London Letter

Marie Lloyd, via Wikipedia

Marie Lloyd, via Wikipedia

Source: T.S. Eliot, extract from ‘London Letter’, The Dial, December 1922, pp. 659-663

Text: … Among all of that small number of music-hall performers, whose names are familiar to what is called the lower class, Marie Lloyd had far the strongest hold on popular affection. She is known to many audiences in America. I have never seen her perform in America, but I cannot imagine that she would be seen there at her best; she was only seen at her best under the stimulus of those audiences in England, and especially in Cockney London, who had crowded to hear her for thirty years. The attitude of these audiences was different, toward Marie Lloyd, from what it was toward any other of their favourites, and this difference represents the difference in her art. Marie Lloyd’s audiences were invariably sympathetic, and it was through this sympathy that she controlled them. Among living music-hall artists none can so well control an audience as Nellie Wallace. I have seen Nellie Wallace interrupted by jeering or hostile comment from a boxful of East-Enders; I have seen her, hardly pausing in her act, make some quick retort that silenced her tormenters for the rest of the evening. But I have never known Marie Lloyd to be confronted by this kind of hostility; in any case the feeling of the vast majority of the audience was so manifestly on her side, that no objector would have dared to lift his voice. And the difference is this: that whereas other comedians amuse their audiences as much and sometimes more than Marie Lloyd, no other comedian succeeded so well in giving expression to the life of that audience, in raising it to a kind of art. It was, I think, this capacity for expressing the soul of the people that made Marie Lloyd unique and that made her audiences, even when they joined in the chorus, not so much hilarious as happy.

It is true that in the details of acting Marie Lloyd was perhaps the most perfect, in her own line, of British actresses. There are – thank God – no cinema records of her; she never descended to this form of money-making; it is to be regretted, however, that there is no film of her to preserve for the recollection of her admirers the perfect expressiveness of her smallest gestures. But it is more in the thing that she made it, than in the accomplishment of her act, that she differed from other comedians. There was nothing about her of the grotesque; none of her comic appeal was due to exaggeration; it was all a matter of selection and concentration. The most remarkable of the survivors of the music-hall stage, to my mind, are Nellie Wallace and Little Tich; but each of these is a kind of grotesque; their acts are an inconceivable orgy of parody of the human race. For this reason, the appreciation of these artists requires less knowledge of the environment. To appreciate for instance the last turn in which Marie Lloyd appeared, one ought to know already exactly what objects a middle-aged woman of the charwoman class would carry in her bag; exactly how she would go through her bag in search of something; and exactly the tone of voice in which she would enumerate the objects she found in it. This was only part of the acting in Marie Lloyd’s last song, ‘I’m One of the Ruins That Cromwell Knocked Abaht a Bit’.

Marie Lloyd was of London – in fact of Hoxton – and on the stage from her earliest years. It is pleasing to know that her first act was for a Hoxton audience, when at the age of ten she organized the Fairy Bell Minstrels for the Nile Street Mission of the Band of Hope; at which she sang and acted a song entitled ‘Throw Down the Bottle and Never Drink Again’, which is said to have converted at least one member of the audience to the cause now enforced by law in America. It was similar audiences to her first audience that supported her to the last …

Comments: Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) was an American poet, critic and dramatist chiefly based in Britain. Marie Lloyd (1870-1922) was one of the most celebrated of British music hall stars. Eliot’s essay was published two months after she died.

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