ACT in Action Issue 17

It’s a bloke in a frock! … A pantomime dame is a traditional role in British pantomime. It is part of the theatrical tradition of travesti portrayal of female characters by male actors in drag. Dame characters are often played either in an extremely camp style, or else by men acting butch in women's clothing. They usually wear heavy make up and big hair, have exaggerated physical features, and perform in an over-the-top style. …It’s a girl in trousers!

Principal Boys The tradition of women dressing up as men on stage started in the 18th century. Male roles played by women were known as 'breeches parts'. With the increase in popularity of the ballerina in Romantic Ballet male dancers went out of fashion and women would often perform the male role. In the theatre Madame Vestris made her name playing the roles of boys and men in burlesques and operas. This was a period when women dressed modestly covering their legs with long dresses. To see a woman in short trousers and tights was considered particularly risqué and Madame Vestris was the sex symbol of the 1830s. Madame Vestris was exceptional in that she was the first actress- manager, a successful female performer who leased and ran a London theatre, the Olympic Theatre, from 1830-1849. The picture below is from a production called Olympic Devils , a burletta staged as the Christmas entertainment in 1831 and based on the classical Greek legend of Orpheus. The show was appropriately pantomimic in style: the script was full of verbal puns and slapstick humour. In the legend, Orpheus' severed head floated down a river still singing. This effect was created by

the female roles were played by boys or men. Comic dames first began to appear in pantomime in the early 19th century. In 1820 the clown Joseph Grimaldi played the Baron's

Dorothy Ward as Principal Boy

Ada Blanche as Robinson Crusoe

wife in one of the earliest versions of Cinderella. The dame role slowly evolved over the next fifty years and really took off at the end of the 19th century. Dames came in several types: working class and plain, glamorous and snobbish, or grotesque and elegant. In the late 19th century it became the vogue for Music Hall and Variety stars to perform in pantomimes. Some female impersonators from the Halls began to play

Madame Vestris sticking her head through a hole in a painted model of some water, and the model being pulled across the stage. Unfortunately, the contraption did not move smoothly, and the effect was apparently spoiled by shouts from offstage of 'Faster! Slower! Looser! Pull... Damn it! You'll strangle her!'. Apart from this the production was a huge success. Like the pantomime dame, the principal boy character evolved slowly

the Dame role. Famous 19th century dames include Dan Leno and Herbert Campbell. In the 1940s and 50s Variety stars such as Arthur Askey took on the Dame role for the pantomime season. More recently pop stars, television personalities and sports stars have played the role of the Dame. The Dame character has remained consistent for the last hundred years or so. Dames have a bawdy sense of humour, outrageous costumes and extrovert

characters. They interact with the audience, initiate slapstick and play tricks on the other performers. The costumes they wear play a large part in the jokes and are often visual puns. Most pantomime dames have been

throughout the 19th century. Women such as Vesta Tilley made their names as male impersonators in the music halls before treading the boards in pantomimes as principal boys. By the 1880s the hero role in the pantomime was always played by a woman. Famous principal boys have included Marie Lloyd, the Queen of the Music Halls, and in the 20th century, Dorothy Ward. More recently principal boys have

played by men, however there are a few exceptions. Nellie Wallace, a comedienne in the 1930s, was a popular dame. Nellie Wallace was a music hall star who made her name playing comic characters and singing comic songs such as 'I was the early birdie after the early worm,' and 'I've been jilted by the baker Mr White'. Nellie began performing in pantomime when she was only seven years old and added a comic fall to her tiny part in the pantomime, to get more laughs. She did attempt serious roles, but her performance in Little Willie's deathbed

been played by TV soap stars, pop stars and sports personalities. In the 1950s and 1960s there was a trend for male principal boys with pop stars like Cliff Richard playing the role. Pantomime dames There were no pantomime dames in early pantomime but there is a long tradition of women's roles being performed by men in English theatre. In Shakespeare's day women were not allowed to perform on the stage and all

Dan Leno as Widow Twankey 1896 © Victoria & Albert Museaum

scene in East Lynne was received with so much laughter that Nellie was finally convinced she should not attempt to be a serious actress. This is one of Nellie's music hall characters - a spinster with buck teeth and heavily drawn eyebrows who wore an ill- fitting tweed suit,

Vesta Tilley in Principal Boy costume

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