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Dead medium: Robertson's Phantasmagoria
From: bruces@well.com (Bruce Sterling)
Source(s): The Female Thermometer: 18th-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny by Terry Castle Oxford University Press, 1995 ISBN 0-19-508097-1

(((More excellent material from Professor Terry Castle's fine work. My hat is off to her for her meticulously detailed research on Etienne-Gaspard Robertson, a little- known titan of dead media.)))

page 148

"When he (((Robertson))) returned to Paris he began producing even more elaborate and bizarre spectacles in the crypt of an abandoned Capuchin convent near the Place Vendome. Here, amid ancient tombs and effigies, Robertson found the perfect setting for his optical spectre-show == a kind of sepulchral theatre, suffused with gloom, cut off from the surrounding city streets, and pervaded by (as he put it) the silent aura of 'des mysteres d'Isis.' His memoirs, along with a surviving 'Programme Instructif' from the early 1800s, provide a picture of a typical night in the charnel house. At seven o'clock in the evening spectators entered through the main rooms of the convent, where they were entertained with a preliminary show of optical illusions, trompe l'oeil effects, panorama scenes, and scientific oddities.

"After passing through the 'Galerie de la Femme Invisible' (a ventriloquism and speaking-tube display orchestrated by Robertson's assistant 'Citoyen Fitz- James'), one descended at last to the 'Salle de la Fantasmagorie.' Here, the single, guttering candle was quickly extinguished, and muffled sounds of wind and thunder (produced by 'les sons lugubres de *Tamtam*') filled the crypt. Unearthly music emanated from an invisible glass harmonica.

"Robertson then began a somber, incoherent speech on death, immortality, and the unsettling power of superstition and fear to create terrifying illusions. He asked the audience to imagine the feelings of an ancient Egyptian maiden attempting to raise, through necromancy, the ghost of her dead lover at a ghastly catacomb: 'There, surrounded by images of death, alone with the night and her imagination, she awaits the apparition of the object she cherishes. What must be the illusion for an imagination thus prepared!'

(((footnote: "A surviving program from early 1800 entitled 'Fantasmagorie de Robertson,' containing a list of experiments and illusions performed at the Cour des Capucines, is located in the University of Illinois library.')))

"At last, when the mood of terror and apprehension had been raised to a pitch, the spectre-show itself began. One by one, out of the darkness, mysterious luminous shapes == some seemingly close enough to touch == began to surge and flit over the heads of the spectators.

"In a 'Petit Repertoire Fantasmagorique' Robertson listed some of the complex apparitions he produced on these occasions. Several, we notice, specifically involved a metamorphosis, or one shape rapidly changing into another == an effect easily achieved by doubling two glass slides in the tube of the magic lantern over one another in a quick, deft manner. Thus the image of 'The Three Graces, turning into skeletons.'

"But in a sense the entire phantasmagoria was founded on discontinuity and transformation. Ghostly vignettes followed upon one another in a crazy, rapid succession. The only links were thematic: each image bore some supernatural, exotic, or morbid association. In selecting his spectral program pieces Robertson drew frequently upon the 'graveyard' and Gothic iconography popular in the 1790s. Thus the apparition of 'The Nightmare,' adapted from Henry Fuseli, depicted a young woman dreaming amid fantastic tableaux; a demon pressing on her chest held a dagger suspended over her heart. In 'The Death of Lord Lyttleton,' the hapless peer was shown confronting his famous phantom and expiring.

"Other scenes included 'Macbeth and the Ghost of Banquo,' 'The Bleeding Nun,' 'A Witches' Sabbath,' 'Young Interring his Daughter,' 'Proserpine and Pluto on their Throne,' 'The Witch of Endor,' 'The Head of Medusa,' 'A Gravedigger,' 'The Agony of Ugolino,' 'The Opening of Pandora's Box.' Interspersed among these were single apparitions familiar from the earlier phantasmagoria shows == often the bloody 'revolutionary' spectres of Rousseau, Voltaire, Robespierre, and Marat.

"Robertson concluded his shows with a rousing speech and a macabre coup de theatre. 'I have shown you the most occult things natural philosophy has to offer, effects that seemed supernatural to the ages of credulity,' he told the audience; 'but now see the only real horror... see what is in store for all of you, what each of you will become one day: remember the phantasmagoria.' And with that, he relit the torch in the crypt, suddenly illuminating the skeleton of a young woman on a pedestal."