The history of pantomime

With rehearsals getting underway this week for this year’s pantomime, we take a look at how pantomime traditions evolved.

Panto is a peculiarly British tradition, as anyone who has ever attempted to explain it to a foreign visitor will know all too well. It’s ironic then, that the origins of panto probably lie abroad. The generally favoured theory is that pantomime is, in fact, Italian. Sorry about that.

However, we have given it our own unique spin over the centuries, since it first arrived on these shores in the sixteenth century in the form of commedia del’arte. Commedia performances, which often took place in the street, were based around stock characters – most famously Harlequin- and well-known storylines. (One of these characters, Pulchinella, eventually became another great British tradition, evolving himself into Mr Punch in seaside Punch & Judy shows.) Commedia troupes would involve their audience in the show in a similar way to today’s pantomime performers.

These stories, revolving around two young lovers (Harlequin and Columbine) and their comic servants, have much in common with many of the fairy tales which form the basis of modern pantomimes, but it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that the word pantomime was used for the first time. Owing to strict theatre licensing laws at the time, only a limited number of theatres were allowed to present ‘spoken word’ performances (a restriction which remained in place until a change in the law in 1843), so these early performances were entirely mimed, giving rise to the name pantomime (‘panto’ comes from the Greek word for ‘all’).

These early pantomimes gave us another theatrical term – slapstick, referring to physical comedy. They were famous for their quick changes of scenery, which were achieved by having hinged flaps on scenery which would flip over when Harlequin hit them with his magic wand – actually a wooden baton, or – you can probably guess what’s coming next – ‘slap stick’.

Actor-producer John Rich in character as Harlequin, carrying his 'slap stick'.

Actor-producer John Rich in character as Harlequin, carrying his ‘slap stick’.

One of the distinguishing features of pantomime is cross-dressing, with the dame (a man dressed as a woman) playing a prominent part. Pantomimes also traditionally featured ‘principal boys’, women playing male roles, although these started to die out from the 1950’s when pop stars of the day like Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele started playing romantic roles in pantomimes. It has been suggested that these traditions go all the way back to Tudor times, when the Christmas time ‘feast of fools’, presided over by a Lord of Misrule, would have involved people dressing up and swapping roles. However, there’s little evidence of either dames or principal boys between the Restoration in 1660 (when actresses were allowed to perform on public stages for the first time) and the late eighteenth century. Principal boys appeared first, especially in opera, where ‘breeches roles’ were sung by female sopranos, before they were enthusiastically picked up by other more popular forms of entertainment like music hall. It’s likely that much of their popularity lay in the fact that the roles allowed women to show off their legs in revealing male costumes, at a time when woman were expected to wear long skirts at all times.

The tradition of of the dame appears to have evolved slightly later. The clown Joseph Grimaldi played the baron’s wife in 1820, in an early version of Cinderella. Dames became especially popular in  the late nineteenth century, as part of a wider fashion in music hall for cross- dressing acts.

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