On Christmas day, NPR News reported on the very British (slightly raucous) tradition of pantomime in the UK over the festive season. A popular, traditional form of theatre (which involves lots of audience participation) dating back to the Middle Ages and which takes on features from the Italian Commedia Dell’Arte which is where many forms of physical comedy (slapstick) that we know today have come from.
Pantomime is a very British tradition, but that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been tried abroad. There was once a production of Babes in the Wood performed in Zimbabwe, and a run of Humpty Dumpty at the Olympic Theatre in New York in 1868 which ran for well over a 1000 performances!
So, what’s all this got to do with Shakespeare? Well.. perhaps more than you might think.
Elements that a pantomime should have, to be described as “Traditional” begin with a strong story line. The fable or fairy tale (often one that the audience already know of) has to be well told, incorporating the all important elements of good battling against evil, and emerging triumphant. In some ways there are lots of links here to Shakespeare: many of his stories were already known to the audience but he just retold them in a slightly different way, good often battles against evil (think about the characters in The Tempest) and whilst good does not always triumph it usually has a pretty good go.
Commedia Dell Arte
This Italian form of theatre was known for containing stock characters – the most famous being the Harlequin character (a kind of clown) Often this character was much wiser than some of the more higher status characters in a similar manner to the Fool in King Lear or Feste in Twelfth Night. Commedia was highly visual, often containing song and dance. Pantomimes these days include a large number of musical numbers to keep the audience engaged but let’s not forget, Shakespeare used to do this too!
The biggest thing to get your head around with a British pantomime is the fact that the lead female character, The Dame ,is played by a man in his middle age, and the leading young male character (Principal Boy) is played by an attractive young girl. So, here we have the notion that the audience know that the actors are cross dressing as much of the jokes refer to this but, aren’t Shakespeare’s audience also poignantly aware of Viola’s disguise as a boy in Twelfth Night? The audience of Shakespeare’s time readily accepted a man dressed as a young woman to play Juliet, and so the idea of a young girl dressed as a boy would probably not seem odd at all!
A good pantomime relies heavily on the audience involvement. There are certain traditions that just have to be joined in with. For example, if any character says “Oh no it isn’t!”, the stock reply from the audience is, “Oh yes it is!” It is perfectly ok, in fact it’s encouraged, that the audience heckle and shout out – much like an audience at The Globe.
Pantomimes create topsy turvy worlds where the rules are changed – men can play women, audiences can join in and the wall between actor and audience is broken down. I can only imagine that watching a play at The Globe would, in some ways, have been very similar.
So, Happy Holidays from the UK and, if you do get the chance to go to a pantomime: Give it a go, it’s amazing how familiar the art form really is when you break it down.