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Where does the tradition of pantomime originate?

PUBLISHED: 16:54 03 December 2019

Pantomime Fairies Flying Across the Stage, 1871 (photo: Chronicle/Alamy Stock Photo)

Pantomime Fairies Flying Across the Stage, 1871 (photo: Chronicle/Alamy Stock Photo)

Credit: Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo

It's as Christmassy as sleigh bells but just where does the peculiarly British tradition of pantomime come from?

The lights dim, the music starts, the villain enters stage left to boos, the fairy from stage right to cheers, and so the pantomime begins. For many of us, it just wouldn't be Christmas without a visit to the panto, but where did this peculiarly British form of entertainment come from?

You can argue that pantomime began its journey in ancient Greece and Rome. Based on myths and legends, a solo male performer danced all the roles, relying on masks, poses and gestures to portray the characters (Greek pantomimus - 'imitator of all'). Over time more performers were added and audiences cheered and jeered as good triumphed over evil.

In medieval Britain, bands of so-called 'mummers' travelled the country at Christmas festival time, enthralling audiences with plays on themes such as St George and the dragon. With masked actors, chases and comedy they were a highlight in the dark winter months.

'Sir, I'll just trouble you with a line.' Joseph Grimaldi 1778-1837 as Clown in the pantomime of Mother Goose (photo: Chronicle/Alamy Stock Photo)'Sir, I'll just trouble you with a line.' Joseph Grimaldi 1778-1837 as Clown in the pantomime of Mother Goose (photo: Chronicle/Alamy Stock Photo)

Pantomime as we know it today has its roots in the Italian commedia dell'arte. Commedia was a street theatre, popular from the 16th to the 18th century, using music, dance, acrobatics, clowning, chases and tricks. It was fast paced, anarchic and often very risqué. The characters were an overprotective father, Pantalone, who refused to allow the hero Harlequin to seek his daughter Columbine's affections, and Pulchinello the Clown, also in love with Columbine. The characters and storylines can be seen today in opera, the theatre and even Punch and Judy.

John Rich, known as the father of pantomime, used the commedia characters in his production of Harlequin Sorcerer in 1752 at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden. He played Harlequin and created the 'harlequinade', a comic chase scene. The term slapstick derives from this production as Rich brought magic to the stage using a batacchio or hinged stick during chase scenes. He would clap it together and stagehands would rapidly change the backdrop.

Matthew Rixon and Matthew Kelly as the Ugly Sisters at the New Wimbledon Theatre, Christmas 2014 (photo: Vibrant Pictures/Alamy Stock Photo)Matthew Rixon and Matthew Kelly as the Ugly Sisters at the New Wimbledon Theatre, Christmas 2014 (photo: Vibrant Pictures/Alamy Stock Photo)

Critics attacked panto, saying it threatened the death of serious theatre. David Garrick, the 18th century actor-manager of Drury Lane theatre, however, realised its commercial potential. He said, 'If they won't come to Lear and Hamlet, I must give them Harlequin.' Drury Lane pantomimes, including the first Robinson Crusoe or Harlequin Friday (1781), were put on at Christmas, starting the convention (cemented by the Victorians) which has survived to this day.

By the early 19th century the harlequinade chase scene was the longest and most important part of the pantomime, but Harlequin's importance was gradually superseded by Pulchinello the clown. The most famous pantomime clown was English actor, comedian and dancer Joseph Grimaldi. Panto's first star, he was also the first cross-dressing dame, when he appeared as Queen Rondabellyana in Harlequin and the Red Dwarf. He was responsible for developing the pantomime tradition of audience participation and sing-a-longs. Such was his eminence that 'a Joey' became a synonym for a clown. Grimaldi starred in an early production of Aladdin in 1813.

After Grimaldi's retirement, panto went into something of a decline, but gained resurgence thanks to the 1843 Theatres Act which allowed all theatres to produce plays with dialogue (a 1737 Act had limited them to 'patent theatres', originally the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane and Covent Garden). The mimed harlequinade set to music made way for a show with a spoken story, often drawing on folk and fairy tales, and the modern panto was born.

Drury Lane theatre programme circa 1885. Victorian pantos could last five hours with lavish sets and vast casts (photo: Amoret Tanner/Alamy Stock Photo)Drury Lane theatre programme circa 1885. Victorian pantos could last five hours with lavish sets and vast casts (photo: Amoret Tanner/Alamy Stock Photo)

By the late Victorian period pantomime was at its peak and extravagant productions could last up to five hours with elaborate scene transformations, lavish costumes and special effects pulling in audiences. They could also have huge casts with many animal actors - some spent their whole careers as 'skin parts', dressed as dogs, cats, monkeys, cows or even insects. Victorian pantomime producer Augustus Harris regularly spent £10,000 on a show, the equivalent of well over £1m today.

Role reversal is nothing new in the theatre and the tradition of men playing women can be traced back to its earliest days when it was deemed inappropriate for women to act on stage. Drawing on this convention, and its comic potential, gender switching became a mainstay of Victorian pantomime. Enter the Dame - Widow Twanky, Mother Goose, Wicked Aunt - complete with outrageous costumes, wigs and jokes. Actor Dan Leno was a huge draw in the period. He played the wicked aunt in Babes in the Wood at Drury Lane in 1888 and continued in the role for the next 15 years or, as he would jest, 'for the term of my natural life'. In 1891 Leno performed a sketch called The Tree of Truth, where every lie told causes an apple to fall on the comic's head. It's a routine still performed more than 125 years later.

Incidentally, both the ghost of Grimaldi and Leno are said to haunt the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane - so if you go there this Christmas - watch out for them both!

Dan Leno in about 1900. A major comic star of the Victorian theatre, he played the Wicked Aunt in Babes in the Wood at Drury Lane for 15 years (Amoret Tanner/Alamy Stock Photo)Dan Leno in about 1900. A major comic star of the Victorian theatre, he played the Wicked Aunt in Babes in the Wood at Drury Lane for 15 years (Amoret Tanner/Alamy Stock Photo)

The tradition of women dressing as men on stage goes back to the 18th century, but the 'principal boy' in panto dates to the early 19th century and was essentially a marketing ploy. A woman's legs were always concealed in public and any excuse to display them was used as a device to draw male audiences into the theatre. By the 1880s the male hero in the pantomime was always played by a woman, showing as much leg as possible. This tradition once took a different direction when the hero role was taken by Robert Hale who in 1914 played principal boy, Robinson Crusoe, at the Alhambra theatre - a man acting as a girl, playing a boy.

From the amphitheatres of ancient Rome to Britain's high tech modern theatres, pantomime is still thriving. It has survived thanks to the skill and vision of theatre directors and actors who have adapted the format with an eye on changing trends. Gender-bending, raucous, rude, hilarious and inclusive, there really is nothing else like it. And when the monster creeps behind the hero, children of all ages will cry out, 'He's-behind-you!' As generations have done. Oh yes they will!

About the author

Tricia Thompson is a former teacher who became an actor and singer and gives talks across the country on musical and performer biographies and social history.

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