We ambled down to Felix’s school, discussing the school pantomime which came to the school to entertain the children.
Felix did not think much of it. “Charlie and I passed the time by laughing at it,” he said.
“Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do at a pantomime?” I asked.
“No, no- we were laughing at the silly things. Like, during the play, Captain Hook had an English accent and the crocodile had a Scottish accent. And then when they did their bows at the end, it turned out Captain Hook was Scottish and the crocodile was English.
“What’s the point of that?”, he went on, warming to his subject like a true Union man. “They should have made the person who played the crocodile Captain Hook, and the man who played Captain Hook the crocodile. Then they could have used their own accents.”
And there was another thing. The leading part in Peter Pan is a boy, but there was a girl playing it, which made love scenes very confusing indeed, my son related.
It is a strange old business, this cross dressing in the English theatre. The ambiguity of a burly man in a dress-and-slap delights us here. And the dashing young man-who-is-really-a-girl? As a child, I took her for granted. She has always been a part of this very English tradition, the pantomime.
In Shakespeare’s time, boys played girls because girls weren’t allowed. Word has it that when the Restoration allowed women in, no-one wanted to play the old ugly female roles, and so men obliged.
That was before pantomime.
The pantomime began with the need for light relief in the worthy but heavy operas of Restoration England. The high artistes would glide off the stage, and on would come the perpetrators of ‘low opera’, a version of the Commedia Dell’arté. Harlequin and Columbine would typically be running away from Columbine’s disapproving father, who was always waylayed by his servant the clown.
And Harlequin began to introduce a tale: it might be Jack and the Beanstalk, or Aladdin, or LIttle Red Riding Hood. And the moment the story appeared it began to nudge Harlequin and his like out of the way.
Pantomimes based on a familiar story from folklore, sans-Harlequinnade, began to appear.
The kids of the 1800s loved it. There was always slapstick, and comedy, and magic, and stunts. And as the form entered the 1900s, Drury Lane Theatre and its like were introducing tales full of raucous event.
And breeches parts.
In 1819, the part of Jack in Jack and the Beanstalk was played by actress Eliza Povey. The Victorians disapproved heartily of showing any leg, but a loophole meant a woman in pantomime could show a considerable amount of leg without fear of bringing the theatre into disrepute.
Of course, people flocked. Legs meant box office takings. Audiences began to compare which principal boy had the best legs. Tunics replaced breeches. And the tradition has endured, reaching its height during the Edwardian era through to the 1930, but alive and well in Felix’s school today.
The pantomime dame cannot be said to have appeal for the same reasons.
But he- or she- is funny. Celebrated clown Joseph Grimaldi took on the roles first, at Drury Lane; he it was who started the tradition of the singalong, and introduced tumbling in a dress. The audiences loved it. They always have: and they show no sign of tiring now.
I expect we shall go to see a pantomime, some time during the Christmas period. We shall holler “He’s behind you!” when the villain appears, and try to catch the sweets when they are thrown from the stage, and bawl some nonsensical song at the top of our voices.