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It’s behind you: A look back at the roots of pantomime

Jeffrey Richards
panto getty 300x225 Its behind you: A look back at the roots of pantomime

(Getty Images)

I have always loved Christmas, taking a Dickensian delight in everything associated with the festive season, particularly the annual panto. As I was enjoying in the 1960s and 1970s the comic misadventures of Ken Dodd in Dick Whittington, Arthur Askey in Jack and the Beanstalk and Les Dawson in Babes in the Wood, I little thought that more than 30 years later the enlightened decision of the Arts and Humanities Research Council to fund a three-year research project would enable me and my research partner, Professor Kate Newey of Exeter University, to investigate the Victorian origins and cultural significance of the shows I still fondly remember.

Of all the theatrical genres most prized by the Victorians, only one has survived continuously into the 21st century – pantomime. It remains as true today as it was in the 1830s that a visit to the pantomime constitutes the first theatrical experience of most children and now, as then, a successful pantomime season is the key to the financial health of most theatres.

But what explains the enduring popularity of this strange hybrid of slapstick and spectacle, comedy and art? Our research suggests two answers – universal appeal and perpetual transformation.

Everyone went to the pantomime in Victorian England from the Queen and the royal family to the humblest of her subjects. It appealed equally to West End and East End, to London and the provinces, to both sexes and all ages. Many Victorian luminaries were devotees of the pantomime, among them John Ruskin, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens and W.E. Gladstone. It survived because it was never static but in constant evolution through a series of transformations.

The pantomime as we know it developed in the 1840s from a merger of three distinct genres: the harlequinade, the largely dialogue-less comic knockabout of Clown, Harlequin and Pantaloon; the extravaganza, the elegant and witty satire of modern life in comic versions of classical myths and fairy tales; and the burlesque, the irreverent send-up of everything the Victorians customarily took seriously such as English history, grand opera and Shakespeare. Then as now, topical allusions peppered the scripts. It is that aspect which often makes Victorian scripts hard to decipher as they refer to long forgotten political rows, fashion fads, technological triumphs, society scandals and bank failures. But one of the enduring values of panto is that it acts as a cultural barometer for its times, directly reflecting current attitudes, beliefs and preoccupations.

In broader terms, pantomime embodied the spirit of the age. The anarchic Regency pantomime of Joey Grimaldi was a direct reflection of a Regency England characterised by binge drinking, sexual profligacy, political corruption, cruel sports and reckless gambling. The more sedate and genteelized mid-Victorian pantomimes with their inventive rhyming couplets, elaborate ballet sequences, exquisite scene-painting and impeccable moral messages (“Do as you would be done by”, “Love conquers all”, etc.) represent what historian W.L Burn dubbed “The Age of Equipoise” in which a structured and regulated class society emerged- respectable, law-abiding and deferential. The last decades of the 19th century saw pantomime respond to the Age of Empire with Robinson Crusoe celebrating colonisation and Sinbad, Ali Baba and Aladdin focusing attention on Britain’s eastward expansion.

One major development our research revealed was the forgotten battle for the soul of pantomime waged both in the press and on the stage between the 1870s and 1890s. It was sparked by the introduction into the pantomime of music hall stars and their acts. This reinforced what some critics saw as the vulgarisation of the pantomime, a development they already associated with the prominent roles of the dame and the principal boy in pantomime.

Although some pantomime historians have claimed that these roles, a man dressed as a woman and a woman dressed as a man, are grand gestures of gender subversion, the fact is that they were the sexist products of a patriarchal society reinforcing existing archetypes of masculinity and femininity. The dame was a parodied harridan, a grotesque send up of womankind, while the principal boy at the same time as impersonating a dashing adventurer was every inch a woman, curvaceous, big-bosomed and encased in tights, the better to allow the male audience to gawp at her legs. Significantly, the principal girl, the heroine, was always played by a young woman as the epitome of demure and dainty femininity.

The classic mid-Victorian pantomime was essentially a fairy play with comedic elements and as such, it was fiercely defended by critics such as John Ruskin and Charles Dickens Jr, journalist son of the great novelist. The man they held chiefly responsible for the “music hall invasion” was Sir Augustus Harris, the manager of Drury Lane, popularly known as “the national home of pantomime”.

But in the 1880s and 1890s he was seriously challenged by the now forgotten Oscar Barrett who first at the Crystal Palace and later in the West End staged delicate and elegant Christmas shows of the old kind. His Cinderella at the Lyceum was hailed by some critics as a perfect example of the genre. But Barrett lost the battle and retired to the provinces. The Harris formula, complete with music hall element, carried on triumphantly into the 20th century to provide the blueprint for the pantomimes of today, where the music hall stars have been replaced by soap stars, reality TV personalities, retired politicians and faded Hollywood stars.

Pantomime in 1900 was nothing like it had been in 1800 but pantomime in 2012 is recognisably the descendant of its predecessors in 1900. Oh yes, it is.

Jeffrey Richards is Professor of Cultural History at Lancaster University. He is general editor of the Cinema and Society series for I.B. Tauris and of the Studies in Popular Culture series for Manchester University Press. His books include ‘Hollywood’s Ancient Worlds’, ‘The Age of the Dream Palace’ and (with Kate Newey) ‘John Ruskin and the Victorian Theatre’. His book ‘The Golden Age of English Pantomime’ will be published next year. He broadcasts regularly on BBC Radio 3 and 4.

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