Reconstructing Spectacular Theatre of the 18th Century
The pantomime, Omai, or A Trip Around the World, was written by John O’Keeffe, with its scenery designed by Philip James de Loutherbourg, a Swiss artist who was the most innovative scenographer of his day. It premiered at Covent Garden Theatre in December 1785. The digital reconstruction is a collaboration between David Taylor (University of Oxford) and Arcade Ltd (https://arcade.ltd); it uses photographs of three maquettes in the Victoria & Albert Museum. The project was by sponsored by TORCH: The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities.
EMPIRE ON THE STAGE
As is suggested by the pantomime’s subtitle – A Trip Around the World – it sought to transport audiences to far-flung corners of the globe in a dizzyingly rapid-fire sequence of scenes. In the 18th century, theatre offered audiences the pleasures of vicarious travel. But this was also a period of empire, and the British stage was a powerful mechanism in creating and sustaining the fantasy of British supremacy, racially and culturally.
The titular protagonist of Omai is based on a real person: Mai, a man from Ra'iatea in the South Pacific. He was taken by Polynesia to London by Captain Cook in 1774. Once in Britain, Mai became a celebrity and curiosity – an example of a "noble savage". In the pantomime, Mai’s story becomes part of a lavish celebration of British imperial power and the spectacle of racial difference. The play ends with Omai marrying Londina (symbol of Britain), a procession of British actors dressed as the indigenous peoples of the South Pacific and Asia, and finally a ‘grand painting’ showing the apotheosis of Captain Cook. The history of British theatre, Omai reminds us, is also the history of empire and racism.
ABOUT THE THREE SCENES
1. KENSINGTON GARDENS: In this representation of Kensington Gardens in London we see the standard, perspectival setup of stage scenery in the 18th century. Flats (made of cloth or canvas supported by a wooden frame and then painted) are situated in the wings, with their positioning creating forced perspective. They sit in grooves – such as those pictured here - so that they can be moved on and off the stage with ease to facilitate rapid scene changes. At the rear of the stage is the backcloth, or drop, which would have been lowered from above. Cut-out backcloths were a signature feature of De Loutherbourg’s designs. This one allows the audience to see a further backcloth, showing Rotten Row (a bridleway in Hyde Park). As this second cloth was missing from the maquette, this reconstruction uses a contemporary image of the same site. The Kensington Gardens scene (Part 1, Scene 5) is an important one in the pantomime. In it, Omai meets his love-interest, Londina.
2. BEACH SCENE WITH WATERFALL: This set of a coastal location does not match any scene in the published text of the pantomime. In the 18th century, it was common to add scenes to pantomimes to renew the sense of novelty and spectacle. Alternatively, this set might simply belong to a different play. In any case, it is the most elaborate of the three scenes that survive as maquettes. In addition to the standard backcloth and cut-out flats, this set features: a larger cut-out flat (back right) representing a rocky slope; a low cut-out strip (known as a groundrow) that extends along the stage floor. This groundrow shows a clutter of nautical objects. Some stage lighting would likely have been hidden behind it; two smaller cut-out ground pieces, showing further nautical objects. Our reconstruction of this set is notional, as it's not clear how these various scenic elements would have been positioned.
3. INSIDE A JOURT IN THE KAMCHATKA PENINSULA: This set shows the inside of a jourt, or dwelling, in the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East. The backcloth is missing for this design. It would have hung behind the border that shows part of the ceiling of the dwelling. Comparison of this set with the drawings of John Webber, the artist who accompanied Captain Cook on his third Pacific expedition, shows just how carefully De Loutherbourg’s designs for Omai made use of Webber’s images. In this scene of the pantomime (Part 2 Scene 2), Omai and his companions are warmly received by the indigenous people of the Kamchatka Peninsula, who welcome them with singing and dancing.