What am I? What are life, art, letters, the world, but what my Skelt has made them?
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON
"He stamped himself upon my immaturity. The world was plain before I knew him, a poor penny world; but soon it was all coloured with romance.
If I go to the theatre to see a good old melodrama, 'tis but Skelt a little faded. If I visit a bold scene in nature, Skelt would have been bolder: there had been certainly a castle on that mountain, and the hollow tree.... that set piece... I seem to miss it in the foreground.
Indeed, out of this cut-and-dry dull, swaggering, obtrusive, and infantile art, I seem to have learned the very spirit of my life's enjoyment: met there the shadows of the characters I was to read about and love in a late future, got the romance of "Der Freischutz" long ere I was to hear of Weber or the mighty Formes: acquired a gallery of scenes and characters with which, in the silent theatre of the brain, I might enact all novels and romances, and took from those rude cuts an enduring and transforming pleasure…”
As Robert Louis Stevenson's quote above testifies,
Toy Theater's published by the likes of Skelt, Redington and Pollock captured the imagination of children and adults alike during the 19th Century. Printed on paperboard sheets and sold as kits in the theatres of the time, toy versions were designed to be assembled at home. This allowed for miniature versions of popular plays to be reproduced and performed as parlour entertainment for family members and guests.
Available for "a penny plain or two pence coloured" enthusiasts would often personalise their productions by hand colouring and embellishing the illustrated scenes, wings and character sheets. The script would be abridged too, which along with the miniaturisation of the visuals precipitated the term 'Juvenile Drama'.
Stage theatre during the early 19th century focussed more on the visual spectacle than the depth of any plot or character. The two dimensional nature of the set designs translated effectively to the stage of the toy theatre. A later shift towards realism, psychological complexity and character motivation combined with three-dimensional scenic elements however, did not convert so easily.
The advent of film and television during the 20th Century did much to further decline the popularity of the art form. However directors such as Ingmar Bergman, Orson Welles and Terry Gilliam have incorporated toy theatres into their films to great dramatical effect.