The idea of pantomime originated in ancient Greece, and later rose to popularity during the reign of Augustus in ancient Rome. The name is taken from a masked dancer called Pantomimus, and the comedy and tragedy content of modern pantomime has clear links with the Commedia dell’Arte which started in Italy in the Middle Ages and reached England by the middle of the 17th century when the Commedia dell’Arte characters first began to appear in English plays.
Often the Commedia dell’Arte touring troupes were made up of family members who generally improvised their way through a plot involving characters like Arlecchino (or Harlequin) and his true love, Columbina (or Columbine). Other standard characters were the over protective father, Pantaloon, who refused to allow the heroic Harlequin to seek his daughter’s affections. In some versions Pantaloon has a servant, Pulchinello, later to be known as Clown. These characters varied depending on who the performers were entertaining, but the great clown Grimaldi eventually transformed the format so that each story had the same characters which can still be found in today’s pantomimes.
It was during the reign of Queen Victoria in the 19th century, the English pantomime became closely associated with Christmas tradition and was considered a treat for children.
Now traditionally performed at Christmas for family audiences, British pantomime is now a popular form of theatre with song, dance, comedy, slapstick, audience participation and mild sexual innuendo. The plots are often loosely based on traditional children’s stories, the most popular titles being:
o Aladdin (often combined with Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves)
o Babes in the Wood (often combined with Robin Hood)
o Beauty and the Beast
o Cinderella, the most popular of all pantomimes
o Dick Whittington which is based on a seventeenth century play
o Goldilocks and the Three Bears
o Jack and the Beanstalk
o Mother Goose
o Peter Pan
o Puss in Boots
o Sleeping Beauty
o Snow White
Panto has a number of traditions and superstitions – most of which have remained over the years:
o The leading male juvenile character is the principal boy and is almost always played by a woman usually dressed in short, tight fitting skirts accompanied by knee-high leather boots and fishnet stockings. In the past when ladies covered their legs with garments down to their ankles, this provided a great opportunity to display a shapely pair of legs and make the panto appeal to a male audience.
o The pantomime dame is usually played by a man. This dates back to the Victorian Music Halls when the public loved to see well-known comedians playing the role of Jack’s mother, Sarah the Cook in Dick Whittington or Window Twankey in Aladdin. Women comedians were practically unheard of then and the tradition has stuck ever since.
o There is plenty of audience participation with calls of “it’s behind you!” and “oh yes it is!” or “oh no it isn’t!” The audience is always encouraged to “boo” the villain.
o There is usually a song sheet towards the end of the panto when one half of the audience is challenged to sing “their” chorus louder than the other half. Members of the cast throw out sweets to the children in the audience and often ask members of the audience up on stage. These scenes are often used as padding to give the cast time to change into their walk down costumes.
o The good fairy always enters from the right side of the stage and the evil villain enters from the left. This stems from Commedia dell ‘Arte when the right side of the stage symbolized Heaven and the left side symbolized Hell.
o In pantomime the last lines spoken in the finale; (traditionally in rhyming couplets) should never be spoken in rehearsal as this is considered very bad luck. They are uttered for the first time on the opening night.
o The last artistes to appear on stage in the walk down or finale are traditionally the Principal Boy and Girl, who have usually got married at the end of the show.
o It is considered very unlucky to have real flowers on stage, unless handed up the leading lady during the curtain call.
o Whistling in a dressing room is a bad omen and if you care caught doing this you have to leave the room, turn around three times, knock and re-enter, usually uttering a curse.
Hopefully the tradition will carry on for years to come but the genre is in danger from the modern threat of political correctness with some theatres thinking that men dressed as women is demeaning.
Also pantomimes are following the film industry and cashing in on merchandising with pressure being put on the parents to buy panto badges, the fairy’s tiara or demon’s mask which are sold in the foyer at often hugely inflated prices.
Luckily there are still plenty of regional producing theatres and dedicated artistes ready to perform two shows a day over the Christmas and New Year period. Some of the main pantos in the UK this year include Brian Conley as Buttons in Cinderella at the Cliffs Pavilion Southend: Shane Richie as Aladdin at the Wycombe Swan Theatre; Joe Pasquale and Ray Quinn in Sleeping Beauty at Birmingham Hippodrome; John Barrowman in Robin Hood at the New Theatre Cardiff: Paul Nicholas playing Captain Hook in Peter Pan at the Hull New Theatre and Craig Revell Horwood from Strictly Come Dancing playing the Wicked Queen at Llandudno.