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The History of Pantomime

I wave my wand - let it not be in vain:

Beneath my spell be children all again!


                                                                    The Good Fairy 

On 2nd March 1717, the London edition of the Daily Courant ran an ad announcing “a new dramatic entertainment of dancing, after the manner of ancient pantomimes”. This referred to The Maid's Tragedy, playing at The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane - and was the first time the word ‘pantomime’ had been used to describe a British stage show. Today, more than two centuries later, almost every UK theatre launches its Christmas season with a highly-anticipated ‘panto’.


The word 'pantomime' dates back even further, to the time of the Roman empire when a ‘pantomimus’ (‘imitator of everything’) brought together characters who specialised in masks, body movement and rhythmic gestures. This form of entertainment became very fashionable in Rome during the rule of Augustus (63 BCE–14 CE), remaining popular until the empire’s decline in 476 AD.

The two masters of pantomimus were Bathyllus and Pylades. Bathyllus (right, as illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley) was a native of Alexandria in Egypt, while Pylades (below) came from Cilicia in Asia Minor. Both would have accrued different theatre techniques - Bathyllus, comedy and Pylades, tragedy - but each developed expertise in this new genre. The two were instant rivals, with fans who often fought in the street over their idol’s primacy. Despite being banished from Rome for prompting these assaults, Pylades was quickly pardoned when the masses bayed for his return. 


The show content gradually acquired a more bawdy, vulgar edge, and nudity became a regular component. Emperor Elagabalus insisted on adding adulterous scenes, while Emperor Domitian demanded that a real crucifixion be performed! The early Roman Christians proclaimed these shows to be lewd and carnal, and by the end of the 4th Century, St Augustine described pantomimus as being “more morally dangerous than the Roman circus”. To counter his allegations, productions began to ridicule the new religion of Christianity: baptism in particular was ripe for ridicule. 

Religious leaders went on the attack and preached against pantomimus saying: 

These wanton words, these ridiculous manners, these foolish tonsures, these ways of walking, these dresses, these voices, that softness of limb, that winking of the eye, these pipes and flutes, these dramas and arguments – aye, all are full of utter wantonness. Here are to be seen naught but fornication, adultery, courtesan women, men pretending to be women, and soft-limbed boys.

Crushed by the Christian church’s persecution and the Romans’ decadence, all types of legitimate theatre disappeared before the arrival of the Dark Ages in the 5th century AD, and were seemingly wiped out for an entire millenium. The concurrent rise in travelling performers - jugglers, acrobats, storytellers and minstrels - meant that crowds continued to be entertained across Europe at fayres and festive days. Troupes of players would move from town to town, setting up stages or circles to act out storylines based on a glorious Saint, an imaginary wicked, distant kingdom or even a pagan fertility ritual. 


Most European states had some form of these travelling companies, but the lack of surviving records plus predominantly illiterate audiences means that little evidence of their work has survived. One extant manuscript from 1150 is The Mystery of Adam, with wonderfully detailed stage directions on how to perform the text outdoors.


In Britain there were many folk players: The Rhymers, The Pace-eggers, The Soulers, The Tipteerers (left), The Wrenboys, The Galoshins, The Guisers and the leading company, The Mummers. The main season ran between All Fool’s Day (1st April) and All Hallows Eve (31st October), but after a few centuries this was expanded to include Winterfest with its associate carolling traditions of wassailing and yulesinging. 

Since Medieval times, an Epiphany Eve (4th January) tradition called for households to bake a ‘King Cake’, the ingredients of which included a dried bean and a dried pea. The cake was cut and placed in the middle of a table so that everyone - masters and servants alike - could take a slice. Whoever found the bean in their slice would be treated as King for the day and whoever had the pea, Queen. If the sex of the finder meant that a man received the pea, or a women the bean, the status of King and Queen held. This was known as the law of misrule, the kingdom of Topsy Turvydom.


This principle was eventually incorporated into The Mummers’ Plough Play (left) - regularly performed on 5th January (Twelfth Night) - so that female roles could be played by men. Begun as a motivational performance for East Midlands farm labourers on the first Monday of the year, the Plough Play (initially Plough Monday) was a highlight in the 15th century agricultural calendar.


It soon transformed into something we might recognise from a present-day panto: men playing stock characters such as Tom Fool (the young clown) and his mother Dame Jane (a man in a frock) who formed a well-honed double act; and women playing male parts such as Lord Bright-and-Gay (left) or Prince Rich-but-Charming. 

At the same time in Italy, another key component of pantomime - Commedia Dell'arte - was developing. This comedy theatre was performed outside or within a temporary ‘pop-up’ venue, usually during a town’s annual Carnevale. One of the country’s largest carnivals took place in Venice, which had its own unique tradition, the Mascherade, in which citizens wore masks to hide their identity and status.


Actors saw that these masks were more expressive than their more traditional flat versions, with the emphasis on facial features such as long noses, wide eyes and big ears giving more scope for exaggeration on stage. As a consequence, the use of masks in shows increased character-driven scripts and created some of the most significant roles in theatre. 


In England, a new era of bricks and mortar theatres began after the Puritans’ abolition of theatre was overturned by King Charles II in 1660. The Theatre Royal that Charles had built (on the site of Oliver Cromwell’s favourite tennis courts) burned down in 1669 but a new, larger theatre - The Theatre Royal Drury Lane - took its place in 1674.


One of the theatre’s first managers was a penny-pinching lawyer called Christopher Rich, known to have no love of the arts. Conversely, his son John Rich (left), wanted to act but had no talent and was ridiculed by the King’s Players who claimed “He is simply illiterate and cannot read a script”; “He has a voice that would make the top circle jump”. The Richs left to open their own venue, The Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre near Holborn.

Its location - a mere six hundred yards from the hubbub of Covent Garden - made it difficult to attract audiences, despite John Rich staging the most popular shows of the time. Rich recalled the attention which The Maid’s Tragedy had drawn at The Theatre Royal, and decided to produce a piece with similar Commedia roots: A New Italian Mimic Scene Between A Scaramouche, A Harlequin, A Country Farmer, His Wife And Others. The show was launched on 26 December and received rave reviews, including some for Rich (right) himself (under the name John Lunn) in the Harlequin role. 


Rich then took a gamble on a musical show that ridiculed Italian Opera. Passed over by other producers, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (left) opened at the Lincoln Inn’s Field Theatre on 29 January 1728. The show was a resounding success and is often quoted as having ‘made Gay rich and Rich gay’. It built sufficient funds - after just sixty-two performances - for John Rich to build a new theatre, The Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, built on the site of what is now The Royal Opera House. 

To gain royal endorsement, John Rich coaxed actor, Poet Laureate and once good friend of Charles II, William Davenant (right), to be the figurehead of the new company. This in turn helped form an intense rivalry between the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and The Theatre Royal Covent Garden. Both theatres fought for the new King's, George II, attention: the competition became so fierce that on a few occasions the venues concurrently presented the same new piece by a popular playwright. To come out on top, Rich needed to source another hit. 


With unique stage machinery, and a wardrobe of fantastic costumes at his disposal, Rich turned again to Commedia or the ‘Italian manner’ as it was now being called. He brought in live animals to create spectacle, magicians to create stage illusions, and the best contemporary writers to bring Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon, Punch and Pierrot to life. Rich saw other theatres move to copy his pantomime productions, but none could match him for sheer theatricality and originality. 


Now that Covent Garden had finally eclipsed Drury Lane, artistes were desperate to perform for Rich: the French ballerina Marie Sallé premiered  Pygmalion in 1734 and in the same year George Frederic Handel presented a full season of opera. When the great David Garrick (left) performed in the 1745 seasonal pantomime, Rich was heavily condemned for involving the finest of English actors in low theatre, an act perceived as cultural debasement. Soon after, Garrick joined Drury Lane and Rich was devastated. 

By the time John Rich died in 1761, his customary seasonal show had become a staple for audiences: a Christmas spectacle now widely known as pantomime. Garrick himself was managing Drury Lane, and recognised that one month of pantomime revenue could sustain the theatre for the next eleven. He had found a new Harlequin to fill Rich’s shoes, Giuseppe Grimaldi, fresh from working the Italian and French festés, who was to play almost every pantomime character at Drury Lane over the following thirty years. 

Grimaldi poster.jpg

In the summer of 1780, while performing at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, Grimaldi introduced the audience to his three year-old son, Joseph. Back at Drury Lane a year later on Boxing Day, Joseph played the Little Clown in The Triumph of Mirth or Harlequin's Wedding. The show was such a success and the young Grimaldi so adored by audiences, that it was extended until March 1782. He became the youngest regular juvenile actor in the theatre, and was such a talent that his envious father faked his own death in order to gauge the depth of his son’s love.


When Grimaldi senior died of dropsy in 1788, his son became the family’s sole breadwinner. He was 9 years old. Joseph continued to perform in the Drury Lane Christmas pantomimes whilst being hired out to perform in the ‘low’ comedies of other theatres during the year. At 23, his disagreement with Drury Lane’s management led to dismissal. Joseph simply crossed the road and joined Covent Garden Theatre, while continuing to work at Sadler’s Wells as resident clown. Now married to the owner’s daughter, he had virtually free rein at both theatres. 

The pinnacle of Joseph Grimaldi’s pantomimes was Harlequin and Mother Goose; or, The Golden Egg, which opened at the Covent Garden Theatre on 29 December 1806. A huge success, its profits reached over £20,000 from 92 performances. Other West End and even regional theatres recognised the rewards of pantomimes and would, after this 1806 season, go on to produce their own around the Christmas period. Even Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre, known for its rarefied circus productions, created a Christmas show in the pantomime style, bookended by some abridged Shakespeare and a short ballet. 


Within twenty-five years, pantomime had become an established item in the British theatre calendar. An English clown, Charles Parsloe, travelled to America in 1831 in the hope of introducing US audiences to pantomime. His Mother Goose opened at the Bowery Theatre, New York, on Boxing Day of that year to a very unenthusiastic response, and the genre failed to take off. It did, however, have a brief revival in 1868 when George L. Fox (left), a renowned American clown, produced and performed in Humpty Dumpty. This wasthe first two-act, standalone pantomime, still cited as an unsurpassed production.The show was successful enough to run until 1877 but was curtailed when a stage injury caused Fox’s death. 

After the era of Grimaldi, Pantomime was unchanged for some time: this was basically John Rich’s Commedia format featuring the Harlequin and Pantaloon characters, with each Pantomime remaining part of a multi-act bill. In 1840, Queen Victoria’s marriage brought about a renaissance in middle and upper-class family life. A prestigious children’s festival (to which Charles Dickens was a patron) sought writers to create imaginative productions complete with handsome princes, demons and magical godmothers. The playwright James Planché (right) brought his puns and word play to these fairy tales, perfect for family entertainment. 


Prince Albert’s establishment of the Christmas tree tradition in Britain added to the country’s new focus on the season. Theatres had developed their own seasonal convention in which the pantomime became theChristmas show, but as the original Commedia form segued into a more sweet, childish guise, audiences dropped off and theatres returned to more high-brow scripts. The Comic Almanac noted in 1846 “it is feared that the race of clowns will become extinct in these days of educational enlightenment”. 


The Adelphi Theatre’s Manager, Benjamin Nottingham Webster (a previous Harlequin at Drury Lane), had a passion for pantomime, and was also an admirer of the new burlesque parodies now in vogue in the West End, in particular the work of actress and contralto Elizabetta Bartolozzi, who had played the male title role in the opera, Don Giovanni. Adapting this twist in gender - a key feature of Burlesque - to his own needs, Webster cast the celebrated dancer, Céline Céleste-Elliott (right) as Jack in the 1855 Christmas production of Jack & the Beanstalk; or Harlequin and Mother Goose at Home Again –‘A grand coalition of Burlesque and Comic Pantomime for young and old’. Madame Celeste was, in all likelihood, the first ever ‘principle boy’.


Another important champion of Pantomime at this time was Henry James Byron (left) - a journalist, director, theatre manager, actor, novelist and accomplished playwright. Byron wrote pantomime dialogue in rhyming couplets. His 1860 Cinderella or The Lover, The Lackey and The Little Glass Slipper - ‘A Fairy Burlesque Extravaganza’ gave us the characters Dandini (The Lover) and Buttoni/Buttons (The Lackey). These two roles can be still found in contemporary pantos. 

Love in a ‘Buttons’ may appear a riddle

I know I’m but an ‘umble indiwiddle.


HJ Byron - Cinderella 1860

A year later Byron presented Aladdin or The Wonderful Scamp at the Strand Theatre, starring Marie Wilton as Aladdin (right) and James Rogers as The Widow. This matronly character can be traced all the way back to Dell’arte, when the role of La Guaiassa (who gossiped directly with the audience) offered light relief. The Widow character had featured in other theatres’ Pantomimes under various titles including ‘Mustapha’ and ‘Ching Ching’, but Byron wanted something different. He took his inspiration from a tea known to be cheap and past its prime, imported from the Tuon Ky district of China, Twankay. He specified Aladdin’s family as tea pickers in the script, and created a gossiping matriarch, the now famous character of Widow Twankey.


By Christmas 1874, the pantomime had become highly popular again, with even The Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace offering a seasonal show. Drury Lane had Aladdin, Covent Garden Babes in the Wood, Holborn Sinbad, The Pavilion Cinderella, The Princess Beauty & the Beast. Nearly every British theatre and entertainment centre including ice rinks, circuses, Music Halls, supper clubs and concert rooms produced a Christmas pantomime, each one attempting to out-spectacular the other. George Sangers, the new circus showman of London and owner of the Sangers Amphitheatre staged Aladdin and his Forty Thieves with a full menagerie.

Audiences were happy to embrace the fairy tale story so long as its saccharine plot was balanced by the silly patter that was becoming fashionable. This, the pantomime format of the late 1800s, is the one we would recognise in today’s seasonal shows: a convergence of influences culled from fairy tale, Commedia and the Mummers. The structure and sensibility attracted many playwrights of the era, including Frank W. Green, George Conquest, E.L. Blanchard and even the greatest satirical British wit of all time, the king of topsy-turvy himself, W.S. Gilbert, turned their hand to Pantomime. 


To fulfil the increasing demand for a recognisable face in the cast, producers began to hire the stars of Music Hall, an emerging genre. Drury Lane’s 1888 Babes in the Wood created the opportunity for two such performers to partner up and broaden Pantomime’s comedic scope. Herbert Campbell was six feet two, and weighed just under twenty stones.


Dan Leno was a lean five foot four. Both were established comics. Although Campbell was cast with Harry Nicholls as one of The Babes, and Leno as The Baroness, it was the moment each night when Campbell and Leno were together on stage that raised the roof. Eschewing the trapdoors and transformations used by other theatres, Drury Lane kept it simple. Impresario Augustus Harris’ big and small comedy duo was the original template for all later double acts, for which he was named ‘The Father of Modern Pantomime’.

Campbell and Leno (right) performed together for the last time in Drury Lane’s 1903 Humpty Dumpty. They both died in the following year. In the previous fifteen years they had played Dames, Barons, nurses, pirates, Idle Jacks, children, washer women, Kings and Queens. They had proved Music Hall turns to be the perfect performers of the new style of pantomime.


Theatre managers no longer included regular actors in their companies, preferring to hire famous comics and speciality acts from Variety and Music Hall. Today’s casting of TV celebrities to top the bill at each year’s panto is a direct result of Campbell and Leno’s success.


With the surprise loss of their two big box-office draws, Drury Lane had to quickly source new stars. Music Hall ‘nobility’ Harry Randle (as Dame), Anglo-French comic Harry Fragson, and singer Walter Passmore were recruited. The theatre had established itself as the finest purveyor of pantomime and brought in only the best acts to maintain this dominance. In 1912 the theatre took a notable risk, in creating a completely different version of The Sleeping Beauty with new characters and plotline; and a sequel the following year, The Sleeping Beauty Re-Awakened, a pantomime first.

In 1910, two new venues vied for pantomime supremacy - The London Palladium and The Empire Theatre, Dewsbury. With its 3,435 seats (newly-designed by the masterful Frank Matcham) The Palladium (right) was a uniquely large, grand theatre, though its seating arrangement still allowed for a sense of intimacy between performers and audience. It became the number one Variety room and saw pantomime flourish within its walls from the start of WWI (see Wilkie Bard). The Palladium stage was perfect for exciting, pioneering sets: the flying rig was so popular that Peter Panbecame a pantomime fixture every year between 1930 and 1938.


The Empire Theatre (left) opened as a Variety venue in 1909 with just over 2,000 seats, filled by audiences who came from as far away as Manchester and York every Christmas. The pantomime season was much longer than that of today, running from 24thDecember to Easter, guaranteeing performers three to four months’ work. As an independent theatre, it had no governing board with a remit to manage a chain of venues in which cost-efficiencies often led to low performer wages. In contrast, The Empire could afford to bring in the biggest names from the Music Hall and Variety circuit: Robb Wilton opened their first pantomime.

The main components of today’s panto were all present by the end of WWII: a fairy tale story featuring a goody, a baddy, a dame and a dunce. But by the late 1980s pantomime was no longer fashionable, and the demise of audiences caused West End theatres to fill their auditoria with other seasonal productions for several decades. Panto is now back with a vengeance: big costumes, big sets and big names bring the whole family out to the theatre at Christmas. These hilarious, high-spirited and sparkling events - often a child’s first introduction to theatre - are once again an established calendar event in Britain, forming an essential part of our traditional season of goodwill. Thank you, Joseph Grimaldi. 


Sir Ian McKellen 2005


Joseph Grimaldi 1815

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