I’m creeping into Cara territory here with a theater-related post–about the world of pantomime, a peculiarly English form of theatrical entertainment that is still popular today. It’s an incongruous mix of medieval mystery play, Commedia dell’arte, vaudeville, and musical comedy. The Principal Boy (male lead) is played by a woman wiht great legs. There’s a stock female character called The Dame who is played by a man (the Monty Python crew were not the only ones to cross-dress at the drop of a knicker). Audience participation is encouraged. In its current manifestation the pantomime features stars from TV soaps and is full of political jokes and double entendres.
Commedia dell’arte, a comedic form with stock characters, tumbling, acrobatics and buffoonery came from Italy to England in the seventeenth century. The most popular characters–Harlequin (a wily servant), Columbine (female lead) and Pantalone (comic old man–sorry, this was never very PC)–infiltrated the theater, and an entertainment was developed in three parts: A serious or classical work, followed by a lighter popular tale (Cinderella or Aladdin, for instance, still popular today as panto subjects), and concluded with the Harlequinade. The Harlequinade featured acrobatics and slapstick and was introduced by an elaborate transformation scene using all the latest hi-tech devices of the theater. Imagine that you’ve gone to the theater to see “King Lear.” After the tragedy, the same actors perform a musical version of “Cinderella.” After a lot of light effects, music, moving scenery, fountains, women in tights flying etc., the actor who played Lear does some funny stuff with a dog and a string of sausages, as a minor player in the spills, chills and thrills chase scenario of Harlequin and Columbine. Ah, a full night of the theater in eighteenth-century London–all human life is there. There’s no wait at the bar because you brought your own, and no wait for the bathrooms because there are none.
Joseph Grimaldi was England’s most famous clown and so popular that the character of the Clown became the lead in the Harlequinade. At one time he played the Clown at both Covent Garden and Sadler’s Wells, dashing from one theater to another. He was a skilled dancer, mime, acrobat, actor and sleight of hand magician. The Harlequinade died out, possibly coinciding with the death of Grimaldi, its greatest clown, but the second part of the original three-part entertainment adopted some of its characteristics (the slapstick and tumbling) to evolve into the pantomime, played at Christmas and Easter. In Victorian times the Drury Lane Theater was the leading presenter of elaborate pantomime performances, and stars of the music hall made guest appearances.
For great pics and musical examples (including Grimaldi’s signature song, “Hot Codlins” with audience participation) go to
Here’s the complete text of “A History of Pantomime” by R.J. Broadbent (1901) www.gutenberg.org
Meanwhile, so you can savor this sophisticated form of comedy, here’s an excerpt from a modern version of Aladdin. Widow Twanky (the Dame) is doing laundry with her sons Wishee and Washee:
DAME: Here, did I tell you I nearly won the football pools last week.
WASHEE: Did you really mum?
DAME: Yes I did. My homes were all right. My aways were all right. ( Pulls tatty pair of bloomers from the tub). But my draws let me down.
WISHEE: ( Looking in the tub) I see you’ve got the laundry for ******* United again ( pulls out strip – holds it out for everyone to see, with big holes in it). Hey, what are these holes in it?
DAME: Well, everyone says they’ve got holes in their defence. That proves it.
WASHEE: ( Pulling out another huge pair of bloomers) And whose are these?
DAME: I could do with some of these. ( Singing to tune of My Fair Lady) “All I want is some knickers like these, to keep me warm from my neck to me knees, oh wouldn’t it be lovely.” Did you know I once had some knickers made out of a Union Jack.
WISHEE: Weren’t they uncomfortable?
DAME: Not once I’d taken the flagpole out.