Narrative arcs and Panto – “Alright you lot, shut up now and let’s get on with the story.”

I’m interested in theatre, and pantomime in particular, as storytelling in this post, and the implications of narrative as an agent of change.  In the discussions of an anthropology view of making theatre and performances,  a number of metaphors are used. Johannes Huzinga referred to ‘Homo ludens’ – the characteristic of being human is our capacity for play. Others allude to the use of ritual (Richard Schechner, Victor Turner). Then there’s the analysis of theatre as spectacle coming from Guy Debord.

Picture of Aladdin performance in Croydon  Aladdin at Fairfield Halls- Photo: Newsshopper

British pantomime traditions

In the performance of British pantomime, the role of narrative is quite stretched and distorted. While the story matter is invariably well-known, at least to most of the audience, it becomes subject to regular interruption. This may be for exposition (“Oh what a lovely day in the village!”), or for audience inter-action (“Every time I come on I’ll shout ‘Hiya kids’ and you shout ‘Hiya Buttons’ – will you do that for me?); for special acts or solo inserts (“Now that I am on my own, I think I’ll play my xylophone!”) I once saw Barbara Windsor, after winding up the audience do a wonderful steer. “Alright you lot, shut up now and let’s get on with the story.”

There’s a playfulness in all this; and, unlike a naturalistic drama, a consciousness that we are all participating in the telling of a commonly-held tale, in a commonly-held format, using commonly understood songs (usually current pop songs and dances. There are expectations which have to be fulfilled – cross-dressing ‘dames’; transformation scenes; supernatural agents helping young protagonists to their destiny. Figures of authority, both inside the story and at large, are mocked, and local placenames referenced (“I’m going to send to to a terrible place” – “What, Essex?”) all reinforcing community solidarity. And there are rituals, of the call-and-response kind, of sung participation.

Narrative and change

The importance of narrative is that allows for change. The act of exposition, and the demands of dramatic form (and expectation, of course) means that our heroes overcome adversity and are transformed: Dick Whittington and Jack become wealthy by completing their tasks; Cinderella goes to the ball, and eventually marries the Prince; Red Riding Hood saves her granny. Transitions like these tend to follow the rules of symbolic transformation described by Carl Jung. In the original folk tale material, the sexual imagery of the symbolism involved in the growth to adulthood is even more obvious: the ‘magic beans’ which become the growing stalk, allowing the staying of the paternal giant, with the orgasmic treasures of the singing harp and the golden egg; Cinderella’s slipper (thought to have been ‘vair’ or rabbit fur rather than ‘verre’ or glass) – and the Prince seeking a good fit.

The covert sexuality, and sometimes more overt if the dame is involved, is part of the world-turned-upside-down described by Mikhail Bakhtin as carnivalesque. The mocking of authority is essential there, then, on this basis. Change and transformation happen in every tale, and are therefore potential in real world.  Magic allows for the abolition of categories and status: the thief may be a prince; the washerwoman marry a Baron.

Psychological meanings

This connects, in my mind at least, with the stages of psycho-social development as outlined by the freudian psychologist Erik Erikson. The symbols of transformation outlined by Jung point to the ‘predictable crises’ and their possible resolution. (There’s a useful guide at

As an older person, hitting the “Integrity vs Despair” stage, I’m not interested in seeing life as a journey that implies a terminus.  Nor, in Macbeth’s terms, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying – nothing.” But the idea that the story has a start, a middle and a satisfying resolution is quite comforting. It has shape, and form, which in turn gives it existential meaning. But for small children, the experience is crucial to their socialisation: we all seem to recognise that.

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