He’s behind you!

The history of the traditional British pantomime

We’ve all been to the panto – whether as an excited child, or when taking along your own brood for a Christmas treat – but did you know that this raucous, noisy and very British form of entertainment has a long and varied history?

The quintessential British pantomime today features a range of standard ingredients – with origins that can be traced back to a number of ancient performance traditions.

A Christmas tradition?

There are around a dozen instantly recognisable plots – drawn from fairy stories and folk tales – in the familiar panto repertoire. None is remotely Christmassy – so it might seem odd that we only visit pantomimes during the festive, winter season.

One of the origins of pantomime lies in the medieval mummers' plays – moral plays performed at Christmas that had a storyline of good triumphing over evil.

The ancient midwinter celebrations of twelfth night and Roman saturnalia also played their part. The cross-dressing and gender role reversal that is such a part of pantomime today can be traced back to these two traditions – when the natural order of things was turned upside down for the duration of the festivities.

Goodies and baddies

Pantomimes feature a number of stock characters, some of which have their roots in the traditional figures of commedia dell’arte – the Italian renaissance art form of improvised theatre.

  • Principal boy – the hero of the story, traditionally played by a young woman in male attire
  • Pantomime dame – normally the hero’s mother, this role is often taken on by an older male actor in drag
  • Comic lead – often the hero’s sidekick
  • Villain – the story’s main antagonist
  • Good fairy or wise woman – usually plays a role in resolving the plot, to give the story a happy ending
  • Comedy animal – often a pantomime horse or, as in Jack in the Beanstalk, a pantomime cow – played by two actors in an animal suit

Oh no, he isn’t!

The audience participation that’s such a key part of the panto experience draws on Victorian music hall conventions. Audience members are encouraged to boo and hiss the villain, cheer the hero, and outdo each other by singing along loudly.

Topical and contemporary references – together with the odd bawdy joke – keep the performance fresh and lively, to appeal to the adults in the audience.

And the top billing of celebrity guests is nothing new – popular Victorian variety artistes and music hall stars of the day all used to tread the boards, playing characters from pantomime’s favourite tales.

Fancy a night at the theatre?

(22 November 2013)