How does one hold an audience’s attention when, during an opera, a considerable span of time is needed in order to adjust elaborate sets? Add more entertainment, of course! And what goes better between acts of “Faust” or “La Boheme” than clowning and popular music?
That’s the origins of British pantomime, also called panto. And, though it involved more movement than dialogue in it’s early days, it shouldn’t be confused with the pantomime / mime acts of France and other countries.
Pantomime is a form of musical comedy designed as family entertainment. Performances are infused with song, dance and slapstick comedy. Literally slapstick comedy – the actual slapstick is an essential prop and used by the lead character, a harlequin clown, to perform magic, change scenic elements, etc.
The origins of pantomime go back to ancient Greece and Rome. At that time, a pantomime was a dancer who acted out all of the roles in the stories they told. Performers, all of whom were male, were famous for erotic behavior and an effeminate dance style. Their costumes included long silk tunics and short mantles. By time pantomime reached Britain, the word was used to describe an entire performance with many dancers and actors, not just one person.
There were also elements of commedia dell’arte, with defined roles and the wearing of masks as well as the clown or harlequin character and, of course, the slapstick. It was also influenced by the Mummers Play, a very popular yuletide offering during the Middle Ages that loosely told the story of St. George and the Dragon.
Most pantomime combines classic fairy tales or folktales with topical humor. Basic elements include bawdy humor (but not obscene), stage fighting, the battle of good v. evil and mythical or fairy tale creatures.
“Tavern Bilkers” by John Weaver, who was the Drury Lane Theatre’s dance master, is often credited as the first pantomime offered in England. It wasn’t a huge success, but that didn’t stop the Drury Lane and other theaters from improving and offering the genre. In the early 1700s, Lincoln’s Inn, one of Drury Lane’s competitors, added Harlequin as a character in their pantomimes to great success. Other theaters followed suite.
Though panto’s early performances were based more around choreography than spoken word, dialogue became the standard by the late 1700s. Dialogue was punctuated with puns and humorous wordplay. Still going strong in the mid-1800s, panto was the longest running and most dominant entertainment in England.
Each pantomime included an elaborate harlequinade chase featuring theatrical effects, fast-paced action, acrobatics and slapstick comedy. One can image them being the inspiration for the crazy chase scenes in Keystone Kops movies in the early 20th century.
Though, in time, other forms of entertainment overshadowed pantomime, it’s still enjoyed in Britain, mainly during the Christmas holidays.