Ancient Mysteries Described

Source: William Hone, Ancient Mysteries Described, Especially the English Miracle Plays, Founded on Apocryphal New Testament Story, Extant Among the Unpublished Manuscripts in the British Museum etc. (London: William Hone, 1823), pp. 230-231

Text: The English puppet-show was formerly called a motion. Shakspeare [sic] mentions the performance of Mysteries by puppets; his Autolycus frequented wakes, fairs, and bear-baitings, and ‘compassed a motion of the Prodigal Son’ On a Twelfth night, in 1818, a man, making the usual Christmas cry, of ‘Gallantee show,’ was called in to exhibit his performances for the amusement of my young folks and their companions. Most unexpectedly, he ‘compassed a motion of the Prodigal Son‘ by dancing his transparencies between the magnifying glass and candle of a magic lanthorn, the coloured figures greatly enlarged, were reflected on a sheet spread against the wall of a darkened room. The prodigal son was represented carousing with his companions at the Swan Inn, at Stratford; while the landlady in the bar, on every fresh call, was seen to score double. There was also Noah’s Ark, with ‘Pull Devil, Pull Baker,’ or the just judgment upon a baker who sold bread short of weight, and was carried to hell in his own basket. The reader will bear in mind, that this was not a motion in the dramatic sense of the word, but a puppet-like exhibition of a Mystery, with discrepancies of the same character as those which peculiarized the Mysteries of five centuries ago. The Gallantee-showman narrated with astonishing gravity the incidents of every fresh scene, while his companion in the room played country-dances and other tunes on the street organ, during the whole of the performance. The manager informed me that his show had been the same during many years, and, in truth, it was unvariable; for his entire property consisted of but this one set of glasses, and his magic lanthorn. I failed in an endeavour to make him comprehend that its propriety could be doubted of: it was the first time that he had heard of the possibility of objection to an entertainment which his audiences witnessed every night with uncommon and unbounded applause. Expressing a hope that I would command his company at a future time, he put his card into my hand, inscribed, ‘The Royal Gallantee Show, provided by Jos. Leverge, 7, Ely Court, Holborn Hill:’ the very spot whereon the last theatrical representation of a Mystery, the play of Christ’s Passion, is recorded to have been witnessed in England.

Comments: William Hone (1780-1842) was a British satirist, bookseller and campaigner against censorship. A Galantee show was one provided by a travelling entertainer of the first half of the nineteenth century, whose entertainments could include magic lanterns, puppets, shadows shows etc. Autolycus is a character in William Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale. Hone’s book Ancient Mysteries Described traces the history of the English miracle and mystery plays, and here finds traces of their survival in the magic lantern show performed for a child audience.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

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