The pantomime season is upon us! As soon as you see the gap-toothed grin of Gareth Gates peering from highly lit Cinderella posters you know that it’s Christmas.
A huge number of actors from all areas and levels of performance rely upon panto to pay for their Christmas—the work is consistent and often you literally cannot afford to be snobby. The pantomime I’m currently rehearsing is low key, but is still estimated to reach around 16,000 children and that is small in pantomime terms. Hundreds of thousands of people will see a pantomime this year in the UK. Theatres sell out, ticket prices are high and audiences are hugely diverse, yet for such a wide reaching theatrical form I graduated from an English degree knowing nothing about it. Where were the shelves of criticism and history in the library? Where was the lecture? I wrote about early medieval beards in literature, but never found out about this living, hugely distinctive form of current contemporary entertainment.
In a time when popular culture is being widely embraced by the academic world, it seems a strange gap. And I begin to wonder if pantomime is still suffering from the snobbery that plagued its birth. It kicked off in Ancient Greece, the name itself coming from Greek, meaning to imitate everything: it was theatre that had sex, comedy, music and dance and was hugely lucrative. However, none of these early pantomimes survive, potentially due to the little worth assigned to this popular work. The sort of carnival-esque conventions that were associated with pantomime can be found in very early English theatre, from the 13th century fabliaux Dame Sirith (a lot of sidelong winks and talk of ploughing women…) to the Mummers plays that travelled around the country during the Middle Ages and beyond.
It feels a little ludicrous however to attempt to trace pantomime because in many respects the history of panto is simply that of popular theatre. You can see it in the dodgy comedy of the Medieval mystery plays; in the frenzy of Jacobean revenge tragedies and in the jigs and morris dances that incongruously followed Shakespeare’s tragedies. Pantomime is first and foremost about the audience, providing them with comfort and entertainment and these tropes can be found in theatre throughout history. What is peculiar is unlike these earlier forms of popular theatre that have been redeemed and legitimized by academia, pantomime has never received this stamp of approval.
A look at the development of film studies goes some way to suggesting the reasoning behind this gap. It is possible to chart a rise in film studies as an academic discipline as the distribution of televisions became more widespread. Prior to television, cinema was the entertainment of the masses, as television began to supplant the cinema, ticket prices went up and the demographic using cinemas changed. Everyone could no longer afford to crowd in once a week, it became a luxury pursuit and as the audience’s changed it became a niche subject worth studying. The same rehabilitation can be seen for the rip-roaring revenge tragedians—once theatre ceased to become the location for mass popular culture these strange, gory plays became legitimate. Yet if you go and see Middleton and Rowley’s ‘The Changeling’ at the Young Vic this Christmas what you will be getting won’t be far off panto. It certainly has more blood and explicit sex, but the direct address, custard pie fights and dance to Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’ featured in Joe Hill-Gibbons production would not be out of place in any panto happening across the country.
Pantomime is considered the accessible theatre of choice for people who don’t ‘do’ theatre. Yet it is in many ways a hugely inaccessible form: it
relies heavily upon an understanding of British culture and more than that, a knowledge of distinctive pantomime conventions. ‘Oh yes he will’ is not the natural response to ‘Oh no he won’t’—in any other theatrical circumstance that sort of direct contradiction would be considered the height of abhorrent heckling, but in panto different rules apply. Cross dressing, same sex couples and absurdist innuendo-filled humour in a different context might be read as subversive—but in panto audiences of all political and moral leanings accept the conventions without question or offence. Pantomime challenges without confrontation. It makes no issue of its subversion, it just does it. Perhaps its brazen approach is the reason it has managed to get away with its world of difference for so long.
Theatrically pantomime achieves what so much theatre has been winding its way towards for years. The production of ‘The Changeling’ is just one example of modern theatre-makers trying to prioritise and engage the audience. The theatre companies Punchdrunk and You Me Bum Bum Train have worked for years to try to break down the barriers between the performer and audience member and to get the audience actively engaged with the show. They both take over huge warehouse spaces and makes fantastically realistic sets, performing shows one-on-one in the hope of getting a response out of the audience member. In pantomime the fourth wall is scarcely there and the audience are encouraged to contribute throughout – the audience can scream and shout and directly address the actors and they do.
The Factory theatre company provide innovative experiences for the audience by giving them the power to cast the play they are about to watch, in pantomime the audience are always allowed to feel they have power over the plot. They are directly appealed to for help by the performers and their actions are required for the progression of the story. Cinderella can’t find her Prince if the audience don’t tell her that he’s behind her; the giant might get much further in ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ if the audience didn’t shout down his ‘Oh yes I will’ with their ‘Oh no you won’t’ and Aladdin would genuinely not know what to do with the lamp if the audience didn’t tell him what to do with it. Theatre companies have been trying to achieve what panto has already perfected for years, but despite the possibility for the different theatrical forms to learn so much from each other there is still a marked distinction. As if panto is theatre’s dirty cash-cow secret, and the ‘legitimate’ theatre of Punchdrunk, You Me Bum Bum Train and Factory are trying hard to pretend it doesn’t exist. It is easy to do since panto is tied to Christmas and has therefore become an extension of Christmas tradition rather than a distinctive theatrical form.
Yet a play that is for many people their first experience of theatre should be understood. What does it do to a person’s expectations of performance if their first theatrical encounter is with a man in drag making fun of Vanilla Ice who, having fallen on hard times, is having to hear the joke about him ‘not being able to touch this’ forty times a day? Honestly I think it sets you up to expect something awesome and hilarious and I can completely understand why other straight plays could feel like a come-down after that. I think so much can be learnt from pantomime, academically and practically. I am not suggesting all theatre should suddenly start introducing call and response, gender bending and Carly Rae Jepson ‘Call Me Maybe’ interludes. But there is, however, much that can be taken from pantomime in its approach to audience and performance and it deserves recognition.
I suppose the deftest way you could pull the carpet from under my comedy-shoe-wearing-panto feet would be to point out that my perspective is currently totally skewed by my work in a panto and that secretly I’m just trying to persuade you to hunt down my production and boost ticket sales. But HA! I’ll tell you what, that’s not true! Because you can’t see my show unless you are under 11 and still at primary school.