It’s one of our great British Christmas traditions and no doubt families will be flocking into theatres across the country over the next few weeks to get festive with a classic pantomime. For us Brits, there’s nothing we love more than a good old panto with risqué innuendos aplenty, B-list celebrities, much-loved audience participation, and a man in drag in some outlandish get-up. It’s a source of great national pride.
For any non-Brit readers, it probably sounds a bit eccentric. Pantomimes are performed around the Christmas period and are popular with children, although there are many cheeky jokes aimed at adults which generally go over the kids’ heads. The story will vary between productions but they are all loosely based on a popular fairy tale or children’s story such as Cinderella or Aladdin.
Pantomime as we know it allegedly originated around 1710 and was popularised in the Victorian era but the word itself goes back to Ancient Greece. The Greek pantomimos means ‘actor’ or literally ‘imitator of all’ from panto- ‘all’ and mimos ‘imitator’. It was then loaned into Latin with the meaning ‘mime, dancer’ and reached English by the 1610s as ‘mime actor’. The word then evolved from denoting the actors to referring to the show itself and many conventions of the Italian ‘Comedia dell’ Arte’ were adopted, including several of the stock characters and an emphasis on song and dance.
Another offshoot of ‘Comedia dell’ Arte’ is slapstick comedy, which today means ‘farcical physical comedy’. The lead male in ‘Comedia dell’ Arte’ was Harlequin, a magical character with a wooden sword that would be used sometimes as a weapon and sometimes as a wand. This sword would make a loud slapping noise when used, so as to make slapping other characters more comical. Thus, the joke was slapstick. To this day, a drummer in the orchestra pit will highlight and accentuate a slapstick joke with a slapping noise.
So for the next time you see Buttons or Widow Twankey, you’ll know exactly where pantomime and slapstick com from. Now you just need to refine your hisses, boos and oh no it is isn’ts!
For more on the history and evolution of pantomime, read on: http://www.its-behind-you.com/development.html