The history of pantomime that we know today draws its inspiration from many strands of popular entertainment through the ages. You’ve probably heard names of past stars such as Danny La Rue, Dan Leno and Stanley Baxter. In this blog I will give a potted history of the famous British art form.
Roman History of Pantomime
The history of pantomime perhaps begins in the Roman empire. In Roman times the term pantomime was often an individual telling stories in the medium of mime accompanied by dance and music, often played on a flute. The art form spread across the empire and was widely popular due to its lack of language. It featured stories of Greek myths and roman gods, the fairytales of the time.
The Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages, the Mummers Play was a popular form of entertainment in Britain and featured many recognisable features of pantomime today: it was based on the story of St George and the Dragon, a mythical tale, it included stage fights, comedy, good defeating evil and even gender role reversals.
For the first roots of the history of pantomime we know today, we look to commedia dell’arte. This was a European clowning tradition which has its origins in the 16th century. We can recognise a lot of the key features of today’s pantomimes in the art form. You have some fixed character types based on social stereotypes, exaggerated forms of drama and it was extremely popular for around 200 years. It also scripted actors’ entrances and exits – just like panto!
Another early origin of pantomime is the 16th century ‘masque’, a courtly entertainment that featured beautiful and detailed scenery, songs, dance and featured well known entertainers of the day. In fact Queen Anne, Charles I and Henry VIII all performed in Masques in their courts.
Victorian History of Pantomime
In Victorian times, a similar form of entertainment developed: music hall. We would recognise this today as variety shows, which featured popular songs, comedy, and speciality acts. This form of entertainment was so popular by the mid 1800s that pubs began to be demolished and replaced with music halls. The equivalent of a cabaret, the venues were designed so that audiences could eat, drink and smoke while watching the show.
In the early 1800s the clown character (the Harlequinade) had grown to be the most important, not least due to Joseph Grimaldi’s performances in London. This is really where we see elements of modern pantomime stories emerge. The examples of rich and poor portrayed on stage, the rags to riches tales and the quest to find true love. We also see the development of the magical transformation scene, the most spectacular part of the pantomime.
In 1843, it became widespread that theatres were permitted to perform spoken dialogue and so the silent Harlequinade began to fade from the forefront of the pantomime line-up paving the way for the fairytale aspects and comedy to come to the forefront. Puns, wordplay and language-based humour wove in and out of spectacular productions with grand processionals.
20th Century Pantomime
At the beginning of the twentieth century, we begin to see the traditions of pantomime and music hall merging bringing us the style of pantomime we recognise today. Conventions such as star acts, variety entertainment, popular fairytale stories and big budget productions all evolved during this period in the history of pantomime. This is also the period when the more recognisable pantomime titles were brought into existence with fairytales from authors like Hans Christian Anderson and the Grimm Brothers. The most notable star from this period was Dan Leno whose pantomime dame performances became legendary at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London. His ghost is said to haunt the venue following his early death at age 43 following a period of mental illness and professional difficulties.
As pantomime has progressed over the last hundred years we’ve seen elements of fairytales mixed and appearing in titles with corresponding names or storyline elements. There’s also been the creation of new pantomime stories (find out more about how I wrote Once Upon a Time in Pantoland). Following a dip in popularity in the later part of the century, it’s made a big comeback recently with high-quality production values, modern special effects and a better reputation in the industry and amongst the general public. Where will pantomime take us in the next hundred years? Who knows, but it’s bound to be spectacular!