A Wanderer in London

Dan Leno, from his autobiography Dan Leno, Hys Booke (1899)

Dan Leno, from his autobiography Dan Leno, Hys Booke (1899)

Source: E.V. Lucas, A Wanderer in London (New York: The Macmillan company, 1918), pp. 62-64

Text: The ordinary low comedian of the Halls too often has only the machinery of humour and none of its spirit. It is when one thinks of so many of them that the greatness and goodness of poor Dan Leno, for so long the best thing that the Halls could give us, becomes more than ever to be desired and regretted. In Dan Leno England lost a man of genius whose untimely and melancholy end was yet another reminder that great wits are sure to madness near allied. Not that he was precisely a great wit: rather a great droll; but great within his limits he certainly was, and probably no one has ever caused more laughter or cleaner laughter.

That was, perhaps, Dan Leno’s greatest triumph, that the grimy sordid material of the Music Hall low comedian, which, with so many singers, remains grimy and sordid, and perhaps even becomes more grimy and more sordid, in his refining hands became radiant, joyous, a legitimate source of mirth. In its nakedness it was still drunkenness, quarrelsomeness, petty poverty; still hunger, even crime; but such was the native cleanness of this little, eager, sympathetic observer and reader of life, such was his gift of showing the comic, the unexpected side, that it emerged the most delicious, the gayest joke. He might be said to have been a crucible that transmuted mud to gold.

It was the strangest contrast — the quaint, old-fashioned, half-pathetic figure, dressed in his outlandish garbs, waving his battered umbrella, smashing his impossible hat, revealing the most squalid secrets of the slums; and the resultant effect of light and happiness, laughter irresistible, and yet never for a moment cruel, never at anything, but always with it. The man was immaculate.

In this childlike simplicity of emotion which he manifested we can probably see the secret of his complete failure in New York. In that sophisticated city his genial elemental raptures seemed trivial. The Americans looked for cynicism, or at least a complete destructive philosophy — such as their own funny men have at their finger-tips — and he gave them humour not too far removed from tears. He gave them fun, that rarest of qualities, rarer far than wit or humour; and, in their own idiom, they had “no use” for it.

In the deserts of pantomime he was comparatively lost: his true place was the stage of a small Music Hall, where he could get on terms with his audience in a moment. Part of his amazing success was his gift of taking you into his confidence. The soul of sympathy himself, he made you sympathetic too. He addressed a Hall as though it were one intimate friend. He told you his farcical troubles as earnestly as an unquiet soul tells its spiritual ones. You had to share them. His perplexities became yours — he gathered you in with his intimate and impressive “Mark you”; and you resigned yourself to be played upon as he would. The radiant security of his look told you that he trusted you, that you could not fail him. You shared his ecstasies too; and they were ecstasies!

No matter what Dan did to his face, its air of wistfulness always conquered the pigments. It was the face of a grown-up child rather than a man, with many traces upon it of early struggles. For he began in the poorest way, accompanying his parents as a stroller from town to town, and knowing every vicissitude. This face, with its expression of profound earnestness, pointed his jokes irresistibly. I recollect one song in the patter of which (and latterly his songs were mostly patter) he mentioned a firework explosion at home that carried both his parents through the roof. “I shall always remember it,” he said gravely, while his face lit with triumph and satisfaction, “because it was the only time that father and mother ever went out together.” That is quite a good specimen of his manner, with its hint of pathos underlying the gigantic and adorable absurdity.

Irish (of course) by extraction, his real name was George Galvin: he took Leno from his stepfather, and Dan from an inspired misprint. His first triumphs were as a clog-dancer, and he danced superbly to the end, long after his mind was partially gone. But he will be remembered as the sweetest-souled comedian that ever swayed an audience with grotesque nonsense based on natural facts.

Comments: Edward Verrall Lucas (1868-1938) was a British essayist who wrote several books on London and held an opinion on many things. Dan Leno, born George Wild Galvin (1860-1904), was one of the great music hall and pantomime performers of the late Victorian era. He became particularly well-known for his appearances in the annual Drury Lane Christmas pantomime. Leno’s performances in New York, for which he received mixed notices, were over a four week engagement at the Olympia Music Hall on Broadway in the Spring of 1897.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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