By Dave Buchanan
Is a verse pantomime a new idea?
Not at all, the ancient Greeks wrote both tragedies and comedies in verse: the latter by Aristophanes, and the former by Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides. I know about this stuff because Greek drama was one of my subjects at Uni. All the plays were written and performed in verse. Not simple rhyming couplets, but complicated rhythms which they must have worked hard at for years, and we students had to mug up rule after rule about the rhythm or metre, as it was known. This most unpopular topic was called scansion: it will be familiar to English Lit. graduates too. It was all about stressed and unstressed syllables. The two commonest metres were iambic, short – long, or dactylic, a long followed by two shorts. This combination was called a foot. We had two neat mnemonics for the dactylic foot followed by a foot consisting of two long beats (a spondee): strawberry jam tart, or Marylebone High Street. I recall that learning these was absolute agony.
Getting back to English lit., Geoffrey Chaucer was among the first to use what has become the most popular rhythm: the iambic tetrameter, a line consisting of four iambic feet, which rhymed with the next line. The Rhyming Couplet had been invented! The first two lines of the Prologue are:
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
Ten lines later are the immortal words:
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.
If you want to hear how this sounded, you can listen to Tom Hanks no less reciting the Prologue on YouTube.
The Elizabethan dramatists Marlowe, Jonson and Shakespeare used blank verse, that is, non-rhyming. Iambic pentameters: five feet, iambic rhythm. Take the most famous speech in Hamlet ‘To be or not to be’, and you get:
To sleep, perchance to dream.
Aye, there’s the rub.
Between 80-90% of Hamlet is written in this rhythm, but the playwright occasionally throws in some prose, usually when comics are involved, like the gravedigger clowns. Poor Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are condemned to speak in prose, and Ophelia ‘distracted’ sings songs with alternate lines rhyming. I reckon that Will would have loved the limerick!
Let’s jump to the Twentieth Century, and precisely to the late 1970s when I produced my first pantomime. By this time, eighty to ninety percent of the script was prose, though I have the impression that some earlier scripts were in verse. The doyen of panto playwrights at the time was John Morley. In his scripts verse was reserved for the ‘Immortals’, fairies and demons, who stood stage-right and stage-left (always left for the baddy) hurling insults at each other; a tradition which survives to the present day. At the finale, the cast stood downstage and delivered lines in (you’ve guessed it) rhyming couplets, along the lines of:
Principal Boy: We’re sorry but it’s time to go
Principal Girl: And hope that you’ve enjoyed the show
And we still do it.
Will verse pantomimes work today?
It’s a big ask, as we’re so used to prose. I think that it should work, provided that the rhymes are witty and, above all, are not doggerel. One of the best exponents is Peter Bond, whose couplets are both witty and apt. Here’s Baron Hardup:
Life in this house, there’s no denial,
Is a torment and a trial.
I become quite overwrought as
I cope with three demanding daughters.
All I want is to be alone,
Free from their chatting on the phone.
In retirement, I need a new direction,
Sorting out my stamp collection,
Going out to evening class,
Learning how to make stained glass,
And I’d like to have a go at
Writing verse I have found to be great fun, and I spend a lot of time wracking my brains for suitable rhyming words. The classic example of the moon/June syndrome is a song by Edward Madden and Gus Edwards.
By the light
Of the silvery moon
I love to spoon (look it up)
With my honey I’ll croon
Keep on shining in June.
Your silv’ry beams
Will bring love’s dreams,
We’ll be cuddling soon,
By the silvery moon.
I imagine all lyricists, from Tim Rice to Bernie Taupin and Coolio, afloat in the strange world of the rhyming couplet and other rhythms. When you hit on the right rhyme, you get a wonderful sense of achievement. Let’s leave the last word to the Sheriff of Nottingham:
Go on, give me your boos and hisses,
Your jeers and jibes, your insults and disses.
I’m feeling a trifle down today,
Things just haven’t been going my way.
My schemes have turned out simply rotten,
And my scams, well, they have just gotten
Worse and worse. (Pause) —
I may be wrong,
But in the words of the song,
Though skies are cloudy and grey
The only way is Up!
(Grins) Already I’m feeling much better,
The postie just gave me this letter.
(Produces a letter)
It seems my wealthy brother Ned
Fell down the stairs, and now he’s dead.
He left half his cash not to little old me,
But to a blooming great animal charitee.
(Scowls) I hate dogs! (Boos) And cats. And snakes and monkeys.
Bunnies and hamsters and goldfish and donkeys! (Boos)
The other half — now this is funny,
He left to my nephew and niece. The money
Comes to me, their uncle, if they die.
If they die! It’s so simple — no sorrow,
Guess what? They’re coming here tomorrow!
Ha-ha-ha ho-ho hee-hee
Everything’s going — swimmingly!
He exits roaring
Robin Hood & the Babes in the Wood