It’s the heart of the panto season, so time for an exploration of the form…
British pantomime grew into a distinctive form of entertainment – and no longer a form of mime – with a lot of influences (notably the Commedia Dell’Arte). From its ancestors, it inherited the basic theme of a battle of good and evil, and also a set of stock characters – but, of course, with inheritance comes mutation; the forms evolved.
The battle is (usually) at two levels: the struggle between immortal or supernatural characters, purer representations of good and evil, is played-out through their human proxies.
The palette of the evil immortals runs through demons, witches and sorcerers through to ogres and the like, whereas the idea of their counterparts has (generally) coalesced around the good fairy. (The Arabian tales bring the genie into the supernatural pantheon. However, genies are a bit ambivalent – they are capable of being good or bad).
The mortals are a more varied bunch, but the following are the common types:
The Heroine: the female romantic lead, otherwise known as the Principle Girl; young, sweet and innocent
The Hero: the Principal Boy – so the male romantic lead role, but frequently played by a young woman. The tradition of female Principal Boys comes from the 19th century, a time when the female form tended to be well-concealed by voluminous dresses. Theatre managers found that they could show off the occasional shapely leg by casting a woman as the principal boy and cladding her in tight-fitting breeches – hence the reference to this role as the breeches boy.
The Clown: a sympathetic role, one of the good guys. Whilst this role has evolved from clowning, panto writer Damian Trasler refers to it as the “comedy link man”: typically someone who jokes and talks directly to the audience and provides continuity between the different phases of the action.
The Dame: a middle-aged woman – often the mother of the hero or heroine – generally played by a man. Whilst cross-dressing is involved, this isn’t a conventional drag act. Whilst the dame may think that she is attractive and alluring, the audience is unlikely to think so – it’s playing the matriarch as a figure of fun. Again, this is usually a role that breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the audience.
The Skin Character: two people dressed as a horse, a cow or a camel, or, occasionally, one person playing a cat. Usually on the side of the good guys and played for comic effect.
The Villain: frequently following the Victorian archetype of the Wicked Squire, familiar from melodrama. Greedy, selfish and vindictive.
The comedy duo: usually a pair of incompetent henchmen working for the villain. Frequently performing the knock-about physical comedy. Also known as the “broker’s men”.
Okay, now keep those stock characters in mind while we look at Cinderella.
The heroine’s there all right in the title role. Then we have Prince Charming in the role of hero (and fairly typical of the pantomime romantic lead in that he doesn’t actually do very much towards the plot). The comedy link-man takes the form of Buttons; household valet, slightly downtrodden, friend of Cinderella, definitely on the good side. There isn’t a major skin character, though we do have rats and mice turned into horses and footmen. Then what?
We’ve got the good immortal, in the form of Cinderella’s fairy godmother. There are versions of Cinderella with a corresponding wicked immortal, but really the story doesn’t need it – Cinderella has a back-story that has left her as the epitome of the put-upon poor relation; it doesn’t need a wicked immortal to put her there. There is sometimes a mortal villain – but it’s a female one, in the form of Cinderella’s cruel stepmother. (Again, this role doesn’t occur in all versions – sometimes the cruelty is left to Cinderella’s stepsisters.)
That brings us to the dame: we’ve got two dames in the form of Cinderella’s ugly sisters – but they’re not playing the good, middle-aged mother. They are self-interested and cruel – so on the bad side of the fence – but comically incompetent: we’ve got dames playing the role of the broker’s men.
The moral here (and every pantomime is, at its heart, a moral tale) is that the stock characters are not there because they have to be there; they are there to serve the needs of the story.