As a follow up to my recent post about The Toy Theatre and my 54mm figures inspired by this Emily Dutton advent calendar toy theatre, I wanted to photograph on stage my own paper Soldiers. These were quickly produced for my roughed out Suffra Graffiti game, inspired by those Wellsian Little Wars figures of Peter Dennis.
Fans of the Toy Theatre read like a Who’s Who of early Wargamers. I am curious about this overlap and what it offers us in gaming today.
I have been rereading “Penny Plain and Tuppence Coloured“, a well known essay by Robert Louis Stevenson (RLS) about the influence of the toy theatre on him as a child. It is available free online via archive.org here at:
” [RLS] Louis and cousin Bob had mastered the art of toy theater as boys. As a married man, age 30, in 1881, RLS was doing it again in Switzerland, after his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, age 11, had come into possession of a toy theater — “a superb affair costing upwards of 20 pounds that had been given me on the death of the poor lad who had whiled away his dying hours with it at the Belvedere,” a hotel in the health resort town of Davos. Lloyd continues: “He painted scenery for my toy theatre and helped me to give performances and slide the actors in and out of their tin stands, as well as imitating galloping horses, or screaming screams for the heroine in distress.”
“Stevenson wasn’t Pollock’s only interesting customer. G.K. Chesterton’s passion for the hobby rivalled Stevenson’s. Chesterton saw the toy theater as a microcosm of the cosmos, where everything can be examined under the spotlight of a miniature stage, where good and evil are starkly contrasted in bright colors and dramatic scripts. Winston Churchill was a big fan of the little stage, too. He bought his stuff at H.J. Webb, an offshoot of Pollock’s …”
Churchill’s favourite toy theatre play The Miller and His Men apparently had a stirring “No Surrender” speech that may have influenced his later speeches and attitude. I have recently bought a repro copy of this Pollock play, characters and scenery from the Old Pen Shop online and look forward to reading it.
“The Miller and His Men” was mentioned by RLS along with another title which I also purchased, the uncoloured Waterloo scenes for the Toy Theatre or Juvenile Drama from the same source.
* Update: Derek Cooper pointed out in the comments that the Wargames / Toy Theatre link continues with Warrior Miniatures in Glasgow also producing toy theatres and plays including Waterloo, Inkerman, Balaklava and Alma battles and Skelt pieces that RLS would recognise https://www.toytheatregallery.com
Pollock’s shop, sited at Covent Garden for a hundred years, still remains and they do online sales / mail order.
RLS was a fan of Pollock’s toy theatres and Benjamin Pollock was a fan of RLS. Another interesting overlap.
There is lots of interesting overlap between wargames and toy theatre. I also associate Toy Theatre with convalescence, probably due to E. Nesbit, author of The City in The Library with its toy soldiers, who was also the author of The Railway Children which has a great Toy Theatre scene in the 1970s film.
Alan Gruber at the Duchy of Tradgardland blog has also been musing over this Toy Theatre idea of wargaming. I suggested in the comments that:
“There is an element of framing, set dressing, assembling the protagonists or characters, behaving in the beginning in preset ways to set plans (take the ridge, cover the bridge, advance and occupy the town) etc and then each of the scenes making up the acts (beginning, middle, end?)”
The link is very clear when you consider the changing backdrops and changing scenery between games (or acts).
One overlap or connection may be that The Toy Theatre, real live theatre, TV drama, fiction and gaming are all things which allow us to play out strategy and “what if”, changing the variables of a scenario to affect the outcomes, without anyone getting hurt.
As mentioned in my opening paragraph, the fans of the toy theatre read like a “Who’s Who” of early wargaming – RLS, Chesterton, Churchill. I wondered if H G Wells was involved? Certainly Floor Games and Little Wars have a charming theatrical invention of worlds and theatre sets.
A little research on Board Game Geek reveals that Chesterton and Wells both appear to have devised together satirical toy theatre plays on current or recent events. Chesterton’ auto biography in 1936 reveals this larkish attitude by Wells:
“What I have always liked about [H.G.] Wells is his vigorous and unaffected readiness for a lark. He was one of the best men in the world with whom to start a standing joke; though perhaps he did not like it to stand too long after it was started. I remember we worked a toy-theatre together with a pantomime about Sidney Webb.”
Chesterton’s biographer Masie Ward notes that the pair: “They built too a toy theatre at Easton and among other things dramatized the minority report of the Poor Law Commission. The play began by the Commissioners taking to pieces Bumble the Beadle, putting him into a huge cauldron and stewing him. Then out from the cauldron leaped a renewed rejuvenated Bumble several sizes larger than when he went in.”
Each year we have a new advent calendar, as part of our recent family Christmas traditions. Other families like Marvin at the Subterranean, sorry Suburban Militarism blog have their Army of Advent Christmas figures. You might have some odd Christmas traditions of your own!
This year’s advent calendar by Emily Sutton is a fabulous 3D Toy Theatre by Emily Sutton complete with stage and press out cardboard figures. She has previously done a tribute Pantomime print in Benjamin Pollock toy theatre style.
A stage? Victorian figures? I know a few talented toy figures (maybe even ex-soldiers) who seek such a venue.
It is an odd saying in our family that if someone has a peculiar or unusual talent or even embarrassing mishap that “if they could do that, they could have made a fortune on the variety stage”.
Alas those speciality acts and Variety stages are largely no more. The music halls have fallen silent, largely killed off by television and radio. Variety theatres, music hall and revues were the origin of many of the comic performers of the 1950s and 1960s that I admired on the radio and television whilst growing up, ranging from The Goons to Danny La Rue and Morecambe and Wise.
My beloved Muppets Show was set in a variety theatre with often desperate old time Vaudeville acts and hecklers. One of my first 45 rpm childhood records was The Muppets, Kermit and Miss Piggy singing Old time music hall – did anyone else find her a little disturbing in an undefined way?
A more serious tragic recitation by an acclaimed ‘Ac-tor’ of the proper ‘The-a-tre’
I like how Emily Sutton has captured the colourful “tuppence coloured penny plain” style of the old Victorian and Edwardian Toy Theatre sheets. I also notice how well the pink cheek dots of the old toy soldier figures works on the pit orchestra and audiences in the boxes.
This dapper old soldier with ‘tache could be a lively female impersonator like Vesta Tilley
“Aww, My Aching Feet!” A comedy musical number from Tweeny our “Maid of All Work”.
Figures are a mixture of plastic, my home cast Prince August metal, old lead hollowcast from various makers including newer metal figures from Asset Toy Soldiers, Tradition of London, Dorset Toy Soldiers.
Next post – some of the paper cut outs from my Suffra-fiti game tread the boards, with a little more on toy soldiers, early Wargamers and Toy Theatres (Theatres of War?)
RLS – “Penny Plain and Tuppence Coloured” famous essay on Toy Theatre –