The Panto: Culture and Contexts

Image Credit: Paolo Chiabrando via Unsplash

Emma Davis discusses the history of The Panto and its Relevance to Pop Culture.

With its trademark sense of camp factor and humour, Panto has entertained audiences for years. Its sense of magic and wonder makes it the perfect fit for the festive season. But where and when did it all begin? And how has the Panto evolved into an annual Christmas tradition?

While London’s West End is well known for hosting a variety of Pantos, this genre of theatre originates from the 16th century Italian performance style known as Commedia dell’Arte. This style of performance featured mischievous characters performing a variety of physical stunts, such as dancing and acrobatics. The most famous of these characters is the mask-wearing Harlequin, who wielded a magic bat and recanted funny tales. Harlequin and his comrades, which included his love interest Columbine, performed all over Europe during the 16th century. Later, these characters would eventually appear on London’s renowned stage by the early 18th century. 

After being introduced to London audiences, Harlequin became an instant theatre sensation. John Rich, the most famous early Harlequin, created a chase scene known as the Harlequinade, which featured the star-crossed lovers Harlequin and Columbine and was mimed entirely to music. This slapstick chase scene characterised Pantos for centuries. Rich’s Harlequin utilised his wooden bat to change the stage’s scenery by knocking down the set design’s hinged flaps. This image became so ingrained in people’s minds, that the term “slapstick” became descriptive of clownish physical comedy - and is still commonly used in contemporary Pop Culture.

After being introduced to London audiences, Harlequin became an instant theatre sensation. 

The term “slapstick” isn’t the only remnant of this early form of Panto. The image of Harlequin is still recognisable thanks to the character wearing patched clothing, a mask and yielding a wooden bat. This striking image influenced the physical character design of DC’s Harley Quinn, whose name is a direct reference to Harlequin. Like her namesake, Harley Quinn imbues Panto’s slapstick comedy and even has a wooden bat. Harley Quinn is the most notable on-screen Pop Culture reference to early Panto’s enduring influence. 

Considering how the Pantomime is derived from the Greek word pantomimos (meaning “all”) and how panto originated from the Commedia dell ‘Arte, it is no wonder so many countries have adapted it to fit their respective cultures. British colonies, such as Jamaica, adhere to the British tradition of hosting Pantos on Boxing Day (26th of December), while also featuring aspects of their own culture and history. The Panto Johnny Reggae, first performed by the Little Theatre in Jamaica, was the first Panto to feature traditional Jamaican music known as Reggae. 

Many have compared Pantos to Drag shows due to how they both feature men dressing up as female characters. In Australia, Pantos are so popular that they have in time influenced many Drag performers, such as Dame Edna Everage. The Panto camp factor has even led to Sydney becoming the world’s second most populated LGBTQ+ city, right behind San Francisco. Even world-renowned Drag queen, Rupaul featured a Panto-themed segment on his show RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, paying homage to British theatrical culture. 

Pantos have even reached across the Atlantic. Indeed, Canada follows the British custom of annually performing Pantos on Boxing Day. Meanwhile, the alleged first American Panto was Robinson Crusoe, which took place at St John’s Theatre in New York in 1786. Humpty Dumpty has become the most successful American Panto; it was first performed at the Olympic Theatre in New York and performances have run for over a staggering 1,200 performances. 

Today, much has been made to modernise timely and classical Pantos.

Today, much has been made to modernise timely and classical Pantos. For instance, Cinderella sees the titular heroine reimagined as a punk princess who is ostracised by the society she lives in. While she is considered too unconventional for her hometown of Belleville, Cinderella strives to stay true to who she really is, while also trying to find a sense of belonging. She ultimately has her happily ever after with her Prince Charming. With this new storyline being written by none other than Academy Award winning writer Emerald Fennell, and with lyrics written by the legendary Andrew Lloyd Webber, this Panto twist to a beloved fairytale classic is sure to be a hit - and it will surely guarantee Panto’s rightful place in the future of theatre.