December has arrived. The holiday season is upon us. And with it comes a theatre season up and down the country full of pantomime and farce. The Assembly Rooms itself is joining in the fun, as we host Ooook! Productions’ The Magistrate this week.
Of course, both of these theatrical forms have a wealth of tradition and history behind them. Pantomime (literally meaning ‘all kinds of mime’) is modelled on the masques of the Elizabethan and Stuart days, and its popularity at Christmas time is also an age-old tradition, evolved from the Tudor “Feast of Fools”, which similarly involved much revelry, ridiculousness and gender role reversals.
Farce goes back even further, originating in the New Comedies of Ancient Greece (ironic given its quintessentially British status now), but the term itself was first applied to comic plays in England in the Middle Ages. It gradually emerged into its own form in the 16th century, with Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors quickly becoming the most well-known of the lot.
The multiple similarities between the two genres – exaggerated characters, improbable situations, audience participation and slapstick comedy, to name but a few – makes them hugely popular around this merry time of year, when everyone is particularly keen to see the back of reality, and theatrical realism with it.
The fact that both genres, however, maintain the vast majority of their tropes from when they were first devised might beg the question as to why their popularity shows no sign of slowing. We might laugh at the baffled faces of non-British theatre-goers as they watch the absurdity and garishness of these performances with some kind of horror, but they are undeniably somewhat old-fashioned forms of entertainment. Yet year upon year it is the same annual pantomime that breaks box office records; over 3 million tickets were sold for pantomime last year, and it accounts for a large portion of profits across regional theatre in particular.
It is in part, of course, this familiarity that remains so appealing to the hundreds of thousands of people ushered in every year. Many of us have been taken to the pantomime since we were two feet high, and are likely dragged along even now to accompany younger members of the family. Pantomime and farce are examples of self-proclaimed absurdity, and celebrators of it. They allow their audiences to wallow in the chaos of anarchy, whilst still providing the assurance of harmony restored.
It is no wonder, then, that this most wonderful time of the year continues to provide the perfect backdrop to what is the ultimate form of escapism: a giggle and a Dame.
By Elvira Parr