If Toy Theatre is a form of puppetry, what makes it special and different? From its origins in 1811 to the end of the nineteenth century, English toy theatre was always based on the live
stage. Some marionette (string puppet) performers drew on the same sources, but not so consistently.
The plays were the ones being performed in London and toured around the rest of the country, and were reproduced with all their scenic effects, and scripts cut down from the originals in length, but not otherwise adapted (or only very slightly so) to the needs of children.
Toy theatre has always been an amateur occupation, whether performed by children or adults. The actors are of cardboard, and cannot move their limbs or show signs of emotion, except by being taken off stage and replaced with a different version of themselves – surprisingly this still manages to capture the drama.
The stage is so small that not many people can see it, so that it was always a home entertainment for family and friends, although more recently special performances are done by experts for a bigger audience.
Hand colouring was needed on the monochrome printed sheets. The popular phrase describing the whole enterprise was ‘A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured’ – meaning that you could ask for the colouring to be done by the shop, and even the cutting out and mounting the scenery on cardboard in preparation for a show. Probably not many children could afford the extra pennies, and the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson (author of Treasure Island) wrote that he could not ‘quite forgive that child, who wilfully foregoing pleasure, stoops to “twopence coloured.”’
While hand-puppets can be home-made as well, their best-known form, Punch and Judy requires highly trained voice and manipulation skills to work well, and is seen as professional – its performers are known as professors to prove the point, although, sets of Punch puppets were being supplied by the big toy shops in the late nineteenth century. The fictional version of the wealthy von Trapp family in The Sound of Music could perform ‘The Lonely Goatherd’ with marionettes their Schloss seemed to have the set-up already in place, but again, this elaborate kind of show needs honed skills and fancy kit.
Puppetry has developed many other styles of presentation so that it offers a rich range of expressive opportunities, as visitors to the Puppet Barge or the Little Angel Theatre in London can discover, let alone the animals in The Lion King and creation of full-size horses in War Horse.
The only other genre of puppetry apart from toy theatre that has historically crossed over between the home and the paying audience was shadow theatre, part of the folk culture of Indo-China and the Eastern Mediterranean, where it is professional, although in western countries marketed as a toy also, often with the name Ombres Chinoises or Galanty Show, because brave knights were originally the protagonists.
With their detailed scenery, composed of backdrops, wings and sometimes cut scenes and rolling panoramas, the toy theatre plays preserve a still neglected and forgotten phase of theatrical history that was visually rich if dramatically often rated as overblown and absurd. These plays tended to be the Regency and Victorian equivalents of today’s blockbuster films, where special effects took precedence over the quality of writing. As the English poet and novelist G. K. Chesterton said in 1906, ‘It is a stage unsuited for psychological realism; the cardboard characters cannot analyse each other with any effect. But it is a stage almost divinely suited for making surroundings, for making that situation and background which belongs uniquely to romance.
A toy theatre, in fact, is the opposite of private theatricals. In the latter you can do anything with the people if you do not ask too much from the scenery; in the former you can do anything in scenery if you do not ask too much from the people. In a toy theatre you could hardly manage a modern dialogue on marriage, but the Day of Judgement would be quite easy.
There is evidence, from written accounts and surviving artefacts, of miniature theatres for home use in European mainland countries before the development of the English version. Printed plays were made in Germany from the 1820s (known as Papiertheater), following a longer tradition of viewing boxes and peepshows. Other countries followed, notably Denmark and Spain.
The difference between these and the English versions is that the sheets of the plays were printed in colour as soon as technology permitted, and there was little attempt to reproduce the action on stage from a live production in the same level of detail as the English publications encouraged. Performances on these stages must have been more sedate occasions, based on operas, classical comedies and tragedies.
So, in all its quirkiness, English Toy Theatre is a unique form of folk art in the world. At Pollock’s Toy Museum, named after Benjamin Pollock whose career printing and selling the traditional sheets of characters and scenes spanned from the 1870s to the 1930s, we are proud to keep it alive and aspire to nurture this tradition in the twenty-first century. In our museum collection, we have examples of the whole range of puppet figures mentioned here, and many more besides.