One of the best things about the Yuletide in Britain is the opportunity to take your children to see a Christmas panto.
We don’t have them in America, because attending a panto became a “Christmas Tradition” in Britain in the Regency era, when all things British were being spurned by Americans with jingoistic fever. Frankly, we missed out, because the Christmas panto is a hoot. Makes one glad one is now British, what?
The idea that you should take your kids to see a panto as a Christmas treat had solidified into custom by the time Jane Austen was a girl, and it was hardly a holiday unless the kids could enjoy “the craziness of the harlequinade chase scene” in a locally produced panto. If they were very, VERY lucky, they may have even gotten to see the famous Joesph Grimaldi perform.
Grimaldi practically WAS the spirit of the panto during the later Regency period. His most famous role was in Thomas John Dibdin’s Christmas panto Harlequin and Mother Goose; or, The Golden Egg, which was first performed in December 1806 at the Covent Garden Theatre. Grimaldi played both Bugle, “a wealthy but abrasive eccentric womaniser”, and the Clown. The panto was so successful that it was played 111 times in two years, making the then-unheard of sum of £20,000 in profit. Grimaldi retired from full-time work in 1823 due to the damage the role of Clown had done to his health, but continued to take cameos in Christmas pantos until his death on 31 May 1837.
After Grimaldi’s death, the Clown became less of a standard in pantos, perhaps because no one could live up to the bar Grimaldi had raised so high. By the time the Victorians were attending the theaters, the Christmas panto was less harlequinade and more straight-forwardly comic. The new ‘stock’ characters for the panto were the Hero, the Villain, the Grand Dame, the Heroine, and the Good Fairy.
The modern Christmas panto still uses these stock characters, and is family friendly in the extreme, with “song, dance, buffoonery, slapstick, cross-dressing, in-jokes, topical references, audience participation, and mild sexual innuendo” that the kids don’t understand but the adults smirk at knowingly. There are also a few political jabs at whichever political party is in power shoe-horned into the script as well, again for the adults. It’s all very traditional, so no one is allowed to get their pants in a twist about it.
The Good Fairy (played by any gender) acts as the narrator and often instructs the audience how they should participate. For example, when the Villain (male or female) is trying to sneak up behind the protagonists for some dastardly doings, the audience has been instructed by the Good Fairy to shout, “Look behind you!” to warn the other characters of the baddie’s approach. The Villain inspires the best audience participation in general, because the audience also ‘talks back’ to the antagonist, shouting, “Oh no you won’t!” or “Oh no it isn’t” to foil any plotting. The audience must also let loose with enthusiastic boos and hisses whenever the Villain comes on stage, as well. In some pantos, David Hasselhoff may be the visiting thespian playing the Villain, but you can’t always count on that, alas.
The Hero was (and still is) traditionally played by a young woman, preferably wearing a costume that reveals most of her legs, making a mockery of the ‘masculinity’ of the principal boy. The Hero must nonetheless do ‘his’ best to woo the Heroine, who is also a pretty woman. The Heroine is generally the one person in the panto trying to make sense of things and acting as the foil for the other characters.
The Grand Dame is almost always played by a man – preferably one who looks ludicrous dressed as a woman. To tell the truth, the Grand Dame gets all the best lines and usually the biggest laughs. There is something about a bearded man in full Carmen Miranda get up pelvic thrusting ‘her’ way through Despacito that inspires mirth, y’all.
There are also other comic roles in any panto, as well as a puppet animal or two and a large chorus made up of both children and adults all singing and dancing and wallowing in tomfoolery for the cheering audience. In turn, the audience usually attends wearing the most over-the-top Christmas jumpers and attire available to humans, including headbands with bobbing Santas and other such paraphilia, to embrace the spirit of the season. The adult members of the audience also embrace seasonal spirits in the form of mulled wine from the bar during in the intermission, so it gets real festive by the second act.
It is a fabulous time and watching your kids laugh their heads off while adorned in baubles is like a shot of Christmas cheer straight to your heart. If you ever get a chance to go to a Christmas panto, do so!