Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project
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Pyramus and Thisbe

Arline Smith

Link to database
Video Clip: Pyramus and Thisbe
Audio Clip: Pyramus and Thisbe
Smith edited the audio from an old recording of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that she found in a junk shop, and added music by Mendelssohn.

Arline and Alan

Arline Smith and Alan Sharpe with the Pyramus and Thisbe stage
at the Chicago International Miniature Show in 2004.

In order to make a production of Shakespeare accessible to children, common practice has been to enlarge the spectacle and simplify the text.   Arline Smith’s approach to adapting A Midsummer Night’s Dream is exactly the opposite; Pyramus and Thisbe retains a traditional aesthetic and Shakespeare’s own language. Instead of altering the text, Smith changes the medium. Shakespeare in miniature is a first in the CASP archives. Pyramus and Thisbe, however, actually belongs to a distinguished history of miniature theatre dating back to the early nineteenth century. ‘Toy theatres’ (sometimes referred to as Juvenile Drama) originated before 1800, but they became a significant theatrical and cultural force when they started to replicate in miniature contemporary performances in Europe’s most popular theatres. The history of this genre progresses from hand-crafted amusement to mass produced children’s plaything to art form to collector’s item to anarchist tool. Smith’s Pyramus and Thisbe sits near the end of this continuum as both art form and collector’s item, and looks back towards the origins of miniaturized theatre.

Pyramus and Thisbe
Photo of Arline Smith’s Pyramus and Thisbe
Neptune Theatre

The Neptune Theatre, c1870” (Baldwin 152).
This photo shows a toy theatre complete with sets and characters.

In his forward to Peter Baldwin’s book Toy Theatres of the World, George Speaight recognizes the various ways that the history of toy theatre reflects important moments in human history:

The toy theatre is, indeed, important for many reasons. It was a creative domestic occupation in the family circle before children were lured to imbibe entertainment at second-hand in front of a television screen. It created a form of children’s publishing that produced objects, sometimes of remarkable beauty and sometimes of charming naïvety. Above all, it has left records of productions in the human theatre that otherwise would have vanished unrecorded into the limbo of the past. For these, and many other reasons, we should ensure that the survivors of this plaything are understood, recognized, preserved and valued. (qtd. in Baldwin 10)

Shakespeare by West
A character sheet printed by William West (1783-1854) of characters
from Shakespeare’s Henry IV ( Speaight 57).

The survivors of this art form are housed today in archives, museums, and coveted by private collectors as reminders of a simpler form of entertainment than is enjoyed by children today. As Speaight highlights, these theatres and their characters also document the history of (mostly) nineteenth century theatre – a history that would otherwise have gone unrecorded. It is their function as children’s plaything, however, that came first. As well as an amusement, toy theatres introduced children to theatre on a scale with which they could actively engage. Baldwin emphasizes that

... the whole point of such things was to perform plays in miniature; to move small cut-out figures about the stage; to bring up good fairies or bad ghosts through sliding trapdoors; to create sound effects with whistles, coconut shells and indoor fireworks and to persuade family and household servants to watch the performance. (14)

Household servants? Indeed, there is no doubt that toy theatres were a pastime of the upper classes, and that they have remained so even today. Miniature theatre in the nineteenth century recorded the style of (as well as specific performances on) the most fashionable stages in London, Paris, Nuremberg and elsewhere. Today, toy theatres, their characters, and their sets are collected by miniatures enthusiasts and sought by museums around the world. Arline Smith’s first theatre was commissioned by a private collector to serve as entertainment for guests in their home. Her second theatre went to the Museum of Miniatures in Los Angeles. With Pyramus and Thisbe, however, Smith has returned to one of miniature theatre’s original goals – the entertainment of children.


Some of the Mechanicals in costume from Arline Smith’s Pyramus and Thisbe.
From left: Nick Bottom as Pyramus, Tom Snout as Wall, Francis Flute as Thisbe.

Smith describes an evolving artistic intention during her short career with miniature theatres:

Although the initial miniature theatre I created was for entertainment purposes, I was struck by the interest shown by two young teenage boys at a [miniatures] show in the USA.
The two were rushing by when they spotted the moving figures on the stage of The Fancy Dress Ball theatre. Almost screeching to a halt, they both peered into the stage and pronounced that it was "Cool." They returned several times that day to watch the performance and inspect the lights and staging.
It occurred to me that children today rely on the two-dimensional world of film, television and computers for their entertainment. Many may have not been to a live theatre show. A three-dimensional medium such as a miniature theatre offers a more intimate connection with the viewer and, judging from the smiles on peoples' faces, it also gives them pleasure.
With this in mind, I was curious if it would be possible to present a Shakespeare play and, given the difficult text, still maintain the viewers' interest. The Pyramus and Thisbe play was chosen as an experiment, and I have found that although there is no movement in the production, audiences from 2 years to 80 years will stand for eleven minutes listening to a voice-over of the Shakespearean dialogue, wreathed in smiles. My goal is to find the funding to be able to produce a full-length version of  A Midsummer Night's Dream, and other Shakespearean plays, perhaps to show at a children's hospital or a charity event. (Smith)

Smith’s attention to her audience’s response is reminiscent of Marshall McLuhan’s famous equation that “the medium is the message;” Smith responds to the teenagers’ fascination with her theatre not by surmising that they are drawn in by the performance of ballet, but that the three-dimensional performance has captured them in a way that television or video games cannot. McLuhan proposed that the effects of different media and modes of human production are as significant as (if not more than) the content of that media. Something about the staging of theatre in miniature engages audiences of all ages in a way that television does not. Smith’s goal to bring performance in this medium to wider audiences is a form of adaptation worthy of further attention.

Forty Thieves
Scene from The Forty Thieves on a toy theatre by the
Goode Brothers of Clerkenwell, c1890 (Baldwin 48).

The genre of toy theatre that began in the early nineteenth century continued into the twentieth century, and still finds audiences today. Toy theatres are a natural fit for entertaining and educating children, and there are many examples of miniature and puppet theatres across Canada. One instance of toy theatre performance that stands out is the work of Montreal’s Petit Théâtre d’Absolu (PTA). Grounded in principles of social change and activism, the company used toy theatre to tell stories of the socialist communes in 19th century Paris (Bottenberg). They also staged a performance about the controversy surrounding the hanging of anarchists in Chicago who were accused of conspiring to bomb police at a demonstration. PTA’s brand of theatre has also found an international audience, with a performance in France at the “Rencontre internationale de théâtre de papier,” and a further tour of ‘political places’ around France (Bottenberg). This incarnation of toy theatre certainly stands apart from the miniature reproductions of live theatre that started the genre. It does, however, bring the focus back to people, and to industrious activity.

Montreal Mirror
A toy theatre production by Montreal's Petit Théâtre d’Absolu (Bottenberg).

Toy theatres of the early nineteenth century worked to engage children in the high culture of the theatre. It also provided “endless amusement, combined with rational instruction, to the youthful classes of Society” (qtd. from Mander and Mitchenson 64). Both as a toy to occupy young people and as a window on Society, toy theatres engaged children with both the medium and the message. Moving away from collections and archives, modern incarnations of toy theatre such as the work of Petit Th éâtre d’Absolu, and Smith’s goals of wider public performance, return this genre to its origins.

Mat Buntin


Baldwin, Peter. Toy Theatres of the World . London: Zwemmer, 1992.

Bottenberg, Rupert. “All strung out: Next-gen puppetry champions sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll – and revolution.” 25 Apr. 2002. Montreal Mirror 13 Aug. 2004. <>.

Federman, Mark. “What is the Meaning of The Medium is the Message?” McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology. 17 Aug. 2004. <>.

Mander, Raymond and Joe Mitchenson. “A Juvenile Drama Advertisement.” Theatre Notebook 8.1 (Oct.-Dec. 1953): 64,65.

“The Osborne Collection.” Toronto Public Library. 13 Aug. 2004. <>.

Smith, Arline. Correspondence with CASP, July 2004.

Speaight, George. Juvenile Drama: The History of the English Toy Theatre . London: MacDonald & Co., 1946.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. “A Penny Plain and Twopence Coloured.” Memories and Portraits . London: William Heinemann,1924.

Stone, M. W. “Shakespeare and the Juvenile Drama.” Theatre Notebook 8.1 (Oct.-Dec. 1953): 65,66.

“Theatre History.” Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto. 13 Aug. 2004. <>.


Link to database
Video Clip: Pyramus and Thisbe.
Audio Clip: Pyramus and Thisbe.
Smith edited the audio from an old recording of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that she found in a junk shop, and added music by Mendelssohn.


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