Another interesting news item from DEBBIE HUMPHREYS. This sounds like a LOT of fun!!
Before TV, Theater Was in the Home
By BARRYMORE LAURENCE SCHERER , Wall Street Journal, 11/5/10
Long before film and television, not to mention video games, legions of children stirred their imaginations and broadened their knowledge with toy theaters made of paper. Through Jan. 30, the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn., is presenting an exhibition of these delightful amusements. “A Child’s View: 19th-Century Paper Theaters” features 32 examples from England, Germany, Denmark, France, Spain, Italy, Austria and the U.S. The miniature playhouses—some antiques, others modern reproductions—are on loan from the private collection of New Yorker Eric G. Bernard.
View Full Image
‘Proscenium, Théâtre Francaise,’ circa 1866, is one of the paper theaters on display at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn.
In their heyday, such playthings were standard features of middle- and upper-class nurseries and parlors. According to Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic essay “A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured,” in which the author of “Treasure Island” and “A Child’s Garden of Verses” recalls his own childhood love affair with these constructions, paper theaters were sold as inexpensive kits of flat sheets printed on heavy paper or card stock. Children and their parents or nannies would paste the sheets to sturdier cardboard backings or pieces of wood, then carefully cut out the elements—everything from the elaborate proscenium to the naturalistic sets and costumed actors. If purchased as black-and-white outlines (Stevenson’s “plain” versions), the pieces would subsequently be painted with watercolors before assembly. Colored versions, especially later 19th-century ones, were printed using the complex 12-color lithography method, which yielded a rich palette of jewel-like tones.
After the paper theater itself was constructed, children could purchase sets and characters for plays, operas and pantomimes—ranging from fairy tales like “Cinderella” and “Hansel and Gretel” to melodramas like “The Miller and His Men” and “The Corsican Brothers.” The plays of Shakespeare and Schiller, and even popular operas, were also part of the vast repertoire. Kits for constructing specific plays included complete dialogue and stage directions.
These toy theaters offer today’s viewers a fairly accurate idea of 19th-century production values, with sets of flat scenery painted to represent everything from picturesque landscapes, village scenes and exotic temples to dank prisons and glittering palaces. As presented here, the theaters mix and match sets and dramatic characters—a German theater of about 1840 is set up with characters for “Hamlet” in scenery for a fashionable salon; another German example groups the characters for Wagner’s “Siegfried” against the sets for a war-tent scene. In fact, many professional companies of that time produced operas and dramas by using available stock sets from old productions, while the actors and singers in lead roles customarily wore costumes from their own personal theatrical wardrobes.
Paper-theater publishers made every effort to suggest the sumptuous ornament of real theaters and opera houses, the plush drapery, colored marble and other details of architecture and decor. The trompe l’oeil effects are particularly noteworthy on the fully rounded columns flanking the proscenium of a Spanish-designed Teatro de los Niños from about 1918. The columns support a frieze of neo-classical glyptographs—tinted bas-relief imitations embossed on thick, spongy paper or papier maché, which completes a truly opulent effect.
Many of these theaters also show musicians in the orchestra pit, a reminder that their role was not limited to operas and operettas. Most spoken plays were performed with overtures, interludes and what was called “melodramatic music” to underscore particularly emotional scenes and dialogue—works like Mendelssohn’s Overture and Incidental Music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Grieg’s music to “Peer Gynt” were the ancestors of the modern film score. At home, appropriate music could be supplied by a child or helpful adult playing the family piano or winding up a music box. Later, the family gramophone might be pressed into service.
At the Bruce, the toy theaters are arranged in glazed showcases that have been set at a child’s eye level. In addition to the theaters are six peep-shows, in which mid-18th-century miniature stage sets are mounted in wooden viewing boxes and “peeped” at through a magnifying lens that produces the receding perspectival effects that were the marvel of theatrical production from the Renaissance through the 20th century. And to help set these pieces in their historic context, there are also two historic videos, including a silent film of the famous maker Benjamin Pollock in his London shop constructing and demonstrating a miniature performance during the 1920s. There will also be workshops and related performances (go to brucemuseum.org for information).