Once this assembly is finished, I ask you to judge just how utterly useless it has been. Not useless as in ‘poor quality’ – of course it will not be that! – but useless as in ‘not useful’ – a waste of time. To do this will involve thought – not instant dismissal or gut feel. By all means discuss with your teacher and friends; and if you are brave, which I hope you might be, at some stage let me know personally (and politely).
I begin with a slightly embarrassing confession: I adore the pantomime. However, with my own children growing up, I had not been for almost 10 years until this Christmas, when I paid my 24 quid (what happened there?) and took my two nephews to Aladdin at the King’s Theatre in Portsmouth. What a spectacle. It is, of course, the same old story – you know that Aladdin will find the lamp and marry the princess – you have seen it many times; and if you haven’t, they tell you that anyway in the first scene. You know that you will be called upon to sing out at the top of your voices, to stand and shout “He’s behind you!” at Widow Twankey, or “Oh no you don’t!” to Abanazar, the sorcerer. You know that you will probably be sprayed with water from a water pistol at some point, or even asked up on stage to be paraded in front of a laughing public. You know that there will be bawdy or topical jokes between the adult characters and the adults in the audience, which are funny purely because they go above the heads of the kids you are sitting next to. Pizza Hut in Woking got a decent outing this time. And, it being in Portsmouth, I also knew that the football team I support would come in for a real pasting – which it duly did as “When the Saints go marching in” was sung to a chorus of 1,000 boos. But I really love it. Pantomime is so set in its ways and yet so free of care; it has so many set pieces to fit in, so many expectations to live up to, that it can be entirely unselfconscious, politically incorrect and riotously ridiculous. All generations attend, families of 10 with brothers, sisters, toddlers and grandparents. Everyone knows what to expect, and they come back every year to get more of it. For a glorious couple of hours, we all have the chance to forget any troubles and enjoy the frivolity – and we do so at the very time when the majority of families are on holiday and in the mood for some communal and relaxed silliness.
I have always been aware of the Latin (and indeed Greek) word Pantomimus – but this was not really anything to do with our current pantomime. The Roman version saw a single dancer acting out all parts of a story in silence, changing character by changing mask and by various physical signals. It was highly-skilled and very popular in its day. Our pantomime seems to have come from Italian comedia del’arte in the 17th Century and developed through a mix of comedy and dance into its current format, which relies entirely upon stock characters and standard scenes: no matter what the story, there will always be a pantomime dame, for instance – and it is tradition for that character to be a man dressed up in women’s clothing. Elements of dance, acrobatics, mildly risqué slapstick comedy, topical jokes and absurd situations are entrenched in this version of entertainment. For obvious reasons, I suspect, Christmas (and originally Easter) were always the main times to go to the theatre in the UK, though nowadays Christmas is the time to see it.
This gradual morphing of the pantomime into a Christmas treat perhaps explains the otherwise bizarre choice of story. The story of Aladdin, and the same is true of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and Sinbad the Sailor, comes from a collection of Middle Eastern folktales woven together in Arabic into a book called One Thousand and One Nights (otherwise known as Arabian Nights). It has nothing to do with Christmas. Its original sources are unknown, but the earliest reference to its predecessor One Thousand Nights is via a fragment of a 9th Century AD manuscript found in Syria. I quote now a passage from the internet, which explains the book’s format:
“The main frame story (of One Thousand and One Nights) concerns Shahryār (Persian: شهريار, from Middle Persian šahr-dār, lit. “holder of realm”), whom the narrator calls a “Sasanian King” ruling in “India and China”. Shahryār is shocked to learn that his brother’s wife is unfaithful; discovering that his own wife’s infidelity has been even more flagrant, he has her killed. In his bitterness and grief, he decides that all women are the same. Shahryār begins to marry a succession of virgins only to execute each one the next morning, before she has a chance to dishonour him. Eventually the vizier, whose duty it is to provide them, cannot find any more virgins. Scheherazade (Persian/ Farsi: شهْرزاد Shahrazād, from Middle Persian čehr شهر, “lineage” + āzād ازاد, “noble”), the vizier’s daughter, offers herself as the next bride and her father reluctantly agrees. On the night of their marriage, Scheherazade begins to tell the king a tale, but does not end it. The king, curious about how the story ends, is thus forced to postpone her execution in order to hear the conclusion. The next night, as soon as she finishes the first tale, she begins another one, and the king, eager to hear the conclusion of that tale as well, postpones her execution once again. This goes on for one thousand and one nights, hence the name.” (of the book we currently hold). The story of Aladdin, as I said, was one of those stories.
So, an English Christmas, an Ancient Persian text, the Greek Language, Italian renaissance comedy… What a mix of traditions and influences to provide something which is so out of kilter with modern living, yet so popular for all ages and so apparently rooted in a UK Christmas in 2019AD. It is truly wonderful that it has survived all these years. Is it, I ask you, surprising that it has?