For World Elephant Day (12 August) we look at the process of making a stage elephant, and the history of elephants in British culture.

Elephants were once common throughout Africa and Asia, but their populations have significantly declined during the last century, threatened by poaching, habitat loss and conflict. World Elephant Day exists to spread awareness about the critical threats elephants face and to support solutions for their survival. We mark the day by looking at our stage elephant, and the animal's place in our culture. 

Creating the Magician's Elephant

One of the challenges of our upcoming musical The Magician’s Elephant is bringing a life-sized elephant on stage, and then making it disappear. Our elephant is a puppet that will be controlled by three actors, each operating different parts of the body as it moves around on stage.

The young female African elephant is being made at a temporary studio in Croydon under the supervision of Tracy Waller and Mervyn Millar, who was Puppet Director for 2019's As You Like It, which featured a 5.5-metre high puppet of the God of Marriage, Hymen.

close up view of part of an elephant puppet's face
Our elephant in progress in the workshop
Photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC Browse and license our images

Tracy and Mervyn began by reading Kate DiCamillo’s book, to understand the elephant’s personality. They found images of real elephants, using these as models and reference points to help decide on the textures and materials to use to make her, then created drawings to work from. The team began making the elephant in two separate rooms: one for designing the elephant and putting together the mechanical skeleton; the other for working on the external elements.

Mervyn says: "A puppet is a tool for performance. If we were making a sculpture, it would be far simpler because we would imagine a perfect posture and make that posture, but this needs to be versatile and playable."

Elephants in England

Our fascination with elephants began centuries ago. In 1255 King Louis IX of France gave his cousin Henry III an elephant, which was housed in the menagerie in the Tower of London.

The popularity of elephants grew in the 18th century, with at least 11 elephants arriving in the first half of the century. And Queen Charlotte (1744-1818) took the trend further, welcoming eight Indian elephants in ten years which she kept at her home, Buckingham House (forerunner to Buckingham Palace).

In 1811 an elephant named Chunee arrived in England from Bengal and was housed in the Exeter Change in the Strand. He was put onstage at Covent Garden and then the New Pavilion Theatre. In keeping with the history of performing animals, Chunee was badly treated and became dangerous so was destroyed. His mounted skeleton ended up in the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons.

Jumbo (pictured below) was a 19th-century male African Bush elephant, born in December 1860 and captured after his mother was killed by hunters. He transferred to London Zoo in 1865 and became a popular attraction, giving rides to younger visitors, including Queen Victoria’s children.

There was a public outcry in 1882 when the zoo decided to sell Jumbo, with 100,000 schoolchildren writing to the queen, begging her to stop the sale. Jumbo was sold for £2,000 to Phineas T. Barnum of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. In New York, he was exhibited at Madison Square Gardens, earning Barnum enough in three weeks to cover the costs of the purchase. Jumbo died in 1885 after he was hit by a train.

Colourful 19th century poster of an elephant with it's trunk high in the air and the caption 'Jumbo the children's giant pet'
1880s poster from the US advertising Jumbo the elephant as an attraction.
Unknown artist © Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons Browse and license our images

Elephant sayings

The world’s largest land animal has frequently found its way into English speech. The word ‘jumbo’, meaning large, comes directly from Jumbo the Elephant. Here’s what we mean when we talk about elephants:

  • The elephant in the room – an important or enormous issue that everyone knows about but no one mentions, from Ivan Krylov’s 1814 fable ‘The Inquisitive Man’, which tells of a man who goes to a museum and notices lots of tiny things, but fails to notice an elephant.
  • An elephant never forgets – elephants are believed to have good memories, based on observations that in the wild the herd will follow similar paths over many years. They also appear to recognise many humans, as well as other elephants, even when separated from them for decades.
  • White elephant – an object or scheme considered of little use or value, so that it actually becomes a burden. It derives from a story that the Kings of Siam would gift a precious albino elephant to courtiers that had annoyed them. The cost of keeping the animal was so great that the courtiers were brought to financial ruin.
  • Seeing the elephant - an American saying which refers to gaining experience of the world at a significant cost.

 

Man dancing wearing a garland around his neck and in front of a giant projected image of an elephant
A life-sized elephant appeared on the Swan Theatre stage as a video projection in our 2013 production The Empress.
Photo by Steve Tanner © RSC Browse and license our images