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Robertson and the Fantasmagorie

phantasmagoria lantern screen exhibitions

Robertson’s exhibitions reflected the anticlerical outlook of the Revolution while exploiting the Capuchin convent’s residual associations of sacredness to create a mood of uneasy fear in the spectators, who filed through a series of narrow passageways into the main chapel, where the performances took place. By showtime, Robertson wrote in his memoirs, “everybody had a serious, almost mournful expression on their faces and spoke only in whispers.” 14 He then appeared and directed some preliminary remarks to his audience:

That which is about to happen before your eyes, messieurs, is not frivolous spectacle; it is made for the man who thinks, for the philosopher who likes to lose his way for an instant with Sterne among the tombs.

This is a spectacle which man can use to instruct himself in the bizarre effects of the imagination, when it combines vigor and derangement: I speak of the terror inspired by the shadows, spirits, spells and occult work of the magician: terror that practically every man experienced in the young age of prejudice and which even a few still retain in the mature age of reason (Robertson, Mémoires, vol. 1 [Paris, chez l’auteur et Librarie de Wurtz, 1831], pp. 278–279).

Robertson’s remarks played on the simultaneous realization that the projected image was only an image and yet one that the spectator believed was real. 15

After Robertson completed his extended speech, the lights were extinguished and the mood heightened still further by sound effects (rain, thunder, and chimes sounding the death toll). An apparition approached the spectators until they were ready to scream—at which point it disappeared. This was followed by a series of sad, serious, comic, gracious, and fantastic scenes (the adjectives are Robertson’s). Some pandered to the audience’s political sentiments. In one, Robespierre left his tomb, wanting to return to life (as the sans-culottes had wished soon after his execution). Lightning struck and reduced the “monster” and his tomb to powder. After the elimination of this “spectre of the Left,” images of the cherished dead were shown: Voltaire, Lavoisier, Rousseau, and other heroes of the bourgeoisie (pp. 283–284). In this “Age of Reason,” magic was secularized and turned into a source of entertainment, with a church functioning as an exhibition site.

Fantasmagorie/phantasmagoria exhibitors developed elaborate methods for creating effects and motion. Slides were projected from behind the screen, with several different lanterns used simultaneously to produce a composite image. A large stationary lantern often displayed a background on which figures projected from smaller lanterns could move. Operators of these small lanterns roamed about behind the screen to change the relative size and position of their images. The operator even controlled the intensity of light: when he approached the screen, the amount of projected light was reduced so the image would not brighten. Obviously, elaborate coordination and skilled technicians were needed to give a successful exhibition. By contrast, glass images for such exhibitions could be produced by a solitary painter. These production methods are almost the reverse of modern screen entertainments, where exhibition requires one (largely unskilled) projectionist, but production requires the coordination of many skilled artists and technicians. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, each show was unique, having much in common with a stage performance, but by the beginning of the sound era, screen exhibitions were completely standardized. Exploring the transformation of these production practices during the period between 1800 and 1930 is a crucial task for screen historiography and the “film” historian.

Robertson’s exhibitions established a sophisticated, adult, urban audience for theatrical lantern entertainments. The Industrial Revolution begun in England and the political revolution in France ensured the rapid spread of similar productions. Robertson later complained that his many imitators presented their shows across Europe without offering him financial compensation. Paul de Philipsthal gave phantasmagoria performances in London from October 1801 through April 1803, then in Edinburgh. Barber reports that a “tremendous spectacle of Phantasmagory” was given at a covered rotunda at Mount Vernon Garden in New York City. Screenings occurred three times a week (Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday evenings) at eight o’clock from late May through early June 1803. The New York Chronicle Express reported that these shows featured phantoms that “appear at a great distance, and become gradually larger, and at last disappear from the spectator” (30 June 1803). Showmen Bologna and Tomlinson, claiming to have previously entertained enthusiastic crowds in London, gave what they called the first phantasmagoria exhibition in the United States at the City Hotel in New York City on 7 November 1803. The partners advertised their phantasmagoria thus:

Wonderful display of Optical Illusions. Which introduces the Phantoms, or Apparitions of the Dead and Absent, in a way more completely illusive, than has ever yet been witnessed, as the objects freely originate in the air, and unfold themselves under various forms, and sizes such as imagination alone has hitherto painted them, occasionally assuming a figure and most perfect resemblance of the heroes and other distinguished characters of past and present times. This Spectrology professes to expose the practices of artful imposters and exorcists, and to open the eyes of those who still foster an absurd belief in Ghosts or Disembodied Spirits (New York Evening Post, 4 November 1803, p. 3). 16

The phantasmagoria was included in a three-part lantern show along with the “Skia-graphic” and “Brilliancies of Perrico.” These latter two were apparently more traditional lantern shows with the equipment located in front of the stage. The skiagraphic included scenes of an African forest and an “extensive view of the Western Ocean, storms arise, calms succeed, cloudy and serene skies alternately, ships in different situations of sailing; after which an Atlantic Hurricane and shipwreck.” The Magician; or, the Metamorphie Grotto of Merlin was a trick subject that showed “the wonderful changes of the place, and transmigration of its numerous objects.” The French Cook; or, Confusion in an English Hotel was a short comedy.

Bologna and Tomlinson, charging one dollar for admission, promised an evening that “will prove highly interesting to the spectator, and give more general satisfaction than any species of Entertainment hitherto offered in this, or any other country.” Unfortunately, as the New York Evening Post reported on 8 November, their debut was marred by difficulties, “part of the Machinery having been badly constructed through the hurry of the first representations” (p. 3). By the second showing, two days later, these problems were solved, and with adults soon charged fifty cents and children admitted at half price, their performances continued, shifting to the Union Hotel in December.

Bologna and Tomlinson may have soon returned to England, for the phantasmagoria did not debut in other American cities until somewhat later. Bostonians could not see the phantasmagoria until 18 June 1804, when a Mr. Bates performed at the Columbian Museum. His program, as reported in the Boston Gazette of 28 June 1804, included the following projections: “The Æriel Progression of Old Father Time—A Female Spirit, rising from the Tomb—The King of Terror—The Ghost and Hamlet—Washington—The President of the United States—A Bust of Dr. Franklin—An Egyptian Pigmy Idol, which instantaneously changes to a Human Skull.” It was preceded by The World as It Goes; or, A Touch at the Times, a medley written and performed by Bates, consisting of character sketches, whimsical anecdotes, and comic songs. The evening concluded with Chinese fireworks. Admission was fifty cents. In the view of one enthusiastic critic:

The novel performance created a very surprising and pleasing effect; as the objects diminished on the eye of the spectator in an inconceivable and wonderful manner. Some of the Figures, indeed did not seem so perfect as others; the most particularly effective and striking were those of Time, a Female Spirit, Hamlet, Washington, and the Bust of Franklin; all of which formed striking resemblances of the objects they were intended to represent, and received general plaudits of approbation, and as we are given to understand, Mr. Bates had no direct model to frame the exhibition from—but formed it entirely from conjecture and surmise, we highly commend his ingenuity and trust (on repetition of the performance) he will, for public liberality, receive its recompense ( Independent Chronicle [Boston], 21 June 1804, p. 2).

Bates was apparently an American moving into a European-dominated practice. As Charles Pecor has demonstrated, the phantasmagoria quickly became a popular form of amusement, presented in such cities as Philadelphia (by April 1808), Baltimore, Providence, Cincinnati, Savannah, and Lexington. 17

One of the most successful early exhibitors operating in the United States was a Mr. Martin, who gave his first American show at Boston’s newly rebuilt Columbian Museum in early December 1806. His programs included the “Merry Dance and Balancing, on the Slack Rope, by an Automaton, representing a natural Boy of 5 years of age” and "curious experiments on the various gases—viz— Vital, Combustible and Mephitical. 18 The phantasmagoria performance then began, including a scene from Romeo and Juliet in which the two lovers “appear dying as in reality.” It ended with:

FROLIC DANCING and Multiplication of WITCHES. By this extraordinary and magical illusion, one Phantom will multiply to an innumerable number of them, in such a manner that the whole room will appear full of these extraordinary dancers ( Boston Gazette, 29 December 1806, p. 3).

Like Bates, Martin made the lantern only one part of a multifaceted program and likewise embraced a wide variety of subject for his phantasmagoria performances. Their use of the museum as a venue would be continued by many exhibitors (ultimately including those showing film) in the years ahead.

Martin’s performance was applauded for its novelty, and his transparencies were considered “superior to any thing of the kind, ever exhibited in this country.” 19 Within six weeks, this “celebrated artist of the théâtre de la Nouveauté in Paris” experienced what may have been the first projector-related fire in American screen history, destroying both his apparatus and the museum. Six people were killed and the damage was estimated at twenty thousand dollars. 20 Destitute, Martin advertised in the paper for a loan that would enable him to acquire a new outfit. The plea may have been successful, for he was exhibiting again by April 1808 and subsequently performed in New York, Philadelphia, Savannah, and Baltimore. While at this last city in 1811, Martin offered his equipment for sale and probably retired from the peripatetic life of a showman.

Europe continued to be the center of magic-lantern activity. In England, Henry Langdon Childe devoted his entire life to giving magic-lantern shows after having started his career as a painter for Paul de Philipsthal in 1802. By the 1830s he had developed and perfected the technique of “dissolving views,” in which one picture faded out as the next one faded in. The images were aligned on the screen and the light remained at a constant intensity, creating a smooth, gradual transition. This permitted a wide variety of effects that had not previously been possible. 21 The magic lantern was also enhanced after Sir Goldsworthy Gurney developed a new illuminant—limelight—in 1822. A flame created by applying a mixture of oxyhydrogen gas to a small cylinder of lime was first used in 1826 for lighthouses but was quickly adopted by showmen. Most equipment and hand-painted slides continued to be imported into the United States from England and France.

By the 1820s, magic-lantern exhibitions were frequently a part of programs offered at museums like Peale’s Museum and Gallery of Fine Arts at 252 Broadway in New York City. 22 In 1825–1826, Eugène Robertson, the son of Étienne Gaspar Robertson, visited the United States and attracted wide attention with his balloon ascents. During his stay, he also gave phantasmagoria exhibitions accompanied by scientific demonstrations and hydraulic experiments. He offered similar exhibitions on a return trip in 1834. 23 Such presentations were common through the 1840s and later.

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