Of all the days in the year the most profitable as far as theatres were once concerned was St Stephen’s Day a.k.a Boxing Day because it was on this day that the Christmas season started and the big money started to roll in.
At Christmas time in the 18th century theatres presented ‘Morality Plays’, put on for the “improvement of young apprentices”. The most popular of these productions was “The London Merchant” by George Lillo first performed at the Drury Lane Theatre on June 21, 1731. The storyline was based on a seventeenth-century ballad about a notorious murder in Shropshire. The play follows the adventures of a gullible apprentice George Barnwell, who is seduced by a greedy prostitute Sarah Millwood. After stealing money from his employer to fund his relationship, Barnwell goes on to rob and murder his uncle. Both Barnwell and Millwood are arrested and executed for their crimes.
By the end of the 18th century theatre managers began to suspect that Morality Plays had run their course. They thought that it would be more profitable to offer something that would appeal to a wider family audience and children. A fairy story perhaps or a popular adventure with plenty of lively characters finishing up with the familiar slapstick of a ‘Harlequinade’. This popular comedy format, borrowed from the Italian tradition of Commedia dell’arte, featured Harlequin, his sweetheart Columbine, her foolish father Pantaloon, who tries to separate the lovers with the help of a mischievous Clown and the servant, Pierrot. There were also chaotic chase scenes featuring a bumbling policeman. The introduction of the Harlequinade was an immediate success helped on by the extraordinary popularity of the celebrated clown Joseph Grimaldi who appeared in many Harlequinades particularly at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and the Sadler’s Wells and Covent Garden theatres. He became so dominant on the London comic stage that the Harlequinade character of Clown became known as “Joey”, and both the nickname and Grimaldi’s whiteface make-up design were, and still are, used by other clowns.
Over time the Christmas pantomime evolved into such an important part of the theatrical year that rehearsals started in the summer. Although the basic storylines remained the same – ‘Cinderella’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Aladdin’, ‘Dick Whittington’ or ‘Robinson Crusoe’ now the scripts included topical songs and sketches, jokes and risqué cross-dressed characters like the blowzy and bawdy Dame and the Principal Boy, a young woman dressed in spangles and tights. The old Harlequinade sequences which once closed the show were replaced by spectacular Transformation Scenes with as much glitter and glamour as wardrobe and scenery departments could throw at them. There were shout-outs and singalongs and stars and celebrities from music hall to add to the fun… and so it continues to this day. We wouldn’t be overly surprised if Ed ‘Ballroom’ Balls or Candice Brown from ‘Bake-Off’ turned up in our local panto as ‘Captain Hook’ or ‘Fairy Godmother’.
There have been attempts in recent times to reintroduce the moral lessons of the past with dramatisations of instructive works like Dickens “Christmas Carol” or Charles Kingsley’s “Water Babies” but on the whole the public and particularly young people prefer the raucous and occasionally rude “He’s behind you!” panto – and quite right too!
A modest Cinderella Transformation
Performed by the Blackwood Little Theatre, near Newport, South Wales in 2011.
This year this small amateur community group are doing “Robin Hood”
— from Martyn Day