Harlequin's Travels - An Analysis of Pantomime

A Pantomime Dissertation

by Alastair Walkinshaw

Re-produced with kind permission

  1. Introduction

  2. Chapter One - The History of Pantomime

  3. Chapter Two - Inspiration for the Stories

  4. Chapter Three - The Themes of Pantomime

  5. Chapter Four - The Subversive Nature of Pantomime

  6. Chapter Five - Conclusions


'Not a laugh was heard, not a topical joke,

As its corpse to oblivion we hurried;

Not a paper a word in its favour spoke

Of the Pantomime going to be buried.' [1]

Albert Smith (Victorian Popular Humourist) 

For the best part of two hundred years cynics and critics have been united in their claim that Pantomime is dead or dying. However, over the same period of time they have always been proved wrong.


Early in the new millennium there are claims, once again, that this traditional Christmas entertainment is dying and won’t survive far into the twenty-first century. So has the death knell finally been sounded for Pantomime?


In order to uncover the truth behind these claims it is necessary to look at the different stages in the development of Pantomime from its origins in ancient civilisations right through to the present day.


The history of Pantomime will be examined along with the major influences which have caused this theatrical chameleon to adapt. These include John Rich, who was the first producer of the English Pantomime; the first British Pantomime character called Harlequin; and comedians Joseph Grimaldi and Dan Leno.


As Pantomime has developed over the centuries it can be seen to have grown alongside changes in other forms of drama and literature. The stories which children of all ages know and love at the start of the twenty-first century were inspired by many sources in history and literature.


A major part of Pantomime is the role reversals where the kings are poor and servants have control as well as the gender reversals of men playing the Dame and women in the role of Principal Boy. In order to understand Pantomime it will be necessary to study the origins of this.


Pantomime is not, and never has been, merely a form of entertainment. It has fulfilled a need in the cultural psyche for our drama to both entertain and educate. There is almost a desire to be together as a group experiencing the event. In most theatrical performances each member of the audience is isolated in their experience of the production as they sit in the dark largely unaware of what everyone else is thinking and doing.


In the drama of Ancient Greece and Rome the audience was involved in the performance as they all knew the stories and shouted out interventions. As drama progressed to the mystery plays of the thirteenth century the audience again was integrated with the story as they either walked around the various scenes or the carriages bearing the characters passed them.


The Shakespearean audience would not have silently during the performances but would have joined in the production verbally. This convention has been retained within the dramatic form that we have come to know as Pantomime.


The need to experience things as a group even extends to the best selling novels of the nineteenth century. Books by writers such as Charles Dickens were intended to be read aloud to the family with the stories being released in instalments, like soap operas today.


The Victorians wanted children’s stories to instruct and therefore adapted fairy stories to have a message at the end, just like Greek drama and European Mystery Plays, and this has been retained within Pantomime.


With reading becoming a solitary activity, even obsolete, and as people spend more time watching television this desire to belong has increased within the culture. Pantomime is the only literary form that allows people to fulfil this desire.


In the following chapters this living drama that many have come to know and love will be analysed. The history of the art form, the inspiration for the stories, the themes which run through many of the stories, as well as what some people refer to as the subversive nature of Pantomime will be examined.


A writer of a playbill from the nineteenth century felt that the end had not yet come for Pantomime.

‘Three things are required at Christmas time:

Plum pudding, beef and pantomime.

Folks could resist the former two,

Without the latter none could do.' [2]

Jack Tripp, one of the top Dames of the late twentieth century, said, 'It is part of Xmas Tree, Xmas pudding, Xmas Pantomime – they all go together.”


Paul Elliott, Pantomime supreme, said, 'It’ll survive as long as theatres are open. Every year I get a gaggle of journalists that say we are in the death throws of it all. It is really the end, you know, so I just show them the chart of the amount of audiences that we play to and the percentages that we play to. That shuts them up.”


So curtain up, light the lights, and strike up the band as the future of Pantomime comes into the spotlight.


Chapter One – The History of Pantomime


Location: Museum of Pantomime


Welcome to Pantoland, the world of magic and mystery, of gender reversal and the land where children of all ages pack theatres to see their favourite fairy stories come to life before their very eyes.


From the origins of the title right through to the theatrical spectacle, that is known to generations of people in the twenty-first century, Pantomime has been like a chameleon adapting to the changing world in order to survive.


The Ancient World


The word Pantomime comes from Ancient Greece and refers to someone who imitates things. It was not an art form but rather a person who performed a dumb show for his audience. This style of entertainment can also be found in Roman drama. The actors always wore masks so all of their expressions had to be shown by their gestures.

'Their very nods, speak, their hands speak and their fingers have a voice.' [3]

Isaac D’Israeli

The Roman feast of Saturnalia women dressed as men, men adopted the roles of women, slaves switched places with their masters and the world was effectively turned upside down. This can still be seen in the modern Pantomime with poor kings and noblemen, as well as the characters of the Principal Boy and Dame. These are seen as being part of the subversive nature of Pantomime. See Chapter 4 for a more detailed look at the subversive nature of Pantomime


This form of Pantomime didn’t survive past the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire under the Emperor Constantine. It was seen as being evil as it was often crude and indecent, sometimes with the actor being completely naked.


Commedia dell’Arte


However, the modern Pantomime has its true roots in the fifteenth century with the arrival of silent drama in Italy. Harlequin, as he is now known, was one of the main characters of Commedia dell’Arte althoughhe was not the principal one. In fact the hero of the story was Punchello, who was later adapted to become Punch in the popular Punch and Judy puppet shows. Harlequin, or Arlecchino as he was originally known, was at first a crude and clumsy oaf.


Commedia dell’Arte was a popular form of improvised comedy which flourished in Italy from the sixteenth century right through to the eighteenth century. The playwright provided a basic outline of the plot and the actors would improvise the rest. The story tended to be centred around the elopement of two young lovers separated either by their parents or by circumstance. This remains the basis upon which most Pantomimes operate today.


The characters in the play included Pantaleone, Pulcinella, Ginurto and Conviello (two clowns), Arlecchino, Columbina, Il Capitano and Dotte Graziano. As time went by these names changed, particularly as they crossed geographical borders.


At the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth century a Commedia dell’Arte troupe visited Paris to perform for the French King, Henry IV. At that point Arlecchino became Arlequin and when, in 1573, the dramatic form crossed the English


Channel Harlequin’s transformation was complete.


The Harlequinade


Characters such as Punchello were dropped from the English Harlequinade, and as the name suggests it was at this time that Harlequin became the principal character.


The basic story of the Harlequinade was that Harlequin loved Columbine, bust she was rich and he was poor. There was no way her father, Pantaloon, would allow them to marry. However, they were intent on eloping together and the story followed Pantaloon’s attempts to stop them.


It was over a century later that John Rich took the Harlequinade and adapted it into what has become known as Pantomime. He was one of the best actors to play Harlequin and also managed the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre in London which he had inherited from his father.


In 1717 he produced a play called ‘Harlequin Sorcerer’ and was the first person ever to call such an entertainment a Pantomime. From this time on the art form developed into a thing of magic and beauty.


Many of his pantomimes were loosely based around a classic fable, such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses. See Chapter 2 on inspirations for pantomimes. The show would follow this story interspersed with the activities of Harlequin and Columbine. This proved to be very popular.


In 1721 Rich introduced the idea of transformations into Pantomime in his show, ‘The Magician’. In the role of Harlequin he would transform the scenery and the characters with the help of a magic bat, like the magic fairy in many modern Pantomimes.


The Drury Lane Theatre produced a Pantomime in 1723, much to the disgust of its manager Colly Cibber. He apologised before the performance of Harlequin Dr Faustus saying, 'I would never have consented to this monstrous medley if there had not been a second theatre but we were obliged at Drury Lane either to comply with public taste or starve.” [4]


It was a success despite the manager’s reservations and included a fire breathing dragon, a pair of disembodied legs dancing around the stage, a statue that became a real woman and the pedestal she was stood upon was transformed into a chariot drawn by dogs.


From this point onwards there was a continuous battle between John Rich and the managers of the Drury Lane Theatre to produce the biggest and best Pantomime.


This was never more evident than when David Garrick took over at Drury Lane in 1747. Rich had already moved to the theatre at Covent Garden because Lincoln’s Inn had grown too small to hold the audiences his Pantomimes were drawing.


By 1750 Rich’s shows were driving Garrick out of business and he decided to stop producing Shakespeare and replace it with Pantomime. It was very much against what he believed in but he had no choice when he had an empty theatre night after night. That didn’t stop him making his views known. He lamented the loss of Shakespeare in the prologue to the programme of his production of Queen Mab.

Sacred to Shakespeare was this plot designed,

To pierce the heart, and humanise the mind,

But if an empty house, the actor’s curse,

Shews s our Lears and Hamlets lose their force,

Unwilling we must change the nobler scene,

And in our turn, present you Harlequin;

Quit poets, and set carpenters to work,

Shew gawdy scenes, or mount the vaulting Turk.

For though we actors one and all agree

Boldy to struggle for our vanity,

If what comes on, importance must retreat;

Our first great ruling passion – is to eat. [5]

Garrick was the first person to introduce a speaking Harlequin and employed Henry Woodwind to play the part. He also wrote many of the scripts for the increasingly successful Pantomimes at Drury Lane.


One outcome of the rivalry between the two theatres was the increasing appetite for spectacle. This led to the introduction of many of the stage effects and equipment which are used today, such as trap doors, wings, swinging platforms and smoke effects.


Joseph Grimaldi


By the start of the nineteenth century Harlequin was beginning to fade in popularity to be replaced by the Clown. The most famous of those who played the Clown was Joseph Grimaldi. In fact all clowns after him were called Joey. During his career he popularised many songs as a clown and was always expected to sing a comic song. The most famous of the songs he created was Hot Codlins, a simple little narrative in ballad form. It was the start of a trend which was to go on for as long as the old-fashioned Harlequinade remained. This tradition carried on right into the twentieth century.


His first major success came in 1806 when he played Mother Goose. However, Grimaldi considered the production to be:

…as a whole a very indifferent one and always declared his own part to be one of the worst he ever played nor was there a trick or situation in the piece to which he had not been well accustomed for many years before.

Memoirs edited by Charles Dickens [6]

Charles Dickens was very impressed with Grimaldi and was a great fan of his. After Grimaldi’s death he claimed that the clown was irreplaceable. 'To those who do not recollect him in his great days it would be impossible to convey any adequate idea of his extraordinary performance. There are no standards to compare him with or models to judge him by. The genuine droll, the grimacing, fetching and irresistible clown left the stage with Grimaldi.' [7]


After Grimaldi came Harry Boleno and Watty Hildyard, among many other clown, but none could match Grimaldi’s genius. Boleno had a speciality where he would have a number of maids attack French cooks with mops. This was very popular as at the time Britain was once again at war with France.


Watty Hildyard created the Drill Squad routine which is still performed today, particularly in Pantomimes such as Sinbad or Dick Whittington where they are on board ship. He would drill an awkward squad of troops who were armed with mops.


The beginning of the end for the Harlequinade came in 1866, although it survived in a much altered state until 1938.


Music Hall Stars


The 1880s saw the invasion of music hall stars into Pantomime. This was the greatest development in Pantomime since the introduction of a speaking Harlequin.


The first music hall stars had appeared in Pantomime as early as the mid 1869s but this was only in provincial theatre. The music hall performer to appear in a London Pantomime was G.H. Macdermott who appeared in ‘Bluebeard’ at The Grecian Theatre in 1871. However, music hall acts didn’t become regular features until 1880 when Augustus Harris (Manager of the Drury Lane Theatre from 1879) produced ‘Mother Goose’.


Many critics and traditionalists at the time sounded the death knell for Pantomime. They pointed to the fact that the Harlequinade was gone and that the music hall performers were introducing their own acts into the Pantomime and replacing much of the script with their own gags and 'business”. However, this was no more than actors such as John Rich and Joseph Grimaldi had done in their day. The critics were proved to have been premature in their pronouncements as Pantomime continued to be just as popular as before.


One of the most noticeable changes to the traditional Christmas entertainment was the loss of the Harlequinade. However, the Clown was replaced by the Dame and there was no greater example of this in the late nineteenth century than Dan Leno.


He played the Baroness in Babes in the Wood at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1888 and the show ran until the end of April 1889 with the crowds still calling for more performances. Many people believed that no one could replace him as a Dame. In fact some even called him the greatest Pantomime Dame of all time.


When he acted a queen, he acted a possible queen, even though she lived in such conditions it seemed plausible that a pair of braces was the natural thing to buy the king on his birthday, as was the mistake of handing him the wrong parcel (containing lingerie) to be opening in full view of the audience. As a woman of humble life all his dignity vanished, he was homely, discursive, confidential, not to say occasionally aggressive. Wash tubs with tattered underwear and kitchen laden with a mass of crockery were not necessary to Dan Leno. J. Hickory Wood [8]


Many believed that the inclusion of music hall stars in Pantomime breathed new life into a dramatic form which was beginning to become stale and outdated. Despite continued claims that Pantomime was dead and buried it continued to go from strength to strength. Even World War II failed to dampen people’s enthusiasm for it.


In 1938 there were between two and three hundred professional Pantomimes in Britain and yet that had only fallen to one hundred and fifty productions in 1941. Francis Laidler produced ‘Cinderella’ in that year which had a chorus of sixty people and a wardrobe of five hundred and sixty costumes. The whole show cost fifteen thousand pounds to produce.


The three shows running in London in the 1941-2 season grossed twenty thousand pounds a week with five thousand people a day watching Babes in the Wood at the Stoll Theatre in Kingsway.


This is how Pantomime has developed from a Greek mime artist to the spectacular productions seen in most towns every year.

So that’s the history of Pantomime,

Encompassing drama from throughout time.

But what of the story inspirations?

Whether they are home grown or translations

You will find them all, folklore or fairy

In the magic Fairyland Library.

Chapter Two – Inspiration for the Stories


Location: The Fairyland Library


In the late Twentieth Century most people assume that fairy tales and nursery rhymes are the only inspiration for Pantomimes. This has generally been true over the last one hundred years but it hasn’t always been the case.


The first plays to be called Pantomimes were not based on fairy tales but rather on mythology and legend. The writers of these shows looked to the ancient civilisations which had vanished thousands of years before for their inspiration. In 1717 John Rich interwove the story of forbidden love between Harlequin and Columbine with the stories of Greek Mythology such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses.


In the early 1720s the influences on Pantomimes became a little more up to date with Marlow’s Dr Faustus (written in 1604) being transformed into the Harlequin Dr Faustus at the Drury Lane Theatre. The story was les than one hundred and twenty years old at the time.


In this production the Harlequinade was inserted between scenes of a man selling his soul to the devil. Not much like a Pantomime you might think. However, if an Eighteenth Century theatregoer were to visit a production of what we know as Pantomime they would be horrified. The Harlequinade has ceased to exist except for scripts by Betty Anstell and even then it is reduced to a short scene at the end of the production.


Shakespeare was another early influence on Pantomime with David Garrick, the manager of the Drury Lane Theatre, converting parts of his plays into Pantomimes. However, Garrick was not happy with doing this, as can be seen in chapter one, and he showed his displeasure in the prologue to the programme for Queen Mab (See Chapter 1). He was forced to do it by the fact that Covent Garden was packing the crowds in with their Pantomimes and his more serious productions were playing to almost empty houses.


It was not until the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries that fairy tales started to have an influence on Pantomime stories. It was also at this time that the impending doom of the Harlequinade became apparent.

Poor Arlechino took a prance

To merry England, via France;

Came just in Christmas-pudding time,

And welcomed was by Pantomime.

But Pantomime’s best days are fled:

Grimaldi, Barnes, Bologna – dead!

James Robinson Planché [9]

Playwrights such as J.R. Planché wrote ‘Fairy Extravaganzas’ which were loosely based on nursery rhymes and fairy tales. An example of this was Planché’s Beauty and the Beast which was produced at Covent Garden in 1841.

 Queen:          The facts are these – a youth of royal race,

                        Of noble mind and matchless shape and face,

                        Has been transformed by a malicious fairy

                        Into an ugly monster, huge and hairy

                        And must remain a downright beast outside,

                        ‘till some fair maid consents to be his bride.[10]

So where did the Pantomime stories that we know come from? They are loosely based on fairy stories from all around the world by they are continuously being updated to keep them fresh.


It wasn’t until 1870 that the subjects of Pantomimes became limited to popular fairy stories such as Cinderella, Dick Whittington, The Babes in the Wood, Mother Goose, Aladdin and Jack and the Beanstalk.


One major influence on Pantomime writers was The Arabian Nights with three popular stories developing from it. These are Aladdin; Sinbad the Sailor; as well as Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.


Aladdin first appeared as a Pantomime in 1788. It is unclear as to when the story was transported to China but it is likely that it was at the time that an enterprising writer decided to call Aladdin’s mother Widow Twankey. She was named after a cargo racing home from China which in turn was nicknamed for a Chinese port famous in the tea trade. Surprisingly, despite its popularity, this story is believed to be unlucky.


Sinbad the Sailor was first staged as a Pantomime in 1814 but is rarely performed now as the majority of children have not heard the story before. As with Aladdin, Pantomime writers have changed the story to some extent with the emphasis being on the battle between a good genie and the villain, usually known as the Old Man of the Sea.


Ali Baba is very rarely produced due to cost. Many producers can not afford to employ more than forty people in the chorus.


Babes in the Wood was created more recently. It is thought that it was based on the legend of the Princes in the Tower of London, who were believed to have been murdered by Richard III. The legend was only four hundred years old by the time it became a Pantomime subject. The myth of Robin Hood and his Merry Men was incorporated into the story in 1867.


Bluebeard, which most people wouldn’t think of as a Pantomime, was based on the story of the notorious Marshal of France who murdered six of his seven wives and was then executed. This seems to have been a bit of a gruesome story for Pantomime which is probably why it hasn’t been produced in the last hundred years.


Cinderella is the most popular Pantomime ever! It originated in Perrault’s Contes de ma mere l’Oie. However, much of the story we now know is based on Rossini’s opera L’Cenerentola which had its English premiere in 1820. The Covent Garden Easter Pantomime[5] that year borrowed heavily from the story. It wasn’t until 1860, though, that all of the elements of the story were brought together in H.J. Byron’s production of Cinderella – a fairy burlesque extravaganza.


Why is the story so popular?

‘It’s popular if the comic’s good, dare I say, because it has everything and it is a very simple story that can be twisted, you know. There’s not much to it and the kids can really latch on to it.’

Brian Conley

The story of Dick Whittington, like Babes in the Wood, is a home grown tale. It is a mixture of fact and fiction. There is evidence that Dick Whittington actually did exist and was the Mayor of London but there is no proof that he had a cat.


Jack and the Beanstalk was first produced as a Pantomime in 1773 and was based on a German legend about a boy who saved his village from evil. This story often has elements of other myths incorporated into it. An example of this would be John Morley’s script which includes aspects of the Arthurian legend in it. In the following extract the sword in the stone is no longer a test to see who would be king. Instead it is to see who will kill the giant.

Princess: They say it’s King Arthur’s Sword and it was put there by Merlin the Magician many years ago!

Clarence: Whoever pulls the sword out of the stone will kill the giant.

All: That’s right! That’s the legend! [11]

It allows the writer to provide the hero with even more supernatural assistance ensuring that there is more magic and spectacle to appeal to the audience.


Robinson Crusoe is rarely produced but the Pantomime version has been around for just under two hundred and twenty years. It was based on Daniel Defoe’s novel of the same name.


The Pantomime version of Mother Goose was first seen in 1806 and was based loosely on German legend. This became one of the most popular subjects in the late Twentieth Century with several comedians trying to make the title role their own, including Matthew Kelly and Jack Tripp. According to Gyles Brandreth the best Mother Goose was played by Dan Leno in a production written by J. Hickory Wood in 1902. [12]


It can be seen that there are many inspirations for Pantomime throughout drama and literature as a whole, as well as legends, and that they are not confined to this country. The time scale ranges from Ancient Greece up until the Eighteenth Century. From that time on, the stories have become firmly established.


Many people see the Pantomime as being a truly British thing, an expression of British temperament and humour which those on the Continent would not understand.

‘What a strange, admirable, absurd, inscrutable thing is our English Pantomime. What an intensely national thing it has grown up to be.’

George Augustus Sala [13]

This seems strange as many of the most popular stories come from Europe, for example Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, both of which are French. Most of the stories, though, seem to come from Germany where fairy tale writers like the Brothers Grimm were working.


It can also be sent that even today there are inspirations for Pantomime writers from television. Obviously the fact that television stars now play the main roles in the productions will have an influence on the story lines. However, there are other influences with the most popular television programmes of the day creeping into the stories. An example of this would be the 1996 production of Mother Goose in Birmingham when Matthew Kelly appeared in the transformation scene as Patsy, Joanna Lumley’s character in Absolutely Fabulous.

Having put forward a long list

I think you will have got the gist,

That stories come from around the globe

But now deeper we need to probe.

Each one of these stories would seem

To encompass a similar theme.

To find out more we have to zoom

To the forest and the Babes School Room.

Chapter Three – The Themes of Pantomime


Location: The Babes School Room


By the year 1400 the Church was no longer producing the mystery plays. Instead the Professional Guilds had taken on responsibility for them. With this separation from the Church the primary goal of the mystery play shifted from being educative to being entertaining, although they still retained the Biblical content. Comedy characters and realism became essential parts of the productions. [14]  Among these new characters was Mrs Noah.

SHEM, HAM and JAPHET bundle the protesting NOAH’S WIFE into the ark

Noah:               Welcome wife! Now naught’s forgot!

Noah’s Wife:    Then add thou this unto they lot!

She gives him a slap [15]

In this illustration we can see that the Guilds introduced slap-stick and comedy into the plays using characters such as Noah’s Wife, who would have been played by a man and so could almost be seen as an early form of Dame.


Good V Evil


However, the plays maintained the convention of good entering from stage right and evil from stage left. This was because in the original mystery plays Heaven was situated stage right and Hell was placed stage left. It is also for this reason that star traps can be found in the down stage left position. This meant that directors could have the demon or villain projected onto the stage in a puff of smoke as if they had ascended from Hell. The most spectacular illustration of this was when the demon could be catapulted up to fourteen feet into the air with the help of six strong men.


This practice has remained to this day within Pantomime with the fairy entering stage right and the villain entering stage left. The fairy, as a force for good, however has more freedom to move around the stage. She is able to cross into the villain’s half of the stage as in the Little Hadham Pantomime Group’s production of Robinsoe Crusoe in 1998. Brittania was given free range of the stage whilst the villain, Davey Jones, was kept stage left. [16]  This helps establish the strength of the Good and Evil characters.


The Victorians introduced the fairy story to Pantomime because they wanted the productions to be allegorical for the children. They intended it to give a message to youngsters that good is right and always overcomes evil to triumph, whereas evil is wrong and will always lose in the long run. Most Pantomimes have this as a central theme.

Prince:            Since snow became oceans I have ruled the world.

                        I am the Prince of Darkness; my wickedness gleams dim,

                        But I am always there; and always I will win.

Queen:            I am the Queen of Light; my strength

                        Is in gentle and beautiful things,

                        Like the sunlight in tremulous dragon-fly’s wings;

                        I rise above evil as the lark trills on the hills;

                        And always will I win. [17]

This confrontation between the representatives of good and evil close to the opening of the play sets the scene for the battle that will take place between them throughout the show. Even Pantomimes written in the late Twentieth Century retain this as a central theme.

Fairy:               Fleshcreep, you villain, now I’m defiant!

                        At last I’ve a Champion to fight the giant!

Fleshcreep:    So the magic sword made of magic steel

                        Has come out of the magic stone – big deal!

Fairy:               That’s right, go on, laugh!

                        He thinks that I’m dumb.

                        But listen to me! WE SHALL OVERCOME!

                        This lad shall win through and the world

                        Shall be free! [18]



The theme of love, especially forbidden love, has always been prominent within literature ranging from Greek mythology to the present day. The reader or theatregoer is presented with a long line of couples from Pyramus and Thisbe to Romeo and Juliet, from Harlequin and Columbine to Heathcliff and Cathy, right through to Maria and Tony in West Side Story and beyond.


The formula is simple. Two young lovers are forbidden to marry by their parents, either because they are enemies or because one is rich and the other poor. In the case of Pantomime this all started with the Harlequinade. Harlequin, a servant of Pantaloon, falls in love with his master’s daughter, Columbine. They are forbidden to marry by Pantaloon and so they decide to elope together. The whole plot is about the way in which they evade capture until the Fairy Queen steps in to force Pantaloon to allow them to marry.


Most Pantomimes were based on this formula with the possible exception of Babes in the Wood. However, since writers have incorporated the legend of Robin Hood into that story it can be seen that even this has the accepted formula within it.


The majority of Pantomime stories are based on the idea of love between people who are not social equals. One person is rich whilst the other is poor. This can be seen in Sinbad the Sailor where the Caliph has been looking for his daughter with the man he chosen to be her husband.

Caliph:              At last I’ve found you. But now I’ve gone and lost the man who’s to marry you.

Jasmin:             No you haven’t. He’s here – Sinbad.

Caliph:              Don’t talk nonsense. He’s far too poor. I couldn’t possibly consent. [19]

The whole plot of Pantomimes such as Sinbad the Sailor, Dick Whittington and Aladdin is devoted to bringing equilibrium to the circumstances in which the lover’s find themselves.


Even if the love between the principal boy and principal girl is not forbidden it still plays a major part in the drama. An example of this is Sleeping Beauty in which the Prince has to fall in love and kiss Beauty in order for the spell to be broken, or Beauty has to fall in love with the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. A good example of this is when Beauty thinks the Beast is dead.

Beauty:             Beast, please live and be my love. I thought you were only my friend, but now I know I can’t ever love without you. From this moment, I swear to be none but yours. What is it? What’s happening?

Beast:               I’m happening. You’ve freed me from a wicked curse by loving me. [20]

It can be seen that love plays a large role in Pantomime stories as it was more often than not the central theme of the watered down nursery rhymes of the Victorian era. Originally it was the central theme of Pantomime but it was supplanted by Good versus Evil under the Victorians. Most fairy tales were sanitised of the violence and gore to make them acceptable for children and so something else had to take its place, and that was the theme of love or forbidden love.

Godmother:    Cinderella’s wedding at the Palace will be splendid!

                        And thus our famous love story finally is ended

                        The Palace clock struck twelve, Cinderella ran from the Ball,

                        So everything seemed lost – but true love conquered all! [21]

The only exception to this could be said to be Peter Pan. The sole objective of this story is for Peter Pan to defeat Captain Hook. However, Peter has to beat his arch-enemy in order to rescue Wendy and the lost boys, and so wins the love of Wendy.


Rags to Riches


None of the most popular Pantomime stories break with the convention of taking someone from rags to riches. The plot is centred on the main character, depending on the story, achieving their wildest dreams. That might be going from being poor to being rich, or marrying the man or woman of their dreams.


The plot of the Pantomime is partially about how they reach the point where the transformation is complete. The idea of taking someone and transforming them from being poor to being rich was the dream of many Victorians, although it only happened to very few. However, the way in which this is accomplished within Pantomime is unrealistic. The fact that the transformation is dependant on virtue and true love is an escapist ideal. It appeals, however, to the child in all of us as we would all love to be able to achieve our wildest dreams and this allows us to escape from the fact that our lives are fairly hum drum.


The main outcome of this convention is that the prince marries the girl or the boy marries the princess.

Bill:       Well all that’s left for us to say is –

             Spring is here, the sky is blue

Elf:       Today’s the day they’ll say I do

Bill:       And they’ll never be lonely anymore.

Elf:       ‘Coz they’re going to get married.

Bill:       And they’re going to the chapel of love.

Elf:       So come with us to the Royal Wedding. [22]

There is always a moment, as part of the transformation from rags to riches, when everything is transformed into something completely different. This was first introduced in the Harlequinade when the fairy transformed the characters of the play into Harlequin and friends. Over times these scenes have become more and more spectacular.


This is designed to depict a change in mood when the hero of the Pantomime is going through a period of doubt or unhappiness. The transformation scene dispels this and tends to occur just before the interval to grab the audience’s attention before the break. For example, when Aladdin is trapped in the cave the Genie of the Ring transforms it into a treasure house of gold and jewels.


Transformation scenes are now created with the help of lighting and sound effects as well as transparencies but during the reign of Queen Victoria directors used every device the theatre could offer to create the effect, which included volcanic eruptions on the stage.


A good example of a transformation scene is in Cinderella when the fairy Godmother changes a pumpkin into a coach and Cinderella’s rags into a gown fit for a princess. Children are always enamored with this scene when a couple of white ponies draw the glass carriage onto the stage.


Pantomime is the only dramatic form where it is credible for places and things to be transformed. People in the Twenty-first Century expect plays to be realistic and yet they are willing to suspend their disbelief during the Pantomime season and become enthralled with the magic of the production. They relive their childhood dreams during the two to three hours that they are in the theatre.

Now its time for us to travel on

You might want to put a blindfold on

As we find ourselves looking at Cook’s bra

In the world of the Dame’s boudoir.

Chapter Four – The Subversive Nature of Pantomime


Location: The Dame’s Boudoir


One of the major aspects of Pantomime is its subversive nature. The introduction of the Dame and the Principal Boy in the Nineteenth Century was not popular with critics such as W. Davenport Adams.

‘Why must the hero always be a woman dressed in tights and tunic? And why must the comic old woman always be a man? Have we not plenty of youthful premiers and female comedians?’ [23]

Despite the critical outcry against them, these roles have become firmly established in what we know to be Pantomime in the Twenty-first Century. The question I would like to address at this point is how did they develop?


The tradition of gender and role reversal goes back thousands of years to the Persian festival of Sacaea, which saw the temporary subversion of order with masters and slaves swapping places. This is reflected in the modern Pantomime with the kings and barons being poor and controlled by their servants.


The Romans incorporated this into their feast of Saturnalia which took place in December. The natural order of the year was suspended with masters serving their slaves during this brief period. A major part of the feast was that rich and poor were considered equal. This is taken further in Pantomime with the servant often feeling superior to the masters. For example, the Vizier in Aladdin doesn’t conceal his disdain for the Emperor.

‘Give heed you rabble. On your knees. Your lord and master,

the emperor, approaches. Look to it that your conduct is suitably

humble and grovelling. Imagine it’s a traffic warden passing and

make your most lowly bows, or we’ll have them rolling in the

aisles. Your heads, I mean.’ [24]

This passage simultaneously mocks and belittles the Emperor by likening him to a traffic warden and makes a contemptuous comment about the arrogance of traffic wardens, some of whom may believe themselves to be Emperors when they are in uniform. This has been seen in the BBC docu-soap about traffic wardens.


A new element crept into Saturnalia with the introduction of gender reversal. Men dressed as women and the women disguised themselves as men for masquerades. However, the true origins of the Dame and the Principal Boy can be seen to have developed in the theatre many years later.


Men played female roles in the drama of Ancient Greece and continued to do so right up until the Seventeenth Century. This was, however, out of necessity rather than for dramatic reasons. Women were not allowed to be on the stage as it was felt that it was immoral and an unfit place for a lady to be seen.


Even when ladies were permitted to walk the boards they preferred men to play the roles of older females. This theatrical convention lasted until the Eighteenth Century with men playing aging comical ladies in farces. This practice was adopted by Pantomime, just as many other theatrical conventions were, and it has lingered on until this day. It became firmly entrenched when music hall comedians were allowed to be involved in the productions. They took on the role of the Dame for themselves as they believed it was one of the most popular parts.


The character of the Dame was an excuse for Victorian audiences to see rude things done to a lady, and it can be seen that a lot of slapstick involved in the role would never have been acceptable if it had been a woman playing the part. For example, in many Pantomimes, the comedian pours gunge down the front of the Dame’s costume which would have created an outcry with Victorian audiences if ‘she’ had been a real woman.


The Dame has proved to be a popular character because ‘she’ has always been topical. In the 1860s Aladdin’s mother, Widow Twankey, was named after a cargo which was raced home aboard tea-clipper ships from the Far East at the time. In 1996 Matthew Kelly played Mother Goose dressed as Patsy, Joanna Lumley’s character in Absolutely Fabulous. He even had the over-sized eyelashes and carried a cigarette holder.


This strange ‘mother’ figure is intended to be one of the main points of comedy within the production. Pantomime is primarily classified as a comedy and so the Dame is expected to carry this throughout the show. This dates back to the time of Dan Leno and the role still tends to be played by comedians. Jim Spernick believes that ‘she’ needs to be saucy and volatile with quick changes of mood, from sweet to angry and from dreamy to explosive. The actor needs to be energetic as the character spends a lot of the time charging around the stage.


The character of the Dame is also responsible for most of the double entrendre within the show and is known for being saucy.

Widow Twankey       (noticing genie for first time) Who’s this? Ooh!

                                    He’s a nice big boy isn’t he?

Aladdin                       Control yourself mother. He’s spoken for. This

                                    is my new slave. [25]

It is necessary for the actor to be believable in the role of a woman while still being recognisable as a man dressed as a woman.

'The children must believe that the Dame is a daft old woman. Daft but nice. Friendly and full of fun.”

Roy Hudd

The man I believe was this country’s leading Dame in the last 10 years, Jack Tripp, also says that she must be believable. He says that she should be a ‘nice man dressed as a nice lady so the children can pretend to believe he is somebody’s mother.’ The Dame, he says, should be caring. ‘She’ should be concerned about the disappearance of the babes, in Babes in the Wood, and explain to the audience ‘why she is so worried about them.’


Those who play Pantomime Dames are keen to point out that they are not performing in drag. David Morton plays one of the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella and he explains the difference.

Drag is what Danny [La Rue] does, which is marvellous, you know,

total female impersonation. We’re not impersonating females. We’re

just two daft old uncles at a party getting up making fools of themselves

and everyone knows it’s Uncle George and Uncle Fred and go 'Ahh! Aren’t

they daft.

David Morton

Pantomime continued to do its impression of a sponge, soaking up other theatrical forms, with the introduction of the principal boy. The role developed from the practice of having women playing the lead male, or ‘breeches’, role in Pantomime as early as 1815.


The principal boy is expected to be a straight role. There are very few jokes written for ‘him’. The character’s role is to provide the love interest in the story. Everyone knows that Aladdin will marry the princess and Prince Charming will marry Cinderella but they are held spellbound by the way that this happens. The principal boy has to overcome many obstacles before he wins the love of his life.


The question needs to be asked as to why the Victorians felt that the Principal Boy was important. One of the answers could be that the producers, such as J.R. Planché, who wrote plays for Madame Vestris at the Olympic Theatre in the 1830s, were conscious of the fact that the pleasingly shaped principal boy in a short tunic, tights and high heels would delight the eyes of the audience, particularly the men.

The long legged thigh slapping principal boy was really introduced

so that Victorian dads could get an eyeful when, in real life, a flash

of an ankle was enough to raise eyebrows and expectations.

Roy Hudd.

Another reason would be that the audience would be more likely to support a female in the role of a poor boy who travels the road from rags to riches, almost literally in the case of Dick Whittington.


It afforded the costume designers the opportunity for greater spectacle, particularly in the transformation scenes. It is easier to produce spectacular costumes for a woman than for a man as they have the figure with which to do it justice.


The main reason however, has to be the subversive nature of Pantomime. Just as in the days of Sacaea and Saturnalia it allows the audience to suspend reality and disrupt the accepted order which constrains them during the rest of the year.


Unlike the Dame, the role of the principal boy has been influenced by political correctness. Over the last forty years there has been a move away from a female playing the male lead to men taking on the role. I’m glad to say that as political correctness starts to be less prominent theatres are again returning to the principal boy.


So why do we accept this subversive aspect of Pantomime? This Christmas entertainment has never been intended to reflect reality but rather it is a chance for people to escape from it for an evening. People will suspend belief and accept anything that allows them to escape from their lives for a short time.


The process of role reversal is important in drama. Exchanges of power are frequent in all types of drama, whether in comedy where the fool or the servant takes over from their master, or in tragedy where characters with power lost it to their social inferiors. This can be best seen in Shakespeare’s King Lear where Lear hands over the reigns of power to his daughters and comes into submission to the fool.

Marry, here’s grace, and a cod-piece; that a wise man, and a fool.

Act III Scene 1 [26]

But is there really a subversive nature to Pantomime? Paul Elliot, one of the top producers of Pantomime in the country doesn’t think there is. 'I think it’s eccentric and that’s why I think people like it.” He goes on to say that he thinks the Dame will go on, 'because it is the last bastion of eccentricity that we’ve got.”


Jack Tripp said at the turn of the century, 'I can’t really see anything subversive about panto – unless trying to overthrow say the Sheriff of Nottingham – on any authoritive character is written in the script.'


Brian Godfrey, who plays Ugly Sister in partnership with David Morton, agrees with Jack Tripp and suggests that people are trying to find something that’s not really there. 'It’s sometimes like when actors say to the director, ‘What’s my motivation to get from here to the door?’ and the director says ‘Try your feet.’


Despite these claims, and others from people involved in the world of Pantomime, it is still possible to see some subversive undertones to this art form. There can not be any other real conclusion when the origins of these characters are taken into account. They have been, whether directly or indirectly, influenced by the Roman and Persian festivals which centred around role changing.


These elements are not obviously subversive within the modern Pantomime but they are there nevertheless. However, it is my view that it is these elements which have helped to make Pantomime as popular as it has been, and these elements will continue to make it popular in the early Twenty-First Century.

Chapter Five – Conclusions


Location: The Royal Palace


This analysis of Pantomime as an art form has endeavoured to show that it remains a popular entertainment at the start of a new millennium and that rumours of its death are premature.


It can be seen that Albert Smith’s comments about Pantomime being buried at the end the Nineteenth Century were at least a century too early and may prove to be completely unfounded as this dramatic form goes from strength to strength.


As time goes by more and more money is being spent on producing shows with the aim of outdoing the spectacle of the previous one. In 1938 the average Pantomime cost around ten thousand pounds to produce. By 1941 that had risen to fifteen thousand pounds which was spent by Francis Laidler on his production of Cinderella. The rise in the cost was largely due to the fact that he had a chorus of sixty and more than five hundred and sixty costumes.


By 1999 this figure had risen substantially. The Theatre Royal in Plymouth spent hundreds of thousands of pounds a year on their Pantomime. Tim Leist, Marketing Director at the theatre, said that the initial cost of mounting a new Pantomime is approximately one million pounds and the cost of reproducing a Pantomime could be anything up to five hundred thousand pounds. This is due to the fact that they have to rebuild part of the set and maintain the props, not to mention salaries. Today a theatre could net even pay the salaries of the show’s stars for the ten thousand pounds spent on the whole production in 1938.


For many of the smaller, regional theatres the Pantomime may make the difference between survival and closure. However, it is not possible to prove this definitely one way or another.

I doubt the closure of a theatre could be directly attributed to

the lack of panto success but they are one of the most singularly

expensive productions to mount and, usually, take up many

weeks of the programme, so the gamble does need to pay off.

Tim Leist

So what is it that makes Pantomime so popular? The answer to this question is fairly subjective as different parts of the art form appeal to different people.

It is part of Xmas tree, Xmas pudding, Xmas pantomime they all go together.

Jack Tripp


…what everybody says when they talk about Panto is it’s the kiddies’

first experience of going into a theatre. The first time they’re taken

into the theatre it’s usually Panto, and they see the magic and

fairyland and all that and hopefully we get them hooked.

Brian Godfrey

Jack Tripp, the first person to be awarded the Medal of the British Empire for his services to Pantomime, believed that Pantomime will survive well into the Twenty-First Century provided it is well written and is good clean comedy. He says that it has to be well directed and was insistent that the story is not ‘sent up’. He said that it should be treated seriously and not as a joke. He believed that a Pantomime is very hard work and should be treated like a ‘musical extravaganza’ rather than as a bit of fun thrown together at the last minute.


Brian Godfrey and David Morton believe that Pantomime will survive if speciality acts are not allowed to take over the show.

Brian:   But in a way you’ve got to give the punters what they want. You know, they do want to see Brian Conley. They’ll want to see him doing his Dangerous Brian or whatever, so you get that but, you know, Paul’s [Elliot] very good in that sense in that you stick to the story. You get the full story.

David:  You never cut the story down to fit the acts. It’s fitted in.

Those are the views of those who appear in Pantomime, but what about the views of those of us who love going to watch the productions?


In the survey conducted for this study 88% of people say that they go to the theatre with 77% saying that they like Pantomime. This suggests that it will survive well into the Twenty-First Century. However, the reasons for them liking it are more varied.


The main reason why people like Pantomime is that it is good family entertainment, closely followed by the comedy within the script. This would seem to back up Jack Tripp’s view.


More than half of those asked prefer professional Pantomimes, while a third would choose to go to an amateur production and that would be mainly because they know the cast.


The tip three pantomime stories are as follows: Cinderella, Aladdin and Jack and the Beanstalk. It can be seen from the results of the survey that the number of votes for Cinderella is almost equal to the number of votes for the other two combined. This makes it the most popular Pantomime by far. Why is Cinderella so popular?

David:  The classic story.

Brian:   Rags to riches. It’s got all the ingredients. I know Dick Whittington has it all but it’s got the Fairy Godmother, it’s got the –

David:  Poor girl from nowhere marries the Prince. She upsets the school bullies, as it were, the Ugly Sisters. She wins in the end.

Brian:   I think it’s the rags to riches thing you know, it’s every girl’s dream, or whatever, to marry a Prince.

There have been detractors of Pantomime throughout the last two hundred years.


There does not seem to have been a time when ‘in the opinion of some critic or other, Pantomime has not been on its last legs nor when it has not been denounced as inferior to that of the preceding decade.’ [27]


Examples of this can be seen in the late Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. The spectacle and the topical comedy have both been targets for the critics over that period.

Pantomime is dying on account of the marvellous complexity of

mechanism, painting, limelight, coloured fired and ballet girls which

we now call a Transformation Scene. Upon this effect depends success

or failure.

The Graphic 1877 [28]

As recently as 14th December 1999 the topicality of Pantomime was under attack by critics. A production of a Pantomime in Woking had the audience chanting 'Viagra” to get the Dame’s attention. Mrs Mary Whitehouse attacked this as being unsuitable for children. The response from the theatre was that the joke was written on two levels. The shouting appeals to the children while the adults understood the joke. This has been the situation with Pantomime over the years. There is double entendre in every production.


However, there are more supporters of Pantomime than critics. Paul Elliot, Pantomime producer extraordinaire, turns the question of whether Pantomime is dead on its head with one of his own. 'If Pantomime is dead then why are there more theatres than ever before presenting it and why has there been an increase in audience numbers over the last decade?”


He answers this question by pointing out that ticket sales for the Pantomime in Birmingham have risen over time. In 1997-98 the takings were £1,600,000 and in 1998-99 they had risen to two million pounds. Tim Leist says that the audiences at the Theatre Royal in Plymouth ‘show a continual rise’.


Paul Elliot says that a successful Pantomime is one which combines a strong text, talented performers, good music and spectacle. He feels that it should contain elements which appeal to all the family no matter how young or old. This includes the double entrendre.


Brian Conley isn’t so sure about the survival of Pantomime in the Twenty-First Century. He believes that there is a lack of young blood coming in to the comic roles and so this may spell the end of an era. 'If none of the younger guys sort of take it on, because the people who could take it on are ones who mainly play to students and that…and they don’t see it as a credible thing…unless they start taking it on very quickly, those sort of people, I can’t see it continuing another fifty years.


It can be seen that the chief characteristic of Pantomime is that it must be completely topsy-turvy. The Royalty or nobility within the show must be hard up and afraid of their servants. The ‘principal boy’ is a woman and the Dame is a man.


In conclusion, therefore, it is my opinion that Pantomime is going to survive the threats of television and computer games consoles. There is something special about Pantomime which attracts children of all ages. The fact that this art form is able to adapt to encompass the developments in other literary areas, as well as in other forms of media, is the way in which it will survive in the Twenty-First Century.


It is important for Pantomime to continue to appeal to children as it is the best way to introduce them to the theatre. Without drawing the next generation into the theatre the survival of commercial drama will be in doubt. There is something magical about the theatre for children which is completely different to watching a film or the television.

When a child walks into the theatre it has a different atmosphere (and

smell, strangely enough!) and is bigger and more splendid to anywhere

he or she has ever been. The ‘buzz’ and excitement when the lights go

down is extraordinary and an atmosphere that cannot be replicated


Paul Elliot

I believe that Pantomime is as popular today as it has ever been, perhaps more so, and that it will continue to hold a special place in the hearts of the British for many years to come.

If we shadows have offended,

Think but this, and all is mended,

That you have but slumber’d here,

While these visions did appear.

And this weak and idle theme,

No more yielding but a dream,

Gentles do not reprehend:

If you pardon, we will mend.

And, as I’m an honest Puck,

If we have unearned luck

Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,

We will make amends ere long:

Else the Puck a liar call.

So, good night unto you all.

Give me your hands, if we be friends,

And Robin shall restore amends.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act V Scene 2 [29]



[1] Cited in A.E. Wilson, Pantomime Pageant, London, Stanley Paul & Co Ltd. (1974) p11

[2] Cited in A.E. Wilson, Pantomime Pageant, London, Stanley Paul & Co Ltd. (1974) p1

[3] Cited in A.E. Wilson, Pantomime Paeant, London, Stanley Paul & Co Ltd. (1974) p15

[4] Cited in Salberg, Derek, Once Upon a Pantomime, Cortney Publications, Luton (1981) p6

[5] Cited in Salberg, Derek, Once Upon a Pantomime, Cortney Publications, Luton (1981) p7

[6] Cited in A.E. Wilson, Pantomime Paeant, London, Stanley Paul & Co Ltd. (1974) p23

[7] Cited in Salberg, Derek, Once Upon a Pantomime, Cortney Publications, Luton (1981) p16

[8] Cited in Salberg, Derek, Once Upon a Pantomime, Cortney Publications, Luton (1981) p28

[9] Taken from the opening to his play The New Planet, cited in Brandreth, Gyles, Discovering Pantomime, Aylesbury, Shire Publications (1973) p11

[10] Planché, J.R., Beauty and the Beast (1841) cited in Roy, Donald, Plays by James Robinson Planché, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (1986) p87

[11] Morley, John, Jack and the Beanstalk – a pantomime, Samuel French Ltd, London (1981) p16

[12] Cited in Brandreth, Gyles, Discovering Pantomime, Aylesbury, Shire Publications (1973) p46

[13] Cited in A.E. Wilson, Pantomime Paeant, London, Stanley Paul & Co Ltd. (1974) p10

[14] Stolaroff, Josh, http://www.soquelhs.santacruz.k12.ca.us/t.../scholastics/english/eng11/js_mystery.htm

[15]Noah’s Flood Miracle Play cited in Franklin, Alexander, Seven Miracle Plays, Oxford University Press, London (1975) p47

[16] http://whispers.demon.co.uk/panto/story/under.html

[17] Astell, Betty, Mother Goose – a Pantomime, Evans Brothers Ltd, London (1978) p2

[18] Morley, John, Jack and the Beanstalk – a pantomime, Samuel French Ltd, London (1981)

[19] Walkinshaw, Alastair, Sinbad the Sailor – a pantomime, Unpublished (2005)

[20] Cregan, David, Beauty and the Beast – a Pantomime, Samuel French Ltd, London (1988) p52

[21] Morley, John, Cinderella, NODA Pantomimes, London (1987) p85

[22] Walkinshaw, Alastair, Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs, Unpublished (2003)

[23] Wilson, A.E., The Story of Pantomime, Home and Van Thal, London (1949) p84

[24] Spernick, Jim, Aladdin – a pantomime, Jasper Publishing, Hemel Hempstead, (1992) p9

[25] Spernick, Jim, Aladdin – a pantomime, Jasper Publishing, Hemel Hempstead, (1992) p40

[26] Shakespeare, William, King Lear, Chancelor Press, London (1993) p846

[27] Wilson, A.E., Pantomime Pageant, London, Stanley Paul & Co Ltd (1974) p11

[28] Wilson, A.E., Pantomime Pageant, London, Stanley Paul & Co Ltd (1974) p11

[29] Shakespeare, William, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Chancellor Press, London (1982) p189


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