The theatrum mundi, literally translated as “theatre of the world”, is a particular kind of spectacular mechanical show, practised all over Europe in the 19th century, but having its origins as far back as the 17th century in the Baroque era. It specialized in elaborate special effects such as shipwrecks, thunderstorms and colourful rolling panoramas – scrolling illustrations depicting scenes semi-mechanically, semi-manually operated.
The most famous practitioner of theatrum mundi was the stage designer Jacques Philippe de Loutherbourg (1740-1812). At the end of the 18th century de Loutherbourg set up a large model theatre in London called the Eidophusikon to demonstrate modern ideas of scenery and lighting. The genre found its way into the repertoires of many marionette companies in Europe, often under the description “optical theatre”. Many showmen added this as a separate section to their programme, presenting views of ruins, beauty spots and famous cities, sometimes combining these with magic lantern slides. The content was predominantly scenic, but moving figures were often introduced to add interest. Scenery and figures, often in procession, were mounted on belts that moved across the stage and were operated by a more or less complicated mechanism of cogs and gears. The moving belts of theatrum mundi could be below the stage or at the back or possibly both.
Sometimes these mechanical theatres operated as a sort of animated newspaper, recreating recent battles and naval encounters. Another well-known example from Britain was Brown’s Theatre of Arts, which toured fairs from 1830 to 1840 presenting scenes of Napoleon’s campaigns. The theatrum mundi was especially popular in Germany. Goethe is known to have possessed one, while a popular venue in the Luisenstrasse, Berlin, presented attractions such as “The Battle of Schleswig-Holstein”.
Heinrich Apel (1875-1920) was particularly famous for his mechanical puppet shows. Apel was part of a German puppeteering family based in Dresden. His theatrum mundi shows featured rod puppets (requiring operation from below) attached to the same wooden base, and linked together by strings and articulated rods. One scene flowed into another due to a complex mechanical system of cogs connecting the rods and strings to the figures and the spectacular scenery.
- Jurkowski, Henryk. History of European Puppet Theatre. Vol. I. New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1996.