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The weird traditions of pantomime and where they came from


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There are many reasons why other countries in this world might think Britain to be a little odd. Boris Johnson, Marmite and an obsession with the weather are all examples, and the pantomime is up there with the strangest of British Christmas traditions that fellow countries cannot seem to understand.

Whether you love or hate panto, you cannot deny that it's an opportunity for Brits to let loose their stiff upper lip, remember their childhood and boo that talent show judge that they've always hated.

Each year thousands of brits of all ages flock to watch the dramatic spectacles, with the York Theatre Royal attracting 55,000 visitors alone. 

The modern day panto orginates from the Middle Ages, influenced by the Italian Commedia dell'arte, and the British Music Hall. Some of these influences can still be traced in today's pantos, with some of the weirdest and most wonderful originating with the Italian production. 

Custard pies and panto horses 

So why not start with the silliest? The stock characters of the Commedia dell'arte included Harlequin, a very different character to that played by Margot Robbie. The majestic Harlequin featured in many comic chases of the plot, and carried with him a wooden sword. The prop doubled up as a weapon and a magic wand, which was known for the loud slapping noise it made, only adding to the dramatic effect of an on-stage brawl. This is literally where slapstick came from.

You can still see the physical use of slapstick in today's pantos, when a comic character relies on the aid of a drum or symbol whenever he slips, falls or takes a punch.

The Dame

The usually vivacious, bubbly and sassy character dates back to 1800 and Joseph Grimaldi, arguably the most loved clown of the Commedia dell'arte. Of course back in ye olden days it was absurd to feature a woman on stage, and so middle aged men had to step up to the stage.

The Victorians soon changed it up though, and used women to play the 'Principal Boy' role, or rather, the men's roles to you and me. It seems that the male audience members of the day wanted out with female modesty, and in with the scandalous showing of ankles and calves - but only through tights, and only if the subject was playing a male part, of course.

Even though scarcely anyone was playing a gendered role that they could identify with, it was seen as a little private joke that the Dame was trying to fool the audience with, and this still exists in panto today. There would be an uproar if the Dame was not included or even worse - was played by a woman. Many woman still play men's roles as well, such as Jack and the Beanstalk and Peter Pan.

'Bad' theatre

We all know that a pantomime isn't going to win any awards for the dramatic skill sets they offer, and it turns out that it's reputation for 'bad' theatre is as old as pantomime itself.

Some of the first pantomimes attracted huge controversy, with 19th century critics claiming that they marked the "death of serious theatre", and expressed concerns that this foreign entertainment threatened to overshadow the likes of Shakespeare (ahem #brexit ahem). Little did they know that panto would become embedded in British tradition for years to come.

Audience participation 

One of the best parts of panto is having the freedom and power to shout back at the actors, boo the villains and cheer the heroes, however wholly unbritish this seems at first. This was actually an essential asset to yesterday's pantos, with the heavy improvisation of the script relying on the audience's reaction. 

That's right - the plot would actually be based on the level of your booing and hissing, which is actually quite a profound function of the theatre if you think about it.

Finding light in darkness

Believe it or not, one of the first known pantomimes staged in a British theatre was Robinson Cruesoe in 1888. The 18th Century castaway novel certainly doesn't seem to be an ordinary choice for a pantomime, with a dark plot very far removed from the comedy of the panto.

This seems to be a running theme of the panto - turning darkness to light. We all know that Disney is guilty of transforming the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson and the brothers Grimm to heartwarming stories made for a younger audience almost to unrecognisability - a technique that the pantomime shares.

Today's stories are filled with tales of morality, an underdog battling evil and emerging triumphant, complete with a contemporary twist. 2016 pantos are sure to feature witty lines at the expense of trump and brexit, with British television's most hated personalities taking on the villain part, all in the name of a bit of fun. Pantomimes are essential for the celebration of Christmas cheer, and the lifting of spirits in gloomy January.

Those weird theatre traditions

Some of the most well known traditions of the theatre have evolved from early pantomimes, such as the tradition that the villain will always enter first from stage left, and the good fairy following from the right. This originated from the medieval idea that the entrances to heaven and hell were on these sides.

Harlequin left more of a legacy than just a man in tights and drag make up, as his slapstick comedy ingrained a message into the future of backstage etiquette. One must never clap whilst anywhere near the stage, as this could trigger the fall of heavy scenery. Back in the heavily improvised scenes of the Commedia dell Arte, a clap of the slapstick cued a change of scenery, and so now clapping in the theatre has become a sign of bad luck.

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