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Why Pantomime Isn’t Pantomime

Everyone loves Marcel Marceau’s silent artistry, but holiday pantomime is something completely different. Holiday pantomime is LOUD.

Pantomime is a word from the Greek word mimos, meaning a play in which the performers express themselves by mute gestures and panto – a prefix meaning “all.” Bands of players roamed mediaeval Europe performing in places where they often didn’t speak the local language. They would overcome this language barrier by acting out their scenes in broad physical gesture, while relying on a Harlequin, or Punch character, to fill in narration as best he could. The Punch would punctuate the action and and signal scene transitions, often with a bifurcated wooden stick which produced a loud sound when slapped. This is generally regarded as the origin of the term for the genre of broad physical comedy we call slapstick.

Modern pantomime is a form of theatrical spectacle common today in England during the Christmas season. It is generally adapted from a fairy tale and includes stock character types who perform songs and dances, tell jokes, and interact with the audience. This unique form of theater comes from an adaptation of the old Commedia dell’Arte that lasted until the 19th century. The principal characters were Harlequin and Columbine, who never spoke, and Clown and Pantaloon, who keep up a constant fire of joke and repartee. The old Christmas pantomime or Harlequinade as an essentially British entertainment was first introduced by John Weaver (1673-1760), a dance master of Shrewsbury in 1702. Today, pantomimes are usually based on fairy tales such as Cinderella, Mother Goose, Jack and the Beanstalk or Puss In Boots, enlivened by catchy songs, pretty chorus girls and considerable buffoonery.

Recently, in what some devotees see as a deplorable lapse from tradition, popular comedians, sports personalities and soap stars have taken the lead in pantomimes, often incorporating their own specialty ‘business’ whether or not it fits the story. An editorial aside: We’ve noticed that Panto business has rarely fit the story, so why start now?

Holiday Pantomime Today

In the UK, Christmas pantomime is the most popular of all theater genres excluding musicals, and a two or three-month run of the Christmas pantomime is often what keeps a small theater solvent throughout the year. To a lesser extent, Christmas pantomimes are popular elsewhere, especially in “commonwealth” countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and even Bermuda, but as far as we can tell, they’re rare in the United States.

Over the decades, pantomime has become a thriving business in the UK. Large theaters vie with each other for the subjects and “star” names that will attract full houses, and the pantomime can often run for six to eight weeks in major London venues as well as the Hippodrome Theater in Birmingham, Mayflower Theater in Southampton, and the Grand Theater, Wolverhampton.

Modern pantomimes are expected to tour for a number of years, and recoup their costs quickly. In 1827 the pantomimes staged at Covent Garden and Drury Lane cost about £1,000 each. Today, typical script performance royalties run approximately $100 per performance for a small house, and the cost of staging a modern pantomime can range from $100,000 to millions of dollars. Historically, Pantomime production in the USA has been limited, primarily centered around ex-patriot British and anglophile audiences.