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Pantomime (informally, panto), not to be confused with the theatrical medium of mime, is a form of musical comedy stage production, designed for families. It was developed in the United Kingdom and mostly performed during the Christmas and New Year season. Modern pantomime includes songs, slapstick comedy and dancing, employs gender-crossing actors, and combines topical humour with a story loosely based on a well-known fairy tale. It is a participatory form of theatre, in which the audience is expected to sing along with certain parts of the music and shout out phrases to the performers.
Pantomime has a long theatrical history in Western culture dating back to classical theatre, and it developed partly from the 16th-century commedia dell'arte tradition of Italy, as well as other European and British stage traditions, such as 17th-century masques.
The word "pantomime" comes from the Greek word παντόμιμος (pantomimos), meaning pantomimic actor, consisting of παντο- (panto-) meaning "all", and μῖμος (mimos) meaning "imitator" or "actor", via the Latin word pantomīmus. A "pantomime" in Ancient Greece was originally a group who "imitates all" accompanied by sung narrative and instrumental music, often played on the flute. The word later came to be applied to the performance itself. The pantomime was a popular form of entertainment in ancient Greece and later, Rome. Like theatre, it encompassed the genres of comedy, tragedy and sex. No ancient pantomime libretto has survived. Nonetheless, notable ancient poets such as Lucan wrote for the pantomime. In a speech of the late 1st century AD now lost, the orator Aelius Aristides condemned the pantomime for its erotic content and the effeminacy of its dancing.
In the Middle Ages, the Mummers Play was a traditional British folk play performed during the festive gatherings of both urban and rural communities and contained many of the archetypal elements of the contemporary pantomime such as stage fights, coarse humour and fantastic creatures. Gender role reversal reflected the old festival of Twelfth Night, a combination of Epiphany and midwinter feast, when it was customary for the natural order of things to be reversed. The pantomime horse may also be related to the Grey Mare of the early British cult of the goddess Epona in Wales, Devon, Cornwall (see Obby Oss), Brittany and other parts of England. Precursors of pantomime also included the masque, which grew in pomp and spectacle from the 15th to the 17th centuries. Italian masque performances in the 17th century sometimes included the Harlequin character.
See also Harlequinade
The development of English pantomime was strongly influenced by the continental commedia dell'arte, a form of popular theatre that arose in Italy in the Early Modern Period. This was a "comedy of professional artists" travelling from province to province in Italy and then France, who improvised and told comic stories that held lessons for the crowd, changing the main character depending on where they were performing. Each story had the some of the same fixed clown characters. These often included young lovers (Arlecchino and Colombina), her father (Pantalone), and Pantalone's servants (Pulcinella and Pierrot, one being crafty and the other stupid). In the 17th century, adaptations of the commedia characters became familiar in English entertainments. From these, the standard English harlequinade developed, depicting the eloping lovers Harlequin and Columbine, pursued by the girl's father Pantaloon and his comic servants Clown and Pierrot. In English versions, by the 18th century, Harlequin became the central figure and romantic lead. The basic plot of the harlequinade remained essentially the same for more than 150 years, except that a bumbling policeman was added to the chase.
In the first two decades of the 18th century, two rival London theatres, Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre and the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane presented productions that began seriously with classical stories that contained elements of opera and ballet and ended with a comic "night scene". Tavern Bilkers, by John Weaver, the dancing master at Drury Lane, is cited as the first pantomime produced on the English stage. This production was not a success, and Weaver waited until 1716 to produce his next pantomimes, including The Loves of Mars and Venus – a new Entertainment in Dancing after the manner of the Antient Pantomimes. The same year he produced a pantomime on the subject of Perseus and Andromeda. After this, pantomime was regular feature at Drury Lane. In 1717 at Lincoln's Inn, actor and manager John Rich introduced Harlequin into the theatres' pantomimes under the name of "Lun" (for "lunatic"). He gained great popularity for his pantomimes, especially beginning with his 1724 production of The Necromancer; or, History of Dr. Faustus.
These early pantomimes were silent, or "dumb show", performances consisting of only dancing and gestures. Spoken drama was only allowed in London in certain "patent theatres" until Parliament changed this restriction in 1843. Moreover, a large number of French performers played in London following the suppression of unlicensed theatres in Paris. Although this constraint was only temporary, English pantomimes remained primarily visual for some decades before dialogue was introduced. An 18th-century author wrote of David Garrick: "He formed a kind of harlequinade, very different from that which is seen at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, where harlequin and all the characters speak." The majority of these early pantomimes were re-tellings of a story from ancient Greek or Roman literature, with a break between the two acts during which the harlequinade's zany comic business, was performed. The theatre historian David Mayer explains the use of the "batte" or slapstick and the "transformation scene" that led to the harlequinade:
Rich gave his Harlequin the power to create stage magic in league with offstage craftsmen who operated trick scenery. Armed with a magic sword or bat (actually a slapstick), Rich's Harlequin treated his weapon as a wand, striking the scenery to sustain the illusion of changing the setting from one locale to another. Objects, too, were transformed by Harlequin's magic bat.
Pantomime gradually became more topical and comic, often involving spectacular and elaborate theatrical effects as far as possible. Colley Cibber, David Garrick and others competed with Rich and produced their own pantomimes, and pantomime continued to grow in popularity.
By the early 1800s, the pantomime's classical stories were often supplanted by stories adapted from European fairy tales, classic English literature or nursery rhymes. Also, the harlequinade had grown in importance until it often was the longest and most important part of the entertainment. Pantomime titles were usually dual titles that gave an often humorous idea of both the pantomime story and the harlequinade. "Harlequin and ________", or "Harlequin _______; or, the ________". In the second case, harlequin was used as an adjective, followed by words that described the pantomime "opening", for example: Harlequin Cock Robin and Jenny Wren; or, Fortunatus and the Water of Life, the Three Bears, the Three Gifts, the Three Wishes, and the Little Man who Woo'd the Little Maid. Harlequin was the first word (or the first word after the "or") because Harlequin was initially the most important character. The titles continued to refer to Harlequin even after the first decade of the 1800s, when Joseph Grimaldi came to dominate London pantomime and made the character Clown as important in the entertainment as Harlequin. His performances elevated the role by "acute observation upon the foibles and absurdities of society, and his happy talent of holding them up to ridicule. He is the finest practical satyrist that ever existed. ... He was so extravagantly natural, that the most saturnine looker-on acknowledged his sway; and neither the wise, the proud, or the fair, the young nor the old, were ashamed to laugh till tears coursed down their cheeks at Joe and his comicalities." Grimaldi's performances were important in expanding the importance of the harlequinade until it dominated the pantomime entertainment.
By the 1800s, therefore, children went to the theatre around the Christmas and New Years holiday (and often at Easter or other times) primarily to witness the craziness of the harlequinade chase scene. It was the most exciting part of the "panto", because it was fast paced and included spectacular scenic magic as well as slapstick comedy, dancing and acrobatics. The presence of slapstick in this part of the show evolved from the characters found in Italian commedia dell'arte. The plot of the Harlequinade was relatively simple; the star-crossed lovers, Harlequin and Columbine, run away from Columbine's father, Pantaloon, who is being slowed down in his pursuit of them by his servant, the Clown, and by a bumbling policeman. After the time of Grimaldi, Clown became the principal schemer trying to thwart the lovers, and Pantaloon was merely his assistant.
The opening "fairy story" was often blended with a story about a love triangle: a "cross-grained" old father who owns a business has a pretty daughter, who is pursued by two suitors. The one she loves is poor but worthy, while the father prefers the other, a wealthy fop. Another character is a servant in the father's establishment. Just as the daughter is to be forcibly wed to the fop, or just as she was about to elope with her lover, the good fairy arrives. This was followed by what was often the most spectacular part of the production, the magical transformation scene. In early pantomimes, Harlequin possessed magical powers that he used to help himself and his love interest escape. He would tap his wooden sword (a derivative of the Commedia dell'arte slapstick or "batte") on the floor or scenery to make a grand transition of the world around him take place. The scene would switch from being inside some house or castle to, generally speaking, the streets of the town with storefronts as the backdrop. The transformation sequence was presided over by a Fairy Queen or Fairy Godmother character. The good fairy magically transformed the leads from the opening fairy story into their new identities as the harlequinade characters. Following is an example of the speech that the fairy would give during this transformation:
Lovers stand forth. With you we shall begin.
You will be fair Columbine – you Harlequin.
King Jamie there, the bonnie Scottish loon,
Will be a famous cheild for Pantaloon.
Though Guy Fawkes now is saved from rocks and axe,
I think he should pay the powder-tax.
His guyish plots blown up – nay, do not frown;
You've always been a guy – now be a Clown.
This passage is from a pantomime adaptation of the Guy Fawkes story. The fairy creates the characters of the harlequinade in the most typical fashion of simply telling the characters what they will change into. The principal male and female characters from the beginning plotline, often both played by young women, became the lovers Columbine and Harlequin, the mother or father of Columbine became Pantaloon, and the servant or other comic character became Clown. They would transition into the new characters as the scenery around them changed and would proceed in the "zany fun" section of the performance. From the time of Grimaldi, Clown would see the transformed setting and cry: "Here We Are Again!" The harlequinade began with various chase scenes, in which Harlequin and Columbine manage to escape from the clutches of Clown and Pantaloon, despite the acrobatic leaps of the former through windows, atop ladders, often because of well-meaning but misguided actions of the policeman. Eventually, there was a "dark scene", such as a cave or forest, in which the lovers were caught, and Harlequin's magic wand was seized from his grasp by Clown, who would flourished it in triumph. The good fairy would then reappear, and once the father agreed to the marriage of the young lovers, she would transport the whole company to a grand final scene.
This structure of performance was popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries but gradually fell out of style as the pantomime opening became the more popular and pre-eminent part of the production. The love scenes between Harlequin and Columbine dwindled into brief displays of dancing and acrobatics. As manager of Drury Lane in the 1870s, Augustus Harris wrote a series of extraordinarily popular pantomimes that formed a part of this transition by emphasizing comic business in the pantomime opening. By the end of the 19th century, the harlequinade had become merely a brief epilogue to the pantomime. It lingered for a few decades longer but finally disappeared completely in the middle of the 20th century, although a few of its comic elements were incorporated into the pantomime stories.
Traditionally performed at Christmas, with family audiences, British pantomime continues as a popular form of theatre, incorporating song, dance, buffoonery, slapstick, cross-dressing, in-jokes, topical references, audience participation, and mild sexual innuendo.
Pantomime story lines and scripts usually make no direct reference to Christmas, and are almost always based on traditional children's stories. Classic pantomime stories include Cinderella, Aladdin, Dick Whittington and His Cat and Jack and the Beanstalk. These four (with occasional productions based on the stories of Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) tend to constitute the majority of "big" productions staged by major theatres.
Smaller theatres and amateur companies sometimes perform a wider range of stories, but they still tend to keep within a relatively narrow range, mostly based on the fairy tales of Charles Perrault, Joseph Jacobs, Hans Christian Andersen, and the Grimm Brothers.
While the familiarity of the audience with the original story is generally assumed, plot lines are almost always 'adapted' for comic or satirical effect, it being common for characters and situations from other stories to be interpolated into the plot. For instance "panto" versions of Aladdin may include elements from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves or other Arabian Nights tales; while Jack and the Beanstalk might include references to nursery rhymes and other children's stories involving characters called "Jack", such as Jack and Jill
Certain familiar scenes tend to recur, regardless of plot relevance, and highly unlikely resolution of the plot is common. Straight retellings of the original stories are rare.
The form has a number of conventions, some of which have changed or weakened a little over the years, and by no means all of which are obligatory. Some of these conventions were once common to other genres of popular theatre such as melodrama.
Another contemporary pantomime tradition is the celebrity guest star, a practice that dates back to the late 19th century, when Augustus Harris, proprietor of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, hired well-known variety artists for his pantomimes.
Many modern pantomimes use popular artists to promote the pantomime, and the play is often adapted to allow the star to showcase their well-known act, even when such a spot has little relation to the plot. For example, Rolf Harris might perform Jake the Peg in a pantomime about Aladdin. As critic Michael Billington has explained, if the star enters into the spirit of the entertainment, he or she can add to its overall effect, while if it becomes a "showcase for a star" who "stands outside the action", the celebrity's presence can detract, notwithstanding the marketing advantage that the star brings to the piece. Billington said that Ian McKellen in a 2004 Aladdin "lets down his hair and lifts up his skirt to reveal a nifty pair of legs and an appetite for double entendre: when told by decorators that 'your front porch could do with a good lick', McKellen adopts a suitable look of mock-outrage. ... At least we can tell our grandchildren that we saw McKellen's Twankey and it was huge."
The main roles within pantomime are often gender-swapped, and can be played by either sex:
|Role||Role description||Played by|
|Principal Boy or Girl||Main character in the pantomime||Traditionally a young woman in "male" attire|
|Panto Dame||Normally the hero's mother||Traditionally a middle aged man in drag|
|Co-Principal Boy or Girl||Normally the hero's love interest||Woman|
|Comic Lead||Does physical comedy and relates to children in the audience.|
Often has a phrase he repeats several times and the audience traditionally call out the opposite in response.
For example he says "Oh no it isn't." The audience replies "Oh yes it is."
|Villain||The pantomime antagonist. Often a wicked wizard or witch.||Man or woman|
|Role||Role description||Played by|
|Good fairy or Wise woman||Usual role is to help (traditionally silly) hero defeat (much more intelligent) villain. Often has a role in the resolution of the plot||Woman (or Man in drag)|
|Animals, etc.||e.g. Jack's cow||"Pantomime horse" or puppet(s)|
|Chorus||Members often have several minor roles|
|Dancers||Usually a group of young boys and girls|
Modern pantomime is performed in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Zimbabwe, Jamaica, South Africa, India, Ireland, Gibraltar, and Malta, mostly during the Christmas and New Year season.
Many theatres in cities and towns throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland continue to have an annual professional pantomime. Pantomime is also very popular with amateur dramatics societies throughout the UK and Ireland, and the pantomime season (roughly speaking, December to February) will see pantomime productions in many village halls and similar venues across the country.
Pantomimes in Australia at Christmas were once very popular, but the genre has declined greatly since the middle of the 20th century.
Christmas pantomimes have been performed in Canada for as many years as they have in the UK.
Pantomime has seldom been performed in the United States, although a few productions have been mounted in recent years. As a consequence, Americans commonly understand the word "pantomime" to refer to the art of mime as it was practised, for example, by Marcel Marceau and Nola Rae. However, certain shows that came from the pantomime traditions, especially Peter Pan, are performed quite often, and a few American theatre companies produce traditional British-style pantomime as well as American adaptations of the form.
According to Professor Russell A. Peck of the University of Rochester, the earliest pantomime productions in the US were Cinderella pantomime productions in New York in March 1808, New York again in August 1808, Philadelphia in 1824, and Baltimore in 1839. A production at Olympic Theatre in New York of Humpty Dumpty ran for over 1,200 performances in 1868, becoming one of the most successful American pantomimes.
In 1993 there was a production of Cinderella at the UCLA Freud Theatre, starring Zsa Zsa Gabor. Stages Repertory Theatre in Houston, Texas, has been performing original pantomime-style musicals during the Christmas holidays since 2008. Lythgoe Family Productions has produced pantomimes each winter since 2010 in California.
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