Phantasmagoria: Séance and Seanceability

This post was contributed by Helen-Frances Pilkington, who is currently studying for an Arts and Humanities PhD at Birkbeck’s School of Arts.

Seance and Seanceability - PhantasmagoriaTaking over the Birkbeck Cinema at 43 Gordon Square on Friday evening for Arts Week was the learned *Professor H…..* and his two assistants for a Phantasmagoria show.

The evening recounted the history of phantasmagoria shows in France, Germany and Austria before appearing in England in 1801. Using a magic lantern, Professor H….. (Mervyn Heard) demonstrated many slides from phantasmagoria shows. Slides from these early shows were hand painted and could consist of multiple plates which could be moved to create the illusion of, for example, eyes moving in a skull or a magician’s wand moving.

Against this backdrop of spectacular images, the assistants retold the story of the phantasmagoria beginning with the effects produced by Johann Schröpfer in Leipzig in the 1770s. Claiming to be a necromancer, Schröpfer invited guests to his house for seances.

Having drugged his guests with punch and delivered his introductory speech couched in apocalyptic and mystical jargon, they were led through to the shrouded back room and treated to the show which included fog, magic lantern projections and his household dressed as spirits.

From there, we moved to Vienna and the 1790s with Paul de Philipsthal under his stage name of Philidor. Promising rational entertainment rather than deception, Philidor’s show combined darkness with moving ghosts of well-known figures projected using shadows and magic lanterns.

Philidor then moved to Paris in 1792, shortly after the capture of Louis XVI, and renamed his show Phantasmagorie. One witness of these shows was Marie Tussaud who recorded the uproar which resulted when a slide of Louis XVI appeared; Philidor was arrested but later released after his widow bribed Robespierre and left France.

With Philidor out of Paris, assumed by many to be dead, the stage was free for a new performer: enter Etienne Gaspard Robertson in 1798 and his show Fantasmagorie. Combining apparitions, galvanism experiments and music on the harmonica, the show was a great success. Robertson also began to include images of spirits from fiction, especially the gothic novel, transforming the phantasmagoria away from the mystical into fully-fledged entertainment.

The Phantasmagoria arrived in London in 1801 at the Lyceum theatre with Philidor making a reappearance from the ‘grave’. The audience were plunged into darkness and the doors locked before Philidor projected various images onto a screen. These images flew around the screen and rushed towards the viewers. Within weeks, other projection shows appeared in London and quickly spread throughout Britain. The continued popularity of projections continued through the nineteenth century and still continues to delight today.

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