In an era before television and cinema, shadow plays offered an inexpensive form of entertainment. They were performed simply, using little cut out shapes that children could reproduce at home. One such play was “The Broken Bridge,” which may have originated in France in the 18th Century. One puppeteer, Francois Dominique Seraphin, so captivated audiences that he drew the attention of the French aristocracy. Marie Antoinette reportedly attended his shows.
Author Mary Robinette Kowal pays homage to this once-popular form of entertainment in her Jane Austen-like novel Shades of Milk and Honey. One afternoon Melody Ellsworth receives visitors in the family drawing room. Her old sister Jane is upstairs, reading to her mother from William Meinhold's gothic romance novel Sidonia The Sorceress. After awhile, her mother asks Jane to see what’s occurring in the drawing room. She creeps downstairs, where she watches Mr. Vincent performing “The Broken Bridge” for her sister Melody and the dashing Captain Henry Livingston. Weaving folds of glamour from the ether, Mr. Vincent creates small dark silhouettes on the tea table.
“A traveler, after a number of obstacles, approached a bridge, which was in the process of being destroyed by a workman with a pickax. The traveler tried to get the workman to tell him how to cross the river, and after receiving a series of increasing rude answers, he found a boat and crossed the river.”
Mary Robinette Kowal is a professional puppeteer, and she performed “The Broken Bridge” at last year’s World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, England. Afterward, she turned her stage around to show us how she constructed it. Apparently, she found a better use for cereal boxes than consigning them to the landfill.
Isn’t it amazing the way an author or a puppeteer can make a story come alive for us, can draw us into their characters, plot, and drama, can make us laugh and cry and care about what happens, and without spending hundreds of thousands, or hundreds of millions of dollars, to make a “realistic” TV episode or movie? That’s a special kind of magic, a feat that such talented people should take great pride in.
At least, that’s what I think. But then, maybe I’m just prejudiced…