The pursuit of happiness is a constant theme of all pantomimes, usually expressed 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 from which they arise, to the ‘ideal’ and a sense of ecstatic bliss that transcends mere physical existence. Being happy means nothing less than achieving emotional contentment, bountiful riches, as well as physical ease.
Not only happiness but renewal
Historically speaking, the context of annual school productions might be viewed as having parallels with the annual nature of festival performances going back to antiquity (e.g. the Athenian City Dionysia) and the Middle Ages (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 also for 19th-century pantomimes as it forges its close relationship with the Christmas Festival. The downside to this was that everything ‘good’ is thought to be English and European, everything ‘bad’ was characterised as Asiatic, African or through a primitive Indigenous culture. Consequently, racist attitudes are present even in the most enlightened pantomime arrangements.
Transforming such prejudice is a large part of what the Know Nonsense Comedy Projects aims for in the treatment of cultural differences. The presentation of wealth changed the idea of ‘spiritual’ wealth to a more material one in the global marketing of pantomime productions.
What are we to do now?
There are lessons to be learned, particularly how certain theatre managers were NOT entrepreneurial at all, show them making a fortune from monopolising the theatre market and destroying their competition.
Of far more significance, however, pantomime productions should be contextualised within the substantial body of ‘post-colonial’ research which implicates theatre industries in European and English colonialism and the racism which arose from imperialist ideologies. The theatre historians and cultural theorists that have informed us how this occurred globally include Veronica Kelly, Helen Gilbert, Jacqueline Lo, Jacky Bratton, Jim Davis and Tracey C. Davis.
The Projects are not about to gloss over the fact that even the most ‘enlightened’ pantomime productions supported the brutality of the colonial enterprise. The Australian theatre historian, Paul McGuire, acknowledged the cultural cost for Australian society in perpetuity, for instance, when he wrote his historical overview of Australia theatre.
Perhaps we should be mildly surprised that the aborigine found any attention and sympathy from the company dumped on his coasts. The performances were to most of the rude crew perhaps entertaining tricks, like those of performing seals. No effort was seriously made to preserve the pattern or significance of the native cultural forms. The native arts slid off the unresponsive colonial mind. The native people themselves treated like other odd fauna of the place…no attempt was made to incorporated them in the new community unless here and there as serfs. They were not even in an imperial gesture claimed as subjects for His Majesty. They were thrust aside and neglected, or they were perverted, raped and murdered. Their successors in Australia consequently missed much from which we might have learnt: for in the native dance and drama were the first meanings won by man from the strange world into which the colonist had come. The Australian Theatre (1948). p.5
They look in depth at the impact of economics on the aesthetic choices made by theatre managers and the whole creative company of designers, writers and performers. I studied over two hundred spectacular Australian and English pantomimes that were produced as a result of applying new technologies to productions.
It is to that heritage of entrepreneurial culture that I now draw on in lively projects. We hope that middle-schools can immerse themselves in them to view the operations of a gig economy as well as learn how to create valuable cultural products, services and events for their schools.