Published: марта 17, 2010


In ENGLAND many families celebrate Christmas by attending a pantomime show. Although in the United States the word “pantomime” refers to dramas enacted without dialogue, the word has a different meaning in Britain. There, a pantomime show combines dialogue, music, dance, acrobatics, slapstick humor, colorful costumes, and special effects around the enactment of a simple story, often a fairy tale. Pantomime brings a bit of the circus to the theater, as the emphasis is on amusing the audience with as many flashy diversions as possible rather than telling the story in an economical way. While children enjoy the spectacle, adults are amused by the innuendo, camp humor, and satire laced throughout the performance.
Pantomime traces its roots back to the ancient world, although much more recent theater traditions have influenced it as well. Its ancestors include Roman and Greek mime traditions, Renaissance improvisational comedy, and musical theater.

The English word “pantomime” comes from the ancient Greek words for “all” (panto) and “mimic” (mimos). The ancient Romans were especially fond of pantomimes. Roman mimes used masks to distinguish various characters and were often aided by a chorus, which chanted the story as well as by musical accompaniment. By the end of the fourth century Christianity had become politically powerful in the Mediterranean world. Church and state officials began to speak out against pantomime and other forms of theater, arguing that its actors portrayed and promoted immoral and indecent activities. This attitude of condemnation continued through the Middle Ages. Mimes and other actors faced excommunication for their participation in the kinds of drama frowned upon by the Church. Nevertheless, many forms of folk drama persisted throughout this period, including some associated with the CHRISTMAS SEASON, such as MUMMING, and Christmas time mystery or miracle plays, folk dramas depicting events related to the birth of JESUS (see also NATIVITY PLAY).

In the sixteenth century commedia dell’arte, a kind of improvised burlesque comedy, began to re-popularize elements of pantomime in ITALY. Although the plots varied, these dramas revolved around the interactions of a number of standard characters. These characters included Pantalone (or Pantaloon), a lecherous, scheming businessman, and Graziano, a pompous professor. Other important roles were filled by the zanni, or “servant” characters. These included Ar-lecchino (or Harlequin), a scamp; Colombina (or Colombine), a simple young woman; and Pucinella (or Punch), a slow-witted, hunchbacked fool. The madcap antics of these servants gave rise to the English word “zany.” In commedia dell’arte actors expressed themselves with exaggerated gestures, masks, miming, dancing, music, and tumbling, in addition to dialogue. Because it did not rely heavily on language to communicate, commedia dell’arte crossed boundaries easily. It became popular throughout Europe in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries.

Nineteenth-century British pantomime evolved from eighteenth-century commedia dell’arte influences. John Weaver of London’s Drury Lane Theatre introduced a new kind of entertainment he called a pantomime in 1702. Weaver’s pantomime placed commedia dell’arte characters such as Harlequin and Colombine in the midst of ancient myths enacted through song, dance, and mime. In 1717 John Rich, inspired by Weaver’s success, presented a short funny scene between the acts of a regular play at Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre. This scene featured the courtship of Harlequin and Colombine and was told in mime.
This addition to the regular bill of fare at the theater proved wildly popular, and before long other commedia dell’arte characters were introduced, such as Punch and Pantaloon. Although these additional characters spoke dialogue, the romance between Harlequin and Colombine continued to be presented in mime. These entertainments always starred the roguish Harlequin, and so they became known as harlequinade. Like commedia dell’arte, harlequinade combined music, dance, acrobatics, mime, and dialogue to create a comic, burlesque spectacle. It also added special effects (such as characters disappearing through trapdoors) and lavish costuming, which dazzled and delighted audiences.

In the early nineteenth century British harlequinade evolved into the art form now known as pantomime. Pantomime flourished as the century progressed, while harlequinade faded, disappearing sometime in the early twentieth century. Pantomime treated spectators to the same kind of circus atmosphere as did harlequinade, but differed in a number of important ways. In pantomime the role of the clown grew to be larger and more important than that of Harlequin.
In the latter half of the century pantomime shed the commedia dell’arte characters of Harlequin, Colombine, and Pantaloon, and gravitated toward the retelling of fairy tales, myths, and fables. A loose-knit plot based around one of these stories held the various elements of the pantomime together as the extravagant spectacle surged back and forth across the stage. Unlike its predecessor, pantomime as-signed all characters dialogue. By the 1820s women were being cast in the role of the principal boy, an innovation that tickled the theater-going public. This innovation slowly developed into a tradition whereby the young male lover was played by a woman and the dame, a comical older woman, was played by a man. Finally, whereas harlequinade had always been a diversion from or addition to the main attraction, pantomime developed into an attraction in and of itself.
In the 1830s and 1840s pantomime attached itself to the Christmas season (see also CHRISTMAS IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND). It was deemed a suitable family activity, since the fairy tale themes enchanted children, and the spicy dialogue, which children failed to understand, amused adults. Pantomimes generally opened on BOXING DAY, December 26, and the public flocked to theaters to see them during the TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS. In some places, pantomimes proved so popular they ran until March. Although pantomime found favor with the general public, many literary and other intellectual figures disdained it as a vulgar and disorderly display.

Some writers have commented on the underlying similarities be-tween pantomime and other Christmas entertainments that featured unruly behavior under the cover of masks and disguises. Examples of these entertainments include belsnickeling, the customs associated with GERMANY’s KNOCKING NIGHTS, the Feast of Fools, MASQUES, mumming, PLOUGH MONDAY customs, and TWELFTH NIGHT celebrations (see also KALENDS and ZAGMUK). By the time pantomime became popular in Great Britain, however, most of these practices had died out.
Although pantomime sprang from a different set of cultural and historical roots than did these earlier customs, it seems to represent a perennial return to the theme of celebrating midwinter with costumed revelry. One important distinction remains. While ordinary people banded together to carry out these earlier forms of folk entertainment, pantomime was produced by professionals. Consequently, while the earlier revels often took place in the streets or in private homes, pantomimes, offered to the public as a product for sale, could only be experienced in private theaters.

Many believe that the heyday of pantomime occurred during the Victorian era. Indeed, the nineteenth century produced a number of pantomime stars including Joey Grimaldi, the celebrated clown of the early 1800s, and Dan Leno, the famous dame of the late 1800s. Nevertheless, during the twentieth century the British public continued to crowd the theaters that hosted pantomimes during the Christmas season. Although in the past many pantomimes premiered on Boxing Day, today the pantomime season runs from mid-December to mid-January. Moreover, while theater attendance throughout Britain continues to sag, pantomime brings in such large audiences that many theaters rely on box-office takings from these performances to substantially boost yearly revenues.