Every Christmas, the British flock to theatres for pantomime season. It’s the same formula every year; a man dressed as a woman; a girl dressed as a boy; the same call-and-response comedy; and every year, someone gets a custard pie in the face.
To outsiders, it must seem absolutely bonkers, but the great British pantomime has been drawing crowds for centuries. This uniquely British phenomenon is rooted in Italian commedia dell’arte, with influences from medieval mummers plays and a dash of Victorian spectacle for good measure.
A History of Pantomime
The word ‘pantomime’ means ‘imitator of all’. It was initially used by the ancient Greeks to refer to a dancer who played multiple parts in the same production. The dancer would express themselves only through movement, telling classic tales from mythology or the ancient writers. Obviously, this bears little resemblance to what we recognise as ‘pantomime’.
Where did the pantomime come from?
Commedia dell’arte is widely recognised as the biggest influence on the modern pantomime. Literally meaning ‘comedy of the artists’, troupes of travelling actors would set up in the street to perform. Consisting of stock characters, a general plot, and a basic outline of the scenes, these performances were largely improvised. Actors would have a repertoire of phrases, speeches, and jokes, depending on their characters, which they would use time and time again. Sound familiar? Oh, yes it does…
We know that commedia companies toured across Europe, so the likes of Shakespeare, Moliere, and even Elizabeth I would have taken in a show. In general, plots consisted of two young couples (the ‘innamorati’) in love but in constant danger of being separated by an elderly father or guardian and his devious friend. These two old men (the ‘vecchi’) would have their plans to separate the couples thwarted by two greedy, comical servants (the ‘zannis’).
Italy’s Commedia Characters
The stock characters were represented by masks, making them easily recognisable to the audience. The ‘vecchi’ were portrayed as cowardly and disreputable, intended to be disliked by the audience; just as audiences now boo the pantomime villain, in the 18th century they would have hissed at Pantalone and Il Dottore, the villainous old ‘vecchi’.
The young lovers, the ‘innamorati’, had no fixed names, but their storyline was often the same: outwit their scheming rivals and live happily ever after. This tale as old as time can be seen in pantomime today, as we all known the principal boy and girl must get their happy ending.
The ‘zanni’ were the first characters to really win over the British public. These servants were cunning and witty, but also hungry and broke, representing the struggle of common people.
Often there were two ‘zanni’; the first would be smarter and craftier, like Arlecchino, who had his own love interest in Columbine. The second ‘zanni’ would be less intelligent, but more acrobatic, like French commedia’s Pierrot. Shy, sad, and heartbroken over losing Columbine to Arlecchino, Pierrot would sport a white powdered face rather than a mask.
The First Pantomimes in England
“Pantomime” was first used on a poster in 1717, when John Weaver produced ‘The Love of Mars and Venus, an Entertainment of Dancing’. This was a pantomime in the true meaning of the word, faithful to its ancient Greek roots.
However, Weaver’s next show, ‘The Shipwreck; or Perseus and Andromeda, A New Dramatic Entertainment of Dancing in Grotesque Characters’ (catchy title), featured the characters of Harlequin, the English version of Arlecchino, and his lover Columbine.
The public were confused by the inclusion of commedia characters in a classical tale and remembered the word “pantomime” from his previous show. Out of this confusion came pantomime’s new definition, encompassing any entertainment that involved the commedia characters.
Pantomimes grow in popularity
Though Weaver may be considered the father of the British pantomime, it was John Rich that popularised it. Theatre manager, dancer, and mime, Rich took up the mantle of Harlequin while managing the theatre at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Rich’s Harlequin was not just a cheeky servant, he became a mischievous magician.
The inclusion of magic allowed Rich to showcase his flair for the spectacular; his shows included working windmills and fire-breathing dragons on stage, dazzling audiences.
Not intended for children, these early pantomimes were made up of serious and comedic sections, interwoven with little to link them.
After Rich’s death, the form of the panto changed. The serious part would be performed first, and at the end the characters were spectacularly transformed into the principal characters of the comedic act, the harlequinade.
Where did the ‘seeing pantos at Christmas’ tradition come from?
Though pantomimes were popular, they were not without their enemies. Legendary theatre manager David Garrick was a vocal critic of the pantomime, fearing that they threatened British traditions like Shakespeare.
Nevertheless, realising their commercial potential, Garrick declared:
If they won’t come to Lear and Hamlet, I must give them Harlequin.David Garrick
Though Garrick gave the people what they wanted in Harlequin, he made a compromise.
Pantomimes at his theatre, Drury Lane, were limited to the Christmas season. This ensured that pantos were associated with festive frivolity, rather than threatening serious theatre throughout the year. Therefore, it is Garrick we have to thank for the Christmas pantomime.
Pantos in the 19th century and the first clowns
Harlequin may have dominated the 18th-century pantomime, but his reign was not to last.
The early 19th century was a time of social unrest; Britain was at war with France, and violent confrontations broke out between the government and the people. In response, Harlequin went into decline, and the Clown rose to the fore, first overtaking Harlequin in ‘Harlequin and Mother Goose; or, the Golden Egg’, 1806.
The Clown developed from Pierrot, Harlequin’s heartbroken sidekick. With a white painted face, red cheeks, baggy trousers, and elastic expressions, the Clown’s antics embodied the relative freedom of British culture in contrast to our close enemies, the ‘dull’ French. The Clown would imprison policemen, trip over old women, steal and gorge on food, and never be arrested. This fantasy world, without hunger and with comic revenge against the repressive government appealed to the public, and Clown became the new hero.
Joseph Grimaldi: the most famous clown
First appearing as Clown in 1800, Grimaldi became famous throughout London. Lord Byron gave him gifts, and Charles Dickens wrote his biography. But this celebrated figure was not all he seemed.
Grimaldi was attracted to the broken-hearted character of Pierrot because he himself was a mix of light and dark. Suffering from hereditary ‘madness’, he is quoted as saying:
I am Grim all day, but I make you laugh at night.Joseph Grimaldi
The extraordinary physical comedy that made Grimaldi great also forced him into early retirement. When he died, destitute at the age of 59, thousands of people lined the streets to watch his funeral procession.
Music Hall Mayhem
By the Victorian age, the harlequinade had all but disappeared. The moral middle classes could not condone watching policemen getting beaten up and the social order upset, so the pantomime evolved yet again.
Celebrities from the world of music hall were drafted in, infusing the panto with the dilemmas of the working class, and giving it a bawdy, raucous edge. The plot of the pantomime was reduced to accommodate these new stars, and people flocked to see them perform their favourite songs, dances, and skits. The same happens today, with star turns from actors, sportspeople, and reality stars bringing new audiences to the panto.
The development of the pantomime plot
In 1843, the Theatres Act was lifted. This had prevented any theatre without a Royal patent from producing a show with purely spoken dialogue. Suddenly, new possibilities opened up for the pantomime. It was free to incorporate wordplay, double entendre, and audience participation, all mainstays of pantomime today. Topical content was included, personalising the panto for its audience.
The titles, plots, and form of the pantomime was basically fixed from the 1860s, and it was at this time it became popular for children to see a panto at Christmas.
The stories that influenced pantomimes
The first pantomimes may have been based on ancient myth, but most today come from fairy and folk tales.
1697 was a big year for the fairy tale, with Madame d’Aulony’s ‘Les Contes des Fees’ (the originator of the term ‘fairy tale’) and Charles Perrault’s ‘Histoires ou contes du temps Passe’ both being published. These collections included ancestors of stories we know today, such as ‘Cinderella’, ‘Puss in Boots’, and ‘Sleeping Beauty’, which are often adapted into pantomimes.
In the early 1800s, the first English translation of ‘The Arabian Nights’ brought the tales of ‘Aladdin’, ‘Ali Baba’, and ‘Sinbad’ to Britain.
Why was it these tales that captured the public imagination, and how did they become pantomimes?
Though the story of ‘Cinderella’ has been told in different forms since antiquity, it was Perrault’s version that became the most popular. It was he that introduced the Fairy Godmother, the pumpkin, and the glass slipper, elements that today we cannot imagine ‘Cinderella’ without.
It was not until 1860 that Cinderella’s sisters became ‘ugly’ and the character of Buttons appeared, developing from an earlier character once played by Joseph Grimaldi.
The final big change in the ‘Cinderella’ story was the naming of her true love, who finally became Prince Charming after the First World War. Since then, the basic formula of ‘Cinderella’ has altered little, with Disney’s 1950 animation firmly setting it in place.
One of the earlier fairy tale pantomimes was ‘Aladdin’, first performed on Boxing Day 1788 at Covent Garden.
Perhaps the most famous of the pantomime dames, Widow Twankey was not named until 1861, named after a cheap kind of Chinese green tea.
Though not as popular in recent years, ‘Mother Goose’ was a stalwart of the early pantomime, first performed in 1806 starring Joseph Grimaldi, though a very different version to what we know today. Our ‘Mother Goose’ originated in 1902, when famed Dame Dan Leno starred in the version by J. Hickory Wood and Arthur Collins.
Jack and the Beanstalk
Perhaps one of the most widely recognised pantomimes is ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’. The tale evolved from a combination of different folk tales; the Cornish ‘Jack the Giant Killer’ was referenced in Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’, and ‘The Story of Jack Spriggins and the Enchanted Bean’ was published in 1734.
Since then, almost everyone in Britain has come to recognise poor Jack, his desperate mother, and his beloved cow. If you were to shout “fe-fi-fo-fum” in the street, it’s practically guaranteed that someone would finish “I smell the blood of an Englishman”. This call-and-response is still a trademark of the pantomime.
Most pantomimes may have come from folklore and fairy tales, but ‘Dick Whittington’ is one of only two based in fact (the other being the little-performed ‘Babes in the Wood’).
Dick Whittington was, in fact, Lord Mayor of London, though there is no evidence of his owning a cat. The cat was first introduced into the story in 1605, but where it came from nobody knows. However, the feline has endured since then, becoming an indispensable part of the legend of Dick Whittington.
Another important addition came in 1908, when music hall comedian Wilkie Barns introduced the song ‘She Sells Seashells’, establishing the pantomime penchant for tongue twisters.
The key characters
The Principal Boy
Women had been playing ‘breeches roles’ for around 200 years but did not become a staple of pantomime until the mid-1800s.
Though not widely known, in Regency and Victorian extravaganzas women could more or less play any male role they liked. The 19th century saw female Shylocks, Falstaffs, and Don Giovannis. However, there were no ‘suitable’ roles for women in the harlequinades of old; it was only after these declined that women began to infiltrate the pantomime in the signature stockings of the principal boy.
It was the Victorians that first embraced the male impersonator in panto. With the rising popularity of music hall stars in pantomime, roles needed to be found for the famous females, and the principal boy was born.
There is debate over the first female principal boy. Some argue it was Eliza Povey in 1819, in the first ever pantomime of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’. At this time, the harlequinade was still a part of the pantomime, and, crucially, Eliza did not also play Harlequin. She also didn’t climb the beanstalk; a local lad from the coach station, employed to water the horses, was used as Eliza’s double in climbing scenes. Apparently, the switch was never spotted by the audience!
Another candidate is Madame Celeste, who played both Jack and Harlequin in another ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ in 1855. However, it was music hall stars like Vesta Tilley and Marie Lloyd who cemented the popularity of the female principal boy in the 1880s.
A uniquely Victorian draw of the principal boy was the costume. Victorian women’s fashion was restrictive, with tight corsets and floor-length skirts. A glimpse of an ankle was enough to cause a scandal in Victorian Britain, and even piano legs were covered up for the sake of public sensibilities…
Women were strictly forbidden from ditching their long skirts, even on the stage, unless they were playing a male role. So, the short skirts and knee-high boots of the principal boy offered Victorian gents the chance to catch a rare glimpse of a female leg. Though this is no longer a selling-point of the pantomime, the principal boy’s costume has changed little since this time.
After decades on top, the female principal boy faced a decline in the 1950s/60s. Norman Wisdom took on the role of Aladdin in the London Palladium’s 1959 pantomime, and the likes of Cliff Richard, Frankie Vaughan, Engelbert Humperdinck, and Jimmy Tarbuck followed in his footsteps. Cilla Black reversed the trend, also playing Aladdin at the Palladium, in 1970, but in recent years the female principal boy has waned again.
The Principal Girl
Just as the principal boy has roots in commedia’s Harlequin, the principal girl shares similarities with his true love, Columbine. Columbine was initially the maid to the young female ‘innamorati’ of the commedia, but in later harlequinades and now pantomime she takes centre stage.
Initially, the principal girl was portrayed as the epitome of youth and innocence, more like the ‘innamorati’, but in modern pantomime she is no longer a damsel in distress. Now, she is a feistier figure, like Columbine, teaming up with the principal boy to overcome their obstacles. Kind and clever, the principal girl is destined to live happily ever after with the principal boy.
There’s Nothing Like a Panto Dame
Cross-dressing is a theatrical tradition that can be traced back to commedia dell’arte, Restoration comedy, and medieval miracle plays. As is well-known, men played all female roles before women were allowed on stage after the Restoration, but even after this point men continued to portray comical old women. The new generation of actresses were not old enough, or even inclined to take on these less-than-glamorous roles, and so men hung onto their petticoats for a while longer.
The pantomime Dame came about with the decline of the Clown. Though Joseph Grimaldi often performed as a comic female character, until the turn of the century the Dame role was often small and either not interesting or totally ridiculous. The true father, or mother, of the pantomime Dame was Dan Leno.
George Wild Galvin, better known by his stage name Dan Leno was a music hall performer known for his clog dancing, comic songs, and the characters he created from observations of working-class people, the most famous being Mrs Kelly.
When Leno began playing the Dame, he domesticated the character. As opposed to being outlandish and unbelievable, Leno’s Dames were mothers facing common problems such as poverty, unemployment, and abandonment. Audiences could sympathise with this ordinary woman and her ordinary problems, but the Dame was never a pathetic character.
One of the most recognisable traits of the pantomime Dame is that she is portrayed by a man, but this was not always the case. One female Dame was Nellie Wallace, a music hall star known as the “Essence of Eccentricity”. Known for her “grotesque get-up”, Wallace was a suitable candidate for the Dame; in 1930, she played Widow Twankey. Though not unheard of, female Dames have been a rarity since the late-1800s. The knowledge that the Dame is not really a woman is a joke shared between the audience and the character, and panto exploits this absurdity.
In recent years there has been criticism of the Dame, with some feeling that the character unfairly mocks women or delegitimises gender-nonconformity. Though these criticisms have their place, it is important to note that the Dame did not develop from a place of female impersonation, but from the figure of the Clown.
When Grimaldi took to the stage as Clown he would wear colourful costumes, whether the character was male or female, just as the Dame does today. Her costumes may be jokes in themselves, perhaps visual puns or designed to provoke physical comedy by restricting her movement.
In early pantomime, the Dame’s costumes parodied contemporary fashion, whereas now they follow a similar silhouette. Inspired by 19th-century fashion, the Dame usually dons a large crinoline skirt that hides the male form and differentiates her from other characters.
Similarly, the Dame’s elaborately painted face is her version of the commedia mask. The exaggerated makeup shows how she feels about herself – she believes herself to be young, pretty, and refined. In reality, she is middle-aged, ugly, and common. It is this juxtaposition that creates the comedy of the Dame.
There is some crossover between drag and the pantomime Dame, though they are different art forms in their own right. Crossdressing was an arrestable offence from the 14th century but was more strictly policed when women were allowed onto the stage. Men who could once cross-dress for theatrical purposes were forced underground, and from here drag developed. Drag queens have been known to play the pantomime Dame on occasion, with the likes of Lily Savage taking to the stage as Widow Twankey.
Unlike the principal boy and girl, the role of the Dame in the plot of the pantomime is not quite as fixed. She may be the mother of the principal boy, as in ‘Aladdin’; she may be a nurse or servant, as in ‘Babes in the Wood’ or ‘Robin Hood’; she may even take the form of an Ugly Sister in ‘Cinderella’.
As the Dame is a ‘goodie’, she also has to have her own happy ending.
Talk to the animals
We’ve all heard the jokes about someone getting lumbered with the role of the back end of the pantomime horse, but ‘skin roles’ were once an art form.
Pantomimes are full of animal characters, from goose in ‘Mother Goose’ to Dick Whittington’s cat. Originally any actor could take on a skin role, but eventually they became a speciality. The peak of the skin role came in the mid-19th century, and perhaps the most famous of the skin actors was George Conquest. He once performed as an octopus in a suit that measured 28 feet across!
Specialist skin actors have all but disappeared, as there is no longer a call for them for the rest of the year, but some of the greats have got their start in an animal suit. Once, at the Stockport Hippodrome, the front of the pantomime horse was played by none other than Charlie Chaplin.
The Fairy Queen
Whether it’s the traditional Fairy Godmother or the modern Fairy Liquid, the good fairy is a staple of pantomime, but have you noticed they always enter from the right? This tradition dates back to the medieval mystery play, and the placement of heaven and hell. They may be no angel, but the good fairy still enters from heavenly stage right.
A good old-fashioned villain
And enter stage left… the villain.
As heaven was always stage right, hell was always stage left. In medieval mystery plays, the demon characters would be projected through a star trap, appearing in a puff of smoke. Traditionally, the villain would always enter first, followed from the opposite side by his good adversary, which can still be seen in some pantomimes today.
We might be rooting for the hero, but we can’t help but love the baddie? Pantomime villains can disregard the usual rules of theatre. Often as flamboyant as the pantomime Dame, the villain can overact, misbehave, and openly insult the audience. They are also one of the main characters involved in audience participation.
It might not exactly be good-natured repartee, but the villain and the audience build a relationship over the course of the pantomime. From booing and hissing when the villain comes onstage to warning the hero of their approach (“He’s behind you!”), the audience is constantly in contact with the baddie; they may even leave the stage to continue bantering!
While we may love a villain, by the end of the pantomime the baddie and their henchmen must have been defeated to secure a happily ever after for the heroes. Although, perhaps it is our love for the villain that has brought about the modern convention of the reformed baddie.
It may have originated in London, but pantomime spread out across the country, and now most regional theatres host a panto at Christmas.
Modern audiences may not turn out for Pinter, but they will come in their droves for the pantomime. Its universal appeal is down to both the tried and tested formula and its ability to adapt.
Like the music hall stars of the Victorian age, pantomimes now invite radio stars, sportspeople, media personalities, and soap actors to tread the boards each Christmas.
Whether it’s strictly family friendly or a bit more risqué; if the cast is star-studded or populated with local staples; whether it’s a traditional story or there’s a twist in the tale, pantomime is sure to draw a crowd. Developed over centuries, the mishmash of traditions has matured to become a uniquely British, and totally bananas, phenomenon.
People have been announcing the death of the pantomime for decades, but its popularity today proves how beloved it is. If people think it’s going anywhere anytime soon, we hate to break it to you, but oh no it isn’t!
That was a fabulous article. I really enjoyed that and learnt a lot more about pantomime than I realised was possible! When I was a nipper in the 1950s my dad’s firm would put on a coach trip into Birmingham for the worker’s children to see a professional evening performance of the pantomime. It was the highlight of my year and I’ve loved theatre ever since. Thank you for the memories and very interesting history. 🙂
Hello Emily – that was a fascinating insight ! just wanted to let you know that when my husband & were travelling in Indonesia a few years ago our group was taken to watch an afternoon outdoor theatre entertainment. Although we obviously could not understand the dialogue we very quickly recognised the format as a pantomime !! There was a dame, a couple of fools & a lot of throwing stuff around !! We don’t know whether it was locally developed in tandem to our own theatrics or it had filtered over the world!! Interesting !! Regards Ros