Pantomime is seen as a truly British affair. It is a testimony to the quirkiness of the British sense of humour and traditions -- and often includes gender reversal.
It’s like roast beef and gravy, part of the empire and all that. However the history of the pantomime can be traced back to the Greek and Romans, where the plays encompassed music, comedy and sex, as well as a bit of tragedy.
Famous poets of the day wrote libretto for the shows, possibly for a good fee, but sadly none have survived -- which may be due to pantomime being looked down upon as a lower class of entertainment. It would be fitting to find an ancient ‘Oh No it Isn’t’ set in Greek!
The British pantomime (or more affectionately known as ‘panto’) is not exactly a modern invention and goes back to the 17th century, where it seems to have evolved from Italian popular theatre of the day. Some similarities with pantomime have been noted are from the pagan 12th night celebrations and the midwinter feasts where the natural order of things are turned around for a short time. (Mind you…… all that dancing round in the morning dew at midwinter solstice plays havoc with the lumbago! )
These similarities are typified by the gender reversal that has become one of the most recognisable parts of panto, along with the pantomime horse and the Harlequin.
In the early days of panto, the Harlequin was the most influential creature of the show, clad in a costume with bright diamonds of red, yellow, blue and black. The colours were of significance as the character would strike a pose and touch the colour on his costume to signify what mood he was presenting – red for anger, blue for faithfulness, yellow for jealousy (Green was considered an unlucky colour onstage, and we all know how much the theatre is steeped with superstition …. So go and break a leg! ) however black was a special colour in that it would make him invisible! (So Marvel and DC comics were a little behind the times here!)
(now we’re getting to the good part!)
Panto is strongly interlinked with cross dressing, as traditionally most of the main characters are cross-dressed during the show. The principle boy is always a girl, the dame is always a boy, and there are often supporting ugly sisters who are men; however the leading lady is the only exception in always being a woman. ….confusing isn’t it – and that is before we even get to the plot!
The Pantomime Dames first treaded the boards in the early 1800’s and were usually cast as the mother of the hero. It is a comic part where the dame has the quick fire dialogue and elaborate costumes. Taking the clues from the early Harlequin, the Dame has an outrageous and topical banter, pointing jokes at various famous politicians and celebrities. The audience are never excluded and are often the target of humorous ribbing, inviting participation through an all too familiar dialogue….. ‘Oh no it isn’t….. Oh yes it is!’
Many Dames have been played by famous stars of the day. One such star was Danny La Rue (seen in photo right, gallery here), a truly well-loved female impersonator of the 70’s and 80’s and brought a brand of high glamor to the Dame role. Dannys’ outfits were always elaborate, but given the ‘over the top’ style of a Dame, the outfits went stella!
Playing a Dame is very demanding, more so than drag. It’s a comic female role made to be bawdy for the adults and having to play to young children at the same time, as well as adlibbing and following a plot, and engaging with a live interactive audience! Slapstick comedy with slick timing is never easy, adding a fantastic frock, heels and an outrageous hairstyle takes it all to a new dimension, then keep it up for 2 hours plus! Not for the faint hearted!
The ugly sisters are often a bad, spiteful pair that give the audience someone to ‘Boo’ at, but their role is a difficult balance between humour and sinister, without being frightening and offensive.
Whilst the name of the Dame goes with the show that is being performed. Widow Twanky from Aladdin, Dame Trott from Jack and the Beanstalk, for example, the names of the ugly sisters change from show to show, moving with the times and poking fun at popular culture. Names such as Daisy and Buttercup were common names for cows in the 50’s, Tracy and Sharon were middle class names of the 80’s, to Hysteria and Hypothermia of the 90’s, it’s a part of drag culture that crosses over from panto.
The role of the principal boy is also one of skill, the part is that of a male lead, which is portrayed by a feminine girl, clad in a short tunic, showing her legs and dancing in heels. Indeed the femininity of the actress is paramount to that of the role.
The principal girl is often the damsel in distress of the show. She plays the love interest for the principal boy and has to dance and sing in a romantic setting.
Diversity at its best, portrayed in a popular stage play up and down the country every year, entertaining thousands of children and adults for over 200 years!
Yes what about the plot! Well take a well know fairy tail, add a large pinch of salt, throw in some elaborate costumes, add some corny jokes, some fun songs, a wicked witch, the odd fairy godmother, a talking horse, and a big wedding finally, not forgetting a loud excited screaming audience of adults and young children – then you’re just about there! Mix this all together for about two hours and you’re done !
Its not possible to get any sense of the atmosphere of a performance on the telly, its one of those things that you’ve got to be there ! So if the opportunity arises, take the plunge and dive in to a panto, otherwise its always going to be just …. ‘behind you’ !
For more information on pantomime, take a look at these sites where I got lots of help from:-