The Art of Panto
Pantomime is one of those rare theatrical events that doesn’t translate into any other time or place – it is … a bizarre [and exclusively] Christmas genre. It is a surprising amalgam of a variety of rich artistic traditions [with] its origins in the Bacchanalia of ancient Rome, the medieval Italian Commedia dell’arte, medieval morality plays and riotous routines of Victorian Music hall[s]. While present day panto seems utterly out of control, it actually has a very structured framework, based on a strong story line, where good battles against evil and is victorious.
Tradition says, for example, that the pantomime villain should be the first to enter, from the ’dark side’, stage left, followed by his adversary, the good fairy, from stage right, echoing the Middle Ages, when the entrances to heaven and hell were placed in these positions.
Italian Night Scenes, first seen in Britain at Drury Lane in 1700 [are] Perhaps the most obvious ancestors of the modern panto. Th[ey] were rowdy plays in which the plot was communicated by slapstick and dance, rather than dialogue. The basic theme generally consisted of a misunderstanding leading to a comedy brawl, and, although many people regarded them as vulgar, they became extremely popular.
Slapstick, a crucial aspect of panto, takes its name from a device used in these early entertainments. Harlequin (a panto stock character) used to carry with him a wooden sword [that] had a hinged flap that created a loud ‘slapping’ noise when used, giving emphasis to comic actions.
The 1800s introduced the pantomime Dame, played by a man; the Ugly Sisters, also played by men; and the Principal Boy, played by a woman. The reasons for the cross-dressing were simple: it was only just becoming even remotely respectable for women to enter the theatrical profession, and those who had made the break certainly didn’t wish to portray elderly, ugly or villainous women. Equally (in a society where women were required to be modestly dressed) theatrical entrepreneurs well understood that a young woman showing a shapely leg in tight fabric while playing the part of a man would be acceptable on the grounds of artistic license – and would, of course, bring in the audiences.
[Edited from the article “He’s Behind You…” by Jill Glenn for Optima Magazine]
Advent Calendar of Oddments 2012: December 20th