Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
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@ElizaBTweetin: February 26, 1873: Tableaux Vivants

Posted on February 11, 2014

Eliza B. Wheaton's Diary, 21-26 February 1873

Eliza B. Wheaton's Diary, 21-26 February 1873

Mrs. Wheaton’s report of attending “Tableux and Reception by Class of 73” piqued our interest. What might be special about the date February 26th?  The March 1873 Rushlight answered our question.

    "One bright morning in Feb. we were startled by the following announcement from the Principal. “You think young ladies, that you have been defrauded, that a day which properly belongs to you has been denied you; accordingly we have decided that you may have next Wednesday as a holiday to make up for the loss of the 22nd of Feb. [George Washington’s Birthday].” We listened with breathless attention as she continued, “There will be an entertainment in the evening after which the school, with invited guests of Senior and Senior Middle classes, are invited to a reception at the Boarding House until 11 o’clock.” It is true! A holiday from half-past six in the morning until 11 o’clock at night, an entertainment, a reception, all in one day!

    "Was there ever a day long enough for so many pleasures! The day came, as all days will and through all its hours we roamed about doing as we chose. It was full of delights, one of the greatest being a turkey dinner.

     "At seven o’clock we gathered at the Seminary to see the tableaux that busy hands had so carefully prepared. They were a complete success, everyone being delighted with the mixture of beautiful, startling and droll scenes presented to our view. After two hours spent in seeing tableaux and listening to exquisite music we adjourned to the Boarding House where with happy hearts and sunny faces, promenaded the halls, while some gathered in the parlors for more quiet conversation. At ten we were summoned to the dining hall, where the tables were loaded with good things but we did not delay here very long for music soon called us away. Both instrumental and vocal music greeted our ears, but do you think it strange, when I say the young ladies seemed to care more for the singing. Good singing is a rare pleasure with us, and you would agree with me, if you heard us sing Chesterfield or Rockingham last Thursday morning. But the hours passed quickly away and ere long the bell sounded in the hall bidding us retire. It was with tired, but reluctant steps that we went to our rooms, some of us wishing that holidays and receptions came every day while others were glad that studying was to begin again the next morning."

The Class of 1873 must have practiced in advance to present tableaux vivants, in which stories are represented through a series of silent groupings and dramatic poses. Probably the audience was expected to guess the subject matter, which was usually based on well-known statues, paintings or popular and classical literature.

Home Pastimes; or Tableaux Vivants by James H. Head

Home Pastimes; or Tableaux Vivants by James H. Head

Tableaux were popular parlor and stage entertainments in the 1870s and 1880s. Our readers will recall the scene in Jane Eyre, in which Charlotte Bronte introduces the idea of Rochester marrying Blanche Ingram via tableaux.

At Wheaton, these traditions continued for many years. The celebration of Washington’s Birthday, including dressing up in 18th century costumes and wigs, continued into the 1920s, while the presentation of tableaux continued well into the 1960s in the form of Nativity Plays.

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