Nov 25, 2015

Are the Pantos Gay?

Before researching my post on Father, Dear Father, I had never heard of a pantomime or panto, in spite of my years of study of English literature and hours of watching British tv. Apparently everyone raised in Britain has fond memories of Christmas pantomimes, but never writes about them or mentions them on tv, almost if as if they're too personal to share with the rest of the world.

The pantomime is a type of musical comedy performed during the Christmas season, using well-known stories.   Next winter, for instance, you will be able to attend the pantos of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Peter Pan, Puss in Boots, Aladdin, Dick Whittington, Treasure Island, and Robin Hood (prices range from $12 to $30 U.S.)

It's important for the basic plot to be familiar, since it will be skewed, augmented with satiric bits, slapstick, references to current events, and ad-lib scenes.  The audience, mostly children, will interact with the cast, boo the villain, ask questions, shout "It's behind you!", and even argue: "Oh, no it isn't!" "Oh, yes it is!."

There are five standard characters, plus a chorus and various comedic players:
1. The Principal Boy, traditionally played by a girl in drag, but now more often a tv star, such as Ray Quinn of The X Factor as Aladdin (top photo), or a boy band hunk.

That explains why, when I saw Peter Pan back in the 1960s, Peter was played by Mary Martin.  And why the audience had to shout "I believe in fairies" to save Tinker Belle's life.  Panto roots.  But it doesn't explain the creepy dog in the nanny cap, or why people who aren't sick need to take "medicine."

2. The Dame, usually the Main Boy's mother, traditionally played by a man in drag.

3. The Comic Lead, the Main Boy's zany friend or servant, often played by another celebrity, such as Robin Askwith, or wrestler Nick Aldis as the Genie in Aladdin (left).

4. The Love Interest, an attractive woman with whom the Principal Boy will find love. If the original story lacks hetero-romance, not to worry, one will be added.  For instance, in the Wizard of Oz panto, Dorothy falls in love with Elvis.

5. The Villain, male, female, or a drag performer.

Questions immediately arise: why the drag?  What does it mean to watch a woman in male drag fall in love with a woman?  Does it ameliorate the heterosexism of the boy-and-girl plotline?  Are the pantos gay?

Maybe not.  Maybe the drag serves to accentuate rather than challenge gender norms.

Although there have been pantos for adult gay audiences, such as Peta Pan (a lesbian version of Peter Pan), Get Aladdin, and Snow White and the Seven Poofs, two gay writers who grew up with the pantos felt that they weren't "for us."

And attempts to incorporate gay characters or situations into the traditional panto have met with hysterical hand-wringing of the "It's for kids!!!!" sort.

If you still haven't met your beefcake quota after seeing a panto, check out the Boxing Day Dips, hundreds of people -- mostly cute guys -- dashing into the ocean nude, or at least wearing as little as the censors will allow.

See also: 15 Reasons to Skip Christmas.