- Introduction -
If we had to write a History of the staging of children’s stories, we would probably have to begin by assuming that there were moments of mystery and fascination which resulted from the shadows cast by the fires of primitive men on cave walls. However, we only have the traces left of those first hands and, perhaps, the most remote origin of performances for children may be found in the shadow theatre, a performance technique used by ancient cultures in Egypt, Greece, Rome and, particularly, in Asia, where these performances are still being offered today, and are also very much appreciated by grown-up audiences—in Thailand, Japan, India and China. As a matter of fact, the connection with this latter country was so strong that shadow plays became popularly known as the theatre of “Chinese shadows.”
At any rate, if we are to be rigorous with History, the first material evidence that unmistakably points to the custom of performances for children (with or without a stage) comes from the puppets that have been preserved since the Middle Ages. As today’s school of Prague clearly shows, the art of puppetry has lasted throughout the centuries, reaching extremely high levels of quality and sophistication.
We have to make a leap of several hundred years to find the first traces of something akin to a paper stage: in the 18th century, Martin Englebrecht invented what a century later would be coined as a “diorama”: a three-dimensional landscape model that showed historical events (nativity and biblical scenes) with the purpose of educating or entertaining.
The dioramas, precursors of paper theatre, are landscapes or scenes in three dimensions. When deployed, figures and decorated prepared at various levels produce the sensation of volume and depth. For its theme and ambience almost biblical, this diorama recalls much to Martin Engelbrecht.
Provenance: probably Germany.