Stage, Theatre & TV16th November 2013

History of Pantomime

Pantomime has a long and traditional history, but remains hugely popular.

by Jeff Brattan-Wilson

Christmas is fast approaching and people are starting to prepare for the holiday season. Many people associate Christmas with the family getting together, decorating their home, parties, shopping for presents and the feast on Christmas Day.  We mustn't forget the Queen’s Speech! There is also a long standing tradition that many people, especially children, associate with Christmas – the pantomime!

Pantomime can be traced back to the Middle Ages! It was influenced by Commedia Dell' Arte, which is a traditional Italian comedy theatre.

By the early 1800’s, classic pantomime stories became more focused on European fairy tales, classic English literature or even nursery rhymes. A character – Harlequinade - is a British comedy character. It is the most important part of the show and very often provides the element of slapstick comedy. This would feature in the play title e.g. ‘Harlequinade and the…’ etc. This carried on until around 1810 when other characters became more important with the Harlequinade name becoming less widely used.

You would often see a story where Harlequinade is in love with Columbine but her father Pantaloon, who is greedy, is on a mission to separate the lovers; the Clown and servant, Pierott, all created problems and difficulties for the father. This usually involved a mad chase involving a policeman.

From the late 1800’s, the stories moved on to fairy tale stories such as ‘Babes in the wood”, “Dick Whittington”, “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “Cinderella”, “Aladdin” and so on. Very rarely would they make any reference to Christmas, even though panto is firmly rooted in the lead up towards Christmas.

There is one part of the pantomime that people always expect and that is the audience participation. Whereas in other plays and shows, the audience watch and applaud, in pantomime, the audience play a critical part in the show. Most commonly this includes children shouting, ‘he is behind you!’ or ‘oh yes he is', and the pantomime character shouting back, 'oh no he isn’t!’ Over and above that, there are always one or two other sages in the audience who shout out funny comments, resulting in off script banter with the characters.

In bygone years the characters would invite a child/children to go on the stage, the audience joins in singing songs and a male actor always plays the Dame. The Dame is very easily spotted due to their outrageous outfit! The outfit is usually very colourful and includes bold patterns. Usually, the make up is quite ‘over the top’ too!

Another pantomime tradition is that a woman plays the boy’s part, usually the son of the Dame. This ‘male’ character always falls in love with the female character, who is also played by a woman.

The basis of such stories is that good battles evil. It might be interesting to note that, in today’s pantomimes, the villain will enter from stage left and the pantomime is the only type of show that allows an audience to be vocal and yell ‘Boooooo”! The good people, such as the fairy godmother, will enter from stage right. This echoes medieval performances that show that the entrance to hell is on the left and that heaven is on the right.

It might surprise you to know that it usually costs between £150,000 to over £500,000 to host a pantomime! It is the biggest business for theatres throughout the entire year. It is usually quite popular and depending on the star, tickets are often sold out before the shows even start.

But what about Deaf people in the audience? Interpreting for pantomime can be challenging but not impossible. Interpreters need to be well prepared for interactions and ensure that a Deaf audience understands what is happening fully, just like a hearing audience. For example, if the interpreter knows that the cue for the audience’s interaction is coming up, they should be prepared to reflect this in their interpretation; which is a challenging job on its own!

I am aware that some theatres in the North are experimenting using Deaf interpreters and I have been informed that the feedback is very positive. I have not yet seen this myself and perhaps this is something I should go up and have a look at!

It is only recently that theatres have started using stage captions for the pantomime performance. This is a huge challenge because of the audience interaction and the impromptu changes to the dialogue. Actors have also been know - 'oh no they haven't' - 'oh, yes they have!' - to add one or two lines depending on what is happening. Usually, captions use a fixed text but more and more theatres are now considering using them; this would open up more options for Deaf and Hard of Hearing theatre goers.

All that is left for me to say is, enjoy your pantomimes and have a wonderful Christmas, wherever you are!

Article by Jeff Brattan-Wilson

posted in Entertainment / Stage, Theatre & TV

16th November 2013