Pantomimes are a tradition in Britain at Christmas time. The ‘it’s behind you’ and ‘no he didn’t’ are memorable sayings that take any Brit back to their early childhood. But COVID-19 has, along with most fun things in the world, taken this away, meaning that 2020 is the year with no-panto shows . This is highly disappointing for those kids who need to boo at a ridiculously dressed villain or those who work in pantos themselves. As we look at our first year in around 300 years to have mass cancellations of panto, it may be a good opportunity to think about what they are and why we should rethink some of ‘tradition’ tropes in pantomimes.
The pantomime as we know it today was inspired by an Italian performance piece known as ‘Commedia dell’arte’ from the 16th century. They were usually performed in marketplaces following a straight narrative centred by one of a few principal characters, an old man named Pantalone, the clown named Pierrot and a girl named Columbine, who falls in love with a ‘naughty’ servant named Arlecchino. These characters, along with interactive theatre, came to England and the early forms of panto began to develop by the late 1700’s. Actor Joseph Grimaldi expanded on this and made it even grander. Over time these formed in different ways, but the plot vaguely followed a similar pattern, and there remained focus on audience participation in performances. Even today there are very few live performances that include audience participation. In traditional pantos the principal boy was usually played by a woman and the comic man dressed as a woman, known as a Dame, a key feature of modern day pantos. By Victorian times, Pantomimes had become a Christmas fayre tradition, where they were usually performed, and continued throughout the years to the present day. Given that panto has existed for almost 400 years, it is worth considering how those tropes are represented in modern day and why this may be problematic.
Dames are a classic comic character where a male comedian dresses up as a woman, in eccentric outfits, being poked fun at for being overweight and ugly. Though a classic feature of beloved pantomimes, with the dame appearing in Aladdin as Aladdin’s widowed mother, or the two dames in Cinderella simultaneously playing the comic and the booed villain. However, in 21st Century Britain it is difficult to justify the dame’s comedic value. The fundamental point of a man dressing as a woman is itself not as hilarious as it once was and is now seen as more of an art with the growing popularity of drag. Though at times drag is still funny, it is also a statement of power and reclaiming sexuality and gender in a society full of gender norms. The role of the dame seems to be pushed aside for the cheap laugh of a man in a dress, but is poking fun at a man for being a woman in itself funny? It is not only insulting to women in comedy, but women in general, whose gender (one that has been brought up to fit stereotypes and match a patriarchal narrative) is subject to comedic ridicule itself. In pantomimes, being unattractive or overweight points to humour. If this is still acceptable comedy in a public, child-friendly setting, is it not time to re-think what sort of image we are presenting as a society? Though no dame would necessarily attempt to play into this narrative, by justifying and using this humour, pantomimes demean the whole point of comedy, and pokes fun at the already marginalised.
Another side to the panto are the cultural jokes which, though may seem to be throw-away comments with no deeper meaning, reflect a deeper issue within our society on how we present other cultures. ‘Aladdin’, a popular choice for many theatres, is originally set in China, despite the well-known story of Aladdin coming from Arabia. Aladdin, however, as a panto often presents some questionable stereotypes, such as characters like ‘wishy washy’ and jokes about Chinese accents and mispronunciation of the English language. It is painful to watch this uncomfortable language when seeing any form of entertainment, but most especially when it is aimed at an audience of young children. Pantos as a performance piece pushes the boundaries without even being aware of what they’re implying, focusing on the panto trope regardless of deeper societal implications. By displaying complicated images and forms of cultural appropriation, we reflect an issue of what is acceptable, and can make people feel their culture is being misrepresented for the good of a joke.
It is fair to say that pantomimes need some improvements. As we move into the 2020’s, it is difficult to justify certain practices which seem outdated and misplaced in contemporary Britain. Pantos themselves are a joyous occasion, which provides an opportunity for people to celebrate with their children, to laugh and take part in classic audience participation tropes. Despite the unquestionable joy of pantos we need to reflect on the societal aspects which provoke various different offensive ideas mainstreamed. I look forward to pantos in 2021, hopefully fitting better in the new decade and representative of a progressive Britain.