There Is Nothing Like a Dame!Date: 13 December 2004
With Ian McKellen, Lily Savage & Clive Rowe all donning dresses in major London productions this Christmas, It’s Behind You! author Peter Lathan trawls through the history of pantomime & the now-dominant role of the Dame.
Thank goodness there really is nothing like a Dame! Can you imagine how fearsome a creature such a character would be in real life? Loud and vulgar, with no dress sense; domineering; incompetent at whatever her job might be - mother, washerwoman, cook; always broke but with a wide range of outfits, all in appallingly bad taste; vain and cunning but with the proverbial heart of gold. Oh yes, and on the hunt for a man, any man. That's the Dame!
Somehow or other the Dame has come to dominate the modern pantomime. Where once Harlequin then the clown was the main figure, now it's that man in a woman's clothing. A man playing a woman, of course, is not something unusual in British theatrical tradition. We all know that women in the plays of Shakespeare’s time were played by boys. It goes back even further to the comic women’s parts in the Mysteries, such as Mrs Noah, which were played by men. There’s no doubt that the origin of the Betty in the Morris Dance stretches back to the simple morality plays of the Middle Ages. Women were not allowed to appear on stage until the 17th century.
It has been suggested that, even after women were allowed to appear, actresses didn’t want to play such parts because they weren’t glamorous but this doesn’t stand up. Do we take it, for example, that Mrs Malaprop would be played by a man, or that a woman would choose to play Juliet but not the Nurse? What about the bitter harridan in Richard III, Queen Margaret? Would women refuse to play her but insist on playing Lady Anne?
No, the reason men have played the Dame from as early as 1731, when Harper played the Cook in Dick Whittington, is because it’s funnier that way. Old Mother Reilly would never have got the laughs `she’ did if we hadn't known it was Arthur Lucan playing her. And if Lily Savage was really a woman, we wouldn’t laugh a quarter as much as we do. Like all humour, it's impossible to explain. We all know that having to explain a joke kills it stone dead, and so it is with the pantomime Dame: the fact that it is a man just makes the character funny. On the few occasions women have played the part, the slapstick element, particularly the `slosh’ scenes and the custard pies, was played down. Interestingly, the only successful female Dame, Nellie Wallace (‘The Essence of Eccentricity’) played a caricature of a woman, which is the point of the Dame.
Dame Durden / Dame Trot
The Ugly Sisters
The Ugly Sisters have had more names than any other characters in pantomime history. Each writer seems to exercise his ingenuity to produce suitable ones: Namby and Pamby, Tutti and Frutti, Valderma and Germolena (one of my favourites), Pearl and Deane, Hilda and Tilda, Posh and Scary, Britney and Cher, Dannii and Kylie, Ammonia and Amnesia ... the list goes on.
Other Main Dames
Manufacturing a Dame Role
Probably the panto that provides the greatest challenge to the writer is Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Where is the Dame there? Prolific panto writer John Morley got round that one by having the three bears join a circus which is managed by the (incompetent) Dame.
The above is extracted from It’s Behind You! The Story of Panto, written by Peter Lathan & published by New Holland (hardback, £19.99). For more information, visit the New Holland website. Alternatively, to WIN A COPY, click here. Competition ends 16 December 2004.