Freakshow Traditions And Transformations In Prague

Filip Herza
Filip Herza

The tradition of exhibiting people perceived as being “different” in Prague, Czech Republic, goes back to the beginning of the nineteenth-century. Featuring mostly a small number of “abnormal” bodies, these early exhibitions were organised in pubs, on the streets and at popular fairgrounds such as the Saint Matheus or Saint Joseph fair, addressing predominantly the “common folk” of Prague. As some personal testimonies document, character of these exhibitions remained unchanged until the 1870s.

Notable transformation of the freakshow tradition came in the last two decades of the century, following a general shift in the entertainment industry. The rapid social changes, industrialisation and the growth of the city of Prague in the third quarter of the nineteenth-century created a new broad audience of middle-class urbanites, who were — especially after the economic crisis of the 1870s-1880s was over — willing to pay to be entertained. This led to the emergence of new forms of popular mass entertainment, which in many cases adopted and transformed the older tradition of exhibiting the “corporeal otherness.”

The Freakshow, which bore the stigma of folk entertainment, which was not suitable to middle-class taste had to transform itself in order to acquire the needed respectable status and thus to win new middle-class audiences. There were at least three possible ways how promoters of the freakshow could re-package their product and sell it to new audiences.

The first way was to change the rhetoric of the exhibition. Instead of arousing shock and horror which in which both were part of the folk exhibitions, the promoters switched to focusing on more humorous ways of framing the “abnormal bodies.” This move went hand in hand with certain “types” of exhibits. A typical example would be, in this instance, the conjuncture of the “Lilliputian” exhibitions at the turn of the nineteenth-century. Freakshow promoters allegedly saw the potential of the “miniature” bodies in the context of middle-class society’s orientation of a child and thus developed certain aesthetics, which instigated the “Lilliputians” as “cute” objects of admiration and maternal emotions.

Another way to attract new audiences was to frame the exhibition as a quasi-scientific, educational programme. This led to a rich exchange between the newly emerging scientific disciplines and popular culture. Enduring contact between these two spheres affected the establishment of new scientific disciplines (anthropology, ethnography and medicine) as expert discourses, defined against the lay-popular discourses, but it also contributed to the dissemination of expert knowledge (racial theories, evolution theory) among the mass audiences.

Last but not least of the transformations of the freakshow culture was its incorporation into the newly emerging popular entertainment forms, where “freaks” appeared alongside other entertaining “specialities.” One of these new entertainment forms was represented by the Théâtre des Variétés. Offering literally a variety of entertainment forms — music, dance, magicians and circus acts — one following another in a series of rapidly changing scenes, this new type of entertainment institution well suited the sensibilities of the new urban citizens, characterised by Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin and Georg Simmel by fragmentary, rapid pace of life, volatility and hunger for new. Théâtre des Variétés, modelled after similar venues in Paris, France, was brought to Prague by entrepreneur Eduard Tichý and was established in Karlín in the year 1881. In its “specialities programme” (Národní divadlo), Théâtre des Variétés featured some of the most famous central Dollarspean “freak” performers, such as the “armless fiddler” Carl Hermann Unthan or the famous Czech “conjoined twins” Rosa and Josefa Blažek. The emerging cabaret and revue scene at the turn of the century later took up the model of “specialities programme,” while giving it a more political, satirical edge. “Freaks” kept on appearing also on various cabaret stages, for instance the programme of Cabaret U Lhotků, which featured freaks also in the last years before the First World War.

Another form of presenting “abnormal” bodies in the 1890s was the so called Panopticons, whose tradition actually reaches to the mid nineteenth-century. These were mostly travelling enterprises, which framed their exhibitions as quasi-scientific educational displays, presenting wax figurines of famous individuals (Characters from the Bible, members of the Imperial House of Habsburg family) alongside various anatomical models of the human body and technical novelties (predominantly visual stereoscopic media such as Camera Obscura or Kaiserpanorama). The exhibitions thus offered moral and patriotic education, and also commented on actual events happening in the urban space. Some of these exhibitions then combined the wax models with live “freaks acts,” which was the case of Traberovo Panoptikum Kosmos, which took place on one of the Prague’s main avenues, Ferdinandova třída (today’s Národní třída) around the year 1900). Traberovo Panoptikum Kosmos allegedly presented around one thousand wax figurines, supported by the live acts of “exotic-abnormal” performers such as the Permal and Permalloo — conjoined men from India, an Indian midget Jamagato or an abnormally fat four-year old child Marie Jouzková, from the village of Selce.

Now, how should we as scholars conceptualise this, from our perspective a rather peculiar social practice, in order to grasp its significance in the modernizing society of the late nineteenth-century?

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