Pantomime is British. No one else has it, and it is a marvellous and wonderful (if a little eccentric! ) British institution.
Pantomimes take place around the Christmas period and are nearly always based on well-known children’s stories such as Peter Pan, Aladdin, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty etc. Pantomimes are performed not only in the best theatres in the land but also in village halls throughout Britain. Whether a lavish professional performance or a hammy local amateur dramatic production, all pantomimes are well attended.
Audience participation is a very important part of a pantomime. The audience are encouraged to boo the villain whenever he enters the stage, argue with the Dame (who is always a man) and warn the Principal Boy (who is always a girl) when the villain is behind them by shouting out “He’s behind you!”
An example of audience participation:
Wicked Queen in the pantomime version of Snow White. “I am the fairest of them all”
Audience – “Oh no you’re not!” Queen – “Oh yes I am!” Audience – “Oh no you’re not!”
Slapstick is another important part of a British pantomime – the throwing of custard pies, the ugly sisters (who are always played by men) falling over, lots of silly costumes including of course, the pantomime horse which is played by two people in a horses costume.
By the end of the pantomime, the villain has been defeated, true love has conquered all and everyone lives happily ever after.
So how did this curious British institution come about?
Pantomime literally means “all kinds” of “mime” (panto-mime) . It is generally acknowledged that British pantomime is modelled on the early masques of the Elizabethan and Stuart days. In the 14th century the early masques were musical, mime or spoken dramas, usually performed in grand houses although by the 17th century they were really no more than an excuse for a theme party.
The timing of the British pantomime at Christmas and the role reversal of the lead characters (the principal boy being played by a girl and the Dame by a man) may have also evolved from the Tudor “Feast of Fools”, presided over by the Lord of Misrule. The feast was an unruly event, involving much drinking, revelry and role reversal.
The Lord of Misrule, normally a commoner with a reputation of knowing how to enjoy himself, was selected to direct the entertainment. The festival is thought to have originated from the benevolent Roman masters who allowed their servants to be the boss for a while.
Courtesy of http://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/Pantomime/ website