The Toy Theatre

There is only one reason why all grown-up people do not play with toys;
and it is a fair reason. The reason is that playing with toys
takes so very much more time and trouble than anything else.
Playing as children mean playing is the most serious thing in the world;
and as soon as we have small duties or small sorrows we have to
abandon to some extent so enormous and ambitious a plan of life.
We have enough strength for politics and commerce and art and philosophy;
we have not enough strength for play. This is a truth which every one
will recognize who, as a child, has ever played with anything at all;
any one who has played with bricks, any one who has played with dolls,
any one who has played with tin soldiers. My journalistic work,

which earns money, is not pursued with such awful persistency as that
work which earned nothing.

. . . . .

Take the case of bricks. If you publish a book to-morrow
in twelve volumes (it would be just like you) on "The Theory
and Practice of European Architecture," your work may be laborious,
but it is fundamentally frivolous. It is not serious as the work
of a child piling one brick on the other is serious; for the simple
reason that if your book is a bad book no one will ever be able
ultimately and entirely to prove to you that it is a bad book.
Whereas if his balance of bricks is a bad balance of bricks,
it will simply tumble down. And if I know anything of children,
he will set to work solemnly and sadly to build it up again.
Whereas, if I know anything of authors, nothing would induce you
to write your book again, or even to think of it again if you
could help it.

Take the case of dolls. It is much easier to care for an educational
cause than to care for a doll. It is as easy to write an article on
education as to write an article on toffee or tramcars or anything else.
But it is almost as difficult to look after a doll as to look after
a child. The little girls that I meet in the little streets of Battersea
worship their dolls in a way that reminds one not so much of play
as idolatry. In some cases the love and care of the artistic symbol
has actually become more important than the human reality which it was,
I suppose, originally meant to symbolize.

I remember a Battersea little girl who wheeled her large baby sister
stuffed into a doll's perambulator. When questioned on this course of
conduct, she replied: "I haven't got a dolly, and Baby is pretending
to be my dolly." Nature was indeed imitating art. First a doll had
been a substitute for a child; afterwards a child was a mere substitute
for a doll. But that opens other matters; the point is here that such
devotion takes up most of the brain and most of the life; much as if
it were really the thing which it is supposed to symbolize. The point
is that the man writing on motherhood is merely an educationalist;
the child playing with a doll is a mother.

Take the case of soldiers. A man writing an article on military strategy
is simply a man writing an article; a horrid sight. But a boy making a
campaign with tin soldiers is like a General making a campaign with live
soldiers. He must to the limit of his juvenile powers think about the
thing; whereas the war correspondent need not think at all. I remember
a war correspondent who remarked after the capture of Methuen: "This
renewed activity on the part of Delarey is probably due to his being
short of stores." The same military critic had mentioned a few
paragraphs before that Delarey was being hard pressed by a column which
was pursuing him under the command of Methuen. Methuen chased Delarey;
and Delarey's activity was due to his being short of stores.
Otherwise he would have stood quite still while he was chased.
I run after Jones with a hatchet, and if he turns round and tries
to get rid of me the only possible explanation is that he has
a very small balance at his bankers. I cannot believe that any boy
playing at soldiers would be as idiotic as this. But then any one
playing at anything has to be serious. Whereas, as I have only too
good reason to know, if you are writing an article you can say anything
that comes into your head.

. . . . .

Broadly, then, what keeps adults from joining in children's
games is, generally speaking, not that they have no pleasure
in them; it is simply that they have no leisure for them.
It is that they cannot afford the expenditure of toil
and time and consideration for so grand and grave a scheme.
I have been myself attempting for some time past to complete
a play in a small toy theatre, the sort of toy theatre
that used to be called Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured;
only that I drew and coloured the figures and scenes myself.
Hence I was free from the degrading obligation of having to pay
either a penny or twopence; I only had to pay a shilling a sheet
for good cardboard and a shilling a box for bad water colours.
The kind of miniature stage I mean is probably familiar to every one;
it is never more than a development of the stage which Skelt
made and Stevenson celebrated.

But though I have worked much harder at the toy theatre than I
ever worked at any tale or article, I cannot finish it; the work
seems too heavy for me. I have to break off and betake myself
to lighter employments; such as the biographies of great men.
The play of "St. George and the Dragon," over which I have burnt
the midnight oil (you must colour the thing by lamplight because
that is how it will be seen), still lacks most conspicuously,
alas! two wings of the Sultan's Palace, and also some comprehensible
and workable way of getting up the curtain.

All this gives me a feeling touching the real meaning of immortality.
In this world we cannot have pure pleasure. This is partly because
pure pleasure would be dangerous to us and to our neighbours.
But it is partly because pure pleasure is a great deal too much trouble.
If I am ever in any other and better world, I hope that I shall have
enough time to play with nothing but toy theatres; and I hope that I
shall have enough divine and superhuman energy to act at least one play
in them without a hitch.

. . . . .

Meanwhile the philosophy of toy theatres is worth any one's
consideration. All the essential morals which modern men need
to learn could be deduced from this toy. Artistically considered,
it reminds us of the main principle of art, the principle which
is in most danger of being forgotten in our time. I mean the fact
that art consists of limitation; the fact that art is limitation.
Art does not consist in expanding things. Art consists of cutting
things down, as I cut down with a pair of scissors my very ugly
figures of St. George and the Dragon. Plato, who liked definite
ideas, would like my cardboard dragon; for though the creature has
few other artistic merits he is at least dragonish. The modern
philosopher, who likes infinity, is quite welcome to a sheet of
the plain cardboard. The most artistic thing about the theatrical
art is the fact that the spectator looks at the whole thing through
a window. This is true even of theatres inferior to my own; even at
the Court Theatre or His Majesty's you are looking through a window;
an unusually large window. But the advantage of the small
theatre exactly is that you are looking through a small window.
Has not every one noticed how sweet and startling any
landscape looks when seen through an arch? This strong,
square shape, this shutting off of everything else is not
only an assistance to beauty; it is the essential of beauty.
The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.

This especially is true of the toy theatre; that, by reducing
the scale of events it can introduce much larger events.
Because it is small it could easily represent the earthquake in Jamaica.
Because it is small it could easily represent the Day of Judgment.
Exactly in so far as it is limited, so far it could play easily
with falling cities or with falling stars. Meanwhile the big
theatres are obliged to be economical because they are big.
When we have understood this fact we shall have understood something
of the reason why the world has always been first inspired by
small nationalities. The vast Greek philosophy could fit easier
into the small city of Athens than into the immense Empire of Persia.
In the narrow streets of Florence Dante felt that there was room
for Purgatory and Heaven and Hell. He would have been stifled
by the British Empire. Great empires are necessarily prosaic;
for it is beyond human power to act a great poem upon so great a scale.
You can only represent very big ideas in very small spaces.
My toy theatre is as philosophical as the drama of Athens.

Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Sonnet-a-Day Newsletter
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.