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A Brief History of Pantomime

Updated on December 4, 2010

Pantomime is a popular musical-comedy theatrical production in the United Kingdom with similar popularity in countries like Australia, Canada and India, to name a few. The stories are often based on nursery rhymes with stock characters that will sing, dance and perform comedic skits and are dressed in elaborate costumes.

Roots in Ancient Greece

The word pantomime itself is of Greek origin. It is a derivative of "pantos" (every all) and "mimos" (imitator), thus, pantomime means to imitate everything. And that's exactly how pantomime originated in ancient Greece although the form was significantly changed by the time Rome also adopted it as one of its most popular forms of entertainment.

In ancient Greece, pantomime originally referred to a group of people who "imitated all" by singing and dancing to instrumental music of which the flute was the preferred instrument. It was only later when the term was applied, not to the group of people in the production, but to the performance itself.

Just like theatre, pantomime tackled the subjects of comedy, tragedy and sex, the latter of which was condemned by the likes of Aelius Aristides for being too erotic. Even the dancing style was criticized as being too effeminate in comparison with the existing dance forms of the day. Although no pantomime libretto from ancient Greece survives today, partly because it was seen as too bourgeoisie by the literary elite, we know that the art form did exist because well-known ancient Greek poets, most notably Lucan, wrote of it and wrote for it.

Development in Rome

Modern pantomime has strong links to the Commedia dell'arte, which arose in Italy during its Early Modern Period. As with its Greek counterpart, Italian pantomime was popular with the masses and the middle classes mainly because of its combination of stories, songs and dances coupled with stock characters that were recognizable no matter the location. Thus, each story presented the same fixed characters, although a few adjustments were made to the main character depending on where the pantomime was being performed.

Introduction to England

Pantomime was introduced into France by these Italian travelling pantomime groups and then to England. In the English setting, the art form was introduced as the entr'actes between opera pieces, which eventually evolved into separate productions. In Restoration England as in ancient Greece, pantomime was looked down upon as a lowly form of the opera patronized by the British upper and middle classes.

It was in 1717 when the renowned actor John Rich began to present pantomimes under the stage name Lun, short for lunatic. These productions became wildly popular especially when special theatrical effects were added while the movements became increasingly comedic in nature and the topics were of current relevance.

Competition for Rich was not too far behind. Colley Cibber and his colleagues mounted their own pantomimes that, together with Rich's productions, became a significant if highly criticized sub-genre of the Augustan drama. Augustus Harris, manager of Drury Lane, is widely considered as the father of the modern pantomime as it is known in England.

Modern Pantomime

Nowadays, British pantomime is a popular form of art form in the theatre and is performed the whole year-round but primarily around the Christmas period. It incorporates song and dance with buffoonery, slapstick, sexual innuendos, current events references, audience participation, and cross-dressing. The gender role reversal is similar to the old traditions practiced during Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.

There are no direct references to Christmas in a modern British pantomime. Instead, the productions are based on traditional children's stories such as The Arabian Nights as well as from authors like Hans Christian Andersen, Joseph Jacobs and the Grimm Brothers. But if the audience expects straight storytelling, plot resolution and plot relevance, then it is in for a disappointment.

Still, with its high entertainment value, the characteristics of the opera, movies and novels that are lacking in pantomime can be overlooked and with a smile, at that. After all, which can pass up on the chance to be transported to the magical worlds of Aladdin, Cinderella and Goldilocks, to name a few characters, and have a great laugh while doing so?


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    • Rachel McGrath profile image

      Rachel McGrath 5 years ago from Central Illinois

      Great article, definitely learned more than what we touched on in my theatre history classes!