Anna Cora Mowatt and the Tableaux Vivant

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the early Victorians’ ambiguous attitude towards theatre better than the popularity of parlor theatricals. In the 1830’s and 40’s when Mowatt’s play “Gulzara” was written, respectable middle-class and upper-class ladies and gentlemen in the U.S. who wouldn’t be caught dead in a theater delighted in staging charades, tableaux, and even full productions in their houses for their families and guests. Some even went so far as to have little theaters incorporated into the floorplans of their houses. Over the course of the next few weeks, I am going to be talking about “Gulzara.” However, before we actually get to that play, a little background is necessary to appreciate this rare representative the unusual genre of drama that is the Victorian parlor theatrical. This week we’re going to look at the tableaux vivant.

Illustration from "The Sociable" 1858
Illustration from “The Sociable” 1858

As I have stated in previous blog entries, theatre in the U.S. was still struggling under the weight of an anti-theatrical prejudice inherited from the religious and political dissidents who had founded the nation. To them, dramatic entertainment was inextricably linked to dishonesty and the worst excesses of the dissolute upper classes in the countries they had departed. Most of the original thirteen colonies had laws on the books at one time that equated the acting profession with criminal vagrancy. Some of these laws were not repealed until late in the 19th century. Many religious leaders remained staunchly opposed to the theatre and expounded a belief that mere association with actors was harmful. In 1866, a Methodist minister demanded of his flock,

Let me ask you, my young friend, justly proud of your sister, would you rather not follow her to her grave tonight rather than to know that tomorrow she shall stand at the altar and pledge her faith and trust her precious future to an actor?1

Theaters were represented in newspapers, novels, and other elements of popular culture as gateways to the worlds of wickedness where the unwary could be drawn into lives of sin and vice. Henry Ward Beecher, in a series of popular lectures, warned;

We grade our streets, build our schools, support all our municipal laws, and the young men are ours; our sons, our brothers, our wards, our clerks, or apprentices; they are living in our houses, or stores, or shops, and we are their guardians, and take care of their health, and watch them in sickness. But this prerogative of ownership is continually under challenge from a race of men, whose camp is the Theatre, the Circus, the Turf, the Gaming Table… a race whose instinct is destruction, who live to corrupt, and live off the corruption they make.2

At this same time, though, the U.S. public began to demonstrate lively interest in the dramatic arts. Theaters and “museums” (that were theaters in all but name) began to be built all across the Eastern seaboard. English actors such as Fanny Kemble and William Macready enjoyed very profitable U.S. tours. In the 1830s, the first stars of the U.S. stage with large and devoted followings, Edwin Forrest and Charlotte Cushman, began their careers. However many members of the upper and middle classes, particularly status-conscious women, had grave reservations about being seen in a theater.

This was the context in which the parlor theatricals – including the tableaux vivant — become a fad. The popularity of these sorts of dramatic amusements grew out of the Victorians’ interest in theatricality paired with an inherent love of games. [Of course, an intense love of play is not unique to this time period. If one examines the books describing entertainments of the day, one will find variations on games the Sumerians played with clay figures, the Romans and Greeks played with painted stones, the Mayans played with burnt corn, and that we play on our phones. Apex predators enjoy hunt and social interaction simulations. Success in these low stakes rehearsals of potentially high stress situations builds skills and soothes our anxieties. Human brains are wired to reward play.] Full-blown theatrical presentations evolved out of a fascination with charades and the phenomenally popular tableaux vivant or “living pictures.”

Illustration from "The Sociable" 1858
Illustration from “The Sociable” 1858

Tableaux, in their most basic form, were perfect for individuals who wanted to experience some of the thrill of being on stage but felt ill at ease with acting. Because the form only required no delivery of dialogue, the inherent mendacity of role-play was absent from the activity for those with moral objections. The performative skill level required to participate was low. No extraordinary memory capacity was required. The activity took place in the safe confines of a party setting with one’s friends and acquaintances. Reader, if you lived through the late 1980s, it will be meaningful to you when I say that the tableaux vivant were akin to “voguing.” As in that dance craze, tableaux allowed participants to dress up beautifully, strike lovely poses, and be admired by all their friends. Some tableaux that I have seen illustrated in newspapers that took place at the parties and balls of the very wealthy were simply collections of individuals in costume of a sometimes very loosely defined theme. The following, from the author of “The Sociable,” a voluminous collection of games, puzzles, and short scripts for parlor theatricals, contains suggestions for creating a more sophisticated display than can usually be seen in most illustrations of tableau from the 1840s and 50s:


The four seasons of the year, Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter, represented by female figures, make a very beautiful tableau, if artistically arranged. The stage should have three platforms placed upon it, each a little higher than the one in front of it, something like the steps of a staircase, receding from the audience. Spring, represented by at little girl, dressed in pure white, with a basket of flowers, which she is apparently strewing before her, stands upon the stage, in front, nearest the audience. A single thickness of gauze is run across in front of the first platform, upon which stands Summer – a young girl just growing into womanhood, crowned with a wreath of summer flowers, and holding an apron full of summer fruits, mingled with flowers. Her dress is also to be white, but trimmed with chaplets of green leaves. Another thickness of gauze is stretched behind her, in front of the platform which supports Autumn – a smiling matron, in a dress of richer material, with a garland of autumnal leaves about her head. In her arms she holds a sheaf of grain, and a sickle in one hand, while a piece of vine, laden with grapes, is carelessly thrown over her shoulder. Winter stands on the furthest platform, with a third screen of gauze in front of her. She is an old crone with a sallow and wrinkled face and her bent form is heavily draped in a long robe of dull brown or grey woolen. Upon one shoulder she bears a fagot of dry sticks, and in her hand an axe. If an additional wintry effect is desired, pieces of small glass tubing (which can be procured at almost any chemist’s shop), may be attached to the edge of her robe, in imitation of icicles, and flour scattered upon her head and shoulders, to represent snow.3

A popular form of this basic style of tableaux vivant was a type of ekphrasis or intersection between the world of visual art and theatre. Participants recreated celebrated paintings for the amusement of viewers. This form of tableau has recently seen a revival in popularity as lockdowns have forced us to re-learn how to make performative art from the necessity of being frozen in place.

Tableau Vivant in 1874 recreating Briton Riviere's 1872 "Daniel in the Lion's Den"
Tableau Vivant in 1874 recreating Briton Riviere’s 1872 “Daniel in the Lion’s Den”

Tableaux vivant could take the form of a type of charade game in which the audience guessed a word or phrase. In this example from 1859’s “Parlor Charades and Proverbs,” the writer demonstrates to the reader how to set up a situation where the participants would have a wonderful time guessing the word “falsehood” after seeing tableaux for each syllable of the word and one for the whole word.

In the foreground, a lady in a rich evening dress, with a domino thrown over it, and a mask on. A gentleman stands near her, with his right arm around her waist, his right hand holding his own mask; with his left hand he is removing her mask. Her attitude is one of half reluctance, but her left hand rests upon his right shoulder. In the background, another gentleman, watching these two. He is in citizen’s dress, but wrapped in a large cloak, which partly conceals his face. His expression is one of rage and jealousy.

A child stands before a woman. Upon the child’s arm is a basket, and she wears a cloak. The woman holds in her hand a red hood; the child’s face expressing delight. Little Red Riding Hood, starting to see her grandmother. The mother should wear a picturesque peasant’s dress to make the tableau effective. A short skirt of brown woolen, with gay stripes running round it; a bodice of scarlet, with white muslin puffed round the neck and sleeves, and a white Norman cap, trimmed with red, makes a very pretty dress.

Two children standing by a table, with their hands behind them, each holding an apple. The mother, at the other end of the table, holds a plate, with one apple upon it. Points to plate and looks at children, who both shake their heads negatively.4

As you can see, a properly conducted tableau vivant required more preparation on the part of a contentious host than an impromptu game of Pictionary. An enthusiast needed to have a trunk of costumes and props at the ready. Rehearsal with the actors was a prerequisite. Even more demanding is the following story-telling scene described in “The Sociable;”

This tableau illustrates the tradition of the Magic Mirror possessed by Count Cagliostro, a so-called magician, who lived some time during the seventeenth century. In the present scene, he is supposed to be showing a young courtier the image of his lady-love, who is deceased.

A large frame should be set up in the rear of the stage, centre, with a large volume open before it. A lamp, one of curious form, if such can be got, stands just behind the volume, and across the open pages of the latter a naked sword is laid. If a human skull can be had, that also may be placed on the book.
On the left of the frame, in shadow, stands Count Cagliostro, pointing towards the vision. On the right, the young nobleman stands in an attitude of fear and wonder. The vision is in the centre of the frame, standing just back from it, and is represented by a young girl, extremely pale, in a long, sweeping, white robe, with her hands crossed upon her bosom, and her eyes turned upwards. One or two thicknesses of gauze should be stretched over the frame, and the vision illuminated by two lights, placed one on each side, behind, and concealed by the frame. If curtains can be attached to the latter, so as to prevent the light of these lamps from falling on anything but the girl, the effect will be beautiful.

The costume of the Count should be a small black cap, with a single drooping black feather, a long black cloak or robe, with a lace collar turned over it, and ruffles about his wrists; black stockings and knee-breeches, pumps with large buckles, and a small sword, complete the dress. His face should be rather pale, with a black moustache and heavy black eyebrows. His expression should be solemn, and a little scornful.

The young courtier should have a somewhat rich dress. A dark coat, with gold lace on the cuffs, collar, and lapels; light-colored knee-breeches, white stockings, pumps with rosettes, a dress sword, lace collar and wristbands, and (if possible) a powdered court wig. He may have a slight moustache and imperial, but should appear much younger than Cagliostro, and should stand more in the light. Directions for producing these occasional lights and shades will be found in the introduction.5

Further recommendations for heightening the mood for this tableau in the chapter include accompanying the presentation with music played on a harp or the piano; curtaining off the stage area with gauze; and the use of a magic lantern to cast appropriately spooky images on the walls. There are also instructions for creating colored lighting;

Colored lights are capable of being used with very happy results, and it is by no means a difficult matter to produce them, either by colored fires, such as are used at the theatres, or by filling globes with colored liquids, and placing them in front of the lamps, like those we see in the windows of chemists’ shops. Red fire, which is beautiful for lighting up the finale of a scene, especially where the subject is heroic, national, or martial, may be made from the following receipt (care must be taken to preserve the proportions): Five ounces nitrate of strontia (dry); one-and-a-half ounces finely-powdered sulphur; take five drams chlorate of potash, and four drams sulphuret of antimony, and powder them separately in a mortar; then mix them on paper, and having mixed the other ingredients (previously powdered), add these last, and rub the whole together on paper. For use, mix a little spirits of wine with the powder, and burn in a flat iron pan or plate.

A beautiful green fire, forming a fine contrast to the former, may be made by powdering finely and mixing well thirteen parts flour of sulphur, five parts oxymuriate of potassa, two parts metallic arsenic, and three parts pulverized charcoal. Then take seventy-seven parts nitrate of baryta, dry it carefully, powder it, and mix the whole thoroughly. A polished reflector, fitted on one side of the pan in which this is burned, will concentrate the light, and cast a brilliant green lustre on the figures.

A bluish-green fire may be produced by burning muriate of copper, finely powdered and mixed with spirits of wine, and several other colors can be obtained by a little study of chemistry; but the smoke and smell of these preparations render them less pleasant for the drawing-room than the globes filled with colored liquids.6

Truthfully, I think if I were the parent of adventurous, theatrically-minded Victorian children, I might be tempted to tear out and burn these pages of the book before my offspring decided to turn my parlor into a potentially flammable chemistry experiment. However, these instructions make it clear the lengths to which amateurs were willing to go to impress their peers with these home-based performances.

Tableau Vivant staged at the Schiller Festival in 1859 at the St. George Hall in Liverpool
Tableau Vivant staged at the Schiller Festival in 1859 at the St. George Hall in Liverpool

Next week, I will conclude this discussion of the tableaux vivant with a description that Anna Cora Mowatt uses in a pivotal scene in her novel, Evelyn; or a Heart Unmasked, that was probably based on performances that she and her sisters mounted at her father’s mansion in Ravenswood or at her first home, Melrose. Although Mowatt would become the era’s staunchest advocate of the theatrical world, in this scene, she allows the seductive qualities of performance — even in its most seemingly inoffensive form — penetrate into the very heart of the Victorian home.

Tableau Vivant
Tableau Vivant

1. Hatfield, Robert. The Theatre. (Methodist Book Depository, 1866) Pages 27-28.
2. Beecher, Henry Ward. Seven Lectures to Young Men, on Various Important Subjects: Delivered Before the Young Men of Indianapolis, Indiana during the Winter of 1843-4. Pages 169-70.
3. The Sociable; or One Thousand and One Home Amusements. (Dick & Fitzgerarld: New York, 1858) Page 170-171.
4. Frost, S. Annie. Parlor Charades and Proverbs; Intended for the Parlor or Saloon, and Requiring No Expensive Apparatus of Scenery or Properties for Their Performance. (J.B. Lippincott & Co.: Philadephia; 1859) Page 183.
5. The Sociable; or One Thousand and One Home Amusements. (Dick & Fitzgerald: New York, 1858) Page 162.
6. Ibid, page 155

One Reply to “Anna Cora Mowatt and the Tableaux Vivant”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.