The History of Pantomime (Christmas History 19)


A book cover from 1890, virtually contemporary with Max O’Rell’s description of pantomime in England.

Yesterday’s Christmas History included a quote from John Bull and his Island, by the fabulous French author Max O’Rell, published in 1883.  In the same book he writes about Christmas pantomimes, a tradition that was relatively new at the time, at least in the form that we would understand today as a pantomime.

Strictly speaking, pantomimes date back to Greek times, but their “παντόμιμος”* had little connection with modern-day pantomimes. The Italian tradition of comedia del’arte can be identified as the root of the tradition, but the fusion of classical themes, comedy, harlequinade and fairy tales was a peculiarly British development, over the course of the 19th Century.  O’Rell was unimpressed.

Most of the theatres give a pantomime at Christmas.  These pantomimes, as they are wrongly called here, are absurd cock-and-bull stories, founded upon the Arabian Nights or the fairy tales, and gorgeously put on the stage. In the performance of Robinson Crusoe, for instance, you see a procession of all the kings and queens of England, from William the Conqueror to Queen Victoria, a Lord Mayor’s Show, and a review of English troops at Cairo. People enjoy that, and find no fault with it. No wit about these productions. Dazzling costumes, splendid ballets, and pretty girls by hundreds. When the curtain has fallen after the transformation scene, the performance terminates with a harlequinade in which the poor policeman — Bobby, as he is called — comes in for all the blows and never succeeds in collaring the clown who has run off with the leg of mutton.  The laughs are all at the expense of poor Bobby. I have always failed to understand the innocence, or appreciate the morality, of the English harliquinade.

* π = pi = “p”, α = alpha = “a”, ν = nu = “n”, τ = tau = “t”, ό = omicron = “o”, μ = mu = “m”, ι = iota = “i”, ς = sigma = “s” – “pantomimos”

From 1st to 24th December there will be a “Christmas History” article on Windows into History every day, exploring how people spent Christmas in the past through first-hand accounts in forgotten books.  Please come back tomorrow for the next article!

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5 Responses to The History of Pantomime (Christmas History 19)

  1. Pingback: The History of Pantomime (Christmas History 19) | Windows into History | Rogues & Vagabonds • Happy New Year!

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