Pantomimic Conventions in the plays of Peter Nichols

Christine Youssef

Hacettepe University

These conventions will be examined in Poppy to see to what extent the play makes use of or develops the pantomimic form. Finally, Nichols's innovations will be studied in more detail, emphasising the satirical attitudes to morality and commerce of the Victorian empire.


Pantomime was one of the most popular dramatic forms in the nineteenth century British theatre; it appealed to a wide range of audiences from different social classes. With its plot taken "from history, legend, folk story or fairy tale" (Booth 1991: 198), and its visual effects created through dance, chorus, trick-work and magic, pantomime could be said to offer a wide variety of entertainment in a single evening, due to its flexible structure, pantomime gave the opportunity for various styles of performance. As William Archer, a Victorian critic suggested a century ago:

There is room within its infinitely flexible, expansible framework or all sorts of ingenious and delightful development - for poetry, fantasy, parody, satire, non-sense, the most ingenuous nursery babble and the most penetrating criticism of life. The ideal pantomime should charm the senses, stimulate the imagination, and satisfy the intelligence (Booth 1991: 4).
Even today, pantomime still retains many conventions established in the nineteenth century such as a Principal Boy and a Principal Girl who are in love with each other but who are not allowed to many. Other characters include a Dame, a comic servant and a (two-man) Pantomime Horse. One of the most interesting characteristics is transvestism, in which the role of the Pantomime Dame is played by a man, in contrast to the Principal Boy who is usually played by a shapely woman in tights. This shows "the cross-sexual nature of Victorian casting" (Booth 1991: 130) which legitimately subverted the principles of Victorian morality, where men were supposed to be the "principal" breadwinners, whereas women were encouraged to stay at home and bring up the children. People were prepared to accept what they saw on the stage; in the limited period of the performance life was considered different from reality, so the subversive social values were accepted without question.

The element of subversion in pantomime recalls the primary form of human celebration -carnivals, feasts and marketplace festivities, which exist in contrast to the "official" feasts. As Mikhail Bakhtin in his research on Rabelais's work has observed: "The suspension of all hierarchical precedence during carnival time was of peculiar significance" (Bakhtin 1968: 10). In contrast to the reality of the everyday life, the carnival created a microcosm where there were no barriers of caste, property, profession, age and sex. In such an ideal world people were "reborn for new" with "purely human relations." This renewal and revival can be seen at the end of a pantomime as well, with the union of the lovers who start a new life. The most important characteristic of carnival is the participation of people in the action, as "carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people; they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea embraces all people" (Bakhtin 1968: 7).

It is significant to observe in this connection that pantomime, by creating a world of fantasy for the spectators, was perceived as a means of escape from the strict moral rules of the Victorian period. Indeed, pantomime's extreme popularity in the nineteenth century may actually be considered as a silent protest against oppression, both against the state and its mechanisms. Christmas time was, and still is, the most essential and profitable season for the performance of the pantomimes. Russell Jackson believes that this is the time when the working class had enough time and money to attend (Jackson 1989: 16); in addition, the need to retreat from daily routine and the desire to escape from the overfamiliar nativity plays may be other factors in people's preferring pantomime. According to the Victorian code of manners, people were expected to take part in religious ceremonies, masses and nativity plays performed in churches, but pantomimes remained the most attractive form of popular culture. F.M.L.Thompson, the director of the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, in his work about "respectability" in Victorian society, points out that regular church - or chapel-going was very popular among the middle classes in the first decades of the Victorian era. Churches were immediately built in a new housing area "as an early priority, to ensure its respectable and middle-class character" (Thompson 1991: 251). But towards the end of the period this condition changed. The results of a "Religious Census" showed that the number of working class patrons of religious institutions was significantly fewer when compared to the middle and upper classes (Mann 1851: 39-45). Horace Mann, the assistant commissioner for the census of 1851, argued that one of the most important reasons for the labourers' distraction from the religious institutions was that they were separated from other social classes by pews and free seats in churches, which constantly reminded them of their inferiority- It is highly likely, therefore, that the labouring population, fed up with class distinction and oppression in society, isolated itself and retreated into the ideal world of pantomime.

The popularity of pantomime, in contrast to the "official" culture in the nineteenth century, originates in carnival which has undergone a. long process of suppression. As Peter Stallybrass and Allon White suggest in their study on Bourgeois Hysteria and the Canrivalesque:

This act of disavowal on the part of the emergent bourgeoisie, with its sentimentalism and its disgust, made carnival into the festival of the Other. It encoded all that which the proper bourgeois must strive not to be in order to preserve a stable and "correct" sense of self. This separation between high and low cultures used to be so strict that there were several cases of hysteria diagnosed as a result of a high class person's confrontation with the low carnivalesque festivitics (Stallybrass and White, 1986: 179-80)
It is worth mentioning that in pantomime the element of the carnivalesque can be seen where the role of the Principal Boy is played by a woman, whereas the Pantomime Dame is played by a man. Knowing that "all symbolic inversions define a culture's lineaments at the same time as they question the usefulness and the absoluteness of its ordering", the transvestism in pantomime questions the double standards for men and women which were strictly applied in the Victorian period (Briggs 1988: 22). Women's rights and their social life were limited; their duties were reduced to looking after the family and raising up the children. They were neither allowed to work outside, nor had any free time for themselves inside the house (Nightingale 1991: 244-56). The nineteenth century pantomime depicted "the moment of upturning" and "the world turned upside-down", to emphasise this unjust order, enabling the Principal Boy - played by a girl - to assume a primary role in influencing other characters' behaviour. The roles played by the opposite sex may also be related to one of the most complex themes of folk culture. According to Mikhail Bakhtin: "The mask is related to transition, metamorphosis, the violation of natural boundaries ..." (Bakhtin 1968: 40); this explanation attests to the pantomime's parodying the social conditions of the nineteenth century.

Pantomime creates a world of fantasy for the spectators to enjoy and participate in. One of the major aims is to break the "fourth wall" and make the audience take part in the action, free its minds and forget about real life for a while. The actors and actresses express their awareness of the audience's presence (Jackson 1989: 127), through the conventional address of "boys and girls" as it can be seen in Cinderella:

BUTTONS1 I say, boys and girls! Have you seen Cinderella? (They all shout "No!") Nor have I! I'm supposed to be helping her. I'm a shift worker. Any time anyone mentions work, I shift. See you later!
The audiences are invited to sing, applaud and cheer or boo at appropriate moments. Sometimes, the spectators are even made to approve of something that they might not approve of in real life. This kind of universal participation is what can be seen in carnival; as Bakhtin points out:
  During carnival time life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom. It has a universal spirit; it is a special condition of the entire world, of the world's revival and renewal, in which all take part. (Bakhtin 1968: 7)
This kind of participation is developed by Nichols in Poppy.


In Poppy the play opens with special effects: "During the orchestral overture, the front tabs rise to show a swirling mass of clouds and water, a place where gods and emperors can meet" (Nichols 1986: 413). Here Nichols is deliberately creating a pastiche of nineteenth century style; for instance the word "tabs," an abbreviation of "tableau curtain" is what we know as "curtains" today." The pastiche continues with the Chinese Emperor appearing "in a throne floating high above" and performing magic, while introducing himself hyperbolically as "Emperor of the Middle Kingdom, Son of Heaven, Ruler of the Four Seas" (Nichols 1986: 413). And finally, Queen Victoria is presented "in a cloud of smoke"; spectacle and language combine to create a sense of wonder. The main idea of the play, which is about the trade between the two countries, Britain and China, is introduced through the dialogue between the Queen and the Emperor. In this trade, one is sending "amusing toys," including opium and guns which "made rather too noise" (14ichols 414); the other, rather absurdly, tea and rhubarb (which is also a synonym for "chat" or "talk"). Apparently, the play is going to deal on a parodic level with a social and cultural contact between two totally different nations.

Another important element of the opening scene is audience participation, which brings them closer not only to the play's fantastic world, but also to the satire that follows later on. Through the conventional "boys and girls" formula, discussed earlier, the audience are encouraged to approve things that they might not approve of in reality; regardless of their political opinions about the Opium Wars, they are told they should be on the side of the British:

VICTORIA (to audience):

I'll need to know you're firmly on my side.

So if you are, shout 'yes' when I count three.

One - Two - Three -




Yes who?


Your Majesty! (Nichols 1986: 415)

Nichols forces the audience to reflect on what they are supporting, by showing the immoral side of the opium trade and its destructive effects on society. A similar situation is created in Nichols's other plays as well; for example, in A Day in the Death of Joe Egg spectators laugh at the jokes Bri makes and the roles he plays, which is juxtaposed with the pathetic character of Joe.

This scene also reveals that the play is going to contain rather risque' humour, as demonstrated in the Emperor's words: "Without our tea and rhubarb your whole nation / will die in agonies of constipation" (Nichols 1986: 415). This is intended to entertain the adult audience, even if, in classical pantomime, such humour was considered beyond the child spectators' understanding. This style of expression is one of the characteristics of carnival as welt, as Mikhail Bakhtin points out: "... during carnival tune a special type of communication impossible in everyday life" was needed. "This led to the creation of special forms of marketplace speech and gesture, frank and free, permitting no distance between those who came in contact with each other and liberating from norms of etiquette and decency imposed at other tunes" (Bakhtin 1968: 10).

The second scene introduces Jack Idle, the comic servant, whose name represents an inversion of a popular figure from panto: Idle Jack, normally found in Jack and the Beanstalk. He enters with his horse, Randy, a pantomime horse, and reveals his awareness of the spectators by coming to the front of the stage and introducing himself: "... Hello, boys and girls. My name's Jack Idle. Whenever I say 'Hello, boys and girls' I want you to say 'Hello Jack.' Can you do that?" (Nichols 1986: 416). He invites them to be part of the action (12). Then the Principal Girl, Sally, is presented with her mare, Cherry. According to the conventions of pantomime, the love of Jack for Sally and Randy for Cherry is described through songs, dances and choruses. The subversiveness of this pantomime is portrayed through the Pantomime Dame, Dodo, "a middle-aged woman played by a man, wearing black nineteenth century hunting gear" (Nichols 1986: 421), and the Principal Boy, Dick Whittington, "played by a beautiful young woman. He too is wearing black but it's a tight-fitting suit with high-heeled shoes and legs in tights reaching nearly to his shoulders" (Nichols 1986: 422).

Just as the sexuality of the characters is subverted, so are the morals of the Victorian empire and its principles of commerce. This kind of social criticism goes far beyond the conventions of nineteenth century pantomime. Poppy exposes the corruption of the Victorian opium economy, as explained by Sir Obadiah Upward:

UPWARD: Your English cuppa China tea is what it's all about.

The government's tax on tea paid for the war against

Boney [Napoleon] so we had to discover something

they wanted as much as we wanted their tea. (Nichols 1986: 446)

The solution was opium, which came from India. Nichols demonstrates the destructiveness of this policy throughout the play, for instance when describing the workers' conditions:
  UPWARD: ... How d'you think those working women spend twelve hours a day in the mills? D'you suppose they take their babies in? ... And how d'you think these old crones keep them quiet when they cry to be fed?

DICK: With a spoonful of soothing cordial?

UPWARD: And another. Then another. (Nichols 1986: 431)

Nichols's technique of extending the conventions of nineteenth century panto is also revealed in the characterisation of Queen Victoria. By making Victoria play the roles of both a missionary teacher in "a classroom in an opium plantation" in India (Nichols 1986: 435), and an auctioneer who refers to "trading on men's vices" (Nichols 1986: 444). Nichols actually criticises the insensitivity of the British Empire towards other nations in its efforts to preserve itself.

Nichols continues his satire of the Empire by showing how religion is debased. This is suggested by a cart loaded with bundles of Bibles and hymn-books used for covering opium:

JACK: I reckon that clipper would keel over from the weight of Bibles if there wasn't so much opium below to give it ballast. (Nichols 1986: 474)
Religion is just used for masking the sins of the flesh and the crimes committed as a result of British foreign policy. Nichols puts forward similar views of religion in The National Health, or Nurse Norton's Affair; where the old missionary woman who visits the patients in the hospital does not care for any of them; she is just doing her duty. The religion presented in that play is just a series of memorised verses which are of no benefit to anyone; similarly the religion in Poppy is ironically characterised as: "The blessed trinity CCC: Civilisation, Commerce and Christianity" (Nichols 1986: 472).

The last scene of the play focuses directly on the destructive effects of opium, leading to the decay of social values and morality in the Victorian period. Traditionally, in a pantomime the "transformation" scene is supposed to depict the marriage of the Principal Girl and the Principal Boy. In Poppy, however Nichols makes Dick Whittington marry the businessman Obadiah Upward's daughter instead of the loyal maid, Sally, whom we might have expected to become his wife. Furthermore, Sally's appearance on the stage in a state of physical decay demonstrates the destructiveness of drug trading:

".. there comes Sally in an invalid chair Her face is ashen, her gums blackened, her hair lifeless, hanging loose" (Nichols 1986: 498).
Although the play closes with two marriages, that of Dick and Upward's daughter and Upward himself and Dodo, the Pantomime Dame, the ending is far from happy.

Pantomime has been an unusual popular genre, both for children and adults in Christmas time they are more or less familiar with the world of fantasy created through the spectacle and visual effects. In Poppy Nichols develops this side of pantomime by making use of films and newsreel as commentary. Thus, he encourages the audience to take part in this world and follow its conventions where necessary. However, Nichols goes far beyond the conventions of this form, to satirise the attitude of the British Empire. He reveals the destructiveness of Victorian foreign policy, and by means of audience participation makes the spectators feel part of the action, that they are somehow implicated. In almost all of his plays, Nichols has a critical approach to the social, political and religious institutions, like the National Health Service, the Christian Church, the British army and the British Empire. The corruption within these institutions seems to be of more concern to him than individual happiness. In other words, the problems in his plays are not the fault of a specific person, but the institution itself which is part of the dominant culture, and which needs to be changed and refined.


Bakhtin, Mikhail, Rabelais And His World, Trans. Helene Iswolsky, Cambridge: The M.I.T Press, 1968.

Booth, Michael, Theatre in the Victorian Age, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Briggs, Asa, "Victorian Values," in In Search of Victorian Values: Aspects of Nineteenth Century Thought and Socidty, ed. Eric M.Sigsworth, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988.

Jackson, Russell, Victorian Theatre: A New Mermaid Background Book, London: A and C Black, 1989.

Mann, Horace, "From the 'Report on The Religious Census' (1851)," in Culture And Society in Britain (1850-1890),
ed, J.M.Dolby, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991..

Nichols, Peter, Plays One, London: Methuen & Co. 1986.

Nightingale, Florence, Cassandra (1852), in Culture and Society in Britain (1850-1890), ed. J.M.Golby, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Stallybrass, Peter and White, Allon, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986.

Thompson, F.M.L, Mastering Modern British History, 2nd ed., London: The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1989.