Slapstick and spectacle: The British pantomime

Until I started researching the late Victorian theater for my recent book, Moriarty Brings Down the House, I had never heard of such a thing as a Christmas pantomime. Fellow Americans may be thinking, “Why should you have?” while British readers are thinking, “What?! How is that even possible?” It turned out to be a big topic, like pulling on an ordinary-looking sort of weed and discovering a vast and deep root system — with fairies.

Jeffrey Richards begins his definitive work on the subject thus: “The pantomime as we know it today developed in the 1840s from a merger of three distinct genres: the harlequinade, the largely dialogue-less comic knockabout of Clown, Harlequin and Pantaloon; the extravaganza, the elegant and witty satire of modern life in comic versions of classical myths and fairy tales; and the burlesque, the irreverent send-up of everything the Victorians customarily took seriously, such as English history, grand opera and Shakespeare.”

The world of topsy-turvy


Vesta Tilley as Principal Boy

The whole point of a pantomime is to create an alternate reality. The myths and fairy tales aren’t how you remember them (more on that next month) and the characters aren’t who you think they might be either.


Dan Leno as Mother Goose

The Principal Boy, for example, was traditionally played by a woman. That doesn’t seem to be the case in the 21st century. But the English theater has a long tradition of cross-dressing. In Shakespeare’s day, girls were played by boys, since women weren’t allowed on the stage. And old nurses and bawdy house keepers might be played by large, deep-voiced men, to add to the humor. Those roles evolved into the Dames of Victorian pantos — the mothers and other authoritative women — who were played by popular male comedians.


We must begin with the Licensing Act of 1737, which separated all theatrical entertainments in Great Britain into two parts. Spoken word performances were limited to the Theatres Royal — Drury Lane and Covent Garden. Drama could not be performed anywhere else. But there was an enormous appetite for entertainment. People have loved getting dressed up and going out to a public place to watch astounding, intriguing, and alluring things since ancient times, after all. Two theaters could not supply the needs of the whole city of London.


Actors from the Commedia dell’Arte on a Wagon in a Town Square, Jan Miel, 1640

So other forms sprang up: melodrama, burletta, and pantomime (traditional definition.) Also musical concerts and ballets, which found their way into Victorian pantos too, as time went by. Richards doesn’t talk much about melodramas, but I think they must have been like stage versions of old silent movies where the piano music thrillingly amplifies the predicaments being enacted. We’ll look at burlettas below.

The traditional pantomime is a direct descendant of commedia dell’arte, Mother of all forms of street theater. I’ve blogged about this before, I think. I saw a modern commedia dell’arte troop perform in Austin a few years ago. So much fun!!! Fart jokes truly are eternal.

The eighteenth-century English harlequinade wasn’t so vulgar, although it relied on the commedia dell’arte stock characters, Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon, Scaramouche, and Pierrot, as well as the standard plot of young lovers separated by greedy fathers and aided by clever servants.


Joseph Grimaldi

Here’s Richard’s description of how the form was transformed by John Rich, an actor-producer in the late 18th century: “Rich linked the action of the harlequinade to an opening story derived from classical mythology, imbued his characters with magical powers and combined music, dance, mime, acrobatics, spectacle, special effects and topical allusions into an appealing and exciting whole.” That sounds like fun to me! With a touch of something to think about. More like a modern musical than anything in between, perhaps.

The leading star of this stage of pantomime was Joseph Grimaldi, ‘The Garrick of Clowns.’ The Clown is the Master of Chaos, the causer of complications. He turns things upside down and inside out.

The transformation


Arlecchino und Colombina, Giovanni Domenico Ferretti, 18th century

Harlequin crucially transforms the opening scenario into Fairyland, by tapping the scenery flat with his bat. We leave the real world behind and enter a land of magic. Originally the same cast appeared in both parts; that changed over time. The transformations sometimes happened before the audience’s eyes, with moveable scenery and huge panoramic canvases that could be slowly rolled from one side of the stage to the other, carrying us from town to country or from seashore to mountain or wherever.

This reminds me of something Disney-esque. Can’t remember if it’s an ad or an old feature-length cartoon or what, but they have a starting point — a plain screen, as I remember it — which a fairy taps with her wand, making it dissolve into sparkles and then resolve into a new story world.

Also, very memorably, the transformation from black-and-white Kansas to Technicolor Oz in the wonderful 1939 movie version of the Wizard of Oz. I’m not old enough to have seen that in a theater, but I am old enough to remember how scary those flying monkeys were when we gathered ’round the old TV. Hoo! Good thing my parents were right there, or we couldn’t have stood it.



Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth, by John Singer Sargent,1889

The extravaganza was introduced to the English stage by James Robinson Planché (1796 – 1880.) He was both a dramatist and an antiquarian who insisted on historical accuracy in costumes and set designs, soon copied by everyone who mattered. A very important figure in 19th century theater.

I can’t find a sensible, single definition of ‘extravaganza’ as it applies to theater other than OED’s bland summation: “A composition, literary, musical or dramatic, of an extravagant or fantastic character.” We’re meant to emphasize the fantastic element, I think. Planché himself tried out other terms, like “fantastical burletta,” settling on ‘extravaganza’ to describe his 1840 production of The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood, performed at Covent Garden. 

The Theatres Act of 1843 amended that annoying old Licensing Act, making it possible for words to be spoken on stage all over town. So the actors could speak, but that’s not what people came out for. They wanted spectacle and fantasy, but they also wanted it to look as real as possible. This is long before photography, remember; at least, color photography and film. Reality could only be captured in paint.

Gorgeous sets, gorgeous costumes, elaborate transformations. Did the story call for a fire? Then simulate one. Horses? No need to simulate that – get some real horses out there. Call in the elephants and the processions of hundreds of costumed children, passing before the dazzled eyes of the thousand-plus people packed into the theater.


American burlesque, 1900, but you get the idea. Real horses were not too much.

This next one is more typical. It’s from a poster for The Black Crook (1873.) In this scene, the Amazons defeat the forces of evil. Note the fabulous costumes, the towering set, and the sheer number of people on the stage. 



When we think of burlesque, we think of strippers — at least, I do. Gypsy Rose Lee. You can hear that music, can’t you? But that’s not the original meaning of the word nor the type of performance, although you wouldn’t know it if you googled “victorian burlesque” looking for images! Don’t do it; it’s just a bunch of young ladies in their underwear. You’ve seen that!


Macready as Macbeth

Our friend OED defines ‘burlesque’ as “That species of literary composition, or of dramatic representation, which aims at exciting laughter by caricature of the manner or spirit of serious works, or by ludicrous treatment of their subjects; a literary or dramatic work of this kind.” For the Victorians, burlesque meant caricature with plenty of extravaganza laid in for spectacle.

Originally, the burletta was a comic interlude in Italian opera. A little joke on the music, perhaps. Sounds sophisticated. Victorian burlesques were sophisticated in a way, perhaps. They loved to lampoon sophistication, at any rate. Shakespeare became a favorite target.

The lucky theater-goer had no need to choose between high art and low comedy. She could have both! The divine Ellen Terry playing Lady Macbeth at the Lyceum, divinely depicted above, or William Charles Macready at Covent Garden (perhaps not in the same decade). Or she and her pals could jaunt across the metropolis to watch The Travestie of Macbeth, A Burlesque in Two Acts.

Here’s a sample of that last, to send you back to work with a chuckle.

Macbeth travestie e1515022541555



Booth, Michael R. 1981. Victorian Spectacular Theatre, 1850-1910. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Richards, Jeffrey. 2015. The Golden Age of Pantomime: Slapstick, Spectacle, and Subversion in Victorian England. London: I.B. Tauris.

Wikipedia, “Pantomime.”

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