One of my favourite toys was a cardboard theatre, and I spent many hours arranging the backcloth and the actors, always a rather fiddly thing to do. As I grew older I made my own theatres and characters and wrote the plays. Recently, at Hay-on-Wye, I saw a box containing a child's theatre, complete in every way, and foolishly didn't purchase it when I had the chance to do so. It was having this theatre at an early age that led me to write plays for school children when teaching.
Toy Theatre, Trentsensky, 1825-1880. Museum no. E.3856-1953
This is known as the Trentsensky Theatre because some of the scenes used were made by this famous company. Matthias Trentsensky was born in Vienna in 1790 and it was here that he started in business as a printer. He quickly established himself as Austria's leading publisher of toy theatres and theatre sheets. Because Matthias was a former army officer with a pension, he was unable to use his own name in business dealings. His brother Joseph's name therefore appears on many early sheets. Trentsensky produced two different stage designs, one large and one small. This theatre uses the larger versions. The designs were very detailed and the use of perspective and transformation added to their appeal. Trentsensky's sheets were exported to England through Myers and Company, a London based toy retailer and manufacturer. This is probably how they found their way into the hands of the original owner. He added to the theatre himself with several home-made scenes while the dolls were dressed by his five daughters.
Theatre was the main form of popular entertainment in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. There were large numbers of theatres, with hundreds in London alone. At the time, theatre productions were the equivalent of our soap operas today. Everybody knew the stories to the plays and had their favourite actors.
Toy theatres were usually constructed out of card and fitted onto a table top to be played with. The characters were printed on paper and card, attached to wooden sticks, and appeared on the stage by sliding in and out of slots on the stage floor. Different scenes and facades could be added to the basic set. Wealthy families often had a toy theatre custom-made.
While shops which sold toy theatre material began to surface everywhere, William West's shop continued to be one of the most innovative. He started to produce special books of shortened plays for use with toy theatres, called 'West's Original Juvenile Drama'. The sheets, which were produced with characters and scenery, came in different versions: cheaper ones in black and white which children could colour in themselves, or more expensive full-colour versions.
During the 1830s, German manufacturers such as Trantsensky led the market for toy theatres and related materials. The enthusiasm for toy theatres began to decline towards the end of the 19th century. The quality of material published had started to decline and became undesirable. Many of the plays produced for these miniature theatres had not kept up with the times, which was partly due to the nature of the plays - early juvenile dramas had been based on romantic stories or tragedies and the new theatre of Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw did not translate well into theatre for children. However, it is also thought that Victorian morality also played a significant part in their demise, as families felt that plays originally written for adults weren't necessarily suitable for children.
The V&A. Museum of Childhood is open from 10:00 until 17:45 every day. Admission is free.