- Rediscovering the Toy Theatre—with a Review of George Speaight's The History of the English Toy Theatre
We never know how much of our after imaginations began with such a peep-show into paradise.—G. K. Chesterton
A lively John Leech engraving, from a series entitled Young Troublesome, or Master Jacky's Holidays, shows a group of delighted children, two girls and two boys, to whom a tall gentleman with elegant side-whiskers and an assisting servant present what looks to us like a good-sized television set. But this is 1845, and the tall gentleman's gift—a convenient emblem of the difference between childhood then and now—is not a TV but a toy theater. "Here Captain Clarence arrives with the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in miniature, and the Miller and his Men in a forward state of preparation." The engraving serves as frontispiece to George Speaight's The History of the English Toy Theatre (Boston: Plays, Inc., revised edition, 1969), where the curious twentieth-century reader may find a thorough, scholarly, and frankly seductive introduction to this nineteenth-century pastime.
For those who study children's literature, the toy theater offers territory all but untouched, yet full of possibilities. It is a form of imaginative play, an elaborate toy, a species of drama, a phenomenon of popular culture, a rich source of material on the Romantic theater, an unexpected influence on Victorian literature. Historically, it was one of the earliest genres of children's literature to aim squarely at entertainment. Considered as a branch of children's theater—the "Juvenile Drama" was its other name—it was unique in adapting a wide range of plays originally designed for adults to performance by and for children. Children enthralled by it have included not only future men and women of the theater—Henry Irving, John Gielgud, Ellen Terry, Ralph Richardson—but artists (Millais, Frith, Beardsley, Dicky Doyle), writers (Dickens, Stevenson, Lewis Carroll, Masefield, Valery, the Sitwells, G. K. Chesterton), even Winston Churchill.
What was the special appeal of the toy theater to these and thousands of other children? Just what would Master Jacky have [End Page 111]
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missed out on, if Captain Clarence had brought him a TV instead? Even a brief overview of the toy theater and its literature—with emphasis on Speaight's History, the definitive work in its field—will suggest some answers.
A toy theater is a miniature theater, tabletop size, in which plays are produced for the amusement of one's friends and family. The actors are tiny, brightly painted figures two or three inches high, cut out of paper and mounted on thin cardboard. Several figures in different poses will be needed to represent each of the main characters. Some young people (including Doyle and Beardsley) drew their own characters and even made up their own plays, but the common practice was to buy printed sheets of the characters, props, and scenery for each production; these were available in both "penny plain" and "twopence coloured" versions, along with specially adapted scripts.
Set in tin "slides"—stands to which long wires are attached—the actors are pushed from the wings into the stage area, where they can move about freely and even deal with each other. Speaight, himself a veteran performer, explains that "The toy theatre convention is to indicate which character is speaking by a slight movement of its slide, the degree of movement depending upon the emphasis of the speech; this may seem silly at first, but one very soon accepts it as perfectly natural" (108).
For some decades, all toy theater plays were based on real-life theatrical productions. Such favorites as The Miller and His Men, Guy Fawkes, Pizarro, Black-eyed Susan, Jack Sheppard, The Forest of Bondy, and Timour the Tartar were originally full-sized successes, whose colorful costumes, lavish scenery, and spectacular stage effects were faithfully reproduced in miniature for the toy theater. Those interested in the popular Romantic stage will find, Speaight says, that "A little imagination, or better still a...