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What were the essential aspects of pantomime and how have they come down to us in the present day?
Although it is currently most commonly seen as a peculiarly British pastime, pantomime in fact has its origins in the medieval period of European history (Lathan, 2004). Specifically in terms of tradition and heritage, pantomime as it is known today emanates from Italy and the Commedia ‘dell Arte. This Italian street festival was akin to a carnival and it managed to combine elements of parody, drama and the aesthetically grotesque in order to create a unique fusion of art and farce. The characters tended to improvise their way through a set of well‑known plots, which involved a great deal of song and dance being integrated into the Commedia ‘dell Arte routine. These medieval festivals travelled through the towns and cities of Italy and then France in the Middle Ages, which helped to create an air of familiarity between the performers and the audience who would take part in the show. This is without a doubt the most significant tradition that has survived through to the modern era whereby the audiences of contemporary pantomime are expected to know the plot and the main characters and to take part in the proceedings at designated intervals within the script. As the quotation below suggests, this marriage between the performers and the audience has been an essential part of the longevity of the pantomime because of the way in which it managed to transcend historical divisions between classes.
“All were considered equal during carnival. Here, in the town square, a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession, and age.” (Bakhtin, 1993:10)
The existence of a stock set of characters and plots is likewise a historical tradition of European festivals that have managed to survive in the guise of the pantomime. There are only a handful of productions that are classed as pantomime in the modern era and these productions are almost always played exclusively during the festive Christmas period, which is another connection to its carnival past. ‘Snow White’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Aladdin’, ‘Dick Whittington’ and ‘Babes in the Wood’ are high profile examples of the pantomime titles that are produced each and every year in the UK. This deep-seated sense of repetition is an important part of the pantomime tradition as it continues the dominant theme of the medieval period, which was to breed familiarity in order to secure the participation of the audience in the plot of the play.
“Magic, romance, suspense and comedy are the lifeblood of most theatre performance, but there is one factor of our pantomime tradition that exists in no other theatre production. The audience has learnt its lines and rehearsing its roles every Christmas since early childhood. Every English speaking person knows that ‘Oh No, its not!’ should be answered with ‘Oh Yes, it is!’ And that villains must be booed and hissed as they lay their evil plots.” (Bicat et al, 2004:9)
Furthermore, these well‑know stories that constitute the foundations of the pantomime tradition all have their roots in fairy tales, which helps to further simplify the plot and aid audience participation. Traditionally, pantomimes require a battle between good and evil. The villain has historically always been the first actor to appear on stage and always to the left, which was used to donate hell in the Middle Ages. Conversely, the hero is supposed to appear on stage from the right – the manifestation of heaven in the past. Although the remainder of the pantomime production tends to descend into farce and improvisation, these central precepts remain an integral part of the festival in the modern era with plays overseeing a duel of good versus evil before inexorably concluding with the ultimate triumph of the hero over the villain.
As time passed, pantomime was inevitably influenced by the evolution of mainstream theatre and it gradually took its place as an annual spectacle to operate alongside regular theatre productions. The two (theatre and pantomime) were especially closely linked during the Restoration period (1660‑1700) when the farce of pantomime was facsimiled in the most popular plays of the age. In the process, pantomime has had to move away from the notion of an almost entirely ad hoc, ad lib production into a more formal, organised play that is able to be divided into visible scenes and segments with a running time that is in line with the lifestyles of the contemporary audience. Thus, while it is correct to underscore the inherent differences between the festive, annual element of pantomime and the intrinsically more philosophical components of mainstream and high‑brow drama, there is no longer a sense that two completely different sets of rules apply. This is an important point and one that is all too often overlooked in the analysis of modern day incarnations of the pantomime.
The most pronounced change prevalent in contemporary versions of traditional pantomime resides is the way in which productions are increasingly linked with young children. Whereas the adult section of the local townspeople would have constituted the overwhelming majority of the audience in previous centuries, there is today an association between the infantile and pantomime that is a central reason as to why pantomimes have been able to survive for so long in such a commercially aggressive contemporary economic climate. Without the active participation of children it is doubtful whether pantomimes would be able to entice the requisite audiences necessary to make a profit for the impresarios. Of much greater importance, without the festive childhood memories that pantomime bequeaths, much of the interest that remains in its tradition would more than likely begin to disappear. One thing is, however, for sure. Though pantomimes remain rooted in their medieval past, they will never lose their relevance to the contemporary audience as the list of modern‑day celebrities who have taken part in productions in recent years underscores.
Bakhtin, M. (Translated by Helene Iswolsky) (1993) Rabelais and His World Bloomington: Indiana University Press
Bicat, T., Staines, R. and Winslow, C. (2004) Pantomime: A Practical Guide Marlborough: The Crowood Press
Frow, G. (1985) Oh Yes it is! : A History of Pantomime London: BBC Books
Lathan, P. (2004) It’s Behind You! The Story of Panto London: New Holland
Wilson, A.E. (1974) The Story of Pantomime London: Rowman & Littlefield
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