The idea of pantomime originated in ancient Greece, and later rose to popularity during the reign of Augustus in ancient Rome. The name is taken from a masked dancer called Pantomimus, and the comedy and tragedy content of modern pantomime has clear links with the Commedia dell’Arte which started in Italy in the Middle Ages and reached England by the middle of the 17th century when the Commedia dell’Arte characters first began to appear in English plays.
Often the Commedia dell’Arte touring troupes were made up of family members who generally improvised their way through a plot involving characters like Arlecchino (or Harlequin) and his true love, Columbina (or Columbine). Other standard characters were the over protective father, Pantaloon, who refused to allow the heroic Harlequin to seek his daughter’s affections. In some versions Pantaloon has a servant, Pulchinello, later to be known as Clown. These characters varied depending on who the performers were entertaining, but the great clown Grimaldi eventually transformed the format so that each story had the same characters which can still be found in today’s pantomimes.
It was during the reign of Queen Victoria in the 19th century, the English pantomime became closely associated with Christmas tradition and was considered a treat for children.
Now traditionally performed at Christmas for family audiences, British pantomime is now a popular form of theatre with song, dance, comedy, slapstick, audience participation and mild sexual innuendo. The plots are often loosely based on traditional children’s stories, the most popular titles being:
o Aladdin (often combined with Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves)
o Babes in the Wood (often combined with Robin Hood)
o Beauty and the Beast
o Cinderella, the most popular of all pantomimes
o Dick Whittington which is based on a seventeenth century play
o Goldilocks and the Three Bears
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