Musings on Madame Tussaud

The lady in question, as sculpted posthumously by her great grandson John Theodore Tussaud exactly one century ago

We hope you will forgive the split nature of this portmanteau-post, which is intended to do double duty as a capsule biography of Madame Tussaud (Anna Maria Grosholtz, 1761-1850) and a review of the terrific new show about her, Tussaud/Antoinette, by Jody Christopherson which is playing at I.R.T. through October 17.

The Tussaud empire has exploded over the past few decades, with galleries in major cities on four continents, so I’d be a little shocked if you didn’t at least know that she had something to do with wax museums. What you may not know is that Madame Tussaud is essentially the key figure in the establishment of that interesting pop cultural niche. She was raised largely in Switzerland, where her mother was the housekeeper of a physican named Philippe Curtius (1737-1794) who took up sculpting in wax to facilitate his studies in anatomy. Young Marie became his pupil, apprentice, and eventually successor. Curtius was a bit of a Renaissance man; his studies of the human body evolved into portaiture, which led naturally to such things as commissions and exhibitions. He moved to Paris in 1765 and opened a gallery in 1770. His novel new art form became the toast of Paris. In 1782 he opened a second branch devoted to likenesses of notorious criminals (a prototypical version of Tussaud’s later famous Chamber of Horrors. Not surprising in the town that was to give us Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol a century later!)

Meanwhile, Marie had learned the craft herself, creating likenesses of such then contemporary celebrities as Voltaire, Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, and key members of the Royal Family, the nobility and the Revolution. In 1794 Curtius died, willing his entire estate to her. The following year she married a civil engineer named François Tussaud, whose name became immortal through very little exertion of his own.

In 1802, Madame Tussaud fled her turbulent nation to exhibit her wax works in a travelling show in the U.K., teamed with the shadowy Paul de Philipsthal, whom historians think is the same man who had earlier performed under the handles Paul Filidort and Charles Phyllidoor, sometimes spelled Phylidor, Phylidoor, or Philidor — differences that should scarely matter to any but the most anal of archivists. His nationalty is unknown, although most think he was from the Low Countries, and it’s said that he claimed to be French while in Germany, and German while in France. He performed magic (mediocrely, apparently) in the manner of Pinetti and presented phantasmagoria, magic lantern shows, exhibitions of automata, magnetism, seances, and such like, and, much like Cagliostro, another influence, was generally regarded as a genuine wizard or a charlatan depending whom you spoke to. Madame Tussaud’s startling, lifelike, uncanny wax figures were a good match with Philipsthal’s shows.

Tussaud toured Britain for over three decades, then, in 1835 she opened her first permanent gallery, in Baker Street, London, at which point, according to her wax self-portrait, she looked like this:

Tussaud was 89 when she passed away in 1850, after which her descendants kept the place going. Many, many imitators sprang up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In New York, the Eden Musée opened in 1884, where Sylvester Poli got his start. Most major tourist destinations have had wax museums on her model, I’ve visited the Musée Conti in New Orleans, several in Salem Massachusetts, and of course who could forget the famous Hollywood Wax Museum?

And as we have established, Madame Tussaud’s has thrived beyond its founder’s wildest dreams down to the present day. I visited the London one in the early 1990s, and have been to the Times Square one several times since it opened. When I attended the London one, it still exhibited historical figures and featured a Chamber of Horrors. The Times Square one is a pretty doleful cheesefest of contemporary celebrities, which is far less appealing to me personally, but hey you’ve got to make rent somehow.

Photo by Kacey Anisa

We left out a crucial chapter in Madame Tussaud’s story because it is amply covered in Jody Christopher’s new piece Tussaud/Antoinette, which we treat of now. If that title reminds you of Marat/Sade, then you are clued into the period we mean. Her tagline “A Tale of Two Maries” , referencing Dickens, also tips us off that this will not be a rosy picture of the French Revolution, but one steeped in gore.

I find Christopherson’s neo-Gothic sensibility to die for (pun intended). I loved her witchin’-bitchin’ A Journey to St. Kilda (2018) so much I went to see it twice; her AMP: The Electrifying Story of Mary Shelley (2020) was one of the last things I saw before the Covid lockdown. As in the previous two pieces, in Tussaud/Antoinette she mixes fact and fantasy together like vinegar and baking soda and gives it a good shake.

Here, we get a glimpse of the young wax artiste invited to Versailles where she interacts with Marie Antoinette and her sister-in-law Madame Élisabeth, where she is paid large sums to teach the latter her art. But the Revolution is slowly coming to life. Connection to the Royals makes audiences fall off at the gallery. Then, as things turn ugly, at one point she only narrowly escapes the scaffold herself — like the Queen, she is regarded as a decadent ornament and instrument of a tyrannical state. Later she is forced to make death masks and body casts of decapitated leaders. I loved the moment captured in the photo above (by Kacey Anisa). Is it hot wax on her apron and hands? Blood? Both? Human heads in the burlap sacks? Wax ones? Step by step, she takes us through the minefield of the Terror…a time when real life became more gruesome than her own Chamber of Horrors. The eerie effect is enhanced by the flickering faux candlelight (by Kate August), which just as in a wax gallery, seem to give movement to the still objects around her. Creepy.

Another dual effect of Tussaud/Antoinette is that it will put you in a Halloween spirit…but it may (and should) make you contemplate with disquiet the seething, roiling fabric of our country right now, with both right and left seemingly liable to break out into violence in the near future to an extent that will make the previous few years look paltry. That is the lesson of history. Several times in the piece, Tussaud tell us that her gallery exists to teach history — reminding me simultaneously of the same words coming out of some people’s mouths with reference to Confederate statues…and the danger of the LACK of history in our present pop culture…including the present New York iteration of Madame Tussaud’s.

Tussaud/Antoinette plays through October 17, with Jody Christopherson alternating with her assistant director and sound designer Kodi Lynn Milburn in the main role. (The sound design is amazing, too, by the way). Tickets and info here.