What is a pantomime, anyway?

(An explanation for readers from outside the British Isles)

Pantomime is a curious entertainment - a form of ritual theatre staged around the winter solstice. Originally silent (a form of mime), it is now anything but, with extensive vocalisation from both the performers and the audience.

The stories are generally well-known (drawn from popular folk-tales and similar sources), populated with stock characters, including a principal boy, generally played by a young lady with shapely legs, the heroine, also played by a young lady (which gives an added edge to the inevitable romance) and a dame, played by a man as a comic exaggeration of a middle-aged lady. Scripts change from year to year, but generally contain four strands of humour: visual, topical, corny and, occasionally, downright rude. In the UK this is considered to be family entertainment.

The story of Aladdin is associated with the Thousand-and-one Nights cycle (though there is some doubt as to whether it was originally part of that set). The original is set in China, but a very Arabian China (populated with the same genies and magicians that inhabit the rest of the tales). The pantomime has imported the Chinese setting, but in this case, it is a very 19th century English China - hence it is set in a Chinese laundry. (If it were adapted afresh today, it would probably be in a Chinese restaurant.)  There are numerous versions presented here, including Stuart Ardern's Large-Cast Aladdin, James Barry's Small-Cast Aladdin, Geoff Bamber's off-beat short version for children and a rhyming version.

The tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is also from the Thousand-and-one Nights, but is less well established in the pantomime canon - so the minor characters are not fixed. We have various versions, playing around the theme, including Ali Baba and the Four Tea Thieves and a rhyming version.

The other common source from the Arabian Nights cycle is Sinbad (again, presented in various guises), and after that there are miscellaneous Arabian fantasias!

Puss in Boots is a common European folk-tale, complete with a ritual dual of magical beings - in this case the cat and the ogre. As with Aladdin, the original story has little or no role for the dame, nor is their any requirement for a pantomime donkey, thrown in for good measure in Stuart Ardern's full-cast version. (There is also a small-cast version of Puss-in-Boots, by James Barry.)

Many cultures have traditional stories of ladders to the sky or the clouds. Jack and the Beanstalk (or, sometimes, Jack the Giant Killer - blending it with other stories) is an English version, dating (in written form) from the 18th century.  Here we have various versions, brought up to date here by tlc Creative (the writing collective of Damian Trasler, David Lovesy and Steve Clark) amongst others, including the shorter version (aimed at schools) Jack and his Amazing Multi-Coloured Beanstalk, by Geoff Bamber or in the shortest Rhyming Jack and the Beanstalk by Richard Coleman

Cinderella is probably the most familiar story, thanks to Charles Perrault's distillation of a variety of European rags-to-riches stories. There are various versions of the story presented on this site, and the character appears in a few more. Amongst others, there is a full, two-act version by Stuart Ardern and Bob Heather,  Geoff Bamber's 30 minute version for schools and youth theatre groups, entitled Cinders, and a very short Rhyming Cinderella by Richard Coleman.
The original version of the full-length script was performed by a village company (in a village hall without a stage) and contained dozens of impenetrable local jokes. Bob Heather was so frustrated with it that he reworked it for a conventional stage (and succeeded in replacing punch-lines that include the names of village worthies with jokes which would work anywhere - no mean feat). There is still one invisible local reference: the Ministers' song (in Act 1, Scene 4) contains the names of all the ladies who had taken part in the previous season's production!

Dick Whittington is a true story - but only in as far as Richard Whittington really was mayor of London (co-opted for part of a term, and subsequently elected to the office three times) around the end of the fourteenth century. His claims to fame include a bequest to build the first public lavatory in London. The story about him coming to London penniless, with a cat as his only friend, began to circulate a century or two later, around the time of Shakespeare (which seems to have inspired Stuart Ardern's full length version of the Whittington story.)  More conventional treatments embody the typical pantomime struggle between good and evil, with the hero, backed by Fairy Bow-Bells, battling with the evil and magical King Rat.  Once again, Richard Coleman provides a short rhyming version, told as Whittington and his Crazy Cat.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves also comes from European tradition, but of course is best known through the Disney cartoon version. (People are surprised to find that the familiar dwarves' names are a Disney invention - there are early drafts of the Disney script with different sets of names.) There are a couple of nods to Disney in some of the scripts, and Stuart Ardern's version also contains references to numerous other fairy tales and stories.
The tale of Snow White puts some restrictions on cast size - the story title means that you need at least eight players. Add a wicked queen, a huntsman, a mirror and a handsome prince and the minimum cast is 12, which is what you will find in Snow White and the Mini Miners, a small cast version of the story (with a shorter script than the full version from which it is derived). Incidentally, the title puns on an old British car, which is so old that few people will admit to recognising the joke.
Now the vexing spelling question: are they dwarfs or dwarves? "Dwarfs" tends to be the more common modern spelling. Using "ves" as a plural to words ending with "f" (rooves, hooves, halves) is dying out - however it is used here on the grounds that if it is good enough for J.R.R.Tolkein, it ought to be good enough for pantomime! Richard Coleman avoids this problem completely in the very short Rhyming Snow White by turning them into gnomes (mainly in order to execute an excruciating set of puns).

Sleeping Beauty is another Perrault fairy tale. John Dwyer's script, is a version paced for modern times - for example, the heroine doesn't have to wait 100 years for her true love to wake her up from her enchanted sleep. The panto style is less verbal than the others, making more of the slapstick branch of the pantomime repertoire.  Others take different approaches!

Mother Goose has become an American synonym for nursery rhymes or nursery tales, largely due to the publication of "Mother Goose's Melodies for Children" in Boston in 1719. This adapted Perrault's "Contes de ma mère l'oye" (which could be literally translated as "Tales of my mother the goose"!), but the use of that French title for stories and their story teller seems to predate Perrault. In pantomime, Mother Goose is (generally) the tale of the dilemma between long-term gain and instant gratification: should the dame kill the goose that lays the golden egg? A short, gentle version is available here in Richard Coleman's Rhyming Mother Goose, along with various full-length, full cast versions, including the one by Bob Heather and Roger Lamb in which Mother Goose must choose between wealth and beauty.

Perrault also gives us Beauty and the Beast, which is another redemption story.

Robin Hood is often given the pantomime treatment.  Here we have mainstream treatments and some off-beat versions. Much basic material comes from the English cycle of ballads and stories about the legendary hero. Some of these have the heroine, Marian, taking refuge in a convent; in the pantomime version, Robin Hood and the Singing Nun, this leads to a lot of cross-references to a particular musical.
The more common location of Robin Hood in the pantomime cannon is in Babes in the Wood. The story (of the heirs of nobles lost in the forest) appears in Perrault's collection, but again his version seems to be a distillation of older folk tales - there are other versions in England and Ireland.

Little Red Riding Hood is not so common in pantomime form, partly because the story essentially has four characters - the heroine, the wolf, the grandmother and the woodcutter - so needs a bit of work to turn it into a successful pantomime. That work is provided here in full pantomimes by Tina and Robert Burbidge, by Bob Hammond and by Kate Evans, whilst Stuart Ardern and Peter Bond provide short rhyming versions which probably owe less to pantomime and more to the simplicity of the original story (give-or-take a more self-reliant heroine). The title comes from Perrault (in translation), but the story is common throughout Europe and the tale carries a weight of psychological baggage: the wolf is both a real threat and a metaphor.  The central character is also used in various other pantomimes.

Robinson Crusoe crops up a number of times, either as a title or as a character.  Of course Steve Shaw's Robinson Crusoe takes its title from the novel by Daniel Defoe, but since the pantomime tradition does not leave much room for solitary castaways, the plot voyages a long way from the original, and Crusoe's desert island is populated by a tribe of islanders and an eccentric gorilla. James Barry's approach to the same classic is to assume that Crusoe distorted his account somewhat, hence James's small cast version of the story is Robinson Crusoe - the Truth!

And what do we do when we've gone through the standard cannon of pantomimes? Well, there are lots of minor themes.  Dave Jeanes' answer was to write a pantomime based on Swan Lake. The result is The Swan Princess in which some of the melancholy of the original is replaced by a cook in drag, an incompetent jester and an exploding soufflé.
Another new addition to the pantomime cannon is Stromboli the Puppet Master by Richard Coleman - telling the story of Pinocchio in pantomime fashion.
There are variations of the Goldilocks story, pantomime treatments of Hansel and Gretel, variations on Rapunzel

Captain Hook's Revenge, also by Richard Coleman, takes J.M. Barrie's "Peter Pan" and gives it the pantomime treatment, whilst keeping many of the elements of the original story.

Charles Dickens wrote "A Christmas Carol" as a short story; it is also given the pantomime treatment, including here, as Rhyming Christmas Carol, in which Richard Coleman tells the same tale - with a few embellishments in around 15 minutes.

And after that, there's a wealth of original tales - ranging from the far east to the wild west and from the distant past to the speculative future.

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