Moving Panoramas in Literature

Mark Twain

Mark Twain in  "The Entertaining History of the Scriptural Panoramist" (1866), gives a fair idea of the audience for a panorama of Bible scenes in mid-century:

"There was a big audience that night, mostly middle-aged and old people who belonged to the church and took a strong interest in Bible matters, and the balance were pretty much young bucks and heifers -- they always come out strong on panoramas, you know, because it gives them a chance to taste each other's mugs in the dark."

Twain's story goes on to relate, with considerable humor, the unhappy experience of this panoramist who, having lost his musical accompanist, unknowingly hires a local drunk to play the piano during the panorama. At the most inappropriate moments, such as the scene of the happy return of the Prodigal Son, the pianist launches into drinking songs, such as "Oh, we'll all get blind drunk, when Johnny comes marching home." Humor aside, the depiction of an evening's entertainment Twain gives is a vivid and engaging one; religious subjects were increasingly common subject for panoramas later in the century, when, facing competition from newer forms of entertainment, they were more often shown in schools and churches than in large public halls. (Wikipedia)

The Entertaining History of the Scriptural Panoramist

 [I give the story in Mr. Nickerson's own language.]

There was a fellow travelling around, in that country, (said Mr. Nickerson,) with a moral religious show - a sort of a scriptural panorama - and he hired a wooden-headed old slab to play the piano for him. After the first night's performance, the show- man says:

"My friend, you seem to know pretty much all the tunes there are, and you worry along first-rate. But then didn't you notice that sometimes last night the piece you happened to be playing was a little rough on the proprieties so to speak - didn't seem to jibe with the general gait of the picture that was passing at the time, as it were - was a little foreign to the subject, you know - as if you didn't either trump or follow suit, you understand?"

"Well, no," the fellow said; he hadn't noticed, but it might be; he had played along just as it came handy.

So they put it up that the simple old dummy was to keep his eye on the panorama after that, and as soon as a stunning picture was reeled out, he was to fit it to a dot with a piece of music that would help the audience get the idea of the subject, and warm them up like a camp-meeting revival. That sort of thing would corral their sympathies, the showman said.

There was a big audience that night - mostly middle-aged and old people who belonged to the church and took a strong interest in Bible matters, and the balance were pretty much young bucks and heifers - they always come out strong on panoramas, you know, because it gives them a chance to taste one another's mugs in the dark.

Well, the showman began to swell himself up for his lecture, and the old mud-dobber tackled the piano and run his fingers up and down once or twice to see that she was all right, and the fellows behind the curtain commenced to grind out the panorama. The showman balanced his weight on his right foot, and propped his hands on his hips, and flung his eye over his shoulder at the scenery, and says:
"Ladies and gentlemen, the painting now before you illustrates the beautiful and touching parable of the Prodigal Son. Observe the happy expression just breaking over the features of the poor suffering youth - so worn and weary with his long march: note also the ecstasy beaming from the uplifted countenance of the aged father, and the joy that sparkles in the eyes of the excited group of youths and maidens and seems ready to burst in a welcoming chorus from their lips. The lesson, my friends, is as solemn and instructive as the story is tender and beautiful."

The mud-dobber was all ready, and the second the speech was finished he struck up:

"Oh, we'll all get blind drunk
When Johnny comes marching home!"

Some of the people giggled, and some groaned a little. The showman couldn't say a word. He looked at the piano sharp, but he was all lovely and serene - he didn't know there was anything out of gear.

The panorama moved on, and the showman drummed up his grit and started in fresh:

"Ladies and gentlemen, the fine picture now unfolding itself to your gaze exhibits one of the most notable events in Bible History - our Savior and his disciples upon the Sea of Galilee. How grand, how awe inspiring are the reflections which the subject invokes! What sublimity of faith is revealed to us in this lesson from the sacred writings! The Savior rebukes the angry waves, and walks securely upon the bosom of the deep!"

All around the house they were whispering: "Oh, how lovely! how beautiful!" and the orchestra let himself out again:

"Oh, a life on the ocean wave,
And a home on the rolling deep!"

There was a good deal of honest snickering turned on this time, and considerable groaning, and one or two old deacons got up and went out. The showman gritted his teeth and cursed the piano man to himself, but the fellow sat there like a knot on a log, and seemed to think he was doing first-rate.

After things got quiet, the showman thought he would make one more stagger at it, any how, though his confidence was beginning to get mighty shaky. The supes started the panorama to grinding along again, and he says:

"Ladies and gentlemen, this exquisite painting illustrates the raising of Lazarus from the dead by our Savior. The subject has been handled with rare ability by the artist, and such touching sweetness and tenderness of expression has he thrown into it, that I have known peculiarly sensitive persons to be even affected to tears by looking at it. Observe the half-confused, half-inquiring look, upon the countenance of the awakening Lazarus. Observe, also, the attitude and expression of the Savior, who takes him gently by the sleeve of his shroud with one hand, while he points with the other toward the distant city."

Before anybody could get off an opinion in the case, the innocent old ass at the piano struck up:

"Come rise up, William Ri-i-ley,
And go along with me!"

It was rough on the audience, you bet you. All the solemn old flats got up in a huff to go, and everybody else laughed till the windows rattled.

The showman went down and grabbed the orchestra, and shook him up, and says:

"That lets you out, you know, you chowder-headed old clam! Go to the door-keeper and get your money, and cut your stick! - vamose the ranch! Ladies and gentlemen, circumstances over which I have no control compel me prematurely to dismiss - "

"By George! it was splendid! - come! all hands! let's take a drink!"

It was Phelim O'Flannigan, of San Luis Obispo, who interrupted. I had not seen him before. "What was splendid?" I inquired.

"The launch!"

Our party clinked glasses once more, and drank in respectful silence.

MARK TWAIN.