Few things are as quintessentially British as the pantomime. The Christmas and New Year season in the UK always features a number of pantomime performances across the island.
The modern British pantomime has its origins in the Italian commedia dell’arte. In the commedia dell’arte, travelling theatre troupes would perform improvised comic stories. In each scenario the same stock characters would be used, but in different situations. These stock characters were adapted for English entertainment, and out of that the harliquinade developed. This genre started to lose popularity to other forms of entertainment by the end of the 19th century, but only finally disappeared at the dawn of WWII in 1939.
Nowadays, the old stock characters have been discarded, but there is still a great deal of familiarity through the use of traditional stories and performance conventions. Pantomimes incorporate singing and dancing, buffoonery and slapstick, cross-dressing, in-jokes, references to current affairs, audience participation, and some sexual innuendo. Almost any story can be made into a pantomime, but the most common ones are traditional children’s stories, such as Cinderella, Aladdin, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Peter Pan, and Jack and the Beanstalk.
There are several conventions in pantomime that are still commonly followed. Here are some of them:
- The leading male is played by a young lady traditionally opposite a female love interest who is the leading lady.
- There is usually an older female actress, known as the dame of the panto, and that role is played by a man dressed as a woman.
- There is usually a lot of double entendre of a sexual nature.
- Audience participation standards include calls of: “Oh no; behind you!”, and exchanges of “Oh, no it isn’t!” and “Oh, yes it is!” Additionally, the audience shouts “boo!” to the villain, or “awww!” to his poor victims.
- The music is usually made up of well-known songs with rewritten lyrics.