United Kingdom

Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain

Source: A French Traveller [Louis Simond], Journal of a Tour and Residence in Great Britain, during the years 1810 and 1811: with remarks on the country, its arts, literature, and politics, and on the manners and customs of its inhabitants (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable, 1815), pp. 126-127

Production: John G. Millingen and Charles E. Horn, The Bee-hive, Lyceum Theatre, London, 30 April 1811

Text: April 30. — I have already given a literal translation of one of those lyric pieces which are introduced in many English farces, and are often sung between he play and the farce. At Edinburgh we heard Bannister, and here Mathews, sing some of these select pieces with a great deal of true comic, and what is called here dry humour. Yesterday, particularly, Mathews delighted the public of the Lyceum in a new play, called the Bee-hive, played forty times running. The song of an inn-keeper, who enumerates the contents of his larder and kitchen, was encored again and again, with frantic applause. Other songs, however, which happened to be less in the popular taste, were received with coolness, and we heard some men behind us exclaim, among themselves, “Italian squalls!— What a shame, on a British theatre, — Just like the opera by G— !” Whenever I have expressed any surprise at the state of the English stage, I have been told that it was only the amusement of the vulgar, and that if I chose to partake of it, I must not complain. Admitting that people of fashion scarcely ever go to the theatre, yet the lowest of the people do not frequent it more then they do; — it is in fact filled by the middle class, neither the highest nor the lowest, and that is precisely the class where I should look for the true and legitimate national taste. Besides, if the theatres of Covent-Garden and Drury-Lane are for the vulgar, what other is there left for those who rank themselves above the vulgar? The opera, — in other words, there is no national theatre.

Comments: Louis Simond (1767-1831) was a French travel writer. He journeyed through Britain over 1810-11, writing his published account in English. The Bee-hive was a two-act music farce with libretto by John G. Millingen and music by Charles E. Horn.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Pepys’ Diary

Source: Diary of Samuel Pepys, 17 August 1667

Production: Thomas Heywood, If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody; or, Troubles of Queen Elizabeth, Bridges Street theatre, London, 17 August 1667

Text: At noon home to dinner, and presently my wife and I and Sir W. Pen to the King’s playhouse, where the house extraordinary full; and there was the King and Duke of York to see the new play, “Queen Elizabeth’s Troubles and the History of Eighty Eight.” I confess I have sucked in so much of the sad story of Queen Elizabeth, from my cradle, that I was ready to weep for her sometimes; but the play is the most ridiculous that sure ever come upon the stage; and, indeed, is merely a shew, only shews the true garbe of the Queen in those days, just as we see Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth painted; but the play is merely a puppet play, acted by living puppets. Neither the design nor language better; and one stands by and tells us the meaning of things: only I was pleased to see Knipp dance among the milkmaids, and to hear her sing a song to Queen Elizabeth; and to see her come out in her night-gowne with no lockes on, but her bare face and hair only tied up in a knot behind; which is the comeliest dress that ever I saw her in to her advantage.

Comments: Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was a British naval administrator and diarist. The play he saw was Thomas Heywood‘s 1605 If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody; or, Troubles of Queen Elizabeth, performed at Bridges Street theatre. Heywood’s play was in two parts; Pepys saw part one. Knipp is the actress Elizabeth Knepp, frequently mentioned in the diary.

Links: https://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1667/08/17

Boswell for the Defence

Source: William K. Wimsatt, Jr. and Frederick A. Pottle, Boswell for the Defence: 1769-1774 (London: William Heinemann, 1960), p. 238

Production: George Colman the elder, The Man of Business, and William O’Brien, Cross Purposes, Edinburgh, 16 July 1774

Text: Saturday 16 July [1774]: … At six I had a hackney-coach which carried Mrs. Montgomerie, Claud, my wife, and me to the play. There was just forty people in the boxes and pit. The play was The Man of Business, and the farce, Cross Purposes. It was wonderful to see with what spirit the players performed. In one view it was more agreeable tonight than being at a crowded play. One could attend fully to what passed on the stage, whereas in a great audience the attention is distracted and one has a great deal to do in behaving properly. The difference was the same as viewing a country when upon a calm horse at a slow walk or viewing it upon a fiery horse at a gallop, when you must attend to the reins and to your seat. But the laughable passages did not go off so well as in a crowd, for laughter is augmented by sympathetic power. Supped quietly at home.

Comments: James Boswell (1740-1795) was a Scottish lawyer, biographer and diarist, best known for his Life of Samuel Johnson. He was born in Edinburgh, the son of Lord Auchinleck. The plays he saw were the comedy The Man of Business by George Colman the Elder and the afterpiece Cross-Purposes by the actor William O’Brien, both men being known to Boswell. I have not been able to identify the small theatre Boswell visited.

Garrick’s Acting As Seen in His Own Time

‘Mrs. Hopkins & Mr. Garrick in the Character of Queen Gertrude and Hamlet’, Late 18th century [1774?], via Folgerpedia

Source: Extracts from Walter Herries Pollock, ‘Garrick’s Acting As Seen in His Own Time’, Longman’s Magazine (August 1885), pp. 371-375, translated from two letters by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, originally published in German in the periodical Deutsches Museum, November 1776

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, 2 and 12 December 1774

Text: Now, my dear B., if, after what I have told you, you have been able to picture a Garrick to yourself, follow me with him in one or two scenes. To-day, because I am somewhat in the humour for it, I will take the one out of Hamlet where the Ghost appears to him. You know this scene already from Mr. Partridge’s excellent description in Fielding. My description will not make the other superfluous, but only explain it.

Hamlet appears in black attire, the only one, alas, which is still worn in the whole court, for his poor father, who has been scarcely dead a couple of months. Horatio and Marcellus accompany him in uniform. They await the Ghost. Hamlet has folded his arms and pulled his hat over his eyes. It is a cold night, and just twelve o’clock. The theatre is darkened, and the whole audience as still and the faces as motionless as if they had been painted on the walls of the house. At the extreme end of the theatre one might have heard a pin drop. Suddenly as Hamlet goes rather far up the stage somewhat to the left, with his back to the audience, Horatio starts. “Look, my lord, it comes,” says he, pointing to the right where the Ghost is standing immovable, ere one is even aware of it. At these words Garrick turns suddenly round, and at the same moment staggers back two or three paces with trembling knees, his hat falls to the ground, both arms—especially the left—are nearly extended to the full, the hand as high as the head, the right arm more bent and the hand lower, the fingers spread out and the mouth open. There he remains standing, with legs far apart, but still in a graceful attitude, as if electrified, supported by his friends. His features express such horror that I felt a repeated shudder pass over me before he began to speak. The almost appalling silence of the assembly, which preceded this scene and made one feel scarcely safe in one’s seat, probably contributed not a little to the effect. At last he speaks, not with the beginning but with the end of a breath, and says in a trembling voice “Angels and ministers of grace defend us,” words which complete whatever may yet be wanting in this scene to make it one of the sublimest and most terrifying of which, perhaps the stage is capable. The Ghost beckons him; then you should see him, with his eyes still fixed upon the Ghost, while yet speaking to his friends, break loose from them, although they warn him not to follow, and hold him fast. But at last, his patience exhausted, he faces them, and with great violence tears himself away, and, with a swiftness which makes one shudder draws his sword on them, saying, “By heavens, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me.” Then, turning to the Ghost,’ he holds his sword out: “Go on; I’ll follow thee;” and the Ghost moves off. Hamlet remains standing still, his sword extended before him, to gain more distance; and when the audience have lost sight of the Ghost, he begins to follow him slowly, at times stopping, and then going on again, but always with his sword extended, his eyes fixed on the Ghost, with dishevelled hair and breathless, until he, too, is lost behind the scenes. You may easily imagine what loud applause accompanies this exit. It begins as soon as the Ghost moves off, and lasts until Hamlet likewise disappears.

… In the fine soliloquy, “O that this too too solid flesh would melt,” &c, Garrick is completely overpowered by the tears of just grief for a virtuous father, for whom a frivolous mother no longer wears mourning, nor even feels grief, at a time when every parasite of the court should still be wearing black—the most unrestrained of all tears, perhaps because they are the only alleviation which in such a struggle between one duty and another duty an honest heart can procure. Of the words, “so excellent a king,” the last word is quite inaudible; you only perceive it by the motion of the mouth, which closes immediately afterwards firmly, and trembling with agitation, as if to repress with his lips the only too clear indication of the grief which might unman him. This way of shedding tears, which shows the whole burden of inward grief, as well as the manly soul suffering under it, carries one irresistibly away. At the end of the soliloquy he mixes just anger with his grief; and once, when he strikes out violently with his arm to give emphasis to a word in his indignation, the word (to the surprise of the audience) remains unuttered, choked by emotion, and only follows after a few seconds, when tears begin to flow. My neighbour and I, who had not yet exchanged a word, looked at each other and spoke. It was irresistible.

… Hamlet, who, as I have already reminded you, is in mourning, appears here with thick, loosened hair, some of it hanging over one shoulder, he having already begun to play the madman; one of his black stockings is half-way down his leg, showing the white understocking, and a noose of red garter hangs down the middle of the calf. Thus attired, he steps slowly forward in deep thought, supporting his chin with his right hand, and the elbow of the right with the left, looking on one side on the ground in a dignified manner. Here, taking his right hand away from his chin, but, if I mistake not, still holding it supported by the left, he utters the words “To be or not to be” softly; but they are everywhere audible, on account of the great stillness, and not through the peculiar gift of the man, as some of the papers state.

I must here make a little observation on the text. In the fourth line of this soliloquy some propose reading “against assailing troubles” instead of “against a sea of troubles,” because arms cannot be taken against a sea. Mr. Garrick nevertheless says, “against a sea of troubles.”

The graveyard scene is suppressed at Drury Lane. At Covent Garden it is still kept. This suppression Garrick should not have introduced. Such a splendid old piece, with all its fine characteristic raw strength, would still in these mealy-mouthed times, when even the language of nature begins to give way to conventional babble, have broken the fall of it even if it had not been able to uphold it.

I must pass over some of the most beautiful scenes, among others that in which he instructs the actors, as well as that in which he thunders into his mother’s heart the comparison between his uncle and his father when the Ghost appears; one blow upon another before one has yet recovered.

Comments: Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799) was a German physicist and philosopher. A keen Anglophile, he visited England in 1770 and over 1774-1775. His celebrated account of David Garrick‘s performance in Hamlet (original diary entries reveal that he saw the production on 2 and 12 December 1774) was written in two letters to his friend Heinrich Christian Boie in 1775 and originally published in Boie’s literary periodical Deutsches Museum in November 1776.

Links: Copy of English translation at Hathi Trust
Copy of German original at Hathi Trust

The Diary of Baron Waldstein

Source: G.W. Groos (translated and annotated by), The Diary of Baron Waldstein: A Traveller in Elizabethan England (London: Thames and Hudson, 1981), p. 37

Text: Monday, 3 July [1600]
Went to see an English play. The theatre follows the ancient Roman plan: it is built of wood and is so designed that the spectators can get a comfortable view of everything that happens in any part of the building.

On the way back we crossed the bridge; it has very fine buildings on it, and fixed to one of them can still be seen the heads of a number of earls and other noblemen who have been executed for treason.

Comments: Zdeněk Brtnický z Valdštejna (1581-1623), or Baron Waldstein, was a Moravian artistocrat, who from 1597 to 1603 kept a diary (in Latin). In 1599 he went on a tour of Europe, and in 1600 visited England. His frustrating account of a visit to a London theatre, which names neither theatre nor play, could be describing the Globe (built the previous year), Swan or Rose, though it does at least establish its location as being south of the river. A second diary entry, for 2 August 1600, when he was still in London, merely notes “Went to see an English play”.

Travels in England During the Reign of Queen Elizabeth

Source: Sir Robert Naunton, Travels in England During the Reign of Queen Elizabeth by Paul Hentzner. With Fragmenta Regalia; Or, Observations on Queen Elizabeth’s Times and Favourites (London: Cassell, 1892). Originally published in 1612 as Itinerarium Germaniae, Galliae, Angliae, Italiae, cum Indice Locorum, Rerum atque Verborum.

Text: Without the city are some theatres, where English actors represent almost every day tragedies and comedies to a very numerous audiences; these are concluded with excellent music, variety of dances, and the excessive applause of those that are present.

Not far from one of these theatres, which are all built of wood, lies the royal barge, close to the river. It has two splendid cabins, beautifully ornamented with glass windows, painting, and gilding; it is kept upon dry ground, and sheltered from the weather.

There is still another place, built in the form of a theatre, which serves for the baiting of bulls and bears; they are fastened behind, and then worried by great English bull-dogs, but not without great risk to the dogs, from the horns of the one and the teeth of the other; and it sometimes happens that they are killed upon the spot; fresh ones are immediately supplied in the places of those that are wounded or tired. To this entertainment there often follows that of whipping a blinded bear, which is performed by five or six men, standing circularly with whips, which they exercise upon him without any mercy, as he cannot escape from them because of his chain; he defends himself with all his force and skill, throwing down all who come within his reach and are not active enough to get out of it, and tearing the whips out of their hands and breaking them. At these spectacles, and everywhere else, the English are constantly smoking tobacco; and in this manner—they have pipes on purpose made of clay, into the farther end of which they put the herb, so dry that it may be rubbed into powder, and putting fire to it, they draw the smoke into their mouths, which they puff out again through their nostrils like funnels, along with it plenty of phlegm and defluxion from the head. In these theatres, fruits, such as apples, pears, and nuts, according to the season, are carried about to be sold, as well as ale and wine.

Comments: Paul Hentzner (1558-1823) was a German lawyer and tutor to a Silesian nobleman, Christoph Rehdiger, whom he accompanied of a tour of Switzerland, France and England, 1596-1599. His account of his travels was published in Latin in 1612. His sight of the London theatres dates from September 1598.

Links: Copy at Project Gutenberg

Waiting for Godot

Source: C.W. Heriot, ‘Waiting for Godot at the Criterion Theatre, London’, letter 30 November 1955, included in Lord Chamberlain’s Plays: Correspondence file for Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett (1954), Lord Chamberlain’s Office, papers held by the British Library, LCP Corr 1954 No.6597. © Crown Copyright. Reproduced here under an Open Government Licence.

Production: Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot [En attendant Godot], Criterion Theatre, London, 29 November 1955

Text: I visited this play last night and endured two hours of angry boredom. Peter Hall’s production seems to emphasise the slapstick elements, while the entire cast act like mad to inject drama and meaning into a piece quite without drama and with very little meaning.

Lady Hewitt’s case is not proved. There are lavatory references, of course, but where the whole text is more or less offensive and in doubtful taste, no useful purpose could be served by pruning – and the Lord Chamberlain might endanger the dignity of his office if he rescinded his license at this point in the play’s run. Having passed this carbon copy of ‘Ulysses’, he has, it seems to me, satisfied the demands of those who claim it to be Literature with a capital L. Let him leave it at that (with a non-committal answer to Lady Hewitt) and allow public opinion to disperse this ugly little jet of marsh-gas.

There is only one interval. At the fall of the first curtain, the man next to me cried “Brother, let me out of this!” and fled, never to return. He was not alone: many empty seats gaped during the second act. In the bar, several women were apologising to their escorts for having suggested a visit to such a piece. The general feeling seemed, like mine, to be one of acute boredom – except for a sprinkling of young persons in slacks and Marlon Brando pullovers with (according to sex) horsetails or fringes, who applauded pointedly. There was no laughter – only the merest titter at the convulsive efforts of the actors to be funny. I may add that I overheard a nice Italian girl, gloomily imbibing gin, observe to her companion: “… e molto symbolico, ma – !”

Comments: C.W. Heriot was an Examiner for the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, which served as official as official censor for all public performances in Britain until 1968. The Office had issued a licence to the production of Samuel Beckett‘s play Waiting for Godot, but was responding to a letter of complaint from Lady Dorothy Howitt. The mention of Ulysses is because an earlier note in the correspondence refer to Beckett having been a secretary to James Joyce. Peter Hall‘s production of Beckett’s play had opened at the Arts Theatre, London, in August 1955, but the correspondence refers to its subsequent staging at the Criterion Theatre, London. Peter Woodthorpe played Estragon but various actors played Vladimir during the run. Peter Bull played Pozzo.

Links: Digitised documents at the British Library

The Night Side of Europe

Source: Karl Kingsley Kitchen, The Night Side of Europe, as seen by a Broadwayite abroad (Cleveland: The David Gibson company, 1914), pp. 191-196

Production: Arthur Wimperis (book) and Edmund Eysler (music), The Laughing Husband, The New Theatre, London, 2 October 1913

Text: By a quarter to eight St. Martin’s Lane is filled with carriages, limousines and taxis discharging their human freight at the New Theatre as rapidly as the giant doorman and three “bobbies” can keep the line moving. For at eight (sharp) the curtain is to ring up on a new musical comedy.

All the tickets have been sold five weeks before — and sold for real money. Sir Charles Wyndham, the New Theatre’s proprietor, does not believe in “complimentaries.” The only deadheads are the critics. Fortunately for six shillings I have been able to obtain a seat in the last row of the dress circle. The London theatrical manager who bought it has been called out of town. I happen at the box office as he is getting his money back. Can you imagine Abe Erlanger buying a theatre ticket in New York? Well, even Erlanger would have to buy his seat at any of Sir Charles Wyndham’s playhouses.

The “first night” audience that finds its way to the stalls, boxes and dress circle is far different than one sees in New York. In the first place every one is in evening dress — full evening dress, if that makes it clearer. I don’t believe there is a dinner coat in the theatre and I am sure if any one had arrived in a sack suit he would have been barred. And of course there are no women in shirtwaists or “tailor mades.” Lo and behold, gowns are the rule and the only woman who wears a hat is an American actress — who should have known better.

It is almost impossible to elbow one’s way through the crowd in the lobby — theatregoers in London have the New York habit of blocking the lobbies on first nights, with this difference — they are in their seats when the curtain goes up.

It costs sixpence (12 cents) to get to a seat. An usherine collects it for a programme — one sort of graft New Yorkers won’t tolerate. Stalls (orchestra chairs) are ten shillings sixpence ($2.52) at the box office, so theatregoing is more expensive in London than in New York. However, you even it up on the taxicabs. You can ride a mile for 16 cents and usually a shilling will take you to or from any theatre to your hotel.

The dress circle, where my seat is, is on the street level, for in the New Theatre, as well as in most London theatres, it is necessary to descend a flight of steps to reach what we call the orchestra chairs. London theatregoers are not prejudiced against balcony seats. Many of the smartest people prefer the dress circle to the stalls, and the seats behind the stalls, which sell for $2 in New York are the cheapest in the theatre.

In the right upper box are the Crown Prince of Greece, the Duke of Sparta and several ladies. Sir John Rolleston, M.P., occupies another box. Sir Charles Wyndham sits in the stage box with Miss Mary Moore. In the front stalls are Capt. Knollys, Lady Henry, Lady Wolesley and several other ladies of high degree — all bediamoned and bepearled — and all very homely.

London does not boast of “first-nighters” as New York knows them. There are some “old bloods” who take in all the George Edwardes first nights — musical comedies at the Gaiety, Adelphi and Daly’s — but as a rule each theatre has its own clientele. Of course the more famous actors and actresses who are “at liberty” attend premieres.

The only “regulars” are the dozen critics from the big London dailies. These critics, by the way, are so well dressed and so unostentatious that they cannot be distinguished from the “Johnnys” in the stalls. Nor do they leave before the play is half over to write their “stuff.” At least, I observed that they were all present when the final curtain fell.

As is the custom in New York, the male portion of the audience seeks the lobby and neighboring bars during the intermission. They light cigarettes and even pipes. The bar in the theatre does a rushing business for about fifteen minutes. Every one at it takes brandy and soda or Scotch and soda. When the bell rings there is a rush for the stalls and boxes, where those who had remained with the ladies are enjoying coffee.

At the intermission between the second and third acts I go behind the scenes where I see Lionel Montagu, Esq., R. Seligman, Esq., and Col. MacGeorge, three well known Londoners, come to congratulate Mr. Courtice Pounds, the star.

When the final curtain falls there are cheers and “bravos.” The play is a success and the audience remains until Philip Michael Faraday, the producer, comes on the stage and bows his thanks. Then Arthur Wimperis, who did the book, is dragged out to bow his thanks. After more handclapping and cheering the audience moves to the lobby and the street to watch the celebrities enter their cars. It must be admitted that Miss Marie Lohr the actress, who is in the audience with H.B. Irving, attracts more attention than the Crown Prince of Greece. It requires the combined efforts of ten “bobbies” to keep the crowds back and carriages in line. Although the play is over at eleven o’clock, it is a quarter to twelve before the lobby is cleared and the lights turned out.

The play? Oh, yes. It was called “The Laughing Husband” — a Viennese operetta with music by Edmund Eysler. There is no need to describe it. You have seen it half a dozen times and you will see it again if you go to musical shows.

Comments: Karl Kingsley Kitchen (1885-1935) was an American travel writer, newspaper columnist and bon viveur. The comic operetta The Laughing Husband, with book by Arthur Wimperis and music by Edmund Eysler, was based on a German original, Der lachende ebemann, by Julius Brammer and Alfred Grunwald. It starred Charles Courtice Pounds and opened at the New Theatre (now the Noël Coward Theatre) in London on 2 October 1913.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Diary of Philipp Von Neumann

Source: E. Beresford Chancellor (ed.), The Diary of Philipp von Neumann, vol. 1 (London: Philip Allan, 1928), p. 5

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Covent Garden Teahtre, London, 27 September 1819

Text: Sept. 27th. While riding in Hyde Park my groom fell from his horse and hurt his foot badly. I dined at the Piazza Coffee House and later went to Lady Floyd who had offered me a place at her box at Covent Garden. They performed Hamlet. Charles Kemble filled the title-rôle, and did it very well. He has a noble presence, but puts too much pathos into the part for which, too, he is not young enough. Miss Mathews as Ophelia so overdid the character, one of the most interesting in English tragedy, that she almost made a caricature of it. It is a pity that a play containing so many beauties should be spoilt, as most of Shakespeare’s are, by certain blemishes of taste. In spite of excisions, much had been left in which may suit the spirit of the people but to which others object. The management has to consider the former rather than the latter.

Comments: Baron Philipp von Neumann (1781-1851) was an Austrian diplomat, posted at the Austrian embassy in London during the 1810s and 1820s. His diaries provide a detailed account of the political and high society life of the time, and document his many visits to the theatre and opera. Charles Kemble, at the time of this production, was forty-four years old. Miss Mathews (presumably related to theatre manager Charles Mathews) had stood in at short notice for Ann Maria Tree, who was unwell.

Music Hall Morality

G. Durand, ‘Saturday night at the Victoria Theatre’, The Graphic, 26 October 1872

Source: James Greenwood, ‘Music Hall Morality’, London Society, vol. XIV, December 1868, pp. 486-491

Text: Twenty years ago amusement for the people was at low-water mark. Railways were less numerous and extensive, and railway directors had not yet thought of working the profitable field suggested by the little word ‘excursion.’ ‘Eight hours by the seaside,’ to be compassed comfortably within a holiday of a single summer’s day was a miracle scarcely even dreamt of by the most sanguine progressionist. Thousands and tens of thousands of London-born men and women lived and laboured through a long life-time, and never saw the sea at all. Sheerness, twenty years ago, was the working man’s seaside; and his knowledge of sea sand was confined to as much of it as was unpleasantly discovered lurking within the shells of the plate of winkles served up at his shilling tea at Gravesend. Even the green country ‘far removed from noise and smoke,’ was, if not a sealed book to him, at least a volume placed on so high a shelf that, after some experience, he was driven to the conclusion that the pains and penalties attending a climb for it were scarcely compensated by success and temporary possession of the prize. The only conveyance at his service—and that only on recognized holiday occasions—was the greengrocer’s van, newly painted and decorated for the event, and in which a mixed company of the sexes crowded, and were dragged along the hot and dusty road at the rate of five miles an hour, towards Hampton Court or Epping Forest, there to huddle on the grass, and partake of a collation that, but for its four hours’ grilling on the van roof under a blazing sun, would have been cold, with flask liquor or luke-warm beer out of a stone jar as liquid accompaniments. Twenty years ago a Crystal Palace had existence nowhere but within the cover of that book of wonders, the ‘Arabian Nights’ Entertainments,’ and the soil out of which the museum at South Kensington has sprung was devoted to the growth of cabbages.

In that dark age, however, it is questionable if the inconveniences enumerated were regarded as such. The people knew no better. The Jack of the past generation was a Jack-of-all-work, according to the strictest interpretation of that term. So seldom did he indulge in a holiday that he went at it as a teetotaller broke loose goes at hard drinking, and it unsettled him for a week afterwards. His play-time imposed on him more real hard labour than his accustomed jog-trot worktime, and he was an unhappy, despondent man until his excited nerves grew calm, and the tingling of his blood subsided. Such were the alarming effects on him that it seemed a happy dispensation that Whitsun and Easter came each but once a year.

As a man who earned his bread by the sweat of his brow, and who consequently was in a violent condition of perspiration during twelve hours in each twenty-four, it is scarcely likely that the question of evening amusement would much trouble the working man of that period. Jaded and weary, he was by necessity a hearth and homeloving man. He had neither the pluck nor the inclination to be anything else. The evening saw him plodding homeward, and all his desire was to remove his heavy boots from his tired feet, and engage with all speed in the demolition of his tea-supper, after which there was nothing for it but for him to drag his chair to the chimney-corner, and there sit and smoke or doze till bedtime. If he were inclined for an hour or so of away-from-home recreation, where could he find it? There were the theatres; but he so rarely went to such places that ‘going to the play’ was an event not to be treated in an off-hand manner, or to be decided on without due deliberation. Besides, it was a dear treat. Supposing that he went into the pit (he would take the ‘missus’ of course), there would go two shillings, and at least another one for a drop of something to take in and a mouthful of something to eat, and three shillings is a large sum. Being a Briton and a loyal man, and as such recognizing ‘the social glass and the cheerful song’ as chief among the supporting pillars of the Constitution, he would very willingly have contributed his share towards it; but where, as a sober and proper person, was his opportunity? Truly, he might drink long life and prosperity to the Queen, and confusion to her enemies, as he sat at home over the pint of beer fetched from the public-house; but amidst the distracting influences of domesticity how much of heartiness would there be in the patriotic sentiment? He might, as he sat with his feet on the home fender-bar, raise his voice harmonically in praise of his wife and ‘the troop of little children at his knee,’ or of ‘Tom Bowling,’ or ‘Old John Barleycorn;’ but he would grow weary in less than a week of such pastime, under repeated reminders that the baby was asleep, or that his fellow-lodgers were complaining. Even twenty years ago there were ‘concert rooms’ where ‘professional talent’ was engaged, and where sixpence was charged for admission; but, as a rule, these were dirty, low, disreputable dens, where liquor little better than poison was sold, and where the company consisted chiefly of the riff-raff of the town, both male and female. He had neither the means nor the inclination to resort to a place of this description. All, then, that was left to him was the tavern parlour ‘sing-song,’ or free-and-easy, usually celebrated on Mondays and Saturdays, these being the times when he was most likely to have a shilling in his pocket. But what amount of satisfaction was to be got out of it? Excepting for the inordinate quantity of malt or spirituous liquors the working man felt bound to imbibe for the good of the house, the ‘free-and-easy’ was as tame as tame could be. The same individual—the landlord—occupied the chair invariably; the same men sang the same songs (it would have been regarded as a most unwarrantable liberty if Jones had attempted to render a ditty known as Wilkins’s); the same jokes were exchanged; the same toasts and sentiments found utterance. It was not enjoyment at all that occupied the company, but a good-natured spirit of forbearance and toleration. Scarcely a man in the room came to hear singing, but to be heard singing. This was the weakness that drew the members of the ‘ free-and-easy’ together, and every man, out of tender consideration for his own affliction, was disposed to treat an exhibition of the prevalent malady on the part of a neighbour with kindly sympathy. But the morning’s reflection ensuing on such an evening’s amusement never failed to disclose the dismal fact that there was ‘nothing in it’—nothing, that is, but headache and remorse for money wasted.

Of late years, however, the state of the British handicraftsman has undergone an extraordinary change. He is not the same fellow he used to be. He has cast aside the ancient mantle of unquestioning drudgery that so long hung about his drooping shoulders. He has straightened his neck to look about him, a process which has elevated his view of matters generally at least three inches (and that is a good deal in the case of a man whose nose from boyhood has been kept at the grindstone, and whose vision has been always at a bare level with the top of that useful machine). It was no more than natural that’ work’ being the theme that had so long occupied his attention, he should, having satisfactorily settled that matter, turn to its direct antithesis, ‘play,’ and make a few inquiries as to what amendment were possible in that direction. It became evident to him that this portion of the social machine, no less than the other, was out of order. It appeared all right from a superficial view; but when you came closely to examine it there were loose screws in every direction, and many of the main wheels were so clogged with objectionable matter, that no decent man could safely approach it. This was serious. The reformed handicraftsman had leisure now, and considerably more money than in the old time. Offer him a fair evening’s amusement, and he would pay his shilling for it cheerfully But, mind you, it must be fit and proper amusement, and such as chimed harmoniously with his newly-developed convictions of his respectability and intellectual importance. But, looking to the right and to the left of him, he failed to discover what ho sought; and probably he would to this very day have been vainly inquiring which way he should turn, had it not been for certain enterprising and philanthropic persons, who, ascertaining his need, generously undertook the task of providing for it.

The arguments used by the disinterested gentlemen in question showed beyond a doubt that they thoroughly understood the matter. ‘What you want,’ said they to the working man, ‘is something very different from that which now exists. You like good music, you have an affectionate regard for the drama; but if at the present time you would taste of one or the other you are compelled to do so under restrictions that are irksome. The theatre is open to you, but you cannot do as you like in a theatre. You must conform to certain rules and regulations, and, in a manner of speaking, are made to “toe the mark.” If you want a glass of beer—and what is more natural than that you should?—you can’t get it. What you can get for your sixpence is half a pint and a gill of flat or sour stuff in a black bottle, and to obtain even this luxury you must creep noiselessly to the shabby little refreshment-room and drink it there and creep back again to your seat in the pit as though you had been guilty of something you should be ashamed of. You would like a pipe or a cigar; you are used to smoking of evenings, and deprivation from the harmless indulgence disagrees with you. No matter; you must not smoke within the walls of a theatre; if you attempted it the constable would seize you and never loose his hold on your collar till he had landed you on the outer pavement.

‘Now what you require, and what you shall have, is a happy blending of the theatre and the opera house and the highly-respectable tavern parlour, a place the atmosphere of which shall be so strictly moral that the finest-bred lady in the land may breathe it without danger, and at the same time a place where a gentleman accompanying a lady may take his sober and soothing glass of grog or tankard of ale and smoke his cigar as innocently and peacefully as though he sat by his own fireside at home. We will have music both vocal and instrumental, the grand singing of the great Italian masters, ballad-singing, touching and pathetic, and funny singing that shall promote harmless mirth while it not in the least offends the most prudish ear. We will have operas; we will have ballets. Should the public voice sanction it occasionally we will have chaste acrobatic performances and feats of tumbling and jugglery; but in this last-mentioned matter we are quite in the hands of our patrons. Enjoyment pure and simple is our motto and by it we will stand or fall.’

This, in substance, was the prospectus of the first music hall established in London, and the public expressed its approval. How the fair promises of the original promoters of the scheme were redeemed we will not discuss. Undertakings of such magnitude are sure to work uneasily at the first. It will be fairer to regard the tree of twenty years’ growth with its twenty noble branches flourishing in full foliage and melodious with the songs of the many songsters that harbour there. We cannot listen to them all at once, however sweet though the music be. Let us devote an hour to one of the said branches. Which one does not in the least matter, since no one set of songsters are confined to a branch. They fly about from one to another, and may sometimes be heard—especially the fanny ones—on as many as four different boughs in the course of a single evening. Simply because it is the nearest let us take the Oxbridge, one of the most famous music halls in London, and nightly crowded.

Either we are in luck or else the talent attached to the Oxbridge is something prodigious. Almost every vocal celebrity whose name has blazoned on the advertising hoardings during the season is here tonight—the Immense Vamp, the Prodigious Fodgers, the Stupendous Smuttyman, the Tremendous Titmouse, together with ‘Funny’ Freddys, and ‘Jolly’ Joeys, and ‘Side-splitting’ Sammys by the half-dozen. Some of these leviathans of song were authors of what they sang, as, for instance, the Prodigious Podgers, who had recently made such a great sensation with his ‘Lively Cats’-meat Man.’ As I entered the splendid portals of the Oxbridge the natty ‘turn-out’ of Podgers, consisting of three piebald ponies in silver harness and a phaeton that must have cost a hundred and fifty guineas at least, was there in waiting, ready to whirl the popular Podgers to the Axminster as soon as the Oxbridge could possibly spare him.

The Oxbridge, as usual, was crowded, the body of the hall, the sixpenny part, by working men and their wives, with a sprinkling of ‘jolly dogs’ and budding beardless puppies of the same breed, whose pride and delight it is to emulate their elders. As regards the audience this is the worst that may be said of the body of the hall. It was plain at a glance to perceive that the bulk of the people there were mostly people not accustomed to music halls, and only induced to pay them a visit on account of the highly-respectable character the music halls are in the habit of giving themselves in their placards and in the newspapers. In the stalls and the more expensive parts of the house, and before the extensive drinking bar, matters were very different. Here were congregated selections from almost every species of vice, both male and female, rampant in London. Here was the Brummagem ‘swell’ with his Houndsditch jewellery and his Whitechapel gentility, and the well-dressed blackguard with a pound to spend, and the poor, weak-minded wretch of the ‘Champagne Charlie’ school, and the professional prowler hovering about him with the full intent of plucking him if he finds the chance. As for the females of this delightful clique, it is sufficient to say that they plied their trade without the least attempt at concealment. And why should they not? who is to check them? Not the proprietor of the Oxbridge. It is a fact that he admits them without charge, seeing his interest therein. What else should take Champagne Charlie to the Oxbridge, and the host of ‘swells’ who order neat little suppers and recklessly fling down their sovereigns to pay for wine that in sufficient quantity would sicken a hog? Of what use is ‘the body of the hall’ to the proprietor? How far do paltry sixpences go towards paying Podgers his three guineas a night? What profit is there on the price charged Bill Stubbs for his pint of stout? Not but that the frequenters of the sixpenny part are very useful; indeed, to speak truth, the Oxbridge could not get on well without them. They keep up appearances, and present a substantial contradiction to the accusation that the music hall is nothing better than a haunt for drunkenness and debauchery.

‘But surely,’ the reader may exclaim, ‘unless the company for whom the music hall was originally designed found the worth of their money they would cease to patronise the place. They go for the purpose of hearing songs adapted to their taste and they are not disappointed.’ I am loth to say as much in the face of the Popular Podgers and the Immense Vamp, but I should be vastly surprised if the only element of respectability frequenting the Oxbridge was not only disappointed but shocked and disgusted, and that very often. I cannot explain why, after being shocked, they should make a second attempt, except that they are lured to ‘try again,’ and that folks of not over sensitive mind grow used to shocks. If these music hall songs were really written for the respectable portion of the auditory there would not be the least occasion why they should be composed almost entirely of indecency and drivel; but the fact is these are the persons whose tastes are not at all studied in preparing the evening bill of fare. The individuals the song-writer writes up to and the singer sings up to are the heedless, and abandoned, and disreputable ones who have money to squander. The proprietor knows his customers. Where would be the use of setting before a tipsy ‘swell’ (unless indeed he had arrived at the maudlin, in which condition he is profitable to no one) a wholesome, simple ballad? He would howl it down before the first verse was accomplished. He must have something to chime with the idiotic tone of his mind, no matter how low, how vulgar, or how defiant of propriety, and he can obtain it at the music hall. The Immense Vamp is his obedient servant, as is the Prodigious Podgers and the Tremendous Titmouse—even the ‘P— of W—’s Own Comique.’ Any one would think, and not unreasonably, when he sees year in and year out flaming announcements of the engagements here and there of these gentry, that there must be something in them; that, however peculiar their talent, it is such as recommends itself to something more than the passing admiration of those who witness it; but it is nothing of the kind. Take any half-dozen of the most popular of our ‘comic singers’ and set them singing four of their most favourite songs each, and I will warrant that twenty out of the full number will consist of the utterest trash it is possible to conceive. It would not so much matter if the trade were harmless—not unfrequently it is most pernicious. Take a batch of these precious productions, and you will find the one theme constantly harped on: it is all about a ‘young chap’ and a ‘young gal,’ or an ‘old chap’ and an ‘old gal’ and their exploits, more or less indecent. A prolific subject with these ‘great’ artists is the spooney courtship of a young man who is induced to accompany the object of his affections to her abode, and when there gets robbed and ill-used. As the Immense Vamp sings—

‘I was going to go when in come a feller
And he smashed my hat with his umbrella
And blacked my eye, and didn’t I bellow.’

But this peculiar line Vamp makes his own, and it is not to be wondered at that he shines therein before all others. Popular Podgers has a vein of his own, and how profitable the working of it is let the piebald ponies and the silver-mounted phaeton attest. He goes in for vocal exemplifications of low life—the lowest of all. His rendering of a Whitechapel ruffian, half costermonger half thief, filled the Oxbridge nightly for more than a month. You may see Podgers arrayed in the ruffian’s rags portrayed on a music-sheet in the windows of the music-shops, and underneath is inscribed the chorus of this wonderful song:—

‘I’m a Chickaleary Bloke with my one, two, three,
Whitechapel is the village I was born in,
To ketch me on the hop, or on my tibby drop,
You must get up very early in the morning.’

But inasmuch as the effusions of Podgers are as a rule unintelligible except to the possessors of a slang dictionary, he is less obnoxious than others of his brethren. What these productions are need be no more than hinted to ears polite. The mischief is that the ten thousand ears unpolite are opened for the reception of the poison night after night in twenty music halls in and about London, and no one says nay.

The male singer of the music hall, however, whether he takes the shape of the impudent clown who pretends to comicality, or of the spoony sentimentalist who tenderly gushes forth such modern enchanting melodies as ‘Maggie May’ or ‘Meet me in the Lane,’ is not the most pernicious ingredient that composes in its entirety the music hall hero. Time was, when with a liberal steeping of Vamps, and Podgers, and Smuttymans, the decoction proved strong enough, but, like indulgence in other poisons, what is a sufficient dose this year is useless as water next. It was found necessary to strengthen the mixture—to make it hotter of that kind of spice most grateful to the palate of the vulgar snob with a pound to spend. To effect this, there was nothing for it but to introduce the comic female element, or, as she more modestly styles herself, the’ serio-comic.’ The ‘serio,’ however, is not obtrusive. You seek for it in vain in the brazen pretty face, in the dress that is exactly as much too high as it is too low, in the singer’s gestures, looks, and bold advances. Decent men who, misled by placards and newspaper advertisements, take their wives and daughters to the Oxbridge or the Axminster, may, as they listen, tingle in shame at the blunder they have committed; but the dashing, piquant, saucy delineator of ‘What Jolly Gals are we’ has the ears and the yelling admiration of the brainless snobs and puppies before alluded to, and the mad noises they make, demanding a repetition of the detestable ditty, quite drown the feeble hisses of remonstrance the decent portion of the auditory may venture to utter. Some time since, during the theatre and music hall controversy, a worthy London magistrate announced from his judicial bench that on the evening previous he had visited one of the most popular of the halls, and found everything creditable, and discreet, and decorous: a pretty penny it must afterwards have cost somebody for champagne, to pacify the patron snobs and puppies for depriving them of their evening’s amusement.

But—and it is alarming to remark it—even the indecent, impudent ‘serio-comic’ female, who, going the full length of the tether allowed her, might have been supposed equal to all demands, is palling on the palate of the Oxbridge habitué. He must have something even more exhilarating; and, ever ready to oblige, the music hall proprietor rigs up a trapeze, and bribes some brazen, shameless woman to attire in man’s clothes, and go through the ordinary performances of a male acrobat. Rivalling the new idea, a South London music hall proprietor is advertising the ‘Sensational Can-can, exactly as in France.’ What is the next novelty in preparation?

Comments: James Greenwood (1832-1929) was a British novelist and campaigning journalist, known for his investigations into the lives of London’s poor, sometimes using disguise. There was no ‘Oxbridge’ (or ‘Axminster’) music hall – the hall described here may have been inspired by the Oxford Music Hall in London’s Oxford Street, but at the time of this article the Oxford was not in operation, having burned down in March 1868 and not re-opening until August 1869. The artists named are likewise semi-fictions. The Immense Vamp would appear to be Alfred Vance, the Great Vance, ‘lion comique‘ star of the Oxford in the 1860s, whose signature song was ‘I’m a Chickaleary Bloke’, though it is attributed here to ‘Popular Podgers’. Vance’s great rival of the period was George Leybourne, whose signature tune was ‘Champagne Charlie’.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust