Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Illustrations of Toy Theatres

The Society for Theatre Research sponsored a lecture today by Alan Powers on British toy theatres, and fortunately they also streamed it online, which meant that I was able to watch.

Powers is the Chair of the Pollock’s Toy Theatre Trust, which has issued reprints of classic toy theaters, including one of Oliver Twist. He discussed his long association with the trust and the role of Benjamin Pollock in the revival of toy theatre during the 20th century. 

British toy theatres had their heyday during the Regency period, but they tend not to show up in illustrations until a bit later. One of the earliest depictions of a toy theatre in action comes from The Poetical Present published by William Cole in 1829.

More famous, however, are the illustration's from John Leech's picture book Young Troublesome, or Master Jacky's Holiday, published in 1845. In one double illustration, Leech shows a toy theatre being presented to a boy, and then adults and children alike preparing for a toy production of The Miller and His Men.


A later illustration shows the climactic ending of that performance, which appears to disturb the whole household. The Miller and His Men, which was the most popular play by far for toy theatres, ended with the mill exploding on stage. In the illustration, the proprietors of the toy theatre pull out all of the stops to make the explosion as realistic as possible.


By the 1850s, however, the toy theatre trade had run into difficulties, and the art form declined over the later Victorian era. However, there was renewed interest in the 20th century. Gordon Craig published an article about toy theatres in 1912 in his magazine The Mask. Pollock placed a copy of that magazine in the window of his shop, where he sold toy theatres during their revival prior to the Great Depression and World War II.

Since the war, there have been efforts to bring the art form back, but it's been an uphill battle. Still, it's nice to see people like Powers bringing attention to these wonderful relics of the past.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

In Dahomey

I just got back from 54 Below, the classic cabaret spot that tonight was presenting songs from the legendary 1903 musical In Dahomey.

The first full-length musical both written and performed by African Americans on Broadway, In Dahomey provided a star vehicle for comedians George Walker and Bert Williams. It also introduced a number of songs that became hits. As the play originally opened on February 18, 1903, tonight was the 121st anniversary of its premiere.

Caseen Gaines and Pier Lamia Porter produced the evening, with musical director Gary Mitchell, Jr. leading a band that played its Ragtime-infused music. This included the song "The Czar" sung by James Jackson, Jr. The number was originally sung by Walker's character about being an important figure in Black society, a major theme in the musical.

Other numbers included the love song "Molly Green," the satirical "Leader of the Colored Aristocracy," and the rousing "On Broadway in Dahomey Bye and Bye." Toward the end, the cast sang "Emancipation Day," with lyrics by the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and music by Will Marion Cook, who had studied with the composer Antonín Dvořák. Yes, this was a show that had some heavy hitters involved in its genesis!

I think my favorite song, though, was "I Wants to Be a Actor Lady," which was originally sung in the show by Aida Overton Walker (wife of George Walker and the reputed 'Queen of Cakewalk'). It was a pre-existing song by Harry von Tilzer that got added to the show, but it was beautifully sung tonight by Kimberly Marable, who was seen most recently on Broadway as Velma Kelly in Chicago.

In Dahomey achieved moderate success when it originally opened on Broadway, but then transferred to London, where the show became an unqualified hit. There was even a command performance for the Prince of Wales in honor of his son's birthday!

Many thanks to all of the artists involved tonight in bringing this music back to life for contemporary audiences.

Sunday, February 11, 2024

The Good Soldier Švejk

It was a little over 100 years ago that the Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek died, leaving his satirical novel The Good Soldier Švejk unfinished, and providing theatre artists with the raw material for some of the most influential stage adaptations of the 20th century.

Director Erwin Piscator famously brought the novel to the stage as a piece of epic theatre in the 1920s, collaborating on the script with Max Brod, Hans Reimann, Erwin Piscator, Felix Gasbarra, and Bertolt Brecht. Švejk later became the inspiration for the 1936 musical Johnny Johnson by Kurt Weill and Paul Green.

The story follows Josef Švejk, a muddle-headed man who volunteers to fight for the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the breakout of the First World War. Authorities aren't sure if he belongs in the army or a mental institution. Eventually, however, he is shipped off to the front, but after he misses his train, he decides to walk there... only in the wrong direction.

Last night, I saw a puppet adaptation of the novel performed by the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre. In this adaptation by Vít Horejš, different performers take on the role of Švejk in turn, as the Švejk puppet is passed from one person to another. While this might keep audience members from identifying with the protagonist, it also prevents them from getting bored with any one actor, as Švejk's voice changes periodically throughout the performance.

If you want to see the production, it's running until February 18th at Theater for the New City.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Reviewed in COLERIDGE BULLETIN

Noted scholar Julie Carlson has reviewed my new book Romantic Actors, Romantic Dramas: British Tragedy on the Regency Stage in the latest issue of The Coleridge Bulletin.

The journal is published by The Friends of Coleridge, which celebrates the life and work of the poet and dramatist Samuel Taylor Coleridge, author of the tragedy Remorse, among other works. My book contains a chapter on Remorse, which made it an apt piece to be reviewed in the journal.

Carlson is a major figure in the study of British Romanticism, and is perhaps best known for her 1994 book In the Theatre of Romanticism: Coleridge, Nationalism, Women. I was thrilled to find she's reviewed my own book, noting that it offers a "bold corrective" to those who resist acknowledging Coleridge's standing as a practical playwright.

My book emphasizes the roles of actors in shaping dramas during the Regency period in Britain. In the case of Remorse, the magnificent Julia Glover played a crucial role in the play's success. Though Glover is not as well known as other actors I examine in the book--including Sarah Siddons, Edmund Kean, and Eliza O'Neill--she helped to make Remorse a rousing success on stage.

As Carlson notes in her review, during the rehearsal process Coleridge exhibited a "new receptiveness to the revolutionary power of women and the strength of their influence." This is no doubt attributable at least in part to Glover, who has been sadly neglected by historians of the theatre.

I hope other publications review the book with the sensitivity and insight Carlson displayed.

Friday, February 2, 2024

John Bull's Other Island

Last night, I took part in a spirited public discussion of Bernard Shaw's play John Bull's Other Island sponsored by the W.B. Yeats Society of New York and hosted by Gingold Theatrical Group.

William Butler Yeats commissioned Shaw to write the play for the group that eventually became the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Plays by Yeats and Shaw had previously been staged together at the Avenue Theatre in London, when Yeats's The Land of Heart's Desire was performed as a short curtain raiser before the premiere of Shaw's Arms and the Man.

The stipulation was that the play should have an Irish theme, and Shaw at first struggled to write it. In a letter to Lady Gregory, one of Yeats's artistic partners in founding the Abbey Theatre, Shaw wrote in June of 1904 that he had "Not a word of the play yet on paper" but he was "Seething in the brain." The play he eventually came up with had four acts and six different scenes, which would have undoubtedly been a challenge for the small company just trying to start out in the world.

At the end of August, Shaw wrote to Yeats to see if the new theatre might have "a hydraulic bridge" to accomplish the two scene changes that occurred in the middle of acts. Eventually he did finish the play, but it proved to be too long and difficult to stage for the company. The "inevitable cutting" Yeats wrote back, would adversely affect the "seriousness" of the play. Ultimately, the theatre allowed Shaw to look for another home for the piece.

This was not difficult, as Shaw was a successful playwright by 1904, and John Bull's Other Island was premiered instead by the Royal Court Theatre in London, with the actor Harley Granville Barker playing the defrocked priest Peter Keegan.

Friday, January 26, 2024

Wedding Night Zoom

My short play Wedding Night, which had a staged reading last year at Ancostia Playhouse in Washington, D.C., will be having a Zoom reading by Tiger's Heart Players on Sunday, January 28th at 3pm.

The play is loosely based on Luigi Pirandello’s short story “Prima notte,” and was recently published in PSA, the journal of the Pirandello Society of America. I previously saw a reading of the play over Zoom by the 36th Street Writers Block.

Wedding Night is being presented alongside three other short plays: Destination Funeral by Peter Andrews, Affair with a Fish (Act III) by Wayne Paul Mattingly, and The King Has No Pants On by Susan Price Monnot.

This will be my first time working with Tiger's Heart. Click here to access the reading on Zoom this Sunday. The meeting ID is 841 9692 2564. The passcode is 310747.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Iguana Night

"I don't judge people, I draw them," says Hannah Jelkes in Tennessee Williams's play The Night of the Iguana. The dramatist might well have been speaking about himself. Williams rarely judged his characters, but he did exquisitely draw them for his audience.

That's what we see on stage in the Off-Broadway revival of the play at the Pershing Square Signature Center. Directed by Emily Mann, the production brings together top-quality actors who embrace the characters they play in all their problematic excess.

I saw the show last night, when the cast was led by Christopher Innvar as the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon, a former Episcopal priest now leading tourists through some of the seedier locales in Mexico. Innvar would seem to be perfect casting for the role. He played Albany opposite John Lithgow in King Lear, and has performed the title character in Joanna Baillie's De Monfort, as well as more recently being Kurt, the odd man out in Dance of Death by August Strindberg. Is it any wonder Mann cast such a magnificent performer in the lead of this anticipated revival?

Oh, wait. Innvar was the understudy! No matter. He nailed the character, and was particularly good in Shannon's scenes together with Judith Fellowes, the annoying matronly woman on the tour who has it out for Shannon, and with very good reason. Fellowes is unbearable, even though we know she's essentially in the right, and is played with priceless humor by Dee Pelletier, best known for her Broadway turns in the Tracy Letts dark comedies The Minutes and August: Osage County.

Hold on, Pelletier was an understudy, too! Her performance was still wonderful, though, and she and Innvar held their own with the show's headliner who did make last night's performance, Daphne Rubin-Vega. Best known as the original Mimi in Rent, Rubin-Vega, can still display her posterior in tight pants without any complaints from the audience. That's good, since she plays Maxine Faulk, the recently widowed proprietor of the hotel where the tour group is staying. Maxine rolls out her sexual charm to welcome Shannon, and the biggest wonder of the play is how he can resist her.

The answer would appear to be Hannah, the Nantucket spinster played by Jean Lichty, who seems to understand the kind of spiritual turmoil Shannon is going through in a way that Faulk cannot. Hannah is traveling with her grandfather (played by the legendary Austin Pendleton), barely scraping by through a combination of selling her artwork and showing off her grandfather as "the oldest living and practicing poet on earth."

This motley assortment of oddballs is displayed with humanity, reminding us of the importance to not judge others for their weaknesses. That's a lesson that should be learned by the German couple staying at the hotel, who represent the dark cloud of fascism that was rolling in during the summer of 1940, when the play is set.

This splendid revival is only playing until February 25, so see it while you still can.