Discovering British pantomime

I know they’re not everyone’s cup of tea, but I do love a good pantomime. Oh no you don’t, I hear you cry. But I do. I really do.

 

So it was with great delight that my Beloved and I took ourselves off to Saffron Walden town hall last weekend to view the annual festive season Spectacular in all its camp glory. And this year, it took the form of Beauty and the Beast – an esteemed work that I must confess I wasn’t previously familiar with. Dick Whittington, yes. Aladdin, yes. But Beauty and the Beast, no.

 

Saffron Walden market and town hall
Saffron Walden market and town hall

After swallowing the mild embarrassment of being more or less the only people there without young kids in tow, we quickly got into the swing of things and settled down to enjoy a fine selection of Carry On-style innuendo and the usual “he’s behind you” tomfoolery.

 

My favourite character wasn’t so much the hero and heroine of the piece though but the cocky but ultimately thwarted suitor of Beauty (or Belle) named Jean-Claude (it was all set in a French village, which might have been random or could also have been in honour of the French woman who originally wrote the fairytale down in the 18th century, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve – who knows?) who modelled himself on surreal TV comedy the IT Crowd’s Douglas Reynholm, boss of Reynholm Industries.

 

I was also quite taken with Madame Cruella, who seemed to have made a surprise appearance from 101 Dalmations and did a cracking job of being evil, keen as she was to get her sinister claws into young Prince Ferdinand aka the Beast. All very entertaining.

 

But, despite the consummate daftness, it turns out that pantos are actually a pretty old form of musical comedy theatre – and one that, as it happens, is unique to the UK, although it does make an imported appearance in former British colonies such as Ireland, Jamaica, and even Canada and Australia now and then, apparently.

 

Traditionally performed over the Christmas and New Year time, pantomimes are believed by some to have their roots in the so-called Mummers Plays of the 13th to 16th century. These consisted of a kind of processional dance and mime show, to which dialogue was added over time. They were performed during the festive season by troupes of amateurs known as ‘mummers’, a word thought to be derived from the eponymous old German term meaning ‘disguised person’.

 

Ancient traditions

 

The name was assigned to them as many of the performers wore hats or painted their faces red or black to obscure their features out of fear of being recognised (this custom is also associated with English Morris dancers). As mumming was a means for agricultural labourers to raise extra money for Christmas, they went from big house to big house in the area to do their thing. But they didn’t want to be associated with begging – hence the disguises.

 

Nonetheless it seems to have been a lucrative business – it was said that they could raise as much as a whole month’s wages by performing for as little as three evenings.

 

Mummers play
Mummers play

The performances themselves, meanwhile, were broadly-speaking short comic dramas with themes based on duality and resurrection. Generally involving a battle between a couple of characters who are believed to have represented good and evil, one would inevitably be killed and then brought back to life by a doctor wielding a magic potion – an activity that some believe has pagan symbolism relating to the death and rebirth of the sun at the winter solstice.

 

Others hotly dispute the notion, however, attesting that a lack of extant Mummers Play texts prior to the mid-18th century can only mean that they did not exist in drama form before then. They believe that while mummers may have cavorted around in masks, it was actually “guisers” who performed the traditional folk dramas, which were themselves actually influenced by early versions of English pantomime rather than the other way around.

 

Whatever the truth of the matter though, the plays seemed to contain a bunch of elements similar to today’s pantos such as stage fights, coarse humour and gender role reversal (the lead male role generally being performed by a young woman and the dame by an older man).

 

Incidentally, this role reversal, although a later Victorian addition after it went out of fashion for a time, actually reflects a tradition relating to Twelfth Night. It marked the end of a Medieval winter festival that started on All Hallows Day (now Halloween) and ended at the conclusion of the Twelve Days of Christmas. It was presided over by the Lord of Misrule, who made his first recorded appearance at the end of the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain and who symbolised the world turning upside down.

 

Samhain, which is celebrated today as Halloween took place from sunset on October 31 to sunset on 1 November. It was a period when the veil between the physical and spiritual worlds was said to be thin and the natural order of things reversed.

 

Pantomime history

 

Interestingly though, mumming and guising were also a key part of this festival too. People went from door-to-door dressed up in costumes or disguises as a way of hiding and protecting themselves against the spirits of the Other World, often reciting verses in exchange for food – all of which suggests to me that the whole symbolism of the thing could be much older than it is generally given credit for.

 

Anyway, it seems that during the 16th century, English folk drama, whatever name or form it took, began to be absorbed into a form of Italian travelling street theatre called the Commedia dell’arte. Productions, which had become really popular by the middle of the 17th century, included music, dancing, acrobatics and general buffoonery and were put on in fairgrounds and marketplaces around the country. They were based on a repertoire of comic, and often satirical, stories that contained moral lessons and also included a series of stock characters.

Harlequinade poster
Harlequinade poster

 

From the 1660s onwards, these stock characters began to appear more and more in English plays, until by the first couple of decades of the 1700s, actor-manager of the Lincoln’s Inn Theatre, John Rich, made one of them in the shape of Harlequin the star of his shows.

 

Rich, who has been dubbed the father of pantomime, was also the inspiration behind the chase scenes that became a key part of an early version of panto called a ‘Harlequinade’. These Harlequinades, which dominated the scene for the next 150 years, saw two eloping lovers, Harlequin and Columbine, being pursued by other adapted Commedia characters including her father Pantaloon and his comic servants, Clown and Pierrot. And the pantomine traditions of slapstick, chases and transformation are still based on Harlequinade antics to this day.

 

By the 1870s though, the Harlequinades began to die a death and were replaced by dramas based on fairy tales and nursery rhymes such as ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ and ‘Babes in the Wood’. These productions became so popular and elaborate, in fact, that they sometimes lasted as long as five hours and boasted up to 600 performers.

 

The most extravagant were held at the still thriving Drury Lane Theatre in Covent Garden, London, which was responsible for adding many of the panto elements we still know and love today such as principal boys and pantomime dames, the appearance of celebrities and the use of popular tunes – in those days, Music Hall songs, but today pop ditties.

 

All of which appears to imply that what goes around does seem to end up coming around eventually too.

 

 

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British myths and magic: Looking beyond the everyday

One of the interesting things about a solstice, whether you’re talking about winter or summer, is that it’s the only time in the entire year when the sun appears to rise at the same point on the horizon for three consecutive days.

 

If you happen to know any Latin though, the name itself is a bit of a giveaway because ‘sol’ means sun and ‘sistere’ means standing still.

 

But at the time of the Winter Solstice – which of course is around now – what it all meant to our forebears was that the great cosmic wheel of the year, known as ‘Iul’ or Yule in Anglo-Saxon, stopped turning briefly as one cycle of the sun ended and a new one began. It also meant that people were forbidden from turning their physical wheels either, whether that be cartwheels or butter churns, until the sun had returned.

Winter Solstice
Winter Solstice

So each year at the Winter Solstice on 21/22 December when the sun appears at its lowest point in the sky, thus marking both the shortest day and longest night of the year, what it symbolised to them was the rebirth of the sun. This was a time when the pagan Goddess of old became the Great Mother and gave birth to the new Sun King three days after he had been sacrificed to ensure the fertility of the land for another year, in an ongoing cycle of birth, life, death and re-birth.

 

From that point onwards, the Sun King would continue to grow in strength until coming into his full power at Midsummer, the time of the Summer Solstice on 21/22 June, which marks the longest day and shortest night.

 

For in the eyes of our ancestors, the standstill at Solstice time wasn’t just a physical phenomenon – it was also a deeply spiritual one, with those three days (three being a magical number in the ancient Celtic world) being a time to reflect on what had happened during the last 12 months and on what you wanted to happen over the next 12. Good advice for people living in any age really.

 

Pagan remnants

 

Another point, which interestingly still has its echoes in the present day, is that, traditionally, it wasn’t so much the day of the solstice itself that was celebrated. Instead it was the evening before, which was seen as a time of birthing something new. And that tradition is still followed in countries like Germany and Spain to this day, where Christmas Eve is the most important date in the festive season.

 

But there are other pagan remnants still in clear evidence today too. There’s the habit of decorating our houses with holly, ivy, mistletoe, Christmas trees (pine) and even yew, which when taken together, again symbolise the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth. There are the customary Yule logs, which were burnt to ensure good luck – even if, these days, most of them are made from chocolate cake rather than oak.

 

And then there are the Christmas wreaths on our doors representing Yule and the wheel of the year. Plus enough feasting, drinking and gift-exchanging to sate us all as, whether knowingly or not, we continue to follow ancient mores that for thousands of years honoured the return of the sun and the circle of life.

Christmas Wreath
Christmas Wreath

An association that I particularly like though is the apparent link between Santa, his reindeer and shamanism. Santa, it seems, isn’t quite the harmless old man that he’s generally made out to be.

 

On the one hand, he is believed to represent the pagan God who is the consort and protector of the Goddess. On the other, his traditional garb of red and white is also said to symbolise fly agaric mushrooms, which were sacred plants to ancient medicine people as they helped inspire hallucinogenic dreams.

 

Because they’re poisonous when fresh, however, the best way to eat them apparently is to get your nearest friendly reindeer to have a munch on them, before drinking down their delicately infused urine. In which case, just like the reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh and distributing gifts to children round the world, you’re more than likely to end up doing a bit of journeying yourself, only of the psychedelic variety, in order to come back with the odd insight or two from the spirit world.

 

Following the deer trods

 

Interestingly though, it seems that reindeer are much more important to ancient British culture than most of us might imagine. Thousands of years ago, our hallowed Isles were, as countries like Canada and Russia still are, part of the Boreal forest, the great, endless wood that stretched from one end of the northern hemisphere to the next.

 

And up until about six thousand years ago when agriculture took hold and most of the trees were cut down, there were lots of reindeer in our lands too. Visual evidence still remains, in fact, in the shape of a carving in the Cathole Cave in the Gower, South Wales, which amounts to the oldest rock art in the British Isles.

 

Even more excitingly though, it seems that this image could actually represent our ancient, antlered reindeer goddess, Elen of the Ways. While beyond a single herd of about 150 in the Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland the reindeer may now be gone from our shores, the goddess’ name lingers on attached to springs, wells and place-names up and down the country, ranging from the Ellen river in Cumbria to St Helens in Lancashire – her name was apparently appropriated by the Catholic Church, as was its wont, and ascribed to one of its pantheon of saints.

Reindeer
Reindeer

Anyway, just how do I happen to know all this stuff, you may question? Towards the end of last month, I attended a fascinating one-day workshop by British shaman, Elen Sentier, who was running an introductory session on British Native Shamanism. Although I’d read quite a lot about the practice elsewhere in the world, including anthropologist Carlos Castaneda’s iconic works about studying to be a shaman under Don Juan, a Yaqui Indian from Northern Mexico, I really fancied learning more about our own indigenous variety.

 

And interestingly, it seems, the ancient pagan ways, which Elen calls ‘following the deer trods’, have, in some rural communities at least, never actually gone away – instead they simply went underground. Elen’s dad was a shaman while her mother was a witch, and the community that she grew up in on Exmoor in the 1950s all followed the old ways, bringing their children up to do likewise – she calls them ‘awenyddion’ or spirit keepers.

 

And much of this age-old wisdom is codified still in the folk songs and stories of our ancient land, providing layer upon layer of meaning. But only if you care to see it, of course.