Thursday, January 13, 2011

All the World's a Stage

By Chris Rossi, Associate Curator of Exhibitions

After digging out from the 3 days of solid lake effect snow my daughter and I were finally able to head south to see old friends in the city and take in a lovely exhibit at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut. The Bruce displays a wonderful mix of art and science. But it wasn’t the Earth’s Minerals or Life Between the Tides exhibits we were off to see. We were after A Child’s View: 19th-Century Paper Theaters, on display until January 30 because Fenimore Art Museum is considering an exhibition of paper theaters for the future.

Cover Page from the Bruce Museum’s catalog showing a paper theater in use.

Before TV, PlayStation, and the Internet kids actually entertained themselves for hours on end by assembling things and playing with them. In the early 19th century tabletop sized paper theaters that had to be cut out and assembled were a favorite source of entertainment. The theaters came with little paper actors and scripts. Children, most likely with some adult help, would construct the theaters and put on the plays. I have no doubt that even 19th century children did a fair amount of goofing around and improvising with all of this, which must have been great fun. The paper theaters encouraged creativity and imagination and could be used again and again.

The Bruce has assembled over 40 theaters from the collection of Eric G. Bernard. The theaters are little masterpieces with intricately drawn sets, actors, and in some cases, musicians. The paper theater tradition was popular in England, Austria, France, Spain, Denmark and the USA. Sets usually depicted a popular play, fairy tale or opera. Productions ranged from Mozart’s the Magic Flute to Hamlet and Hansel and Gretel. The figures were drawn after popular actors of the day.

A French paper theater on display at the Bruce Museum and from the collection of Eric G. Bernard.

The paper theater production faded with the beginning of the 20th century. I imagine mass manufactured toys became more popular as the century progressed and made the paper theaters seem old fashioned and outdated. That said, there are folks out there today keeping the tradition alive. A brief search online will bring you to a myriad blogs about Toy or Paper Theater and its 21st century resurgence – a nice merging of the old tradition and new technology.

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