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Posts Tagged ‘theater history

Writing with scissors…

 

Over at the New York Review of Books, Christopher Benfey has a fascinating– and illuminating– review of Ellen Gruber Garvey’s Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance, in which the author makes the case that scrapbooks—which everyone seems to have kept during the nineteenth century—“are the direct ancestors of our digital information management.”

There are examples of politically-focused compendia (Garvey’s primary interest), but also wonderful tastes of more artistic applications:  Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman… and Mark Twain:

Mark Twain was perhaps the king of American scrapbook culture. According to the OED, he was the first writer to use “scrapbook” as a verb, writing in 1881 about the origins of his book A Tramp Abroad, “I scrap-booked these reports during several months.” Prolific in inventing ways to lose money, especially in his attempts to predict how books would be published in the future (not, he found to his chagrin, with type fashioned from clay), Twain successfully marketed his own patented design for a more efficient scrapbook, outfitted with no-muss adhesive pages and an index awaiting entries. Twain’s scrapbook can be seen as the ancestor of the lavish “Keeping Memories Alive” scrapbook industry today, with its glitter and fluff and hobby stores…

Twain’s loose and baggy non-fiction books Roughing It, The Innocents Abroad, and A Tramp Abroad were assembled from his own carefully maintained travel scrapbooks, and retain some of the pleasingly serendipitous and fragmented feel of life on the road.

Still, as Twain’s buddy William Dean Howells noted, “anyone may compose a scrapbook, and offer it to the public with nothing like Mark Twain’s good-fortune. Everything seems to depend upon the nature of the scraps, after all.”

Readers can find the whole story (before they hop over to Pinterest) at “Scrapbook Nation.”

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As we reach for the paste, we might recall that it was on this date in 1750 that the first professional theatrical production of a Shakespeare play– an “altered” version of Richard III— was mounted in New York City at its first formal performance space, The Theater on Nassau Street.  Sitting just east of Broadway, it was a two-story wooden hall with a capacity of about 280.  Actor-managers Walter Murray and Thomas Kean set up shop there, and opened with the Bard.  But their repertory also included the first documented performance of a musical in New York — John Gay’s The Beggars Opera, which they premiered on December 3rd of that same year.

The site of the theater in 2004

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The best-laid plans…

 

Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s design for the U.S. Capital

Be they company towns, aimed at keeping workers close to their jobs, or national capitals, designed as civic monuments, planned cities are just that: laid out in advance and constructed from scratch.  Wired‘s collection of “Planned Cities Seen From Space” offers a glimpse of how 10 of these purpose-built cities turned out…

Walter Burley Griffin’s design for Canberra

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As we argue with our architects, we might send silly birthday greetings to Joseph Grimaldi; he was born on this date in 1778.  The most popular English entertainer of his day, Grimaldi was an actor, comedian and dancer who effectively invented the character of The Clown as today we know it.  He became so dominant on the London comic stage that harlequinade Clowns became known as “Joey”; both that nickname and the trademark whiteface make-up that Grimaldi created were, and still are, used widely by all types of clowns.  His catchphrases “Shall I?” and “Here we are again!” still get laughs in pantomimes.

Grimaldi’s memoir, edited by his fan Charles Dickens (who had, as a child, seen Grimaldi perform), was a best-seller.  The annual memorial service held for him (in February at Holy Trinity Church in the London Borough of Hackney) is attended by hundreds of clown performers from all over the world– who attend in full make-up and costume.

Grimaldi, au naturel

Grimaldi, in character

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Written by LW

December 18, 2012 at 1:01 am

Be your own boss!…

Franchising opportunities, circa 1934…  more at Retronaut.

As we clear off the kitchen table, we might recall that it was on this date in 1787 that the first professionally-produced theatrical comedy written by an American was produced in the U.S.:  Royall Tyler’s The Contrast premiered in New York.  The play satirizes Americans who follow British fashions and indulge in “British vices”… ironic insofar as it was written in the manner of English Restoration comedies of the seventeenth century, and modelled on Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, a British comedy of manners that had revived that tradition in London a decade before.

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Written by LW

April 16, 2012 at 1:01 am

I for one welcome our new computer overlords…

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In the aftermath of Watson’s triumph over humanity’s best, your correspondent thought it wise to remind readers (and himself) that this is not the first time that we mortals have faced the onslaught of astounding new technology.

The good folks at Dark Roasted Blend have compiled a nifty through-the-ages recap of attempts to create “life” in new-fangled ways; from Leonardo’s “robot” and John Dee’s “flying beetle” to an “steam-powered hiker” and an “electric milk man” from Victorian England, there’s quite a selection in “Amazing Automatons: Ancient Robots & Victorian Androids.”

It’s all fascinating; but the sweet spot is surely the selection of creations from the 18th (and early 19th) centuries, when the then-highly-developed crafts of metal working and watchmaking were turned to automata.  Consider, for example…

Jacques Vaucason created numerous working figures, including a flute player, which actually played the instrument, in 1738, plus this duck from 1739. The gilded copper bird could sit, stand, splash around in water, quack and even give the impression of eating food and digesting it.

Pierre Jaquet-Doz created three automata, The Writer, The Draughtsman and The Musician, which are still considered scientific marvels today. The Draughtsman is capable of producing four distinct pictures, while the Writer dips his pen in the ink and can write as many as forty letters. The Musician’s fingers actually play the organ and the figure ends her performance with a bow.

More, at Dark Roasted Blend.

As we remind ourselves to re-read Kevin Kelly’s excellent What Technology Wants and then to retake the Turing Test, we might stage a dramatic memorial dramatist and scenic innovator James Morrison Steele (“Steele”) MacKaye; he died on this date in 1894.  He opened the Madison Square Theatre in 1879, where he created a huge elevator with two stages stacked one on top of the other so that elaborate furnishings could be changed quickly between scenes. MacKaye was the first to light a New York theatre– the Lyceum, which he founded in 1884– entirely by electricity. And he invented and installed overhead and indirect stage lighting, movable stage wagons, artificial ventilation, the disappearing orchestra pit, and folding seats. In all, MacKaye patented over a hundred inventions, mostly for the improvement of theatrical production and its experience.

Steele MacKaye

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