Britain's Christmas Pantomime is deeply rooted in the theatrical buffoonery of 16th Century Italy's Commedia dell'Arte (literal translation: the art of comedy; preferred translation: Italian comedy). Troupes of players roamed the country, performing on temporary stages set up on city streets, in parks and courtyards — wherever they could attract a crowd. The better troupes, such as Gelosi, performed in palaces, and even traveled throughout Europe.

In Italy — a land of numerous regional dialects — audiences had no problem understanding the stories being dramatized, because Commedia dell'Arte relies on physical humor, not the spoken text, to evoke audience emotion — in this case, gales of laughter.

Note that I said "Commedia dell'Arte relies" (present tense) on physical humor..." because it is an art form still being taught today.

And it's still being professionally performed today, as evidenced by the following photos of Ferruccio Soleri in the title role of the Piccolo Teatro di Milano's production of Arlecchino, Servant of Two Masters, part of New York's Lincoln Center Festival 2005.

Originally a slapstick adaptation of the Commedia dell'arte, harlequinade is a performance piece that revolves around its five main characters: Harlequin, Pierrot, Columbine, Clown, and Pantaloon. The British harlequinade, begun in the 18th century, wove scenes from serious plays based on myth or folklore, with the typical slapstick of Harlequin and his cronies.


The traditional Harlequin costume includes the batte he holds in the above picture. This is the stick Harlequin uses to slap other characters — hence the term "slapstick," which has come to mean almost any kind of physical business on stage. Harlequin is quickly identified in this early 18th-century artist's rendering of a "Pantomime Entertainment Lately Exhibited."

Originally, Harlequin was the comic of the show — a servant and Columbine's love interest. His undaunting spirit and extreme cleverness (sometimes even magic!) enabled him to elude the consequences of his actions. He was the original Teflon Don, so to speak. What's more, he never held a grudge or sought revenge.

John Rich (1692-1761), English actor known as "the father of English pantomime," developed the character of Harlequin into a mischievous magician. He would use his magic slapstick to transform a scene from pantomime to harlequinade, and to magically change the settings during a chase scene. In 1716, under the stage name of Lun, Rich first appeared as Harlequin in an unnamed entertainment which developed into an annual pantomime. When he died 45 years later, the great David Garrick wrote this tribute to his friend and fellow performer:

A century later, brothers Fred and Harry Payne became the most famous Harlequin and Clown, respectively, of the early 19th century.


The on-stage symbol of feminine charm and grace, Columbine is essentially Harlequin's sweetheart, yet all the men in the Harlequinade have loved and wooed her through numerous character transformations — even Clown, yet now he is more often portrayed as Columbine's father. Unlike her castmates, Columbine wears no mask, signifying that her purity and innocence are genuine, and she requires no "false face."

In this 1906 photo, a youthful Billie Burke (at far right) portrays Columbine. Can you think of a more perfect role for her?


Originally a devious, greedy merchant — a typical character of the Commedia dell'Arte — Pantaloon has transitioned to the role of over-protective father who refuses to allow the heroic Harlequin to court his daughter Columbine. Pantaloon is always dressed in red — sometimes extravagantly:

And sometimes not so extravagantly:


A slapstick character, Clown was immensely popular in Commedia dell'arte, and easily recognizable to any one who's ever seen a mischievous circus clown. The epitome of buffoonery, Clown was a foil for the sly and slippery antics of Harlequin.

In the 17th century, Clown was known as Pulcinella, often called Punch or Punchinello in English, and Polichenelle in French. He was most often represented as the servant of Columbine's father, Pantaloon. Clown grew more important in Victorian harlequinade, the embodiment of anarchic wit and out-of-the-box humor.

The great British clown Joseph Grimaldi became a sensation when he made his first appearance in 1800. He was responsible for transitioning the character from "country bumpkin fool" to central figure of the harlequinade. Grimaldi developed jokes, catch-phrases and songs that were used for decades after his retirement. He also pioneered the second most important British pantomime tradition: the art of cross-dressing.

Enter the Panto Dame

Among Grimaldi's Pantomime Dame roles were Queen Rondabellyanna in Harlequin and the Red Dwarf, and Dame Cecily Suet in Harlequin Whittington. The earliest picture I could find of a cross-dressing Panto Dame was this one of Dan Leno as Widow Twankey in Aladdin back in 1896:

The 21st century version of Widow Twankey has many faces, foremost of whom is Sir Ian McKellen, who is reprising the role this year at the Old Vic, I believe:

And while we're on the subject of Widow Twankey, here's the jolly British comic Chris Biggins in the role:

And a popular Scottish comic, Euan McIver, in the same role:

From Grimaldi onward, Christmas Pantomime evolved into a British art form, rooted in buffoonery and providing settings for some of Britain's finest music hall comics. During the 19th century, American entertainers experimented with the Pantomime genre, to luke warm acceptance. Americans like their Harlequinade in other formats, however, such as in one of my favorite paintings...

...and in the elegance and romance of the Ballet...

George Fox, a popular American comic, revived the slapstick pantomime for a time but, alas, no one was there to carry on the work after him.

Here are pictures of other popular Panto Dames:

From a production of "Cindarella" (adapted from "Cinderella"):

From a production of "Jack and the Beanstalk:

Unidentified actor/character I have dubbed Lolly Palooza:

Principal Boys and Girls

In almost all panto productions, the Principal Boys are girls — statuesque and curvaceous girls — with, imperatively, long, shapely legs. For example, about 100 years ago, curvy Bessie Featherstone played the principal boy, i.e., the title role in Aladdin:

And the requirements haven't changed much over the years:

To illustrate the Principal Girls, here are Cindarella's ugly stepsisters:

Not surprisingly, Christmas Pantomime is exceedingly popular in Canada and Australia, and throughout the European community. And it extends the holiday season considerably, as it usually begins around December 1 and doesn't end until late February, sometimes early March.

Christmas Pantomime is family entertainment to the max! The scripts are all rooted in traditional children's stories, the darkest of which is Babes in the Wood. Names of traditional characters are often changed to better describe the actors playing the roles. The cast is supplemented by new characters written for the production. Silliness reigns, of course. Visual humor provokes the laughter of children which is instantly contagious. and when the hero is being chased by the bad guy and the children shout "Look out! He's behind you!" it's the greatest accolade the actors can receive, and they must work very hard to blink back their tears of joy and not break character.

Should you be fortunate enough to visit anywhere in Great Britain over the next couple of months, do yourself a big favor and include a pantomime or two in your schedule. You'll be glad you did.

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  1. brilliant. thankyou. very helpful for my essay - cross dressing for entertainment. thanks so much :)


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