The History of Pantomime
Panto Through The Ages
Watching a pantomime may be many people’s first taste of theatre, and indeed their first memory of it. Panto is an annual British theatrical ritual which takes place nationwide and has travelled across the globe in both amateur and professional theatre companies.
People have been flocking to pantomimes for centuries and the pantomimes of today are drenched in traditions…but where did it all begin? Read on to find out…
Panto is born in Italian street theatre of the Commedia dell’arte, with stories of the old man Pantalone, the clown Pierrot, and Columbine – the girl in love with the naughty servant Arlecchino. These street performances appealed to the taste of the general public and were performed by professionals.
There are clear similarities between these performances and our modern day pantos; characters were standardised so that the audience knew what to expect from them; and the principal boy and girl would overcome anything, ensuring that love conquered all.
It is from the Commedia that we get the word ‘Slapstick’. The slapstick was Arlecchino's favourite weapon, a paddle made from two pieces of wood which made a loud slapping sound when you hit someone with it.
Despite Italian Commedia being performed for Queen Elizabeth in 1602, it wasn’t until Commedia spread from Italy to France that it began to be popular in England.
French companies performed what they called ballets-pantomimes in London. These dance-mime performances became popular in London and theatres incorporated them into shows as Afterpieces to their main show to help sell tickets. As their popularity increased, they changed their name to ‘Italian Night Scenes, they had simple plots and were performed in slapstick style.
In 1697, a book was published that would later have a massive effect on pantomime. Charles Perrault’s Mother Goose’s Fairy Tales contained the stories of Puss in Boots, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, and Little Red Riding Hood.
Around this time, theatre impresario John Rich, manager of Lincoln’s Inn Fields theatre, made his mark on the character Harlequin – the English name for Arlecchino. He played him for many years and gained the reputation as arguably the best Harlequin ever. The importance of this character is reflected in the name change from Afterpieces to Harlequinades.
Intense rivalry sprang up between the theatres producing panto. Within two days of a new performance opening at Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, a show with an almost identical title opened at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane
John Rich's Harlequin used a Slapstick or wooden bat which he would hit against the scenery to make the scenes change by knocking down a series of hinged flaps. The chase scene would take the characters to many different locations all controlled by Harlequin's magic bat. The locations of the chase were often places that people would recognise - named streets or areas of London for example. They also included mythical locations.
The first recorded performance of ‘Aladdin’ was at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden
The clown had always been a minor part of the Harlequinade but in 1800, Actor Joseph Grimaldi took the character to new heights. He constantly refined and redefined the role turning him into a loveable and mischievous rouge. The clown took over from the Harlequin in the top spot in the Harlequinade and Grimaldi invented many of the gags we see in panto today. Indeed the clown lives on in many of the comedian characters, such as Buttons, in modern panto.
The Principal Boy, played by a woman, offered the Victorian gentleman the rare opportunity to look at a well turned ankle
The first pantomime version of Sleeping Beauty was at Drury Lane “The Sleeping Beauty. A Grand Legendary Melodram
The first recorded pantomime version of the Dick Whittington, starring Joseph Grimaldi as Dame Cicely Suet, the Cook
The first pantomime of Jack and the Beanstalk was at Drury Lane in 1819. It was called “Jack and the Beanstalk:or, Harlequin and the Ogre” By Charles Dibdin
The first real pantomime version of ‘Cinderella’ opened at Covent Garden. Entitled ‘Harlequin and Cinderella, or the little glass slipper’ it featured Grimaldi as the Baron’s wife. In the same year the Rossini opera ‘La Cenerentola’ had premiered in London, introducing the characters of the Baron and the Prince’s servant, Dandini
Pantomime had become typical Christmas fare. Due to licensing restrictions, spoken drama was only allowed in the two (later three) patent theatres in London until Parliament changed this restriction. To get around the law, theatre owners had to present music and dancing alongside the spoken word. This undoubtedly encouraged the growth of what was to become pantomime as we know it.
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. James Planché and Henry James Byron were important writers who elevated the fairy-tale portion of pantomime. They emphasised puns and humorous word play, a tradition that continues in pantomime today
The amateur theatre movement takes off across the middle and upper classes of the UK…they don’t know if yet, but panto is going to become their biggest fundraiser!
Augustus Harris started the still popular tradition of casting ‘Music Hall’ stars in main roles in Drury Lane pantos. Amongst these, Dan Leno, cast as a dame, had a huge impact on the development of pantomime as we know it.
Performances became lavish and casts grew vast in size. The tradition of casting popular music hall, radio, and tv stars in panto was and still is a strategy to put bums on seats. This shift in the late victorian era enabled panto to cross class boundaries and secure its future in amateur and professional theatres country wide.
Dan Leno first played a dame in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Surrey Theatre in 1886. Harris bought him to Drury Lane in 1888 to play the Wicked Aunt in Babes in the Wood.
Disney release Snow White in 1937. The story subsequently becomes a popular panto title
The last London Harlequinade was staged at the Lyceum Theatre
Norman Wisdom played principal boy in Aladdin at the Palladium> This sparked a trend that would continue for 15 years until
The Palladium cast Cilla Black in the role and it reverted back to the traditional female role…today principal boy is played by both female and male actors
Having been the epicentre of panto for decades, by the 60’s very few West End theatres could afford the huge cost of running a panto and by 1992 none of the West End theatres were showing them.
Pantomimes got caught up in the sense of sexual liberation associated with the late 60’s and 70’s and became more ‘blue’ moving away from the tradition of family entertainment. After a swift backlash and downturn in ticket sales, panto reverted back to its more family friendly roots.
1980’s, 90’s and 00’s
The 80’s saw a migration of Australian soap stars from the likes of Neighbours and Home and Away, who flew over to play lead roles in Pantos across the UK. The 90’s saw the homegrown soap stars of Eastenders and Emmerdale take these lead roles and the 00’s was the era of reality TV stars.
The Present Day
In 2016, panto returned to the London Palladium with Cinderella. In 2017 it was Dick Whittington, and in 2018 it will shortly be Snow White. It seems this unique British art form is more popular than ever!
Other Helpful Stuff Articles
"The wittiest and most original writer working in pantomime today."