A timely topic and one I warrant has been a source of confusion for many Americans travelling abroad during the holidays. Pantomime is one of those theatrical terms, like burlesque, vaudeville, cabaret and many others, that possesses several forms and meanings. The kind we aim to discuss today is NOT the silent, French Marcel Marceau type. Nor is it the ancient Greco-Roman type (which I bet most of you don’t care about anyway, although I sure do!) Today we speak of the British Panto, which has long been an annual Christmas tradition in the UK, Ireland, Australia, and Canada.
As we have written about many stars of the Panto here (Joseph Grimaldi, Dan Leno, Little Tich, the Hanlon-Lees, Lily Morris, Bert Errol, Wilkie Bard, Nellie Wallace, G.S. Melvin, Bessie Bonehill, Wee Georgie Wood, Ada Reeve, et al) we thought it high time we provided a little more detail about what it was (and is).
British Panto evolved ultimately from the commedia dell’arte, an Italian import that gave the world a rich pantheon of comical stock characters (Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon, etc etc). In England this evolved into the Harlequinade in the early 18th century, a silent form (spoken dialogue being illegal in all but a couple of licensed theatres) very much focused on a small handful of the original commedia characters, the lovers Harlequin and Columbine and their escape from Pantaloon). The Harlequinade was initially presented on a bill with such entertainments as opera and ballet.
As time wore on, the show began to incorporate magical transformations by Harlequin, in which the presentation shifted to the telling of a story from classical mythology, a fairy tale or nursery rhyme. Eventually the Harlequinade fell away completely in the 19th century, leaving only the fairy tale (Puss in Boots, Jack and the Beanstalk, etc etc). The modern Panto is very much NOT silent. But there are several other distinctive features that make the Panto a unique theatre form:
* Drag. The Panto makes much use of comedy drag in the form of the Pantomime Dame (a guy dressed as a woman), and the Principal Boy (a gal dressed as a guy)
* Audience participation. The audience is coached by the actors to shout certain traditional things, such as “He’s behind you!” when the hero doesn’t see the villain creep up.
* Double entendres. The Panto is a family entertainment as opposed to a children’s entertainment. While the kids watch the fairy tale, the actors often make downright obscene jokes, but told in an oblique way designed to go over the smaller kid’s heads.
* Panto animals. Since time immemorial, the inclusion of a couple of actors in a horse or cow costume has been de rigeur
* Celebrity guests. A feature of the modern panto, at least the big productions, is that well-known tv and movie stars will drop in and take part.
Yes, the panto continues to be a living, breathing thing. Here is a random poster for a contemporary British panto from a couple of years ago featuring one of my favorite comic performers Dame Edna:
No panto in the U.S., you ask? Well, we had very little theatre at all back when we were British colonies. There was some panto activity here in the 19th century (see my article here on George L. Fox) but it didn’t stick at the time. But fairy tale theatre of a sort was all the rage in the late 19th/ early 20th century in the form of what were called “extravaganzas”. I’ll no doubt be treating of them in future. And, as of 2017, there has been a very exciting transplantation of panto to American shores. Read about it here.
For more on the variety theate, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
For more slapstick and clown history don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc