They’re behind you!
Isabel Caine explores the history behind the pantomime, one of Britain’s more unique Christmas traditions.
We are all familiar with the weird and wonderful traditions of the pantomime. We expect the pantomime dame, typically a man playing a woman, to have a hero son, typically a woman playing a man. There is often an animal sidekick, played by two actors stuffed into one costume. We know there will be singing; we also know that chances are, we will be asked to sing along. And, of course, there is the dreaded audience participation that has parents hiding in their seats. But where do all these wacky characters and customs come from?
In the 18th century, Harlequin made his debut on the London stage
The pantomime is often thought of as a quintessentially British tradition. However, ‘panto’ has its roots in ‘Commedia dell’Arte’. Originating in Italy in the 16th century, Commedia dell’Arte was a performance made up of music, dance, acrobatics and a number of well-known characters. It was at this time that the cheeky and witty character of Harlequin first appeared. Then, in the 18th century, Harlequin made his debut on the London stage.
In London, one of the most famous Harlequins was John Rich, who developed ‘Harlequinades’. These early pantomimes included plenty of music and slapstick comedy, and the characters never spoke, only mimed. With the profits from his popular pantomimes, Rich built Covent Garden Theatre. In the mid-18th century, Drury Lane Theatre housed the first pantomime where Harlequin finally spoke. The plots began to evolve from British folk stories, such as Robin Hood and Dick Whittington, to more satirical, familiar stories. In 1806, ‘Mother Goose’, with Joseph Grimaldi as ‘Clown’, was performed at Covent Garden Theatre, and the character of the panto clown started to replace Harlequin.
But it was not until the Victorian era that the pantomime really took off. Performances began to include the jokes, puns and audience participation that we see in ‘pantos’ today. The sets became more extravagant and the stories more fantastical, evolving into the fairy-tale plots that we now know and love. The pantomime dames, the animal sidekicks and the principal boys began to make their first appearances too.
It became a tradition for pantomimes to open on Boxing Day and so, gradually, the pantomime also began to be associated with Christmas
At this time, it became a tradition for pantomimes to open on Boxing Day and so, gradually, the pantomime also began to be associated with Christmas.
Britain may not be responsible for the creation of the pantomime, but we have made pantos our own. The pantomime is now a tradition that is not only an essential part of British culture but also, for many of us, an essential part of Christmas. Pantos are an opportunity for people of all ages to experience the joy of the theatre in all its fabulous, uproarious glory.