Pantomime: In its purest form, acting without words. In pantomimes, the characters do not speak; instead, they mime stories and convey their thoughts and emotions solely through body movements, facial expressions, gestures, and posture. Costumes may also play a role, particularly in the miming of circus clowns. Pantomimes date back to classical times; in ancient Rome, they were usually based on a mythological story and featured a single actor, the pantomimus, who mimed all the roles and was accompanied by a chorus. Pantomimes featured prominently in film in the early twentieth century with the advent of the silent movie and persist today as a form of street performance. Noted twentieth-century mimes include Charlie Chaplin and Marcel Marceau.
The term pantomime is also often associated with the dumb show, a pantomimed segment of a play. Dumb shows, which were popular in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama and sometimes occurred as prologues or between acts, were often allegorical and frequently foreshadowed or interpreted the action in the play. Examples include the dumb shows in Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton’s Gorboduc (1562) and the regicide mimed by the players of the play-within-a-play in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1602). More modern examples of plays containing dumb shows include Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953) and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1953; adapted to film 1990), which contains a scene in which the title characters, two minor characters from Hamlet, watch a rehearsal of the dumb show from Hamlet.
Pantomime may also refer to a particularly extravagant type of drama that emerged in eighteenth-century England combining mime with song and dance. Such pantomimes are typically based on fairy tales or other folkloric stories, such as Cinderella, Dick Whittington and his cat, and Puss in Boots, and include figures from the commedia dell’arte. Common elements include double entendre; jokes; numerous scene changes; slapstick humor; audience participation; and gender role reversal, with girls in boys’ roles and men playing elderly women. Such pantomimes, which are still performed in Britain, Ireland, Australia, and several other countries during the Christmas season, are usually intended for the entertainment of children.