On the site of the old flower market in Covent Garden, not far from where in stage literature Professor Henry Higgins first met his Eliza Doolittle, an extraordinary new museum, dedicated to the performing arts, has blossomed forth.
The Theatre Museum, which marked its first birthday a week ago, is, besides a repository for one of the most extensive collections of theatrical material in the world ranging from a human skull Victor Hugo once presented to Sarah Bernhardt to Beatles memorabilia a theatrical experience unto itself.Entering the museum, which is a branch of the historic Victoria and Albert, Great Britain's museum of art and design, you are first greeted near the portals by the gigantic Angel of the Spirit of Gaiety, a sculpture that once adorned the top of the old Gaiety Theatre, Aldwych. You then buy a ticket (about $4) at a box office that was originally designed by Cecil Beaton for the Duke of York's Theatre in St. Martin's Lane.
As you make your way to the various main galleries, you pass an ancient wind machine once used at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, with clackers that announced the footsteps of Jack the Giant Killer in long ago Christmas pantomimes, and a complete set of "artillery" effects, which put the thunder in those old-fashioned melodramas.
There is an elephant-decorated, double-tiered box from the long-demolished Glasgow Palace Variety Theatre, where visiting London players, legend says, always prayed they'd "get off the stage alive." And if you look closely in one half-darkened corner on the way, you'll discover the wheelbarrow the famous 19th century acrobat Blondin once pushed across Niagara Falls on a tightrope blindfolded.
Stage enthusiasts, literally walking through the history of English theater from the Shakespearean era to pop and rock, marvel at the ancient manuscripts, engravings of century-old showcases, programs and fascinating stage props, among them a ring worn by Ellen Terry in "Charles I" in 1872; a scarab ring worn by the great Henry Irving and donated by a more recently departed player, Sir Donald Wolfit; the earrings Nijinsky wore as the golden slave in "Scheherazade" at the Paris Opera; and scores of elaborate costumes worn by some of the most famous theatrical figures in history. Memorabilia from opera, ballet, circus, dance and puppetry are everywhere.
The museum's paintings collection offers oils and watercolors of celebrated players in their best remembered roles, arranged in a handsome foyer that resembles the lounge of an elegant Edwardian theater.
Besides being a place of enormous visual pleasure for theater enthusiasts, the Theatre Museum is also a boon to scholars. Its library (with 20,000 books and periodicals) offers research to readers by appointment, and new premises are being prepared elsewhere in London for its internationally renowned archives. On hand, for example, is a complete record of every live performance in England from the 18th century onward. When a play opens anywhere in the British Isles today, a program is automatically sent to the Theatre Museum.
The Theatre Museum did not spring forth easily or overnight. Its parent, the Victoria and Albert, has long been a repository for theater design and in 1924 was willed an extraordinary collection of theatrical memorabilia belonging to Gabrielle Enthoven, a legendary collector.
The notion of a permanent, separate home for this and other collections, mostly acquired by donation, was first raised in 1955 in a letter to the London Times by Laurence Irving, a grandson of the actor, Henry Irving.
For the next decade, it was touch and go. With the general public firmly behind the project, work on the building finally began early in 1984, and this city's revitalized Covent Garden, with shops and cafes taking over the old produce markets, has proved to be the ideal location.
The new museum, incidentally, is not merely content with providing a historical pageant of entertainment history from the time of Shakespeare's Globe to the present (there's even a juke box on the premises for a current special show, "A Record of Pop-Images of a Decade").
A handsome studio theater with 70 seats provides the setting for a regular program of plays, lectures and other entertainments at very modest admission charges. "We feel this is one of the most important functions of our museum," says Elaine Baines, general manager. "A Diaghilev poster can't tell you anything really about a Nijinsky performance and a Beatles poster can't tell you what they sounded like. Live entertainment can."
The museum also maintains an exceptionally attractive cafe and wine bar with a stunning Anthony Holland mural of an entire theater audience looking at you, as if you were on stage. As the museum is located in the middle of the city's "Theaterland," it makes an appealing and reasonable place for dining before the show.
Currently the Theatre Museum in fact, all of London is honoring one of its most distinguished players, Sir John Gielgud, who recently marked his 84th birthday. He is attracting sellout houses, along with Rosemary Harris and Ray McAnally in Hugh Whitemore's "The Best of Friends." An entire exhibition "John Gielgud, A Celebration of His Work in the Theatre" is being held through August.
In a special room, you can hear recordings of Gielgud's voice, reciting lines from "Hamlet," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "The Importance of Being Earnest" and "The Tempest."
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