Pantomime – More Panto, Less Mime

Blog 8 Panto 01How 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.

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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.

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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.

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Though, in time, other forms of entertainment overshadowed pantomime, it’s still enjoyed in Britain, mainly during the Christmas holidays.

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Is There Room for Manners in Comedy?

It seems only fair to acknowledge forms of comedy that are the antithesis of slapstick. A perfect example is Restoration Comedy or Comedy of Manners, proving genteel behavior fits beautifully in comedy as long as it’s over-the-top and ridiculed.

There were many sad years, especially in England, when puritan influence put a real damper on theatre … and fun in general. However, once Charles II took the throne, the fun gates opened and the wealthy flocked back to the theatre, especially to see themselves lampooned onstage.

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Comedy of Manners is a cerebral entertainment (hence, the opposite of slapstick) intended to satirize the behaviors of certain social classes, usually the upper class. Large, overly graceful movements and overemphasized “proper” speech were characteristic of the presentational form of entertainment. Characters spent less time looking at each other than looking over the audience in order to make sure their lines were heard, and though entrances might be made through ornate doorways with great flourish, all action took place at the stage’s edge.

In truth, this form of comedy wasn’t new. Ancient Greeks and Romans had similar comedies but they lacked the high powdered wigs, farthingales and ornate brocade clothing of the Restoration. I can’t imagine Aeschylus prancing about waving a lace hanky as he tried to woo a married woman, but that behavior was typical of Comedy of Manners. The idea was to show the “1%’s” obsession with whether others qualified to be their peers while involving themselves in romantic intrigue. At its best, it also showed the truth behind the artifice and the struggle characters experienced while trying to maintain the appearance of social standing.

The greatest of the Restoration Comedy writers was a Frenchman – Moliere. He satirized the hypocrisy and pretensions of French nobleman and their romantic challenges, gaining fame throughout Europe. Among his most famous plays are “The School for Wives,” “The Misanthrope” and “Tartuffe.”

Shakespeare probably brought the genre to England with his play “Much Ado About Nothing.” It’s typical of Shakespeare’s comedies in that it involves some people who are being pressured to marry but don’t want to, others who are falling in love but facing complications, a handful of troublemakers stirring everyone up and a character who runs around in disguise … really, it seems like Shakespeare wrote one comedy and just changed character names and locations. Go ahead – let the hate begin.

There were other British playwrights who created memorable comedies in the era. Oliver Goldsmith’s “She Stoops to Conquer” and Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s “The Rivals” and “The School for Scandal”  all make for fun reads or, when available, fun evenings of theatre.

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Though the Restoration technically died with fun-loving King Charles II, the influence of the period’s comedy continued through to the modern day. Katharine Hepburn made great films playing the entitled socialite whose manners and romantic bravado threw those around her for a loop. “The Philadelphia Story” and “Bringing Up Baby” immediately come to mind. Popular television shows used ideas from Restoration Comedy to great success, including “Fawlty Towers,” “Frazier” and “Absolutely Fabulous.”

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The Birth of Slapstick

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Most of us think of slapstick as a type of comedy that includes things like pies in the face, pratfalls and mugged facial expressions. The word slapstick, however, originates from an actual object that became popular with the pre-Renaissance comedic style called commedia dell’arte.

Commedia is a theatrical presentation in which specific, stock characters, most of which wear masks, improvise performances based on standard scenarios. Characters included miserly merchants, military braggarts, doddering old men, mischievous servants and attractive young lovers.

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Because each performance was improvised, the actors worked local names, current scandals and the latest news into the plots and dialogue. The comedy was broad, presentational and often violent.  Because commedia was presented outdoors to large crowds, a device called a slapstick was created to make sure each comedic blow could be heard as a loud “thwack!” throughout the crowd.

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The stick was club-like, built from two wooden slats that created a loud sound without hurting the actor who’d been hit.

The slapstick became indicative of the broad comedy for which it was created, so much so that it’s name survived well past commedia’s popularity.

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Black Comedy in the Dark Ages?

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A few brave souls (meaning Monty Python) found a way to make light of everyone’s favorite Dark Ages malady, the Bubonic Plague (also known as the Black Death).

Let’s face it, a lot of people must have been pretty ticked off at Rome for falling apart and taking away life’s little extras … like organized government … the building of roads … irrigation … And, though the Visigoths were broodingly cool and amazingly fair as far as conquerors are concerned, they lacked Rome’s flair for spectacle and were probably about as funny as the Germans they became. On top of that, a mysterious illness attacked populations across Europe, bringing agonizing death and completely upsetting societal structures. How the heck to you smile in the face of that?

Blog 5 Jester

In Britain (and elsewhere), they were fortunate to have wonderful fools, also called buffoons or jesters, who entertained through acrobatics, juggling, storytelling, song and comedy. I like to imagine them standing in front of a nobleman’s banquet a la Jerry Seinfeld, making observations of the world around them:

“What’s the deal with all these serfs?”

“What’s up with plague doctors’ masks? If you want to avoid breathing in deadly miasmas, shouldn’t you make your nose smaller?”

Okay, they didn’t perform stand-up. Sigh. In truth, there were two types of jesters in Medieval England: itinerant entertainers who traveled town to town attending fairs and markets, entertaining for whatever they could get from the audience they drew and those fortunate enough to live in the houses of noblemen. The latter had the better life, for sure, though it was far from perfect. Yes, they had a position of privilege within the household, but it was the type of position given to a special pet, not to a person.

Court jesters were assured decent clothing  though. The usual garb was made of a colorful weave called motley. Their hats might look like a donkey’s head or could have one or multiple points and was frequently adorned with jingling bells.

The comedy both amused and criticized the nobleman, his family and his guests. Stories and jokes were usually colored with current events and household gossip. Though fools could be whipped if their barbs went to far, their behavior was usually excused because it was thought that fools were divinely inspired.

For those who kept humanity smiling as they buried 50% of the population, we doff our pointy hats.

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Clowning Around on the Great Wall of China

We all have moments when we wish we could put our bosses in their place, right? When we could publicly show them how stupid some hairbrained scheme they’ve concocted would be if seen through? Oh, yeah. Well, a famous Chinese clown / court jester did just that.

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During China’s Zhou Dynasty (1046 – 256 B.C.), the emperor was Ch’in Shin Huang-ti, best known as the leader who ordered the building of the Great Wall of China. He employed a clown named Yu-Sze, who became one of China’s most famous court jesters.

The Great Wall was an expensive project, not only financially but in human lives as well. That’s why citizens and members of the court were dismayed to learn that the emperor decided his pretty new wall needed a coat of whitewash, a process that would never be finished and would cost thousands of lives. Of course, no one at court had the huevos to tell the emperor that his plan would have dire consequences. Who wants to piss off the guy in charge when he can have you put to death?

Luckily, one person was in a position to tell the truth – the court’s jester. Yu-Sze.

According to the legend, the clown showed his displeasure by doing a painting on the Great Wall … of a penis. He was whipped for his act of self-expression. When the emperor threatened to further his punishment by making him whitewash the wall by himself, Yu-Sze explained he was the wrong clown for the job because he was colorblind.

News of the confrontation quickly spread, causing the country to laugh at the emperor’s folly and the emperor to abandon his plan.

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Ancient Rome: The Turnip Toss Years

Can we all begin by admitting that food flying through the air then landing on a pushy, pious, pompous twit is pretty damned funny as well as inwardly satisfying? Though the intent may be protest, we all know that eliciting laughs at a bad guy’s expense is at least part of the reward.


The first known report of a public figure being bombarded with food comes from AD 63 when a Roman governor named Vespasian was targeted by turnip-throwing subjects who were sick of the financial hardship and harsh punishments he imposed.

You’ve got to figure someone found humor in this form of protest to risk their freedom. I mean, good god – these people ate fermented field mice as upscale hors d’oeuvres. What the hell was their prison food like?



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Schlemiel, Schlemazel

One of the most important comedic relationships is that between a schlemiel and a schlemazel.

The meaning of the words, both of which derive from Yiddish, differ in a way that makes them inseparable and the foundation for some of the greatest comedy teams in history.

By definition, a schlemiel is an awkward bungler, a klutzy dolt, a fool. A schlemazel, on the other hand, is a long-suffering, unlucky person for whom situations rarely turn out well. When the two come together, comedy sparks fly.

So, if a schlemiel walks through an office carrying a cup of hot coffee, he’ll trip and spill it all of a schlemazel. If a schlemiel gets angry enough to throw a pie at someone, the intended target will duck just in time and the schlemazel will get a face full of banana cream.

Can you figure out the schlemiel and schlemazel from these classic comedy duos?


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