With the pan­tomime sea­son upon us, of­fers a pot­ted his­tory of beanstalks, dames and slap­stick

Ju­lian Humphrys

BBC History Magazine - - History Now / Backgrounder -

Why pan­tomime?

It comes from the Latin pan­tomimus, a dra­matic per­former in an­cient Rome. Ac­com­pa­nied by mu­sic and a cho­rus, he ‘mimed’ mytho­log­i­cal sto­ries, play­ing all the roles, each with its own par­tic­u­lar mask. but their pop­u­lar­ity even­tu­ally led to their ex­ten­sion into full sto­ries. The harlequinade was re­duced to a short scene at the end and even­tu­ally dis­ap­peared al­to­gether. The last Lon­don harlequinade was staged at the Lyceum The­atre in 1939.

Which of to­day’s pan­tomimes has the long­est his­tory?

Jack and the Beanstalk, which be­gan life in 1773 as ‘Jack the Giant Killer’ at David Gar­rick’s Drury Lane The­atre. The first pan­tomime to be called ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ was per­formed there in 1819 and a young ac­tress called El­iza Povey be­came the first fe­male prin­ci­pal boy when she played the part of Jack. Jack and the Beanstalk also marked the de­but of one of pan­tomime’s most fa­mous Dames – Dan Leno who ap­peared as Jack’s mother, Dame Trot, at Drury Lane in 1886.

A paint­ing of Com­me­dia dell’arte char­ac­ters in­clud­ing Har­lequin and Pier­rot

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