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The Gender-Bending Holiday Pantomime

by Julia Lynam

TwiggyIn the momentary pause as the lights go down the sweet-sucking, ice cream slurping, popcorn crunching crowd falls silent with anticipation. Suddenly a firecracker explodes and from the billowing smoke an evil red devil emerges, entering from the left, the sinister side of the stage. He laughs wickedly, and curses the protagonists we're about to meet, delighting in the discomfitures that will be visited on them and gloating over their misfortunes. "Not so fast" replies a beautiful fairy, entering stage right to rebuff, in honeyed tones, the curses of the devil and to declare, with a wave of her sparkling wand and a sugar-sweet smile, that good will ultimately triumph over evil.

The prologue players retire and the curtain rises on a vibrant village scene, with happy laughing "boys" and "girls" -- actually fully-grown and rather glamorous adults in pseudo-ethnic costumes -- dancing in celebration of a forthcoming marriage, a market day, or just for the joy of living.

Another pantomime season has begun and another generation of children is being drawn into the fantastic, amazing, hilarious, naughty, moral world of this supremely British holiday entertainment.

For thousands of years people of northern climes have celebrated the winter solstice, that deeply magical time of year when the sun's retreat is finally halted, the longest night is endured and the source of light and life begins to return toward us. Pantomime is a successor to and an amalgam of many ancient solstice traditions, from those of the Roman Saturnalia and medieval mummers through the Italian Renaissance harlequinade to the burlesque of 19th century music hall. It's popular entertainment at its most traditional, the "Bread and Circuses" of modern Britain.

The images conjured up by the word "pantomime" differ enormously depending on which side of the Atlantic you were born. In the USA it means simply mime, dumb show of the kind made famous by France's white-faced Marcel Marceau. In the UK, however, "pantomime" is a glorious, riotous, and far from silent theatrical extravaganza presented each year during the Christmas season in hundreds of theaters by hundreds of acting troupes, professional and amateur, throughout the length and breadth of the British Isles.

Pantomime traces its origins to traditions like the medieval Feast of Fools in which the world was turned topsy-turvy with drinking, revelry and role reversals, and a commoner with a reputation for knowing how to enjoy himself was chosen as Lord of Misrule to preside over the festivities. This festival is thought to have originated with benevolent Roman masters who allowed their servants to be boss for a while. Pantomime also owes much to the mummers of ancient and medieval times, masked clowns who cavorted to entertain the populace at seasonal festivals. The earliest mummers' plays, as opposed to unscripted clowning, date from the eighteenth century and seem to have evolved alongside, perhaps being influenced by, the developing art of the pantomime.

Ian McKellenPantomime itself is full of stock characters, none of which should ever be omitted! In addition to the devil, fairy queen and village children, pantomime goers expect to meet a romantic couple in the form of a beautiful maiden, princess or otherwise, and a "principle boy", the handsome prince or hero who is traditionally played by a shapely woman in fishnet tights and close-fitting jerkin.

S/he's not the only gender-bender in the show: the pantomime Dame, perhaps the best-loved character of all, is always played by a man. Last season Sir Ian McKellen (yes, none other than Gandalf from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings) camped it up so deliciously as Widow Twankey in Aladdin at London's Old Vic Theater that he's repeating it this year with what promises to be another show-stealing series of outrageous glitzy dresses!

Sir Ian, in a 2003 interview for Film Monthly magazine, said that pantomime "is the first thing that British kids see in the theatre when they are very, very young. It's full of dance, song and poetry, has a simple story, audience participation and cross-dressing . . . which is why the British love the theatre so much, because they get it all, like a Christmas pudding."

The Dame brings the bawdy, fun-loving and often compassionate energy of an older woman to the disentanglement of the plot and her persona perhaps offers a clue to the remotest link of pantomime to the all-encompassing mother goddess of prehistoric times.

Pantomimes are always based, sometimes very loosely, on traditional fairy tales: Aladdin, featuring the lamp-discovering boy himself (played by a woman of course), the beautiful princess whose unlikely name seems to be Won Ton, the wicked uncle and of course Aladdin's mother, Widow Twankey, who runs a Chinese laundry, has been a perennial favorite for centuries, although the popularity of other stories waxes and wanes. Current favorites are Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Snow White. Other popular titles are Sleeping Beauty and Babes in the Wood, which often includes the legend of Robin Hood for good measure, but twentieth century stories from outside the classic fairytale canon, such as Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz are growing in popularity.

Ian GoodOne of the earliest pantomimes, Robinson Crusoe, presented in 1778 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London, wove in the characters of the Italian Commedia del'Arte. Harlequin, Columbine and the clown Pantaloon, who had all been introduced more than 100 years earlier to the British court and theatergoers, were blended into the fantastic story of the shipwrecked mariner and his companion, Man Friday and set the tone for the development of pantomime's own stock characters. This production also incidentally included a young actor called Joseph Grimaldi who was destined to take the art of pantomime to a higher level. Grimaldi became the most famous of pantomime clowns, pioneering the art of the cross-dressing Dame with such characters as Queen Rondabellyana and Dame Cecily Suet, and working himself into an early grave in 1837 at the age of 59.

Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp followed at Drury Lane in 1788, while Cinderella first hit the pantomime circuit in 1804.

One of the great delights of pantomime is the parade of the Dame's increasingly fantastical costumes that often parody current fashion. One of the many-layered costumes is almost certain to be removed piece by piece in one of pantomime's inevitable set pieces, a burlesque and ultimately innocent Τstriptease". And it would not be a pantomime without the outrageous pie-making scene in which the Dame and her accompanying comic characters, often minor villains, proceed to totally demolish a kitchen, flinging dough in every direction, as they prepare an upcoming feast.

"It's Behind You", another essential element of pantomime, is a sketch in which a several of the supporting characters appear seated on bench reading their daily newspapers, totally unaware of the menacing figure -- gorilla or monster -- that appears periodically from the woods behind them. While the audience vainly shrieks "It's behind you", the characters continue in blissful ignorance, until first one then the next and the next spot the monster and rush from the stage, leaving the monster to sit on the bench and snatch the newspaper from the last remaining, still unsuspecting, character. Then there's "Oh yes I did", "Oh no you didn't" an exchange between the Dame and one of her cohorts that escalates to draw the audience in on either side. And the children would cause a riot if they didn't get a chance to come up on stage and join Cinderella's dear friend Buttons in a song, each child receiving a bag of candy as a reward. Candy gets thrown into the audience, too, some of it even reaching the rich kids sitting in what the Dame may refer to as "the ashtrays", the boxes at the side of the auditorium.

Family entertainment it may be, but pantomime isn't aimed just at the kids. It's full of topical allusions, political references, suggestive comments and lewd jokes, although free from offensive language.

The Ugly SistersIt's an art form that provides regular annual employment for struggling actors and mostly minor stars. The productions are peppered with a host of British soap stars and TV presenters as well as actors like Christopher Biggins who've made a specialty of the genre. Among this year's participants, beside the illustrious Sir Ian, are 1960s supermodel Twiggy who stars as Fairy Sweetpea in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Theatre Royal, Brighton; Simon Callow, known from the 1994 movie Four Weddings and a Funeral who appears as Aladdin's wicked uncle Abanazar in Richmond near London and Colin Baker, a former Dr. Who who features in Snow White in Truro. Magician Paul Daniels appears in Sleeping Beauty at Peterborough, ballet star Wayne Sleep in Beauty and the Beast in Windsor and the ubiquitous Brian Blessed (Boss Nass in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace) promises to be a spine-tingling Captain Hook in Peter Pan at the Regent Theater, Ipswich.

Should you wish to experience pantomime for yourself, you'll find professional productions in every major town and city in the United Kingdom, and plenty of amateur offerings in village and church halls throughout the country. Cinderella is showing in, among other places, Bromley, Liverpool, Felixstowe and Manchester, Aladdin in Dublin, Hastings, Richmond and Torquay, Jack and the Beanstalk in Brighton, Grimsby and Aberdeen -- the list is endless, and the fun is, too!

More Information:

The Magic of Pantomime

Old Vic Theatre

London Zoo Pantomime

Julia Lynam is originally from Cardiff in Wales, but has lived in Vermont on and off for the past 30 years. She is a freelance journalist and storyteller and loves to travel, especially on trains. She is currently traveling in the US Southwest and has discovered a new passion in digital photography.
Article © 2005 Julia Lynam
Photo of Ian McKellen © Manuel Harlan; Photos of Ian Good and the Ugly Sisters © Brian Tarr.


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