Pantomania: a story of slapstick – and hotheadedness

“If we didn't have the political crisis of the 80s, the pantomime might have died a natural death.”

Did you know that it was an incident involving a hot-headed member of the theatre audience in 1985 that sparked particular interest in pantomimes in Malta?

It’s that time of the year again. We’re already seeing adverts popping up, trying to attract us to attend different pantomimes.  

In order to learn how these farcical productions came to be such a beloved part of Maltese Christmas, The Journal spoke with Professor Marco Galea, Head of the Department of Theatre Studies at the University of Malta.

What does ‘pantomime’ mean, after all?

“Pantomime” comes from the Greek word  ‘pantomimos’, meaning a dancer who plays all the roles in a story. Roman pantomime, which started around the first century BC, featured solo male dancers in performances based on myths. These dancers wore masks, used specific gestures, and danced out complex narratives.

Roman pantomime was mostly performed by slaves. It spread throughout the Roman Empire and helped people learn about myths. Despite its popularity, some people loved it while others hated it.

In Britain, the Mummers Plays were early forms leading to pantomime: traditional folk performances enacted by groups of amateur actors, typically all male, called mummers. Characters like young lovers, old men, and servants were common, including Harlequin, who is known for his checked outfit and his role as a clever and agile servant who typically ruins his master’s plans.

The British brought it home

Professor Galea explains that the origin of pantomime in Malta traces back to the British colonial era. In the late 19th century, soldiers, sailors, and their families engaged in English representations, performed by British actors for a British audience. These pantomimes initially took place in garrison theatres within military compounds like Manoel Island and Ħal Luqa, and on British ships.

Prof. Marco Galea

Later, British enthusiasts started to rent Maltese venues to hold their productions. The Malta Amateur Dramatic Club (MADC) presented its first pantomime in early 1911, featuring the classic story of Aladdin, a production that was tailored to be performed in Malta. Surprisingly, the MADC did not actively contribute to this tradition until Independence. Instead, it was the Ariel Players, amateurs replicating English provincial theatre, who played a key role. Their repertoire included Shakespeare, thrillers, and, notably, pantomimes.

Many pantomimes emphasised the perceived superiority of the British over the Maltese, with the locals often portrayed as victims and the audience consisting mainly of colonisers. In fact, throughout the colonial era, British companies dominated pantomime productions.

How the Maltese got the hang of it

As British amateur companies eventually began renting the Manoel Theatre for their own productions, Maltese people started joining the predominantly British audience at pantomimes, in so doing contributing to their growing popularity.

Following Independence in 1964, British personnel in Malta dwindled, and Maltese individuals were integrated into the productions. The Aerial Players, who once led pantomimes, disbanded when the British air force left Malta, marking a shift toward the MADC. Despite the decreasing number of English contributors, the MADC maintained the English genre, whilst being performed by Maltese actors. It slowly evolved into a burgeoning tradition that, over the years, gained widespread attention and interest from the Maltese public.

The turbulent 80s

The 1980s were a challenging period for Maltese society, with the country grappling with deep-seated political divisions and social tensions. The government continued to exert a strong grip on public broadcasting and significant control over public discourse. Theatre, therefore, emerged as a crucial outlet for self-expression and evolved into a platform for allegorical expression.

Professor Galea spoke about how a pivotal moment occurred in 1985, when an MADC pantomime themed around Robinson Crusoe, which was presented at the Manoel Theatre, touched on contemporary political issues and sparked controversy. One member of the audience, whose daughter was taking part in the dancing, felt offended by what came across as criticism aimed at the government of the time. He left his seat abruptly, but soon returned with disruptive companions, who attempted to damage the theatre’s property. This incident sparked widespread curiosity and interest among the general public, who had till then generally regarded the Panto as an elitist affair.

That incident marked the beginning of pantomime’s transformation into a major theatrical phenomenon, often centred around political satire, attracting people from all walks of life. Over the years, it grew into a significant seasonal event, with multiple companies competing to stage Christmas pantomimes in venues like the Manoel Theatre and the Ta’ Qali tent, showcasing various adaptations and themes beyond the traditional.

“If we didn’t have the political crisis of the 80s, the pantomime might have died a natural death,” Professor Galea observed.

No questions asked

Accepted by the Maltese without critique, despite its foreign origin, the pantomime became a significant genre without a thorough examination of its adoption. Professor Galea notes that this is quite extraordinary, considering that the Maltese were often targeted in the the English productions.

“Although we Maltese were often a subject of ridicule for the British colonisers in their Christmas pantomimes, we never questioned why such a foreign tradition should be kept in post-colonial Malta,” said Professor Galea.

It’s interesting to note that, among all the countries that were once colonised, we are the only ones who kept the pantomime as is. In Jamaica, for example, they took the British pantomime and transformed it into something that is almost indigenous. In Australia, where many British actually settled during the colonial era, it never really caught on.

“Maybe we were less imaginative,” reflects Professor Galea. “We did not think of drastically modifying something we inherited from others, and we simply kept it as it is. I don’t know if it has anything to do with how we celebrate Christmas. Think about it: even our Christmas food features British cuisine that we have hardly changed: roast turkey, mince pies, Christmas pudding, and Christmas cake.”

Truth be told, though, although the English pantomime targeted a Maltese-speaking audience, other groups became slightly targeted in time, such as the Maltese who only speak English.

Over time, Maltese pantomimes also evolved beyond traditional fairy tales to address topics like sieges, various political issues, and the tales of local characters such as Ġaħan. Moreover, there is a growing trend of pantomimes featuring Maltese artists for a local audience.

While English-language pantomimes remain dominant and financially lucrative, there is a shift towards creating diverse narratives and toward catering for a very diverse audience.

Cross-examining the cross-dressing

When we say ‘panto’ we’re likely to think of the Dame first: the larger-than-life and often exaggeratedly feminine character who is played by a male actor. Her dresses are typically excessively flamboyant, and her makeup and wigs are a sight for sore eyes.

The introduction of cross-dressing elements in Maltese theatre, exemplified by actors like Nosi Ghirlando, was influenced by a tradition rooted in farce. This was a time when women’s roles were played by men, since women were not allowed to be seen on stage at the time, at least in Church-controlled theatres.

Alan Montanaro performing as Dame

Since women are no strangers to the stage today, is the Dame still an acceptable part of Panto? Professor Galea thinks so. In today’s theatre landscape, political incorrectness is accepted, especially in comedy, which often challenges societal norms.

“The portrayal of men dressing as women, while once a tradition, has evolved and the current era sees an increase in shows featuring drag queens, which are becoming more mainstream. Society, in general, seems unconcerned with this, viewing it independently of issues related to genre choices,” said Professor Galea.

The future of the Panto

The modern pantomime, as we recognise it today, wasn’t initially exclusive to Christmas; it was staged at various times of the year. In the United Kingdom, harlequin pantomimes occurred throughout the year. The link with Christmas came to be due to commercial considerations, to cater for families seeking entertainment opportunities in this time of year.

The reality is that, in today’s day and age, if you want to laugh, laugh you shall. There’s plenty of funny content at the click of a button and families can be entertained from the comfort of their own sofa. Does it still make sense to purchase tickets to watch a production that makes you laugh once a year?

First, observes Professor Galea, theatre companies are including a very large cast, and this is a way for theatre companies to involve everyone and attract large audiences. Secondly, apart from the commercial aspect, there’s the social aspect. “As long as the panto’s content appeals to people, I see a future for it. For me, pantomime has a broad social aspect. It serves as a gathering point, bringing people together for a specific activity. Some individuals who don’t typically attend the theatre might still enjoy a pantomime,” says Professor Galea.

Laughing in context

This year, when booking tickets for the panto of your choice, keep in mind that this nuanced art form transcends the simple act of watching and laughing. We’ve learnt that it’s a performance with deep social, historical, and political roots.

Therefore, this year: laugh, but laugh in context.

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