'Kaleidoscopes of Changing Pictures': Representing nations in toy theatres

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Hofer-Robinson, Joanna
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Oxford University Press
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Toy theatre was an adjunct trade to London theatreland in the nineteenth century. Publishers produced miniature versions of popular productions on stage in contemporary playhouses. Consequently, toy theatre has typically been studied as a unique visual record of theatrical scenery and costumes. This article aims to question these assumptions, and to argue that these toys should be critically examined as performances in their own right. In 1854 the Lord Chamberlain’s Office licensed the ‘Grand Military Spectacle’ of ‘The Battle of the Alma’ at Astley’s Amphitheatre. Both the spectacle and the humour of the drama drew on the interplay between domestic and foreign settings and stereotypes. Far from presenting simplified models of place, space, and identification, however, Astley’s used stock characters and generic tropes to play with and unsettle national identities, and to encourage the audience to question press coverage of the Crimean War. At least two toy theatre publishers adapted ‘The Battle of the Alma’ by the end of the year, but each revised the source drama differently. Although J. K. Green’s and W. Webb’s toy theatre scripts and sheets both drew on the stereotypical imaginaries of domestic and foreign cultural geographies used in Astley’s full-scale production, these publishers constructed diverse meanings from familiar tropes. Comparing alternative versions of ‘The Battle of the Alma’ thus identifies divergent ways in which these apparently analogous products adapted the source drama, engaged with discourses of national identity cued in the original production, and negotiated the relationships between theatrical representation and contemporary reportage of the battle. Instead of interpreting toy theatre as an archival record of lost scenery and costumes, this article argues that its scripts and sheets are material evidence of multiple processes of cultural production occurring simultaneously in superficially similar artefacts.
Toy theatre , Juvenile drama , Cultural geographies , National identities , Nationalism , Adaptation , Military spectacle , Battle of Alma , Crimean War , Astley's Amphitheatre
Hofer-Robinson, J. (2018) '‘Kaleidoscopes of Changing Pictures’: Representing Nations in Toy Theatre', Journal of Victorian Culture, 23(1), pp. 45-63. doi:10.1093/jvc/vcx002
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© 2018 Leeds Trinity University. Published by Oxford University Press. This is a pre-copyedited, author-produced PDF of an article accepted for publication in Journal of Victorian Culture following peer review. The version of record is available online at: https://doi.org/10.1093/jvc/vcx002