Performance for Christmastime: Victorian Pantomime

In the final entry of her seasonal strand, and following on from her previous post about the form viewed through foreign eyes, our Artistic Director contemplates the history of Pantomime.

Ah, pantomime! One of the traditions of a British Christmas! Pantomime is a truly British phenomenon – if you didn’t grow up there, making sense of it can be a challenge [something discussed in the earlier post An American at Pantomime]. But trying to “make sense” of pantomime is really missing the point. Performances of this genre have always been intended to amuse, entertain, and dazzle; they have never been created to edify.

And yet their history is edifying, a lesson in performative creativity. The pantomime was born in no small part out of the efforts of theatrical producers to circumvent the restrictions of the Theatre Licensing Act of 1737, which, amongst other things, meant that “speech” on stage was, for all but a small number of licensed theatres, verboten. This left opera, ballet, and silent but physically dynamic performances as the tools available from which to create entertainment for the vast majority of audiences. These were rolled together with the traditions of Italy’s commedia dell’arte, which were masked performances of specific characters (centred around the adventures of Harlequin and Columbine) within a formulaic plotline, reliant upon comedy, physicality, and the improvisational creativity of its performers. The result of this merger was pantomime: an evening’s entertainment, strung together on the most slender of plotlines (usually a fairy tale).

The form reached a sort of apogee among the Victorians. Their pantomimes began with an opening scene from the fairy tale, followed by a ‘transformation’, during which the characters were somewhat magically (and often inexplicably) transformed into the commedia characters. In those new guises, the evening would continue in much the same fashion, enacting the story of lovers trying to outwit the scheming of Columbine’s father so that they could be together. The performances were designed to capitalise on both the talents of the individual performer, and the most spectacular tricks the theatre could devise. The more over-the-top the spectacle, the happier the audience was.

Performances could include hundreds of actors, and require more than fifty stagehands. To achieve these casts, they would raid other theatrical forms, bringing in performers who usually spent their time in the worlds of ballet or the music hall; their specialist talents might then evolve the pantomime in a different direction. Today’s pantomime dame is perhaps owing to the participation of performers whose usual routines were performed in drag. That which proved popular was adopted; that which audiences found dull was excised. Pantomime was, and is, an evolutionary form, relying not only on timely, topical material as joke matter, but responding in constant (and often literal) dialogue with the audiences.

Victorian pantomimes were very much unique to each individual performance and as such are unsuited to modern replication as historic theatre. The scripts were a guideline rather than a rubric, the actual performance relying heavily on a performer’s own repertoire. The jokes and references, so specific to time and place, would probably not have worked even a few years later or in a different city, much less at the considerable remove of a century. Moreover, the elements which were particularly appealing to a nineteenth century audience, the jokes and spectacular tricks, were proprietary secrets, and while the results may be documented, the manner in which they were achieved was not. I often wish I could try to re-create a Victorian pantomime, but given the aforementioned specificities; a literal re-enactment would either be impossible or, at best, result in somewhat of a “shadow” of what original audiences experienced. Having said this, many of the basic elements from the Victorian performances, albeit updated and adapted, still remain in the essence of a number of modern pantomimes.

The twenty-first century pantomime has, however, in many ways moved away from the spectacular elements so prominent in the Victorian era (there were a great number of health and safety disasters) and emphasised comedy. It makes you laugh rather than dazzling you with clever tricks. This is not to suggest that pantomime has got rid of tricks – to the contrary, they’re still entirely present, but they’re rarely the central element around which the rest of the production is created. Unusually amongst twentieth century play forms, it harkens back to medieval traditions of audience interaction, encouraging participation across the fourth wall through conventions of cheering the hero, hissing the villain, or shouts of “it’s behind you!” So much of what is often thought of as “traditional” theatre refers to the Victorian traditions of proscenium stage, distance from the audience, and realism, yet pantomime, so much a child of the Victorians, is proof that there has always been far more variety in theatrical style than many people may realise.

In some respects, pantomime does not bear overthinking. It is a form of performance to be enjoyed rather than analysed. But for pantomime, the answer to “what’s that behind you” is a remarkable array of performing traditions, come together to create what remains one of the most unusual and unique of British traditions.