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The Festive Tradition Of The Pantomime

Posted by rafael on November 26, 2012 in Culture

When it comes to the festive season, there is nothing quite as British as the good old Pantomime, but it may come as something of a surprise that Great Britain isn’t where pantomime originated.

In Ancient Greece, the term pantomime was used for a group of performers who would “imitate all” ,and the performances were far removed from the hilarious slapstick performances of the modern pantomime, but from this ancient art, sprung the seeds of the jollity we see today.

The Modern Pantomime

Modern pantomime is derived mainly from the tradition of Commedia dell’arte (meaning comedy of the artists) performed in the glorious streets of Italy during the early modern period. Tales of popular characters wearing masks and the survival of the underdog over the oppression of their masters – the stories can very well be translated into our modern pantomime themes of good versus evil, such as Snow White over the Evil Queen or Cinderella fighting the cruel forces of her sisters to find true love. The Commedia dell’arte travelled all over Europe, sprinkling their mischievous mirth wherever they went, and it was inevitable that this raucous humour would be embraced by the British in the 18th Century.

Festive Pantomime

Festive Pantomime

John Rich

A man named John Rich transformed the theatre performances into a splash of magic, fantastical animals, acrobatics, and men dressed as women and vice versa bringing delight to audiences; providing a sense of japery and mockery that brought in huge crowds. The critics were less than pleasant to this new form of entertainment and an actor-manager David Garrick, in the 18th Century limited pantomimes to the Christmas season leading to the lasting tradition that lives on today.
With the end of the 18th Century came the introduction of the clown, urged on by Joseph Grimaldi, bringing a tradition of laughing in the face of adversity and celebrating liberty. The clown became the comical figure we find today – baggy of trouser and face caked with a lurid smile, and Joseph Grimaldi became a popular figure in society, satirising many subjects.

Victorian Britain

Victorian Britain realised the comedy pantomime dame. She had existed before, but unrealistically, so a performer Dan Leno set about changing the face of the pantomime dame. Widow Twankey in Aladdin or the Queen in Humpty Dumpty, the dame was portrayed often as poor or with the weight of the world on her shoulders, as many people recognised this template of their own lives. From this point, pantomime dames are generally played as a man dressed as a woman, but it is always a given that the dame is a man beneath the petticoats. This willing suspension of disbelief is where a lot of the humour lies, with the dame often capable of comments to the audience that play to the fact that everyone is in on the joke. Sympathy and comedy collide with ease making the character ultimately human and providing a sense of empathy with the plight of the often poor and downtrodden dame. So from the harlequin of the Commedia dell’arte in the past to the clown to the dame, focus shifted with the passing of time.

Christimas Pantomine

Christimas Pantomine

The 21st Century

In the 21st Century, pantomime is as popular as ever, Christmas seeing the celebration of the comedic styling of tales such as Cinderella, Babes in the Wood, Aladdin, Jack and the Beanstalk and even modern stories such as The Wizard of Oz. Celebrity appearances are common, often appearing as an exaggerated version of their real life personalities. With topical nods and gentle double entendres, the tradition of pantomime is enjoyable for adults and children alike. With audience participation often encouraged, pantomimes are a great way to spend the festive season and can be used as an introduction to the joy of theatre for young children.
Britain has readily embraced the magic of pantomime and with cries of “it’s behind you!” it could definitely be argued very much in response “Oh no it isn’t!”

This post was written in partnership with LSBO.co.uk, providing you tickets for all West End Theatre shows.

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