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  The word ‘pantomime’ (Greek, ‘all-imitation’) was originally used in ancient Rome of a single performer, who wore a mask representing three separate faces, and performed scenes between them, or who gave a vocal and physical representation of some scene or event (birds singing in a wood, for instance, or the sacking and firing of a city), taking all the parts. (There were equivalent acts in the 19th-century European music-hall: playing a scene between several people using different hats for each, or wearing a double suit of clothes, for example a woman\'s dress in right profile and a soldier\'s uniform in left profile; and the ubiquitous ‘farmyard impression’ sketch.) But ‘pantomime’ has two other meanings, quite different and mutually distinct. The first, and most important, describes a theatre practice which dates back to the earliest performances ever given: dumbshow. The performers indicate all feelings, all statements, by movement alone, and the beauty and virtuosity of their body language and gesture are a major part of the show\'s appeal.

Dance-dramas have always been the most favoured form of pantomime—the range is from a Stone Age re-enactment of a hunt to the sophisticated dance-plays of Far Eastern religion, from Japanese Noh plays to Western ballet. Often, in such performances, the actor/dancer is accompanied by offstage music, or by other actors reciting a narration or speaking dramatic words offstage, while he or she remains silent. In Japanese joruri theatre, as in Javanese popular theatre and the Karaghiosis plays of the Middle East, the ‘actors’ are puppets (necessarily silent), and the sound is provided offstage in a similar way. Another derivative from pantomime is mime itself. In its purest form, this is silent, and has a vocabulary of expressive gesture all its own; it is also an ingredient of all kinds of theatre performance, from lampoon to high tragedy (for example, the dumbshow in Hamlet).

The second, and distinctly secondary, meaning of ‘pantomime’ is a purely British invention of the last 200 years or so. It is a burlesque show, usually based on a fairy tale or nursery rhyme, and set in some exotic location such as the Middle East of the Arabian Nights, or the giant\'s castle to which Jack climbs in the nursery story. Topical allusions, slapstick and songs are inserted into the basic story, and there is cross-dressing: the ‘principal boy’ in traditional pantomime is played by a woman, the ‘dame’ by a man. Comic animals—eccentric dancers dressed as horses, cows, geese, cats—proliferate. Nowadays, in what some devotees see as a deplorable lapse from tradition, popular comedians, sports personalities and soap stars take the lead in pantomimes, often incorporating their own speciality ‘business’ whether or not it fits the story. A key moment in every pantomime is the transformation scene, using all the techniques of theatre presentation: in the 19th century, gauzes and quick changes, nowadays drum-revolves, lasers and computerized effects. This ‘Christmas pudding’ of an entertainment drew its roots and star performers originally from the music-hall, and so has links with the commedia dell\'arte and thence with older forms of pantomime (hence the name). But it has gone its own way since. Although British pantomime rarely appeals beyond British shores, in the UK it is the most popular of all theatre genres except for musicals, and a two-or three-month run of the Christmas pantomime is often what keeps a small theatre solvent throughout the year. TRG KMcL SS



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