High Boots and False Wigs


Photo source: Wikipedia

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’artΓ©. 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, Β 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.

It’s traditional.


41 thoughts on “High Boots and False Wigs

  1. I never liked pantomime until I had a minor part in one. I then discovered that the only people who truly like panto are those that take part! I wonder if that has always been the case?

    1. Never again, eh, Myfanwy? I adore pantomimes because, like the football stands, it is an outlet for being truly raucous. I join in every bit of audience participation, and a few bit besides. The more you join in, the more fun it is!

    1. Ah, but where else would one be able to shout rude things at the top of one’s voice without admonishment, Rosemary? My lot love it. Live theatre – there’s not much to beat it, in my opinion…

      1. They are encouraged to do so during “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” – whether it’s on film or a live performance. It can be great fun unless you’re the one getting soaked during the “rainstorm.” πŸ™‚

  2. Can’t say that I have ever seen true pantomime here in the U.S., burlesque in the early part of the 20th century was well before my time although bits of it were seen in early TV days in the 50’s and early 60’s. Maybe Tootsie with Dustin Hoffman was our only effort at pantomime. Cheers.

  3. Loved this post. I just saw The Artist – finally over the weekend. Not pantomine but no talking and that really does change the audience, doesn’t it? And Kate, you are in for it if you have a boy who asks, “what’s the point of that?” Felix sounds ever so much like my Calvin – always questioning.

  4. I love the panto tradition. My friends Clive and Sue were doing Robin Hood last year when we visited, and we went to see it. Clive made sure MTM and I were doing all the yelling and clapping, because he threatened to make us come up on stage if we did not. And, a girl played Robin Hood.

    1. Knowing someone in the panto is fab. You just glow with pride for them as they lead the raucous crowd of hundreds.I have known the panto dame in our local panto for years. Total genius.

  5. Fascinating stuff about the panto.
    We were cheated out of ours this year. The company which usually produces them is doing a Disney musical instead. Still, I’m not complaining.

      1. Well, we did have to stare at ones who looked like cupboards, teapots, candelabra and clocks, not to mention a truly beastly beast and the insufferable Gaston!

  6. I was in a panto once, dressed as a maid, holding a bladder on a stick (don’t ask) , and one of the burly types had to pick me up and carry me off over his shoulder, squealing and kicking my legs showing my big bloomers, i know this was not in the script, but what good panto has a script, one time he threw me with such gusto I flew over his shoulder and into the arms of a very surprised grave digger..Needless to say it brought the house (and me) down.. we did have fun in the theatre at christmas! c

  7. Here in the States, at least in the Midwest, there isn’t much pantomime, but, being a slapstick lover known to guffaw at the silliest of things, I know I will like panto. Hmmm, I should see if there is something around I’ve just been missing.

    1. Penny, not only would love it, but Kezzie would adore it. I wonder if Chicago might have something around to go and see? If not try the link I left for Lou: our big telly pantomime. We have one every year, hosted by ITV. They are totally classic. Odd, but classic.

    1. They are. Androgeny is much in vogue in theatre here, the Globe uses blokes all the time because it’s how Shakespeare did it. Think of Twelfth NIght, and the boy/girl twins: imagine the confusion there!

  8. I am not very familiar with pantomime from the British tradition, Kate, but I wonder if it isn’t something like American vaudeville? There must be some cross-over. I also didn’t know the history behind female parts played by men because the women didn’t want to appear in less than flattering roles. I think of some of today’s gorgeous women who are willing to play the most “dressed down” parts–and on enormous theater screens! Acting is a fascinating profession and always has been, I think! I like the way Felix thinks! πŸ™‚

  9. I love panto, Kate!
    I only see the TV versions nowadays, but can sit back and just watch without thinking. I’m sure I’ve read the history of the pantomime dame somewhere, but can’t quite remember it for now, apart from what you’ve provided, of course! πŸ™‚

  10. I suspect that Felix will become an engineer or statistician – no suspension of disbelief for him! As a child, I loved going to the Christmas panto every year with my grandmother, aunts and band of cousins – it was always such a treat.

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