My local panto opens tomorrow (“oh no it doesn’t…”). Guildford hosts Dick Whittington this year; before that it was Aladdin, Jack & The Beanstalk, Snow White, Cinderella, Aladdin, Jack & The Beanstalk, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Aladdin, Jack & The Beanstalk, Cinderella, Aladdin…
Pantoland has clearly found its favourites over the past three hundred years. Yup, I’ve seen no mention of it anywhere… but it’s exactly three centuries since the first ever modern pantomime.
Oh, and if you’re not in the U.K., all of this probably needs nothing to you. The British panto was born in London and acquired a peculiarly unique London flavour, thanks to, as ever, a few historical quirks.
On December 26th 1717, this new theatrical form was born, as John Rich put on ‘Harlequin Executed’, a fusion of the old Mummers plays with Italian Harlequinade.
John Rich had inherited the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre from his father… but much as he tried, like recent cinematic true tale ‘The Disaster Artist’, Rich took on yet failed with tragic roles. So he reluctantly drifted into comedy, taking on the familiar role of Harlequin – a known clown role familiar across European theatre.
John Rich as Harlequin, with his ‘slapstick’
But London had an odd theatrical rule at the time: spoken drama was banned, for fear of dissent. So while the European Harlequin was a vocal role, John Rich’s version was mute. It made for a unique mime show, put on the day after Christmas.
He tried further similar plays, importing favourite characters from the continental commedia dell’arte: young lovers, old man Pantaloon, and a collection of servants like Scaramouche and Pierrot. The stories changed over the years, but the staples of modern British pantomimes were there – clowning servants, youthful love, and a grotesque character or two. Opera and ballet later joined, making an anarchic hotchpotch of all-round entertainment.
The “transformation scene” was a favourite – and still is. Harlequin would hit the scenery with his magic wand and it would change, with much backstage wizardry. The wand was actually the bat from traditional commedia dell’arte (known for causing a loud slapping sound without transferring much force – literally a “slap stick”). John Rich’s ingenious intertwining of stagecraft and story, though popular long before him in different forms, paved the way for the wondrous transformations in British pantos today, whether Cinderella’s magical ballgown or a quick set change from Jack’s beanstalk to giant’s lair.
Victorian panto dames. The stuff of nightmares.
The Italian elements were hugely popular with the London crowds of the early 18th century: The anarchy resembled the topsy-turvy Roman Saturnalian celebrations, so when cross-dressing dames joined years later, they were the perfect fit. Like the old Roman ‘Lord of Misrule’, the dame would direct the madness, in this case with singalongs from the stage.
These plays were lowbrow yet won over London, especially thanks to actors like David Garrick and the clown-to-end-all- clowns Joseph Grimaldi. By the 1800s, families made a habit of making this their Christmas outing – Harlequin’s chase scene being the children’s favourite.
An 1890 pantomime.
Vaudeville and music hall added their influence over time, and there came a need for fuller storylines. Just as in their Harlequinade roots, people preferred classic tales, so that the audience would follow the story easily, and focus on the fun and games added on top. Traditional fairy tales became a popular choice.
One of the most famous, Peter Pan, debuted at Christmas 1904, not as a pantomime but a serious play. The audience of adults were surprised when the curtain rose to discover a play for children, though children who did see it that winter were petrified by Captain Hook (fearsomely portrayed by Sir Gerald du Maurier, father of novelist Daphne). Many fainted and had to be carried out.
Gerald du Maurier as Captain Hook. Boo, hiss.
Oh and it’s thanks to panto that some of us put a fairy on our trees, rather than an angel. It was an angel for centuries – a male angel in fact, representing Jesus. It was called the ‘tin-gold angel’ to get past Puritan banning types, who wouldn’t allow an icon of Jesus anywhere, let alone atop a pagan shrub. The male angel became female (like those fish in The Blue Planet II recently – did you see it?) when Victoria was on the throne – she loved dolls, her kids loved dolls, so by making the angel a female doll, the commercial world sold a few more each year to be played with by girls across Britain.
With panto still as popular as ever, the Good Fairy had joined the show now, as a bridge between audience and performance, to assure the children all would be well, to help narrate the plot, and to give roles to her from that thing (oh that would bit would come later). She was a popular role – so popular that the angel on the tree sometimes was packaged and sold as a fairy. So it’s a fairy on top of your Christmas tree… that’s why.
Oh yes it is.
All this and more is in Hark! The Biography of Christmas. It’s now technically a bestseller (in a very niche sub-category on Amazon, but it all counts).