Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Forgotten London: Madame Tussaud's (Esoterrorists, Night's Black Agents, Bookhounds)

When last I discussed forgotten London, it concerned a part of the city that no longer exists, the Crystal Palace. Now I want to turn my attention to something that does still stand, if not at its original location: the famous wax figure museum, Madame Tussaud's. Or Tussauds, as it now prefers to be called. Nowadays it has branches all over the globe, but from a Trail point of view there is only one: the central London attraction, currently housed in the former London planetarium.

Its eponymous founder was born Marie Grosholtz in 1761, her mother a servant in the household of Doctor Philippe Curtius, her soldier father having died before she was born. Dr Curtius was an established, and moderately famous, modeller of wax figures, which he displayed in what was known at the time as Salons de Cire, or Houses of Wax. The Prince de Conti was Curtius' sponsor, and with that noble patron he enjoyed significant social and economic success. Marie learned the art from Curtius, who acted as her unofficial uncle, and later went on to become tutor of art in the household of Louis XIV's sister Elizabeth.

The Salons were much as you'd expect, designed mainly for edification with a dash of titillation. Royalty and commoner alike went there for their entertainment, and the establishments were popular enough to survive the Revolution, remaining open, and adding new subjects, even as human heads were piling up by the dozens in the tumbril. Curtius was astute enough to keep his new Revolutionary patrons happy with pro-revolutionary tableaux, even as he had, years earlier, kept his Royal patrons entertained with flattering portrayals. Marie's autobiography covers this period; to my knowledge there is no free ebook, but there are versions available via Amazon and similar sites.

However post-Revolutionary France was no place for an entertainer, so after Curtius' death in 1794 Marie packed up her belongings, including a collection of severed heads, and made the trip to England, with her two sons. For the next three decades Marie, now in her forties and with no English to speak of, toured England with her collection, displaying them in every town and city she could reach. Meanwhile her husband Francois Tussaud, who turned out to be a useless businessman and a spendthrift, managed what was left of the Parisian end of the business. This failure, and his indiscretions, led to their permanent estrangement, and though there was no such thing as divorce at that time, Madame was on her own.

Marie was a remarkable person, more than capable of running a business, but now she had to set one up, single-handed. Her Baker Street salon, established in 1835, became the first Madame Tussaud's, and she became a permanent fixture outside it, collecting the entrance fee. What we know as its Chamber of Horrors was known then as the Separate Room, where those severed heads in wax, along with the many murderers and felons to come, paraded in all their gory horror. Madame made sure her props and properties were as original as she could make them, sourcing her gallows from a demolished prison, using the actual weapons the killers used, and getting her murderers' faces from their death masks. But most people claimed to go to Madame's for its historical tableaux, which in the Victorian and Edwardian period became ever more elaborate, illustrating famous moments from English history, both modern and ancient.

Madame lived to the ripe old age of eighty nine, dying in 1850. Her children, and their children, carried on the tradition. However money became a serious concern and, after moving from Baker Street to Marylebone, the family formed a limited company in hope of raising capital through sale of shares. However they fought like cats over it, and in the end lack of funds resulted in sale of the business in 1889 to outside investors. Even then, the Tussaud family was still intimately involved in the business, up until 1960.

In 1925, a terrible fire burnt the collection and gutted the Marylebone establishment. The collection remained closed until 1928, when it re-opened. By that point any interest it may have held as a monument to history was dead; people only went there for the horrors and murderers. This would remain the case until the 1960s, when people began becoming interested in the 19th century again.

Other interesting side notes: a bomb was allegedly sent to the Tussaud family in 1889, by an artist infuriated at being fired. In addition to the 1928 fire, the collection was also bombed during the Blitz, but despite all this a few models created by Madame herself still survive. The Hitler model, first created in 1933, has been continuously vandalized ever since it was first built; the most recent incident took place in 2008, when someone decapitated it on a bet. Though there is no freely available ebook, Gutenberg has a play by someone named Anstey, which has a scene set at the museum. The scene describes a Regent Street Tussauds, established by a great grandson of Marie, Louis. That museum burnt down in 1891, and Louis took his museum on the road before settling in Blackpool. Louis' museum has been described as the worst wax museum in the world.

Now all that's been said, what can be done with Tussauds in an RPG setting?

In Trail, and particularly Bookhounds, Tussauds seems a natural fit for Sordid London. Its lifelike collection of murderers, villains and psychopaths would suit a campaign in which human life is held cheap, particularly one in which crimes and those who commit them are idolized by the masses. Tussauds is always on the lookout for original props, and people like the Bookhounds - forgers, thieves and other unsavory types - could earn an honest (?) shilling or two by servicing this need. Those who practice idiosyncratic magic may find that regular visits to the Chamber of Horrors are very useful, particularly if they want to bump up weapons, scuffling, or stealth pools. As for crazy artists and their wax masterpieces, Vincent Price has already shown what a story involving them can do.

In theory, if a character commits a crime and is sentenced to death, one final blowout scenario before the end could involve that character's visit by representatives of Madame Tussauds. Would sir like to be immortalized forever in wax? Alternatively, if the artists at Madame's are more than they seem, would sir like to be immortal, as some kind of waxen mummy? It's one way to cheat the hangman ...

A Night's Black Agents chase scene in Madame Tussauds could be spectacular. It wouldn't be the balls-out high octane chase you'd expect to see in a Bourne movie; more a subtle, cerebral pursuit through the crowds, as the pursuer or pursued tries to give whoever's tailing them the slip. Alternatively the museum could house some Conspyracy asset, or perhaps its owners are secretly immortal bloodsuckers. As with the Crystal Palace, since Tussauds has been in London for a very long time, it could show up again and again in a century-spanning chronicle. Or perhaps one of its more spectacular murderers was actually a vampire hunter, and the weapon that person used is still on display, with its wax figure, at the museum.

Here's a question: how long can vampires stand still? Many's the time a guard or staff member has surprised a visitor by turning out to be really real, not a wax dummy, just by pretending to be immobile. But humans eventually have to shift their weight, blink, or breathe. Do vampires? Or will you be lured closer, ever closer, by that figure in the Chamber of Horrors that looks just a little too real ...

The Esoterrorists could have all kinds of fun with a tourist attraction build around illusion and horror. Perhaps they already have; after all, that 1925 fire might not have been an accident. What if a journalist or academic's research, as part of a book that person is planning to write, comes close to exposing a veil-out performed decades ago?

Stories about wax figures that move around at night make excellent fodder for Esoterrorist schemes. Perhaps, in the wake of some science fiction show featuring moving wax figures, rumor flies around that one of the feature attractions at Tussauds really does what science fiction pretends to do, and someone ends up dead after having sneaked around after hours. The Curse of Tussauds, anyone? And what kind of ODE might find a wax museum at night appealing?

That's it for me for now. Enjoy!

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