Pantomimes have long been a part of British theatre. Some of the earliest versions were inspired by other types of theatre and festivals going back many hundreds of years:
Saturnalia was a Roman Festival that took place between 17 and 23 December. It was known as a time when roles were reversed. Servants and enslaved people would be fed by their ‘masters’ and could say whatever they liked as free speech was strongly encouraged.
Pantomimus was a popular form of theatre in Ancient Rome. The name referred to the main character, who would silently perform a fable or story using arm movements and gestures, and different masks to represent the different characters. They would be the only actor and would be accompanied by musicians and a sometimes a choir.
Mummers Plays were traditional folk plays performed in England from at least 1296. The actors travelled around pubs and houses where wealthy people lived. After the play, one of the characters would then collect money from the audience. The stories were usually about good vs evil, with many characters in disguise. They continued until the outbreak of the First World War, although there was a small revival in the middle of the twentieth century.
Commedia dell’Arte was a 16th century form of theatre from Italy that was popular in Britain until the 18th century. In Commedia dell’Arte, there was always a set cast of characters – including Punch, Pierrot and Harlequin – who would dance, perform acrobatics and sing. The plays would follow a script, but performers would often improvise or add some comedy. It was often used as a way of voicing criticism of politicians and problems in society, using comedy, so it was eventually outlawed in 1797.
Harlequinade was a British theatre tradition inspired by Commedia dell’Arte. It was a set piece that was added to other entertainment rather than a show on its own. The story would have five characters: Harlequin, who is in love with another character Columbine; Columbine's greedy and foolish father Pantaloon, the Clown who works with Pantaloon to keep Harelquin and Columbine apart; and Pierrot, who was a servant and usually involved in chaotic chase scenes with a bumbling policeman.
Originally Harlequinade started as a mime, but eventually speaking was introduced. A fairy or other magical creature would usually link the two separate parts of the entertainment and present a grand ‘transformation’ scene at the end. Eventually the Harlequinade was phased out, but many of the key story elements still have a place in the modern pantomime.