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Saturday, 17 December 2016



The pantomime is a British Christmas entertainment for children. The word is made up of two Greek words, "panto" means all kinds and "mimos" is a type of silent acting which we still know today as mime.

Pantomime really began as an entertainment for adults. It can be traced back to the pantomimos in Ancient Greece, the name given to a masked dancer, who by movement and gesture alone represented the different characters in a short scene based on classical history or mythology.

2nd-century Macedonian theatrical sculpture, representing a pantomime's mask. By Fkitselis 

The pantomimus wore the costume of the tragic actor--a long cloak and a silken tunic--and a mask with no mouthpiece, changing it when necessary.

The Roman pantomime drew upon the Greek tragedy and other Greek genres from its inception. These silent comedies were enjoyed particularly during the Roman Saturnalia festivities, a midwinter feast, at which everything was supposed to be turned upside-down. Men dressed up as women and women as men. Pantomime dames (men comically dressed up as women) and principal boys (young women dressed up as boys) are the modern day equivalent.

The Roman tradition of mime was brought to Britain during the Roman occupation.

Twentieth-century British pantomime developed from the continental commedia dell'arte, the Italian tradition of improvised theater that developed in the Early Modern Period. The stories had many 'stock' characters in them such as clowns and a 'baddie'. Over the years traditional plots became mixed up with fairy stories, folk tales, or tales from the Arabian Nights.

By the 17th century, adaptations of the commedia characters had become familiar in English entertainments. From these, the standard English harlequinade developed, a mix of dance, music, and slapstick comedy depicting the eloping lovers Harlequin and Columbine, pursued by the girl's foolish, haggard father Pantaloon and his comic servants Clown and Pierrot.

Christmas Pantomime color lithograph bookcover, 1890, showing the harlequinade characters

Characters such as Mother Goose, still a panto favourite today, were familiar to 18th- and early 19th-century audiences through the performances of the great clown Joseph Grimaldi at Drury Lane Theatre. His act inspired many routines and panto traditions.

It was during the Victorian age that pantomime as we know it became the most popular of all Christmas entertainment for children. They didn't get to bed till late though. Victorian pantomimes starting at 7pm often didn't finish until midnight.

Dan Leno and Herbert Campbell in Babes in the Wood, 1897, at the Drury Lane Theatre

The traditional figures from the commedia dell'arte gradually disappeared, and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries pantomimes were considerably changed due the popularity of the music-hall. The stars of the day – comedians and music hall artistes – often changed the plot out of all recognition, just so they could do their own normal routines and modern pop stars and television personalities continue this tradition.

The English music hall star Dan Leno (December 20, 1860 – October 31, 1904), was best known for his dame roles in the annual pantomimes that were popular at London's Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, from 1888 to 1904. He was paid £200 for each of the pantomime seasons. Leno turned the character from an incidental role into the main attraction of Christmas theatre. He considered the dame roles in two of his last pantomimes, Bluebeard (1901) and Mother Goose (1902), to be his favorites. Leno later became known as ‘the King’s Jester’ after entertaining Edward VII at Sandringham.

Leno as Mother Goose

In 1900, the 11-year-old Charlie Chaplin's brother Sydney helped him get the role of a comic cat in the pantomime Cinderella.

Princess Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret acted in a number of pantomimes during World War Two. The future queen's roles included playing the part of Prince Florizel in Cinderella in 1941.

Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret in a Windsor Castle wartime performance of Aladdin


Today the pantomime is traditionally performed at Christmas. It is a show for children, but adults generally enjoy them as well.

Usually a well-known story is told. Among  the centuries old tales that are retold in the 'panto' are Babes in the Wood, which first appeared in England over 500 years ago and Puss in Boots and The Sleeping Beauty, which are over 450 years old. Others include Snow White, which was first printed  in Giambattista Basile's 1634 Pentamerone and Cinderella, which was first published in Paris in 1697.  In 1717 The Arabian Nights stories were translated into English and some became pantomimes, including, Aladdin and His Magic Lantern, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and Sinbad the Sailor. Dick Whittington, Goldilocks, Robinson Crusoe, The Three Little Pigs and Robin Hood are all Victorian creations.

Today, the pantomime season lasts from December to February and has become a traditional part of the British Christmas festivities.

The world record for the fastest 100m by a pantomime horse (female) is just over 18 seconds by two Brits — Samantha Kavanagh (front) and Melissa Archer (rear).

Sources Tamworth Herald, Compton's Encyclopedia, Microsoft® Encarta® 99 Encyclopedia.

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