Mechanical theatres are found throughout the world and this article will only begin the discussion of a few European variations. Theatrum Mundi (“theatre of the world”) is, in the West, a term often used to describe such a mechanical theatre.
The origins of the mechanical theatres can be found in the various automata that became popular in the royal and aristocratic houses of Europe in the 17th century and were generally operated by a clockwork mechanism. The association of puppets with something mechanized has been around since the 16th century. Gradually European itinerant showmen began to add automata and mechanical figures to their programmes and some took this a step further and presented a complete mechanized scene. In the 19th century many showmen used the word “mechanicus” to describe themselves and to make the show sound more scientific, even if it was no more than a normal puppet show.
Moving cribs or Nativity scenes varied from the simplest of mechanisms to a form of mechanical theatre based on biblical material. Karl Jäger in his “Bethlehem” in Dresden in the mid 19th century had some 40 different biblical scenes in his repertoire. In Saxony, where a lot of mining took place, a mine could become the subject of a mechanical show. In Britain in the 1860s the Lawrence family travelled around with a mechanical show of an Australian goldmine.
By the 1720s the English “conjuror” Fawkes was showing moving pictures with flat figures of coaches and ships moving across a landscape and operated by some sort of clockwork mechanism.
At the end of the 18th century the stage designer Jacques Philippe de Loutherbourg (1740-1812) set up a large model theatre in London called the Eidophusikon to demonstrate new ideas of scenery and lighting. This type of show found its way into the repertoires of many marionette companies in Europe, often under the title of optical theatre.
Many showmen added a special section to the programme, presenting views of ruins, beauty spots and famous cities and sometimes combining this with magic lantern slides. These were predominantly scenic, but figures and movement were often introduced to add interest. Sometimes the mechanical theatres, as well as the theatrum mundi, operated as a sort of living newspaper, recreating recent battles and naval encounters. More complex versions, which owe a great deal to such 18th-century experiments as Loutherbourg’s Eidophusikon, and the popular panoramas and dioramas of the 19th century, are rather like large animated peepshows, a complete scene in perspective with figures moving across at different points. Such figures, often creating a procession, were mounted on belts that moved across the stage and were operated by a more or less complicated mechanism of cogs and gears. In many cases, rather like some animated toys, individual figures were mounted on a wheeled base beneath the “stage” which, as it moved forward, caused rods to move arms or legs.
Mechanisms for movement were generally simple. In some cases, rather than clockwork, it was sufficient for the showman to turn a handle to set everything in motion, but the audience could not see any external wires or controls.
A showman might travel around exhibiting his moving crib (nativity) and nothing else, but often the theatrum mundi was added as a separate part of the entertainment, rather in the same way that Pepper’s Ghost or even the projection of a film might be a little later.
Some of the best examples of the mechanical theatres were to be found in Saxony with families such as Apel and Kressig, and these survived into the early 20th century (see Theatrum Mundi). Elsewhere there was no longer any real mechanism and the figures, and often the wheeled bases on which they were mounted, were simply moved by hand and animated, where required, by levers.
- Jurkowski, Henryk. History of European Puppet Theatre. Vol. I. New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1996.