Pantomime History Essay Writing


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This paper is about pantomime, about it’s
origin, it’s people, how it has evolved, and how wonderful
it is. Pantomime is a dramatic performance in which a story
is told or a theme developed through expressive bodily or
facial movement. The origin of pantomime can be traced
back to classical farce and the Italian Commedia Dell’arte.
Not all pantomime is silent. The completely silent
performance of pantomime was invented in Rome.
Pantomime is sometimes used to worship. Mime is a short
way of saying pantomime and also means someone who
performs pantomime. A mime, if performing on the streets,
will have a hat that is passed around for spectators to put
money in. When doing pantomime, it should be noted that
the imaginative performance skills are illusion and
illustration. Also, you should “cultivate an understanding of
the role that the body plays in suggesting an idea, an
impression, a sensation, or a character.” Pantomime can be
done solo, or in a group of any size. Before performing, a
mime must do warm-up and relaxation exercises. Miming
takes mental and physical strength. Perfect coordination of
all parts of the body is essential for expressive movement
and graceful poise in pantomime. A good mime must be
very flexible. You must be fluid at changing posture to
create a character. Facial expression changes everything
while performing pantomime. You must be very relaxed
when doing pantomime. People speak different languages,
but most gestures mean the same thing. Animals, insects
especially, have probably done pantomime before humans
were even alive. For example, bees do pantomime when
telling others where nectar is, and peacocks use pantomime
to impress a mate. Prehistoric man was next, after animals,
to do pantomime. Prehistoric men would do pantomime to
try to influence nature to let them get a kill while hunting.
Before language, prehistoric men told about a hunt with
pantomime. Prehistoric men would use pantomime to tell
the history of the tribe. A clown named Grock became a
very successful mime. He started as an acrobatic clown at
a very young age. Grock became famous because he
succeeded in the circus and in the music hall. After years of
successfully performing in circuses, he tried his clown
routine in a theater in Berlin. Grock began to move away
from broad comedy in the Grimaldi tradition, and towards
Debureu’s type of performance. In his first performance in
a theater, the audience did not respond. Grock realized that
the type of performance required for the theater is different
than that required by the circus. Grock began to use a
clown as a pantomime character whose actions comment
on life. Grock went on to become one of the greatest

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performers of the variety stage. Grock used music to
portray man’s struggle with fate, just like Beethoven, but in
a different way. Before Grock would play violin, he would
throw the bow up in the air and try to catch it, but miss.
Then he would retreat behind a screen to practice and the
audience could see the bow flying above the screen. He
returned to face the audience and missed again. He became
so flustered that he threw the bow in the air and caught it
without even knowing it! When Grock sat down on the
piano bench to play piano and found that it was too far
from the piano, he would struggle to push the piano closer
to the bench! Like all good comedy, this reflected man’s
struggle to tame nature. The circus was saved from too
much clown tradition in the 1940’s by a man named
Emmett Kelly. The costumes were getting too elaborate.
The usual clown costume descended from the vari-colored
costume of the Roman mimes. Originally, it was intended to
symbolize rags, like the clown was an impractical guy who
didn’t get along in the real world. A long evolutionary
process ended up with vari-colored, but elaborate
costumes. The costumes reached some sort of peak when
the Harlequin costumes of the English pantomime had as
many as fifty-thousand sequins on them. Emmett Kelly
brought back the original idea and wore a tramps costume
of actual rags. The usual clown make-up is a bright colored
pattern which serves as a trademark for each clown. Kelly
wore make-up to match his raged costume. He invented his
own intimate style of pantomime in, but almost independent
of, the circus. Kelly would beg peanuts from kids in the
audience and then break the shells with a huge hammer,
completely! shattering the peanut, and then search stupidly
for the meat among the debris. Clowns of the modern
circus are called “Joeys” after Joseph Grimaldi. In the
modern American circus, there are many able clowns
including Lou Jacobs, Paul Wenzel, Otto Griebling, Paul
Jung, and Freddie Freeman, but they are almost
overwhelmed by the sheer size of the circus. Modern circus
clowns depend on acrobats, costumes, and mechanical
stunts to perform, but a mime just has gestures. The
technique of the circus clown is limited by the conditions
under which he performs, therefore, there is a tendency for
any successful idea to be repeated so much that it becomes
a tradition. Most of the clowning is done in what is called a
clown promenade, or walkaround, in which the clowns
circle the arena while performing so that each spectator
might see a complete performance. Each clown performs
something different. It is difficult to think of gags to perform
while walking in a parade. One could carry a heart that
lights up like a neon sign when he sees a pretty girl, another
could drive a really small sportscar, or one may wear a
trick costume which enables him to change from an old
lady to a midget, and back again. One clown may run away
from a stuffed tiger that is attached to him by a thin wire.
As you can probably see, pantomime has changed over the
years and there have been ups and downs during the
change. There were also some performers who saved, or
played a big part in the history of pantomime. Bibliography
Campbell, Patricia J. Passing The Hat: Street Performers in
America, New York City, Delacorte Press, 1952 Evans,
Cheryl and Smith, Lucy Acting & Theater, Tulsa, EDC
Publishing Hunt, Douglas and Kari, Pantomime: The Silent
Theater, New York City, Atheneum, Kipnis, Claude, The
Mime Book, New York City, Harper and Row publishers,
1974 May, Robin, Looking at Theater, New York City,
Marshal Cavendish Corporation, 1989 “Mime and
Pantomime” Academic American Encyclopedia, 1982 ed.,
vol. M-13, p. 434 Mordden, Ethan, The Fireside
Companion to Theater, New York City, Simon and
Schuster Inc., 1988 Ratliff, Gerald Lee, The Theater
Student: Speech and Drama Club Activities, New York
City, Richards Rosen Press, Inc., 1982 Stolzenberg, Mark,
Exploring Mime, New York City, Sterling Publishing Co.,
Inc., 1979

It’s the time of year when drag collides with family entertainment. Yes, the British pantomime season is upon us, complete with all its bizarre conventions and creative casting. Among the ex-soap stars, reality TV veterans, and retired sporting heroes will be a small band of middle-aged men who have cornered the market in that pantomime staple, the Dame. They will portray grotesque caricatures of women and deliver lines filled with sexual innuendo – all for the amusement of children (and, sometimes, their parents).

In her latest Prima magazine column, actress Caroline Quentin has questioned this practice.

“I wonder why, in progressive 2016, we still like to see men dress in drag for entertainment… Is it appropriate, in this age of inclusion, for middle-age women to be ridiculed by blokes in skirts and too much make-up?”

A reasonable question to ask, though one whose implications might not be welcomed on the drag circuit – where blokes putting on skirts is rather the point. And besides, the “tradition” of the pantomime dame is about much more than just cross-dressing.

‘Oh no he didn’t’

The role came about in the early 19th century, developing from the “travesti” tradition of theatrical cross-dressing. Early masters (mistresses) of the role, included Dan Leno who, like many of his successors, came more from a music-

The Christmas Pantomime color lithograph bookcover, 1890, showing the harlequinade characters. Photo Cred Wetman on en.wikipedia

hall tradition, rather than a dramatic one.
Of course, over the years some conventions of the traditional pantomime have faded – such as the casting of the “principal boy as a girl” – having proved about as useful as a pantomime horse. By Leno’s time, pantomime – in one form or another – had already been established for at least a century – first as a performance known as a “harlequinade” using stock characters drawn from the Italian “commedia dell’arte” a tradition of masked, slapstick comedy. These performances were wordless, as the theaters where they were played were unlicensed to stage spoken drama. And it is this silence that put the “mime” into “pantomime.”

‘Oh yes he did’

This faded tradition came about in part because of the novelty that came from seeing the legs of a girl in tights – a “breeches” role – rather than in the modest skirts that women were normally restricted to at the time. And as times have changed – with people more used to the sight of legs – the principal boy became less relevant to a world of panto. Modern conventions of pantomime, such as the inclusion of fairy tales, audience participation, and comic use of cross-gender casting have all become staple parts of what many see as the traditional family panto.

But while Quentin may well be right when she says the casting of a cross-dressing pantomime dame is less relevant in a world that has begun to accept that women can be funny in their own right, the idea of cross-dressing and transgressive gender portrayals on stage are much longer traditions – as old as theatre itself.

Playbill of an English circus and pantomime performance, 1803. Photo Cred Public Domain

While most of that has seen men dressing as women, the tradition of the drag king – women dressed as men – also dates back to the 18th century and was commonplace at the time in music halls. This has been a key component of the contemporary burlesque revival, which has seen drag king groups formed and performing across the UK. From the ancient Greeks, through to Shakespeare and into the 17th century, men or boys played all the female roles. And until today, drag has remained a staple of comedy – from burlesque to mainstream entertainment.

Ultimately, theatre has always been a space where gender roles and sexual identity are questioned, mocked or unsettled – the stage offers a safe space to view fluid gender identities.

In contemporary theatre, important progress is being made in casting for women. That most traditional of Christmas shows, Peter Pan has transferred from Bristol Old Vic to the National Theatre in London. Director Sally Cookson presides over a cast with a male Peter Pan (no breeches casting here), a male Tinkerbell and a female Hook. And, just down the road at The Old Vic theatre, Glenda Jackson has achieved a triumphant return to the stage as King Lear.

So perhaps the future casting possibilities for women are not quite as bleak as they once were. And with an increase in “gender-blind” casting, it might well mean that when it comes to sexism on stage: “It’s behind you!”


This article was originally published on Reposted with permission. Read the original article.

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.

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