Comic Stories & Serious Themes

Radical Pantomime courses introduce students to the comic treatment of serious themes. Maximum laughter, along with equal amounts of surprisingly wonderful engaging experiences are on offer.

Themes Around Happiness & Renewal 

The theme of the Pursuit Of Happiness is expressed throughout all comic pantomimes: usually as wedded bliss or at the very least as loyal companionship. Often, pantomime settings show life in a quaint little village, far from the squalor of urban living.

Productions aspire, like their fairytale scenarios, to heavenly ideals that transcend mere physical existence. The state of being happy is thought to be full of emotional contentment, bountiful riches, as well as physical ease. Historically speaking, the annual pantomime season marked a festival season like the annual festivals back in antiquity (e.g. the Athenian City Dionysia) or the Middle Ages (e.g. The Feast of Christ the King, York Mystery Plays, the Chester Mystery Plays, the Wakefield Mystery Plays).

The common feature these events share is the theme of renewal for the whole community. The theme is a vital one which 19th-century pantomimes forged together with the Christmas celebrations. However, the theme also had a negative side through which ‘good’ and ‘evil’ was based on whether or not characters were European, Asiatic, African and or primitive natives like Pacific Islanders. Non-Europeans were characterised as cannibals, or at the very least, barbaric.  Racist attitudes are present even in the most enlightened pantomime stories on Women’s Suffrage. Transforming such racism is an important consideration in taking on19th-century comic stories.

Themes Around Wealth & Progress

Themes around financial matters are expressed as part of the yearning for what’s fair when characters in pantomime stories are looking for food and shelter. There are many ‘poor’ characters looking for a better life the stories like Aladdin, Sinbad and Babes In The Wood. The characters all yearn for justice and a fair outcome when things go wrong. For that reason, the theme is connected in many pantomime stories to the political movements in the 1870s to the 1900s on the parliamentary democracy and an end to autocrats. The theme also embraces the struggle for growth and progress over greed and stagnation. Many pantomime stories revolved around the human striving to be enterprising and productive. In turn, they show greed as both violent and unproductive. In some scenarios, this is expressed when the beggar appears at the door and in others, it was displayed through spectacular scenic and musical presentation of what it meant to live in a ‘commonwealth’ country.

There are also comic stories showing the generational shift between the young and old characters e.g. between children and parents. Arguably, one of the oldest of pantomime themes shown in the conflict between the ‘i annomorati’ and ‘i vecchi’ in the Commedia influences on English pantomime. It takes on more inventive meanings in pantomimes created in various English colonies, as the ‘old world’ is pitched against the ‘new colony’.

Themes Around Physical Reality of Settings & Characters 

The third theme expressed through comic pantomime stories concerns the physical nature of things. It is often expressed as ‘weather’ represented as calamitous whirlpools, volcanoes, earthquakes and ‘old man winter’.

There is an irony in-built within calamitous events which shows-up how hardship brings out the best qualities of the human character – through courage, inventiveness, creative solutions, a sense of fairness. This is strongly related to the way that stories rely on physical forms of comic action which give rise to a variety of dance and choreographic traditions. The term slapstick has a particular meaning as a stage prompt for acrobatic actions by clowns to defy their physical limitations. The comic stories are historically linked to the development of circus and music hall acts.

Physical themes move into the use of cross-dressing in an English pantomime tradition of the ‘pantomime boy’ and the ‘dame’. Interestingly, this which does not come from Italian Commedia. It can be explained in a practice through English theatre censoring of women, which took place during the Elizabethan age. Consequently, the ‘boy’ was a way in which the feminine body could be viewed on stage in tight-fitting bodice and stockings. In fact, the theatre became one of the only places outside marriage in which the shapely legs of actresses together with their close-fitting costumes were displayed. By contrast, the Dame was the role in which the pantomime expressed the older man playing an older ‘beyond her prime’ woman. More than just a little misogynist, the Dame ridicules the strong ‘amazonian’ women and the political problems of the ‘woman problem’. 

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