Panto Theory

Panto #1:

Roshan Seth’s dress ups is my flimsy excuse that allows me to talk about the theatre – tangentially – and in particular Pantomime. I am interested in Pantomime because of its storytelling facility, because it is – very often – the contemporary home of the 1001 Nights, and all the Orientalism that adaptations of that story, so favoured by Kureshi, might entail.

There is also a literary point to this storytelling frame – I take it from Walter Benjamin that the Storyteller – in his essay ‘The Storyteller’, first published in 1936 in the journal Orient and Occident, Benjamin mentions Scheherazade three times. His point here is to distinguish between memory and mere information, and I think it worth pursuing the line that the trick is to tell better stories such that despotism might be overcome (In the interval before the formation of a genuine people’s army that can win, this narrative gamble. Scheherezade, you will remember, tells her stories to buy time from the despotic King Shahryar).

But I first became interested in Pantomime after reading Alain Badiou’s Handbook of Inaesthetics (in translation – thank-you Alberto Toscano) and his comments on dance and theatre as a metaphor for thought (well, dance as restraint, theatre as acting, and as ideas [Badiou 1998/2005:72]). Though I have differences with Badiou on this, it is interesting to try to retrieve a critical thinking in the lease likely academic performance I can think of – within pantomime as story.


So – a detour through the theatrical – and for the purposes of this discussion, the comic theatre of British pantomime.

Thinking about pantomime terrors deserves a little historical play. The popular Christmas and summer holiday entertainment form has roots in vaudville and melodrama and might also be traced back through French mime, Italian Commedia dell’arte, or even to Roman mythology and the flutes of the god Pan (Miller 1978:52-54). A more detailed history of course would have to contend with the relation of the Pied Piper of Hammelin to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, with issues of role reversal, double entendre, drag, slapstick, superstitions (left side of the stage for demons, right side for fairy princesses) and theatre ghosts if not more. end insert]

Yet pantomime is also dynamic – not just a Christmas entertainment beloved of children, seaside theatres, shopping malls and B-list celebrity actors, an actor gets to play many roles, tinker with rhymes, song, dance and humour, appear in drag, men act as bawdy women, women as adventurous sexy boys, there is plenty of word play, double entendre, burlesque, knowing morals and audience involvement. For all the family then. The Harlequin character – a trickster for anthropologists – becomes Clown later – for sociology, a broker, a Faust figure for Literature, a shape-shifter for Sci Fi. Fairies enter from the right, the villains Stage Left.

Pantomime is very often topical (no wonder Cromwell banned them – they provided the first licensed public spaces, the prototype of gin-joints…):

“From the very beginning the pantomime was acutely aware of the world around it … no other form of entertainment has ever devoted itself so wholeheartedly to holding up to the public, for its approbation, censure, or mere amusement, the events, manners, whims and fancies, fads, crazes and absurdities of the time (Frow 1985:136)

There is reference to Saddam Hussain in Snow White – he was found hiding in a cave (Taylor 2007:137). Dick Whittington offers endless opportunity for jokes about the London Mayoral position, Red Ken or Bombshell Boris each giving the guy dressed up as a cat a run for his money. The Dick Whittington story involves a merchant being accused of minor theft and having to leave London only to turn back – the bells tell him to – and he makes his fortune in the orient (Morocco, from a Sultan and returns to electoral success in the city, and banking fortune).

These Panto’s use the tradition of wry or ironic political analogy to raise questions for school kids about stereotype, terror and racism. I find this useful and will go on to consider the role of hip hop video as something similar. There is afterall a long pop music involvement in Panto. Cliff Richard played Aladdin way back in 1962 (with the Shadows as Wishee, Washee, Poshee and Noshee). Tommy Steele also, and the Spice Girls not so long ago – and Keith Richard dressed up in Pirates of the Caribbean, while not strictly Panto, is really.

“Pantomime continues to develop in response to the cultural norms of society with the inclusion of topical and political references, references to the media and the inclusion of contemporary music and dance’ (Taylor 2007:69-70)

At the same time, Pantomime is a site where we might unexpectedly find the ‘aftermath’ of the war on terror. You may have 9-11 fatigue, but what about the kids? (Get ’em while they’re young). There has been a lot – perhaps endless – talk about the events – 9-11 or 7-7, Madrid and Bali, as events, but I am more concerned to recognise these anniversaries as events that come around more and more, not on their own. There is a repetition and extension of the event into all other parts of life. It is now of great interest for me that – following Gargi Bhattacharyya – to see how a ‘cultural project’ runs alongside the war on terror and impacts upon a very diverse range of practices, from militarization and public policy (obviously – watch the news) right through to entertainment and ‘child-rearing’ (Bhattacharyya 2008:55,92). And I have in mind Marx’s 18th Brumaire opening – you know all the great lines of this text, ‘they cannot represent themselves, they must be represented’, ‘let the dead bury the dead’ and the one that chides Hegel for saying historical events happen twice, but forgetting to say the second time they happen as farce.

Pantomime is just the kind of farce I need here – and it’s a play repeated over and over.


1001 Nights

In recent years several amateur pantomime troupes have performed critical versions of classic stories from the Alf Laylah – the 1001 Nights – as parables of the war

– Aladdin and his magic opium smuggling lamp

– Sinbad the Sailor and his Open Sesame cave at Tora Bora

– Ali Baba and the 40 Oil Thieves

The 1001 Nights provides a great many Panto tales – Cinderella as well, it is the classic old school Orientalist text, translated by the French Ambassador to Istanbul, Antoine Gallard in 1712, it has fascinated ever since (Lathan 2004:110)

There are of course dangers in the theatrical metaphor for thinking politics such that the jester-critic is easily dismissed/contained in the comic-entertainment section of the press. I suggest we take the pantomime clown more seriously, but I may already have been fooled. I must admit Capitalism thrives today on something like the controlled chaos of pantomime. It sells hybridized, multiply reflexive forms; it thrives on contradictory niche markets (jokes for the kids, different jokes for parents; it celebrates inversion, cross-dressing, transgression and emotes – for a profit.

(Aside): It is then, quite useful as allegorical frame.

So, Fee Fi Fo Fum, I smell the blood of an English Man.

(pic – its Julian Clary, Goldsmiths own, here as Cinderella’s sidekick Dandini)


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