This is the first in a series of occasional posts by writer and filmmaker, Rob Walker, whose YouTube series, ‘Victorian Cut-out Theatre’, celebrates the esoteric, strange and downright weird Victorians by animating contemporary illustrations in the tradition of Monty Python.
We used to unwrap mummies at parties. No, really.
This happened in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as archaeologists were unearthing treasures in Egypt, and a mummy mania swept across England. For some private collectors and academics willing to pay, mummies were shipped back to the hub of the empire to satisfy the curiosity of those who may never brave the hot sands of Africa. These public and private exhibitions gave exotic thrills under the title of scientific discovery and historical importance. This isn’t to say that these discoveries were neither scientific nor historical. There were in fact physicians who wished to discover the secret of mummification and held public autopsies of mummies for the sake of real knowledge. However, along with those who sought scientific or historical edification, there were those who … well, just wanted to see dead bodies. For good or ill, the damage done to Egyptian burial sites during this time period can still be felt in the field of Egyptology today. Like many early discoveries, what was considered science then might be considered a sideshow by our modern sensibilities.
But imagine that you’re invited to a party by the crème of high society. Everyone is dressed to the hilt, beautiful idiots and brilliant lunatics all mingling together. And somewhere between Oscar Wilde quipping about the three-layer dip, and a tipsy Sarah Bernhardt dancing with a lampshade on her head, you’re taken aside to look at the withered face of an Egyptian peasant. That sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? Yet this kind of thing actually took place during the Victorian era. Grotesque as it seems though, I can’t imagine a single person who might turn down a party like that. These are the kinds of things that stick in my brain and never jar loose. Knowledge of Victorian oddities, Roman torture devices and 1920s bar bets swirl in my brain constantly, while math calculations I learned in Junior High are lost to the ages. This information, though seemingly useless in the real world, has been invaluable to me in the creation of my web series Victorian Cut-out Theatre and in particular Episode 19, ‘A Peculiar Soiree’, which is all about mummy unwrapping parties. Well, kind of.
‘A Peculiar Soiree’ began as an homage to the Universal Monster movies I was raised on as a child. However, as I began working on it, I became more fascinated with the idea of the Victorian unwrapping party as a setting for comedy. This might be a byproduct of growing up working-class, but I adore the idea of someone so wealthy that normal human appetites will no longer do, which is where our story takes off. Drowsy from a night of eating Dodo bird and swilling absinthe, our protagonists are invited to gaze upon the withered husk of a human being. While Lady Sophie and Lord Snigglebottom are greedy to take in the macabre site for the sake of ‘science’, it is clear that Lord Brenden is less than pleased with the evening’s entertainments. As with most Victorian Cut-out Theatre episodes, the oddity or grandeur of setting is diluted by the pettiness of humanity.
So it goes, our three characters bicker about science, discovery and elitism before unveiling future … ahem, nocturnal activities. You could say that ‘A Peculiar Soiree’ is ripe with allegory for the Victorian class system, or an examination of willful ignorance versus science. These are easy lines to draw, but the episode also revolves around a petty disagreement between a young man who finds certain activities appalling, and a young woman who wishes to see a mummified sex organ. Finding that concept as funny as I do might be the key to why I’m not invited to nice places more often. Oh well, I probably don’t have the palate for Dodo bird* and absinthe anyway.
*The last millionaire or seaman to eat Dodo bird was in the late 1600s/early 1700s, so it was definitely extinct by the Victorian era. However, it is entirely possible that Lord Snigglebottom and his cabal of millionaires had a genetic cache of Dodo DNA. Not dissimilar to Jurassic Park. But if you believe that, you may be overthinking the joke.
Rob Walker is a writer and filmmaker, probably best known for the comedic, animated web series Victorian Cut-out Theatre produced by Cinevore Studios. He studied Theatre Performance and Education at the University of Northern Colorado where he began writing plays and short stories. His work has been featured on Kotaku and Nerdist. He lives in Colorado with his wife and their two socially inept cats. You can follow him on Twitter or on his website robwalkerfilms.com.