What’s a pantomime? I’m sure I’m not the only one to have been asked this by non-native friends and colleagues. One thing it’s not is a white-face, silent fellow dressed in a black leotard looking sad inside an imaginary box! The form of theatre we’re talking about here is raucous, bawdy, silly, colourful, musical and very British!
It’s interesting that many of the elements that Panto in its current form is made of come from mainland Europe, and particularly from Italy, via the Commedia dell’arte tradition, which dates back to the 16th century. It was a sort of physical theatre of the street that involved tumbling, dance, music and buffoonery. There would be a defined set of stories and characters, and each family would pass the characters down as a kind of inheritance. Eventually it spread through France and reached England, where it started to become popular around the middle of the 17th century.
Pulcinella, a stupid servant, was one of the most famous of the Commedia characters; his popularity was such that he has survived in the UK in the form of Mr Punch of Punch and Judy fame. Harlequin was another character who has survived to this day, being originally a magical character who would have been involved in acrobatic and energetic chase scenes. Although today we don’t have the acrobatics, the chases are still very energetic!
In 1714 John Rich, an actor-manager, opened the Lincoln’s Inn Theatre, followed by The Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in 1732. He was dubbed the father of pantomime as the first to really exploit the potential of the Commedia characters in England. Harlequin was the star of the entertainments that Rich named pantomimes; Harlequin now emerged as a mischievous magician. The chase scenes were also embellished during this time. Harlequin remained the star for over 150 years, with the central part of the pantomime being the so-called Harlequinade, a comic chase scene telling the story of Harlequin and Columbine. This part was in mime with music and lots of slapstick and tomfoolery – again, this is still the case in modern pantomimes!
The story of the Harlequinade was at heart a chase scene where the girl’s father, Pantaloon, and his servant, Clown, keep the two lovers, Harlequin and Columbine, apart. Harlequine and Columbine are still popular characters at Mardi Gras and feature in the ballet The Nutcracker. Although modern pantomimes are now based on fairy-tale stories, there will still be a lovers’ tale included, and a servant or two, often including the Dame, a character growing out of the Italian theatrical tradition of travesti (cross-dressing). The role of Principle Boy followed on from women playing the “breeches role” in theatre, as far back as the early 1800s. By the middle of the nineteenth century ladies taking on heroic roles such as Jack, Dick Whittington or Aladdin was beginning, and is said to be at least in part because Victorian men, living in a society where even the legs of the parlour piano were covered for modesty’s sake, were desperate for a vision of a well-turned calf, or shapely ankle. Although ladies at home were corseted, crinolined or bustled, the less strict rules that applied to the theatre, and especially Music Hall, gave the artistic license and freedom for ladies on stage to wear costumes that revealed shapely legs in tights, but only if they were playing a male role!
As time went on, transformation scenes became more and more complicated, costumes more elaborate and stories varied. They always remained true to the central nonsense, however, and to this day, pantomime scripts are still very loosely based around the story they tell, being mostly an excuse for a wonderful romp with the Dame, Principal Boy, and their assorted fairies, heroines and baddies!