Pantomime (informally panto), is a type of musical comedy stage production, designed for family entertainment. It was developed in England and is still performed throughout the United Kingdom, generally during the Christmas and New Year season and, to a lesser extent, in other English-speaking countries. Modern pantomime includes songs, gags, slapstick comedy and dancing, employs gender-crossing actors, and combines topical humour with a story loosely based on a well-known fairy tale, fable or folk tale. It is a participatory form of theatre, in which the audience is expected to sing along with certain parts of the music and shout out phrases to the performers.
- Roman pantomime
- Development of pantomime in Britain
- Commedia dell'arte and early English pantomime
- 1837 to the end of the harlequinade
- Modern pantomime traditions and conventions
- Traditional stories
- Performance conventions
- Guest celebrities
- Major roles
- Places performed
- United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland
- United States
Pantomime has a long theatrical history in Western culture dating back to classical theatre. It developed partly from the 16th century commedia dell'arte tradition of Italy, as well as other European and British stage traditions, such as 17th-century masques and music hall. An important part of the pantomime, until the late 19th century, was the harlequinade.
Outside Britain the word "pantomime" is usually used to mean miming, rather than the theatrical form discussed here.
The word pantomime was adopted from the Latin word pantomimus, which in turn derives from the Greek word παντόμιμος (pantomimos), consisting of παντο- (panto-) meaning "all", and μῖμος (mimos), meaning a dancer who acted all the roles or all the story. The Roman pantomime drew upon the Greek tragedy and other Greek genres from its inception, although the art was instituted in Rome and little is known of it in pre-Roman Greece. The English word came to be applied to the performance itself. According to a lost oration by Aelius Aristides, the pantomime was known for its erotic content and the effeminacy of its dancing; Aristides's work was responded to by Libanius, in his oration "On Behalf of the Dancers", written probably around 361 AD.
Roman pantomime was a production, usually based upon myth or legend, for a solo male dancer—clad in a long silk tunic and a short mantle (pallium) that was often used as a "prop"—accompanied by a sung libretto (called the fabula saltica or "dance-story") rendered by a singer or chorus (though Lucian states that originally the pantomime himself was the singer). Music was supplied by flute and the pulse of an iron-shod shoe (scabellum). Performances might be in a private household, with minimal personnel, or else lavish theatrical productions involving a large orchestra and chorus and sometimes an ancillary actor. The dancer danced all the roles, relying on masks, stock poses and gestures and a hand-language (cheironomy) so complex and expressive that the pantomime's hands were commonly compared to an eloquent mouth. Pantomime differed from mime by its more artistic nature and relative lack of farce and coarse humour, though these were not absent from some productions.
Roman pantomime was immensely popular from the end of the first century BC until the end of the sixth century AD, a form of entertainment that spread throughout the empire where, due to its wordless nature, it did more than any other art to foster knowledge of the myths and Roman legends that formed its subject-matter – tales such as those of the love of Venus and Mars and of Dido and Aeneas – while in Italy its chief exponents were celebrities, often the protegés of influential citizens, whose followers wore badges proclaiming their allegiance and engaged in street-fights with rival groups, while its accompanying songs became widely known. Yet, due to the limits imposed upon Roman citizens' dance, the populism of its song-texts and other factors, the art was as much despised as adored, and its practitioners were usually slaves or freedmen.
Because of the low status and the disappearance of its libretti, the Roman pantomime received little modern scholarly attention until the late 20th century, despite its great influence upon Roman culture as perceived in Roman art, in statues of famous dancers, graffiti, objects and literature. After the renaissance of classical culture, Roman pantomime was a decisive influence upon modern European concert dance, helping to transform ballet from a mere entertainment, a display of technical virtuosity, into the dramatic ballet d'action. It became an antecedent which, through writers and ballet-masters of the 17th and 18th centuries such as Claude-François Ménestrier (1631–1705), John Weaver (1673–1760), Jean-Georges Noverre (1727–1810) and Gasparo Angiolini (1731–1803), earned it respectability and attested to the capability of dance to render complex stories and express human emotion.
Development of pantomime in Britain
In the Middle Ages, the Mummers Play was a traditional English folk play, based loosely on the Saint George and the Dragon legend, usually performed during Christmas gatherings, which contained the origin of many of the archetypal elements of the pantomime, such as stage fights, coarse humour and fantastic creatures, gender role reversal, and good defeating evil. Precursors of pantomime also included the masque, which grew in pomp and spectacle from the 15th to the 17th centuries.
Commedia dell'arte and early English pantomime
The development of English pantomime was also strongly influenced by the continental commedia dell'arte, a form of popular theatre that arose in Italy in the Early Modern Period. This was a "comedy of professional artists" travelling from province to province in Italy and then France, who improvised and told comic stories that held lessons for the crowd, changing the main character depending on where they were performing. Each scenario used some of the same stock characters. These included the innamorati (young lovers); the vecchi (old men) such as Pantalone; and zanni (servants) such as Arlecchino, Colombina, Scaramouche and Pierrot. Italian masque performances in the 17th century sometimes included the Harlequin character.
In the 17th century, adaptations of the commedia characters became familiar in English entertainments. From these, the standard English harlequinade developed, depicting the eloping lovers Harlequin and Columbine, pursued by the girl's father Pantaloon and his comic servants Clown and Pierrot. In English versions, by the 18th century, Harlequin became the central figure and romantic lead. The basic plot of the harlequinade remained essentially the same for more than 150 years, except that a bumbling policeman was added to the chase.
In the first two decades of the 18th century, two rival London theatres, Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre and the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (the patent theatres) presented productions that began seriously with classical stories that contained elements of opera and ballet and ended with a comic "night scene". Tavern Bilkers, by John Weaver, the dancing master at Drury Lane, is cited as the first pantomime produced on the English stage. This production was not a success, and Weaver waited until 1716 to produce his next pantomimes, including The Loves of Mars and Venus – a new Entertainment in Dancing after the manner of the Antient Pantomimes. The same year he produced a pantomime on the subject of Perseus and Andromeda. After this, pantomime was regular feature at Drury Lane. In 1717 at Lincoln's Inn, actor and manager John Rich introduced Harlequin into the theatres' pantomimes under the name of "Lun" (for "lunatic"). He gained great popularity for his pantomimes, especially beginning with his 1724 production of The Necromancer; or, History of Dr. Faustus.
These early pantomimes were silent, or "dumb show", performances consisting of only dancing and gestures. Spoken drama was only allowed in London only in the two (later three) patent theatres until Parliament changed this restriction in 1843. A large number of French performers played in London following the suppression of unlicensed theatres in Paris. Although this constraint was only temporary, English pantomimes remained primarily visual for some decades before dialogue was introduced. An 18th-century author wrote of David Garrick: "He formed a kind of harlequinade, very different from that which is seen at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, where harlequin and all the characters speak." The majority of these early pantomimes were re-tellings of a story from ancient Greek or Roman literature, with a break between the two acts during which the harlequinade's zany comic business, was performed. The theatre historian David Mayer explains the use of the "batte" or slapstick and the transformation scene that led to the harlequinade:
Rich gave his Harlequin the power to create stage magic in league with offstage craftsmen who operated trick scenery. Armed with a magic sword or bat (actually a slapstick), Rich's Harlequin treated his weapon as a wand, striking the scenery to sustain the illusion of changing the setting from one locale to another. Objects, too, were transformed by Harlequin's magic bat.
Pantomime gradually became more topical and comic, often involving spectacular and elaborate theatrical effects as far as possible. Colley Cibber, David Garrick and others competed with Rich and produced their own pantomimes, and pantomime continued to grow in popularity.
By the early 1800s, the pantomime's classical stories were often supplanted by stories adapted from European fairy tales, fables, folk tales, classic English literature or nursery rhymes. Also, the harlequinade grew in importance until it often was the longest and most important part of the entertainment. Pantomimes usually had dual titles that gave an often humorous idea of both the pantomime story and the harlequinade. "Harlequin and ________", or "Harlequin _______; or, the ________". In the second case, harlequin was used as an adjective, followed by words that described the pantomime "opening", for example: Harlequin Cock Robin and Jenny Wren; or, Fortunatus and the Water of Life, the Three Bears, the Three Gifts, the Three Wishes, and the Little Man who Woo'd the Little Maid. Harlequin was the first word (or the first word after the "or") because Harlequin was initially the most important character. The titles continued to include the word Harlequin even after the first decade of the 1800s, when Joseph Grimaldi came to dominate London pantomime and made the character, Clown, a colourful agent of chaos, as important in the entertainment as Harlequin. At the same time, Harlequin began to be portrayed in a more romantic and stylised way.
Grimaldi's performances elevated the role by "acute observation upon the foibles and absurdities of society, and his happy talent of holding them up to ridicule. He is the finest practical satyrist that ever existed. ... He was so extravagantly natural, that the most saturnine looker-on acknowledged his sway; and neither the wise, the proud, or the fair, the young nor the old, were ashamed to laugh till tears coursed down their cheeks at Joe and his comicalities." Grimaldi's performances were important in expanding the importance of the harlequinade until it dominated the pantomime entertainment.
By the 1800s, therefore, children went to the theatre around the Christmas and New Year holiday (and often at Easter or other times) primarily to witness the craziness of the harlequinade chase scene. It was the most exciting part of the "panto", because it was fast paced and included spectacular scenic magic as well as slapstick comedy, dancing and acrobatics. The presence of slapstick in this part of the show evolved from the characters found in Italian commedia dell'arte. The plot of the harlequinade was relatively simple; the star-crossed lovers, Harlequin and Columbine, run away from Columbine's foolish father, Pantaloon, who is being slowed down in his pursuit of them by his servant, Clown, and by a bumbling policeman. After the time of Grimaldi, Clown became the principal schemer trying to thwart the lovers, and Pantaloon was merely his assistant.
The opening "fairy story" was often blended with a story about a love triangle: a "cross-grained" old father who owns a business has a pretty daughter, who is pursued by two suitors. The one she loves is poor but worthy, while the father prefers the other, a wealthy fop. Another character is a servant in the father's establishment. Just as the daughter is to be forcibly wed to the fop, or just as she was about to elope with her lover, the good fairy arrives. This was followed by what was often the most spectacular part of the production, the magical transformation scene. In early pantomimes, Harlequin possessed magical powers that he used to help himself and his love interest escape. He would tap his wooden sword (a derivative of the Commedia dell'arte slapstick or "batte") on the floor or scenery to make a grand transition of the world around him take place. The scene would switch from being inside some house or castle to, generally speaking, the streets of the town with storefronts as the backdrop. The transformation sequence was presided over by a Fairy Queen or Fairy Godmother character. The good fairy magically transformed the leads from the opening fairy story into their new identities as the harlequinade characters. Following is an example of the speech that the fairy would give during this transformation:
This passage is from a pantomime adaptation of the Guy Fawkes story. The fairy creates the characters of the harlequinade in the most typical fashion of simply telling the characters what they will change into. The principal male and female characters from the beginning plotline, often both played by young women, became the lovers Columbine and Harlequin, the mother or father of Columbine became Pantaloon, and the servant or other comic character became Clown. They would transition into the new characters as the scenery around them changed and would proceed in the "zany fun" section of the performance. From the time of Grimaldi, Clown would see the transformed setting and cry: "Here We Are Again!" The harlequinade began with various chase scenes, in which Harlequin and Columbine manage to escape from the clutches of Clown and Pantaloon, despite the acrobatic leaps of the former through windows, atop ladders, often because of well-meaning but misguided actions of the policeman. Eventually, there was a "dark scene", such as a cave or forest, in which the lovers were caught, and Harlequin's magic wand was seized from his grasp by Clown, who would flourish it in triumph. The good fairy would then reappear, and once the father agreed to the marriage of the young lovers, she would transport the whole company to a grand final scene.
1837 to the end of the harlequinade
Despite its visible decline by 1836, the pantomime still fought to stay alive. After 1843, when theatres other than the original patent theatres were permitted to perform spoken dialogue, the importance of the silent harlequinade began to decrease, while the importance of the fairy-tale part of the pantomime increased. Two writers who helped to elevate the importance and popularity of the fairy-tale portion of the pantomime were James Planché and Henry James Byron. They emphasized puns and humorous word play, a tradition that continues in pantomime today. As manager of Drury Lane in the 1870s, Augustus Harris wrote a series of extraordinarily popular pantomimes, focusing on the spectacle of the productions, that pushed this transition by emphasizing comic business in the pantomime opening and grand processionals. By the end of the 19th century, the harlequinade had become merely a brief epilogue to the pantomime, dwindling into a brief display of dancing and acrobatics. It lingered for a few decades longer but finally disappeared, although a few of its comic elements had been incorporated into the pantomime stories. The last harlequinade was played at the Lyceum Theatre in 1939.
Modern pantomime traditions and conventions
Traditionally performed at Christmas and afterwards, with family audiences, British pantomime continues as a popular form of theatre, incorporating song, dance, buffoonery, slapstick, cross-dressing, in-jokes, topical references, audience participation, and mild sexual innuendo.
Pantomime story lines and scripts usually make no direct reference to Christmas, and are almost always based on traditional children's stories, particularly the fairy tales of Charles Perrault, Joseph Jacobs, Hans Christian Andersen and the Grimm Brothers. Some of the most popular pantomime stories include Cinderella, Aladdin, Dick Whittington and His Cat and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as well as Jack and the Beanstalk, Peter Pan, Puss in Boots and Sleeping Beauty. Other traditional stories include Mother Goose, Beauty and the Beast, Robinson Crusoe, The Wizard of Oz, Babes in the Wood (combined with elements of Robin Hood), Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Sinbad, St. George and the Dragon, Bluebeard, The Little Mermaid and Thumbelina. Prior to about 1870, many other stories were made into pantomimes.
While the familiarity of the audience with the original children's story is generally assumed, plot lines are almost always adapted for comic or satirical effect, and characters and situations from other stories are often interpolated into the plot. For instance "panto" versions of Aladdin may include elements from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves or other Arabian Nights tales; while Jack and the Beanstalk might include references to nursery rhymes and other children's stories involving characters called "Jack", such as Jack and Jill. Certain familiar scenes tend to recur, regardless of plot relevance, and highly unlikely resolution of the plot is common. Straight retellings of the original stories are rare.
The form has a number of conventions, some of which have changed or weakened a little over the years, and by no means all of which are obligatory. Some of these conventions were once common to other genres of popular theatre such as melodrama.
Another contemporary pantomime tradition is the celebrity guest star, a practice that dates back to the late 19th century, when Augustus Harris, proprietor of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, hired well-known variety artists for his pantomimes.
Many modern pantomimes use popular artists to promote the pantomime, and the play is often adapted to allow the star to showcase their well-known act, even when such a spot has little relation to the plot. As critic Michael Billington has explained, if the star enters into the spirit of the entertainment, he or she can add to its overall effect, while if it becomes a "showcase for a star" who "stands outside the action", the celebrity's presence can detract, notwithstanding the marketing advantage that the star brings to the piece. Billington said that Ian McKellen in a 2004 Aladdin "lets down his hair and lifts up his skirt to reveal a nifty pair of legs and an appetite for double entendre: when told by decorators that 'your front porch could do with a good lick', McKellen adopts a suitable look of mock-outrage. ... At least we can tell our grandchildren that we saw McKellen's Twankey and it was huge."
The main roles within pantomime are usually as follows:
Pantomime is performed in the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Bermuda, Australasia, Canada, Zimbabwe, Jamaica, South Africa, India, Gibraltar, and Malta, mostly during the Christmas and New Year season.
United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland
Many theatres in cities and towns throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland continue to have an annual professional pantomime. Pantomime is also very popular with amateur dramatics societies throughout the UK and Ireland, and the pantomime season (roughly speaking, December to February) will see pantomime productions in many village halls and similar venues across the country.
Pantomimes in Australia at Christmas were once very popular, but the genre has declined greatly since the middle of the 20th century.
Christmas pantomimes are performed yearly at the Hudson Village Theatre in Quebec. Since 1996, Ross Petty Productions has staged pantomimes at Toronto's Elgin Theatre each Christmas season. Pantomimes imported from England were produced at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in the 1980s. The White Rock Players Club in White Rock, BC have presented an annual pantomime in the Christmas season since 1954. The Royal Canadian Theatre Company produces pantomimes in British Columbia, written by Ellie King.
The National Pantomime of Jamaica was started in 1941 by educators Henry Fowler and Greta Fowler, pioneers of the Little Theatre Movement in Jamaica. Among the first players was Louise Bennett-Coverley. Other notable players have included Oliver Samuels, Charles Hyatt, Willard White, Rita Marley and Dawn Penn. The annual pantomime opens on Boxing Day at the Little Theatre in Kingston and is strongly influenced by aspects of Jamaican culture, folklore and history.
Pantomime has seldom been performed in the United States, although a few productions have been mounted in recent years. As a consequence, Americans commonly understand the word "pantomime" to refer to the art of mime as it was practised, for example, by Marcel Marceau and Nola Rae. However, certain shows that came from the pantomime traditions, especially Peter Pan, are performed quite often, and a few American theatre companies produce traditional British-style pantomime as well as American adaptations of the form.
According to Professor Russell A. Peck of the University of Rochester, the earliest pantomime productions in the US were Cinderella pantomime productions in New York in March 1808, New York again in August 1808, Philadelphia in 1824, and Baltimore in 1839. A production at Olympic Theatre in New York of Humpty Dumpty ran for at least 943 performances between 1868 and 1873, (one source says 1,200 performances), becoming the longest-running pantomime in history.
In 1993 there was a production of Cinderella at the UCLA Freud Theatre, starring Zsa Zsa Gabor. Stages Repertory Theatre in Houston, Texas, has been performing original pantomime-style musicals during the Christmas holidays since 2008. Lythgoe Family Productions has produced pantomimes each winter since 2010 in California.