Outlandish costumes, broad comedy, celebrity turns and audience participation – the now-familiar trappings of the classic British panto owe much to the enterprising Victorians, whose innovations cemented the popular art-form that we know and love today.
Pantomime has its roots in 'Commedia dell'Arte', a 16th-century Italian entertainment featuring a cast of mischievous characters. Harlequin was the quick-witted miscreant who carried a magic bat, wore a mask and dressed in clothes made of patches. During the 17th century, Harlequin and his companions, including Scaramouche, Pantaloon, Pierrot, Punch and love-interest Columbine were improvising comic stories, singing, dancing and cavorting their way across Europe. By the early 18th century, Commedia characters began to appear on the London stage in early pantomimes which were based on classical stories, set to music but without speech.
Harlequin was the star of 18th century pantomime, which proved popular with paying audiences. In 1732 John Rich, the most notable early Harlequin who danced but never spoke, built Covent Garden Theatre with the profits of his magical pantomimes. At Drury Lane Theatre the actor-manager David Garrick astonished audiences with a speaking Harlequin and employed Rich's pupil Henry Woodward to pen new stories for him, some incorporating old English folk stories like Dick Whittington, Robin Hood, and the Children of the Wood. As pantomime evolved, more domestic stories and topical satire began to replace classical tales. After Joseph Grimaldi's Clown was such a hit in Mother Goose at Covent Garden in 1806, Clown began to edge out Harlequin as the star of the show.
More change was afoot in pantomime in the 1830s with the rise in the popularity of elaborate scenery and stage effects, and the fairy-tale extravaganzas of James Robinson Planché, starring Lucy Eliza Vestris, first staged at the Olympic Theatre in 1831.
Until 1843, theatre licensing had restricted the use of spoken word in performances. The Theatres Act lifted the restriction, allowing any theatre without a royal patent to produce a play with purely spoken dialogue. Now witty puns, word play and audience participation were added to the repertoire of mime, daring chase scenes and spectacular transformations. Favourite fairy-tale characters, magical animals, principal boys and pantomime dames all became part of the mix. Any subject was fair game, as pantomimes combined nonsense tales with social satire, commenting on current events and innovations such as the exciting but still dangerous railways.
By the late 19th century the most extravagant productions at the largest London theatres could last up to five hours and featured clever stage tricks, stunning costumes and huge casts. It became customary for pantomimes to open on Boxing Day, forever linking this entertainment with Christmas and family. Pantomime became popular on a smaller scale too with families and friends performing pantomimes in Toy Theatre versions, with cardboard characters and abbreviated scripts.
Today's popular panto stories derive from various sources. Dick Whittington was based on the life of a real mayor of London who died in 1423. Written accounts of his life appeared as early as the 17th century, including Thomas Heywood's 1656 The Famous and Remarkable History of Sir Richard Whittington, although there is no evidence he ever owned a cat. The 1862 pantomime version by the prolific pantomime author H.J. Byron saw Dick chased by a villain in a hot air balloon – the year that two English balloonists made the news for ascending to a record-breaking altitude. Robinson Crusoe was based on Daniel Defoe's novel The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), inspired by the true adventures of ship's captain, Alexander Selkirk, who survived on a desert island for four years.
Other stories derived from European, Middle Eastern and Asian folk tales and legends. The fairytales published by the 17th-century French writers Madame d'Aulnoy and Charles Perrault included the stories of Pretty Goldilocks, Cunning Cinders, Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, the Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella. Rossini's 1817 opera La Cenerentola, based on Perrault's Cinderella story, had its London premiere in 1820 and appeared at Covent Garden the same year as Harlequin and Cinderella; or, the Little Glass Slipper. Cinderella was renowned for its magical transformation scene and is the only pantomime today to retain one, often with real Shetland ponies pulling Cinderella's coach. The bestselling collection of stories The Arabian Nights was first published in an English edition in the early 18th century. Once translated, they inspired the pantomimes Aladdin's Wonderful Lamp, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and The Seven Voyages of Sinbad, reflecting popular interest in all things oriental.
Principal boys and pantomime dames
The theatrical device of gender switching became a mainstay of Victorian pantomime. As early as 1837, actor-manager Lucy Eliza Vestris played a breeches role in Planché's production of Puss in Boots at the Olympic Theatre (Vestris played Ralph, while her husband Charles Mathews played the cat). In an era when women covered their legs with long skirts, acting in shorts and tights was considered risqué. Entrepreneurial theatre owner Augustus Harris capitalised on controversy by bringing Music Hall performers to his Drury Lane Theatre: Vesta Tilley, a male impersonator, and Marie Lloyd, 'Queen of the Music Halls', were among many female music hall stars who played principal boys. By the late 19th-century the female principal boy was an accepted convention of pantomime.
Men, however, had played women's roles throughout the history of theatre, as female performers were banned from the stage until after the Restoration in 1660. Pantomime drew on this convention – Samuel Simmons played Mother Goose as early as 1806. However artful his disguise, the dame's obvious masculinity remained an essential part of the gag in the 19th century. In 1861 H.J. Byron created the character of Widow Twankey in Aladdin or The Wonderful Scamp at the Strand Theatre, starring James Rogers as the widow, named after 'Twankay Tea' – a less than premium brand of tea imported from China. Female impersonators from Music Hall appeared as dames; Harris was credited with instigating the most legendary dame performer when he hired Music Hall star Dan Leno to play the play the wicked aunt in Babes in the Wood at Drury Lane in 1888. Leno continued to play the Christmas season at Drury Lane for the next 15 years, or as he would boast, "for the term of my natural life".
Music Hall stars
From the late 1860s, Music Hall performers were increasingly cast in pantomimes, bringing with them star quality and new audiences. The equivalent of modern-day celebrities, they became central to promoting pantomime and often brought raucous energy to the carefully staged productions. Some were inclined to pause the action to perform their own 'star turn', whether playing the saxophone, dancing a Can-Can or singing a signature song. Lottie Collins’s Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay was the 'show stopper' during Dick Whittington (1891), much to the approval of audiences and critics.
Live animals often appeared on stage in Victorian pantomime – donkeys were the preferred means of transport for clowns. Actors also made careers from dressing in elaborate animal costumes known as 'skins'. One of the most famous Victorian animal impersonators was actor and acrobat Charles Lauri Jnr, known as the 'Garrick of Animal Mimes'. He developed his own menagerie, playing 'Puss' in Puss in Boots and 'The Pug Dog' in Babes in the Wood, along with various turns as a monkey, bear, wolf, ostrich and even a kangaroo. Interviewed in 1893, Lauri said, "I need hardly say that I am an entire believer in studying from life. When getting my poodle part I had one always with me at home and it was from him that I learnt nearly all my tricks".
Spectacle and illusion
Pantomime became increasingly focussed on elaborate set designs and special effects. Trick scenery and fast scene changes were created with systems of hinged flaps of canvas painted on both sides that switched to reveal new settings; pivots, flying systems, and traps in the stage. The 'star trap' covered an opening in the stage, beneath which an actor stood on a platform. At the release of a counterweight, they were propelled upwards for a magical, if perilous, flying entrance. Some theatres had enormous water tanks and pumps beneath the boards to create water effects such as rivers, fountains and waterfalls. Lighting added to the magical effect; gaslight was introduced in 1817 and electric light was first introduced to the London stage at the Savoy Theatre in 1881. Effects such as ghostly fogs were created using coloured silk, gauze and glass. In Little Bo Peep (1892) large mirrors reflected and multiplied the procession of fairy-tale characters.
Scenic changes and traps were coordinated by stagehands using whistle signals. Elaborate transformations often required over 50 pairs of hands, while hydraulic stage machinery, like that installed at Drury Lane Theatre in 1896, enabled even more dynamic scene changes and special effects. These spectacles were central to the action and pulled in audiences. Stage designers were famous and often featured in the new illustrated press, with images showing the process of design and construction.
By the end of the century, pantomime had reached epic proportions. The 1900 production of Sleeping Beauty and the Beast was one of the most lavish and successful pantomimes ever produced at Drury Lane Theatre. Combining the story of Beauty and the Beast with Sleeping Beauty, it featured double the number of scenes and range of locations, with settings including the Haunted Vaults of the Palace, a Fairy Parliament and the Enchanted Crystal Garden. The grand finale was a transformation scene by set designer Bruce 'Sensation' Smith which represented Beauty's wedding gifts as well as a grand staircase and numerous fountains.
Productions at Drury Lane Theatre were acknowledged as the zenith of Victorian pantomime, with Harris regularly spending up to £10,000 on a show. Contemporary commentators suggested pantomime on this scale was a fitting entertainment for a decadent society. In December 1900, a critic in The Star newspaper wrote:
The Drury Lane pantomime…is a symbol of our nation. It is the biggest thing of its kind in the world, it is a prodigal of money, of invention, of splendour, of men and women, but it is without the sense of beauty or the restraining influence of taste. It is impossible to sit in the theatre for five hours without being filled with weary admiration. Only a great nation could have done such a thing; only an undisciplined nation would have done it. The monstrous, glittering thing of pomp and humour is without order or design; it is a hotch-potch of everything that has been seen on any stage.
Find out more about pantomime in Search the Collections