Today, pantomimes are flashy, high audience-participation entertainments for families and children, performed in the run-up to Christmas. Most follow more-or-less traditional storylines: Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Dick Whittington, Robinson Crusoe. The principal male character is always played by an attractive young woman. The principal female comic character is played by a middle-aged or elderly man in unconvincing drag. Whenever possible, the producer tries to get at least one famous name onto the bill.
Pantomimes began in England in Georgian times. They were not for children; they could be performed throughout the year; the storyline need not be traditional or a fairytale; and most had no dialogue, only music — songs interspersed with recitatives — dance, tumbling and mime.
Yet even from its inception, the pantomime was designed to be an exciting spectacle based on non-stop entertainment; a light-hearted, comic performance given after the main item on the programme had ended.
The Beginnings of Pantomime
John Rich, a dancer, acrobat and mime artist, invented the English pantomime in the 1720s. At that time, he was managing a theatre at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London and needed a new kind of entertainment to bring in the crowds. What he put together, drawing from his own performing background, was separate a item on the playbill. His first efforts combined a story drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses with a harlequinade in the form of an energetic and acrobatic series of chase scenes, featuring characters from the Italian Commedia dell’arte: Harlequin, the young magician; Columbine, his lady-love; the girl’s over-protective father, Pantaloon; and his bumbling servant, the Clown Pulchinello. Singing and other forms of popular music were added, along with stage machinery and conjuring tricks. There was no dialogue and the story was told in mime. In short order, this comedic mélange made up the first pantomimes in the new English style.
Rich’s creation proved to be a fabulous success. Audiences loved the blend of slapstick comedy, high-speed chases, acrobatic displays, stage illusions and magic tricks. For over 150 years, the character of Harlequin appeared in almost every pantomime, along with comic chase scenes between Harlequin, Columbine, her father and the clown — all providing opportunities for memorable music, slapstick fun and general tomfoolery. It was agility combined with simple fun — a blend of spectacle, comedy, music, ballet and acrobatics that was a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. It wasn’t long before nearly every evening in the theatre ended with a pantomime to send the audience away in a good mood.
The critics naturally attacked the new pantomimes, deriding them as a “foreign entertainment” which was bound to cause the death of serious theatre. Other theatre managers tried to dismiss Rich’s innovation as frivolous rubbish, popular only through its novelty.
David Garrick, perhaps the greatest 18th-century actor-manager, greatly disliked pantomimes and tried to limit their performance to set times of the year, notably around Christmas. Nevertheless, he was far too canny to ignore the popularity of the pantomime with audiences and the commercial potential this offered. “If they won’t come to Lear and Hamlet”, he said, “I must give them Harlequin”.
Bring on the Clown
The next major step in the development of the pantomime came at the end of the 18th century, when Joseph Grimaldi took the character of the Clown and made it the star of the show. He it was who invented many of the gags and prat-falls that are still an essential part of pantomime today: the ‘butter slide’ (today’s banana skin), the nonsense songs, the objects which come alive, the fights with figures of authority and the tormenting of other characters. He also allowed the clown to speak for the first time, and the other characters followed.
Grimaldi abandoned the traditional costume of Pulchinello in favour of something much closer to modern-day circus clowns: a white face and red cheeks; enormously baggy trousers; a huge, painted grinning mouth; and an enormous repertoire of grimaces and other facial expressions. He also introduced cross-dressing, playing comic female characters in a number of pantomimes.
The Most Elastic Form
Pantomime, since its inception, has survived mainly through constant adaptation and novelty. The only items that have remained static have been the basic plot elements: good triumphing over evil and young love defeating the forces of parental disapproval and respectability. The stories drawn from classical mythology were soon replaced by more familiar tales. “Robinson Crusoe” was created in 1781, with Clown, Harlequin and Pantaloon translated to a desert Island. “Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp” dates from 1788, followed by “Babes in the Wood”. “Cinderella” joined them in 1804.
Pantomime also spawned other forms of popular entertainment. ‘Mr Punch’, in Punch and Judy shows, takes his name from the clown Pulcinello, along with the dog, the strings of sausages and the fights with the policeman. Acrobatic acts, magicians, singers and comedians formed the central elements in Victorian Music Hall. The clowns invaded the circus, and a long list of slapstick comedies appeared on stage, film and television, from the manic chases in the Keystone Cops to Benny Hill, and from Steptoe to ’Ello, ’ello and Monty Python.
Like so much else today, it all began with the Georgians.