The Development of Pantomime

'PANTOMIME'- from the Greek, meaning 'An Imitator of things'. Originally it meant a performer, not a theatrical style. The performer would mime, often accompanied by music.

In Great Britain Pantomime can only mean one thing- a festive entertainment, mostly late Victorian in origin where women often play the heroic male role, and men play the 'Dame' role, a comedian in skirts.

The origins of pantomime go back to ancient Rome , in theatrical performances often bawdy and rowdy that were banished by the onset of Christianity. The word pantomime means something different to residents of the United States- to them, it means a 'Mime', a performer who needs no words to express himself. America takes the literal and original meaning of the word. The British know it affectionately as 'Panto', a mixture of Fairy story, spectacle, song and dance with much emphasis on audience participation. We owe this to our 'Music Hall' roots. While America had Vaudeville and burlesque, the British had Music Hall that eventually became 'Variety'.

Pantomime in the British Isles is an ever changing art form- it has throughout its long existence taken the best bits from various styles and theatrical fashions and always bows to current and popular taste, whilst still maintaining its 'traditional' core and format. Here is how that came about………

'Commedia Dell’Arte'

After Roman times, 'Pantomime' in its early form reappeared in 15th Century Italy with the popular theatrical entertainment known as the 'Commedia dell’ arte'. These performances featured characters, some of which still exist in part, certainly in spirit in today’s pantomimes. These characters were collected from different regions of Italy .

'Spaviento' was Neapolitan. He was a boaster, a braggart. 'Gingurto' and 'Coviello' were a double act- they were the simpletons. From Milan came the character of 'Beltrama', another simple man, joined by 'Gelsomino', a dandy.

The success of the 'Commedia dell’arte' travelled to Paris , and from there a short hop over the channel into Britain . In every place the dialogue was improvised, but the characters and the 'Business', especially comic business remained standard.

Characters came and went. Some changed names, others vanished. Harlequin emerged as the strong 'lead' character, along with his love interest, 'Columbine', 'Pantaloon' and for a while 'Pulchinello'. Of all these characters 'Pulchinello' has become the longest living one, especially in British Seaside resorts. He changed his name to 'Mr. Punch' when he became not an actor, but a puppet, and teamed up with Judy, the hangman, the policeman, the crocodile and of course, Judy’s baby. After the last war there were 300 Punch & Judy men on the beaches of Britain , now there are about eight. Today 'Punch Professors' can be seen at Broadstairs, Weymouth , Llandudno, Clacton and Weymouth among other resorts. The decline in British seaside holidays has seen the decline of Pulchinello.


It was John Rich who was mostly responsible for creating the British form of entertainment 'Harlequinade' that used the Italian and now partly French 'Commedia' performances as his yardstick. He developed the Harlequinade, what you might loosely describe as the First Pantomime at the Covent Garden Theatre.

John Rich was born in 1692, the son of one of the owners of Drury Lane Theatre . When manager of the Lincoln Inn Fields Theatre he produced these early pantomimes between 1717 and 1761. One of Rich’s most popular Harlequinades was 'Harlequin Sorcerer' which contained several trick scenes and transformation scenes- these happened by the magic of Harlequin’s sword (later to become a slapstick, and the word origin of a style of comedy).

The success of Rich’s productions forced the eminent thespian David Garrick to produce his own pantomimes at Drury Lane . It was Garrick who first turned our hero Harlequin into a speaking character. Harlequin could now talk, and his costume was stylised enough to use it as a map of his emotions. Colours on his costume denoted his mood when he pointed to it. Yellow for jealousy, blue for truth, red for love and, if he wished to become invisible he had merely to point to the black patch on his costume.

However- there is still no Fairy Tale plot to wrap the Harlequinade around, and the characters are a distant cry from what we would recognise today in pantomime. The first glimmer came in 1789 with a production of 'Robinson Crusoe', loosely based on the novel by Defoe into which the Harlequinade characters appeared, introducing the clown, pantaloon, harlequin and Columbine into the plot. Incidentally this production saw a  young Joseph Grimaldi making one of his juvenile appearances.

Grimaldi (see Grimaldi article) was born on December 18th, 1778 , the son of a performer who first appeared as Pantaloon and later Clown. It was Joseph Grimaldi, the son who was to take the role of clown to its height in the harlequinade.

The 'Business'

GrimaldiIn general a harlequinade would consist of a street frontcloth, usually containing several stage traps, practical and trick doors and windows. The Clown would be involved in chase scenes where he was called upon to test the limits of his agility, jumping through windows, and re-appearing through trap doors. It was known that the Clown would make certain he tipped the 'catchers', the Stage hands who stood waiting to catch him, with 'beer money'. Failure to do so might result in injury! The Clown would steal sausages, chickens and other props which he would stuff into his pockets. There was usually a scene where he would grease the doorstep of the butcher’s shop with butter, to the merriment of the audience, to outwit his pursuers.

Often there was a scene where Clown would divide his stolen food unfairly with an accomplice- this piece of 'business' still remains today in 'Dick Whittington', where Tommy the Cat unfairly divides the bread and fish in Dick’s spotted handkerchief as they rest on Highgate Hill. The Harlequinade did not involve much in the way of dialogue. Here the 'Red Hot Poker' reigned supreme, along with tricks and some transformations. A dog would be magically transformed into sausages, a bed became a horse trough, to the surprise of the sleeping victim, Clown would dive into a clock face, which would show no sign of entry. These were accomplished by the 'magic' in Harlequin’s staff or wand.

The Plots

The titles and plots of popular tales, including Fairy Tales began to be used, but whatever the title, the Harlequinade was the most important piece. The first part of the entertainment were usually woven together by an immortal- a Fairy Queen for example. The story would have a moral tale to tell, but as it was concluding the Fairy would 'transform' the characters- whether Robinson Crusoe, Guy Fawkes or Jack the Giant Killer into the well known Harlequinade characters. She would point to her hero and heroine and declaim 'Lovers stand forth. With you we will begin. You will be fair Columbine- you, Harlequin.'

In the Tale of Guy Fawkes she announced 'King James there- the bonnie Scottish loon, you will be a famous cheild for Pantaloon. The Guy Fawkes now is saved from rock and axe, I think he should pay the 'powder Tax'..His Guyish plots blown up, Nay, do not frown, you’ve always been a Guy, now be a Clown!'

In these early 'Pantomimes' the characters would change costume infront of the audience. The Clown would step forward, and, just as Grimaldi always began would cry 'Hello! Here we are again!' a phrase copied until the demise of the Harlequinade.

The Transformation Scenes

By the mid 1800’s the 'Transformation Scenes' – elaborate and spectacular scenic changes and tableaux became the most important part of these early pantomimes. In some cases to the detriment of the comedy scenes, some complained. William Beverley, in 1849 created a scene called 'The Island of Jewels' where a palm tree gradually dropped its leaves to reveal bejeweled fairy after fairy who created a tableaux holding aloft a jewelled crown. His spectacle was widely copied. Managements vied with each other to create the most lavish transformations. Transparent curtains would reveal 'The Bower of Bliss', or 'The Realm of Delight' 1860 the Haymarket theatre in London produced working fountains on stage in a bid to outdo the rivals. Scenery was of great importance to the audience in these days before photography, film and media coverage. To the onlooker in London it might be his or her first glimpse of the open country, or of foreign temples or the wilds of the Scottish moors. The tradition of a spectacular scene, or transformation still exists in today’s pantomimes- the jewelled cave in 'Aladdin', the revealing of Cinderella’s Coach'. Dick Whittington’s dream sequence on Highgate Hill are direct descendants of Mr. Beverley’s creations.

The Changes

At this time the Pantomime and Harlequinade were the 'desert' to the main course of the evening, part of a lengthy programme. Gradually the Fairy Story element of pantomime came to the fore, and the quality of the writing improved. Chiefly responsible was E.L.Blanchard, author of the Drury Lane Pantomimes from 1852-1888. It was during this period that the major changes began to occur. These changes were to transform pantomime into the template of today'’ entertainment.

Blanchard’s pantomimes or 'annuals' as he called them set the tone for productions everywhere. He was described as 'an exponent of Fairy Mythology', and was born in 1820, the son of an actor. His first script was for 'Jack and the Beanstalk' in 1844 in what is now The Old Vic, London . His first Drury Lane pantomime was in 1852. He established a style of rhyming verse and wit- often topical. Although pantomimes today rarely have rhyming couplets throughout (with the odd exception) this tradition is carried on by the 'immortals' who often begin a pantomime prologue today in rhyme.

In Blanchard’s 'Jack' in 1859 the hero is selling his cow to Fairy Crystalline-

Crystaline:      'Well, give the calf'

Jack:                'I do!'

Crystaline:      'The beans are thine.

Jack:                'though this transaction bears a strange character, I look upon you as my Beany-factor!'

The reliance on Clown and Harlequin was losing its grip- now the dialogue was becoming important. Other characters were emerging. In 1852 a Miss Ellington had become one of the first 'Principal Boys', playing the Prince in 'The Good Woman In The Wood' at the Lyceum Theatre. By the 1860’s the role of Principal Boy was established and the role of Dame was beginning to threaten Harlequinaide’s clown even further.

The Subjects

By the 1870’s pantomimes had begun to change dramatically in style. From the many varied and titled subjects, theatre’s began to restrict themselves to a few favourite stories. The popular ones being 'Cinderella', 'Dick Whittington', 'Jack and the Beanstalk' along with 'Mother Goose', 'Aladdin', 'Robinson Crusoe', 'Babes in the Wood' 'Goody Two Shoes' Of these the intrinsically British stories were 'Babes', which was to eventually merge with 'Robin Hood', 'Robinson Crusoe', 'St. George and the Dragon' and 'Gulliver’s Travels'. The other subjects were imported from the French court- like Perrault’s 'Cinderella', 'Sleeping Beauty', 'Red Riding Hood' and 'Hop O’My Thumb'.

Red Riding Hood itself dates back to Roman times, then utilised by the Brother’s Grimm..'Puss In Boots' dates from an Italian version of 1534, utilised by Perrault. Pantomime adapted and enveloped all these cultures and presented them to the British public. 'Aladdin' had begun as one of the Tales from the Arabian Nights, and emerged as a serious play in London in 1788, and with Grimaldi in 1813. Robin Hood joined forces with the 'Babes In The Wood' at Drury Lane Theatre in 1857. The first 'Dick Whittington ' Pantomime seems to be at Covent Garden in 1814. 'Goody Two Shoes' emerges from the pen of Oliver Goldsmith, written in 1765. With it’s slight plot which merges Nursery characters like Little Boy Blue as the playmate of 'Goody' and 'Little Bo Peep' as Jack Horner’s sweetheart it was eventually dropped, the confusion of plot being the chief reason.

The Music Hall Influence

Somewhere between 1860 and 1870 the theatres decided the pantomimes needed to be tightened up, and needed to be modernised. Although pantomime players had become stars, now it was felt that established stars from British Music Hall would be a better attraction. Primarily aimed at children, the managements were also aware it was the adults who bought the tickets. The adults would nightly visit the Music Halls top see their favourite performers. The invasion of Music Hall was set to begin. This, above all created the biggest change and transformation to the style of pantomime, and leaves its greatest influence on what we see in pantomime today.

One of the earliest music hall 'stars' to perform in pantomime was G.H.MacDermott when he appeared in 1870 in "'Herne The Hunter" at the Grecian Theatre. James Fawn appeared in "Children of the Wood"' in 1874 at the Adelphi, and then in Drury Lane, teamed with Arthur Roberts. Fawn'’ most popular number being "if you want to know the time.. ask a policeman"' (a satire on the well known fact that if arrested for drunkenness, your watch would invariably 'vanish' inside the police station!)

The desire of the Victorian gentleman to see a well trimmed ankle resulted in the popularity of the buxom Principal Boy..not just ankle, but (so long as she was playing a man) she could reveal a well slapped thigh into the bargain. The female stars of music hall began to monopolise these, and other key roles in pantomime from now on. In 1874 Harry Nicholls appeared as Dame at the Surrey Theatre. He appeared along with Herbert Campbell. These Music Hall artistes changed the style of pantomime plots and dialogue, as they generally brought their own material and comedy songs with them. Allowances had to be made in the plot to reveal a star singing his or her latest number, or performing a 'Sketch' made popular 'on the halls' that year.

As ever- the critics and guardians of 'traditional Pantomime' had their knives sharpened:

'Now to what do we owe this unfortunate, nay painful feature of pantomime performances? I fear there can be but one answer to the question. We owe it to the Music Hall element among the performers.' W.Davenport Adams. 1882.

'Why must the hero always be a woman dressed in tights? Why must the comic old woman always be a man? Have we not plenty of youthful premiers and female comedians?'

The Spectacle

Pantomimes began to out rival each other in spectacle as new inventions came into theatres. A heavy reliance on a great number of scenes and transformations, together with the influences of the comics, dames and principal boys were not always accepted by the traditionalists.

1877   'Pantomime is dying on account of the marvellous complexity of mechanism, painting, limelight, coloured fire and ballet girls which form what we call 'the transformation Scene'. Upon this one effect depends success or failure. Dancers, singers, plot and pantomimists are all secondary to these considerations. The glories of Clown and the Harlequinade pale before this brilliance and pantomime, as our fathers and grandfathers knew it, is a thing of the past….'

The long reign of Harlequin, Clown, Pantaloon and Columbine was fading fast. Instead of being the long awaited highlight, it was now consigned to the tail end of a lengthy performance. The audience would be thinking more about departing into the snow covered streets of London, and would gather their belongings during the comic scenes of the harlequinade. The last London Theatre to stage a Harlequinade (at the end of the main Pantomime) was the Lyceum Theatre. It presented it as a 'period Piece', a fond salute to the past right up until the theatre closed in 1939.

Even More Spectacle

The bust of Sir Augustus Harris - on the corner of Drury LaneAugustus Harris took over control of the Drury Lane Pantomimes at the age of twenty-eight in 1879. He inherited the Vokes Family (see Vokes article) who, by now had faded from fashion. For sixteen years Harris, later Sir Augustus Harris, presented the most spectacular pantomimes ever staged.

It was Harris who discovered the comic genius of Dan Leno and Herbert Campbell, and teamed them so successfully at the 'Lane'. The first pantomime he produced was 'Bluebeard', starring the Vokes family, and afterwards created his own style and made Leno and Campbell the most popular comedians in the country. Blanchard was still writing the pantomimes, but not with much enthusiasm. In 1881 he wrote 'sketching out the 2nd scene in the pantomime by midnight . Not pleasant work as it used to be owing to the terrible, but IDan Leno as Sister Anne in Bluebeard fear, profitable Music Hall innovations introduced in it….'

Harris concentrated on sheer spectacle. He was immensely fond of long processions and armies of marching men, women and children. His scenes would bear the educational ' titles, 'All the Kings and Queens of England' (and their retinues) or '21 English sports', '24 Nations' where girls in National costumes would parade for long periods at a time, finally revealing 'Our Marie', Marie Lloyd as Princess Allfair. When Harris produced 40 thieves, each one had a retinue of ten people! His scenes were magical and at times bizarre- 'they are a dream, a phantasmagoria….' However, other critics complained 'Laughter is sacrificed to scenery'. Harris, however was much copied, and he influences every spectacular pantomime in existence today.

Leno and Campbell

Leno and Campbell in Babes in the WoodHis star was born Dan Galvin, in Somers Town , a poor district of London in 1860. He took his stage name Leno from his stepfather. A skilful clog dancer, along with his wife he appeared in music halls throughout London ’s East End . He was seen by George Conquest who engaged both Leno and his wife in the 1886 pantomime at the Surrey Theatre. Their joint salary was £20 a week, with Leno playing his first Dame role.

The following year Leno played Tinbad the Tailor, and was spotted by Augustus Harris, who put him into the Drury Lane 'Babes In The Wood' in 1888 at £28 a week, solo fee. Also in the production were Herbert Campbell, a rotund genial comic, and Harry Nicholls.

By 1884 Leno played Dame- 'Mrs Simpson' in 'Jack and the Beanstalk', and in the 1891 'Humpty Dumpty' partnered Herbert Campbell. In 1902 Harris created the role of 'Mother Goose' for Dan Leno, a yardstick by which most Dames aspire.

J.Hickory Wood wrote the pantomimes, and In Mother Goose he created the plot we know today- his invention of a 'pool of Beauty' and the vanity that causes the Dame to reject her goose were written especially for Leno.

Entering the stage Leno could achieve much laughter by a single expression, as he launched into his opening patter:

'….then I went on the stage as Juliet- Oh! The bouquets they threw at me! Not silly useless hothouse flowers, but cauliflower’s and garden fruit like that. When they repaired the theatre I asked for a re-engagement, but the manager was out….'

In 1891 Leno performed a sketch called 'The Tree of Truth', where every lie is followed by an apple falling onto the comic’s head. The tag of the sketch has bucketful’s of 'apples' raining down..this front cloth routine is still performed today..111 years later!

Max Beerbohm wrote:Leno as Mother Goose

'the moment that Dan Leno skipped upon the stage, we were aware that here was a man utterly unlike anyone else we had seen- surely all hearts went out to Dan Leno, with warm corners in them reserved to him for ever..'

The same year as 'Mother Goose', 1902 Dan Leno was confined in a mental institution. He was deemed fit enough to appear the following Christmas in 'Humpty Dumpty' where he and Campbell sang 'And we hope to appear for many a year, In the Panto of Old Drury Lane…' but sadly this was not to be for either of them. Herbert Campbell died in an accident a few months later,and Leno suffered a second breakdown, dying insane later in 1904. He was aged 43.

The later years

After the Death of Augustus Harris in 1896, Arthur Collins took control of Drury Lane . The Pantomimes continued their tradition of lengthy processions, with running times often approaching five hours. Harry Randall replaced Dan Leno as Dame, joined by Wilkie Bard, Fred Emney, George Graves and Will Evans. In 1912 Collins cast a man in the role of Principal Boy for a few years, Wilfrid Douthitt, then Bertram Wallis and finally Eric Marshall, before returning to female 'boys' as the onset of World War One began. 1920 saw a final pantomime at Drury Lane , with a revival in 1929. Since that time there have only been two productions.

Norman EvansThe Music Hall influence in Pantomime grew stronger until, with the demise of Music Hall, the Variety stages produced the pantomime stars. Radio stars were always guaranteed full houses, as the novelty of seeing a radio favourite live on stage in the days before television was a sure bet for managements. Arthur Askey, Richard Murdock and Sandy Powell joined radio and variety stars like Norman Evans, Betty Jumel and Tommy Trinder treading the pantomime boards each year.

The traditions of Augustus Harris still remain. Pantomime has embraced every attempt to diminish it’s hold- when television became a threat, Pantomime producers employed the television stars-Tony Hancock, Terry Scott, a tradition that still holds sway today. A seasoned pantomime artiste like John Inman was appearing in pantomime well before 'Are You Being Served', but television success is the key to attracting audiences. The modern pantomimes have incorporated every new invention, just like Harris did in the Victorian era- Lasers are used, along with 'coloured Smoke' effects just as they did in the 1880’s. Sportsmen and celebrities like Frank Bruno and snooker stars are not new- the Victorians would embrace every celebrity and novelty and weave them into their pantomime plots. When licensed hackney cabs appeared, a production of 'Cinderella' staged a troupe of dancing girls dressed in Taxi like costumes with 'For Hire' flags on their hips! In recent times we have seen the ascendancy of the Soap star, the Gladiator, the 'Aussi Invasion' and 'Big Brother' contestants appearing in pantomimes. Mr Blobby is still starring, joined by the newly rejuvenated 'Bill & Ben' , and after all these years 'Sooty' still reigns supreme. As we await the rush of pop idols and celebrity chefs and D.I.Y. presenters into the world of make-believe, we can only nod sagely and agree that there is nothing new under the cardboard sun!

Licensed Taxi Cabs for Hire

Pantomime lives because it is constantly changing and developing, and, as Clown always said 'Here we are again!'

Much of the information in this article comes from the excellent book 'The Story Of Pantomime' by A.E.Wilson. Published in London by Home and Van Thal, 1949. Although out of print, it may still be found through second hand booksellers. The book is one of the few to give a detailed rendering of how pantomime has developed through the ages.

This page was last updated 25th February 2008

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