'Tis the season for panto

Oh Yes it is! : Origins of Pantomime

The traditional British Christmas entertainment for children as we know it, usually based on nursery tales and featuring stock characters in costume, actually has its origins in the ancient Roman and Greek theatrical performance.

The word pantomime comes from the Greek words Pan, which means all, and mimos, which translates as imitator. Like theatre, it encompassed the genres of comedy and tragedy but was looked down on as a low form of art.  
 
Commedia dell'arte

The style and content of modern pantomime has strong links with the Commedia dell'arte, a form of popular theatre that arose in Italy in the late middle ages. Commedia was a very physical type of theatre that used dance, music, tumbling, acrobatics and buffoonery.

A 'comedy of professional artists' travelled from province to province, generally improvising their way through a plot involving characters such as Harlequin and his true love, Columbine. Other stock characters were the over protective father, Pantaloon. Each story had the same fixed characters: the lovers, father, servants (one being crafty and the other stupid).

Commedia spread across Europe from Italy to France and by the middle of the 17th century began to be popular in England. These roles/characters can be found in today's pantomimes.
 

Pantomime Stage, illustration for 'Fetes Galantes' by Paul Verlaine (1844-96) 1924 (pochoir print) by Georges Barbier (1882-1932) (after) / Private Collection / The Stapleton Collection
Pantomime Stage, illustration for 'Fetes Galantes' by Paul Verlaine (1844-96) 1924 (pochoir print) by Georges Barbier (1882-1932) (after) / Private Collection / The Stapleton Collection

Poster for 'Cinderella' by Tom Browne (1872-1910) / R. Mander & J. Mitchenson Theatre Coll., London, UK
Poster for 'Cinderella' by Tom Browne (1872-1910) / R. Mander & J. Mitchenson Theatre Coll., London, UK

Development as a distinctly English entertainment

In 1717, actor and manager John Rich introduced Harlequin to the British stage under the name of 'Lun' (for 'lunatic') and began performing wildly popular pantomimes. These pantomimes gradually became more topical and comic, often involving as many special theatrical effects as possible. According to some sources, the Drury Lane Theatre was the first to stage something like real pantomime as we know it with the 1804 production of Cinderella.

During the 19th century the nature of pantomime changed, and in the 20th the traditional harlequinade has been replaced by topical songs and allusions for which a children's tale is hardly more than a pretext, with vestiges of its old character in the acrobatic antics of comedians.

Traditional Stories

Almost always based on traditional children's stories, plot lines are often 'adapted' for comic or satirical effect.

Most Popular Titles: (of which Bridgeman additionally has a wide range of childrens illustrations


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Marie Lloyd (1870-1922) as Dick Whittington in 1898 English Photographer / Private Collection
Marie Lloyd (1870-1922) as Dick Whittington in 1898 English Photographer / Private Collection

Titlepage of 'Fairburn's Description of the Popular and Comic New Pantomime, called Harlequin and Mother Goose', first edition, London, 1806 (hand-coloured engraving) by George Cruikshank (1792-1878) Private Collection/ Courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries
Titlepage of 'Fairburn's Description of the Popular and Comic New Pantomime, called Harlequin and Mother Goose', first edition, London, 1806 (hand-coloured engraving) by George Cruikshank (1792-1878) Private Collection/ Courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries


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