Pantomime through the Ages

For the majority of British people, their first experience of theatre was at a Pantomime. “Oh No It Wasn’t”. We take it for granted that everyone knows what a pantomime is, but where does it come from and what is it? Pantomime is difficult to define as it has changed through the ages but from my own understanding, pantomime is a traditional form of theatrical entertainment that’s roots go as far back as Commedia Dell’arte and Roman times. Although many believe it to be mainly for children, adults still thoroughly enjoy the comedy and there are normally some naughty jokes for the older audience members. Most pantomimes will include music and comedy based on the actors performing deliberately clumsy actions and humorously embarrassing events, which are also known as Slapstick comedy. The story is normally based on a famous fairy tale or nursery story and are produced around Christmas time. (Back this up with a quote from the book thats on order) The English didn’t just come up with the idea: Ellacott and Robbines (2017) state that ‘The origins of British Pantomime or “Panto” as it is known date back to the middle ages, taking on board the traditions of the Italian “Commedia dell’ Arte, and British Music hall to produce an intrinsic art form that constantly adapted to survive up to the present day’. Although most people think Pantomime is British tradition (due to the number of plays filling Theatres all over the country during the festive period) this is not completely true, as most of its origins come from the Italian theatre form, Commedia dell’ Arte.

Primarily the origins of Pantomime (as previously stated by Ellacott and Robbines) come from Commedia dell’arte. Commedia dell’arte was vastly influential not only on Pantomime but also the work of Shakespeare and many other forms of theatrical entertainment; but what actually is Commedia dell’arte?  Hayes (2012) stated that Commedia dell’arte ‘began in Italy in the early 16th Century and quickly spread throughout Europe, creating a lasting influence on Shakespeare, Molière, opera, vaudeville, contemporary musical theatre, sit-coms, and improv comedy. The legacy of Commedia includes the first incorporated (i.e. professional) theatre company, many of the themes and storylines still enjoyed by audiences today.’ This leads us to believe that Commedia dell’ Arte had influence on pantomime through the use of Stock Characters; Hayes goes on to explain that ‘The style of Commedia is characterized by its use of masks, improvisation, physical comedy, and recognizable character types.’

I, amongst many, believe Pantomime is noticed mostly for its use of Stock characters – Stock characters are characters who are stereotypes named after their personality and character traits. Tv Troupes state a Stock Character as ‘a character who is instantly recognizable to us from other stories; the gruff grandpa, the snooty cheerleader, the bratty younger sibling. You can sum up their role in the story in a sentence or less.’

All Pantomimes have a similar set of characters, which once again come from the Pantomimes origins Commedia dell’arte. Although, they aren’t named after their personality, unlike the fool in Shakespeare’s works who is usually named after his clumsy personality. Typically, most pantomimes consist of the following character types: The Dame; the Dame is a male dressed as a beautiful lady but commonly still uses the male actors deep voice to add to the comedy; A damsel  in distress and the handsome Prince Charming, who normally saves the day from the villain and resolves the play. These are just some of the most common stock characters, however, there are lots of other peculiar characters that are introduced and reinvented for the modern British audiences. The production of Beauty and the Beast (2016/2017) at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, featured the following Stock characters (following the stereotypes we expect to see in a traditional Pantomime): Molly Muffintop (the Dame), Elvira (the villain/antagonist), Belle (the protagonist/damsel in distress) and the Beast (the foil).

Commedia dell’ Arte only used a certain amount of stories as the basis of most of its plays. On the website Commedia dell’arte & Vaulger Comedy (2016) it says:  ‘The story behind the plots is always the same in Commedia dell’Arte. It is about death and resurrection and it is always told in a festive context. It doesn’t matter if we play a show for political reasons, as a romantic comedy, as pure entertainment or to speak about psychological processes or whatever it may be.’ This is similar to Pantomime which traditionally only a limited amount of stories to create a Pantomime, which usually follow the same outline, including a crisis, climax and resolution. Although, every production is individual in its own way and they are all done differently as each Director will have their own interpretations and ways of doing things. Pantomime and Commedia have some very similar aspects which shows that Pantomime has developed through the art of Commedia; such as the Stock Characters, the limited stories they are based on and there structure (because there are only a certain amount of Fairy Tales and Nursery Stories to use for Pantomime).

Look at standard pantomime – stock characters. Dame mother mums realte

Commedia dell arte stories and stock characters

Furthermore, the British Music hall tradition has also influenced the development of Pantomime. Music Hall is a form of theatrical entertainment that was popular from the early Victorian era 1850 lasting until 1960. It involved a mixture of different entertainments, from popular songs, comedy, and variety entertainment. back this up with a reference. People didn’t just come to watch Music Hall for the funny and entertaining sketches, but to watch particular artists (people who at the time were very popular and the stars of their day). They would have still gone to be entertained but it was a brilliant way to sell tickets by putting someone on the stage who people wanted to watch. This is similar to pantomime, who also feature celebrities such as: …………………………………………….

Music Hall also consisted of a lot of comedy sketches and physical comedy, like a custard pie in the face. Back this up Music Hall also broke the fourth wall which is the same as Pantomime, and Commedia which shows both Pantomime and Music Hall have come from the same origins and roots.

Pantomime has rapidly changed and developed through the ages, it has aspects of lots of other theatrical entertainment, this means it has survived up to the current day but why has it and will it survive for year to come? There are lots of debates on whether Pantomime will flop or survive, however the fact that its roots have been around for so long shows that it is probably going to keep on changing and stay around for years to come.