Sunday, December 31, 2006

Prestigious Prestiges of the Past : Pepper’s Ghost

Further curiosities on science and magic

The recent movie “Prestige” developed, in many of our readers, curiosities and inspirations about the connections between science and magic: two fields which most glorious era coincided, as we remebered in our recent Robert-Houdin article.
The great first Victorian exemple was perhaps “Pepper’s Ghost”. Virtually every handbook or encyclopedia of theatre depicts the working of this stage invention, here proposed in a popular print from our collection. The invention of this mechanical projection of a ghost upon a stage was originated by Henry Dirks and John Henry Pepper of the Royal Polytechnic Institution in London, 1863. Its complicate history of fights and patents, subterfuges and variations, is not far from the atmosphere depicted in “Prestige”. But for their passionate narration, we suggest the literary achievements of Jim Steinmeyer.
Instead, we call your attention on the less known theatrical application of the said invention. Principally, it was used neither for standard magic shows nor for the stagings of opera or drama. After his birth as science demonstration, “Pepper’s Ghost” was used by theatrical companies specialized in dramatizations of the invention in popular circuits.
This poster from 1893, is from one of them: the now forgotten “Mr.Smith’s Original Pepper Ghost’s and Spectral Opera Company” (preserved in the London Public Record Office).
What exactly did a spectral opera company? They built the apparatus on and under the stage, then presented some sort of ghost variety show. It consisted in a selection of famous scenes from dramas, novels, or operas in wich at least a ghost included. We have of course some doubts on the acting talent of companies as Mr.Smith’s in playing the likes of Faust or Lancashire Witches. And we are more perplexed at the eventual singing abilities in selections from Flying Dutchman; or at the accuracy in the dramatization of literary classics as Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Christmas Carol.
But we firmly believe that the prestige was perfectly crafted, and the manifestations of spectres, evil or saints, was for the audience more thrilling at the times than any movie magic of today.

1 comment:

larry allen dean said...

Dear sir,
My name is Larry allen Dean,I am a Wild Animal Trainer who has had the good fortune of working in the circus business for the last 33 years.I had the opportunity to do a bit of a European tour while working a lion group for Jim Clubb.
While training a small group of lions in Florida I had the pleasure to meet a Swiss couple, known as Hans and Rosemary.I believe they came to America with the Peters Lions to the Ringling show.they then spent some time at the Kay Rosaire compound in Sarasota,Florida,then after touring the USA they returned to Sarasota before returning to Europe. I think they now live in Spain,possibly.
We never discussed them writing circus books,but we did speak at some length about them training leopards for circuses and Galas.
I am wondering if this is the same Hans and Rosemary that have authored these great books on animal trainers and animals in circuses.
And if this is NOT the Hans and Rosemary that I have refered to,Do you know of whom I speak and how to contact them. I have lost their address & phone number and would like to re-establish contact with them,as they are some of the kindest people I have had the opportunity to meet in my travels around the world with circuses.
I would certainly appreciate any help you could give me in this matter. My current contact info is :
Larry allen Dean
1310 Horseshoe Creek Rd.
Davenport,Florida,USA 33837
Telephone number:863-307-6165
Thanking you in advance for your help.and noting that your contributions to Buckles Blog are greatly appreciated and much discussed here in America

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