Christmas In London
While many Christmas traditions in the United States come from Britain, one British one has not made it across the Atlantic. During the school holidays, matinee and evening, British theaters present Pantomime shows, called Panto.
This goes back to the Restoration after Cromwell’s Commonweath was ended by the resumed monarchy, something the United States did not join in with, as we were still rooting for the Puritans. During the Puritan period, Christmas was banned as a “pagan” holiday, and all the fun ended. With the Restoration, theater was allowed again, and one of the things they invented was Pantomime for children.
The stories are ones we know, for the most part Puss in Boots, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Robin Hood, Alladin. The only uniquely British tale is that of Dick Whittington, the poor boy who became Lord Mayor of London.
Panto has many conventions. First, the hero, in a Shakespearean reversal of roles, is usually played by a young actress, along with the hero’s love interest. Then there is the Dame, an older woman played by a man in drag. In drag too are the Good Fairy and the Wicked Witch, who may be part of the story. There is a chorus, which changes costume often, and sometimes children who dance. Also sometimes famous actors and actresses take part.
Usually a great mess is made either by cooking or baking something on stage, helping children get even with parents who make them tidy up. Songs taught to the children in the audience, which helps to keep them busy. They also are confided in by hero and villain and encouraged to shout warnings and advice.
There is often silly dialogue engaging the audience and prizes for the children who are called up to the stage and asked questions to win.
To keep the parents amused, the dialogue is full of double-entendres that they must hope the children do not understand.
Last year we went to a Chanukah pantomime in the East End of London. It met all the norms except the melodies were based on Jewish songs and the story was of Queen Esther. Other changes are coming, as Panto is increasingly based on TV shows and popular books like Harry Potter, not part of the canon. Another cross-cultural version is Bollywood Panto based on Indian actors and costumes.
Take it in if you have the chance. It is splendid British fun, and, unlike the London theaters, costs only 3 to 10 pounds sterling for most shows. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Alladin is most popular this year.