Boisterous Christmas pantomime is a tradition unique to the English theater, usually featuring a children’s story such as Cinderella or Aladdin. A burly, gruff-voiced comedian plays the female lead, the Dame, while a beautiful actress plays the male leading role, the Principal Boy. Meanwhile, lesser parts like the ugly sisters in Cinderella are played by a couple of heavyweight boxers or wrestlers. It’s all very confusing.
The Commedia del arte
The traditional “Panto” (not to be confused with the mime of Marcel Marceau) owes its roots to the Commedia del arte, a popular Italian comedy troup that reached England in the 17th century, although it had been entertaining Italians since the 16th century. Their zany antics delighted the English and soon were widely imitated and adapted. By the end of the 18th century pantomime was firmly entrenched in British affections.
Pantomime: Its Development
In the 18th century actresses were not happy to play ugly women, and as there are many panotomimes which feature women less blessed in the looks department (like the ugly sisters in Cinderella and the wicked witch in Hansel and Gretel), these parts were taken by men and women took on the roles normally played by young men.
Before long the part of the Principal Boy in pantomime was commonly assigned to a woman. The role of the Burly Dame developed later, in the early 19th century, when music hall performers brought their antics and slapstick humor to the panto. By the year 1900 the grizzled Dame and the glamorous Principal Boy, were both firmly established.
For Grown-ups and Children
English children eagerly await their Christmas panto treat, but it also appeals to adults, and no panto is complete without audience participation. Young and old yell encouragement and warnings to the hero and hiss at the villain. It’s great fun. But when the theater is filled with kids yelling “Look behind you!” it’s easy to get carried away. It’s not unknown (but rare) for a child to rush onto the stage and kick the villain in the shins.
Pantomime: -Playing all over England
In London this year there are pantos on offer all over town, for example:
Hansel and Gretel at the Barbican Centre
Jack & The Beanstalk at the Greenwich Theatre
Cinderella at the New Wimbledon Theatre
The Snowman at the Peacock Theatre
Plus many more. Check out where they are.
If you are in the UK over the Christmas period, no matter which part of the country you are in you will find a pantomime, even if the only place to put it on is the village hall.