If there are princes, dames and fairies,
And a script that sort of rhymes,
And some cries of ‘He’s behind you,’
Then you’re at a pantomime!
There are plenty of options for Christmas entertainment -whether you want a play like Dinner in Mulberry Street at Bewley’s Café Theatre, Christmas carols in the National Concert Hall, festive comedy like Rocket Around the Christmas Tree, or catching a Christmas Favourite like It’s A Wonderful Life on the big screen. However, there’s one Christmas offering we can’t overlook. Whether it’s in your local parish hall, or on the stage of the Gaiety Theatre, Pantomime has become as firm a Christmas tradition as pudding or presents. But where did it start? Where did the classic gaudy dame image come from? Who started the tradition of audience interaction? I might not give you the answer to all of these questions by the end of this month’s column, but let’s have some fun exploring the history of pantomime anyway!
Pantomime is often associated with British theatre, but its roots span various countries and theatrical cultures. The word ‘pantomime’ comes from the Greek pantomimus, which means ‘imitator of all;’ which is, in other words, an actor. But it was not the Greeks that originated the theatrical genre we recognise today. In 16th Century Italy a new form of theatre was developed, the Commedia dell’Arte. In Commedia dell’Arte performances, which were popular across Europe until the 18th Century, a company of actors who each portrayed a stock character would travel around performing various semi-improvised sketches (traces of many of which can still be seen in comedy today). The characters included Harlequin, a servant character (or zanni) who provides comic moments through his acrobatic and slapstick physical performance, while haplessly pursuing his love interest; the Inammorati, the lovers that the play revolves around; and Pantalone the powerful and greedy older man, usually the father of one of the lovers, who acts as antagonist in the play.
Many of the traditions of the Commedia dell’Arte made their way into theatre outside Italy, with writers like Shakespeare and Moliére drawing on Commedia characters, and audiences calling for Commedia-style performances. With the demand for such performances promising audiences, artists like the dancer and mime John Rich and the hugely successful clown Joseph Grimaldi began to develop acts that started to build the Pantomime tradition, and David Garrick, an 18th Century theatre manager, began to legitimise Pantomime by putting the shows on at Christmas in London’s Drury Lane theatre and promoting them as a festive event.
As the Victorian age dawned in Britain, Pantomime began to adopt the staples of the dame, the principle boy being played by a woman, and the fairy-tale stories that form the basis of most Pantomimes today. By presenting itself as a Christmas treat, the Pantomime attracted wide audiences and developed its characters to appeal to them. Dan Leno, the hugely popular comic actor, brought together empathy and laughter in creating the character of the dame, the put-upon, lovelorn mother who tries to overcome the trials of everyday life in hilarious ways. This combination of comedy and recognition is the key to so many of Pantomime’s traditions. The humour in the dame being played by a man and the principal boy being played by a girl is that the audience is in on the joke – everyone knows what is going on and can take part in the magic. Audience interaction, and localised jokes are essential to panto for the same reason. It is as much the audience’s show as the performers’.
Pantomime has had its critics ever since it first began – people decried it as an affront to ‘serious theatre’ in its early days, and even today some people look down on it and don’t give it the same attention as other genres. But, personally, I think pantomime is fantastic. The Victorian critic, Leigh Hunt, got it right when he wrote “Not to like pantomime is not to like love.” Panto is a flexible, fun and accessible form of theatre that not only notices but listens to and loves its audiences. Irish pantomimes are different from English pantomimes, which are in turn different from American pantomimes, because the audiences are different. Even a panto in Dublin is going to be different from a panto in the Midlands. So this Christmas dive into the joy of panstick, petticoats and pratfalls, and head along to your local panto.