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It has been said of me that I possess a tendency to over-write – this I would never deny: ask me to write ten minutes of script and I’ll deliver an hour, however when you stumble upon a narrative as fascinating as the life of the Illusionist Leopold Thorn, it’s vexing to imagine just what to leave out... The three hour epic that is “The Cabinet of Leopold Thorn” is a mammoth undertaking for performer and audience alike and I admit I have embroidered his story shamelessly where known facts run out in order to create what I hope is an intellectually and emotionally satisfying piece of theatre. Nevertheless, even if I expunged every one of my fanciful speculations about the life of the elusive conjuror and focused purely upon the verifiable account of his life, set out by his biographer P.T. Wilby in her book “The Impossible Watchmaker”, I would still have been staging a 48 hour show!
One of the many, many elements of the Magician’s life which I couldn’t fit into my first “Leopold” show, (largely because it was not entirely germane to the sequence of events I was attempting to piece together), was Thorn’s own forays into storytelling.
Leopold Thorn, as I firmly pointed out in that first play, was not a novelist, (although a couple of his fairly minor factual articles on rope escapes and mirror illusions were published in various magical periodicals of the day). However, according to his biographer, by his middle years he was a quite prolific writer of unpublished short stories.
The precise reason Leopold Thorn wrote these stories is unclear; most suspect it was purely for his own amusement, or perhaps for the entertainment of friends and family. Some chroniclers of magical history believe certain of Thorn’s stories started out as part of his Stage Act. As an illusionist he was known to possess a flair for both the scientific and the whimsical; creating Acts with such intriguing titles as, “The Brothers of Deception”, “The Shrinking Doll’s House” and “The Temporal Cabinet”. However, none of the recorded act titles during his time working at Steinmann’s Theatre of Magic in the early to mid 1890’s, squares precisely with the titles or plots of his surviving later prose, except for his wonderful romance “The Box of Then and Now” which clearly refers directly back to his infamous “Temporal Cabinet” piece and which was a major source of inspiration for me when I was composing the more fantastical aspects of my own (fictionalised) version of his life.
Leopold’s Thorn’s stories often take a form not dissimilar to fairytales, but with certain elements which remind one rather more of the “scientific romances” of Wells and Verne than the folk tales of Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson. Some feel very like children’s stories, others, whilst fantastical in aspect, are decidedly more ‘adult’ in tone; largely because they grapple with some pretty raw emotions, most notably grief and loss. A few like “The Body of the Sphinx” are properly scary, a couple including “The Borrowed Crinoline” subversively erotic, but almost all are shot through with knowing humour and a surprisingly modern mix of knowing, self-referential irony and base comedy.
Whilst his biographer estimates he wrote around 20 to 30 tales, only a handful of Thorn’s short stories come down to us verbatim – in addition to “The Box of Then and Now”, “The Clockwork Girl” is reproduced exactly in the appendices of Wilby’s biography, although it is supposed to be part of a longer, only partly completed work; variously referred to as the “The Clockwork Carnival” or “Miss Lumiere’s Carnival of Night”. “The Princess and the Candlesticks” is quoted extensively by Wilby in her chapter on Thorn’s story writing, to the extent that it is relatively easy to reconstruct a version of the tale, whereas “The Terror Beneath the Boards” is almost completely lost, apart from its title and two passing reference to it; one in Thorn’s biography, the other in a letter to Wilby from Max Steinmann’s son Thomas, whilst five others, including the partially finished draft of “Miss Lumiere” survive in personal papers written in Leopold Thorn’s own hand.
In scripting “The Storybook” cycle of plays I have attempted to resurrect Leopold’s Thorn’s fictions and use them to illuminate aspects of his own life, partly his real life and partly the wondrous life I have imagined for him, (which is in turn based a little upon his own fictions and a little upon my own personal obsessions and artistic fixations). Out of the four stories I have chosen to begin with two are a pretty faithful retelling of Thorn with myself working as adaptor / author, the other two are, one to a greater the other to a lesser degree, works of my own creation based upon Thorn’s ideas, with the stories placed in a holding-form entirely of my own invention.
I hope that in re-visiting the universe of Leopold Guestly Thorn I can illuminate more of the man, his science and his art.
DARREN GOODING 2013
East Anglian writer/performer Darren Gooding continues his exploration into the extraordinary, wondrous and occasionally downright ridiculous world of the most beguiling and mercurial of all Magicians for this brand new cycle of stage shows!
Leopold Thorn: Conjuror (professionally), Liar (reputedly), Visionary Scientist (quite possibly) and Strutting Dandy (unquestionably), is facing his most daunting challenge to date; telling bedtime stories to entertain his decidedly precocious and resolutely insomniac six year old daughter…
Patience Thorn is rewarded with a quartet of impossibly tall, interwoven tales; commencing with “The Illusionist, The Princess and the Candlesticks” - a fable of a Prussian Prince, a feisty Princess, an unwanted marriage proposal and a mysterious travelling Illusionist determined to conjure up a happy ending with naught but two candlesticks and a helium balloon…
Duration: 1 hour (No interval).