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  • How Do You Know a Mermaid When You See One?How Do You See a Mermaid When You Know One? A Photo Essay
  • Tracy C. Davis (bio)

In twenty-first-century Westernized culture, mer-creatures are currently understood to take a specific form: a human (usually female) upper body that becomes scaly from the hips downward, lacking legs or feet and culminating in a double-fluked tail. Prior to the Enlightenment, this was not the case: mer-creatures in illustrations and sculpture could be dual-tailed or, very often, take entirely human form, yet still be understood to represent the water spirits of seas, lakes, rivers, or wells. As the extraordinarily rich graphic collections of the Theaterwissenschaftliche Sammlung (TWS) of the Universität zu Köln demonstrate, the nineteenth-century theatre was crucial in reconciling the varied forms into one, particularly through two operas common in the Germanic repertoire: Albert Lorzing's Undide (1845) and Richard Wagner's Das Rheingold (composed 1853; first produced 1869). Unlike painting, sculpture, and literature, the theatre not only asserts the existence of mers in relation to the human world, but must depict them (through bodies, voices, and movements) via human performers. Whereas Lorzing did this through a non-tailed water spirit, Wagner envisioned tailed mermaids.

Baroque spectacles utilized real water, with mythic and allegorical sea creatures moving on the surface. Romantic ballet dispensed with the real water and made water spirits etherealized creatures who moved on the land (and somewhat above the stage floor). Lorzing made a radical breach from both traditions by culminating Undine with a sequence in which the stage was (narratively) engulfed by water. This was the pretext for a transformation scene into the underwater realm of the Danube, revealing the throne room of sovereign beings who were the essence of water but otherwise looked and locomoted like humans. Wagner began his opera in precisely such a realm, with the three mermaid sisters of the Rhine deep in their water element. Elevated by machines (and after the turn of the century, suspended on wires), they appeared to "swim," with leg-hugging gowns and trains trailing below. In both operas, audiences recognized mermaids. These staging conventions, which included grottoes, water flora, and the refraction of light into water creatures' domain, were [End Page E-23] adopted into aquariums, which were popular from the mid-nineteenth century, and later explored in underwater painting and photographic techniques. The costuming conventions for mers, utilizing green and blue draperies, red coral accessories, and weed-like dripping hair and hemlines connected mers back to Germanic folklore and forward to twentieth-century interpretations of the iconic Hans Christian Andersen novel in animated film and staged versions. Their form, coloration, and movement are distinct from early twentieth-century revue figures of other (non-mythical) sea creatures that represent various kinds of fish, mollusks, and crustaceans.

Not only nineteenth-century theatre audiences but also twenty-first-century consumers of mass media of all sorts have learned to recognize mermaids when they see them. Multiple instances of stage practice spread over decades amounts to a repertoire of intelligibility that guided the collective imaginary to understand and accept specific conventions, both of the tailed and non-tailed manifestations of mers. This supersedes changes in style—nineteenth-century pictorialism, modernist abstraction, and post-modern deconstruction—to consistently refer to cogent conventions of scenography, physiological form, and iconic silhouettes.

In my print essay for the September 2019 (71.3) special issue of Theatre Journal on "Theatre and the Nonhuman," I explore the specific stage innovations and conventions for depicting female water spirits (naiads, Nixe, Meerjungfrauen, mermaids, and all the other names by which these creatures are known), emphasizing the importance of German-language theatre in putting these figures onstage into environments and costumes that accommodate locomotion as well as habitus. This establishes the patterns and precedents still in use in the twenty-first-century theatre; Disney's adaptations of Andersen's tale demonstrate the now-global reach and intelligibility of these practices. This photo essay expands the imagery offered in print and allows readers to see the importance of color as well as depth in both scenography and costuming. Much more can be explored...


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