Thursday, November 21, 2019

Waxworks as Theatre

Ever since Madame Tussaud began exhibiting wax figures in the eighteenth century, the display of waxworks has had a theatrical flair. Charles Dickens picked up on this in his novel The Old Curiosity Shop, which depicts its heroine, Nell, getting a job with a traveling waxworks exhibit.

The proprietress of the waxworks, Mrs. Jarley, first spied Nell when she was traveling in the company of two Punch and Judy men, Codlin and Short. To Mrs. Jarley, however, her refined waxworks show is infinitely superior to the pair's puppets. "Never go into the company of a filthy Punch any more," she instructs Nell.

While Punch and Judy shows emphasized their comedy, waxworks stressed their refined and educational value. Mrs. Jarley puts it this way:

It's calm and--what's that word again--critical?--no--classical, that's it--it's calm and classical. No low beatings and knockings about, no jokings and squeakings like your precious Punches, but always the same, with a constantly unchanging air of coldness and gentility; and so like life, that if wax-work only spoke and walked about, you'd hardly know the difference. I won't go so far as to say, that, as it is, I've seen wax-work quite like life, but I've certainly seen some life that was exactly like wax-work.

In spite of Mrs. Jarley's pride in the refinement of her craft, she is embarrassed by the fact that she cannot read. When she uncovers that Nell can read and write, she seizes upon this fact as evidence that the girl will be a valuable addition to her team. Mrs. Jarley then goes about teaching Nell the stories of all the people depicted in wax, including "an unfortunate Maid of Honour in the Time of Queen Elizabeth, who died from pricking her finger in consequence of working upon a Sunday" and "Jasper Packlemerton of atrocious memory, who courted and married fourteen wives, and destroyed them all by tickling the soles of their feet."

What's interesting about the waxworks segment of the novel is that Nell herself as exhibitor becomes of greater interest to the crowds than any of the waxworks themselves. Mrs. Jarley at first sends Nell out through the streets in a light cart with a wax figure of a notorious brigand. This attempt to drum up interest in the show works so well that the proprietress later keeps Nell in the exhibition room and sends the brigand out alone, not wanting to cheapen the value of her live exhibit.

Comically, the waxworks figures turn out to be interchangeable. A wax figure of the famed clown Joseph Grimaldi is altered to resemble the grammarian Lindley Murray, and a figure of a murderess is transformed into the imminently respectable dramatist Hannah More, author of the moralistic tragedy Percy. A nightcap and gown are added to a waxwork of William Pitt to turn it into the likeness of the poet William Cowper, and Mary Queen of Scots is dressed in male attire to become Lord Byron!

Not everyone was a fan of the waxworks, however. Miss Monflathers, who runs a school for young ladies, tells Nell that working for a waxworks is "very naughty and unfeminine, and a perversion of the properties wisely and benignantly transmitted to us." As hard as Mrs. Jarley works trying to induce visitors to patronize her establishment, the public increasingly just comes to the entryway to peek inside at the figures there rather than pay their sixpence admission to see the whole show.

Dickens acknowledges the difficulty of art forms that position themselves as middle-brow culture. Punch and Judy, which has no pretensions to being great art, remains popular with the working class, and the temples of culture at Drury Lane and Covent Garden continue in operation. Mrs. Jarley's exhibition, while it has pretensions of appealing to the gentry, earns the scorn of uppity people like Miss Monflathers and fails to draw in the sixpences of working class folks who find the cost of admission to be prohibitive.

The continued presence of Madame Tussaud's wax museum in Times Square proves that waxworks today can still be economically viable, but many other middlebrow arts continue to struggle. One need look no further than the Broadway shows nearby Tussaud's waxworks. They are frequently forced to exhibit star actors as their main attraction, rather than the plays themselves, which can sometimes seem as interchangeable as Lord Byron and a Scottish queen.