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The Play of Eros: Paradoxes of Gender in English Pantomime

  • Peter Holland


Christmas pantomime, that peculiarly English form whose uncertain origins go back to the early eighteenth century, has evolved its own distinctive typology of cross-dressed characters, with a Principal Boy who is a girl, a Dame who is indisputably male, and even those humanoid visitors from the animal kingdom known as ‘skin parts’. David Mayer explored ‘The Sexuality of English Pantomime’ in the seminal ‘People's Theatre’ issue of the original Theatre Quarterly (TQ4, 1974), and twenty years on Peter Holland takes up the debate in the light of recent developments in sexual politics, critical approaches to gender – and, not least, the continuing and not always expected evolution of what remains a very live form indeed. Peter Holland is about to move from his present post as Judith E. Wilson Reader in Drama and Theatre in the Faculty of English at Cambridge to become the new Director of the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford. An earlier version of his present article was presented as a paper at the conference on ‘Eros e commedia sulla scena inglese’, at the Terza Università in Rome in December 1995.



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Notes and References

1. ‘The Indispensable Pantomime Guide’, The Times, 22 November 1995, p. 37.

2. Nichols, Peter, Plays: Two (London, 1991), p. 407; on Poppy, see also Worthen, W. B., ‘Deciphering the British Pantomime: Poppy and the Rhetoric of Political Theatre’, Genre, XIX (1986), p. 173–91.

3. Nichols, Peter, Poppy (London, 1982), p. 31 (the speech is cut from the revised version of the play in Nichols, Plays: Two).

5. Byng, Douglas, As You Were (London, 1970), p. 91.

6. See, for example, Garber, Chapter 7, and Baker, p. 172–83.

7. Quoted by Wilson, A. E. in his Pantomime Pageant (London, 1946), p. 119.

8. Quoted by Frow, Gerald, ‘Oh, Yes It Is!’: a History of Pantomime (London, 1985), p. 183.

9. Wilson, Pantomime Pageant, p. 119.

10. Wilson, A. E., Christmas Pantomime (London, 1934), p. 219.

11. Quoted by Frow, op. cit., p.183.

12. Quoted by Frow, op. cit., p.183–4.

13. On pantomime in this period, see also Booth, Michael R., ed., English Plays of the Nineteenth Century: Vol. 5, Pantomimes, Extravaganzas, and Burlesques (Oxford, 1976), and Mander, Raymond and Mitchenson, Joe, Pantomime: a Story in Pictures (London, 1973).

14. Mayer, David, ‘The Sexuality of Pantomime’, Theatre Quarterly, IV (1974), p. 5564.

15. Morley, John, ‘How to Write a Pantomime’, in Pickering, David and Morley, John, Encyclopedia of Pantomime (Andover, 1993), p. xi.

16. Quoted in Wilson, Pantomime Pageant, p. 120.

17. Nichols, Plays: Two, p. 418–9.

18. See also Rose's song in Cregan's, DavidThe Sleeping Beauty (London, 1984): ‘Give me my life/And I'll take it again from the start./If I could only be me.…/Let me be me’ (p. 26–7).

19. Nichols, Poppy, p. 31.

20. Wood, J. Hickory, Dan Leno (London, 1905), p. 119.

21. Ibid., p. 135.

22. Leno, Dan, Hys Booke, ed. Duncan, J. (London, 1968), p. 53.

23. See his autobiography, La Rue, Danny, From Drags to Riches (London, 1987).

24. On ‘passing’ or ‘real disguise’, see Baker, Drag, p. 14–15. Baker discusses pantomime dames on p. 172–83. See also Moore, F. Michael, Drag! (Jefferson, N.C., 1994).

25. Clinton-Baddeley, V. C., ‘Traditions of Pantomime’, in All Right on the Night (London, 1954), p. 223.

26. Ibid.

27. Everitt, Anthony, ‘George Lacy’, Panto!, No. 3 (1974), p. 15.

28. Marshall, Henry, ‘Author! Author!’, Panto!, No. 2 (1973), p. 13.

29. Quoted in Ferris, Lesley, ‘Introduction: Current Crossings’, in Crossing the Stage (London, 1993), p. 11.

30. Crocker, John, ‘Production Note’, Sinbad the Sailor (London, 1980), unpaginated.

31. Ackroyd, Peter, Dressing Up (New York, 1979), p. 103–4.

32. See also the stock scene exploring a heap of underwear in Widow Twankey's laundry in Aladdin, e.g., Morley, John, Aladdin (1981), p. 22–4.

33. See, for example, MrsSinbad, in Sinbad the Sailor (1983) and Sarah, the Cook in Dick Whittington (1986).

34. Adams, W. Davenport, ‘The Decline of the Pantomime’, The Theatre, 1 02 1882, p. 89.

35. Ibid.

36. Orwell, George, ‘The Art of Donald McGill’, in The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell, Vol. 2 (Harmondsworth, 1970), p. 183–95.

37. Shaw, G. B., Our Theatre in the Nineties, Vol. 3 (London, 1932), p. 279.

38. The anecdote is from Philip Hedley, Artistic Director of the Theatre Royal, Stratford East – it may well be true. Compare the following more certainly apocryphal story: ‘In one memorable event in a performance of King Cole, according to the actor who played the villain, he had the heroine unconscious on a sofa and uttered the line, ‘Ah, my fair Miranda, you know not what I have in mind’. Whereupon a voice called from the gallery, “Why don't you — her and get on with the pantomime!”’ See Kaplan, Charles, ‘The Only Native British Art Form’, Antioch Review, XLII (1984), p. 268.


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