Saturday, 18 December 2010

December - the winter plays

For thousands of years people of northern climes have celebrated the winter solstice, that deeply magical time of year when the sun's retreat is finally halted, the longest night is endured and the source of light and life begins to return toward us. Rituals and festivities depict the end of the time of darkness and celebrate the return of the light.

Pantomime can trace its origins to traditions like the medieval Feast of Fools in which the world was turned topsy-turvy with drinking, cross-dressing, revelry and role reversals, and a commoner with a reputation for knowing how to enjoy himself was chosen as Lord of Misrule to preside over the festivities. This Feast of Fools is thought to have its roots in the Roman feast of Saturnalia and also owes much to the mummers of ancient and medieval times.

Mummers  plays have their origins in pagan winter solstice rituals depicting death and rebirth. Bands of villagers would perform their Mummers plays in return for food or money, Mummers plays had loose plots with plenty of scope for ad-libs and the introduction of strange characters as suited the occasion. There was always a battle between light and darkness (or good and evil). The disguised performers wore masks (the name 'mummer's play' may come from the Greek word for mask) and originally there would have been a silent performance (from the middle-English word 'mum' meaning silent) often including a Morris Dance.

Pantomime is a branch of theatre in which the performer uses no voice but acts using only motion, body language and gesture. In the UK, pantomime has come to mean a non-silent form of theatre, incorporating song, dance, buffoonery, and satire.  It is an an amalgam of many ancient solstice traditions, from those of the Roman Saturnalia and medieval mummers through the Italian Renaissance harlequinade, to the burlesque of 19th century music hall.

As with Mummers plays, there is a villain and a hero but the panto's story line and script usually makes no direct reference to Christmas or the themes of the solstice and is almost always based on traditional children's stories. While the familiarity of the audience with the original story is generally assumed, plot lines are  'adapted' for comic or satirical effect. Certain familiar scenes tend to recur, regardless of plot relevance and there is a fair amount of 'topsy turvy', helter skelter and cross-dressing.

And no one did topsy turvy and helter skelter better than the Beatles in their annual Christmas message to their fans. This took the form of a small disk that was distributed each year with the December copy of the fan club magazine.