The first pantomimes had no lines. They were performed in Ancient Rome by a ‘pantomimus’ – a single, silent performer who played all the characters. They story was typically mythological, and the pantomimus wore a variety of masks and costumes and was usually accompanied by an orchestra of wind and percussion instruments.
Pantomime evolved from the commedia dell'arte tradition in Italy. Improvised performances took place in streets and marketplaces. Travelling from place to place to earn their living, these actors began to take commedia across Europe. They visited England on several occasions.
An uneducated man called John Rich played a key role in the emergence of pantomime in Britain in the 1720s. He was a dancer, acrobat and mime artist. He created a new kind of entertainment. It combined a storyline from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and a harlequinade. Amazing transformations happened at the touch of Harlequin’s magic wand, with mechanical serpents and flying vehicles. Rich also introduced animal roles: dragons, ostriches, dogs and camels into pantomimes.
At the end of the 18th century the clown Joseph Grimaldi invented some of of pantomime's most famous gags: the butter slide (when a character suddenly slips on the doorstep); sausages which suddenly come to life.
At the end of the 19th century, pantomimes stopped revolving around the clown figure and became centred around a dysfunctional family with the dame at its heart. Dan Leno was a celebrated music-hall performer who helped create this character.
Dames had existed in pantomime before Leno, but they were usually unbelievable, ridiculous characters. In the 1880s, Leno started playing roles like Widow Twankey in Aladdin. Slowly, he began to domesticate the Dame and to imagine her as a mother, facing the time’s problems; poverty, unemployment and abandonment.
Leno had risen to fame as a clog dancer and variety artist. A small thin man, with an odd wistful face, and a husky voice, he was said to have 'the saddest eyes in the world'. His Dame was a lovelorn older woman, facing adversity with a kind of desperate fun.
It takes more drawing to tell a story in pantomime.
I like actors that are good with pantomime and that can transmit a lot by their presence and attitude more than through their dialogue.
Gyles Brandreth is the founder the British Pantomime Association.
In the 19th century sometimes 600 actors would perform in one pantomime in the same evening.
In pantomimes performed at Windsor Castle,Princess Margaret played the princess parts so the Queen dressed as a boy.
Pantomime is a marvellous and wonderful British institution. It takes place over the Christmas period and is nearly always based on well known children's stories such as Peter Pan, Aladdin, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Dick Wittington etc. Pantomimes are performed everywhere from the biggest theatres to village halls throughout Britain.
Audience participation is a very important part of a pantomime. The audience are encouraged to boo the villain whenever he enters the stage, argue with the Dame (who is always a man) and warn the Principal Boy (who is always a girl) when the villain is behind them by shouting out ‘He's behind you!’. Slapstick is another important part of a British pantomime - the throwing of custard pies, falling over, lots of silly costumes including of course, the pantomime horse or cow which is played by two people in a costume.
By the end of the pantomime, the villain has been defeated, true love has conquered all and everyone lives happily ever after.
Victorian pantomimes starting at 7pm often didn't finish until midnight.
In the 18th century, male roles played by women were known as 'breeches parts'.
There was a 19th century pantomime called 'The Birth of the Steam Engine or Harlequin Locomotive and Joe Miller and his Men'