‘Oh Yes It Is’ – December 2017 – Lecture Report

There were no prizes for guessing the focus of this month’s festive lecture! Jane Tapley revealed the fascinating story of how Pantomime developed out of its Greek origins to become the peculiarly British institution of today. She highlighted the crucial role pantomime plays in keeping local theatres open and asked to what other entertainment could you take both a 95 year old and a 5 year old?

The Greek origin of the word meant acting anything in mime. Then a chorus was added to chant alongside the mime. The Greeks introduced the mask, the first stage prop, so the actors did not wear make-up or use facial expression just their voice. The Romans introduced a Winter festival celebrated by playing games, drinking and singing and a January festival when revellers dressed in animal skins and masks while houses were decorated with evergreens and special light effects. Medieval Mystery plays put Biblical stories across in the form of drama. Our pantomimes tell a moral tale where, in the fight between good and evil, good wins.

The Commedia dell’arte story of boy meets girl, father disapproves, they run away then return and father allows them to marry, is the basis of our pantomimes. If a joke in the early shows, told in mime, made the audience laugh it was written down and so a script developed. The wand used to move the play on evolved into the modern pantomime fairy’s wand. Shakespeare would have seen these plays performed by the Italian and French companies who came to London and their influence can be seen in his plays.

In the C18th an evening at the theatre changed and after the drama of a play such as Hamlet, the audience would remain and be cheered up by the Harlequinade show, a ‘knock-about’ comedy for adults. Covent Garden and Drury Lane both seated about 2000 who enjoyed Joe Grimaldi’s slapstick comedy at the former and David Garrick’s wearing of female costume at Drury Lane. ‘In drag’ originated from how the female costume dragged across the stage by the character who was obviously a man in a frock rather than ‘playing’ a woman.

During Victoria’s reign, pantomime became a family show and audience participation ensured they were still awake. Dickens adored pantomime and at 10 wrote one. The Victorians resurrected use of the mask and, at a time when it was risqué to show a woman’s legs, Principal ’Boys’ showed their full length! Pantomime characters reflected contemporary society and so Aladdin has the policeman, Chinese laundry and a Widow Twankey, because many men were lost in those boats collecting tea from China.

During WW1 Music-Hall stars became pantomime stars. In the 1960’s Pop Stars such as Cliff Richard featured and so attracted a younger audience. Since then personalities such as Gareth Chilcott, Ian Botham, Cilla Black and Blue Peter presenters have all starred and helped keep pantomime current and attract a wide audience. Character names can reflect social change from the Ugly Sisters as Euthanasia and Asphyxia, through Valderma and Germoline to Sharon and Tracy, even Diarrhoea and Constipation!  The pleasure of hearing ‘such jokes as do not require the fatigue of comprehension’ enhances the pure escapism of pantomime.