 1602.

Out of Commedia dell’Arte, however, grew the ‘Italian Night Scenes’, first seen here at Drury Lane in 1700. Perhaps the most obvious ancestors of the modern panto, these were rowdy plays in which the plot (such as it was) was communicated by slapstick and dance, rather than dialogue. The basic theme generally consisted of a misunderstanding leading to a comedy brawl, and, though many regarded them as vulgar, they became popular. The key character was Harlequin, who, along with his sweetheart Columbine and her father Pantaleone, featured in a sequence that came to be known as the harlequinade and was critical to most panto plots for the best part of two centuries.

Slapstick, still crucial in panto, takes its name from a device used in these early entertainments. Harlequin carried with him a wooden sword, sometimes as a weapon, sometimes as a magic wand. This had a hinged flap that created a loud ‘slapping’ noise when used, and gave emphasis to comic actions.

Originally pantomime storylines retold classical myths and legends; in the 1750s there were suggestions that tales with a strong narrative and a clear moral should be adopted, and although the idea took a little while to catch on, it was hugely influential: many of the fairy tales that we know now as panto subject matter were premiered between 1781 and 1832.

In the early nineteenth century, Harlequin was overtaken in popularity by the clown, known as a joey after Joseph Grimaldi, who took the part into a new dimension. After his death in 1837 the clown’s role also diminished, and spectacle – including speciality acts – took over from comedy as the centrepiece.

Throughout 1800s the genre continued to develop, introducing the Dame, played by a man; the Ugly Sisters, also played by men; and the Principal Boy, played by a woman. The reasons for all this cross-dressing were simple: it was only just becoming even remotely respectable for women to enter the theatrical profession, and those who had made the break certainly didn’t wish to portray elderly, ugly or villainous women. Equally (in a society in which women were required to be modestly dressed) theatrical entrepreneurs well understood that a young woman showing a shapely leg in tight fabric would be acceptable on the grounds of artistic license if playing the part of a man – and would, of course, bring in the audiences.

By the 1860s panto was beginning to take on a form that we would recognise today. Scenery was becoming ever more lavish, especially under the direction of Madame Vestris, the first female London theatre manager, and costumes were also more elaborate, especially for the Dame, who often changes outfits even when there is no logical reason. Even Sir Ian McKellen has been known to don a dress or two as Widow Twankey in Aladdin, observing “I believe there's more pure theatre in a pantomime than you get in Shakespeare…”

Although today we see it as something traditional, it is only by adapting to modern trends and including contemporary references that panto has remained popular. Topicality has always been crucial. Just as ‘celebrities’ feature now, so in the 1860s Augustus Harris – the ‘father of modern pantomime’ – introduced Music Hall stars in key roles at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. As early as 1897, topical names were used for characters, especially for Cinderella’s Ugly Sisters and costumes were (and still are) pointers to current trends in fashion or allusions to other aspects of popular culture. With up-to-date references – this year think Strictly, think X-Factor – panto may be long roots, but it is still a developing form…

‘Oh, no it isn’t!’

‘Oh, yes, it is…’

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