Nothing except the curry is as British as the panto.
I’ve made that claim about a lot of things, and it’s true of every last one of them. And I didn’t even make up the comparison, so lots of people have made the claim about lots of things.
Nothing is as unoriginal as comparing an British / English whatever to a curry.
But if I’ve destroyed my own opening thoroughly enough, let’s move on and talk about the panto. Having grown up in the US, I thought pantomime meant silent acting. You know: Marcel Marceau. That kind of thing. We call it mime for short.
But for the British–well, they grabbed the opposite end of the word, we hung onto ours and between us we broke the thing. So forget mime. What they do is panto, and it’s full of words.
How British is it? Exactly as British as the curry: In other words, it came from someplace else–in the case of the panto, Italy and from there, France–and embedded itself deeply in British culture.
It started as sixteenth-century Italian Commedia dell’arte, which was traveling street theater, although the better troupes weren’t above performing in a palace if one wandered past. The shows involved music, dance, dialogue, and a heavy dose of mayhem.
Italy wasn’t a united country at this point, and it had many very different dialects. So how did they handle dialogue when the troupes traveled? According to one source, they made a virtue of the differences. One character spoke Spanish (no, that’s not Italian or a dialect, but somehow it’s on the list). One spoke Bolognese. One spoke gibberish. And so on. What pulled it all together was the physical communication–clowning, acrobatics, dance, music. One character, Arlecchino (are-lay-KEY-no–he’s the origin of our word harlequin), had two sticks that were tied together so they’d make a loud noise and he whacked everything available with them, including the scenery and the other characters. And that, children, is the origin of our word slapstick.
The women’s roles were played by women, and since the European tradition had banned women from the stage, this was radical.
The sets were basic–they had to travel–and many elements were predictable, including the characters, which were fixed types, recognizable from play to play, from troupe to troupe. A lot of them were played in masks. (The lovers–because what’s a play without lovers?–weren’t.) So forget deep characterization. What mattered were the tumbles, the slapstick, the chases, and the jokes, which were also recognizable from play to play.
All of that, though, was scaffolding for the improvisation. The actors played off each other and the audience, so the play would never be quite the same twice.
From Italy, the form moved to France, and from France it moved to England, and from the sixteenth century time moved to the seventeenth. In England, Commedia dell’arte collided with masques, which had started in the 14th century as musical, mimed, or spoken dramas put on in grand houses. By the seventeenth century–or so says one source–they were basically an excuse for a theme party.
Commedia d’etc. may also have had a small collision with a medieval (or Tudor, depending on who you want to believe) Christmas tradition, the Feast of Fools, which was run by the Lord of Misrule, because before too many centuries had passed the panto became as tightly connected to Christmas as brussels sprouts (don’t ask–it won’t get us anywhere).
In the eighteenth century, the word pantomime took hold and the form began gobbling up existing stories–Aladdin, Robinson Crusoe, Cinderella, you name it.
By the Victorian era, the principal boy’s role was played by a woman. In the Victorian era, that would’ve been pretty racy stuff, involving ankles and legs and all sorts of body parts no one knew women had. The dame was enthusiastically overplayed by a man. If you were inclined to take anything too seriously, that would knock the idea out of your head.
Then they added some dancers and an audience, which got to yell out some stock phrases: He’s behind you. Oh, no you won’t.
It’s an odd thing, but after you repeat those a few dozen times, they begin to be funny. In fact, they’ve cut loose from the panto and become free-floating punchlines in real life.
In some stories, they got to add a pantomime horse–two people in a horse costume. Hold onto that thought.
These days–or before the pandemic, anyway–pantos were performed in grand theaters with professional or semi-professional actors and in village halls with hangdog ten-year-olds who delivered their lines as if they’d been strong-armed into taking part because they had been.
Many theaters relied on pantos for a heavy portion of their year’s income. The could reliably fill the seats.
By the time a panto ends, good has conquered evil and the lovers have been united. And where I live, until there’s been a raffle. You don’t get to leave a village event until you buy a ticket, and if you win something you want look happy with your prize, no matter how odd it is.
Why am I writing about this in September? In part because the British government’s running like a badly written panto:
“We will get control of the corona virus.”
“Oh, no you won’t.”
“Oh, yes we will.”
“Oh, not unless you get your act together you won’t.”
But also because a bit of the panto has broken loose, abandoned the Christmas season, and become the panto horse race: pairs of people in horse costumes in a race. Ask Lord Google about it and he’ll tell you they take place (at the very least) in Colchester and in Catterick. Here’s one that was won by a cow.
The London panto horse race seems to be the same as the Greenwich one, and it goes from pub to pub, stopping at each one. By the end, the horses are looking a little the worse for wear. Or possibly for beer. The front end of one horse was having a drinking problem that had to do with the length of a horse’s muzzle and the size of a pint glass of beer.
For the best of the videos, I couldn’t find anything outside of Twitter or Facebook, but if you enjoy pictures of people falling over, horses coming apart, and scenery being destroyed, it’s very funny.
Go on, click the links. You know you want to.
Oh, yes you do.