It’s Panto Time! One of my favorite Christmas traditions in the UK is going to see a panto. A pantomime (or panto for short) is not a silent production as the name might lead the uninitiated to believe. Far from silent, these Christmas plays are loud and bawdy. They’re filled with slapstick humor, cross-dressing actors, jokes about current events, and audience participation.
What is a Panto?
The best definition I have seen, comes from Kevin Wood, a major panto producer who had the idea of bringing in American actors to star in his productions. Since most Americans don’t know what a panto is, he explains it to them as “Disney stories performed in a Vaudeville style.”* And that just about sums it up.
Something for Everyone.
Pantos are considered mainly as entertainment for children and are usually based on children’s stories such as Jack and the Beanstalk, Snow White, Peter Pan, Cinderella, etc. But there is plenty there for the parents to enjoy as well. Adult humor and jokes about current events make the adults giggle, but go right over the children’s heads as they laugh at two actors in a cow suit trying to walk across the stage together.
Children love the funny costumes and exaggeration, and the fact that they get to participate. When the actor looks out at the audience and says, “Oh no it isn’t!” the audience yells back, “Oh yes it is!” When the villain comes on stage, he is booed and the audience helps out the hero by shouting, “He’s behind you!” It’s just an over-the-top, gaudy, slapstick bit of fun.
There’s a trend now of bringing in American actors for some of the larger pantos. In previous years, I’ve seen Henry Winkler as Captain Hook in Peter Pan, and Priscilla Presley as the wicked queen in Snow White. These big names attract more people which means more money. But you don’t have to go to the West End theaters to see a panto, they are performed in small community theatres all over the UK. Even people who don’t normally go to the theatre will often go see a panto at Christmas.
A Bit of History
Where did this crazy type of theatre come from? It’s thought that Pantos may have their roots in the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia when everything was turned upside down. This is where the cross-dressing comes in: the “panto dames” (leading ladies) are often men, and the principal boy is a girl.
Traveling Italian theater groups brought this mixed-up, slapstick comedy to Britain in the 1600s, and it must have appealed to the corny British sense of humor. They adopted it as their own, and by the mid-1800s, it was firmly associated with a British Christmas, as it has been ever since. And I, for one, am very glad it is!
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