Panto, ‘Puss’ to Pamela Anderson

Glamour model Pamela Anderson is delighting children – and their middle-aged fathers – with a West End Aladdin appearance, while the rest of us ask ourselves whether the family friendly genre of pantomime really has a place for the most downloaded woman on the internet.

This question, however, proves tricky to answer. As the author of a banned school pantomime, I suspected Aladdin‘s producers weren’t the first to include latent adult material. In the starkly lit, post war confines of the Cambridge University Library, I sought more information.

It seems that panto has evolved since it first originated in Ancient Greece and Rome. The ancients enjoyed watching a masked male dancer perform anything from high drama to semi-pornographic filth; for the show to qualify as pantomime, the only requirement was for this dancer to perform all the main roles.

Unlike their modern counterparts, ancient pantomimes were definitely not for kids. The lead performer and his supporting dancers were an exotically dressed and had an erotic presence. The Roman doctor Galen once took the pulse of a female audience member and diagnosed her not with disease but with sexual infatuation for Pylades, a leading dancer.

Although hugely popular in the Roman Empire, pantomimes were forced to close in the 5th Century, after bishop Jacob of Serugh denounced them, calling dancers ‘the pipe of Satan.’ Pantomime faded into obscurity and reappeared, much changed, in Renaissance Italy.

Commedia dell’arte, as this Italian panto prototype was known, was equally contro

versial when it came to England in the 17th Century. The audience at Blackfriars Theatre didn’t object to the comedy, slapstick or topical jokes, but to the fact that female parts were played by actresses, rather than boys in drag.

This and a certain insular mentality may have been the reasons why Commedia never caught on here. However, one of its central characters had become a staple of English burlesques by the time the word ‘pantomime’ was first used to describe them, on a 1717 theatre advertisement.

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Harlequin, as the character was named, survived for the next two centuries in the English pantomime. Cowardly, lascivious and incredibly stupid, he mimed his way through comic routines which would shock modern audiences: beating a baby, smearing it with grease and then ‘washing’ it with boiling water is one recorded example.

So perhaps it’s unsurprising that these ‘harlequinades’ became an increasingly small part of the show, while the pantomime’s sung or chanted prologue mutated into the main attraction. By the 1850s pantomimes were assuming the form familiar to us, but Pamela probably wouldn’t have made it into a Victorian Aladdin or Puss in Boots, given that era’s notoriously prudish sensibilities.

She doesn’t stick out among today’s daring performers, however. In 2004 Snow White’s wicked stepmother was played as a former prostitute by drag artist Paul O’Grady. A popular modern panto routine involves a striptease: the pantomime dame removes everything but a pair of frilly knickers and then the lights go out.

In short, pantomime nowadays is far from innocent, but that doesn’t stop families with young children from returning year after year. Historically, the genre has gone through extremes, from titillating eroticism to brutal violence. Against this backdrop, Pamela Anderson seems as innocent as Peter Pan – perhaps he could be her next role?