18th December 1779. ‘Panto’: Oh Yes It Is!

Pantomime: from Panto ‘all’ and  Mimos ‘actor’, was originally a dumb, masked show in classical times. (1) 

What we now understand as the Clown in ancient Greece, was playful, irreverent and had a freedom to say anything, and a secondary figure in farce and mime. In Roman times he had a pointed hat and patchwork coloured robe.

By medieval times he developed into the Court Jester and fool who made fun of all regardless of standing.(2)

Jester morphed by the 18thc into the archetypal clown we know today and personified by Joseph Grimaldi, born today in 1779. The son of an Italian actor he appeared on stage when only two, since when all clowns has been called ‘Joey’.(3)

Jesters were a feature of the 18thc pantomimes, which followed a play, often by Shakespeare and were connected with the Harlequin spectacles as in December 1717 which saw a performance of ‘Harlequin Executed’ in Lincoln Inn Fields Theatre.

One such was the irreverent Punchinello (Punch)-wearing a jesters’ motley with sugar loaf, tasselled hat- had their origins in the Commedia dell’Arte, featuring Harlequin, (Arlecchino). He was a comic valet-a zanni-who frequently hit his victims-a Punch figure.

The Commedia originated in Italy where travelling players adopted conventionalised roles with masks, portraying formalized, stock characters. Later mask balls picked up the theme.

Other characters included Pantaloon, Scaramouche and the low-class Zanni (note our word Zany), such as Pierrot.

‘Hankey-Pankey is the name of a certain art practiced (sic) by pantomimists of the Clown and Harlequin School and is the subject of no little study and practise’, said Frank Bellew in his 1870 ‘The Art of Amusing’.

It appears to have been composed of ‘fictitious whackings and kickings and smackings associated with Punch’.

By the late 19thc pantomime had become a formalized Christmas spectacle. The Grand Theatre Islington opened Boxing Day 1891 with Dick Whittington and introduced the rousing hit ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-deray’ song.

Pantomime was introduced to fill these new theatres in the winter-time, with all the Nursery Rhyme stories re-vamped and effectively introduced children to a previously adult theatre.

In the wings

In the wings of pantomime.

Off to the Panto by John Leech.

‘Off to the Panto’ by John Leech.






So stereotype lives on enshrined in Ugly Sisters, Pantomime Dames-men becoming women-and Prince Charmings-women becoming boys, recapturing the essence of role reversion of the Roman Saturnalia and the ‘Boy Bishops’

Aladdin, Ali Baba (inspired by the Arabian Nights) Puss in Boots and Cinderella are all based on the same theme of good triumphing over evil and true love winning out. Oh yes it is!

Punch and Judy is now reduced mainly to sea-side entertainment.

(1) ‘Acting the Goat’: The Goat’s Mask in Greek Tragedy represented Dionysus.

(2) The fool (Latin ‘follis’, a bag of wind) or jester, goes back to the time when monarchs employed someone who was allowed to say things not allowed from others. Henry VIII had William Somers and Elizabeth had her Richard Tarlton.

Shakespeare’s plays are littered with fools: the jester in ‘King Lear‘ is symbolic of honesty and common-sense, Touchstone in ‘As You Like It‘ and Feste in ‘Twelfth Night’, not forgetting the 2 grave diggers, clowns in Hamlet.

(3) Charles Dibdin son of the songwriter invented the clown face in 1800.

Ref: alamy.com/Pic Images.

Ref: wikipedia.org/pantomime/Pic of Lithograph.

Ref: humourfoundation.com/history-of-clowns.


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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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