History of the Panto
'On behalf of the Gaiety Theatre staff and management, past and present, we wish to express our sincere sympathy to the family, colleagues and many friends of Billie Barry on her passing. For decades Billie Barry is synonymous with the Gaiety Theatre and words could not describe her enormous contribution to theatre and dance in Ireland. She will be greatly missed'
Caroline Downey and Denis Desmond
Associated with The Gaiety Theatre almost since the theatre first opened, the licence granted to The Gaiety’s original owners, John and Michael Gunn included permission to stage pantomime which they presented for the first time in December 1873. Both the Theatre Royal and the Queen’s have long since been demolished but The Gaiety and her annual pantomime continue to deliver fun and excitement to new generations. While an outside company used to be responsible for presenting the panto, it has been produced by The Gaiety since 1996.
“The Gaiety’s the only place that’ll take you into the future, into the past and keep you in the present. You see it happening there in front of you, on the stage. Nothing can beat a live show.” As John Costigan notes, The Gaiety Theatre, thanks to its annual pantomime, has provided a first taste of live entertainment for generations of theatre-goers; ‘It’s usually their starting point”.
The pantomime first arrived in England as entr’actes between opera pieces, eventually evolving into separate shows. In Restoration England, a pantomime was considered a low form of Opera, rather like the Commedia dell ‘Arte but with out Harlequin (much like French Vaudeville). Harlequin is the leading character often seen in panto.
Pantomime can now be seen throughout the world and, most commonly in Ireland, each year in The Gaiety Theatre. Traditionally performed at Christmas and New Year, with audiences consisting mainly of children and parents, Irish pantomime is now a traditionally popular form of theatre incorporating song, dance, buffoonery, slapstick, cross-dressing, in-jokes, audience participation and mild sexual innuendo. There are a number of traditional story-lines and a fairly well-defined set of performance conventions.
A song combining a well-known tune with re-written lyrics. The audience is encouraged to sing along and often challenged to sing their chorus louder than the other half.
The animal is played by an actor in ‘animal skin’ or an animal costume. It is often a panto horse or cow, played by two actors in a single costume, one at the front and one at the rear.
The good fairy always enters from stage right and the villain always enters from stage left. In Commedia dell ‘Arte the right side of the stage symbolised Heaven and the left side symbolised Hell.
The members of the cast sometimes throw sweets out to the children in the audience.
Sometimes the story villain will squirt members of the audience with water guns or pretend to throw a bucket of water at them.
A slapstick comedy routine may be performed, often a decorating or baking scene with the humour based around the messy substances.
Another contemporary pantomime tradition is the celebrity guest star, a practice that dates back to the late 19th century, when Augustus Harris, proprietor of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, hired well-known variety artists for his pantomimes. Many modern pantomimes use popular artists to promote the show and the play is often adapted to suit the character even though the plot does not. The Gaiety Theatre is no stranger to this. Over the past century many familiar names have been associated with Gaiety productions such as Jimmy O’Dea, Micheál Mac Liammóir, Danny Cummins, June Rogers, Twink and a whole host of television and on-stage personalities over the years. And finally, most memorable for her stage presence, contribution, dedication and loyalty to The Gaiety, Maureen Potter.