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Astley's Toy Theaters

English toy theatres:  paper theatres, or the very British edutainment

The  toy theaters , or  juvenile drama , are miniature theaters (on average 50x50x50 cm) in wood and cardboard which allow you to re-enact the most famous plays, with sets and characters to cut out and color. Figures are depicted in their theatrical postures on boards on printed image boards. Like the sets, they are to be painted or colored or even enhanced with different materials (sequins, feathers) and possibly mounted on pieces of wood to be manipulated on the stage of the rebuilt theatre. Invented around 1811 in London, these "indoor games" testify both to the importance of theater attendance at the beginning of the 19th century and to the spread of theatrical culture in what is known as home entertainment .

Typical element of edutainment - educational pastime - the toy theaters   are the developed version of the souvenir sheets that the public could buy after a play. Originally, these sheets represented a scene, usually the climax of the play, or the hero-characters. Specialized designers attended the premiere of the show and illustrated the highlights of the play sold plain - black and white - at the price of 1 penny, or colored  - colored, painted, even embellished withsequins -, at the price of 2 pence.

From 1811, William West, a London papermaker, had the idea of offering both individual sheets and reproductions of the play in its entirety: the play's booklet and 30 to 40 toy theater sheets representing all the characters and the sets of the main scenes of the play.  For the practical application, it is then a question of cutting the boards, painting the sets and animate the whole thing on the proscenium (see illustrations), in order to reproduce the play. It is therefore necessary to acquire the element which constitutes the support (the theatre) and the facade boards of the theaters in order to then be able to reconstitute the staging by following the text of the booklet.


Animating the whole allows, like puppet shows, to present a  domestic performance - for family and friends. However, what distinguishes toy theaters from puppet shows is truly the reproduction of plays that have met with great success on "real" stage. The subject is therefore not only about theatricals but about the dissemination, within the domestic sphere, of a theatrical culture which finds the means to radiate and beyond the theaters themselves.  More than intended truly for children, the  toy theaters are games for teenagers intended as family entertainment . It is a hobby that requires a certain meticulousness to assemble and reconstitute the settings, manipulate the characters and claim the texts. It is therefore also necessary to know how to read the librettos to interpret or narrate the play, sometimes involving adults along.  

In the middle of the 19th century, more than 300 plays from London theaters were published in a format dedicated to  toy theatres. After the 1860s, no new plays were reproduced for toy theatres . However, it remained very popular until the end of the 1890s, based on the repertoire published during the first half of the century and issued by several publishers who forged their reputation as specialists in toy theaters editing such as Green, Hodgson, Skelt, William West, Webb and Benjamin Pollock whose shop closed in 1944. 


See Speaight (G.),  The History of the English toy theatre , Boston, Publishers Plays Inc., new ed. 1969. 

In France, there are paper theaters for children, from the years 1830-1840 although it is really only from the 1880s that these really spread (printing of Epinal). However " the boards are more often composed of historical and geographical types rather than by actors in specific plays " [ Speaight (G.), "Toy theatre", in Fawdry (K.), dir., ed.,_cc781905- 5cde-3194-bb3b-136bad5cf58d_ Toy theater , London, Pollock's Toy Theaters Ltd, 1980, p.17] Indeed, the success and distribution of  toy theaters remains a very British specificity.

If in London, go check out Pollock's Toy Museum in Bloomsbury and Pollock's Toysshop in Covent Garden.

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Astley's racetracks in a toy theater version

George Speaight, in his book Toy Theaters (1969), lists 258 melodramas, dramas, tragedies, comedies, ballets and shows published in toy theatres , including 24 based on the Astley's repertoire (54 for Covent Garden, 35 for Drury Lane - excluding Shakespeare and Walter Scott productions).

Knowing what plays of Astley's were published as toy theaters gives clear hints about which ones were most successful. Moreso comparing all the sources produced around a play - plays, posters, toy theaters - is also an essential path to understand the construction and the circulation of historical and geographical cultural tropisms. Toy theaters as home entertainment bring into the private sphere both the representations of history and how history is told and represented, building common references. But if storytelling and the marketing of plays is part of building common national stereotypes it does so along with interpretative cultural production and the building of new social imaginatives.

Among Astley's successes, The Batte of Waterloo (1824), The Giant Horse  (1833) or The Battle of the Alma (1854) are particularly representative of the way in which symbols and stereotypes conveyed on stage are reappropriated and adapted for the publication of toy theatres .


A good read on this topic is Johana Hofer-Robinson "'Kaleidoscopes of Changing Pictures': Representing Nation in Toy Theatre ", Journal of Victorian Culture , Vol. 23, Issue 1, January 2018, p. 43-65.

Battle of Waterloo coloured toy theatre
Battle of Waterloo Coloured Toy Theatre

The Battle of Waterloo

The Siege of Troy and the Giant Horse

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The Battle of the Alma

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The Battle of the Alma "Great Military Spectacle" was performed at Astley's Amphitheatre on October 23, 1854, one month after the "real" battle took place on September 20, 1854, near Sebastopol. This battle is considered as the first great battle of the Crimean War (1853-1856). The Allies (France, England, Turkey), won over the Russian army thanks mainly to the zouaves in their army.  Shortly after Astley's grand hippodrama, two toy theater publishers, Webb and Green respectively produced a toy theater set. 

In her article "'Kaleidoscopes of Changing Pictures': Representing Nations in Toy Theatre" (2018), Joanna Hofer Robinson, examines the adaptation offered by each publisher. Both interpretations are indeed based on the Astley's play and many tropes are the same, but each privileges an angle and certain characters, not conferring the same status to the battle. These two interpretations are very representative of the uses of current events and of wars "in progress" to feed both a national and patriotic angle, and a staging where current events enhance the contemporaneity of a timeless scenario.

The Hero of Switzerland, or Helvetian Freedom;  William Tell - 1802*

Manfredi, or the Castle of Otrando - 1803

The Brave Cossack, or the Secret Enemy - 1807

The Blood Red Knight or the Fatal Bridge - 1810

The Tyrant Saracen and the Noble Moor - 1811

The Fairy of the Oak, or Harlequin's Regatta (pantomime) - 1811

The Mandarin, or Harlequin in China (pantomime)  - 1811

Tracey Castle, or Love and Jealousy (entertainment) -1811

Voorn the Tiger, or the Horse Banditti - 1812

Old Belzebub and Harlequin, or Taffy in Holland (pantomime) - 1812

The High Mettled Racer - 1813

The Hunted Tailor - 1813

Ferdinand of Spain, or Ancient Chevalry - 1813

Wallace, the Hero of Scotland - 1817

The Dervise of Bagdad, or Harlequin Prince of Persia (pantomime) - 1818

Gil Blas, or the Horse Banditti - 1821

The Smuggler - 1822

The Battle of Waterloo - 1824

The Invasion of Russia; Bonapart's Invasion of Russia - 1825

Chevy Chase, or the Battle of Otterburn - 1832

The Siege of Troy or the Giant Horse of Sinon - 1833

The Lord Mayor's Fool, or the Great Secret - 1837

The Battle of the Alma - 1854

The Battle of Balaclava and Inkerman - 1855

*year of first theater performance


The 24 plays of Astley's edited in toy theatres, after George Speaight (1969)

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