See C. Aubert, Art of Pantomime (1927, repr. 1969); J. Lawson, Mime (1957, repr. 1973).
Pantomime (informally, panto) (not to be confused with a mime artist, referring to a theatrical performer of mime) is a performance genre traditionally found in Great Britain, Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Zimbabwe and Ireland, and is usually performed during the Christmas and New Year season.
The style and content of modern pantomime have very clear and strong links with the Commedia dell'arte, a form of popular theatre that arose in Italy in the Early Modern Period, and which reached England by the 16th century. A "comedy of professional artists" travelling from province to province in Italy and then France, they improvised and told stories which told lessons to the crowd and changed the main character depending on where they were performing. The great clown Grimaldi transformed the format. Each story had the same fixed characters: the lovers, father, servants (one being crafty and the other stupid), etc. These roles/characters can be found in today's pantomimes.
The gender role reversal resembles the old festival of Twelfth Night, a combination of Epiphany and midwinter feast, when it was customary for the natural order of things to be reversed. This tradition can be traced back to pre-Christian European festivals such as Samhain and Saturnalia.
The Pantomime first arrived in England as entr'actes between opera pieces, eventually evolving into separate shows.
In Restoration England, a pantomime was considered a low form of opera, rather like the Commedia dell'arte but without Harlequin (rather like the French Vaudeville). In 1717, actor and manager John Rich introduced Harlequin to the British stage under the name of "Lun" (for "lunatic") and began performing wildly popular pantomimes. These pantomimes gradually became more topical and comic, often involving as many special theatrical effects as possible. Colley Cibber and his colleagues competed with Rich and produced their own pantomimes, and pantomime was a substantial (if decried) subgenre in Augustan drama. According to some sources, the Lincoln's Inn Field Theatre and the Drury Lane Theatre were the first to stage something like real pantomimes (in the later sense that has become codified with its fairly rigid set of conventions) creating high competition between them to create the more elaborate show. As manager of Drury Lane in the 1870s, Augustus Harris is now considered the father of modern pantomime. This form had virtually died out by the end of the 19th century.
There seems to be some scholarly disagreement as to exactly when the true pantomime genre gets started. According to one eminent authority, Russell A. Peck (the John Hall Deane Professor of English at the University of Rochester ),"The first Cinderella Pantomime in England was the 1804 production at Drury Lane, dir. Mr. Byrne," with music by Michael Kelly (1762-1826). This date would seem too early for panto in its mature form, with its extensive adherence to a set of conventions including the pantomime dame role, the principal boy played by a young woman, the animal-costume roles, audience participation, etc. But if Peck means that this was the first pantomime in England in the older sense of "low opera", then his date seems too late, for he seems to disregard the fact that pantomime as "low opera" had already arisen in Restoration-era England, considerably prior to 1804. But of course, this date only applies to pantomime productions of the Cinderella tale, not of other tales. Yet even limiting this claim to Cinderella, one finds that other sources give 1870 as the date of the first Cinderella pantomime in England (see below).
Traditionally performed at Christmas, with family audiences consisting mainly of children and parents, British pantomime is now a popular form of theatre, incorporating song, dance, buffoonery, slapstick, in-jokes, audience participation, and mild sexual innuendo. There are a number of traditional story-lines, and there is also a fairly well-defined set of performance conventions. Lists of these items follow, along with a special discussion of the "guest celebrity" tradition, which emerged in the late 19th century.
The most popular titles are:
The form has a number of conventions, some of which have changed or weakened a little over the years, and by no means all of which are obligatory.
Until the decline of the British music hall tradition by the late 1950s, many popular artists played in pantomimes across the country. Many modern pantomimes use popular artists to promote the pantomime, and the play is often adapted to allow the star to showcase their well-known act, even when such a spot has little relation to the plot, for example, Rolf Harris might perform Jake the Peg in a pantomime about Aladdin.
Nowadays, a pantomime occasionally pulls off a coup by engaging a guest star with an unquestionable thespian reputation, as was the case with the Christmas 2004 production of Aladdin that featured Sir Ian McKellen as Widow Twankey, which he reprised in the 2005 production at the Old Vic theatre in London.
As well as being an actor in the Shakespearean tradition, McKellen had become hugely famous with children as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and Magneto in X-Men. "At least we can tell our grandchildren that we saw McKellen's Twankey and it was huge," said Michael Billington, theatre critic of The Guardian, December 20, 2004, entering into the pantomime spirit of double entendre. In recent times, the in pantomimes have featured soap stars, comedians or former sportsmen rather as celebrity attractions, supplemented by jobbing actors and pantomime specialists.
The recently renovated Hackney Empire has presented an enormously successful and highly regarded panto with multi-racial cast since 1988.
York's Theatre Royal pantomime features no guest celebrities, but a regular cast headed by Berwick Kaler, who has played the dame there for 27 years.
Christopher Biggins has been a pantomime dame for 38 years running until 2007 when his attendance on I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! made it impossible for him to do a panto that year. In Canterbury, the Marlowe Theatre, it is their tradition to have a famous person from "Eastenders" or "Neighbours", which are both popular soap operas.
In summer of 1974 "The Old Vic" performed "Jack and the Beanstalk" on a double bill with Euripides' "Bacchae" at the Edinburgh Festival. "Jack and the Beanstalk" was the perfect antidote to the passionate violence of Euripides' tragedy.
"The Adventures of Goldilockpick and Little Red Riding Hoodlum" is one of a string of fractured pantos by North Queensland playwright Todd Barty.
On the other hand it is probably fair to say that the familiarity of young Australians with the genre has declined rather than risen since the middle of the last century, for all manner of reason
Since 1996 , Ross Petty has been producing “Fractured Fairy Tale Musicals” at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre. These shows are firmly in the old English pantomime tradition, incorporating many of the style’s elements—broad comedy, winking asides that break the “fourth wall”, audience participation and a man in a dress, often Mr. Petty himself.
The guest stars are chosen to be of fun and interest to Toronto audiences, and include Canadian TV stars (Ernie Coombs, better known as Mr. Dressup]], Sheila McCarthy, two of the Degrassi kids) ballet stars (Karen Kain, Frank Augustyn, Rex Harrington and athletes (Olympic skater Kurt Browning, WWE wrestler Bret Hart).
Among recent American revivals (or transplantings) of the genre, the Hideout Players in Chicago have now presented two Christmas pantomimes which stay true to the English form. Jon Langford, a British singer and artist, plays the pantomime dame, and a pantomime whale ("Moby Duck," half-whale/half-duck) has eaten the villain on both occasions. The genre has also resurfaced in Baltimore, with a 2007-8 Christmas season panto production of Puss in Boots at the Theatre Project receiving favorable review in that city's paper of record, the Sun. According to the Sun, panto is "a theatrical style that Roger Brunyate [artistic director of the Peabody Opera Theatre at the Peabody Institute], who wrote and directed this newly conceived Puss in Boots, remembers from his childhood in the United Kingdom." New York City's Pantomonium Productions has staged annual pantomimes since 2004, providing over 50% of tickets free to underprivileged communities in the New York Metro area.
As for the earliest pantomime productions in the US, the above-cited Professor Peck of the University of Rochester lists Cinderella pantomime productions in New York (March 1808), New York again (August 1808), Philadelphia (1824), and Baltimore (1839) But it is doubtful to what extent these early productions resembled pantomime by its current definition in England, which dates from about the last third of the 19th century.
Many theatres in cities and provincial towns throughout the United Kingdom continue to have an annual pantomime.
Pantomime is very popular with Amateur Dramatics societies throughout the UK, and the Pantomime season (roughly speaking, December to February) will see pantomime productions in many village halls and similar venues across the country.