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Dead medium: the Travelling Panorama
From: (Bruce Sterling)
Source(s): Mark Twain, Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852-1890, The Library of America, 1992
ISBN 0-940450-36-4

pages 178-183

(((This excerpt is from a Mark Twain sketch dated November

18, 1865, and entitled "'Mark Twain' on the Launch of the

Steamer 'Capital': I Get Mr Muff Nickerson to Go with Me

and Assist in Reporting the Great Steamboat Launch. He

Relates the Interesting History of the Travelling


(((The travelling panorama was quite different from

its contemporary the cyclorama. The portable panorama did

not make use of visual tricks of perspective and did not

surround the viewer. The travelling panorama was a very

long canvas painting on rollers, which was sequentially

scrolled past the eyes of the audience inside a darkened

tent, accompanied by a narrative and sometimes music.

(((Twain's anecdote conveys certain points of direct

interest to dead media students. Note the inherent

hazards of primitive multimedia when its various elements

are poorly rehearsed. The rhetorical flavor of the

narration is remarkable. It's interesting to learn that a

travelling panorama crew involved the showman himself, a

ticket-taker doorguard bouncer/treasurer, and "supes"

behind the stage, as well as the (in this case, deeply

disoriented) musician. I note also the fascinating

discovery that a large demographic segment of the

audience went to panoramas just to neck in the dark.

Bruce Sterling)))


[I give the story on Mr Nickerson's own language.]

There was a fellow travelling around, in that

country, (said Mr Nickerson,) with a moral religious show

== a sort of a scriptural panorama == and he hired a

wooden-headed old slab to play the piano for him. After

the first night's performance, the showman says:

"My friend, you seem to know pretty much all the

tunes there are, and you worry along first-rate. But then

didn't you notice that sometimes last night the piece you

happened to be playing was a little rough on the

proprieties so to speak == didn't seem to jibe with the

general gait of the picture that was passing at the time,

as it were == was a little foreign to the subject, you

know == as if you didn't either trump or follow suit, you


"Well, no," the fellow said; he hadn't noticed, but

it might be; he had played along just as it came handy.

So they put it up that the simple old dummy was to

keep his eye on the panorama after that, and as soon as a

stunning picture was reeled out, he was to fit it to a dot

with a piece of music that would help the audience get the

idea of the subject, and warm them up like a camp-meeting

revival. That sort of thing would corral their

sympathies, the showman said.

There was a big audience that night == mostly middle-

aged and old people who belonged to the church and took a

strong interest in Bible matters, and the balance were

pretty much young bucks and heifers == *they* always come

out strong on panoramas, you know, because it gives them a

chance to taste each other's mugs in the dark.

Well, the showman began to swell himself up for this

lecture, and the old mud-dobber tackled the piano and run

his fingers up and down once or twice to see that she was

all right, and the fellows behind the curtain commenced to

grind out the panorama. The showman balanced his weight

on his right foot, and propped his hands on his hips, and

flung his eye over his shoulder at the scenery, and says:

"Ladies and gentlemen, the painting now before you

illustrates the beautiful and touching parable of the

Prodigal Son. Observe the happy expression just breaking

over the features of the poor suffering youth == so worn

and weary with his long march: note also the ecstasy

beaming from the uplifted countenance of the aged father,

and the joy that sparkles in the eyes of the excited group

of youths and maidens and seems ready to burst in a

welcoming chorus from their lips. The lesson, my friends,

is as solemn and instructive as the story is tender and


The mud-dobber was all ready, and the second the

speech was finished he struck up:

"Oh, we'll all get blind drunk
When Johnny comes marching home!"

Some of the people giggled, and some groaned a

little. The showman couldn't say a word. He looked at

the piano sharp, but he was all lovely and serene == *he*

didn't know there was anything out of gear.

The panorama moved on, and the showman drummed up his

grit and started in fresh:

"Ladies and gentlemen, the fine picture now unfolding

itself to your gaze exhibits one of the most notable

events in Bible History == our Savior and his disciples

upon the Sea of Galilee. How grand, how awe inspiring are

the reflections which the subject invokes! What sublimity

of faith is revealed to us in this lesson from the sacred

writings! The Savior rebukes the angry waves, and walks

securely upon the bosom of the deep!"

All around the house, they were whispering: "Oh, how

lovely! How beautiful!" and the orchestra let himself

out again:

"Oh, a life on the ocean wave,
And a home on the rolling deep!"

There was a good deal of honest snickering turned on

this time, and considerable groaning, and one or two old

deacons got up and went out. The showman gritted his

teeth and cursed the piano man to himself, but the fellow

sat there like a knot on a log, and seemed to think he was

doing first-rate.

After things got quiet, the showman thought he would

make one more stagger at it, anyhow, though his confidence

was beginning to get mighty shaky. The supes started the

panorama to grinding along again, and he says:

"Ladies and gentlemen, this exquisite painting

illustrates the raising of Lazarus from the dead by our

Savior. The subject has been handled with rare ability

by the artist, and such touching sweetness and tenderness

of expression has he thrown into it, that I have known

peculiarly sensitive persons to be even affected to tears

by looking at it. Observe the half-confused, half-

inquiring look, upon the countenance of the awakening

Lazarus. Observe, also, the attitude and expression of

the Savior, who takes him gently by the sleeve of his

shroud with one hand, while he points with the other

toward the distant city."

Before anybody could get off an opinion in the case,

the innocent old ass at the piano struck up:

"Come rise up, William Ri-i-ley,
And go along with me!"

It was rough on the audience, you bet you. All the

solemn old flats got up in a huff to go, and everybody

else laughed till the windows rattled.

The showman went down and grabbed the orchestra, and

shook him up, and says:

"That lets you out, you know, you chowder-headed old

clam! Go to the doorkeeper and get your money, and cut

your stick! == vamose the ranch!"