History of the Christmas Pantomime

Christmas Pantomime at the Theatre
One of the great UK Christmas traditions, a visit to the theatre at Christmas to watch the Pantomine. Oh No It Isn’t. Oh Yes It is…

The term Pantomime originates from the Greek ‘pantomimes’ meaning to mimic and accompanied by sung narrative and instrumental music. It was only later that the term became associated to the performance. It was popular in Greek and Roman times. In terms of the modern British pantomime or commonly termed ‘Panto’ it possibly dates back to the Middle Ages.

Pantomime Origins

The Panto of today has its roots as a blend of the Commedia dell’ Arte (originally from Italy) and the British Music Hall. The Commedia dell’ Arte was street entertainment in the 16th century that was a travelling art. It used music, dance, acrobatics, tumbling and buffoonery. The troupes’ repertoire of stories, were most commonly performed in market places and these became common in Britain around 1660. This form of art became very popular and many scholars believe that this street art transferred to the theatres in 1716, initially at Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, shortly followed by the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.

It is not clear when the first true Pantomime was but the introduction of Cinderella at Drury Lane, directed by Byrne and music by Michael Kelly in 1804 is a possible front runner.

There was great rivalry between the different theatres of London but it was in the 19th century that characteristics of the Panto started to develop. Costumes became more extravagant. The ‘Principal Boy’ generally the leading hero was played by an actresses and not an actor. The first record actress was Eliza Povey who played the title role in Jack and the Bean stock in 1819.

In the Edwardian era the Panto became a two part play opposed to the one act of the Victorian era.

The Modern Pantomime

The modern day Pantomime has a very defined plot even if the storylines differ. It mixes the traditions of Commedia dell’ Arte, the influences of the Victorian era and is moulded to adapt the requirements of a modern audience.

It is a good verses evil plot, where the hero, an actress dressed as a hero wins the heart of the heroine. The etiquette of the Panto is as follows. The goodies always enter from the right and the baddies, or evil from the left. This tradition can be dated back to the Middle Ages where entrances to heaven were on the right and hell to the left. Tradition dictates that it is the villain of the play that should enter the stage first and then only good in the shape of the good fairy.

The main characters are the Principal Boy (played by an actresses), the Principal Girl who is always innocent and traditionally the prettiest character in the play, who should fall in love with the Principal Boy. Then live happily ever after.

The Pantomime Dame

The Dame, alongside the Principal Boy and Girl is one of the main characters. And is usually the mother of the Boy. The portrayal of the Dame dates back to the Restoration in the 17th Century. It was common for men to play the role of a female, if it was a comic. But the Panto Dame had its roots in Victorian Music Halls. The Dame is usually associated with outrageous costumes with a good comic effect.

Unlike most plays in a theatre, the Pantomime positively encourages audience participation. The tradition is to boo the villain, argue with the Dame and for the Principal Boy to warn of danger behind him. The call from the audience is ‘He’s behind you’, the villain will disappear from view so when the Principal Boy turns around to look, there is no sign of such a villain, to the his reply is ‘Oh no he’s not’. This banter goes back and forth with the movement of the villain. It is also common for the cast to leave the stage and continue the banter amongst the audience.

Today the Pantomime attracts well known celebrities usually from television soap operas, not just to London but major towns and cities across Britain. The practice of having celebrities though dates back to the end of the 19th Century, particular at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.

The modern Panto season runs from approximately the end of the first week of December to the end of the first week of January.

Popular Pantomimes

Aladdin (or Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves)
Babes in the Wood (with a Robin Hood theme)
Beauty and the Beast
Cinderella (arguably the most popular pantomime, it was first performed in 1870 in Covent Garden, London)
Older still is Dick Whittington (first performed as a pantomime in 1814, based on a 17th century play)
Goldilocks and the Three Bears
Jack and the Beanstalk
Little Red Riding Hood
Mother Goose
Peter Pan
Puss in Boots
Robinson Crusoe
Sleeping Beauty
Snow White
The Princess and the Pea
The Snow Queen
Goody Two Shoes