Pantomime and Burlesque

A large proportion of modern theatre can trace its descent from the Commedia Del Arte of sixteenth century Italy. Be it an old-fashioned Punch and Judy performance on the beach or Complicité at the National, the roots can be traced back to the Commedia. Perhaps it is not surprising then to find that both Pantomime and Burlesque descend from this same tradition.
Burlesque traces its decent from Commedia Del Arte through its latter incarnation in The Masque – where principal characters would carry a ‘burle’ (a stick with a padded end) with which they would slap the other players for comic effect. Much as the ‘slap stick’ lent its name to a genre of physical comedy so too burlesque became a term used to describe scenes based round grotesque characters, satires or physical comedy. When, in the late Nineteenth century, a new style of poor working class cabaret emerged in the United States that made up for its low production values with risqué, satirical and salacious content, it took its name from the Burlesques of this earlier tradition.

The relationship between Pantomime and Commedia is even more direct, without any break in the genealogy. When the Comédie Française were granted the sole right to present dialogue plays within the environs of Paris the players of Commedia needed a means of survival. Making a virtue of this enforced silence they created the Pantomime – silent plays based round the stock characters or ‘masks’ of comedia. The pantomime flourished in Paris throughout the Eighteenth and Nineteenth century – even creating it’s own mask – the famous clown Pierrot. Both Pierrot and the French Pantomime were immortalised in Marcel Carné’s classic film Les Enfants du Paradis (1945).

The first success of British Pantomime followed closely on its French cousin’s heals. The establishment of the English tradition is attributed to John Rich, owner of the Lincoln’s Inn Theatre and aspiring actor. Untrained as an actor, Rich wasn’t comfortable speaking on stage, so when he cast himself as Harlequin in 1717 he turned the role into a mime. The production was a huge success and the Pantomime found it’s place in the English heart. But the development of the English pantomime was distinct from its French cousin. It was the bawdy and base that excited the English soul. It quickly abandoned the mimed element that was the basis of the French tradition, but maintained the slapstick and grotesque humour, bright colours and simple story lines. By the Victorian period the Pantomime had become a predominately adult male entertainment form: bawdy sexual banter, slapstick humour and women in tights. It is perhaps hard for us to understand today, but in an age when piano legs were covered for fear of causing sexual offence, seeing a woman in tights was considered erotic. This tradition of the principle boy being played by a woman in tights is one that continues in England to this day.

With Cenerentola Finger in the Pie have bought the burlesque and pantomime traditions back together to tell an Italian version of the Cinderella story from the seventeenth century, the period when the Commedia Del Arte was at its most popular.

First published in the program of Finger in the Pie’s Burlesque Pantomime Cenerentola 2007.

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