A pantomime in Greek or Roman times was originally silent and performed in a form of mime. Nowadays, according to the OALD, a (British) pantomime, usually called panto, is a type of play with music, dance and jokes, that is based on a fairy tale and is usually performed at Christmas.
The origins of the British Pantomime date back to the Middle Ages. It is actually a blend of a 16th century Italian theatre tradition, Commedia dell’Arte and of the
Commedia dell’Arte was a form of popular theatre with music and dance as the central elements of the performance. Dancers and musicians were therefore present in the show, as well as acrobats and clowns. Each character wore a particular costume and a mask, which were representative of his personality and which emphasized his typical characteristics to make him bad or monstrous, or even to ridicule him. Servants, old men, soldiers and lovers are typical characters of Commedia dell’Arte and Punchinello, Harlequin and Scaramouch are the most famous ones. A distinguished Commedia dell’Arte performance is for example “Punch and Judy” (Pulcinello & Pulcinella), a puppet show, which is still very popular in
British Music Halls, which also influenced the panto, were originally tavern rooms, which provided entertainment in the form of music. Besides popular songs, British music hall performances included comedy, dances, or even magic acts, ventriloquists, juggling, mime artists, puppet acts, etc.
The influence of Commedia dell’Arte coming from
All pantomimes follow a number of conventions and have a number of recurrent characters. The performances bring together wordplays, music and songs, dances, jokes, insinuations, comic effects and involve many special theatrical effects, like slapstick which finds its origins in Commedia dell’Arte. Another characteristic of the British pantomime tradition is the audience participation. Spectators are indeed actively encouraged to boo the villain or to warn the hero of a danger, to children’s greatest delight.
Pantomimes are mainly aimed at children (but adults like pantomime all the same) and are therefore based on traditional children’s stories, like Disney stories (Cinderella, Snow White or Sleeping Beauty) for the most part but also other legends or fairy tales inspired by Charles Perrault, H.C. Andersen and the Grimm brothers. A Christmas’ Carol by Charles Dickens or Peter Pan by J.M. Barries are also very popular. It is the familiarity of the audience with the original story that allows the actors to adapt the plot lines for comic or satirical effect.
Concerning the characters, it always follows the same outline: on one side, there are the Good ones and on the other side, the Bad ones, who are doing everything they can to make life impossible for the good characters. The role of the Principal Boy or Girl is usually played by a girl. The Principal Boy’s lover is also played by the prettiest woman of the cast. The Principal Boy and the Principal Girl end up together and live happily ever after, while the villains, played by men or women, are defeated. Other recurrent characters are the Panto Dame, who is normally the hero’s mother and who is played by a man, and the Good Fairy, who tries to help the Principal Boy or Girl to defeat the villains. The Good Fairy can be played by a woman but also by a man in drag.
Finally, the comic lead plays an important role: it is the man who addresses the audience, especially the children, and encourages them to participate.