Poster advertising the Christmas Programme for 1881-2 at the Royal Victoria Theatre
Medium: Printed Text
The classic British pantomime derives from the Italian tradition of 'Commedia de l'arte', a type of dramatic presentation that included improvisation, dance and slapstick comedy. Pantomimes were originally performed in silence, hence the word's "mime" terminus.
When introduced to Britain, they were known as 'Harlequinades', taking their name from a stock character in Italian theatre known as the Harlequin. This omnipresent and near-supernatural being dressed in a black-and-white diamond-covered costume, and acted as the satirical or moral centre of the play, narrating events that happened offstage and poking fun at the pretensions of other characters in the piece.
Harlequinades were usually performed at the end of an evening of farce or tragedy, almost as a kind of catharsis for the audience. By the 19th century, however, the Harlequin was being used less and less in British productions, and the term pantomime became preferred. Pantomime productions usually ran for a month from Boxing Day, December 26.