Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun at the British Library
Stand-up comedy, Britain’s Got Talent and self-made Youtube stars – our modern-day culture is increasingly focused around the idea that anyone, anywhere can be famous. But are these art forms really unique to our age? Exhibition Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun would suggest not.
Pulling out of the depths of their archives memorabilia and recordings of the theatrical performances of the late 19th century, the British Library seeks to show just how much of our contemporary entertainment culture we owe to this period.
The charming exhibition centres around five performers from the time: mesmerist Annie de Montfort, “Royal Conjuror” Evanion, magician John Nevil Maskelyne, circus proprietor George Sanger and “funniest man on earth” Dan Leno. By focusing on specific personalities, the curators hope to create an accessible route into the artistic spirit of the time, helping visitors make an emotional connection between then and now. Original sound recordings and special live performances by the There Will Be Fun Repertory Company will seek to capture the essence of our first forms of mass entertainment and reenact long forgotten songs and routines.
The selection is the result of a collaboration between Helen Peden, curator of printed collections at the library, and Christopher Green, a performer and writer, resulting in an exquisite exhibition that both informs and delights, transporting viewers into the back rooms of taverns and circus tents of the late 1800s. Speaking of the printed ephemera on display for the first time since their original use, Green commented that “It’s ironic that every item in this collection was made to exist for a short time, but not to be an object of attention themselves. However, these fragile items remain and give us a redolent whiff of what the live shows must have been like.”
Its timing seems apt as the art forms of the past appear to be in the cultural zeitgeist – take the plethora of stand-up comedy, circus and burlesque acts that scatter the London events pages. Plus, as the trend for all things retro seems only to grow, the brilliant range of posters and obscure knick-knacks on show will no doubt appeal. But it will likely be the live performances and late night party on the theme – set to take over the whole of the library – that will truly bring to life the theatrical traditions of Victorian England and their impact on what entertains us today.
There Will Be Fun is at the British Library from 14th October 2016 until 12th February 2017, for further information visit here.