Victorian tableaux vivant existed in a gauzy liminal safe space halfway between games and theatre. In the first part of my discussion of this activity, I gave you examples of the forms of tableaux closer to charades, this week we will look at tableaux that told stories. These amateur presentations could be quite elaborate, perhaps surprisingly so. Despite the prejudices that might scare reputation-conscious audience members away from theaters, narrative-driven tableaux vivant brought the mimic world into the very heart of the Victorian home.
Tableaux continue to this day to be a theatrical technique used for purposes such as giving closure to performances or intensifying moments of dramatic interest. Publications such as “The Sociable” did not strive to disguise the theatrical roots of the tableaux vivant when giving them the following sort of introduction;
This style of amusement is already tolerably well-known, and quite popular in many places, but owing to a want of savoir faire on the part of those who arrange the “living pictures,” they are rarely produced with much effect, except at our best theatres, at the close of melodramas, pantomimes, or extravaganzas.1
The value of “The Sociable,” “Parlor Theatricals” and other similar tomes that an eager amateur could purchase was that therein they could obtain expert advice on costume, staging, lighting, props, and makeup to create truly professional-appearing tableaux in their own home for their guests. In part one of this discussion on tableaux, I gave you a sampling of some rather dangerous-sounding instructions the author of “The Sociable” gave on creating colored lighting from ingredients that a would-be director could buy at the local drug store. Here are some less potentially lethal directives on staging:
The things to be observed in getting up a tableau, are just the same as in painting a picture. Light and shade, color and tone, are the means by which all pictorial effects are produced on the stage or on the canvas, and he who best understands their employment, is the best artist. Without doubt, the best place for the arrangement of tableaux, is a parlor, separated from the audience by folding-doors. The stage, heretofore described, however, may be made to answer very well, if there is sufficient room on each side of the curtain to conceal one or two persons, to superintend the burning of colored lights, the shifting of screens, etc.
It is impossible to give any fixed rules which will apply to all tableaux, as the effects required for different subjects are totally different. But a few general directions may not be amiss, as they will be found of frequent service, and will suggest many more. The costuming of the performers will be one of the most important features, and will depend entirely upon their taste and resources. Hints have already been given on this subject, as also on the “making up,” by painting, etc. The colors of the garments used in tableaux are much more to be considered than in dramatic representations, as much of the beauty of the picture depends upon a harmonious and pleasing distribution of tints.
As a general rule, the lightest colored figures should be kept in the background, to relieve the darker ones. A strong “bit of color,” such as a scarlet shawl, or a military coat, gracefully disposed in the middle ground, between the nearest and farthest figures, will have a good effect in many scenes, whether worn by some character, or thrown over a piece of furniture. At the same time, great care should be taken to avoid the common and vulgar error of combining too many gay colors. Indeed, the two great reasons of the want of artistic effect in tableaux, as commonly arranged, are first, too much light, and second, too much color.2
These instructions clearly demonstrate how ambitious and forthrightly theatrical the tableaux were. The presentations described in the books from this period under the heading of tableaux vivant were dramatic performances in which a narrative was conveyed via frozen poses. In the last installment, I described a form of tableaux that was a charade game in which a compound word was suggested through three poses and then another format that consisted of paintings, stories, or novels being represented in a single tableau. The next form of tableaux vivant combines both of these to convey a narrative to viewers through a progression of three poses. Here is a classic example;
THE DRUNKARD’S HOME
A dilapıdated room, with an empty grate, and an empty saucepan lying on its side, so that the audience can see the interior. In one corner of the room (L.) a bed of straw, upon which two children are lying. The elder, a girl, is supporting the younger, a boy, and is leaning over him, as though she were trying to soothe him and keep him quiet. A mother is sitting upon a stool (R. C.), holding a baby closely to her breast, with an old worn-out shawl wrapped around it. On the right, the drunkard is stretched upon the ground, insensible from drink. His clothes are torn and muddy; by his side is an old and battered hat; in his hand is an empty bottle, which he still clutches firmly. The wife is gazing upon the husband, with a look of mingled love and sorrow.
Everything is to denote, as much as possible, misery and want. The woman to have hollow eyes and sunken cheeks. The children upon the straw are to have bare arms, and to be “made up,” so as to appear wretchedly thin and emaciated. (See instructions for making up.)
POSITION OF CHARACTERS IN TABLEAU.
FRONT OF STAGE.
1. The bed of straw, upon which the children are lying.
2. The wife.
3. The drunkard.
To heighten the effect of this tableau, some fine gauze might be stretched across the stage, so as to give everything a dim and cheerless appearance. In using gauze, care should be taken that the whole front of the stage be carefully covered, so as not to mar the effect by having a stronger light at the bottom, sides, or top, than in the centre. Instructions are given in the introduction to tableaux, how the gauze can be fixed.
SIGNING THE PLEDGE.
The same room as in the Drunkard’s Home. In the centre of the stage is a stool. The drunkard is kneeling upon one knee, with his face towards the audience. He has a pen in his hand, and is signing his name to a paper that is upon the stool. His eldest daughter is looking timidly over his right shoulder, with her left hand resting upon him. On the right of the drunkard is the temperance advocate; he has an ink-horn in his hand, and is looking down, smiling benignantly, upon the signer. At the left centre the wife is kneeling down; on one arm she holds her babe, while the other is uplifted towards heaven. Her face is upturned also, with an expression of gratitude and happiness upon it. The boy has hold of his mother’s skirt, and is looking at her with wondering eyes.
POSITION OF CHARACTERS IN TABLEAU.
FRONT OF STAGE. –
1. The drunkard signing pledge.
2. The daughter.
3. The temperance advocate.
4. The mother, with her babe.
5. The little boy.
Instead of dropping the curtain, for the last tableau, “The Drunkard’s Home,” some gauze might be let down, gradually increasing in thickness, till it completely shuts out the tableau from audience. “Signing the Pledge,” might then be arranged, which must be done quickly, but noiselessly; then clear away all the gauze, and have a subdued light fall upon the whole group. A good soft light can be obtained by letting the gas, or lamp, shine through glass globes, containing water. The globes, such as are seen in chemists’ shop-windows, can easily be obtained at any druggist’s fixture store, at a small cost. The above tableaux, if arranged and conducted properly, will have a very pleasing and telling result.
THE TEMPERANCE HOME.
A room comfortably, but meanly furnished, with a square piece of drugget in centre of stage. A deal table is placed on the middle of carpet, upon which are laid some tea-things, as though supper was about to be served. At left of stage, the husband is standing, with his hat on, and a basket of tools at his back, as though he had just come in from work. The boy is clutching him round the leg, and looking up into his face. The girl is sitting on a chair (R.), nursing the baby, and us looking towards her father with a smile of welcome. The wife is standing by a chair, as though she had just risen from it, with her body inclined toward her husband, one hand is extended, and in the other she holds some needle-work.
POSITION OF CHARACTERS IN TABLEAU.
FRONT OF STAGE
1. A piece of druggot.
2. A deal table.
3. The husband, with boy clinging to his log.
4. The wife.
5. The daughter, with baby.
In this Tableau, as much light should be thrown upon the stage as possible, so as to give the whole chamber a comfortable and pleasant appearance.
We presume, we need not tell the performers in this tableau, that all the figures should be economically, but neatly dressed; so as to make the illusion greater to the audience, with regard to its being the home of a mechanic.3
In Anna Cora Mowatt’s second novel, “Evelyn; or a Heart Unmasked,” one of the central events of the plot is the staging of a tableau vivant at a party in the home of the main characters, the Merritts. The production is the most elaborate of its kind I have ever seen described. The narrator takes up a full chapter recounting all the details. As the manuals recommend, Evelyn Merritt employs special staging, lighting, costuming, and music. The scene is described as follows;
When I entered, she had just completed the arrangement of the huge gilt picture frame which was erected on a platform directly in front of the folding doors. She then carefully commenced covering the inside of the frame with several widths of black illusion lace, neatly joined together. This lace, which is so thin as to be almost imperceptible, gives a misty and unreal appearance to the figures grouped behind, and by means of its illusive effect, the tableau bears strong resemblance to a painting.
Mrs. Willard was suspending a curtain of flowered brocade between the doors, and Ellen, who, although she could not personate any character, took an active interest in the preparations, was sitting on a low stool, counting over the passages which it was her duly to read as the curtain rose.4
The choice to literally enclose the tableaux in a frame is significant. By 1840, there were already a wealth of paintings and engravings inspired by Bryon’s poem. Evelyn Merritt’s presentation would incorporate the ekphrastic function of tableaux vivant by visually quoting these several of these well-known exotic and romantic images intensifying and enriching the viewing experience for her audience with the cultural cross references.
Unlike the silent tableaux described in “The Sociable,” the Merritts’ production has a narrator. Each pose portrays a scene from Bryon’s poem “The Corsair” while the corresponding verses are read. Here is the description of the first part of the presentation and the instant sensation it created among the Merritts’ guests;
How can I give you any adequate conception of the tableau of which these lines were descriptive? Imperfect as I feel that my attempt will be, I must endeavour to convey some faint idea of grace and beauty which are indescribable.
The curtain, as it rose, displayed Medora, (Amy Ellwell) half springing from the couch where Conrad had placed her. One hand by which she supported herself, was partly concealed by the swelling of the rich orange hued cushion upon which it pressed, and the other was stretched out imploringly towards the departing Conrad. Her features expressed the most feminine helplessness of grief, and her very position bespoke the approach of despair. The guitar which she had touched in his absence was lying neglected at her feet. Her long, fair hair, wholly unbound, stole in loose and waving ringlets from beneath a small Greek cap of blue velvet and silver, fitting closely to her head, and secured by a string of pearls that bound her pure brow. Over a transparent robe embroidered in silver stars, she wore an open tunic of pale blue silk, fringed with silver, and confined at the waist by a girdle of pearls. The drapery that half veiled her arms was peculiarly graceful; from beneath the flowing blue silk sleeve, looped on her shoulder with a band of pearls, floated a thin white one, starred with silver, and falling in shining folds far below her waist. Her full white trousers almost concealed the slender feet, encased in slippers of blue velvet wrought with silver, which peeped out beneath them. Her whole costume was indicative of the womanly chasteness of her character. As I gazed upon this lovely being, (who seemed as though in the midst of her grief she had been petrified to a statue,) so perfect was the illusion, that I forgot Amy Ellwell’s existence, and could only feel that it was Medora before me.
Conrad was standing at the foot of her couch, in the act of retreating, but with his face turned back to take the last, longing look of pitying and admiring affection. We had Colonel Damoreau been chosen to represent Conrad. His hair of “midnight blackness,” not fine, but glossy, and curling in close, round rings, about his broad and sunburnt forehead, — the heavy but well delineated eyebrows, that gave at all times an expression of fierceness to his brilliantly dark eyes, — those eyes which were at the same instant full of fire and of softness — the ruddy, parted lips, at one moment bland almost to voluptuousness, and the next compressed with a firmness that bespoke the determination of his character — his imposing mien and commending air — all these were Conrad’s own. As my eyes rested upon him I involuntarily repeated to myself:
“He sways their souls with that commanding art
Which dazzles, leads, yet chills the vulgar heart”
His pirate costume was strictly correct; the rich green vest tightly buttoned over his expansive chest; the graceful capote of dark green velvet that covered his head; the Candiote cloak of fine white wool, lined with scarlet, that fell from his drooping shoulders; the broad red band, studded with weapons, which encompassed his waist, were all calculated to heighten the graces of his person.
While this living picture was still before the wondering eyes of the spectators, a profound silence reigned throughout the apartment. With intense anxiety I watched the statue-like pirate and his lovely bride: not a muscle of his limbs or features moved, not even his eyelids quivered; but I thought that the arm which Medora extended towards him slightly trembled. Before I could be positive of this, a nervous motion of her lips was plainly visible. Provoked at my own hesitation I vehemently shook the little bell, and in a second the curtain descended, and Conrad and Medora had disappeared! Then broke forth one rapturous burst of applause, not merely noisy, but warm and sincere. It was interrupted, but not wholly silenced, by a strain of lively music which sounded from invisible musicians. If I may judge from my own feelings, that unexpected melody prolonged the emotions which the tableau had awakened.
At my signal the music suddenly ceased. The little bell sounded — a deep silence ensued, and again the curtain slowly rose and discovered the Seyd, gorgeously attired, reclining luxuriously upon a silken couch which was slightly elevated above (he seats on either side of him. The heavy turban of cloth of gold, glittering with jewels, the flowing beard and dark moustache, so altered his appearance that I scarcely recognized Mr. Merritt. I know not whether it was the effect of the long, bright colored tunic, the full, Turkish trousers, the slippers on his feet, and the chibouque in his mouth, but there was something particularly effeminate about his appearance. His features, naturally small, now looked more diminutive, and though his face had never struck me as so handsome as now, its style was too womanish to win a woman’s admiration.
On either side of him sat a couple of chiefs, in oriental garb, with long beards pending from their chins, and longer chibouques from between their teeth. On the right stood a slave reverently ushering in a seeming Dervise. The arms of the Dervise were folded over his breast with quiet dignity, his noble form was erect, although his head was slightly bent, as if in forced humility. His loose robe, of dark hue, was closely wrapped about him, and on his head he wore the lofty cap peculiar to his sect. Again Ellen’s voice was heard, and this time its tone was firmer and clearer.
“High in fits hall reclined the turban’d Seyd:
Around — the bearded chiefs be came to lead.
With cautions reverence from the outer gate
Slow stalks the slave, whose office there to wait.
Bows his bent head— -his head salutes the floor,
Ere yet his tongue the trusted tidings bore:
“A captive dervise from the pirates’ nest
Escaped, is here — himself would tell the rest,”
He took the sign from Seyd’s assenting eye,
And led the holy man in silence nigh.
His arms were folded on his dark green vest.
His step was feeble and his look deprest;
Yet worn he seemed by hardships more than years,
And pale his cheek from penance, not from fears.”
It was several minutes before the curtain fell, and then the spectators once more loudly expressed their delight, until a burst of martial music drowned the applause.5
As promised by the manuals, Evelyn Merritt’s dramatization of “The Corsair” makes quite a splash. The description presented in the novel may have been like productions Anna Cora Mowatt and her sisters staged in their home in Ravenswood, New York. In her autobiography, Mowatt mentions how from early childhood she participated in extravaganzas mounted by her siblings to celebrate her parents’ birthdays. After her marriage, she continued this tradition in her own home. As I will discuss in future blogs, her first play, “Gulzara” was initially written as a home theatrical to highlight a gathering of family and friends. There are mentions from several sources of her staging a tableau vivant presentation of Thomas More’s poem “Paradise and the Peri” around 1856 to help raise funds for the Mt. Vernon Society’s efforts to convert George Washington’s home into a national monument.
In the novel, though, readers are given no indications that Evelyn Merritt either consulted books such as “The Sociable” or used childhood experience to prepare her to direct “The Corsair.” Instead, she has the assistance from a new-found acquaintance;
We spent the afternoon and evening in discussing the tableaux, and attempting to make a selection of striking scenes from the writings of celebrated authors. Mr. Merritt joined in the conversation and interested himself with our plans, although he positively resisted all Evelyn’s urgent entreaties to take part in one of the pictures. The tone of his refusal seemed to say that he could not thus compromise his dignity; and argument was vain. On Colonel Damoreau’s opportune appearance, our consultation soon gained new spirit- He had seen tableaux vivants both in Europe and America — assured us that they were a fashionable amusement amongst the English nobility, and that he was thoroughly initiated into all their mysteries. We listened to his explanation with the most flattering attention, and the Colonel was suddenly placed on a footing quite as intimate as a long and tried friendship could have procured.6
The advantage of tableau vivant was for the status conscious was that they could have all the fun of theater with none of the danger. Unbeknownst to the Merritts, however, when they accepted Colonel Damoreau’s aid, they invited a serpent into their garden. The Colonel will turn out over the course of the novel to be an amoral rogue who is intent on seducing Evelyn. Later he exercises his charms on Amy Ellwell who plays Medora in the scene described above.
In dime novels from the period, a popular trope had a scoundrel such as Colonel Damoreau leading an unfortunate innocent down the path to vice and dissolution via entry into the world of gaming, drinking, and the theatre. Although this early work does not completely reject that pattern or overtly argue with it in the way some of her later stories and novels would, “Evelyn” does deviate from the expected outline of this formula in several significant ways. The narrative is told in epistolary form. Therefore the reader gets some glimpses inside Damoreau’s thought processes. We learn from him that the parlor theatricals where merely one part of his plan. Of them, he says,
Those tableaux, Fred, — I knew that those tableaux would represent more than the spectators suspected. I confess it, my heart thrilled like that of a youth of twenty as I beheld Gulnare at my feet, with her expressive and impassioned face turned lovingly and beseechingly to mine.7
The tableaux are a powerful weapon in Damoreau’s arsenal of seduction. They allow him to make protracted intense eye contact, be in close proximity, and even touch the young women in the production in a manner that would otherwise be socially inappropriate. Without shame or remorse, the Colonel uses the production as a cover to exert his wiles on these young women under the very noses of the people who Victorian society says should be their protectors – Amy’s parents and Evelyn’s husband. In this way, the tableau vivant becomes the site of intense, unexpected danger for these young women in this plotline.
However, I don’t think that ultimately Mowatt is promoting an anti-theatrical bias in this novel. Unlike in the dime novel polemics of the day, the problems that Amy and Evelyn encounter in subsequent chapters of the work don’t involve being inevitably being sucked into a world of theatre, gambling, drinking, and vice. Although Damoreau uses the very exciting and sensual production of “The Corsair” to worm his way through their defenses, the tableaux vivant is not his only or even his primary line of attack. He is a drawing room warrior par excellence with many years of experience in the field and has command of many tactics. He is a persistent, patient, opportunistic, scheming manipulator. “The Corsair” was just his opening salvo.
Mowatt implicitly makes clear in the narrative that the problem was not some vague inherent evil connected with theatre in general, but a very specific danger attached to the person of Colonel Damereau who was using the production as a cover for improper interactions with young women that will lead to pain and suffering later in the novel. Tableaux vivant, in Mowatt’s depiction, were not a corrupt or corrupting activity, but rather one being used for immoral purposes by an amoral character. Her mission, in other words, was not to draw back the curtain to reveal the evil lurking at the heart of this form of theatre, but in the heart of the person deploying it to manipulate others.
1. The Sociable; or One Thousand and One Home Amusements. (Dick & Fitzgerarld: New York, 1858) Page 153.
2. Ibid, p. 154-155.
3. Ibid, p. 163-166.
4. Mowatt, Anna Cora. Evelyn; or A Heart Unmasked, A Tale of Domestic Life. (G.B. Zieber: Philadelphia, 1845). Pages 63-65.
5. Ibid, pages 90-93.
6. Ibid, pages 85-86.
7. Ibid, page 131.