The History of Panto
by Dan Corcoran
With the staging of Cinderella in 1978, the NAGs entered into the wild, crazy and exotic world of traditional pantomime. Since that time, in February of each year, young and old flock to the Tranzac Club to rid themselves of the winter "blahs" by partaking of yet another extravaganza.
Before going any further, we should clarify a few things. Firstly, Marcel Marceau will not be performing in pantomime! The most frequently asked questions by those not of British or Irish heritage are: "How can you have singing in a mime show"; and "With people talking with their hands, how will we understand the story?"; and "Panto Mime: isn't that something that should be performed in subway stations or on Bloor Street?"
Au contraire! As a matter of fact, pantomime is probably the most boisterous form of entertainment you will ever see, with the exception, perhaps, of a rock concert at the SkyDome.
To set the record straight, let us quote from the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines pantomime as "dramatic entertainment based on a fairy tale with singing, dancing, slapstick, topical jokes and audience participation." Having cleared that up, let's now take a brief look at the evolution of traditional pantomime.
Pantomime has its roots in ancient Greece, and came to fashion in the theatres of Imperial Rome during the reign of the Emperor Augustus. Stories were then done in "dumb-show" and dance accompanied by music and a chorus who sang the story that was being enacted. The tradition carried on in various forms over the years and aspects of the modern-day version of pantomime can be traced back to the commedia dell'arte of 16th century Italy. This form of colourful entertainment flourished in Italy and France; performers would take the show to England, where it was adopted by the populace in the 17th century and started on the road to what we know it as today.
English panto was born on the stages of Georgian London over 300 years ago. The performance in those days was opened by a "forepiece", introducing the famous Harlequin figure which told a story in verse and song, followed by the main piece enacting the story and involving all sorts of specialty acts--jugglers, magicians, tight rope artists, and of course animal figures, either mechanical or played by actors. Although foreign players were used at first, in due course performers from other entertainment venues saw the potential of pantomime and became involved (but no women, of course). The popularity of pantomime was enhanced by the fact that King Charles II had imposed a ban on spoken drama which was to last 100 years, issuing only two Royal Patents for exceptions to theatres, both of which were conveniently producing pantomimes.
Initially this was not specifically a Christmas entertainment, nor was it aimed at children, and the shows covered medieval romance and classic legends, unlike the nursery fairy tales of later years. Panto came along just in time to revive an ailing theatre industry, more than once saving the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. And, but for it, Covent Garden might never have been built.
Until the late 1800s dialogue was only used in the opening act, or forepiece, despite pressures for change. The main part of the show following the forepiece was certainly an extravaganza, with all sorts of wonderful stage effects, spectacular costumes, and in some cases up to 500 people on the stage at one time. Following the change to fairy tales, with children then comprising a large part of the audience, the main complaint was that the shows had become far too long--the final curtain sometimes didn't fall until 1:00 in the morning. A newspaper critic wrote in 1869, "The production runs hours beyond the attention span of the young spectators for whom it is intended". As a result of mounting criticism, the "aft piece" was cut and certain elements were combined with the forepiece, which came to be known as the pantomime.
The most popular pantomime subject, Cinderella, was first staged at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1804. Second in popularity is Aladdin, first produced in 1788. Mother Goose, as we know her today, made her first appearance on Boxing Day, 1902. Now that children were a key component of the venue, pantomime became a holiday entertainment staged mainly at Christmas, but also at Easter and in the summer.
The most endearing thing about pantomime is its continued adherence to a well-defined art form. While some things change, panto is a repository of theatre styles and traditions long extinct elsewhere. Good triumphs over evil, the principal boy and girl get married in the end, the baddies get their comeuppance; the Dame spins a thread of hilarity through the piece, and there is always an animal to win the hearts of a young audience. (And speaking of tradition, did you know that in panto, good should always enter from the right of the stage, and evil from the left?)
One tradition of pantomime since 1819, when Eliza Povey played the title role in Jack and the Beanstalk, was to have the principal boy played by a woman. Now, as near as we can figure, in a time when women were covered in layers of clothing, a woman dressed as a man provided a chance to show off a shapely pair of legs on stage. This tradition has, for the most part, disappeared. As a matter of fact, the principal boy role was first handed back to a man in the 1912 production of Sleeping Beauty. The tradition is revisited now and then, with Cilla Black continuing her famous principal boy portrayal throughout the 1980s.
Another example of "gender reverse" in pantomime is the role of the comic older woman, the Dame, which has been played by a man since the middle ages. This is normally the dressiest part in panto (albeit outrageous dressiness), and the Dame provides most of the slapstick in the show. Perhaps the most famous Dame was Done Leno, who performed on the London stage in the early 1900s, and whose Mother Goose became a classic.
Throughout history children have been used to play imps, fairies and animals, and while used less often today, their presence adds a lot to the spirit of pantomime. The more demanding role of larger animals (or "skin roles" as they were known) was taken over by adults, some of them very famous in their own right, who brought to the stage a parade of donkeys, camels, cows, birds, dragons and even snakes.
Two aspects of pantomime that make it different from most musical farces are the satirical treatment of topical issues and the audience participation. As Henry Morley wrote in 1853, "Allusions to current events are the life of the pantomime." There are no "sacred cows", and scripts can change at the very last minute to take a knock at a recent event.
As for audience participation, panto is the only form of entertainment which still permits its audience the pleasure of joining in. Where else can you boo the bad guy, cheer for the goodies, and harass the Dame without being thrown out? Some hilarious repartee often develops between the cast and the audience, and the children in particular get right into the swing of things.
So there you have a brief walk through the history of pantomime. The tradition carries on with well over 100 pantomimes performed last Christmas time throughout Great Britain and Ireland. A lot of top stars in the entertainment field have performed in panto (would you believe Cliff Richard as Aladdin, or Engelbert Humperdinck as Robin Hood?) and the shows are always of the highest quality.
Turning now briefly to our efforts, the NAGs have, since our inception, covered just about every fantasy story possible. With few exceptions, the shows are written by our in-house team of writers and based loosely on a fairy tale or nursery rhyme. One of which we are particularly proud is an original panto entitled Mother Bruce, written and produced to celebrate Australia's 200th birthday in 1988.
During the production run we do eight performances, including two Saturday matinees for the children (with slight changes to the script for "political correctness"). We are proud of the fact that we have been in the practice of donating all receipts from these matinees to the Children's Wish Foundation, an appropriate and deserving cause.
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