If I were asked which full tableau in the Haunted Mansion has attracted the least interest, I would have to pick the royal playground scene—the king and queen on a teeter-totter and the duchess on a swing [although I might be persuaded now to put them in second place]. That duchess, poor thing, is the lowest of the low, since most people speak of the scene with reference to the royal couple or the see-saw without even mentioning her. She's a smart choice for the audio-animatronic ghost least likely to occupy the #1 slot on anyone's list of favorites.
Alas, no love for the royal playground.
And yet, no one seems to hate the scene either. It's not even disliked. I may never have heard anyone rhapsodizing over it, but I've never heard anyone put it down either. So weird. The scene is practically long-forgotten even though it's still there!
One reason I myself have never done anything with it is that it's another one of those Marc Davis gags that went from sketch to maquettes to finished production figures with very little alteration, much like the opera singers, so there isn't much to say about the scene's development.
If you think those look alike, here's another shot of the maquettes placed within the scale model, and below it is a photo of the real
deal, taken from the 1969 pre-opening film footage shot by WED. You need more than a casual glance in order to tell the difference.
Naturally, the presentation gains in spookiness with more realistic photography of the scene as it appears under true show conditions, but in truth I haven't seen very many such pix. The photogs don't seem any more interested in this tableau than do the fans in general. These shots by pantheragem (1st) and by Brett Garrett (2nd) are frankly the only decent ones I've come across.
There is one interesting note about the history of this stunt (that's what darkride professionals call it; most of us laymen would call it a "scene" or a "tableau," with "gags" in it). Marc wanted the royal couple to appear and disappear as they teetered on their totter. It's on the sketch:
Reader Volt made a good observation about this piece in the Comments. He suggests that Davis literalizes the term "see-saw" so that of the two forms, at any given moment, one you can "see" and the other you "saw." At the Haunted Mansion exhibit on Main Street during the 50th anniversary celebration, a sign next to the maquettes of the king and queen confirmed this interpretation.
Marc typically thought up these things and then handed them off to Yale Gracey, the special effects wizard par excellence. It was his job to figure out a way to make the gag work, not Marc's. "Yale will think of something." In this case he didn't, or couldn't, but everyone thought it looked good enough anyway. Seems to me that the trick would have had to be achieved with lighting, with the mostly-transparent figures dropping down into a deep shadow, blocked off from the black lighting. As was the case with the famous Hat Box Ghost, such lighting tricks just won't work in there. All of it is too close to the track, and there is too much ambient lighting.
I know some people have wondered about the duchess on the swing, whether she's supposed to be young or old. What she is, is middle-aged. This piece of concept art isn't seen very often, so here ya go. Gotta give those Forgottenistas something they haven't seen before, or they might get restless. Actually, there is a flaw in this character concept that contributes to her overall blandness. We'll get to that eventually.
Incidentally, I don't consider the Hell Hound to be part of this scene. I think he's
an isolated figure in the background between tableaux. Everybody likes him.
Step all the way in, please, and make room for everyone.
* lights a pipe, leans back in his chair, forehead becomes slightly furrowed *
(puff) There are two jokes going on here, in my opinion. (puff) The first one is American but not European, so you readers from across the pond may not get it. You see, there is creepy but amusing irony in finding a children's playground located in a crumbling old graveyard at midnight. It's the last place you'd expect to find such a cheerfully innocent environment. In America. In places like England, old churchyards and cemeteries are so common that I don't suppose anyone pays much attention. They're all over the place, and you have to put your playgrounds somewhere, right? If Reggie's soccer ball goes bounding into an old boneyard, well, what of it? (puff)
Trust me, the Americans are all looking at that photo and going, "Ewww."
The more substantial joke emanating from the Mansion tableau is the ironic contrast between the stuffy dignity of the royal threesome (especially the king and queen) and the childlike behavior they now gleefully exhibit. Once they are dead, they evidently don't have to worry about decorum and can frolic about like kids. How droll to see a haughty old king and queen acting like seven-year olds. It's another example of Marc Davis's astounding ability to tell a joke in .032 seconds. What is strange, though, is how unusual this status reversal is at the Mansion.
Marc Davis produced a lot of concept art that essentially shows ghosts carrying on with their earthly pursuits as if nothing had happened. There are ghosts of boxers, of coffin makers (cute idea), of Spanish soldiers—all still engrossed in their occupations as if unaware that they're dead.
This motif did make it into the finished Haunted Mansion, but most of the examples are musicians. You've got the organist (if he's meant to be taken as a professional), and there's the graveyard band (of whom two at least are definitely professionals—the bandsmen in uniform), and of course there's the opera couple. Why are they still plying their trades? Because musicians are needed at the ghostly gathering you are witnessing. They also need someone to bring some of the ghosts here, so the coachman gets to drive his rig as in life. What we need most of all is a good medium to bring the ghosts on over, so the ghost of Madame Leota keeps her daytime job as well. We don't need boxers or carpenters or soldiers, so those gags ended up in the circular file. Such identifiable professionals as you do see but whose skills are no longer required are emphatically not carrying on with their earthly occupations. They're just whooping it up. The headsman is not gearing up for an execution (where's the block?), and the knight has no rescuing to do. Since the afterlife appears to be an egalitarian paradise, the royals have no subjects to rule.
It's no surprise, then, if we find that the king and queen aren't kinging and queening, but that still leaves the undeniably childlike behavior unexplained. After all, there's another king at the table in the ballroom, and he isn't ruling anything anymore either, but he's not playing hopscotch; he's getting drunk like a responsible adult. If you think about it, this is a joke that could easily have been used elsewhere, but it's pretty much unique to the royal playground. The closest thing to a parallel would probably be Pickwick, the fellow swinging around on the ballroom chandelier like a naughty boy; but actually, we don't know how sedate that ambiguous character might have been in life, so it's hard to measure the contrast. He could have been a "mad duke," a Mr. Toad type of guy, and this kind of behavior might not be so categorically different from the sort of stunts he pulled while alive.
Come to think of it, maybe that's why he's not alive. There are also the merry graveyard bicyclists, but again, we don't know if that is activity which was beneath their dignity while they were still among the living. Bicyclists die too, you know. The royal playground, it seems to me, is a bit of specific whimsy without a clear parallel elsewhere.
Before getting into the question of why a king would wish to act like a kid, we might first ask the question: how immature is this? How thick is the irony? Well, to answer that, you need to first ask, How much of a kiddie thing is the see-saw? If you wish to explore the psychological place of the humble teeter-totter in the consciousness of the general culture, it doesn't take long to amass a wealth of visual data. I'm giving you here much more than is really necessary to get a feel for it, but the pictures are so delightful that I don't suppose many of you will mind.
First thing to note: teeter-totters are old.
Anachronism is probably not part of the irony.
You get the idea pretty quickly. See-saws are definitely for kids, and especially for little tykes. As nostalgia pieces, they recall a bit of distant childhood (which seems to be the point of many of these artworks). Adults only use them if they're parents helping out the little 'uns. As it happens, the up and down rhythmic movement makes this simple contraption ideal for the singy-songy nursery rhyme, and you'll find the see-saw in at least two traditional children's verses:
I came across only one departure from this otherwise uniform presentation in older artwork, and it is the exception that proves the rule.
The 18th century French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard is best known for his rococo masterpiece, The Swing:
It was popular, and Fragonard, no fool he, followed it up with further
examples of the hedonistic and frivolous ruling classes merrily at play.
None of them matched the popularity of The Swing, but before he got tired of
the theme, he did give us our one solid example of adults playing on a see-saw:
These works today are sometimes pointed to as inadvertent portraits of the decadence of the leisure classes in
late 18th c. France, the Ancien Regime, all dimpled and plump and ripe for La Revolution. Guillotine bait.
A pretty clear picture emerges. Royalty and nobility cavorting on see-saws in life would be considered decadent, embarrassingly juvenile, something which betrays a serious lack of gravitas, that sense of sobriety appropriate to the responsibilities of high governance or to noblesse oblige. And that's important; even we toothpick chompin' Americans don't really want our President to show up at the Oval Office in jeans and a tee shirt (Andrew Jackson's muddy boots notwithstanding—oh, google it if you don't know what I mean).
We're all agreed, then. While they're alive, kings and queens have to act like adults. After they're dead, we smile in gentle approval because we see in this case that they're finally free to have some fun, perhaps the kind of fun they were never allowed in life, not even as children. This sort of whimsy works well with royals but not quite as strikingly with lesser mortals.
Incidentally, that's precisely what is wrong with the duchess, in my opinion. She's drinking a cup of tea and not even holding the ropes. She can't be swinging very hard, that's for sure. She's more or less using the swing as a chair, which a duchess might actually do in a pinch with minimal loss of dignity. Ho-hum. Still behaving like an adult. Little irony, and consequently not very funny.
Why do we assume that royal obligations cease at the grave? Such an attitude hasn't always been the case, you know. We can contrast our figurines of deceased monarchs with other figurines of deceased monarchs, ones who were expected to carry on in their roles even beyond the grave. Those ones aren't funny and aren't supposed to be. The best known examples are probably the Egyptian pharaohs, with their lifelong preparation for the afterlife, where they carry on in their exalted roles. Kings need courtiers and servants, so a whole slew of them get the maquette treatment and crowd into the tomb with the big guy.
Those are shabti figurines, servants of the pharaoh in the afterlife (in this case king Tut). No see-saws for him, just work work work. Upon death, he gets further divinitized and expects to do adult, pharaoh stuff, keeping all these helpers busy in the process.
But the Egyptians had nothing on the Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang (d. 210-209 BC). He was so sure that he would just keep on doin' his emperor thang after death that he had a full-sized terra cotta army buried with him. Thousands of figures. The existence of Qin's breathtaking army was unknown until it was discovered in 1974.
The Emperor himself drove a chariot and four-horse team of bronze.
It's not completely silly to compare these deadly serious funerary figures with our comic teeter-totter royalty produced solely for light entertainment: that contrast is precisely the point. What makes the difference? At bottom, I'd say it's the notion that "king" is what you do rather than what you are. The ideals of democracy and equality pretty much did away with the notion of divine kingship, and we understand our rulers and leaders to be human beings who are fundamentally no different than anyone else, performing the act of ruling, filling an office and nothing more. That means that their royal responsibilities end at the grave.
Not to get overly theological, but I will venture the suggestion that this way of thinking has its ultimate roots in the Judeo-Christian worldview. The eastern Roman empire segued with hardly a ripple into the Byzantine (Eastern Christian) empire, where you had an emperor in the succession of the Caesars and as autocratic as any pharaoh, but one custom that was different called for the Patriarch of the Church to plop a handful of dirt into the emperor's hand at one point during his coronation and remind him that he too is dust, and to dust he shall return. Over here in the west, to cite but one example, the burial service in the Book of Common Prayer is the same for everyone. As an old Episcopal priest I knew was fond of saying, "The queen and her gardener get the same treatment." I suppose that as you become acclimatized to the concept that there is one God, and to him, "Even the nations are like a drop in the bucket, and are accounted as dust on the scales" (Isa 40:15), this demythologized view of human kingship becomes an increasingly natural perspective.
And yet. And yet...
We can never repress old concepts entirely. One of Disney's most successful films evah, and the first to feature an original story, was The Lion King. And what do we find there? Simba is born to rule. He can't run away from it: it's in his blood. The most important point of tension in the whole film is Simba's resistance to his destiny. It's not just something he may choose to do or not to do, like the tasks which fall to ordinary mortals. He must recognize who he is, come out of the playground, and get onto the throne. Because we all agree: he's living a life that is beneath him. There is even a hint that the pharaohs and old Qin Shi were right, as Simba's father Mufasa appears in the stars as no ordinary constellation. But this remains the exception rather than the rule.
We have explained why kings and queens shed those roles in death: they are only humans, and their earthly responsibilities die when they die. We can understand that the ghosts of these royals might want to kick up their heels a bit, like the king in the ballroom, but why the specifically childlike behavior of playing on a see-saw? I think it's because there's a natural analog between king/peasant and adult/child. You see both dynamics at work in Sleeping Beauty. Aurora would choose the life of a peasant (where she mistakenly thinks her true love lies), but she acquiesces to her "royal duty" as a princess. This happens precisely as she is making the transition from childhood to adulthood, her 16th birthday. She accepts it, but she resigns herself to it as if it were a prison sentence.
From fairy tales to Shakespeare, there persists a tendency to wax romantic over the supposedly simple and happy life of the peasant, free from the "peril of the envious court" and unaware of how lucky he is not to be the king. A classic expression of this idea is in Bernard Mandeville's poem, The Fable of the Bee (1705). The list of things monarchs must worry about is particularly good.
In precisely the same way, an adult is wont at times to look on the carefree play of children with a sort of envy. Don't be in too big a hurry to grow up, kid. Yeah, we get to drive cars and other neat stuff, but it's not all it's cracked up to be.
The joke of the king and queen ghosts on the teeter-totter works well because it combines a cluster of related ideas: (1) Sorry Tut, sorry Qin, beg to differ; we're all just human beings, and death reduces us all to the same state, whether king or commoner. (2) The life of a king is a mixed blessing; the palace is also a prison. Therefore, death may be a kind of release. (3) As a king might envy the simple life of a peasant, so too the adult envies the child. In that sense, we can all empathize with the royals frolicking about unselfconsciously in a ghostly playground.
Put it all together and you've got the source of both your amusement and your approval at the sight of these ghosts.
Humor is complicated, isn't it?