It might sound like a cruel prank to play on a street performer, but ‘pantomime’ has actually been a steady source of work for many artists. Read on to learn more about this popular amusement that has been entertaining audiences for millennia.

All Imitation: Pantomime Defined

Do you have younger siblings who make a point to mimic everything you do? Having your every mannerism, movement, or word imitated isn’t always as endearing or amusing as they think it is; nevertheless, similar behavior has been captivating audiences for quite some time. Though it has taken many forms over the years, we now recognize modern pantomime as a form of entertainment particularly suited for children, often with exotic stories and stunning visual elements.

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The roots of this popular diversion are ancient, and the original Greek term pantomimos has often been interpreted to mean ‘imitating (mimos) all (panto-).’ While it’s true the earliest forms of pantomime could involve subjects either comedic, tragic, or somewhere in between, the best way to translate pantomimos might be as ‘all imitation.’ As the earliest forerunners to modern mimes, the pantomime performers popular in Rome wore silken costumes and closed-lipped masks. They were accompanied by a chorus who would keep rhythm and tell the story as the mime interpreted it through elaborate dance steps and gestures. No pantomime librettos, or choral scripts, remain from antiquity, but there’s evidence that many prominent literary figures wrote them, including the Roman epic poet, Lucan.

Over the years, ancient pantomime developed into various forms of dramatic and musical entertainment. Many of these were comedic or lighthearted in nature, and renewed interest in Classical works brought on a surge of such productions during the Renaissance. The English royal courts of the 16th and 17th centuries found these early modern pantomimes to be irresistible, and their wide popularity even influenced some of the most notable writers of English literature (i.e. pantomime of Juno and Ceres impacted Shakespeare’s The Tempest).

Even Queen Elizabeth II shared in the English royal love of pantomime, as she is pictured here (left) in male clothing performing as Aladdin!
Photo of Princess Elizabeth as Aladdin

Pantomime has become a staple of British family-friendly entertainment. Most often performed during the Christmas season, these productions colloquially known as ‘pantos‘ feature plots and characters most often derived from folklore, fairy tales, or other exotic stories (i.e. that of Aladdin). Whatever the situation, we can usually find at least two stock characters: the hero or lead boy, typically played by a girl, and the ‘dame’ or older maternal figure, generally portrayed by a man. A modern panto typically displays dances and musical performances, accompanied by joke-telling, slapstick, and other forms of physical or situational comedy.

Examples of Pantomime

Robin Hood

Many of us probably have fond childhood memories of the story of Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men and might like to share those memories with our own children. A special Christmas performance in London’s Victoria Park has now made that possible in a whole new way with a pantomime featuring everyone’s favorite archer. The show is reportedly full of slapstick and the many other comedic and musical elements that have made pantomime so popular in Britain and other English-speaking countries around the world (i.e. Canada, New Zealand).

Beauty and the Beast

Of course, most of us are most likely familiar with the story of Belle and the Beast from one source or another. From its origins as a folktale, Beauty and the Beast has been re-imagined for centuries in a variety of forms, and now there’s a pantomime version, as well! Produced by the Theatre Royal Stratford East in London, this panto features the musical and dance aspects of the story not only typical of this type of production, but that many of us might already associate with this classic tale.

Summary

Modern pantomime is a form of entertainment particularly suited for children, with exotic stories and stunning visual elements. Though no librettos, or choral scripts, remain from antiquity, there’s evidence that pantomimes – widely popular at Rome – were written by some notable ancient authors.

Today, pantomimes are extremely popular in Britain and other Anglophone countries and are most commonly performed during the Christmas season. These family-friendly holiday treats (often called ‘pantos‘) typically feature plots based in fairy tales or other exotic stories, along with musical and dance performances, as well as slapstick and other comedic elements.