Pantomime may refer to two different types of performing arts. In the UK the word pantomime applies almost exclusively to a form of non-silent comic theatre traditionally performed at Christmas for a mixed audience of adults and children, and the word mime applies almost exclusively to silent performance. Outside of the UK pantomime generally refers to the latter meaning, though it is still commonly abbreviated to mime.


The Roman Pantomimus was a spectacular kind of play in which the actor was confined to gesticulating and dancing, sometimes with a behind-the-scenes chorus providing music and song.

Various forms of dumb show evolved in Europe, most notably the Commedia dell'arte in Italy (with some, often ribald, dialogue).

Modern mime is a branch of theatre in which the performer uses no voice but acts out the performance using only motion, body language and gesture. It is usually, but not always, done in white face and the movements are exaggerated for greater effect.

Pantomime is also used in the game of charades.

Famous mimes include:

Some, like the Swiss troupe, Mummenschanz, take a more surreal approach to their performances.

David Bowie was a mime before he became a singer.

British pantomime

Missing image
The Christmas Pantomime: colour lithograph bookcover, 1890

In Restoration England a low form of opera, rather like the Commedia dell'arte but without Harlequin developed (rather like the French Vaudeville).

This had virtually died out by the end of the 19th century. What remains of British, pantomime (or panto) is a non-silent form of theatre, incorporating song, dance, buffoonery, and satire, traditionally performed at Christmas, with audiences consisting mainly of children. (See also Christmas Pie).

Pantomimes tend to be loosely based on traditional children's stories, and there are only a small number of basic themes and titles, the most popular being:

The form has a number of conventions, which include:

  • The leading male character (the "principal boy") is played by a young woman.
  • An older woman (the pantomime dame) is played by a man in women's clothing.
  • Risqué double entendre, often to the point of wringing innuendo out of perfectly innocent phrases.
  • There is a great deal of audience participation, including calls of "he's behind you", and "oh yes it is" or "oh no it isn't".
  • The pantomime horse or cow, which is played by two actors in a single costume – one as the head and front legs, the other as the body and back legs.

In both style and content, modern panto has very clear and strong links with Commedia dell'arte — a form of popular theatre arising in the early middle ages in Italy and reaching England by 16th century, while the gender role reversal resembles the old festival of Twelfth Night, a combination Epiphany and midwinter feast when it was customary for the natural order of things to be reversed. This tradition can be traced back to pre-Christian European festivals such as Samhain and Saturnalia.

Another great UK panto tradition is the celebrity guest star, a practice which dates back to the late 19th century, when Augustus Harris, proprietor of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, hired well-known variety artistes for his pantomimes. In modern times, the "celebrity" is usually somebody of doubtful value either as an actor or even as a publicity draw -- an ex-soap star trying to shore up a slipping career, for instance -- but occasionally a pantomime will feature a genuine celebrity, as with the Christmas 2004 production of Aladdin that featured Sir Ian McKellen as Widow Twankey. (McKellen has become hugely famous with children as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings.)

"At least we can tell our grandchildren that we saw McKellen's Twankey and it was huge." – Michael Billington, theatre critic of The Guardian, December 20, 2004, gets into the pantomime spirit.

External links

de:Pantomime eo:pantomimo fr:Mime nl:pantomime pl:pantomima


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