British Pantomime blends the traditions of the Italian “Commedia dell’ Arte”, and of the British Music Hall. Commedia dell’ Arte (“The comedy of the Artistes”) was a type of travelling street entertainment which originated in Italy.
It was a very physical type of theatre that used dance, music, tumbling, acrobatics and buffoonery, and often the touring troupes were made up of family members who would inherit their characters, costumes, masks and stories from their parents.
Troupes had a repertoire of stories that they performed in fairgrounds and market places, with the actors improvising their way through a plot involving characters such as Arlecchino, or Harlequin and his true love Columbine.
Other stock 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, and a soldier, an unsuitable suitor who seeks the hand of Columbine. Comic chases and tricks were employed to full effect. Although the character of “Pulchinello” has vanished from the Pantomime today, he still exists as “Mr. Punch” the puppet.
These characters started to appear in English theatre around 1660, marking the first tenuous beginning of what we now call pantomime, and which is still thriving 350 years later.
Nowadays, most towns and cities throughout the UK play host to a production of pantomime around the Christmas period. And whether it is a lavish professional performance, or a local amateur dramatic production, all are well attended and as popular as ever.