A growing field of study
But why is the study of pantomime important and what can it teach us about the past?
“The study of popular cultural forms,” explains Richards, “tells us much about the attitudes, values, beliefs, role models and preoccupations of former ages,” with Yeandle adding that pantomime, “offers insights into that most peculiar thing, English humour,” and, “gives us clues about audience knowledge of current affairs”.
The project’s web site puts it into context, stating, “It is a given of our national cultural life and has been part of the experience of virtually every generation of English people since the Industrial Revolution.” However, as Richard highlights, although pantomime “was—and still is—the most popular and enduring theatrical genre,” it has been unfairly neglected by academics until recently.
According to the project’s web site, “This neglect is almost certainly due to the widely held misapprehension that the pantomime is essentially lightweight and frivolous.” This view is now slowly changing and since 2007 a number of pantomime-related studies have been published, including Professor Millie Taylor’s British Pantomime Performance, Professor Jim Davis’s edited collection of essays Victorian Pantomime and Dr Jill A Sullivan’s The Politics of the Pantomime: Regional Identity in the Theatre 1860-1900.
Between 2007 and 2009, the University of Glasgow also conducted its own research into the genre in a project entitled "Pantomime in Scotland: Your other national theatre" and in September this year journal Popular Entertainment Studies published their special issue “Pantomime and the continuities of performance: a global perspective”.
Many of the academics cited above have been directly involved with A Cultural History of English Pantomime, delivering papers at the project’s three conferences: "The 'Sister Arts' in the Popular Theatre, c.1820-1919" (2010), "Politics, Performance and Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Britain" (2011) and "Race, Nation and Empire on the Victorian Stage" (2012).
Both Richards and Yeandle describe the conferences as personal highlights of the project. Richards especially enjoyed “the chance to meet fellow scholars and enthusiasts,” with Yeandle adding, “I think we created something special there. I hope we’ve succeeded in the aim to bring together English scholars, theatre historians, performance studies scholars and cultural historians. Interdisciplinarity was important to me and I think we’ve raised some very important questions.”