You may have heard of the theatrical tradition of pantomime in England which is usually performed in the UK around Christmas and New Year. Today’s idea of the English pantomime grew out of a melting pot of influences, the main ones being Roman pantomime (originally a solo miming performer playing all the roles of a particular legend), English mummers plays from the middle ages and 16th century commedia dell’arte from Italy. In this blogpost, we’re looking at what pantomime is today and what to expect.
In case you might think of pantomime as just something to entertain kids…read on, it’s a super interesting English tradition!
Even though we think of pantomime as a Christmas tradition, the main culturally English influence on the tradition comes from the pagan custom of mumming. Mumming was a form of entertainment around Christmas time where people would dress up, put on disguises and informally put on a play (a mummers play) which would usually feature particular stock characters such as Saint George and the dragon, a doctor, Beelzebub and a fool. It’s thought that these events were quite raucous and the fact that people were wearing disguises and often drinking alcohol (warm, mulled drinks such as cider) meant that there was a party atmosphere!
Depiction of a mummers play in the 1800s
Pantomime, has some similarities with the old mummers plays such as people in disguise (particularly men dressed as women and vice versa), the theme of good battling over evil, song, and interaction with the audience.
As well as the influence from mumming, there is also the strong influence of the Italian street theatre known as commedia dell’arte from the 16th century. These plays always involved stock characters, the most well-known being Harlequin (a magical, comic servant who usually fell in love with a maid) and acrobatics.
By Victorian times, pantomimes depicting fairy tales had become popular and featured the swapping of gender roles and stock characters. Theatres started to spend relatively large amounts of money on staging lavish pantomime performances as they grew in popularity.
But how about pantomimes today?…
Nowadays, pantomimes are big business at Christmas time and the most prominent cities have one running for several weeks often starring one or two celebrities or sports personalities. Pantomimes are usually based on a well-known fairy tale such as Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty and there is still gender role swapping. The plot follows the idea of good triumphing over evil.
The main stock characters in the modern pantomime are:
Principal boy – Usually played by a woman dressed as a man
Principal girl – Usually played by a woman
Dame – Played by a man in drag
Villain – Usually male but could be female
Pantomime horse – played by two people in a horse costume
Image from Cinderella at The Birmingham Hippodrome, 2017
Can I join in…?
Audience participation is very important in pantomime! – The audience usually boos and hisses when the villain comes on stage and might heckle (call out) to the pantomime dame who is usually very funny. There are certain phrases associated with pantomime such as “It’s behind you!” and “Oh yes you did! / Oh, no you didn’t”. The script usually references popular culture and pokes fun at politics and celebrity.
Will I laugh…?
Pantomimes are very silly and over the top, they are not supposed to be realistic or taken seriously. The stage sets are exaggerated, bright and colourful and there is often slapstick humour and innuendo used. Pantomimes are usually lots of fun for all ages!
If you’re in Portsmouth during December this year, then you have the choice of two pantomimes! – Cinderella is playing at the New Theatre Royal in Guildhall Walk and Jack and the Beanstalk is on at The Kings Theatre in Albert Road.
Here is a clip of the pantomime dame from the National Theatre’s socially-distanced performance of Dick Whittington from last Christmas (2020).