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.