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Pantomime (often called panto) is a kind of theatre entertainment usually performed around Christmas and the New Year in Britain and a few other English-speaking countries. It must not be confused with mime (acting with gestures but no speech).
A pantomimos in Ancient Greece used to be an entertainment performed by a solo dancer. In the Middle Ages a form of theatre developed called Commedia dell'arte. This was similar to a pantomime. They told a story which had certain fixed characters: the lovers, the father, the servants etc.
The Pantomime first arrived in England as a short entertainment (entr'acte) between opera pieces. Eventually it became a separate show.
The pantomime today
Today the pantomime is traditionally performed at Christmas. It is a show for children, but grownups like it as well. Usually a well-known story is told, e.g. Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Pinocchio, The Three Little Pigs, Puss in Boots, The Musicians of Bremen, Little Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks and the Three Bears and Snow White etc. There is a lot of spoken dialogue but there are also songs, and sometimes the audience join in. There are many traditions in pantomime. These are some of the main ones:
- The main young man in the play (the principal boy) may be played by a young woman, and usually in tight-fitting male clothes (such as breeches).
- An older woman (the pantomime dame – often the hero's mother) is usually played by a man dressed as a woman. Often the children do not understand these jokes. They are just for the grownups.
- The audience take part (audience participation). For example, they call "look behind you!" (or "he's behind you!"), and "Oh, yes it is!" or "Oh, no it is not!" The audience is always encouraged to "Boo" the villain, and "Awwwww" the poor victims, such as the rejected dame, who usually fancies the prince.
- A song combining a well-known tune with different words.
- The animal, played by an actor in "animal skin" or animal costume. It is often a pantomime horse or cow, played by two actors in a single costume, one as the head and front legs, the other as the body and back legs.
- The good fairy always enters from stage right and the evil villain enters from stage left. In Commedia dell'arte the right side of the stage symbolized Heaven and the left side symbolized Hell.
- The members of the cast throw out sweets to the children in the audience, or choose a few to come on stage and ask them questions.
- Sometimes the story villain will squirt members of the audience with water guns or pretend to throw a bucket of "water" at the audience that is actually full of something harmless such as streamers.
- Sometimes the comedy is slapstick, e.g. the actors throw custard pies in one another's faces.
- Sometimes there is a celebrity guest star.