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The term pantomime come from the Greek, meaning `We can act everything' and was first used in reference to the performers who presented popular and often bawdy solo comic entertainments throughout the Roman Empire (otherwise unconnected to the English pantomime tradition). Cross-dressing becomes a feature of the Bacchanalia, with slaves dressing in the clothes of their masters and mistresses.

Commedia dell'arte

Commedia dell'arte, the closest translation being "comedy of art", is a form of theatre that began in Italy in the mid-16th century, characterized by masked "types", the advent of the actress and improvised performances based on sketches or scenarios. It is widely assumed that Pantomime has evolved from the commedia dell'arte tradition.

Italian theatre historians, such as Roberto Tessari and Ferdinando Taviani, have claimed that commedia developed as a response to the political and economic crisis of the 16th century, and, as a consequence, became the first entirely professional form of theatre and is commonly referred to as the origin of comedy.

Sometimes the performers were referred to as "mountebanks" because they played on outside, temporary stages, and relied on various props (robbe) in place of extensive scenery. The better troupes were patronized by nobility, and during carnival time might be funded by the various towns or cities, in which they played. Extra funds were received by donations (essentially passing the hat) so anyone could view the performance free of charge.

Various characters evolved outside Italy, such as Hanswurst (Germany), Pierrot (France), Petrushka (Russia), and Clown (England). This phenomenon has assured the persistence of commedia to this day.

Pantomime, as Grimaldi and his contemporaries knew it, was a mongrel concoction, part ballet, part slapstick, part variety show, astonishing, tumultuous and cruel by turns .... (John Carey, Sunday Times)

Modern Day

British pantomime audiences are wonderfully eccentric and will accept even the most zany ideas, providing they are done in the traditional way, with all the corny jokes, over-the-top characters, and invitations for audience participation that they have enjoyed all their lives. Audience participation is an essential feature of all good pantomimes.

There are a number of long-established conventions that the traditional pantomime will respect. There must be scope for attractive scenery, lavish costumes, singing and dancing, magic, exciting action, romance, and — most important of all — broad comedy of all kinds (both verbal and physical). The story must be plainly written and easy for all ages to follow, with as many spectacular touches as possible (from exploding cookers to bangs and flashes when the Demon King or other villain appears).

"Even though no other nation can make head nor tail of it, to the British there's nothing like a pantomime .. ." (John Morley)

With a few exceptions the listing inthe left hand column are not linked. The basic plot lines will all follow a similar pattern but each individual production is unique to the performance being presented.