A trip to the theater to see a pantomime is an Irish Christmas tradition that dates back many years. These shows run in theaters all over Ireland from December, right through January.
The days after Christmas are a favorite time to go see a pantomime or “panto” as we say for short. This is a Christmas pastime enjoyed by many in Ireland.
What Is A Pantomime?
A pantomime is a fairy tale play of sorts, but the classic stories we know and love are retold with a comedic twist.
These productions include singing, dancing, and jokes to beat the band – usually the corniest jokes you’ll ever hear.
Pantomime is musical comedy combined with spoken drama, especially designed for family entertainment. It’s particularly popular during the Christmas and New Year season in Ireland and the United Kingdom.
These musical plays boast singing, gags, slapstick comedy and dancing, with gender-crossing actors.
The key to a good panto is a cast of exaggerated characters, usually with one grand dame taking center stage. And of course no panto would be a success without audience participation.
The History Of Pantomime As A Theatrical Form:
Pantomime as a theatrical form dates back centuries, even millennia. The ancient Greeks produced shadow plays. Derived from folkloric traditions, these shadow theater productions, known as”Karagiozis” in Greek, featured paper-made puppets. A puppeteer performed behind an illuminated white cloth screen.
This progressed to a form of ancient pantomime loved by the Romans. These ancient pantomimes were lavish productions featuring dancing, movement, narration, music and singing, with plots designed to create an emotional experience for ancient audiences.
Performers even dared to be politically incorrect, sometimes expressing criticism of the rigid system of rule and social order. It’s believed pantomime was introduced to Rome during the reign of Augustus by Pylades of Cilicia and Bathyllus of Alexandria.
From there the evolving art of pantomime progressed through the Commedia dell’arte, an Italian ensemble theatrical performance or Italian commedia, that flourished throughout Europe in the 16th 17th and 18th centuries.
Full of improvisations, stock characters, masks, comedic situations, and plots borrowed from classical literary tradition, professional players formed itinerant commedia troupes that traveled throughout Europe.
In France, it became the Comédie-Italienne. In England, it evolved into the harlequinade, pantomime and into Punch-and-Judy puppet shows.
Victorian Pantomime Comes To Ireland:
In the Victorian era these theatrical productions became more extravagant and lavish. British pantomime was introduced to audiences in Ireland at this time.
These original Victorian productions have grown and evolved into the annual, glitzy, comedic, musical shows we know and love today.
Over the centuries, pantomime has borrowed from many kinds of theatrical performances, evolved with changing audience expectations, and reinvented itself consistently to become what it is today – a childhood Christmas wonderland full of magic, mystery, and fantasy.
Plus audiences get a good old laugh as they celebrate the holiday season together, joining the characters in choruses of … “Oh no he didn’t …. oh yes she did.”
The Grand Dame As A Key Character In The Pantomime:
And how do you get the audience to join in? Through the comedic genius of the grand dame character.
Children are intrigued as she prances around the stage, being kind of naughty, ignoring instructions from other characters on stage, but despite everything she always come through in the end.
Even though she breaks a few rules along the way, kiddos always seem to know she truly is a good person, who only wants what’s best for the main character of the play.
This larger than life female character wears outlandish costumes, with brightly hued, massive wigs teetering on his or her head.
Costume changes abound for this busy character who may be a woman, or may be a man, but the character is usually very much a dame.
This type of pleasantly outrageous female character goes back in history. A legendary English actor and clown, Joseph Grimaldi, played a Baron’s wife in Cinderella way back in 1820. The grand dame of pantomime was born. Nowadays television stars often take on the role.
Pantomime Theatres In Dublin:
There are many pantomimes performed all over Ireland throughout the Christmas season.
The most famous venue of all is The Gaiety Theatre in Dublin. Located near Saint Stephen’s Green, this Victorian style theatre first opened in 1871.
Its annual Christmas pantomime is always a great success. The Gaiety has hosted a pantomime every year since 1874, Now that’s quite the Christmas tradition.
When I was a little girl in Dublin, Maureen Potter, a talented Irish performer and comedian, was always the star of the Gaiety Panto. Beloved by Irish people, she entertained us for years.
Now, Jack Cruise was always the star in the rival panto, at the Olympia Theatre on Dame Street. He excelled as the grand dame character in his over-the-top, hilarious performances.
Both Maureen Potter and Jack Cruise are icons of the Dublin stage. I’m sure they are smiling down on us from heaven as pantomimes continue to flourish in Ireland.
Belfast hosts an annual Christmas panto in its 19th century Grand Opera House. Famous for incredible music hall performances, this vintage theatre is proud of its annual traditional, energetic, and magnificent pantomime.
The star of the Northern Irish panto is John Linehan, MBE, loved for his drag queen character May McFettridge. He creates the funniest family pantomimes through farcical fairy tale characters.
This year, 2019, Linehan celebrates his 30th year as the brilliant pantomime dame at the Grand Opera House, Belfast.
Why The Irish Love Pantomime:
There are many reasons why the Irish love pantomime as an art form. The music is wonderful and the Irish love a good sing-along.
The best pantos always get the audience joining in the choruses of their whacky, delightful songs. And the Irish sing with gusto as the performers raise their arms to ask us to join in.
And no matter how corny the “it’s behind you” scene can be, Irish audiences embrace this farce with all their energy.
From ghosts, to darting animal puppets, to over-the-top, outrageous sneaky characters, Irish people join the lunacy, shouting out to the grand dame, as she teeters across the stage in search of elusive villains. Audience participation is what pantomime is all about.
But here’s the most important reason why the Irish love the panto. I believe it’s the underlying message that goodness will always prevail.
The fun lies in how down-trodden, underrated heroes courageously face cunning, yet fantastic, villains. We embrace wicked witches, evil queens, and cruel fairy characters. Our myths and legends are replete with these dastardly personalities.
We heckle them as they call upon everything in their power to thwart the path of goodness in the story. Irish kids, and adults too, love to boo and hiss, heckle and taunt, badger and tease these goading characters.
But we love them, because in the end, we always know that at the panto, wickedness will be totally and utterly vanquished by goodness in the end.
Pantomime – An Evolving and Lasting Irish Christmas Tradition:
Modern pantomime has come a long way over the centuries. Embraced by audiences in Ireland, this art form looks set to remain with us for many years and decades to come.
Perhaps it’s the timing of these performances that make them so successful. The midpoint of winter is exactly when we need a little cheering up. Warm-hearted stories, told with a slightly ridiculous and politically incorrect twist, are just what the doctor ordered at this time of year.
Deep down we all know that all it takes is a good laugh, a sing-along, and of course, a flourishing wave of a Fairy Godmother’s wand, for everything to be just right with the world.
Happy pantomime season to all!
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom
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