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Pantomime (informally, panto) (not to be confused with a mime artist, referring to a theatrical performer of mime) is a musical-comedy theatrical production traditionally found in the United Kingdommarker, Canadamarker, Jamaicamarker, Australia, South Africa, Japanmarker, Irelandmarker, Gibraltarmarker and Maltamarker, and is mostly performed during the Christmas and New Year season.


A pantomimos in Greece was originally a group who 'imitated all' (panto- - all, mimos - mimic) accompanied by sung narrative and instrumental music, often played on the flute. The word later came to be applied to the performance itself. The pantomime was a popular form of entertainment in ancient Greece and, later, Rome. Like theatre, it encompassed the genres of comedy and tragedy. No ancient pantomime libretto has survived, partly because the genre was looked down upon by the literary elite. Nonetheless, notable ancient poets such as Lucan wrote for the pantomime, no doubt in part because the work was well paid. In a speech of the late 1st century AD now lost, the orator Aelius Aristides condemned the pantomime for its erotic content and the 'effeminacy' of its dancing.

The style and content of modern pantomime have very clear and strong links with the Commedia dell'arte, a form of popular theatre that arose in Italy in the Early Modern Period, and which reached England by the 16th century. A 'comedy of professional artists' travelling from province to province in Italy and then France, they improvised and told stories which told lessons to the crowd and changed the main character depending on where they were performing. The great clown Grimaldi transformed the format. Each story had the same fixed characters: the lovers, father, servants (one being crafty and the other stupid), etc. These roles/characters can be found in today's pantomimes.

The gender role reversal resembles the old festival of Twelfth Night, a combination of Epiphany and midwinter feast, when it was customary for the natural order of things to be reversed. This tradition can be traced back to pre-Christian European festivals such as Samhain and Saturnalia.

Development as a distinctly English entertainment

The pantomime first arrived in England as entr'actes between opera pieces, eventually evolving into separate shows.

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In Restoration England, a pantomime was considered a low form of opera, rather like the Commedia dell'arte but without Harlequin (rather like the Frenchmarker Vaudeville). In 1717, actor and manager John Rich introduced Harlequin to the British stage under the name of 'Lun' (for 'lunatic') and began performing wildly popular pantomimes. These pantomimes gradually became more topical and comic, often involving as many special theatrical effects as possible. Colley Cibber and his colleagues competed with Rich and produced their own pantomimes, and pantomime was a substantial (if decried) subgenre in Augustan drama. According to some sources, the Lincoln's Inn Field Theatre and the Drury Lane Theatremarker were the first to stage something like real pantomimes (in the later sense that has become codified with its fairly rigid set of conventions), creating high competition between them to put on the more elaborate show. As manager of Drury Lane in the 1870s, Augustus Harris is now considered the father of modern pantomime.

There seems to be some disagreement among scholars as to exactly when the true pantomime genre got started. According to one eminent authority, Russell A. Peck (the John Hall Deane Professor of English at the University of Rochestermarker [152705]), 'The first Cinderella Pantomime in England was the 1804 production at Drury Lane, dir. Mr. Byrne,' [152706] with music by Michael Kelly (1762-1826). This date would seem too early for panto in its mature form, with its extensive adherence to a set of conventions, including the pantomime dame role, the principal boy played by a young woman, the animal-costume roles, audience participation, etc. But, if Peck means that this was the first pantomime in England in the older sense of 'low opera', then his date seems too late, for he seems to disregard the fact that pantomime as 'low opera' had already arisen in Restoration-era England, considerably prior to 1804. Even limiting this claim to Cinderella, one finds that other sources give 1870 as the date of the first Cinderella pantomime in England (see below).

Pantomime traditions and conventions

Traditionally performed at Christmas, with family audiences consisting mainly of children and parents, Britishmarker pantomime is now a popular form of theatre, incorporating song, dance, buffoonery, slapstick, cross-dressing, in-jokes, audience participation, and mild sexual innuendo. There are a number of traditional story-lines, and there is also a fairly well-defined set of performance conventions. Lists of these items follow, along with a special discussion of the 'guest celebrity' tradition, which emerged in the late 19th century.

Traditional stories

Panto story lines and scripts typically make no reference to Christmas, and are almost always based on traditional children's stories, including several written or popularized by the French pioneer of the 'fairy tale' genre, Charles Perrault, as well as others based on the English tales collected by Joseph Jacobs. Plot lines are often 'adapted' for comic or satirical effect, and certain familiar scenes tend to recur, regardless of plot relevance. 'Straight' re-tellings of the original stories are rare in the extreme.

The most popular titles are:

Performance conventions

The form has a number of conventions, some of which have changed or weakened a little over the years, and by no means all of which are obligatory.
  • The leading male juvenile character (the 'principal boy') - is traditionally played by a young woman, and usually in tight-fitting male garments (such as breeches) that make her female charms evident.
  • An older woman (the pantomime dame - often the hero's mother) is usually played by a man in drag.
  • Risqué double entendre, often wringing innuendo out of perfectly innocent phrases. This is, in theory, over the heads of the children in the audience.
  • Audience participation, including calls of "Look behind you!" (or "He's behind you!"), and "Oh, yes it is!" and "Oh, no it isn't!" The audience is always encouraged to boo the villain and "awwwww" the poor victims, such as the rejected dame, who usually fancies the prince.
  • A song combining a well-known tune with re-written lyrics. The audience is encouraged to sing the song; often one half of the audience is challenged to sing 'their' chorus louder than the other half.
  • The animal, played by an actor in 'animal skin' or animal costume. It is often a pantomime horse or cow, played by two actors in a single costume, one as the head and front legs, the other as the body and back legs.
  • The good fairy always enters from stage right and the evil villain enters from stage left. In the medieval mystery plays the right side of the stage symbolised Heaven and the left side symbolised Hell.
  • The members of the cast throw out sweets to the children in the audience (although in some cases this is not possible due to health and safety restrictions).
  • Sometimes the story villain will squirt members of the audience with water guns or pretend to throw a bucket of 'water' at the audience that is actually full of streamers.
  • A slapstick comedy routine may be performed, often a decorating or baking scene, with humour based on throwing messy substances. Until the 20th century, British pantomimes often concluded with a harlequinade, a free-standing entertainment of slapstick. Nowadays the slapstick is more or less incorporated into the main body of the show.
  • In the 19th century, until the 1880s, pantomimes typically included a transformation scene in which a Fairy Queen magically transformed the pantomime characters into the characters of the harlequinade, who then performed the harlequinade.
  • The Chorus, who can be considered 'Extras' on-stage, who usually appear in all scenes and who perform a variety of songs and dances throughout the show. They are a very important role in Pantomimes.

Guest celebrity in pantomime

Another contemporary pantomime tradition is the celebrity guest star, a practice that dates back to the late 19th century, when Augustus Harris, proprietor of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lanemarker, hired well-known variety artists for his pantomimes.

Until the decline of the British music hall tradition by the late 1950s, many popular artists played in pantomimes across the country. Many modern pantomimes use popular artists to promote the pantomime, and the play is often adapted to allow the star to showcase their well-known act, even when such a spot has little relation to the plot, for example, Rolf Harris might perform Jake the Peg in a pantomime about Aladdin.

Nowadays, a pantomime occasionally pulls off a coup by engaging a guest star with an unquestionable thespian reputation, as was the case with the Christmas 2004 production of Aladdin that featured Sir Ian McKellen as Widow Twankey, which he reprised in the 2005 production at the Old Vicmarker theatre in Londonmarker.

As well as being an actor in the Shakespearean tradition, McKellen had become hugely famous with children as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and Magneto in X-Men. "At least we can tell our grandchildren that we saw McKellen's Twankey and it was huge," said Michael Billington, theatre critic of The Guardian, December 20, 2004, entering into the pantomime spirit of double entendre. In recent times, the in pantomimes have featured soap stars, comedians or former sportsmen rather as celebrity attractions, supplemented by jobbing actors and pantomime specialists.

The recently renovated Hackney Empiremarker has presented an enormously successful and highly regarded panto with multi-racial cast since 1988.

York's Theatre Royal pantomime features no guest celebrities, but a regular cast headed by Berwick Kaler, who has played the dame there for 30 years.

Christopher Biggins was a pantomime dame for 38 years running until 2007 when his attendance on I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! made it impossible for him to do a panto that year.

In Canterbury, the Marlowe Theatre traditionally has a famous person from EastEnders or Neighbours, both popular soap operas.

Tewkesburymarker's Roses Theatre has a pantomime which has a fully professional cast (apart from the young chorus/dancers), none of whom are 'star' soap opera performers, stand-up comedians or pop singers as a matter of policy. The panto is traditional in style, and the principal boy is played by a female actor.

In summer of 1974 the Old Vicmarker staged Jack and the Beanstalk on a double bill with Euripides' Bacchae at the Edinburgh Festival. Jack and the Beanstalk was the perfect antidote to the passionate violence of Euripides' tragedy.

Since 2005, British television and theatre actor John Barrowman has been returning repeatedly to the pantomime, playing Prince Charming in 2005's Cinderella; Jack in 2006's Jack and the Beanstalk; Aladdin in 2007's Aladdin; and most recently the title character of Robin Hood in 2008/2009.

Pantomime Roles

Role Role Description Played by
Principal Boy/Girl Main Character in the pantomime Man/Woman
In most pantomimes there is a Principal boy played by a women, often wearing tights to show off a shapely pair of legs
Panto Dame Normally the Hero's Mother Man
Co-Principal Boy/Girl Normally the Hero's Love Interest Man/Woman
Villain The Bad guy of a pantomime Man

Pantomime outside the United Kingdom

Pantomime in Australia

Pantomimes in Australia at Christmas have also always been very popular, and professional productions often feature celebrities. During the 1950s, a Christmas Cinderella pantomime in Sydneymarker featured Danny Kaye as Buttons. There are also radio pantomimes at Christmas which are featured on the Australian Broadcasting Corporationmarker.

The Adventures of Goldilockpick and Little Red Riding Hoodlum is one of a string of fractured pantos by North Queensland playwright Todd Barty. Barty most recently directed the play for Tropic Sun Theatre in Townsvillemarker. While a small production company in Brisbane is trying to revive 'new' pantomimes. Sean Dennehy, a Brisbane-based English theatre actor, director and writer, has written Tradition Impossible, a contemporary panto being shown at South Bank Parklands for the Christmas period.

At the "University of Western Australia", a group of students created "The UWA Pantomime Society" in 2003. Each semester the society write and produce a self-devised pantomime.

On the other hand it is probably fair to say that the familiarity of young Australians with the genre has declined rather than risen since the middle of the last century, for all manner of reasons.

Pantomime in Cambodia

The 'Phnom Penh Players' (Cambodia's most established ex-pat amateur theatre company) hold an annual panto each December. Their performances follow all the basic rules of Panto, and they have incorporated the idea of characters which don't belong in the show. These charactes often reflect upon the ridiculousness of the situations in which the play's main characters find themselves (echoing the feeling that most expats have everyday).

Pantomime in Canada

Christmas pantomimes have been performed in Canada for as many years as there have been British residents that enjoy this type of theatre.

2009SPECC-Tacular Productions from Maple Ridge, B.C have been producing Pantomimes since 2001 under the expert direction of South African Ed Marshall and Brits Su Wolfe, Christine Olorenshaw and Pauline De Silva. Using mainly British Scripts their Panto's are tradition with Wolfe and Marshall usually playing Principal Boy and Dame respectivly.2009 see's the return of Cinderella under the direction of Marshall who wrote the script. 2010 see's SPECC-tacular Productions breaking with tradition by bringing 2 pantomimes to The Act, Maple Ridge. The Wizard of Oz - a summer spectacular and Beauty & The Beast at Christmas.

2009The White Rock Players' Club in White Rock, British Columbia has been producing Christmas pantomimes since 1955.[152707] They have developed their own style of Panto and although it strays from the stricter British rules, the Dame, Principal Boy, Principal Girl and double entendres remain. The longest continually operating Panto group in Ontario is Peel Panto Players in Brampton, Ontario, founded in 1974.[152708]

Since 1996 [3], Ross Petty has been producing 'Fractured Fairy Tale Musicals' at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre. These shows are firmly in the old English pantomime tradition, incorporating many of the style’s elements—broad comedy, winking asides that break the 'fourth wall', audience participation and a man in a dress, often Mr. Petty himself. The guest stars are chosen to be of fun and interest to Toronto audiences, and include Canadian TV stars (Ernie Coombs, better known as Mr. Dressup, Sheila McCarthy, two of the Degrassi kids) ballet stars (Karen Kain, Frank Augustyn, Rex Harrington and athletes (Olympic skater Kurt Browning, WWE wrestler Bret Hart). The list of shows produced is also in keeping with panto tradition: Peter Pan, Cinderella, Aladdin, Robin Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Snow White.

In 2007, Booff Show, a Toronto-based comedy group, was established by world-renowned clown/mime Nikolai Terentiev, using the fundamentals of European/Russian style pantomime and clowning arts in theater.

Since 2006, Drayton Entertainment [152709], located in Ontario under the artistic direction of Alex Mustakas, has been offering traditional British Panto at Christmas under the direction and choreography of Trudy Moffatt. Using well known Canadian theatrical performers as well as Canadian TV stars (such as Fred Stinson, best known as Major Bedhead from The Big Comfy Couch) the show list includes Aladdin, Cinderella, Robin Hood, and an original offering called The Christmas

Since 1996, North Vancouver's SMP Dramatic Society [152710] has been producing pantos, including the traditional (Cinderella, Aladdin, and Snow White) along with the less traditional (the western Panto at the OK Corral and the upcoming The Wizard of Oz).

In Victoria (BC), St. Luke's Players [152711] have been presenting a panto since 2006, although some of its members have been participating in pantos for over 30 years.

East End Theatre of Ottawa, Canada has been performing a Christmas panto since 2002 under the direction of Diane Barnett. Next year in 2009 it will be in the new theatre in Orleans. To become a member and to support East End Theatre, visit

In Edmonton, Alberta, the St. George of England Society has been performing a pantomime around Christmas or New Year's since the early 1980s. In 2009, the Society celebrated its 25th pantomime.

Internationally recognized and talented mime and pantomime artist, Director Zillur Rahman John started to work on pantomime art in Edmonton, Canada. He has been honored by the Canadian City -Edmonton and received the award "The City of Edmonton Cultural Diversity in the Arts Award 2008" for his pantomime works and contribution in different countries. City Mayor Stephen Mendal presented the award on behalf of the city. John is directing a pantomime production to be staged on March 28, 2009 in Edmonton, Canada.

The Lakeside Players [152712] is a non-profit community theatre group formed in January of 1990 in the Britannia neighborhood of Ottawa, Canada, and based at Ron Kolbus Lakeside Centre (formerly Lakeside Gardens) in Britannia Park. The spring of 1990 heralded our first production, a 2-hour variety show that included musical and comedy acts, and two dramatic scenes from full-length plays. Starting in the 1991/92 season, we performed Aladdin - A Traditional British Pantomime and have continued this, now a Lakeside Players tradition, with successful productions of Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, The Princess and the Sentinel, The Wonderful Story of Mother Goose, The Sleeping Beauty, Robinson Crusoe, Red Riding Hood, Hickory Dickory Dock and Puss in Boots . These productions have included up to 25 children dancing and singing, and 10 - 15 adults in the casts. Much of the music for these productions has been written by our members and up to six musicians have performed the arrangements. Our audiences look forward to BOOing the Bad Guys and CHEERing the Good Guys, and joining us in the many familiar songs that are included. The traditional Pantomime animals in our productions have included a dancing Camel, Daisy the Cow, Moosesense, and Priscilla...the goose that lays golden eggs.

Pantomime in France

The Secret Panto Society has been created by British expatriates. Since 1984 they have performed pantomimes each winter with an ever-increasing success, in the small town of Pibrac, near Toulouse in southern France.

Pantomime in Germany

Chaincourt Theatre Group of Goethe University Frankfurt puts on a pantomime each year.

Pantomime in Switzerland

The Geneva Amateur Operatic Society has performed a traditional English pantomime in Genevamarker since 1972.The English Theatre Group of Zug has also performed pantomimes since the 1990s.The Basel English Panto Group also performs every year.

Pantomime in The Netherlands

I.D.E.A (Intl Drama English speaking Associates) stage their Panto's Jan/Feb time in Hendrik Ido Ambachtmarker, The Netherlandsmarker. IDEA is an English speaking drama group set up by expats with English as their mother tongue in the South of the Netherlands in 1991.

The AATG [152713] (Anglo-American Theatre Group) also stages a panto in the Netherlandsmarker. In 2009, they will be performing "Peter Pan" at the Koninklijke Schouwburg (Royal Theatre) in The Haguemarker in December.

Pantomime in the United States

Pantomime, as described in this article, is seldom performed in the United States of Americamarker. As a consequence, Americans commonly understand the word "pantomime" to refer to the art of mime (as was practised, for example, by Marcel Marceau and Nola Rae), and assume it to be a solo performance such as is as common on street corners as on stage. However, certain shows that came from the pantomime traditions, especially Peter Pan, are performed quite often, and a few American theatre companies produce traditional British-style pantomime as well as American adaptations of the form.

The form is not completely unknown in the U.S. The Piccolo Theatre of Evanston, Illinois, for example, has written and produced holiday pantomimes, or pantos, annually since 2001 as part of its mission to revive traditional physical comedy theater forms for presentation to American audiences. Stages Repertory Theatre in Houston, Texas, produced a panto Cinderella in December 2008, with book and lyrics by Kate Hawley and music by Gregg Coffin. For the 2009 Christmas season, the Minneapolis Children's Theatre Company staged the same children's classic as a pantomine production.

Earliest U.S. productions

As for the earliest pantomime productions in the US, the above-cited Professor Peck[152714] of the University of Rochestermarker lists Cinderella pantomime productions in New York (March 1808), New York again (August 1808), Philadelphia (1824), and Baltimore (1839) [152715]. However, it is doubtful to what extent these early productions resembled pantomime by its current definition in England, which dates from about the last third of the 19th century.

Pantomime in the United Kingdom today

Many theatres in cities and provincial towns throughout the United Kingdom continue to have an annual professional pantomime.

Pantomime is also very popular with amateur dramatics societies throughout the UK, and the pantomime season (roughly speaking, December to February) will see pantomime productions in many village halls and similar venues across the country.

The Archers

Most years the long running radio soap opera The Archers on BBC Radio 4 has a pantomime in the village hall produced by Linda Snell.

Apart from the joke that a group of experienced professional actors is portraying an essentially local and amateur event, it is a highly convincing element of the Ambridge scene.


  • R. J. Broadbent: A History of Pantomime. London, 1901.

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