Toy theatres were originally created as souvenirs and advertisements aimed at adult theatre-goers. By the mid-nineteenth century, they had established themselves as socially acceptable toys for middle-class children like Charles Dickens, although they were regarded as too worldly for Sundays; the sabbath equivalent of a toy theatre was a toy Noah's Ark. Pantomime, burletta, and especially melodrama provided the material for these toy theatres, and according to Paul Schlicke, "The toy theatre cut-outs of actors frozen at steep angles, arms aloft and faces defiant, accurately represent . . . [nineteenth-century melodrama's] stylized manner" ("Theatres and Theatricality," 560). Toy-theatre manufacturers, such as William West, Benjamin Pollock (1856-1937) and Martin Skelt (1835-1872), sold toy dioramas in two forms, as the title of Robert Louis Stevenson's 1884 essay "Penny Plain and Two-Pence Coloured" explains. The target-audiences, so to speak, were both adults and children.
Toy theatre preserved some of the Regency period's most popular romantic melodramas. For example, The Miller and His Men (1813) by Isaac Pocock (1762-1835) enjoyed a strange afterlife in Victorian nurseries. The reason for its longevity lies in its climactic pyrotechnical effect: in order to rescue the heroine from the Bohemian bandits who have kidnapped her, her lover joins the band, then explodes their hideout, the stone tower of their leader. This action provided just the melodramatic touch beloved of children who played with these toys.
- Penny Plain, Twopence Coloured — Victorian Toy Theatre (outside VW)
Prest, Thomas Peckett. The miller and his men: or, the secret robbers of Bohemia. Cincinnati: U. P. James [nd]. [Google Books citation provided by Michael Wyman.]
Schlicke, Paul, ed. Oxford Readers' Companion to Dickens. Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1999.
Last modified 26 August 2009