Christmas Pantomime at Drury Lane

Christmas Pantomime at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

A Cultural History of English Pantomime, 1837-1901

Pantomime was one of the most popular, enduring and influential theatrical forms in Victorian England. It is a given of our national cultural life and has been part of the experience of virtually every generation of English people since the Industrial Revolution.

However, it remains almost entirely unanalysed and unstudied in a scholarly context. This neglect is almost certainly due to the widely held misapprehension that the pantomime is essentially lightweight and frivolous.

Our project, however, seeks to investigate a series of substantial and significant research questions.

  1. To what extent did pantomime dramatise and highlight contemporary political, social, and cultural issues and events (for example, imperial wars, colonial politics, political disputes, Cabinet politics, crime, and trade). This will include the extent of the influence of pantomime in the colonies, particularly Australia.
  2. The extent to which, given theatrical censorship by the Lord Chamberlain's Office, it was possible for pantomime to offer a subversive take on topics otherwise proscribed in ‘legitimate’ theatre.
  3. The depiction of, and changing attitudes towards, masculinity, femininity and gender relations, involving such pantomime institutions as the male dame, and the female principal boy.
  4. Regional differences: to what extent did provincial pantomime emulate the metropolitan pantomime and to what extent was it largely local in its appeal and reference points?
  5. Class differences: to what extent did West End and East End pantomimes diverge in content, character, subject, and appeal? How did pantomime construct and perform class?
  6. What can pantomime tell us about theatre audiences in the Victorian period?
  7. What is the place of pantomime in Victorian visual culture, and Victorian history of music and dance?
  8. How and why did the structure and nature of pantomime change during the Victorian age?
  9. The role of pantomime in the Victorian childhood experience and the participation of chid performers in Victorian pantomime.

This project will undertake a wide-ranging study of Victorian pantomime in England, looking at pantomime as a rich vein of cultural history and topical commentary about British society and politics in the Victorian period.

Nation

As part of our exploration of the hypothesis that pantomime was a significant site of nation-building in the Victorian period, we will examine the responses of audiences (via reviews, memoirs, archive records, iconography) to the range of pantomime topics, and to the developments in genre and production practices across the period. Victorian Britain saw the emergence of a clearly defined, but comparatively fluid, class structure as the effects of the Industrial Revolution stabilised. Detailed research questions guiding this part of the research derive from the assumption that pantomime appealed across classes. If so, was it understood as largely conformist or subversive in its appeal? And did different classes react differently to content? How were anxieties about class mobility reflected in the developments in pantomime over the period, and were there identifiable class characteristics in pantomimes at different theatres catering for different social mixes in the audience?

In a parallel to the examination of class difference as it is identified through the construction and reception of pantomime is the extent of regional distinctiveness. British regional theatre is a seriously under-researched subject and nowhere more so than in pantomime. The inclusion of a PhD studentship examining pantomime development in Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds as an integral part of the project will address this lacuna for the English regions, and offer added value to the project by giving points of reference beyond metropolitan London. Questions of national culture will be interrogated from the centres of industrial and social change in the Midlands and North.

Gender

Pantomime’s rich tradition of cross-dressing is its most notable challenge to the apparent fixity of gender roles in the nineteenth century; there is much anecdotal and populist history of the ‘pantomime dame,’ and the ideological and theoretical implications of male to female cross-dressing have begun to be explored in scholarly work (Weltman, Radcliffe). Research will investigate the pantomime chorus and its representations of and challenges to Victorian ideals of femininity (building on Mayer, ‘Sexuality of Pantomime’), the breeches or ‘Principal Boy’ role (including a discussion of significant performers such as Madame Vestris and Marie Wilton), and the pantomime dame (notably Dan Leno and Herbert Campbell).

Genre Developments

A major battle developed for the soul of pantomime in the later nineteenth century when Sir Augustus Harris at Drury Lane began to change the nature of pantomime by the injection of music hall acts and spectacle. This emasculated the previously essential element of the  Harlequinade which had survived from the eighteenth century, and compromised what defenders of traditional pantomime (such as Charles Dickens the Younger, John Ruskin, Lewis Carroll, and E. L. Blanchard) saw as the function of pantomime: the presentation of an ideal and idealised world in which moral values were regularly endorsed. A study of late Victorian pantomime (authored by the CI) will identify the nature and causes of these changes, arguing for pantomime as a sensitive barometer to wider social and cultural changes.

In the context of an examination of these generic changes, we propose to make a study of pantomime as the space in which a creative symbiosis between the stage and the ‘sister arts’ in particular dance, design, music, and painting in creating a holistic theatrical experience occurs. The increasingly spectacular nature of Victorian pantomime is frequently remarked upon (Mayer, Booth), but a close study of the involvement in pantomime of artists from other media and genre is yet to be made.

Annual Symposia

We are hosting three annual symposia, with invited experts:

Our events, and subsequent publications, will be of interest to scholars of Victorian culture and society, theatre history, advanced undergraduates and postgraduates of Victorian Studies, English theatre, and cultural studies, and general readers with interests in cultural and theatre history.