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The Magic of Pantomime

Review of the illustrated talk by Ian Gledhill
on November 27th 2019
pantomime poster

Ian introduced himself as a man of varied experience – engineer, opera stagehand & designer, and actor.  He started in pantomime at the Theatre Royal in Brighton, where he played the Lord Chamberlain, with Julian Clary as lead actor.  Describing Julian as a shy man who performed best with familiar faces, Ian subsequently spent several years playing with him in pantomime around the country.

The history of pantomime goes back much further than the performances that we know as a typically British tradition.  The repertoire has changed little over the years, but started in Italy in the 16th Century as Commedia dell’arte, when strolling players entertained in towns and villages.  Their audiences always knew the format of the plays, despite the fact that languages were rarely spoken the same in different regions.  The format spread throughout France, but finally arrived in Britain following the Restoration, when theatres which Cromwell had pulled down were rebuilt.

monochrome portrait of John Rich
John Rich as Harlequin, c. 1720

The problem in Britain was that the English could neither understand the dialogue nor follow the plots.  Therefore, the players adopted mime, which was universally understood – hence the name Pantomime.  The actor/manager John Rich in particular adopted pantomime, but he suffered a speech impediment, which caused him to search for an appropriate role to play.  He realised that Harlequin, who was a central role in pantomime, did not speak and therefore this was the part which Rich took.  Ian explained that as Harlequin did not speak, the coloured panels on his costume all had a meaning, which could be indicated by the actor to interpret to the audience.

John Rich moved his performances to the Covent Garden Theatre, but shortly had competition from David Garrick, who had taken over the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.  He started the tradition of performing pantomimes at Christmas, although in those days they were relatively short plays, and so became the final act on a mixed bill of plays, following the inevitable tragedies performed beforehand.  The first full-length pantomime was presented in 1781.

By the mid-19th Century, pantos were exclusively Christmas shows.  The stories were well-known and familiar with music and songs.  Cinderella was one of the most popular, but interestingly, Ian told us that it originated in China – where bound feet might have explained the emphasis on the fitting of the glass slipper.  The story may have been mistranslated from the French version.

Aladdin is the second most popular panto, followed by Dick Whittington.  The latter is based upon a true story; Dick was the second son of a wealthy merchant, who was given money by his father to make his way in the world, which he did successfully.  He did not have a cat, but owned ships known as Kattes, with which he made his fortune.

monochrome photo of Dan Leno in costume
Dan Leno as Dame Trot, 1899

Harlequin disappeared at the end of the 19th century, to be replaced by the pantomime Dame.  The history of cross-dressing was explained, and the fact that girls played the role of principal boy. Even in the Marriage of Figaro, the teenage boy’s part was played by a girl.  It should be remembered that Victorian attitudes prohibited the view of a lady’s legs, and so to Victorian men, the sight of a female playing a leading role was somewhat erotic!

The history of the male playing the Dame in panto, dates back to 500 BC in Greece, where women were not permitted to act, and so men had to play the female characters.  The same applied in Roman times.  In Mystery Plays no women were allowed, and, of course, Shakespeare’s female roles were played by men.  This changed in the time of Charles II, who had seen female actresses in France during his exile.  He changed the law to allow women on stage, perhaps to allow Nell Gwynn to flaunt her talents!  More recently, such luminaries as Dan Leno, Les Dawson and Danny La Rue were familiar Dames.

Ian concluded by describing some of the superstitions affecting actors; it is unlucky to clap on stage as the use of the slapstick, which sounds like a clap, indicated a change of set, and also whistling on stage is similarly discouraged for much the same reason.  In rehearsal, it is unlucky to say the last line.

I found Ian to be highly entertaining, expert in his knowledge and presentation, and who participated well with his audience.

Philip Akroyd

Related link

Ian Gledhill's website