The Victorian Marionette Theatre

By Bell, John | Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, June 2007 | Go to article overview

The Victorian Marionette Theatre

Bell, John, Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film

John McCormick, The Victorian Marionette Theatre. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2004. 272 pp. $24.95.

The variety of performance techniques invented, developed, discarded, or advanced in the nineteenth century is truly fascinating, and clearly an antecedent to the performance innovations that characterized the following century's 'modernity'. The modernity of nineteenth-century performance, like that of the twentieth, seems to lie in its combined interest in new technologies, rediscovered traditional forms, increased consciousness of non-western performance cultures (brought about by colonialism and global awareness), and an unabashed fascination with popular culture. On the actors' stage these interests flourished in the vivid spectacle of melodrama's special effects; the kinetic stage platforms of Steele MacKaye's Madison Theatre or the eastern European Asphaleia System; pantomime and harlequinade; the shockingly stunning race spectacle of minstrelsy; and the class-conscious performance of ethnicity in Music Hall, Variety, Cabaret, and Vaudeville performance. These florid mixtures of technology and spectacle, performing the essence of nineteenth-century modernity, were also reflected in performances without actors: through the image-projection technology of magic lantern shows and other pre-film experiments; in the hyper-real and mechanically complex environments of panorama performance; in the miniature spectacle of toy theatre, and in the flourishing popular theatre of puppetry.

Nineteenth-century puppet theatre in Europe and North America looked much different from the kind of puppetry that characterized the puppet revival that began in the 1960s and persists in the twenty-first century. While the most notable aspects of late twentieth-century puppet theatre are its obvious debts to Asian techniques and aesthetics (the visible, blackclad performers of Japanese bunraku, the utter cultural gravity of Javanese wayang kulit and Chinese shadow theatre), popular nineteenth-century puppet shows centered on the proscenium-bound theatrics of handpuppet and marionette theatre, and the medievalrooted spectacle of colossal carnival figures (Spanish gigantes, French and Belgian géantes, English 'giants'). Across western Europe handpuppet heroes such as Punch, Guignol, and Kasperl flourished, and in marionette theatres in big cities and small industrial towns local and national marionette protagonists performed not only variety entertainment, but epic dramas, such as the Christian-Muslim conflict of the Orlando Furioso cycles in Italy and Belgium.

The recent increased interest in puppet theatre as global tradition has led to the appearance of many new puppet histories, as well as reprints of nineteenth-century studies that reflect that period's growing interest in popular culture. The recent facsimile editions of Payne Collier and George Cruikshank's 1828 Punch and Judy,1 and F. W. Fairholt's 1859 Gog and Magog,2 offer valuable evidence of nineteenth-century England's own sense of puppetry. Puppet historian George Speaight has long devoted himself to these performance traditions, and his History of the English Puppet Theatre3 limned a three-century account of the tradition. What makes John McCormick's The Victorian Marionette Theatre a notably welcome addition to puppet history, where expansive, multi-century accounts such as Eileen Blumenthal's Puppetry: A World History4 are the norm, is the way it focuses on the specific form of marionette theatre in a particular century and place.

As an historian, McCormick has examined a range of nineteenth-century performance forms, including French fairground theatre, vaudeville and melodrama, and the life and work of Dion Boucicault. And with Bennie Pratasak, McCormick has written a general survey of nineteenth-century European puppet theatre as whole.5 McCormick's sense of the rich variety of nineteenth-century theatre gives The Victorian Marionette a refreshingly full contextual framework, and helps the reader understand how Victorian marionette theatre was not only an essential link in the chain of performance forms, but also in many ways a miniature simulacrum of the images, characters, and dramaturgy of the actors' stage. …

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