‘I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.’
– Oscar Wilde
Today’s image: the theatre
There is such a close association between the theatre, in all its forms, and this time of the year. Drama, dance, song, all have a long winter / December history.
Dressing up and play acting have been a part of key festivals for centuries, at Halloween and All Souls’ Day, Easter, and, most of all, at Christmas. Performed by amateur ‘mummers’ or ‘guisers’ (i.e. in disguise), mumming is an egalitarian custom stretching back thousands of years and on into the 19th century. Medieval Mummers would celebrate the season in masks, before these performances developed into structured drama featuring rhyming text.
In his article ‘Mystery History : The Origins of British Mummers’ Plays’, Peter Millington divides the plays into three broad types. There is the Hero/Combat play featuring, as the name suggests, challenges and a sword fight between hero and antagonist, generally ending in the slaying of the villain (hooray!) The Easter ‘pace egg’ play is a common example that’s still performed on Good Friday in my own part of the world. Then there’s the Recruiting Sergeant play, associated with New Year and Plough Monday (i.e. the first Monday after Twelfth Day / Epiphany). Herein, the character of ‘Tom Fool’ sets up an operatic scene between a Recruiting Sergeant, a Farmer’s Man and the Lady, resulting in the rejected ‘Lady’ marrying the Fool. Finally, the Sword Dance, which is more dance than drama. All three variations feature a ‘quack doctor’, who attempts to bring the slain back to life.
These basic storylines, and most of generic character types, will be recognisable from plays and other forms of fiction that we enjoy today.
More recently in UK, though, we associate the winter season with pantomime. This is not a uniquely British, but has its roots in 16th-century Italian street theatre of the Commedia dell’arte in the 16th Century, featuring a cast of standard characters along with physical and ribald comedy. The tradition, and characters were soon adopted in Britain of the 18th century, and morphed into the sequinned, extravaganza performances that we recognise today. David Garrick, actor-manager at the Drury Lane Theatre in London hired fellow actor Henry Woodward to write some new stories. These updates combined the Italian tradition with English folk stories such as Dick Whittington and Robin Hood, and later extended to other European fairy tales, such as Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella.
Throughout the 19th century, pantomime continued to evolve and spread to ensure a performance in every provincial theatre. The stock characters include a comedic ‘Dame’ played by an older man dressed as a woman; a principal boy, the young hero, traditionally played by a young female but now more often a young man; the juvenile female role, such as a princess; and often a narrator, including Buttons in Cinderella.
I’ve always taken my children to at least one show over Christmas, though they’re a bit old for pantomimes now (it tends to be one of those entertainment forms enjoyed by younger children and again by adults, but generally rejected by those in their teens and early twenties).
And this year? Well, it has been a disaster for theatre, of course, and for the arts in general. Not a single theatre is currently able to open to a public audience. Last month it was reported that ticket sales at UK theatres fell by 93 percent. This has had a devastating effect on the employment of performing artists. Similar impacts will, of course, be felt in almost every country.
Employment aside, the theatre is hugely important for us all. Since our ancient ancestors sat around fires swapping tall tales, we have been story-tellers. Through stories we learn what it is to be human; we laugh and we bond together, and we gain inspiration for our own creativity. Yes, we now have a plethora of media on demand, but there is nothing that’s the same as the immersive, sensory, collective experience of live performance.
This month I bought us tickets to see A Christmas Carol, livestreamed from the Old Vic Theatre in London’s west end. It was, at least, a way for us to enjoy a show (and one, in this case, we couldn’t normally afford to travel to see) as well we support the arts in some small way.
The Oscar Wilde quotation at the top of the page is especially poignant at the moment because it highlights theatre as a shared and sharing experience. We cannot do that currently, not beyond our households, at any rate. Seeing a live-streamed performance was not the same as being at the theatre, no. But it did help capture some of the excitement, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. We’ll do it again this winter, looking for a show to support more locally. Let’s all support the arts when and however we can.
Peter Millington, ‘Mystery History : The Origins of British Mummers’ Plays’ in American Morris Newsletter, Nov./Dec.1989, Vol.13, No.3, pp.9-16
The Story of Pantomime, V&A website.