Miniature Worlds Acting Big: Toy Theaters at the Kislak Center

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The play of Robinson Crusoe (1883), to be performed in J. H. Singer’s Theatre Imperial

“Ocean—strip of water in groove 2; strip of shore, groove 4; wreck, groove 1, right of stage; raft, groove 3, right; Crusoe A, groove 5, left. [Curtain rises]”. When it is performed on a toy theater, the reconstruction of Robinson Crusoe’s shipwreck requires a certain number of technical details. A good staging is about the right choice of sceneries, flats, and figures: Forest or ocean? Little boat or big sinking ship? And which Crusoe figure should we pick – hunting Crusoe? Crusoe in shirt sleeves? Perhaps sitting Crusoe, speaking with his parrot? Granted, numbers and letters help with the assembly, but what would happen if we left our imagination run loose, and create our own deviations from the original story?

 

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A few figures from the stage set of Robinson Crusoe (New York: J. H. Singer, 1883)

 

Toy theaters are miniature theaters used in intimate, private spaces for the performance of special adaptations of plays, novels, and historical events, often published in special booklets called “juvenile dramas.” Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, toy theater was a popular form of entertainment in the United Kingdom and in Europe, and at the end of that century it became widespread in the United States as well. To those interested in the history of this special middle-class pastime for the youth (and their complicit parents), the toy theaters, scene sets, and dramas included in the Charlotte Cushman Club records offer a great starting point.

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The Theatre Imperial produced by New York printer J. H. Singer (1883)

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The wooden stage of J. H. Singer’s Theatre Imperial. The grooves are numbered or lettered to help assembling the stage set.

Toy theaters were invented in the United Kingdom and they boast an illustrious history in that country. According to historian George Speaight, one of the first scholars to have written about this subject, the origins of toy theaters have roots in late eighteenth-century children’s paintings, cut-out character story books, and engravings and portraits of actors and theater scenes. In the following century, at least three generations of famous authors and artists – including writers Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Lewis Carroll, and Oscar Wilde; actress Ellen Terry; and painters John Everett Millais and Jack B. Yeats – spent their childhood playing with toy theaters. Dickens and Stevenson explicitly declared in later essays their love for juvenile drama and toy theater. Not only did their childhood memories of this genre inspire many of their literary creations of the more mature age, but they also worked as a direct link with the fervid “fancy” that animated their boyhood. At the end of the century, the belief that toy theaters could work as a perfect “gymnasium for the imagination” was so entrenched that William Archer, an esteemed drama critic and Ibsen translator, even declared that no adult who had never possessed a theater could become a poet or develop a true love for poetry.

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The chapter from R. L. Stevenson’s Memories and Portraits (London: Chatto & Windus, 1883), in which the author describes his childhood passion for toy theaters

In those same decades, toy theaters could count on a flourishing industry of theatre makers and printers devoted to the publication of dramas and stage sets. In England, publishing houses dedicated to the genre included Skelt’s (later Mathew’s) Juvenile Dramas, John Redington, John Kilby Green, and especially Benjamin Pollock, a famous London toy shop that still sells Victorian toy theaters along with puppets, and other vintage toys. Some of the dramas by Green and Pollock are included in the records of the Charlotte Cushman Club, a theatrical organization active in Philadelphia during the last century. The plays, along with a few toy theaters and their relative scene sets, were originally donated to the organization by one of its members, Philadelphia banker and collector Frank S. Stone. The titles include adaptation of popular plays and melodrama such as Tom Thumb by Henry Fielding, or The Miller and His Men by John Pocock, but also new works such as the “water pageant” The Silver Palace, and the Golden Poppy, published by Pollock.

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Some of the juvenile dramas published by John Kilby Green, now included in the Charlotte Cushman Club records

And in the United States? Perhaps a bit snobbishly, Speaight – an Englishman – declared in 1935 that “there may never have been an American toy theatre with an indigenous repertory.” The materials collected by Stone, however, seem to demonstrate the opposite. For example, the first three stage sets published by New York printer J. H. Singer in 1883-84 (all included in the collection) depict, in order, Robinson Crusoe, Pocahontas, and The Battle of Bunker Hill. While Crusoe, despite being about the encounter with foreign lands and cultures, was an exquisitely British cultural product, Pocahontas and, even more explicitly, The Battle of Bunker Hill (depicting a symbolically charged battle fought against the British at the beginning of the Revolution) seem to express the desire of establishing a genuinely American repertoire.

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The stage set for The Battle of Bunker Hill (New York: J. H. Singer)

In the following years, up to the 1920s, American theater magazines regularly published dramas and cut-out figures derived from popular novels and fairy tales, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Rip Van Winkle to Snow White and The Three Little Pigs. In the same decades, European avant-garde artists such as Pablo Picasso and Futurist poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti experimented with toy theaters. Later, film directors like Ingmar Bergman and Orson Welles used toy theaters to try out ideas for their movies. At the same time, however, the growing popularity of cinema, the radio, and, later, of television contributed to the gradual decline of the genre.

 

 

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Charles Boucher’s monumental wooden toy theater, circa 1880

The two toy theaters included in the Charlotte Cushman Club collection, both in excellent condition, allow us to have at least a glimpse of this prestigious plaything of the Victorian era. One of them, called “Imperial Theatre,” was published by Singer and was used for the performance of the three dramas that I have described above. The name of the characters and scenes was indicated on the cardboard figures, which should be placed on the lettered grooves cut on the wooden platform forming the stage. The second theater, built around the 1880s by Charles Boucher, master carpenter at the Philadelphia Academy of Music, is even more magnificent. Completely wood-made, it is decorated with elegant carvings and a metal medallion at the center-top of the proscenium. A few scenes are available for Boucher’s theater, but its structure seems sturdy enough to possibly host new ones, and to be used for productions of miniature dramas, and – why not? – operas. Will we see any of them at Penn in the near future?

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