David Kornhaber


In 1781, Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg—one of the most innovative scenographers the English stage had ever known—left a lucrative position at David Garrick’s Drury Lane to create, in a room of his own house, a miniature mechanical theatre. Scholars have long been at a loss as to how to classify the Eidophusikon, as De Loutherbourg termed his invention. Some regard it as a kind of mechanical toy; others group it with the Magic Lantern as part of the pre-history of the cinema.1 The best route to understanding the device, however, lies not in an examination of its physical components but in a careful study of its relationship to De Loutherbourg’s other scenographic endeavors and the theatre-going culture they helped create. Under De Loutherbourg’s influence the English stage achieved a level of spectacle never before seen. Yet with the move towards greater spectacle seems to have come an equally passionate desire to tame the increasingly elaborate and overwhelming images seen upon the stage. Such, I believe, was the attraction of De Loutherbourg’s device. In an era when not only stage shows but London’s theatres themselves were growing ever larger, De Loutherbourg offered London’s theatre-going public a chance to feel in control of the forces at work in the theatre. He offered the spectacle domesticated, reduced to a sub-human scale and presented in an intimate setting. He offered, I believe, a measure of solace to a theatrical culture that was at once excited by and fearful of the new forms of stagecraft that were beginning to redefine the theatre.

From this perspective, the history of the Eidophusikon must begin not in 1781 but in 1763. In that year, nearly a decade before De Loutherbourg came to England, David Garrick made the bold decision to remove the audience seats that
had been on the stage at Drury Lane since its original construction. The seats had long been considered an obstacle to the proper enjoyment of a play. Tate Wilkinson described them as “the greatest nuisance that ever prevailed over an entertainment,” while Thomas Davies called them a “disgrace.”2 The objection was twofold. On the one hand, audience members on stage often distracted other spectators from the play at hand. More importantly, however, by the 1760s the stage spectators were seen as a “glaring offense against what the painters call the costume [i.e. the scenography].”3 In other words, by the middle of the eighteenth century, the stage was expected to present a consistent and unified visual projection of the world. Thus, Wilkinson could complain of a final scene in Romeo and Juliet where the heroine has “two hundred persons behind her, which formed the back ground, as an unfrequented hallowed place of chapless skulls.”4 No longer was it simply the actors’ role to create a sense of place, as in the English theatre of the Renaissance and early Restoration. They must act against a believable backdrop, and it was in order to facilitate this pictorial realism that Garrick cleared the stage.

A second innovation came two years later in Garrick’s 1765 decision to remove the chandeliers that hung over his stage. The chandeliers, of about a dozen candles apiece, were until that time the only source of illumination for the stage, and they cast on it the same quality of light that was cast on the rest of the auditorium. In other words, there was no differentiation between stage and audience in terms of lighting. But in 1765 Garrick replaced the chandeliers with concealed wing lights—either candles or oil lights that stood one above the other in an iron frame. Mounted with tin reflectors, they could cast powerful illumination in different directions depending on their positioning. These lights would prove vital to many of De Loutherbourg’s designs, but they are important here for what they indicate about the treatment of the stage. For the first time in the history of English theatre, light would be used to differentiate the playing space from the auditorium. It would still be another hundred years before the auditorium was completely darkened, but Garrick’s innovation represents another important step in the move towards marking the stage as a space of complete illusion, separate from the realm occupied by the audience.

When De Loutherbourg signed on with Garrick in 1771, then, he inherited a stage that was both framed by a proscenium arch (much as the landscape canvasses for which he was famous in France were bordered by an actual frame) and that was, moreover, marked by lighting as qualitatively different than the surrounding auditorium. It is telling that Garrick hired De Loutherbourg not simply as a set designer but under the agreement he would “take care of all decorations, the machines dependent on them, the way of lighting and manipulating them, would devise scenes… suggest appropriate costume, and prepare all novelties…”5 For the first time, the English stage would represent the unified visual creation of a single imagination, presented as distinct from the rest of the auditorium. De Loutherbourg inherited not so much a stage as a blank canvas.

In approaching this new “canvas,” De Loutherbourg attempted to impart to the stage that which had long been common to painting. In his Recollections, playwright John O’Keeffe recalls how De Loutherbourg depicted on the stage “miles and miles distance… by the laws of perspective.”6 This was not, however, an instance of the perspective-based Italianate scenery common to Baroque stagecraft.7 “Before his time,” O’Keeffe explains, “the back was one broad flat, the whole breadth and height of the stage,” but De Loutherbourg created a sense of distance by “breaking the scene into several pieces.”8 Using overlapping flats of varying dimensions placed on various levels of the stage to create an effect of depth and distance, De Loutherbourg brought the expansive vistas of two-dimensional landscape painting to the theatre by emphasizing that which is unique to the stage—its three-dimensionality. He sought to create not simply the impression of a world behind the actors but a world that enveloped the actors, and placed them in the very middle of a landscape.

In seeking to create this all-encompassing world, De Loutherbourg would come to emphasize that which painting can never achieve—a sense of time and motion. Painting, by its very nature, must always present its subjects in a state of absolute rest, frozen in time. But as John Constable was wont to remember, “Light and shadow never stand still.” Thus, in turning to the stage, De Loutherbourg was given access to a set of tools unavailable to him in his work as a painter, and his emphasis on lighting and scene changes testify to the importance that he placed on motion as an element of design. For example, in his very first design for Garrick—the spectacular The Christmas Tale for the 1772-73 season—De Loutherbourg painted eight backdrops, including four highly detailed rural scenes akin to those that had won him accolades in Paris. But he endowed these frozen paintings with a sense of motion by literally breaking apart certain backdrops to allow the discovery of others, such as when “the rocks split open and discover the castle of Nigromant” or “the seraglio breaks to pieces, and discovers the whole palace in flames” or “the flames and ruins of the castle vanish away, and discover a fine moonlight scene.”9 To achieve these effects, De Loutherbourg employed a combination of Drury Lane’s newly introduced mechanical scene drops, which prevented interruptions from stage hands, and a new technique of painting scenery on gauze rather than cloth so that it would seem to disappear when lit from behind—what would come to be known in today’s terms as a scrim. Through these techniques, De Loutherbourg sought to impart on static paintings a sense of life and motion.

This is even more evident in De Loutherbourg’s innovative use of lighting. The Christmas Tale calls at one point for “a fine prospect of the sea… with the sun rising” and it mentions at another point “Camilla’s magnificent garden—the objects in the garden vary their colours.”10 Both effects were made possible by Garrick’s wing lighting. The former was achieved, quite simply, by slowly turning the wing lights towards the stage so as to create a gradual increase in illumination. The second—perhaps De Loutherbourg’s most famous effect—was a somewhat more complicated affair. In his Reminiscences of 1828, fencing master Henry Angelo remembers how De Loutherbourg “astonished the audience, not merely by the beautiful colouring and designs far superior to what they had been accustomed to, but by a sudden transition in a forest scene, where the foliage varies from green to blood colour.”11 This was achieved through the installation of colored silk screens in the flies that could be turned on pivots such that when the wing lights were cast on them they projected various hues. Under De Loutherbourg, the stage became a visually dynamic environment, and we can begin to understand Martin Meizel’s comment that “de Loutherbourg’s influence lay behind most of those persistent attempts of the English nineteenth century pictorial stage to endow itself with motion and ultimately to define itself by light.”12

Indeed, De Loutherbourg’s success was such that by the time Garrick retired from the theatre, he was spending nearly six times as much money on scenery and scenographic personnel as when he started at Drury Lane. The Drury Lane account books note an expenditure of only £290 on scenes and machines in Garrick’s first season, but with De Loutherbourg’s arrival the 1772-73 expenditures total £1365. In De Loutherbourg and Garrick’s final season, that amount increases to a record £1674. De Loutherbourg himself received an unheard-of salary of £500, equal to any of the topmost actors of the day. By 1780, O’Keeffe recalls, designers had achieved such a mark of prominence—due largely to the influence of De Loutherbourg—that for the first time new dramas were being given to “the artist who is to plan the scenes” at the same time that they were being given to the actor-managers who would oversee their production.13

Spectacles of the sort designed by De Loutherbourg were becoming so popular in the late eighteenth century that there was some concern that there would no longer be a place for “serious” drama. As early as 1758 the London Chronicle felt it necessary to observe that “shew and decoration” are too often “forced upon” drama and that the true “business of these stages is, properly speaking, to provide the understanding with substantial food, not to treat it with conserves and sweetmeats.”14 In 1766, the actresses Susanna Cibber and Peg Woffington would observe that “the multitude are incapable of distinguishing; and if their ears are but tickled, and their sight gratified, they re-echo applause.”15 In the 1770s, the situation only worsened. By the time of The Christmas Tale, one theatre-goer would note that “if the Streets, Buildings, Rooms and Furniture, Gardens, Views of the Country, etc., be executed in the Taste of the Country where the Scene of the Action in the Play lies, and the keeping and Perspective be good, the whole House never fails to give the most audible Evidence of their Satisfaction.”16 For critics, an opposition arose between spectacle-minded “pantomimes” and “entertainments” like The Christmas Tale and what was considered legitimate drama.17 Critic Horace Walpole berated Garrick for the lack of seriousness in The Christmas Tale, saying that save for the scenery the piece should be “sent to the devil,” and the Reverend John Genest, one of London’s first theatre historians, observed that “if it had been brought out as an afterpiece and a spectacle, it might have passed without censure, but such barren things when produced as first pieces must excited the indignation of all but barren spectators.”18 The London Magazine would say of a later Garrick pantomime that it offered little “to a man of taste,” and the Theatrical Review would caution that scenery “should never engross that attention in an Audience, which is primarily due to the Player.”19 In 1773 The London Magazine would simply refuse to review the content of Garrick’s Pigmy Revels and would instead remark only on its scenery, observing condescendingly that “pantomimes are designed for the eye, not for the ear.”20

Nevertheless, spectacle proved triumphant. After the commercial success of The Christmas Tale, more and more pieces at Drury Lane and elsewhere were written specifically to show off stage effects. The London Magazine observed that John Burgoyne’s The Maid of the Oakes “seems entirely calculated for a vehicle to introduce the music and scenery” and describes The Wonders of Derbyshire as “judiciously chosen for the display of Mr. Loutherbourg’s abilities.”21 And though the magazine complains about the later piece’s lack of seriousness, it does applaud “the manner in which Mr. Loutherbourg has imitated nature.”22 As for The Maid of the Oakes: “If nothing beyond the bare merit of the paintings was held forth to attract the town, we should not be surprised at its bringing twenty crowded audiences.”23 Indeed, even the “prodigious sum” of £1500 spent on the scenery “will not appear in the least extravagant to any body who sees it.”24 By the late eighteenth century, serious drama was simply a money-losing proposition, and the kinds of spectacles that had once served as afterpieces would become dramatic presentations in and of themselves. “The Coronation in Harry the Eighth will bring in a full house very often when Hamlet or Othello might be a losing play,” actors would observe.25 As the German visitor Johann Wilhelm D’Archenholz said of these London entertainments, “The people are uncommonly attached to this kind of diversion.”26

As the interest in spectacular pantomimes and entertainments increased, so did demands for pictorial realism. In 1774 a critic for the Morning Chronicle, dismayed by the lack of roofs for interior sets at Covent Garden, termed it a matter of “propriety” that dramatic presentations achieve a suitable level of realism.27 De Loutherbourg was certainly one to comply. It was advertised that even the fantastical sets of The Christmas Tale, set in a mythical, magical realm, were based on topographical drawings from Wales. The Wonders of Derbyshire was designed entirely around De Loutherbourg’s trip to that region. And in Alfred, De Loutherbourg even refused to use painted flats to represent ships in a naval review, preferring instead to call on the marine artist Domenic Serres to supply models of the actual vessels. Largely aided by De Loutherbourg himself, the productions of the eighteenth century aspired towards an ever-more exacting realism.

In short, the spectacles of De Loutherbourg and those who would follow him offered a level of overwhelming visuality that had never before been seen. In its retreat into the proscenium arch, its creation of an insular visual universe marked as separate from the auditorium, its spectacular moving and “disappearing” set pieces, its varied lighting effects, and its aspiration towards pictorial realism, the theatre of the 1770s surpassed even the Baroque spectacles and court masques of earlier generations. These spectacles, moreover, proved enormously popular, as indicated by the plethora of entertainments and pantomimes on offer in that decade and the exponential increases on scenery and lighting expenditures at Drury Lane. By the end of his career, Garrick was spending more money on scenes, costumes, and lights than on actors, and he appeared on stage only infrequently, preferring to turn over the spotlight (so to speak) to the designs of De Loutherbourg.

And yet, less than a decade after coming to England to work with Garrick, De Loutherbourg removes himself completely from the theatre, leaving Drury Lane to devote himself entirely to the construction of his Eidophusikon. If there were financial issues or personality conflicts that prompted this departure, they have been lost to history. All that we know is that De Loutherbourg, the son of a miniature painter, seems always to have had an interest in miniatures. He was the first to build miniature stage sets before constructing an actual stage design, and he even occasionally employed miniatures in the finished designs themselves. The maritime models used in Alfred have already been mentioned. In The Camp, De Loutherbourg created a veritable army of small figures that would march across the stage in battalions to create the appearance of a distant military force. Perhaps he had simply tired of large-scale stage design and wanted to independently pursue work in miniatures.

Of course, De Loutherbourg's decision to embark on the creation of the Eidophusikon was in some ways in keeping with the entertainment trends of his period, and the artist may simply have seen an opportunity for profit in the burgeoning new field of admission-based spectacles. By 1780, a year before the opening of the Eidophusikon, theatrical and scenographic entertainments had become so popular that Parliament felt compelled to pass the Sunday Observances Act, prohibiting all public spectacles for which admission was charged from operating on Sundays. Some such ventures mimicked the traditional theatre, like the shadow theatre Dominique Seraphin opened in France only three years after De Loutherbourg’s Eidophusikon appeared in London. Most, however, revolved around finding new ways to artificially imitate natural landscapes or provide access to new vantage points on actual scenes. Ascending towers and taking hot air balloon rides were among the new fads; among the later incarnations of this trend was stage designer Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre’s diorama, a display which relied on the manipulation of light over an enormous painted canvass to produce the illusion of a changing, three-dimensional natural scene and which opened in Paris in 1822.

Perhaps the most successful and long-lasting of these spectacles was the panorama, an enormous painting, usually of a landscape, cityscape, or famous battle, housed in a purpose-built room and mounted on a circular structure such that it extended 360 degrees around the viewer. The Irish painter Robert Barker is credited with popularizing, if not inventing, the form; his famous panoramic view of Edinburgh opened in that city in 1787 and moved to London two years later, initiating a rash of imitations. Unlike De Loutherbrough's Eidophusikon, which was never to be replicated, Barker's panorama triggered a long-lasting craze. On the Contintent it inspired such practitioners as Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the Prussian architect whose Panorama of Palermo, St. Mark’s Square in Venice, and Cathedral of Milan by Moonlight, exhibited in arrangement with theatrical impresario Wilhelm Gropius, attracted the attention of the bourgeoisie and royalty alike.

As Vanessa Schwartz recounts in Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siecle France, the experience of viewing a panorama for the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century observer was one of wonderment and awe. The panorama’s attraction, she explains, “lay not so much in the actual quality of the panorama's realistic representation of a particular place (for few in the audience would have stood before the actual site and therefore could judge the quality of the copy) as in its technological illusionism.”28 It can in some ways be likened to the fascination with the scenography of Garrick's staged spectacles, only vastly democratized. “Unlike the elaborate stage machinery of receding backdrops, which gave only the inhabitant of the Royal box a sense of true perspective from foreground to point of disappearance, the panorama was truly a mass medium, where anyone at the railing of the observation platform had an equal view in correct perspective of anything near or far that they might wish to observe,” writes Russell A. Potter in a review of Stephan Oetterman’s The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium.29

If the panorama was to democratize the staged spectacle by enlarging it to the degree that one’s vantage point no longer mattered, the Eidophusikon mirrored the same project through miniaturization. In fact, in his account of the history of the panorama, Oetterman lists the Eidophusikon as one of the major forerunners of the panorama movement, as does Rand Carter in his 1981 introduction to Schinkel’s Collection of Architectural Designs. There was clearly an element of cultural sensitivity in De Loutherbourg’s decision to abandon the stage at the point when he did. For in some respects, the Eidophusikon builds ingeniously on the seemingly insatiable London appetite for pantomimes and entertainments. Eliminating actors altogether, the miniature theatre would present unadulterated spectacle, freed of even the minimal narrative constraints imposed by the theatre. There were actors of a sort in the Eidophusikon. In one scenario, De Loutherbourg depicted Milton’s Satan arraying an army of demons; in another he showed a “Storm at Sea…with the loss of an East Indiaman.”30 Here, however, the actors are not so much part of a narrative as part of the spectacle itself. They are mechanical objects, moved by pulleys and levers in the manner of music box figures, akin to the army in The Camp. Thus their appearance is not in counterbalance to the scenography but in support of it; they are not surrounded by an environment, they are part of it. De Loutherbourg seems to have found a way to make even the appearance of figures on stage part of his creation, something he could never achieve with real actors at Drury Lane.

The spectacles offered by the Eidophusikon, moreover, make those that were available at Drury Lane pale in comparison—in ambition, at least, if not in size. While The Christmas Tale offered a “fiery lake” (an effect achieved with the use of licopodium, as in French spectacles of the period), the Eidophusikon offered a fiery lake in the midst of a full-fledged Miltonic Hell, complete with Satan, Beelzebub, Moloch and other demons demons, two serpents twining their way around giant (by comparison to the figures) doric pillars, and a lighting change from intense red to bright white to indicate the effect of fire on metal. While Alfred might feature a naval review, the Eidophusikon advertised a “Storm & Shipwreck” and naval battles.31 And while The Wonders of Derbyshire might feature the rivers and hills of that region of England, the Eidophusikon could boast a recreation of the great Niagara Falls half-way across the world.

In fact, the Eidophusikon advertised an exacting devotion to pictorial realism even greater than that of the stage spectacles. The Christmas Tale may have been based on studies of Wales, but the Eidophusikon sought to carefully recreate actual vistas. Take, for example, the following advertising notice: “A view from the summit of One Tree Hill, in Greenwich Park, looking up the Thames to the Metropolis; on one side, conspicuous upon its picturesque eminence, will stand Flamstead House; and below, on the right, that grand mass of building, Greenwich Hospital… painted with architectural exactness.”32 As in the theatre, even light was supposed to be realistic. “On the rising of the Curtain,” the advertisement reads, “the scene will be enveloped in that mysterious light which is the precursor of daybreak; the mist will clear away, the picture brighten by degrees, until it assumes the appearance of a beauteous summer’s day…”33

The effects, in total, seem like a grander version of those spectacles on offer in the theatres of the period. And from what we know of De Loutherbourg’s techniques, they seem to have been created in a similar manner. A scene entitled “Moonlight, a View in the Mediterranean” was achieved with backlighting in a way that resembled the sunrise/sunset effects with the wing lights at Drury Lane: an Argand lamp is put in a tin box with a one inch hole so that when placed at various distances behind the back cloth it can seem to give off varying levels of light as clouds pass before the moon. Backdrops were painted on transparent cloth so that they could seem to disappear. Reflecting mirrors were added to some lights to increase and direct their illumination. In short, De Loutherbourg seems to have found a relatively inexpensive way to outdo the spectacular effects of the pantomimes and entertainments. From this perspective, the Eidophusikon represents the apotheosis of the desire for spectacle in late eighteenth century England.

There are, however, two problems with this view. One is simply a matter of size. In the period when London’s two largest theatres were expanding, De Loutherbourg could only offer enough “spectacle” to fill a space eight feet long by six feet high. The stage at the renovated Covent Garden in 1784, by comparison, was thirty-eight feet long and thirty-one feet high. The rebuilt Drury Lane of 1794 would offer space for scenery forty-three feet wide and thirty-eight feet high. If part of the impulse towards spectacle lies in a desire to be overwhelmed by imagery, then the Eidophusikon could offer little against the enormousness of Drury Lane and Covent Gardens.

The other problem with seeing the Eidophusikon as a culmination of the impulse towards spectacle is the fact that De Loutherbourg took pains to recreate in his invention what one advertisement called “a Model of a beautiful Classic Theatre.”34 In other words, the Eidophusikon was not simply a means of presenting miniature spectacles. It was a means of presenting miniature theatrical spectacles. If the impetus behind spectacle lies in approaching a kind of pictorial realism, then all markings of theatricality should presumably be minimalized. This seems to have been at least part of the motivation behind removing the stage spectators at Drury Lane and doing away with the chandeliers over the stage. The stage was supposed to become a canvas framed by the proscenium arch, a portal to another realm that was made as realistic as possible. But the Eidophusikon seems to be moving in the opposite direction. It does not seek to present a portal to Niagara Falls per se but a portal to Niagara Falls as it might appear on a stage. The room in which the Eidophusikon was housed was made-up to look like the interior of a theatre; the borders of the aperture through which each scene was observed were made to look like a proscenium arch; the space in which the spectacle occurred was even referred to as a “stage.” Spectators were not just watching a miniature Niagara Falls; they were watching it in a miniature Drury Lane.

Rather than the spectacle maximized, then, the Eidophusikon seems to be presenting the spectacle domesticated. In an age when theatres were growing increasingly large, both in terms of stage size and audience capacity, De Loutherbourg seems to offer his spectators a chance to go to the theatre in a more intimate environment. The Eidophusikon was offered for view in a room of De Loutherbourg’s house at Panton Square and could accommodate only two rows of spectators, with each row consisting of one long bench. De Loutherbourg was not simply offering theatrical spectacles in miniature; he was offering the theatre-going experience in miniature as well, complete with a smaller audience and smaller auditorium. The spectacles contained therein would not be the overwhelming experiences on offer at Drury Lane and Covent Gardens. They would be smaller affairs—“enchanting,” in the words of musician William Parke, as opposed to overbearing.35

In fact, much of the appeal of the Eidophusikon seems to have resided in its ability to create an experience opposite to that of the larger theatres. It presented a similar form of entertainment, only it created wonder through shrunken imagery as opposed to an enlarged visuality. And whereas stage spectacles aspired towards the creation of a unified world, the Eidophusikon’s presentations were decidedly episodic. In one advertisement, the “Programme of the Scenery” includes: (1) “A view from the summit of One Tree Hill,” (2) “Diorama of the ‘Ladyes Chapel,’ Southwark,” (3) “The effect of a Storm at Sea,” (4) “A moving Panorama of English Scenery,” and (5) “A Calm, with an Italian Sea Port.”36 Even if a theatrical spectacle featured multiple scenes, as almost all of them did (with the exception of some presented as afterpieces), there was usually some sense of a narrative through-line. Here, however, each vista is offered as a discrete, unrelated episode; the Eidophusikon’s presentations were never allowed to achieve the totalizing impact of their stage counterparts.

Moreover, while the spectacular worlds created on the stage were on offer for only a few days at a time, the Eidophusikon’s miniature scenes were available more or less on demand. De Loutherbourg presented shows every day of the month except Sunday, whereas the spectacles at London’s theatres would usually run for a week at most. (The “twenty crowded audiences” of the London Magazine review would be considered a highly profitable run.) Thus, one went to the Eidophusikon whenever it was convenient and not simply when it made itself available, as with larger theatrical shows. Indeed, advertisements for the Eidophusikon seem to play upon the sense of familiarity that comes along with constant availability. One such ad explains, “In the course of [the show] will be introduced the celebrated Scene of The Storm & Shipwreck. The other Scenes as usual. To conclude with the Grand Scene from Milton. With the usual Accompaniments.”37 There is a sense in the advertisement that the audience knows, at least in part, what to expect—“the other Scenes as usual,” “the usual Accompaniments.” Whereas the success of a stage spectacle was premised on its ability to present wonders never before imagined, the Eidophusikon promises a mixture of the old and the new, the familiar and the novel. Indeed, the London public seems to have made itself quite familiar with De Loutherbourg’s invention. Spectators were known to return multiple times in a week. The artist Thomas Gainsborough is said to have gone every day.

In his miniature theatre, De Loutherbourg seems to have hit a powerful chord in the zeitgeist of the times. As stage spectacles grew ever more elaborate, the Eidophusikon’s miniature presentations continued to attract audiences six days a week for nearly ten years, ending only when De Loutherbourg decided to leave the world of theatre altogether to become a faith healer. Even then, the device was revived by other artists in England and America in the ensuing decades. As popular as the explosive spectacles of Drury Lane became, there seems to have been a counter-desire to have those spectacles reduced to a more manageable scale—to have them presented in an intimate setting, to have them available “on demand,” to have them divided into short, discreet units. If the desire latent in the attraction towards spectacle is the desire to be overwhelmed, then it seems to come with a corresponding counter-desire for mastery. To see a spectacle at Drury Lane is to be overwhelmed by it—overwhelmed by the crowd of other spectators, overwhelmed by the size of the show, overwhelmed by its novelty, overwhelmed by its presentation of a total, complete, unified universe within the proscenium arch. To see a showing at the Eidophusikon is to seek out
the opposite experience—a small crowd, a diminutive scene, familiar presentations, and a series of discrete episodes that never achieve the kind of sustained, totalizing effect of a full-blown spectacle. If to go to the theatre was to give oneself up to something larger than life, then to see the Eidophusikon was to be in control of that same experience.

It is no wonder, then, that De Loutherbourg created his miniature theatre when he did, for late eighteenth-century England witnessed a sea change in theatrical culture. Spectacle had long been a part of the European theatrical repertoire, and the extravagances of Baroque design were surely impressive. But advancements in theatrical technology (especially in lighting) combined with the “retreat” of the spectacle into the proscenium arch created an altogether different theatre-going experience. Theatre was beginning for the first time to present a separate, visually unified, larger-than-life world on the stage. And what began in the 1770s would only grow larger and more elaborate in the nineteenth century. Indeed, in Stage to Screen A. Nicholas Vardac would attribute the origins of the aesthetic impulse that ultimately culminated in the creation of the movies directly to Garrick and De Loutherbourg.38 A new theatrical era was being born, and with it came certain trepidations. It is on these trepidations that De Loutherbourg’s invention would play. Through the Eidophusikon what seemed on stage overwhelming, uncontrollable, and wondrously new could become enchanting, contained, and reassuringly familiar. Ultimately, De Loutherbourg’s invention was not a toy or a novelty. It was London’s desire for spectacle expressed—as it were—in miniature.

N o t e s

  1. For the first approach, see Mary Hiller, Automata and Mechanical Toys: An Illustrated History. On the second, see Henry Hopwood, Living Pictures; Paul T. Burns, The Complete History of Cinematography; and C.W. Ceram, Archaeology of the Cinema.[back]
  2. Tate Wilkinson, “Memoirs of His Own Life,” in A Source Book in Theatrical History, ed. A.M. Nagler (New York: Dover Publications, 1952), 377-381, 379; Thomas Davies, “Memoirs of the Life of David Garrick,” ibid., 381-382..[back]
  3. Davies, 381.[back]
  4. Wilkinson, 379. Emphasis in original.[back]
  5. The London Stage, quoted in George Winchester Stone, Jr. and George M. Kahrl, David Garrick: A Critical Biography (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979), 328.[back]
  6. John O’Keeffe, Recollections of the Life of John O’Keeffe, (London, 1806), in A Source Book in Theatrical History, ed. A.M. Nagler (New York: Dover Publications, 1952), 399.[back]
  7. Indeed, in focusing largely on vast outdoor landscapes rather than urban or interior spaces, De Loutherbourg can be said to have helped transition European set design out of the Baroque.[back]
  8. O’Keeffe, 399.[back]
  9. David Garrick, The Christmas Tale, quoted in Cecil Price, Theatre in the Age of Garrick (Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1973), 80.[back]
  10. Garrick, 79.[back]
  11. Henry Angelo, Reminiscences, (London, 1828), II, 326, quoted in Kalman A. Burnim, David Garrick Director, (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1961), 326.[back]
  12. Martin Meizel, Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth Century England, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 170.[back]
  13. O’Keeffe, 403.[back]
  14. London Chronicle (11-14 November 1758), quoted in Price, 62.[back]
  15. A Dialogue in the Shades, between the celebrated Mrs. Cibber, and the no-less celebrated Mrs. Woffington (1766), 15-16, quoted in Price, 76.[back]
  16. Quoted in Price, 80.[back]
  17. There is a significant degree of overlap between the pantomime and the entertainment, as both existed largely for the display of impressive scenographic effects. The former, however, tended to focus on comedic plots, often involving commedia dell’arte characters like Harlequin. The later featured dramatic or mythical storylines or simply recreated spectacular events of the day such as coronations.[back]
  18. Horace Walpole, quoted in Price, 80; John Genest, quoted in http://www.acmi.net.au/AIC/LOUTHERBOURG_BIO.html.[back]
  19. The London Magazine, January 1779, 31, in A Source Book in Theatrical History, ed. A.M. Nagler (New York: Dover Publications, 1952), 398-402, 402; Theatrical Review, I, 253-54, quoted in Burnim, 71.[back]
  20. The London Magazine, January 1773, quoted in Stone and Kahrl, 720.[back]
  21. The London Magazine, November 1774, 518-519, in A Source Book in Theatrical History, ed. A.M. Nagler (New York: Dover Publications, 1952), 398-402, 399; The London Magazine, January 1779, 31, ibid., 401.[back]
  22. Ibid., 402.[back]
  23. The London Magazine, November 1774, 518-519, in Nagler, 401.[back]
  24. Ibid.[back]
  25. A Dialogue in the Shades, between the celebrated Mrs. Cibber, and the no-less celebrated Mrs. Woffington, quoted in Price, 76.[back]
  26. Johann Wilhelm D’Archenholz, A Picture of England (Dublin 1791), 236, quoted in Price, 77.[back]
  27. Morning Chronicle, December 11, 1774, quoted in Price, 83.[back]
  28. Vanessa R. Schwartz, Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siecle France, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 153.[back]
  29. Russell A. Potter, review of The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium in Iconomania: Studies in Visual Culture,1998.[back]
  30. Prospectus of an Exhibition to be called ‘The Eidophusikon’; available from
  31. Handbill announcing the Eidophusikon and other attractions, 1786; available from
  32. Prospectus.[back]
  33. Ibid.[back]
  34. Ibid.[back]
  35. William Parke, Musical Memoirs, 1830, quoted in http://www.acmi.net.au/AIC/LOUTHERBOURG_BIO.html[back]
  36. Prospectus.[back]
  37. Handbill.[back]
  38. See A. Nicholas Vardac, Stage to Screen: Theatrical Origins of Early Film, David Garrick to D. W. Griffith (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1949).[back]


David Kornhaber is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, Texas. He received his Ph.D. in 2009 from Columbia University, summa cum laude. Among his publications, articles on Artaud, Peter Brook, and Brecht.


Editor’s Note:
A drawing of an Eidophusikon is included in the electronic database of the British Museum (see its website).