“Fee! Fie! Foe! Fum! I smell the blood of an Englishman.’” As the festive season gets under way, in the world’s English-speaking countries – and on stages varying from those of West End theatres to small village halls, a giant’s voice will thunder the ominous words. Jack – the ‘principal boy’, but actually a lissom female – will have climbed the magic beanstalk, and all will be set for him to lay his hands on the giant’s treasure.
On other stages, either in rehearsals or early-season matinee performances, two ugly sisters and a horrid step-mother will make Cinderella’s life a misery (and the audience will wait for the arrival of the Prince and the vital slipper). Elsewhere, Sinbads will scrub the decks of magically-shrouded ships and yearn for the heart of the beautiful Shireen. And somewhere, surely, Dick Whittington’s cat will persuade the ‘worthy citizen’ to ‘turn again’ on his fateful journey to become Lord Mayor of London; Aladdin will rub his magical lamp; and the slave-girl Morgiana will save Ali Baba’s bacon as he steals from the 40 robbers…
For, across Britain, the Yuletide panto season is under way, bringing to the stage a well-worn host of fairy- and folk-tales, with a seasoning of figures from One Thousand and One Nights and semi-mythical characters of history.
In our closer-knit Gibraltar – where ‘Christmas pleasures’ are synonymous with families gathering to eat, drink and exchange presents (though not necessarily in that order) rather than spending that time in a theatre – there’s little time for thespian effort until the final weeks of January, when the panto returns to the Ince’s Hall stage.
For decades this home of the Trafalgar Theatre Group has staged the annual offering, in a centuries-old legacy of military and naval presence – when officers of both armed services performed at Christmastime to entertain their families and those of the ‘other ranks’.
For many children across the English-speaking world the panto is a seasonal ‘treat’, and anyone who has attended an Ince’s Hall production will attest to the enthusiasm as the young (and not-so-young) audience boo the villains of the piece and stamp feet so enthusiastically that it seems the rafters thunder.
Although the modern pantomime takes its initial form from medieval mummers plays and the harlequinade of Italian commedia dell’arte, it is a quintessentially English entertainment, combining a melange of song, dance, topical jokes – with a lacing of double entendre – slapstick comedy, and crossdressing. And it has developed as a form of theatre in which the audience is encouraged to participate: to sing along with certain parts of the music, to boo and hiss the villains, or shout out certain stock phrases to the performers.
Although, like other forms of theatre its true roots sprang from classical Greece and Rome, over the past 250 years, the pantomime has evolved to become as vital to Britain’s Christmas traditions as department store Santas, the Oxford Street lights, crackers with cheap prizes, and mince pies.
The traditions accompanied Britain’s colonial expansion. As well as the armed forces legacy on the Rock, there are records of pantos performed in the original Australian penal colony at Botany Bay, and, during the Boer War siege of Mafeking, Baden Powell helped stage Cinderella.
‘Mother Goose’, ‘Puss in Boots’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’, and ‘Babes in the Wood’ are other favourites. And on the Rock the first pantomimes were staged by the Dockyard and Navy Players – precursors of today’s Trafalgar thespians.
The first Greek παντόμιμος (pantomimes) were performed by a single dancer representing all the roles of the ritual. And though she – for the ‘mimos’ was usually a priestess – was later accompanied by a chorus, everything was in silent mime… as were the earliest English pantomimes.
When the Romans developed their pantomimus as a spectacle, they introduced the use of the classic Greek masks of Tragedy and Comedy, and though initially performed by a solo male dancer clad he was accompanied by a sung accompanied by a sung chorus. But mime remained at the core of productions, and because of this pantomime’s popularity spread across the Roman empire for it overcome the multilingual language barrier.
Like their forebears, the mummers’ plays and harlequinades, the earliest English pantos contained no dialogue – everything was represented through mime and dance.
In the Middle Ages, the Mummers play was a traditional English folk play – usually performed during Christmas gatherings – based loosely on the legend of Saint George and the Dragon, and “containing the origin of many of the archetypal elements of the pantomime, such as stage fights, coarse humour, gender role reversal, and good defeating evil,” according to the academic Hillary Baldwin.
At the heart of every production is the ‘dame’ whose roots are in the earliest theatre, when girls and young women were played by youths, and old women by men – often comically. Probably the most famous of these ‘dames’ is Widow Twankey who made her/his first appearance in a London production of Aladdin more than 150 years ago and was a comic resurrection of Mrs Noah of the medieval miracle plays.
Even when – in the 17th century after the restoration of the monarchy – actresses entered the theatre, most were reluctant to play older parts, and the convention continued. And this cross-gender tradition also leads to the role of the hero (or ‘principal boy’) being played by an attractive young woman.
CUE to audience: wolf whistles… and probably the only time that these would not be dubbed ‘offensively sexist’.