Random Research: A Short History of Pantomime

An early Harlequinade (Victoria & Albert Museum)

Pantomimes have changed throughout history to echo the cultural zeitgeist. Pantomime originated in Rome, when a single actor told a story without words (panto = all, mime = well, miming), using different masks for each character. Italians had the Commedia dell’Arte skits, and the Middle Ages had their own form of pantomimes. In the 18th century, harlequinades became popular, which are usually variants of the following plot: “Harlequin, who loves Columbine, her greedy father Pantaloon, who tries to separate the lovers in league with the mischievous Clown, and the servant, Pierrot, often involving a chase scene with a policeman” (source: good ol’ Wikipedia). There was always a signature chase sequence, complete with slapstick and comedic music. When the Pantomime first came to England, it sometimes linked together a larger show, such as an Opera.

Cinderella Pantomime Poster (Victoria & Albert Museum)

In the Victorian times, pantomimes diversified and some became more fairy-tale-like. Adaptions of Aladdin, Jack & the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Puss in Boots, and others became popular.

Stock characters appeared, such as the principal boy (usually played by a cute female), the Clown, the Dame (usually played by an older male), the Harlequin, a magical clown, who usually had the slapstick of a magical wand, and sometimes an evil, overbearing father figure, such as Pantaloon.

The "Star Trap" (Victoria & Albert Museum)
The "Star Trap" (Victoria & Albert Museum)

Special effects became wildly popular, and illusions such as Pepper’s ghost were used to great effect. Sometimes characters would emerge through a hidden trap door beneath the stage called a “Star Trap.” This was a rather dangerous apparatus, but it shocked and delighted the audience when a character seemed to appear out of thin air. Elaborate set changes and huge choreographed affairs became the norm. All characters wore increasingly amazing and elaborate costumes. Pantomimes had it all–fight scenes, romance, magical effects, and entertaining plots, and they took the nation by storm.

A "Pincipal Boy" (Victoria & Albert Museum)
A "Pincipal Boy" (Victoria & Albert Museum

As you can see, gender identity is all over the place, and so I knew when I wrote my book I wanted to play around with the pantomime in my circus story. I wrote several different plots, but the one I was most pleased with ended up amalgamating different aspects of the pantomime from different periods of history. This plot relates to the history of my world and was great fun. I have magic and monsters and love conquering all.

To learn more:

Cambridge Arts Theatre – Victorian Pantomime Notes – Roberta Hamond

It’s Behind You! – The History of Pantomime – Nigel Ellacott and Peter Robbins

It’s Behind You! – Pantomime Storybook – Nigel Ellacott and Peter Robbins

The Pantomime Alliance – A Brief History of Pantomime

Victoria & Albert Museum – Pantomime

The Victorian Web – Pantomime – Philip V. Allingham

Women’s Thoughts – The History of Pantomime

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