It is hard to imagine what entertainment was like in the days before the 21st century, yet people have always devised ways to spend their leisure time in pleasant company doing amusing things. In the evening, Jane Austen and her family spent many hours entertaining each other. One popular form of entertainment that the older Austen siblings would have known about was the Toy Theatre, or a juvenile form of miniature theater.
This entertainment appeared in the early 1800s, and coincided with the popularity of theater and the rise of the print trade. One can imagine that Aunt Jane was well aware of toy theatres when she spent time with her nephews, for this new toy largely attracted boys.
By 1811 William West of London was printing sheets of stage characters for purchasers to colour, paste on cardboard and cut out, though others treasured them as individual portraits. Single prints in black ink on white paper were called “penny plains” while those with color added by the seller were the “twopence coloured.” West’s first subject was Joseph Grimaldi in “Mother Goose,” a role that brought him fame and lifelong success on the stage. – NYPL Digital Gallery
Miniature theaters became fashionable all over Europe, and their tiny elaborate sets mimicked the grand theaters of London, Paris and other world stages. The sets remained popular throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century, offering children an opportunity to exercise their imaginations and their acting chops. Some children, I imagine, concentrated on honing their acting skills, while others probably enjoyed their roles as directors or scene designers more. New plays were published in the first half of the 19th century.
After the 1860’s no new plays were published but much of the old repertoire was kept in print by a dwindling number of theatrical print publishers and the tradition continued unbroken until 1944 when Miss Louisa Pollock,shut up her father’s famous shop in Hoxton for ever and sold the contents as a going concern. – Toy Theatre Gallery: History
From Mansfield Park the reader gains a sense of how seriously family theatricals were regarded. In the novel, the men were definitely in control of the enterprise, with the women acquiescing to their direction (the only exception being Fanny). While Jane Austen described a real play, Lover’s Vows, with large, almost life-like sets in Sir Thomas Bertram’s study, wood toy theatres that sat on a tabletop would be taken equally seriously. The children must have spent hours preparing for a performance, arranging sets, learning lines, and dressing and moving their characters before they felt comfortable opening a new play in front of an indulgent and forgiving family.
Created from printed paper glued to cardboard and then mounted on wooden frames, these theaters could be quite intricate in design. They offered a proscenium, scenery, cut-out characters with codified attitudes and gestures, and a booklet that contained stage and scene directions and dialogue for the actors. Almost all of them depict an orchestra: The clothes worn by the musicians give a good indication of when the theatre was designed.
Early toy theatre prints were made from engraved copper plates, the engravings often from sketches made at the theatre on the night. Sets, costumes, and even the actors’ likenesses were copied, and could often be recognised. – Miniature Theatre: Curator’s Choice
The plays were not necessarily derived from children’s stories: They were adapted from operas, melodramas, history, novels, and pantomimes. Works from Shakespeare, Cervantes, Mozart, and Beethoven were included. Hans Christian Anderson was also an inspiration.
Children could choose “Three-Fingered Jack, the Terror of Jamaica” or “Hamlet” or another of the nearly 300 “juvenile dramas” printed in England between 1811 and 1860. – Dramas to Cut, Color, and Produce
The involvement of publishers was enormous, but Pollock’s toy theatres were probably the most famous in Great Britain.
England had over 50 publishers, Germany 54, Spain 14, France 13, Denmark 10, Austria 9, and the United States 5. All of these versions to some degree were derived from the ability to mass produce the printed image, initially from engraved copper plates, followed by color lithography in the mid-19th century. – A Child’s View: 19th Century Paper Theaters
Many printed sheets of cut- out characters survive to this day, both colored and in black and white.
In 1811 William West produces a sheet of the principal characters from the first production on the London stage of ‘Mother Goose’, with Joseph Grimaldi in one of his most celebrated roles of Clown. The popularity of this role led to the publication of sets of sheets of characters, scenery and props, also elaborate prosceniums, the designs based on those of popular London theatres. Books of words, abridged versions of the most popular melodramas and pantomimes to be seen on the London stage.
From this time the popularity of the toy theatre, also known as the ‘Juvenile Drama’, saw the rapid growth in the number of publishers producing versions of plays, with the drawings for the engravings made by such leading artists as Georg e Cruickshank and William Blake. The legacy of the 19th century toy theatre is that of the most complete documentation of the costumes, scenery, and the performance style of the actors of the London Theatres of the period. – The World Through Wooden Eyes: A Penny Plain and Two Pence Coloured
These backdrops for miniature theaters on Birds of Ohio show how much detail the sets provided.
Below is a very rare example from the V&A shows a souvenir from a play first performed at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in 1800 called Harlequin’s Tour or the Dominion of Fancy. While the souvenir survives, the dialogue for the play does not.
In a June 2011 The Telegraph article, Sir Roy Strong, former director of the V&A museum and National Portrait Gallery, recalls his toy theatre with great affection:
This toy theatre … reminds me of one enormously happy period of my childhood. It was given to me after the war and purchased at Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop, originally in the East End of London [now in Covent Garden]. I played with all the cut–out cardboard figures and scenery, and still have all my toy theatre plays, which are 19th–century dramas, romances and pantomimes. The theatre sits in the archive room and I love it. It’s been with me everywhere.
More on the topic:
- Miniature paper theaters of Martin Englebrecht
- A Child’s View
- Toy Theatre Test Model: A Modern View
- The Play’s the Thing: A History of the Toy Theatre in Three Acts
- Colored Toy Theatre Print
- Theatres and plays to download for free
- The Waterman, PDF downloadable files
- Dramas to Cut, Color, and Produce