The world as seen through the clarifying lens of the 9th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875-1889).

Friday, 5 September 2008

28. (i)The merry conceits of Squire Punch

The city of Liverpool, over this grey and rainy September weekend, will experience one of the highlights of its year as European Capital of Culture, in a spectacular performance by the French puppeteers La Machine. The Barleycorn family will be off in an hour to witness the awakening of a giant spider from the depths of space, which promises to spend the next three days marching around the city centre, possibly killing and devouring any hapless scousers that get in its way. The spectacle has apparently cost in the region of £2 million. Better value, perhaps, than the Lord Mayor, footballers' wives, and a handful of soap opera stars emerging from a cargo container, and twenty minutes of Ringo banging drums on top of St George's Hall that launched the year's festivities.

La Machine's arachnid has the precedent of the company's giant pachyderm which transfixed London in 2006. The MARIONETTES article from the ninth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica offers some historical precedents which may not meet the scale of today's cunning Gallic performers, but which may well have left a similar awed impression on the audiences of their day.

[The Spectator of 1711] refers also to Pinkethman, a "motion maker," in whose scenes the divinities of Olympus ascended and descended to the strains of music. An idea of the class of representation may be gathered from an advertisement of Crawley, a rival of Pinkethman, which sets forth - "The Old Creation of the World, with the addition of Noah's Flood,"also several fountains playing water during the time of the play. The best scene represented "Noah and his family coming out of the ark, with all the animals two by two, and all the fowls of the air seen in a prospect sitting upon trees ; likewise over the ark is the sun rising in a gorgeous manner; moreover a multitude of angels in a double rank," the angels ringing bells. "Likewise machines descending from above, double, with Dives rising out of hell and Lazarus seen in Abraham's bosom ; besides several figures dancing jigs, sarabands, and country dances, with the merry conceits of Squire Punch and Sir John Spendall." Yates showed a moving picture of a city, with an artificial cascade, and a temple, - with mechanical birds in which attention was called to the exact imitation of living birds, the quick motion of the bills, just swelling of the throat, and fluttering of the wings. The puppets were wax figures 5 feet in stature. Toward the end of the 18th century, Flocton's show presented five hundred figures at work at various trades. Brown's Theatre of Arts showed at country fairs, from 1830 to 1840, the battle of Trafalgar, Napoleon's army crossing the Alps, and the marble palace of St. Petersburg ; and at a still later date Clapton's similar exhibition presented Grace Darling rescuing the crew of the "Forfarshire" steamer wrecked on the Fern Islands, with many ingenious moving figures of quadrupeds, and, in particular, a swan which dipped its head into imitation water, opened its wings, and with flexible neck preened and trimmed its plumage.

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