From improvised comedies to slapstick

3rd December 2004 at 00:00
Commedia dell'arte

Harlequin: a poor young man (sometimes a servant), usually in love with Columbine; cunning and lazy, he can sing, dance, juggle and perform acrobatics.

Columbine: usually the daughter of a rich old man who is trying to marry her to one of his unattractive old friends, Columbine is beautiful, slightly flirtatious and loves Harlequin.

Pantaloon: a selfish, bad-tempered, suspicious and avaricious old man; frequently a friend of Columbine's father.

Pierrot: a servant, often melancholic and usually unlucky in love (and often Pantaloon's stooge), his traditional white clown's suit emphasises his innocence.

El Capitano: a soldier who boasts of his conquests in battle and in love. A swaggerer, he is in fact cowardly and a failure with women.


The Principal Girl: the direct descendant of Columbine, she is usually poor and always beautiful. Often a ridiculous old man is in pursuit of her but she is helped by a Fairy Godmother.

The Principal Boy: traditionally she wears a tunic and tights, fights the villain with panache, woos and finally marries the Principal Girl.

The Dame: antecedents of the modern Dame can be found in such roles as Mrs Noah in the medieval Mystery Plays and Mrs Gamp in Charles Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit. Bossy, gossiping and prone to drink, she is at the centre of much of pantomime's comedy.

The Honest Servant: the modern incarnation of Pierrot, he famously appears in Cinderella as Buttons, and is hopelessly in love with the Principal Girl yet always faithful and often inventive.

The Comic: while other roles (notably Dame and Servant) include elements of the traditional Pierrot or Clown character, it is now common to cast television comedians in a panto, in roles not dissimilar to their screen persona.

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