Pantomime: 200 years of dressing up

The role of pantomime dame dates back to the beginning of theatre when girls and women were played - usually comically - by men. Mrs Noah and female characters from Medieval miracle plays are the earliest prototypes of the British panto dame, and all were performed with broad, bawdy humour. Even after the Restoration, when it was no longer considered as indecent for women to appear on stage, the theatrical tradition of a comic old woman played by a man continued.

Playwright Samuel Foote, for example, cast himself as a drunken procuress in his own production of The Minor in 1760. In the earliest pantomimes, the parts of women, such as Mother Goose and Dame Shipton, were still enacted by men. Even the greatest clown of all, Joseph Grimaldi, played several female pantomime roles in the early 19th century.

Perhaps the archetypal pantomime dame, however, is the famous l9th century music hall performer, Dan Leno. This diminutive man with curiously mobile features made his theatrical debut at the age of four. By the time he was 28 he was proclaimed the most talented pantomime artist since his predecessor, Grimaldi.

Although he was often cast in masculine roles, Leno surpassed himself as a grand dame. His Widow Twanky and comic rendition of Jack's mother in Jack And The Beanstalk were brilliantly portrayed, but his greatest, most famous performance was as Mother Goose. In the trademark aproned skirt, knitted shawl, and buttoned boots, Leno created this role as we know it today.

Since pantomime began 200 years ago, the traditional dame has evolved in every conceivable way - and she remains as popular as ever.

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