Socialist Worker

Pantomime is a load of rubbish. ‘Oh no it isn’t!’

As panto season begins, Simon Basketter says there is something to celebrate in its traditions of audience participation

Issue No. 2232

Jack and the Beanstalk at the Millfield Arts Centre in Enfield (Pic: Rob Workman)

Jack and the Beanstalk at the Millfield Arts Centre in Enfield (Pic: Rob Workman)


Pantomime is a debased cultural product used to take working class people’s money at Christmas because it is “traditional”.

It is crass, low entertainment based on talentless celebrities with bad jokes, bad singing and bad acting.

“Oh no it isn’t!”

Well actually, oh yes it is—but, happily, it is much more too.

Pantomime can be a breath of fresh air compared to the oppressive feel of walking into much “proper” theatre. Even when the drama is good or even brilliant, the pretentious ranks of the middle classes usually get in the way.

The whole edifice of a theatre, with its well-to-do audience worrying more about chatter and a G&T in the interval than art, is off-putting to many.

It is a world that presumes you must know about the arts in order to enjoy them—and to understand them in a particular way defined by your “betters”.

In contrast, give me a few hundred children and their parents laughing at knock-knock jokes and shouting “it’s behind you” any day.

My first experience of the theatre was going to a panto as a child. It got me interested in theatre and art—and bad jokes.

Pantomime is a tradition of the people. At its earliest, it began as folk plays—ordinary people telling stories and putting on entertainment in inns or town squares.

In 16th century Italy a tradition grew up of entertainment using stock characters—lovers who don’t ever get together because the man is of a lower class than the woman, the woman’s miserly father, the wisecracking and wise woman servant, etc.

This “commedia del arte” spread across Europe, changed and diluted, and was transformed into a broad tradition of popular theatre.

Alongside this you have fairy stories. Some of these are ancient epics, while some are legends grafted on to historical events, like Robin Hood.

Most have endured not because they are timeless tales, but because they can be adapted and reshaped in new contexts.

Music hall developed in Britain in the 19th century. This theatre sucked in these traditions as a new commercial entertainment for the working classes.

Variety

The shows mixed up a “variety” of magicians, acrobats, singers and comedians making topical jokes. They also used celebrities and people in the news to attract audiences.

A lot was pro-establishment, racist empire-loving rubbish. Other parts were subversive songs about poverty (often later turned into sentimental dross).

It was theatre that looked both ways, reflecting the ideas of both the bosses and the workers. But, importantly, it also kept a tradition of involvement, heckling, singing along, and audience participation. These strands merge into what we know as pantomime.

Most drama is based on the illusion that we are looking through a window into “real life”. This style of drama has produced a large number of powerful artistic moments. It also produced some complete drivel.

The audience involvement and engagement is important, as the Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht argued—breaking down the “fourth wall” of theatre is central.

He argued that passivity was one way in which culture helped reinforce working class acceptance of the existing state of affairs. Participation stops an audience merely being passive spectators.

Many of the stories in pantomime such as Robin Hood or Cinderella can push to the forefront—or cover up—class antagonism, depending on the production.

Pantomime can sometimes be entertainment that plays to every possible prejudice and right wing stereotype. But it can also be a liberating, invigorating route into the arts.

Oh yes it can.


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Tue 14 Dec 2010, 17:30 GMT
Issue No. 2232
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