Pantomime, that quintessentially British oddity that we all seem to love or loathe. We have all been to a pantomime at some point in our lives ,be it in a huge grand theatre with dazzling props and big name celebrities taking a leading role or a village hall affair where the local am dram group regale with a bizarre mix of fairy tale, dance, jokes and songs, But how did it become part of our Christmas tradition?
The story of pantomime has its roots in ancient Greece, travels through Italy and France, before settling itself into Britain The word derives from the Greek word pantomimos which consists of panto, which means ‘all’ and mimos which means ‘actor’ – meaning a performer who acts all the roles in a story.
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It is perhaps best recognised from the Italian street theatre of the Commedia dell’arte during the 16th Century, with comedic timing, stock characters and great physicality.
These improvised performances took place outside in Italian streets and marketplaces. And were hugely popular
Distinctive masks meant characters were easily recognisable and allowed actors to make topical and risqué jokes without fear of being recognised.
Travelling from place to place to earn their living, these actors began to take commedia across Europe and into England giving inspiration to playwrights such as Shakespeare and Moliere.
Commedia plots would tell tales of overthrowing masters. Their lives are a constant struggle to find food and money. They tell a story about survival against the odds. Survival in the face of cruelty and corruption.From these stories pantomime developed filled with heroes and villains featuring men dressed as women, and women masquerading as young men. Pantomime is a tale of good and evil, where hope triumphs over all adversity and wrongs are righted.
John Rich was known as the ‘father of pantomime’ because he was the first to realise the potential of the Commedia characters. Although rough and uneducated he was a talented dancer, acrobat and mime artist and during the 1720s he created a new type of play involving a storyline from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and a harlequinade. This took the form of an energetic chase, featuring the adventures of Harlequin and Columbine.
These stories were hugely popular and thousands of people from aristocrats to apprentices, were drawn to see them. Theatre was the place where everyone came to be entertained.
In 1837 Lucy Eliza Vestris played a ‘breeches’ role in Planché’s production of Puss in Boots at the Olympic Theatre, at a time when women covered their legs being seen in shorts and tights was considered highly risqué. By the late 19th-century the female principal boy was an accepted convention of pantomime.
By the late 19th century extravagant productions in London theatres could last up to five hours and featured astonishing stage tricks, swonderful costumes and huge casts. It became customary for pantomimes to open on Boxing Day, forever linking this entertainment with Christmas and family entertainment.
Its unique and bawdy elements are now a very British tradition and
Christmas, for many of us, would not be Christmas without pantomime; and pantomime is possibly where many of us we first discovered the magic of theatre.