Where Does Pantomime Originate From?

Put a first timer in front of a pantomime and the chances are their face will mutate into one of wide-eyed wonder, thinking ‘what is this all about’ and a little amused confusion.


Where Does Pantomime Originate From

The Christmas Pantomime colour lithograph bookcover, 1890, showing the harlequinade characters

Pantomime could be best described as s a type of musical comedy production designed for the family entertainment audience. Established in England and in some other English-speaking countries, especially during the Christmas (nowadays however you could catch pantomime at Easter and in the summer). Outside the UK however, the word “pantomime” is often understood to mean miming, rather than the theatrical we understand and discussed here.

Today, pantomimes include songs, gags, slapstick comedy, dancing and special effects. It employs gender-crossing actors and combines topical humour with a story more or less based on a well-known fairy tale, fable or folk tale. Its biggest draw is as a participatory form of theatre, in which the audience is expected to sing along with certain parts of the music and shout out phrases to the performers.

Pantomime has a long theatrical history in Western culture dating back to classical theatre. It developed partly from the 16th century commedia dell’arte tradition of Italy and other European and British stage traditions, such as 17th-century masques and music hall. An important part of the pantomime, until the late 19th century, was the harlequinade.


Where Does Pantomime Originate From – Development of pantomime in Britain


In the Middle Ages, at Christmas gatherings a traditional English folk play, Mummers Play which was based loosely on the Saint George and the Dragon legend. It contained many of the archetypal elements of a pantomime, like stage fights, risqué humour, memorable creatures, gender role reversal, and of course the obligatory good defeating evil. The progress of English pantomime was also strongly influenced by the continental commedia dell’arte, a form of popular theatre that arose in Italy.

In the first two decades of the 18th Century, two competing London theatres, Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre and the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane presented productions that began seriously with classical stories that contained elements of opera and ballet and ended with a comic “night scene”. Tavern Bilkers, by John Weaver, the dancing master at Drury Lane, is cited as the first pantomime produced on the English stage. However, the production was not a success, Weaver waited until 1716 to produce his next one, The Loves of Mars and Venus – the same year he produced another on the subject of Perseus and Andromeda. Following this, pantomime was a regular at London’s Drury Lane.


Where Does Pantomime Originate From – The 1800s


By the 1800s, children were regularly going to the theatre around the Christmas and New Year holidays (and often at Easter) to watch the craziness of the harlequinade chase scene – the most exciting part of the “panto” of the time, because it was fast-paced and included spectacular scenic magic as well as slapstick comedy, dancing and acrobatics.

Despite its visible decline by 1836, the pantomime still fought to stay alive. Two writers who helped to elevate the importance and popularity of the fairy-tale portion of the pantomime were James Planché and Henry James Byron. They emphasized puns and humorous word play, a tradition that continues in pantomime today.

Where Does Pantomime Originate From

The Christmas Pantomime colour lithograph bookcover, 1890, showing the harlequinade characters. 

Traditionally performed at Christmas and afterwards, with family audiences, British pantomime continues as a popular form of theatre, incorporating song, dance, buffoonery, slapstick, cross-dressing, in-jokes, topical references, audience participation, and mild sexual innuendo.

Pantomime story lines and scripts usually make no direct reference to Christmas, and are usually based on traditional children’s stories. Some of the most popular pantomime stories include Cinderella, Aladdin, Dick Whittington and His Cat and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as well as Jack and the Beanstalk, Peter Pan, Puss in Boots and Sleeping Beauty. Other traditional stories include Mother Goose, Beauty and The Beast and Babes in the Wood (combined with elements of Robin Hood).


Where Does Pantomime Originate From

Dan Leno and Herbert Campbell in Babes in the Wood, 1897, at the Drury Lane Theatre. The Sketch, Illustrated London News, 19 January 1898, issue 260, p. 1


Where Does Pantomime Originate From – Modern Day


Another contemporary pantomime tradition is the celebrity guest star, a practice that dates back to the late 19th century, when Augustus Harris, proprietor of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, hired well-known variety artists for his pantomimes.

Theatres use popular artists to promote their pantomime, and the script is often adapted to allow the star to showcase their talents (singing, acrobatics etc.), even when it has little relation.

Blackpool’s Grand Theatre has been presenting Pantomime for an incredible number of years. Stars have included Barney Harwood, Jennifer Ellison, JJ Hamblett, Wayne Sleep, Su Pollard, Tom Lister, Danny Miller and Vicky Entwistle.

This year’s Blackpool Grand Theatre Pantomime Beauty and the Beast will star EastEnders and Benidorm star Danny Walters with Steve Royle and Hayley Kay and full cast.