Vesta Tilley as a principal boy
Actress Nan Hearne as Jack in the pantomime The House That Jack Built

In pantomime, a principal boy role is the young male protagonist of the play, traditionally played by a young actress in boy's clothes.

The earliest example is Miss Ellington who in 1852 appeared in The Good Woman in the Wood by James Planché to the consternation of a reviewer.[1] She was followed by other music hall and burlesque entertainers, such as Harriet Vernon[2] described as "a magnificent creature, who was willing to show her ample figure as generously as the conventional tights and trunks of the day allowed" and thus setting the standard of good legs on display and nominally male costume which emphasized her figure.[1]

The tradition grew out of laws restricting the use of child actors in London theatre, and the responsibility carried by such lead roles. A Breeches role was also a rare opportunity for an early 20th-century actress to wear a costume revealing the legs covered only in tights, potentially increasing the size of the audience.[3] The practice of having a female play the principal boy has become less common,[4] as further outlets are sought for the talents of young male popular stars and actors.[citation needed]

Although not written as a pantomime, Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up is often produced as one with the tradition of a female principal boy continuing.

List of notable principal boys

See also


  1. ^ a b Kaplan, Charles (1984). "The Only Native British Art Form". The Antioch Review. 42 (3): 266–276. doi:10.2307/4611362. JSTOR 4611362.
  2. ^ Howard and Wyndham Limited 1888–1948: 60 Years of Pantomime and Beyond"
  3. ^ anon (2005). "History of British Pantomime". Limelight Scripts. Archived from the original on 21 April 2011. Retrieved 18 May 2011.
  4. ^ Copping, Jaspar (1 December 2013). "Curtain falls on traditional panto - oh yes it does!". The Telegraph. Retrieved 8 September 2015.