Recently I’ve been reflecting on Victorian pastimes, forms of entertainment that your and my great-grandparents might have enjoyed. As well as chess, checkers, charades and myriad card games like canasta, there was also a popular game said to have originated in China that used small stones known as “mahjongg” which could be a topic for a future column.
However, the game discussed today did not use cards, checkers, chess pieces, or tiles. Using people and a minimum of props, it was known as a tableau vivant (French for “living picture”). This entertainment combines aspects of theater and visual arts. Tableau – the plural form is “tableaux vivands” – was a kind of elegant entertainment of the second half of the 19th century. I’ve never seen a tableau live but would love to; I might even take part in such entertainment, which some have described as “an elevated form of pantomime.”
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The concept was to use people and props to recreate a famous painting, photograph or statue and have the other guests try to guess the name of what was being recreated. I assume the group took turns being part of the “picture” and guessing what was being presented. Another variation was to use a bright light behind the “actors” to project their silhouettes onto a screen, thus naming the painting or photograph by just the projected dark/light image.
For example, if you want to create a tableau with just one person, you could have a lady standing on a chair or low table, holding a large book in her left arm at about waist height, and raising a flashlight or small lamp in her right hand. It would be a tableau of “The Statue of Liberty Lights Up the World,” which is the real title of the Statue of Liberty.
If you had the time and resources, you could drape your Lady Liberty in a sheet or two to resemble the Statue of Liberty’s flowing gown. You could even place a series of lamps around the base of the chair to simulate Lady Liberty’s lighting on Liberty Island in New York Harbor.
Another easily staged tableau would be the 1851 painting Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze. Have a number of people pretend to streak behind him with brooms, mops, rakes, etc. The best would be the “Betsy Ross flag” with the thirteen stars arranged in a circle, if available. Some pillows on the ground next to the group would protrude into the river as large chunks of ice.
You could easily make a tableau of the image that appears in the opening of The Simpsons TV show, where the family members (left to right Homer, Marge, Lisa, Maggie, Bart) rush to their seats on their red couch. Tableau are usually made without movement, so the five “Simpsons” would already be sitting on the couch instead of running on it when the scene is revealed.
A great patriotic tableau might be the US Marine Corps’ Iwo Jima Memorial, derived from Robert Capra’s iconic photograph, which was incorporated into the larger than life bronze statue in Washington, DC. Here six men (or a mix of men and women dressed like soldiers). ) and a large American flag are all you would need, the six are carefully positioned to look like they are “raising the flag on Mount Suribachi” during this WWII battle.
Another simple painting to recreate as a tableau would be Grant Wood’s famous “American Gothic”. Only one man and one woman are involved, with the man holding something like a pitchfork, broom, or shovel. Something suggesting a house in the background would complement the presentation.
If you go to google and type in “20 modern remakes of famous paintings” you will find some good examples of what I’m trying to suggest. You’ll find that the “remakes” aren’t exact copies of the originals, but rather suggestions.
In addition to ‘live’ presentations on a stage with opening curtains, Powerpoint photo projections of the original artworks and subsequent representation of the replicas by actors would make for an interesting presentation.
My friend William C. “Bill” Moose told me that he had read in old local newspapers that from time to time the young ladies of Mitchell College presented pictures at college social events.
A revival of the tableau could also be a clever – that is, underhanded – way to get students interested in art and iconic photographs.
OC Stonestreet is the author of Tales From Old Iredell County, They Called Iredell County Home, and Once Upon a Time…in Mooresville, NC.