Berney’s Music Box Theatre

Vintage, handmade wood and Venetian paper musical theatre box in the Commedia dell’ Arte tradition, bought on the Piazza Navona in Rome, Italy, at Al Sogno* the old toyshop, in the early 1990s by Rose for her mother, Berney, who had fond memories of playing with a similar toy theatre in her childhood in Ireland the 1930s. Berney Doyle, née Connolly, was born in 1929, and lived in Anne St in the centre of Limerick.

Photo of Berney (in bonnet), taken by a street photographer in Kilkee, Co. Clare c.1930-31

Berney, second from the left, back row. St Vincent de Paul school choir c.1941

Berney with her mother, Essie. Perhaps on a visit to Essie’s sister Chrissie in Stratford-upon-Avon

The theatre is a model of La Fenice theatre in Venice. The backdrop shows gondolas on the Grand Canal. Made of wood covered with printed paper, plus metal, and wires. The mechanism is hidden in the theatre roof. It measures 21cm across and is 20cm high, and comes with its own cardboard box, covered in a floral design paper. 

Commedia dell’ Arte:

Music box theatres and toy theatre types:

Toy theatres, primarily for use by children, were popular in Europe during the late 18th and early 19th century. Toy theatre dimensions are generally around 10 to 12 inches in height when assembled, made from lightweight wood or hard cardboard, decorated with printed paper as miniature representations of plays, operas, entertainments, or as mementos of the events. Sheets accompanying the theatres contained parts from which to assemble the proscenium façade, scenery and figures for use in the play. 

Hobbyists often went to great pains to not only hand-colour their stages but to embellish their toy theatre personae with bits of cloth and tinsel; tinsel print characters could be bought pre-tinselled, or a wide range of supplies for home tinselling could be bought. Just as the toy-sized stages diminished a play’s scale, their corresponding scripts tended to abridge the text, paring it down to key characters and lines for a shorter, less complicated presentation.

Children’s authors Lewis Carroll, Hans Christian Andersen, and Oscar Wilde had an interest in toy theatre as did brothers, Jack and William Butler Yeats, who used toy theatres as mock-ups for their work in art and stagecraft.

The artist Jack Butler Yeats, son of painter John B. Yeats and brother of poet William B. Yeats, loved toy theater, and wrote and performed plays every Christmas for local children. Included in Jack B. Yeats, Collected Plays, is Yeats’ introduction to his plays for toy theater, My Miniature Theatre. In it Yeats says: “As to the plays, I write them myself. So what shall I say of them but that I like the piratical ones best.”

Photo courtesy The Collected Plays of Jack B. Yeats by Robin Skelton
Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1971

The Toy Theatre by Jack B, Yeats 1871-1957:

Robert Hume, in the Irish Examiner says: These ( Toy Theatres) have a long history in Ireland. A watercolour (c.1910) by WB Yeats’s brother, Jack, depicts a boy playing with a toy theatre similar to the ones he constructed to entertain children.

“What more enchanting way of spending the afternoon of Christmas Day than to produce one’s own pantomime at home?” asked the Cork Examiner in 1951. 

Not only was there Blackbeard the Pirate; for five shillings you could share the thrills of a full-colour pantomime production of Aladdin or Cinderella. 

A model theatre, the newspaper continued, is “more than just a toy”: it helps understand scenery, lighting and costume design in the real theatre.

Rose Doyle’s family lived on the Ennis Road in Limerick City from 1957 to 2023, in a semi-detached house with gardens back and front. Rose was born in 1959 and she was a bit older than the next two siblings, and more than a decade older than the youngest. She was careful with her special toys; she was allowed to play with some of them only on Sundays and her siblings generally preferred other kinds of toys. That’s why many of these toys survived, in relatively good condition while lots of other toys, fondly remembered and played with by everyone in the family in turn (plus their friends), fell apart and were thrown out.

Rose donated her collection to the Museum of Childhood Ireland in 2023.