Art for entertainment's sake

A History of Pantomine

Most of us book to see a pantomime around the festive season as it has long since become the traditional thing to do. Children and adults alike can enjoy a trip to our local theatres to see a production, while it is a great way to introduce children to the pleasures of live performance. Here we take alook at how the traditional pantomime began from its origins through to the present format we love today!


During December through to the end of January towns and cities all over Britain have a pantomime production being performed in local theatres. It has become a seasonal speciality where families can take a trip out together to enjoy this unique live performance.

The “Panto” as it has become known originated in The Middle Ages and is a combination of British Music Hall entertainment and the Italian Comedia Dell Arte. Over the centuries it has changed and evolved as audiences have changed therefore has survived in different types of format ever since.

In general Panto has only really been popular in the UK, with the odd country here and there such as Australia putting on performances but Panto is really a British Institution that suits the British sense of humour to a tee. The word Pantomime has Greek origins, while an original form of panto was performed by both the Greeks and The Romans bringing together comedy, tragedy and in this instance sex!

When the Middle Ages arrived “Mummers” who were actors who performed traditional British folk plays put on performances during the festive season incorporating many of the panto attributes we still see today into the production such as fights, bawdy humour and caricatures of animals and people.

It was around this time that the reversal of sexes came about, that is men playing the female roles and women playing the males. This was to do with the ancient festival of twelfth night which combined the feasts of The Epiphany and Mid Winter. Even today the pantomime dame is traditionally played by a man who dresses in an over the top grotesque way making him an ugly caricature of a woman.

First British Pantomimes

Early in the eighteenth century two London theatres put on their first pantomime albeit primitive versions of what we know today. The Theatre Royal Drury Lane and The Lincolns Inn Fields Theatre produced shows that had opera and ballet plus a comedy element that appeared in the last stages of the performances.

By 1717 the harlequin character had been introduced. This character was called Lun short for lunatic and made the pantomime very popular as a result. Early pantos such as these had no dialogue simply acting and dancing as speaking in theatrical productions was not allowed in all theatres until 1843 when Parliament voted to make it so.

The stories were based on Roman or Greek tragedies with a little humour thrown in during the interval, while over the years panto gradually became more topical with popular narritives introduced to please audiences. By the 1800′s the tradition of depicting European fairy tales in pantomime became popular. The Harlequin still popular eventually evolved into a comical clown played by Joseph Grimaldi who made the part his own introducing the name Joey as a popular clown name that still exists today.

Children’s Introduction to Pantomime

Children began to attend panto productions in the 1800′s mainly around Christmas time in order to see the comical harlequins. The chase scene where the clown entertained the children was very popular as it involved slapstick and magic. The formula of the love triangle story also became popular whereby there was always a girl whose father wanted the rich suitor for his daughter, while she loved the poor suitor etc etc.

The Fairy Queen who evolved into the Fairy Godmother would officiate over the production spreading her magic as she went. Eventually the prominence of the harlequin or clown took a back seat as the panto itself became more and more a comedic production throughout.

Traditional Aspects and Characters

1. The traditional Principal Boy was played by a woman who dressed in tight fitting clothing showing that she was indeed a woman although she wooed the main female character parading as a boy. This comes from the days when women were not allowed to act on stage therefore all female roles were taken on by men.

2. The Dame in the panto is also played by a man who dresses in outlandish costume caricaturing the figure of a woman. He wears heavy makeup similar to the modern drag artist we know today.

3. Audiences are encouraged to participate in the performance by shouting out to the actors on stage. Phrases such as “he’s behind you” warning the character of the approach of some villain of the piece or loud booing when the villain comes onto the stage are fine examples.

4. Double entendre runs throughout the production. These are in the form of rude innuendo that children will not understand but that adults can appreciate so adding to their entertainment.

5. The pantomime horse or cow is a popular aspect and is played by two actors, one who plays the front of the animal, while the other plays the hind quarters.

6. The panto villian always enters the stage from the left with the good fairy always entering from the right. This dates back to Medieval times when the right side was considered as the entry to Heaven wheras the left side was considered the entrance to Hell!

7. All great pantos have a slapstick element that runs throughout and is a great favourite with the kids.

8. Music is a mainstay of the production usually incorporating popular songs of the day that in turn encourage audience participation.

9. Having well known artists perform in panto is nothing new as this began back in the late 19th century when popular artists of the day were invited to appear in the Drury Lane productions.

10.The pantomime villain is a mainstay of the production and is neccessary for the “good” characters to bounce off.

Fairytale Stories for Panto

Once the law changed enabling dialogue to be used in any theatre production it heralded a change in the stories used in panto. Until this point the silent harlequin featured heavily but now writers could use dialogue to introduce new formats and characters.

Most London pantos at this time were written by two popular writers namely Henry James Byron and James Robinson Planche. Both men were superb in the art of the pun and wordplay, both of which still feature heavily in panto dialogue today. Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots and Blue Beard were all stories written in the 18th century by James Robinson Planche.

Many old English folk stories also became popular subjects. These included Babes in the Woods, Dick Whittington and Robin Hood, while French stories such as Goldilocks were also used. Stories from the Arabian Nights such as Ali Baba and His Forty Thieves, Aladdin and Sinbad the Sailor also gained in popularity, while Peter Pan, although popular, is not regarded as a traditional pantomime story but is a show based on a book by J M Barrie. All this popular subject matter is currently used in todays pantos pleasing audiences up and down the UK year after year.

Pantomime Today

Today, pantomime is as traditional a part of Christmas as Santa and Christmas pudding. Theatres throughout the country compete with one another as to who can put on the most lavish production with the most famous stars featuring. The bigger the name the better in this regard and while panto used to be looked upon as the poor mans acting format today this is no longer the case. Many very famous actors have trodden the panto boards over the years with even knights of the realm taking part in this traditional festive extravaganza.

Productions feature amazing costumes, phenomenal special effects such as 3D sequences, wonderful musical interludes and songs plus laughs galore that pull in record breaking audiences year on year. Who could have guessed centuries ago that their humble productions could evolve and carry on into the twenty first century pantos we love gaining popularity every season.