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(păn`təmīm) [Gr.,=all in mimic], silent form of the drama in which the story is developed by movement, gesture, facial expression, and stage properties. It is known to have existed among the Chinese, Persians, Hebrews, and Egyptians and has been observed in many other cultures. Pantomime was popular in ancient Rome, where it was often explained by songs or simple action. The traditional characters of pantomime take their origin in the Italian commedia dell'artecommedia dell'arte
, popular form of comedy employing improvised dialogue and masked characters that flourished in Italy from the 16th to the 18th cent. Characters of the Commedia Dell'Arte
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 of the 16th cent. English pantomime, originated by John RichRich, John,
1692–1761, English actor-manager. Rich introduced pantomime to England, himself playing (1717–60) the role of Harlequin in annual performances. His successful production of John Gay's Beggar's Opera
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, was more pageantpageant,
modern dramatic spectacle or procession celebrating a special occasion or an event in the history of a locality. In medieval times the word pageant had meant the wagon or the movable stage on which one scene of a mystery or miracle play was performed.
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 than pantomime, and in 1818, when J. R. Planche began his extravaganzas with "speaking openings," pantomime in England became a dramatic spectacle with songs and speeches. Joseph GrimaldiGrimaldi, Joseph
, 1779–1837, English pantomime actor and clown. He made his debut at the age of three in Robinson Crusoe at Sadler's Wells, London. For many years he performed there and at Drury Lane.
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 and Jean Gaspard DeburauDeburau or Debureau, Jean Gaspard
, 1796–1846, French pantomime performer, whose original name was Jan Kaspar Dvorjak, b. Bohemia.
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 were famous pantomime stars of the 19th cent. In silent pictures, Charlie ChaplinChaplin, Charlie
(Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin), 1889–1977, English film actor, director, producer, writer, and composer, b. London. Chaplin began on the music-hall stage and then joined a pantomime troupe.
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 made his name as a great pantomime actor. Marcel MarceauMarceau, Marcel
, 1923–2007, French mime, b. Strasbourg as Marcel Mangel. Marceau studied under Charles Dullin and master mime Étienne Decroux in Paris. He gained renown in 1947 with the creation of Bip, a silent, sad, white-faced clown with a battered stovepipe hat
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 has been the leading artist in France.


See C. Aubert, Art of Pantomime (1927, repr. 1969); J. Lawson, Mime (1957, repr. 1973).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.


In England many families celebrate Christmas by attending a pantomime show. Although in the United States the word "pantomime" refers to dramas enacted without dialogue, the word has a different meaning in Britain. There, a pantomime show combines dialogue, music, dance, acrobatics, slapstick humor, colorful costumes, and special effects around the enactment of a simple story, often a fairy tale. Pantomime brings a bit of the circus to the theater, as the emphasis is on amusing the audience with as many flashy diversions as possible rather than telling the story in an economical way. While children enjoy the spectacle, adults are amused by the innuendo, camp humor, and satire laced throughout the performance.

Pantomime traces its roots back to the ancient world, although much more recent theater traditions have influenced it as well. Its ancestors include Roman and Greek mime traditions, Renaissance improvisational comedy, and musical theater.

Ancient Pantomime

The English word "pantomime" comes from the ancient Greek words for "all" (panto) and "mimic" (mimos). The ancient Romans were especially fond of pantomimes. Roman mimes used masks to distinguish various characters and were often aided by a chorus, which chanted the story, as well as by musical accompaniment. By the end of the fourth century Christianity had become politically powerful in the Mediterranean world. Church and state officials began to speak out against pantomime and other forms of theater, arguing that its actors portrayed and promoted immoral and indecent activities. This attitude of condemnation continued through the Middle Ages. Mimes and other actors faced excommunication for their participation in the kinds of drama frowned upon by the Church. Nevertheless, many forms of folk drama persisted throughout this period, including some associated with the Christmas season, such as mumming, and Christmas time mystery or miracle plays, folk dramas depicting events related to the birth of Jesus (seealso Nativity Play).

Commedia Dell'Arte

In the sixteenth century commedia dell'arte, a kind of improvised burlesque comedy, began to re-popularize elements of pantomime in Italy. Although the plots varied, these dramas revolved around the interactions of a number of standard characters. These characters included Pantalone (or Pantaloon), a lecherous, scheming businessman, and Graziano, a pompous professor. Other important roles were filled by the zanni, or "servant" characters. These included Arlecchino (or Harlequin), a scamp; Colombina (or Colombine), a simple young woman; and Pucinella (or Punch), a slow-witted, hunchbacked fool. The madcap antics of these servants gave rise to the English word "zany." In commedia dell'arte actors expressed themselves with exaggerated gestures, masks, miming, dancing, music, and tumbling, in addition to dialogue. Because it did not rely heavily on language to communicate, commedia dell'arte crossed boundaries easily. It became popular throughout Europe in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries.

British Harlequinade

Nineteenth-century British pantomime evolved from eighteenthcentury commedia dell'arte influences. John Weaver of London's Drury Lane Theatre introduced a new kind of entertainment he called a pantomime in 1702. Weaver's pantomime placed commedia dell'arte characters such as Harlequin and Colombine in the midst of ancient myths enacted through song, dance, and mime. In 1717 John Rich, inspired by Weaver's success, presented a short funny scene between the acts of a regular play at Lincoln's Inn Fields Theatre. This scene featured the courtship of Harlequin and Colombine and was told in mime.

This addition to the regular bill of fare at the theater proved wildly popular, and before long other commedia dell'arte characters were introduced, such as Punch and Pantaloon. Although these additional characters spoke dialogue, the romance between Harlequin and Colombine continued to be presented in mime. These entertainments always starred the roguish Harlequin, and so they became known as harlequinade. Like commedia dell'arte, harlequinade combined music, dance, acrobatics, mime, and dialogue to create a comic, burlesque spectacle. It also added special effects (such as characters disappearing through trapdoors) and lavish costuming, which dazzled and delighted audiences.

The Birth of British Pantomime

In the early nineteenth century British harlequinade evolved into the art form now known as pantomime. Pantomime flourished as the century progressed, while harlequinade faded, disappearing sometime in the early twentieth century. Pantomime treated spectators to the same kind of circus atmosphere as did harlequinade, but differed in a number of important ways. In pantomime the role of the clown grew to be larger and more important than that of Harlequin.

In the latter half of the century pantomime shed the commedia dell'arte characters of Harlequin, Colombine, and Pantaloon, and gravitated toward the retelling of fairy tales, myths, and fables. A looseknit plot based around one of these stories held the various elements of the pantomime together as the extravagant spectacle surged back and forth across the stage. Unlike its predecessor, pantomime assigned all characters dialogue. By the 1820s women were being cast in the role of the principal boy, an innovation that tickled the theater-going public. This innovation slowly developed into a tradition whereby the young male lover was played by a woman and the dame, a comical older woman, was played by a man. Finally, whereas harlequinade had always been a diversion from or addition to the main attraction, pantomime developed into an attraction in and of itself.

In the 1830s and 1840s pantomime attached itself to the Christmas season (see also Victorian England, Christmas in). It was deemed a suitable family activity, since the fairy tale themes enchanted children, and the spicy dialogue, which children failed to understand, amused adults. Pantomimes generally opened on Boxing Day, December 26, and the public flocked to theaters to see them during the Twelve Days of Christmas. In some places, pantomimes proved so popular they ran until March. Although pantomime found favor with the general public, many literary and other intellectual figures disdained it as a vulgar and disorderly display.

Christmas Themes

Some writers have commented on the underlying similarities between pantomime and other Christmas entertainments that featured unruly behavior under the cover of masks and disguises. Examples of these entertainments include belsnickeling (see Knecht Ruprecht), the customs associated with Germany's Knocking Nights, the Feast of Fools, Feast of the Ass; masques, mumming, Plough Monday customs, and Twelfth Night celebrations (see also Kalends and Zagmuk). By the time pantomime became popular in Great Britain, however, most of these practices had died out.

Although pantomime sprang from a different set of cultural and historical roots than did these earlier customs, it seems to represent a perennial return to the theme of celebrating midwinter with costumed revelry. One important distinction remains. While ordinary people banded together to carry out these earlier forms of folk entertainment, pantomime was produced by professionals. Consequently, while the earlier revels often took place in the streets or in private homes, pantomimes, offered to the public as a product for sale, could only be experienced in private theaters.

Established Tradition

Many believe that the heyday of pantomime occurred during the Victorian era. Indeed, the nineteenth century produced a number of pantomime stars including Joey Grimaldi, the celebrated clown of the early 1800s, and Dan Leno, the famous dame of the late 1800s. Nevertheless, during the twentieth century the British public continued to crowd the theaters that hosted pantomimes during the Christmas season. Although in the past many pantomimes premiered on Boxing Day, today the pantomime season runs from mid-December to mid-January. Moreover, while theater attendance throughout Britain continues to sag, pantomime brings in such large audiences that many theaters rely on box-office takings from these performances to substantially boost yearly revenues.

Further Reading

Baxter, Beverley. "Two Thousand Years of Pantomime." In Harry Ballam and Phyllis Dibgy Morton, eds. The Christmas Book. 1947. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Chambers, Robert. "December 26 - Christmas Pantomimes." In his TheBook of Days. Volume 2. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1990. Del Re, Gerard, and Patricia Del Re. The Christmas Almanack. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. Hadfield, Miles, and John Hadfield. The Twelve Days of Christmas. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown and Company, 1961. Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. Muir, Frank. Christmas Customs and Traditions. New York: Taplinger, 1977. "Pantomime." In Phyllis Hartnoll, ed. The Oxford Companion to the Theatre. Fourth edition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1983. Pimlott, J. A. R. The Englishman's Christmas. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1978. Walsh, William S. The Story of Santa Klaus. 1909. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1991.
Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations, 2nd ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2003
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a form of theatrical entertainment in which gesture, facial mimicry, and flexible, expressive body movements are the principal means utilized by the actor to create his role.

The art of pantomime originated in ancient Greece and Rome. In the Middle Ages such performers as the histrion and jongleur made use of pantomime; the art flourished again in the Italian commedia dell’arte of the mid-16th to 18th centuries. In the 19th century, J. Grimaldi of Great Britain and J.-B. G. Deburau of France, the creator of the famous stock character of Pierrot, developed pantomime as an independent form of theater.

In the last third of the 19th century, pantomime was performed chiefly in music halls. In France the Marseille school, headed by L. Rouffe, was founded, and in Great Britain pantomime was performed by D. Leno, Little Tich, and by F. Kar-no’s company, in which C. Chaplin began his career. In the early 20th century, pantomime was utilized extensively by such outstanding German directors as M. Reinhardt. Since the 1930’s the most famous mimes have been J.-L. Barrault and M. Marceau of France, L. Fialka of Czechoslovakia, and H. Tomaszew-ski of Poland.

In Russia pantomime was used in many folk plays, folk rituals, and skomorokh (folk actor) performances. In the 19th century it was performed at show booths and circuses. Between 1910 and 1920 pantomime was utilized by the directors K. A. Mardzhanov, N. N. Evreinov, A. Ia. Tairov, and V. E. Meyer-hold.

A special type of pantomime, accompanied by rhythmic music and singing, has been widespread since ancient times in India, Indonesia, and other Asian countries.

Modern pantomime comprises the art of mime, which is performed by one actor, and presentations with all the features of a theatrical performance. In Soviet pantomime both these types have been developed.


Rumnev, A. O pantomime: Teatr, kino. Moscow, 1964.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. (in Britain)
a. a kind of play performed at Christmas time characterized by farce, music, lavish sets, stock roles, and topical jokes
b. (as modifier): a pantomime horse
2. a theatrical entertainment in which words are replaced by gestures and bodily actions
3. (in ancient Rome) an actor in a dumb show
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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And thirdly, at the level of performance and acting styles, in line with Romantic-period theatre more generally, they tend to employ tableaux and pantomimical action in which voice is suspended and physical codes replace verbal language.
In stark contrast with this typically intricate plotline, Francisco's inability to speak is the central textual and performative trope in the play, one that gave Farley much scope for his pantomimical abilities and his own elaboration of what Jane Moody terms 'the hyperbolic conventions of melodramatic acting'.18 Francisco is the crucial figure and trope in the play, in that he embodies the mystery of the title--a mystery which is one of those characteristically convoluted Gothic stories of intra-familial lust, hatred and greed, and yet is far from constituting the central enigma of the play as the conclusion reveals.
The newspaper headline is not the only example of De Quincey's use of the pantomimical "legend" or sign-board technique in The English Mail-Coach.