In this scholarly, yet entertaining study Alan Stockwell traces the theatrical trope of a man playing a monkey. Organised in roughly chronological order the sixteen chapters survey the man-monkey as a theatrical phenomenon from its first faint stirrings by posture-masters (acrobats) to La Perouse; or the Desolate Island (1801) by John Fawcett, in which a monkey plays a central role, into the Regency period and the height of its popularity, through the Victorian era to its eventual decline on the stage and transition to other media. The author manages to clothe with dignity the practitioners of this unusual art form while effectively contrasting the often ridiculous details of their on-stage comic antics with their difficult, penurious and
even tragic lives.
Vol 73 No 3 December 2019
REVIEW from The Circus Report USA circus magazine.
I always admire those who specialize in researching obscure sections of theatrical and circus history, their tenacity and determination to get to the bottom of a facet of entertainment nobody else has ever delved into, and Stockwell is to be praised for his exhaustive research into the subject of Man-Monkeys, men who have dressed up as apes for the entertainment of the public since 1801 and he recounts their history through theatre, circus and films from the Regency theatre stage to recent cinematic blockbusters like “King Kong” and “Planet of the Apes”.
Apparently, the first play to feature an ape as a character was in “La Perouse” which became standard to the repertoire of theatres of the day, and in l825 a French dancer, Mazurier became the sensation of Paris and London by playing the lead in a ballet, “Jocko ou le Singe du Bresil”. An entire sub-genre of drama followed, encompassing the appearance of monkeys or apes, spreading to popular circus acts and America movies.
Many Regency and Victorian performers appeared as man-monkeys and were intertwined with the appearances of great clowns like Grimaldi. A number of leading acrobats and contortionists such as Edward Klischnigg appeared as man-monkeys on the stage and then in the music halls and circuses, and Mr Stockwell brings his research up to date with mention of 20th century circus performers like Fritz Roth, Natal, Norbu and the Gutis who all performed in European and American circuses.
Entertaining, well-written and well-researched, “Man-Monkeys” is certainly a diverting and intriguing new book.
Don Stacey September 2017
REVIEW from ENCORE UK showbusiness magazine
I have just finished reading this compelling book. I am not aware of any other publication covering this subject before but, having worked with many actors in skins in scores of Pantos, I was intrigued to find that, for more than two hundred or so years, men dressed as monkeys have been appearing in theatres all over the place.
Some of the characters and their stories are incredible. Imagine falling twenty feet from a broken wire dressed as a gorilla and going back on a couple of days later! Or how about Mr George Conquest who, in one production, appeared and disappeared through more than twenty trapdoors hidden around the stage. Health and safety gone mad!
This is a brilliantly researched book that brings us from the staging of 'A New Grand Historic Pantomime Drama in Two Parts called 'La Perouse; or The Desolate Island' in 1801 at the Covent Garden Theatre which featured a young man called Master Menage playing a chimpanzee, right up to the film War of the Planet of the Apes in 2017. The actors, acrobats, dancers and posture- masters in between, make for a thoroughly interesting read.
Keith Simmons August 2017
REVIEW from CALL BOY The Journal of the British Music Hall Society
MAN-MONKEYS GALORE! Thus sang W.S.Gilbert, ever-ready with an apposite phrase, in Princess Ida and it might have served as an epigraph for this fascinating story, the compelling intensity of the research and the mellow suaveness of the writing doing deserved service to the theme. From Regency times until the dawn of television, a human captivation with monkeys, arising from our seeming likeness to them, was met by a long and busy line of ‘man-monkeys’. Alan Stockwell provides a guide, biographical and chronological, to this phenomenon, one which made itself manifest in theatre, circus, music hall, variety and pantomime - plus a coda on cinema with reference to King Kong and the Planet Of The Apes. We learn of the wizardry of the cinematic techniques; we are politely reminded that Tarzan of the Apes was just a big strong bloke.
Initially, there were monkey-men in plays, such as La Perouse, where a chimpanzee has a leading role, but the notion was more readily adopted by acrobats, who delighted with the extravagance of their antics rather than, as with actors, a concentration on monkey imitation.
Alan Stockwell, in this engaging text, gives us lots to think about.
Eric Midwinter Autumn 2017
REVIEW from OLD THEATRES magazine
Alan Stockwell has a penchant for writing about unusual theatrical subjects (see our review of What's the Play and Where's the Stage in Edition 28) and this book is no exception as it treads on virgin ground.
Men dressing up as a monkey, or gorilla, goes back at least 200 years and originated in circuses with the creature playing tricks on members of the audience. Two-year-old Joseph Grimaldi was dressed as such and swung around on a chain.
An early stage representation of a chimpanzee was in the play La Perouse at Covent Garden in 1801. Based on a true story of a French navigator who disappeared in Botany Bay, the work was popular and often revived. The part was probably played in mime and likely taken by the young son of an actor in the company. Master E. J. Parsloe was one, and as a contortionist he copied the antics of real apes.
Another play was Jocko,the Brazilian Monkey, inspired by Mazurier, a French dancer who had flexible limbs. He was a role model for future performers as the genre of monkey plays extended into other titles such as Jack Robinson and the Monkey, The Dumb Savoyard and His Monkey and so forth.
E. J. Parsloe’s brother Charles, got in on the act and included sliding on a rope from the gallery to the stage. I saw this done by a variety artiste (not dressed as a monkey) at Aston Hippodrome in the early 1950s.
Artists in monkey costumes became more daring in climbing around the auditorium, taking belongings from patrons and putting them elsewhere, using stage traps, climbing scenery and so on. George Wieland, regarded as superior to Mazurier, suffered bad injuries by falling from scenery during his antics.
Mons. Gouffe (really John Hornshaw) inserted his speciality ape act into various plays, but he had difficulty in learning what he had to do, so a one-act play was devised to show his skills and it ran for many months. He played in circuses, and pleasure gardens when so many provincial theatres closed in the 1830s and 1840s.
Hervio Nano had stunted limbs which gave him an authentic appearance as his arms almost touched the floor, as with real apes. He, like Charles Parsloe, climbed though the auditorium interacting with people and slid back to the stage on a rope. Some less discerning people thought he was a real ape. Later, man monkeys devised a short acrobatic act and toured the emerging music halls
George Conquest played a gorilla and acrobatic roles at the Grecian, his father's theatre. He suffered many accidents and later switched to melodrama. His sons, Arthur and Fred, continued the man monkey tradition playing animals in pantomime and the music halls with gorilla sketches into the 20th century.
The man monkey performances began to fade as human farces took their place. One of the last was Jungle Fantasy which revived the chase along balcony fronts, and The Little Hut, which ran in the West End, and toured the halls into the 1950s. I saw it at Chelsea Palace in 1957, but was unimpressed.
Man monkeys made their way into films, more so in America than here. Some readers will recall the films King Kong, which was cloaked in trickery as Alan fully explains, and Planet of the Apes.
The amount of research undertaken is phenomenal and this must be a definitive volume on the subject.
It is difficult to imagine that anyone will not be fascinated by this volume which is well written and illustrated with potted biographies of those mentioned in the text.
One wonders what Alan will come up with next!
Ted Bottle Spring 2018
REVIEW from FIRST KNIGHT The Official Journal of the Irving Society
Man Monkeys opens the reader’s eyes to consider those performers (from Europe as well as the United Kingdom) who appeared in animal costumes as ‘man-monkeys’.
The book’s chapters refer to acting families and leading individuals in the periods of the Regency, the Victorian era, and on to modern times in early cinematic performances. They include a remarkable collection of illustrations and play bills. In the chapter on man-monkeys in music halls, Blondin, the hero of Niagara Falls, is shown as an ape in pantomime on a swinging rope. The author tells us that he has located three pictures of Blondin as an ape!
He convinces me, and I trust all his new readers, that this piece of theatre history has come truly and astonishingly alive. Another book that Alan has written with information and flair.
Frances Hughes April 2018
5.0 out of 5 stars It is clearly the result of excellent research (both theatrical and biographical)
By Independent Researcher on 1 August 2017 Verified Purchase
Alan Stockwell's book comes as no surprise to me because I am very familiar with this particular subject, but from more academic perspectives. The book is richly illustrated, devoting separate chapters to the principal performers. It is clearly the result of excellent research (both theatrical and biographical), and is well written. It will entertain the general reader (for whom I assume it has been principally written) while offering useful material for those (like myself) exploring other aspects of theatre history.
Each of the first eleven chapters focuses on a specific performer or group of performers, from the Parsloe Family in the early decades of the nineteenth century to Harvey Teasdale who died in 1904. The chapters delve into the professional and private lives of the artists, charting their triumphs and failures, injuries and injustices, legal troubles and trials, broken bones and bankruptcies. The final five chapters continue the chronological development but centre more on genres than a single performer, taking the reader from the stage to music hall, pantomime, twentieth-century forms and cinema, considering such relatively modem works as King Kong and the Planet of the Apes series, and explaining why Tarzan does not really fit the definition of a man-monkey. Throughout, audience reception ranging from adulation to disapprobation contextualizes the performances. The scholarly apparatus includes a list of key names mentioned in the main text, a glossary of theatrical terminology and extensive evidence of international archival consultation. Stockwell's use of copious illustrative material brings us directly into the milieu in which the man-monkey performers struggled to ply their trade. We see reflected in the press reports the ongoing conflicts and professional jealousies as rival performers and competing theatres vied for supremacy.
A Conjectural Time Chart at the beginning of the book helps readers follow the overlapping chronologies. Thereafter a window is opened onto the theatrical world of the day as a reflection of the societal realities of shady theatre managers and heart-broken spouses, criminally over-worked child performers, demanding landlords and vengeful stagehands. Stockwell explains how, despite their skill and athleticism, these performers were considered inferior to, and were paid less than their actor comrades. Though most of the action centres on London theatre, Stockwell also takes us to other English locations, Scotland, France and across the Atlantic to North America. And though most of the performers are from England a few were (or claimed to be) from places as diverse as Spain, China, and Japan. The author's research also reveals that practitioners came from a variety of disciplines: contortionists, comics, actors, circus performers, mimics, and dancers.
The most well-known names mentioned in the work are perhaps Joseph and J. S. Grimaldi, and Charles Blondin of Niagara-crossing fame, who starred in the pantomime Child of the Wreck; or the Faithful Ape, a version of the much reworked story of Jocko, the sagacious ape, which was one of the earliest man-monkey vehicles (138-141). And very briefly, even Dan Leno in his youth played a man-monkey (150). But the lesser lights are the real stars of Stockwell's study, as he shares the lives and careers of performers well known in their day such as Charles-Francois Mazurier, 'Monsieur' Gouffe, and Hervio Nano.
Themes addressed by Stockwell include physical courage, the role of class, injustice, originality versus imitation, the influence of the press, the fleeting nature of reputation, profit as a driving force, and disability. He depicts the significant physical and mental strain and constant dangers endured by these performers, their shifting financial fortunes, and often unfair treatment He also highlights the role of the family. Sometimes the profession itself ran in families, for example the Parsloes. But Stockwell also describes the toll the demanding profession took on spouses and children as some performers got into legal trouble or sank into alcohol abuse and/or met premature deaths due to the constant physical exertion and ever-present danger of accident and injury. For example, George Wieland, who became a "pre-eminent purveyor of grotesques"(51), "suffered a serious accident running a metal spike up one of his feet. In those days many theatres had a row of spikes between the pit and the orchestra to prevent angry people mounting the stage"(49). Numerous examples of accidents such as this one befell our man-monkey heroes as narrated throughout the text,but they soldiered on.
Because of the significant role that disability plays in the lives of the man-monkey performers, sometimes resulting from problems at birth and sometimes from later devastating injuries, and because of the timeliness and importance of this topic in our current era, it would have been useful to include a separate chapter devoted to disability as it relates to this unique professional trade. That said, Stockwell's treatise is thoroughly researched and useful for scholars in the fields of theatre history, film studies, and popular culture, and is also accessible to non-specialist readers.
M. Lee Alexander