1900s

Second Innings

Source: Neville Cardus, Second Innings: Autobiographical Reminiscences (London: Collins, 1950), pp. 23-34

Productions: Robinson Crusoe, Prince’s Theatre, Manchester, 1902/03?; Aladdin, Prince’s Theatre, Manchester, 1900/01; and Mother Goose, Theatre Royal, Manchester, 1904/1905

Text: I was not more than twelve years old when I first entered a theatre. It was one of Robert Courtneidge’s Christmas pantomimes in Manchester, Robinson Crusoe, I think, with Vesta Tilley as the principal boy. I was not ‘taken’ to this pantomime; I went by myself and watched from the highest gallery in the world. After long waiting in a queue until you would hear the lifting of a bar at the door, you placed your six-pence under a wire-netting, from behind which the girl or woman in charge pressed a lever, and a heavy square deposit of lead came out of a slot. That was your ticket.

The climb to the gallery was arduous, even to an eager boy. Round and round, with acute angles all the way; at every step upwards one’s body became more bent on the purpose, the knee action more deliberate, the breath more sternly drawn. Then, at the top of the steps was a dark refreshment bar (not yet opened) to pass through, and now at last the theatre itself was attained. At great distance below was the stage, the curtain alluringly down. To find a front place in the gallery involved some agility and nerve; there were no seats, only long rows of wooden ledges, and to save time and to get there first we did not walk gingerly down a central staircase but leaped from cliff to cliff. We would lean over the rail of the gallery and watch the stalls and pit assembling. Sometimes a programme fluttered down, like a visitant from another hemisphere.

When I write that ‘we’ would lean over the gallery rail, I am using the ‘we’ metaphorically; for I went alone to the theatre in my boyhood, as indeed I went alone everywhere, walking through the city streets reading a boy’s paper and by some instinct always coming out of my enchantment just in time not to bump against a lamp-post. I do not know how I contrived to get money for admission to the theatre gallery week by week; on one occasion at least I committed petty theft. I stole a volume out of the limited and discursive family library, which comprised East Lynne, the Bible, somebody’s Dream Book, and one other novel, this by Marion Crawford. The volume I stole was a collection of poems by Coleridge, and I am at a loss to this day to understand how it came to find a place in the household. I took it to a second-hand bookseller’s in Oxford Street owned by a man of immeasurable age, who made me think of the Old Testament. His clothes were shiny and he smelt; his name was Coleman; and in his front window, amongst a ruin of ancient literature, was a phrenologist’s bust, the head marked into squares like the counties on a map. The interior of the shop was gloomy; piles of books, and the odour of damp and slow decay. There was another Coleman, reputed to be a son, with skin of vellum and eyes tightly stuck together by what my fearful imagination visualised as blindness.

Coleman senior looked at the Coleridge, rumbled in his stomach, and offered me a shilling. I took it and fled straight up the brow of Oxford Street, under the railway arch, past the corner shop with birds in cages around the door and gold-fish in globes in the window. It was Saturday afternoon; there was a pantomime matinee. It may have been the sale of Coleridge that enabled me to see Ada Reeve as Aladdin, G.P. Huntley as Widow Twankey, and Horace Mills as Abanazar. I did not go to the pantomime in the innocence of most boys of ten or eleven years old. In those days boys and girls were not encouraged to enter a theatre at all in a provincial English city; the pantomimes of the period were severely sophisticated in their outlook both towards the particular theme of Cinderella or The Forty Thieves and towards life in general. Maggie Duggan and George Robey occasioned much concern in the councils of the Manchester Watch Committee, protectors of public morals. There was also a suspicion in many families that theatres were peculiarly combustible and likely to catch fire; in brief, for a boy to set foot in a theatre alone was thought a certain means sooner or later either of going to the devil or of being burnt alive. The danger to my morals seldom occurred to me, but frequently I felt a vague apprehensiveness when I stood looking down over the gallery rail on the delights below, forbidden delights, delights deceitfully enjoyed; for I always lied whenever I was asked where I had been when I got home again. Electricity was more or less a new and experimental department of science forty years ago; and Robert Courtneidge invariably brought the first part of his pantomime to an end by a long ‘transformation’ scene, in which furnaces of magnificences were unfolded as one flimsy gauze curtain after another ascended on high, beginning with the narrowest strip of the stage on which the Fairy Queen stood, in company with the principal boy; and she would wave her wand saying:

And now Aladdin take me by the hand
And I will show you all the joys of Fairyland.

Opalescent deeps of the sea; caves of turquoise and rubies; apocalyptic sunrises and radiance of every boy’s dream of the Arabian Nights, all accumulating in a lavish expense of electricity. It was with an amount of relief that one witnessed at the apotheosis a temporary lowering of the fireproof curtain.

As I say, I did not attend my pantomimes in the innocence of childhood; the fairy-tale basis of a pantomime had for me but a secondary interest. I marked the distinction between Robinson Crusoe and the principal boy who happened to be playing the part; I knew that Abanazar was Horace Mills, and once when I saw Horace Mills walking in a Manchester Street looking exactly like any man of business wearing gloves and a bowler hat, I followed secretly behind him and laughed to myself at his every movement though he did nothing that was the slightest bit funny off the stage. Ada Reeve was Aladdin one year; I remember that when she couldn’t remember the world ‘Abracadabra’, and she realised she was locked in the cave more or less for ever, she immediately consoled herself and the rest of us by singing ‘Good-bye, Dolly Gray’, the popular song of the Boer War. But the point is that she didn’t sing the chorus but spoke it, in a husky dramatic monotone. This was revolutionary; this was new method. The cognoscenti in the dress circle, I was informed years afterwards, were taken aback, and they shook their heads until by force of art Ada Reeve conquered a lifetime’s principles. Round about this time of my life I saw Ada Reeve in Floradora [sic] the very week after the last performance of the pantomime; and pantomime ran from Christmas to Easter; and now she was a fashionable society darling, in a big brimmed hat, and she sang a song called ‘Tact’ in front of a row of long-trousered top-hatted young men with silver-mounted walking sticks. One week Aladdin’s cave and the splendour of the Orient, but in a few evenings it had all gone. Now, living and moving and having being on the same boards, walking in the same places where Widow Twankey and Abanazar had shaken the theatre into reckless and eternal laughter, were elegance and romance in a setting of tea-planters or what not; palm trees and deodar, and the melodies of Leslie Stuart. The palimpsest of the stage! I didn’t know of such a word but I remember a sudden feeling of sadness coming to my eyes when, once at a pantomime somebody sang ‘Is your Mammy always with you?’ and as I looked at the singer’s movements in the round circles of limelight that followed her, throwing two dancing shadows, the thought came to my mind that some day somebody else would perhaps be dancing on the same spot, and all would have become different; all would then be new and this would be forgotten long ago.

The old pantomimes observed a strict set of unities; the identity and comparative importance of the author of the ‘book’ – as it was called – was recognised. The ‘book’ was composed mainly in rhymed couplets, more or less heroic, uttered by the Demon (or Storm) King:

Ride on thou proud and saucy ship
But soon I’ll have this Crusoe in my grip.

These lines were invariably pronounced at the beginning of Act I in Davy Jones’s Locker, which was a drop-scene calling for merely what Mrs Gamp would have called a ‘parapidge’ of stage. The Demon King was a baritone, and the chances might be that we had last heard him on the pier in August at Southend singing the ‘Bedouin Love Song’ with the pierrots. Now in a more dramatic environment under the sea and in the dark he probably struck a deeper and more ambitious vocal note; ‘Rage thou angry storm’ from Balfe was not beyond the dream of possibility.

An inviolate decree held that in the programmes of classical pantomime the dramatis personae and the cast should be denoted and set forth in a running parenthesis of wit, such as:

‘Mrs Sinbad (who has sin-badder days) George Robey.’

From the murky element of the Storm King we would be changed in the twinkling of an eye to Pekin (maybe); or if the pantomime were of the occident the scene would be the village green outside the ‘Bull and Bush’. It was in Scene 2 that the pantomime really began and the stalls filled up. The Storm King didn’t appear again for hours, or the Fairy Queen. I often wondered what they were doing all the time. In Scene 2 the important personages of the pantomime made their appearance in order of renown. The Baron (or the Emperor) was allowed to hold the centre of the stage for a few minutes; perhaps he was even given a song, but nobody listened to him; he was merely a part of the connived plot of suspense. First came the principal girl – Amy Augarde or even Gertie Millar; then the more substantial principal boy (the best of all was Ada Blanche); and the principal boy would dash down the footlights and embrace the principal girl, kicking his left leg backwards as he did so.

At last, when the ‘House Full’ boards were put up in the theatre’s main entrances – terrible to see if you were outside in the fog trying to catch a glimpse of something behind the brilliant lights of the foyer – now was the moment: the stage was left significantly vacant for a brief pause. From the wings came sounds of brawl and derision and racket. And the Dame would arrive in some state of dishevelment, out of breath, having, for some reason never explained, been chased. Dan Leno or Robey or Harry Randall or Wilkie Bard – it might be any of them! – in elastic-sided boots, hair parted straight down the middle and tied in a bun, towards which the right hand would absent-mindedly stray when she came down the stage and spoke to us intimately about ‘Her First’ and of the vicissitudes of matrimony. An incomparable school of great English comic-actors created a Dickensian gallery of Dames. The greatest of them was Robey’s ‘Mother Goose’, who swerved from the unities of pantomime in her entrance to that most matchless of all pantomimes at the Manchester Theatre Royal, Christmas, 1904; and I saw it many times before it vanished into air the following March.

The scene was Mother Goose’s cottage, and the Landlord had called for the rent. George Bastow was Mother Goose’s son, and he endeavoured to keep the enemy at bay. (All landlords in our pantomimes and melodramas were enemies, as a matter of democratic course.) ‘The rent was not paid last week, or the week before, or the week before,’ raged the tyrant; ‘this is the last straw and final notice. Into the streets you all go!’ At this moment George Robey appeared, bland, with kindly recognition, wiping imaginary soap-suds from the hands on an apron. ‘Ah, there you are, landlord,’ said Mother Goose in Robey’s fruitiest voice; ‘there you are – such a lot wants doing to the house!’

It was in this same pantomime that George Robey held the stage for half an hour (while the scene-shifters were noisy and active behind a drop-scene, often causing it to bulge from contact with some royal dome or pinnacle) and created the immortal Mrs Moggeridge, a next-door neighbour, who, because never seen, has lived for ever. Robey came on from the side of the stage in a condition of agitation, fingers twitching, nose sniffing. He cast glances to the direction whence he had entered; they were glances poignant with contumely and injured pride. Simmering a little, but still on the boil, he folded arms, gave another toss of his head sideways and said, simply but obliquely. ‘Mrs Moggeridge!’ Nothing more than her name to begin with, but the intonation, with a descent of pitch at ‘ridge’, was contemptuous. Then he bent to us over the footlights, and in a sudden hysteria of ridicule, stated (or rather he conveyed) this information: ‘Fairy Queen in a Christmas pantomime!’ After another snort and a pause he added, in a voice pitched to a deeper note of irony, ‘Her.’

Satisfaction and triumph here became evident in Robey’s eyes and gestures; but suddenly he stiffened, and the neck was thrust again towards Mrs Moggeridge’s garden wall, whence obviously some Parthian thrust had been aimed. ‘And what of it?’ asked Robey, the voice rising in mingled menace, disdain and clear conscience. ‘What of if?’ (pronounced ’What arvert’).

Speculation sought in vain to deduce the nature of Mrs Moggeridge’s innuendo that it should have compelled this final bridling and this unanswerable fiat. Enough to say that after the pronouncement of it Mrs Moggeridge was heard no more. It is hard to believe we did not actually hear her or see her; there wasn’t never indeed ‘no sich a person’; it was a conjuration of comic art.

Robey was a master of tantrums, or in other circumstances, of spasms. In Jack and the Beanstalk, when Jack returned home with beans for the sale of the cow, Robey as the Dame achieved an awe-inspiring expression of twitching incredulity, woe and mortification, all evenly blended. He (or she) hurled the beans through the window, and at once the stalk began to grow upward. Robey caught sight of it out of the corner of his eyes as he was suffering another wave of distress. And he began to giggle, to experience hysteria but no words can describe this masterpiece of comic acting. It was done by imaginative absorption into a character and a scene; and here is the difference between the old great pantomime comedians of my youth and the comedians of to-day, who get their laughs by the things they say and are not funny in themselves, and are certainly not actors. Robey and Leno and Wilkie Bard and Little Tich and Harry Weldon were most nights in the year performers in the music hall, red-nosed and holding an audience for three-quarters of an hour, holding the theatre single-handed, with song and patter; and from time to time they would leave the stage to return as a new character – Robey’s Lord Mayor of Muckemdyke, Leno’s pathetic little Cockney just married, the victim of a building society; he had bought a house, and he leant over the footlights to tell us in husky confidence of his pride of possession. It was a nice house, with the river at the bottom of the garden; that is, when the garden wasn’t at the bottom of the river. But I must use a platitude now; it was not what these old drolls said, it was the way they said it. Little Tich, breathing on his tall hat before giving it a rub round with his elbow, made a noise that emptied his lungs, fraught with bronchitis. Gusto and faith in a complete surrender to extravagance; no smart-cracks but natural nonsense – as when the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella, having been refused admission at the ball, Tom Foy said to Malcolm Scott, ‘Let’s walk in backwards and they’ll think we’re coming out.’ It was these comedians of the music hall who peopled our memories of pantomime with a gallery of Dames, each as rich in identity as Betsy Prig and Mrs Camp and the nurse in Romeo and Juliet.

The convention of pantomime persisted that the Dame and her son should begin poor and end wealthy. All the good characters, in fact, shared ample fortune as a reward of virtue; and during the last scene they came before us most opulently garbed – Robey’s magnificence was like a fantastic dream or apotheosis of a riotously lunatic Schiaparelli. The lesser male luminaries of the show, Idle Jack or Sinbad the Tailor, would wear terrific check suits with huge buttons of gold, and their choice in walking sticks was rococo. Nobody was harshly treated in this last of all the pantomime’s consummations of glory and electricity; even the Demon King received a burst of applause when he appeared, apparently a reformed character, in morning-coat and grey topper. And the children crowed their delight as the Cat came on for his share of the general recognition and acclamation, wearing a fur coat most likely.

Then the final chorus and the last ruthless descent of the curtain. Nothing left but the return to the world, to find oneself again in the streets outside, where life had been going on just the same on a winter day; it was dark now, with the gas-lamps burning, and when we had entered in realms of gold it had been afternoon and broad daylight.

Comments: Neville Cardus (1888-1975) was a British cricket correspondent and music critic. His impoverished childhood was spent in Manchester. Robert Courtneidge was a theatre producer, actor and playwright, and manager at this time of the Prince’s Theatre in Manchester. The production of Robinson Crusoe Cardus recalls was probably that of 1902/03 (it did not star Vesta Tilley). The Aladdin that he saw opened at the Prince’s Theatre on 22 December 1900, with Ada Reeve, G.P. Huntley and Horace Mills. The 1899 musical comedy Florodora was written by Owen Hall, with music by Leslie Stuart.The production of Mother Goose at the Theatre Royal opened in December 1904, starring George Robey, one of the great figures of English music hall and variety.

Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Publicity postcard for Fred Melville’s melodrama ‘The Bad Girl of the Family’, c.1909, via University of Kent

Source: Extract from interview with Percival Frederick Chambers, C707/145/1-2, Thompson, P. and Lummis, T., Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1

Text: Q. You were saying how you used to get to Brixton?

A. Horse-drawn tram. They used to change the horses half way at a pub called the George Canning which is half way between West Norwood and Brixton. Well then – Brixton was a market place as you probably knew. And we used to go there Saturday evenings used to be – oh let’s go to Brixton. Well now down there you had there theatre and the music hall. The theatre was known as the Brixt[on] Theatre and the music hall was known as the Empress Music Mall.

Q. And you used to go there?

A. Well, yes, occasionally, on the Saturday night. I personally used to go to the theatre ‘cos I’m not keen – variety stuff. And we used to watch all these – very old plays written by Albert [sic] Melville which were all – dealing with bad ladies you know, one of them was called the Bad Girl of the Family. That type,

Q. Did she turn out good in the end?

A. Well, she was a good person in the end but –

Q. They usually had a moral didn’t they?

A. Oh yes, they did, they – used to have a different one each week you see. And – that was our amusement on the Saturday. Used to be football in the afternoon and then theatre or music hall in the evening. Finishing up probably with a – fish – fish and chip supper in the arcade at Sam Isaacs which was a well known fish shop. Then – if you were out shopping and if you were married and you’re out shopping you stay in Brixton to eleven or half past eleven at night and you get a joint there for – just – almost a few coppers I was going to say, but – quite as bad as that but –

Q. Do you remember the names of any of the other plays you saw?

A. Albert Meville, yes, Meville. He used to run the theatre you see.

Q. He ran the theatre and wrote the plays?

A. Well, no, he didn’t write the plays but they used to produce them you see. The Meville family who I – were quite a well known family in – in that world at that time, that type of world.

Q. Did members of the family act in the plays too?

A. No, I don’t think so, no.

Q. And the plays changed every week?

A. Changed every week. I can’t think of the others, I know that particular one, the Bad Girl of the Family. My wife might remember some of those.

Q. Did you ever go to the music hall?

A. I only went perhaps twice, that’s all.

Q. It didn’t appeal to you?

A. It doesn’t now, doesn’t – I mean when you’ve seen one turn you’ve seen the lot. I mean, I’m not narrow minded or anything like that. But – some of it is real smut I think.

Comments: Percival Frederick Chambers (1894-?) was born in Kettering, the eldest of four children of a stonemason. His mother Mother ran sweet shop in West Norwood, London. The family home was behind the shop. He was one of 444 people interviewed by Paul Thompson and his team as part of a study of the Edwardian era which resulted in Thompson’s book The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975). The brothers Walter Melville (1875-1937) and Frederick Melville (1876-1938) were theatre impresarios and playwrights. They began their careers in Birmingham, before jointly running the Lyceum Theatre in London from 1909, where they put on very popular pantomimes. They owned or leased several other theatres across the country, and both wrote vivid melodramas, of which Fred Meville’s The Bad Girl of the Family was typical. It premiered at the Adelphi Theatre in October 1909. He ran the Brixton Theatre from 1907, and in 1940, following his death, the theatre was named after him, only to be destroyed by bomb soon after. His actress and director daughter June married the actor John Le Mesurier.

Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Extract from interview with Edward William Wifen, C707/9/1-2, Thompson, P. and Lummis, T., Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1

Text: Q. Did you go to any kind of show?

A. Yes. What we used to do about the circuses, you see, everybody could see a bit of the circus because they used to have a gigantic procession that went through the main streets and of course, everybody who could – this was held about … sort of between the school hours, so of course, everybody who could would go up and see it. Because, of course, there’d be everything. There’d be elephants and … ‘course, that wasn’t on the scale of Bertram Mills what is now, not on that scale, not the kind of circus that used to come to these towns. But there used to be another one, Lord John Sangers, that was a big circus. ‘Course, they generally only had one day and ‘course, they were great events. They were great events. And of course, you see, they had their own band and they would be on these gaily decorated cars going through the town; and then there’d be all the costumes and all the animals. Oh, of course, that used to be a great, a wonderful sight. But as I say, I never went. But we didn’t get many entertainments because, for one thing we couldn’t afford it, because people couldn’t, not children. Children didn’t have the pocket money and not only that, even in Colchester the entertainment children would have gone to didn’t exist. There were no pictures; the theatre, it was sort of too much up, too much up for children, you know what I mean. The theatre, it wasn’t … plays, the children wouldn’t have been able to understand the ordinary plays, unless you had a pantomime at Christmas, that was the only thing. But otherwise, I mean, plays were too … they weren’t suitable. Well, they weren’t considered suitable for children and children wouldn’t have enjoyed them. There used to be a variety theatre here at the Hippodrome, what’s a bingo club now. That was the first variety theatre opened and we did used to go to that sometimes, because, of course, you could go up in the gallery for about 3d.

Q. Do you remember anything you saw there?

A. Oh, yes. Oh, there used to be some very fine shows, of course. ‘Course, up in the gallery you didn’t have an upholstered seat to sit on, you just sat on the boards. But then, of course, if you could afford to go down in the pita you got a better seat. But of course, they used to have some very fine shows, I mean, because some of the principal comedians used to get here, you see. And I can always remember one special thing about one of them. There was a doctor on one occasion – well, he was a so-called doctor (although if he was a real doctor I don’t know what he was doing playing … (laughter)) – but anyway, he claimed to be able to cure people. And there was a boy at school, a boy at the school I went to, he was a cripple and of course his people, like everybody else they were poor. And the teacher was so sorry for him and she paid for him to go to this … just to see if this doctor could do him any good. And of course, he went up on the stage – you see, people used go up on the stage and I don’t know what this doctor used to do, but … ‘course, it didn’t make the slightest different to this boy. It didn’t make the slightest difference to him, I mean, he was just the same afterwards. And of course, these doctors would only be here a week, nobody saw them after that, so the fact that he hadn’t cured you didn’t cause a lot of bother because he just wasn’t there. But that was one thing. But of course, they did used to get some jolly fine shows. You’d get people riding one wheel bicycles and all sort of things. Of course, our trouble was that while we went to school we just hadn’t got the money, we couldn’t go very often.

Comments: Edward William Wifen (1887-?) was the youngest of eight children (two of whom died before he was born) of a Colchester gardener. His recollections must date from the 1890s or early 1900s (the Colchester Hippodrome was built in 1905, but he would not have been at school by that date). Lord George Sanger (1825-1911) was an English showman, who put on public entertainments, including touring circuses, with his brother John Sanger (1816-1889). The business partnership was dissolved in 1884, with each brother managing their own show. After 1889 John Danger’s business was carried on by his son. Wifen was one of 444 people interviewed by Paul Thompson and his team as part of a study of the Edwardian era which resulted in Thompson’s book The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975).

The Land of the Latins

Source: Ashton Rollins Willard, The Land of the Latins (New York/London: Longmans, Green, 1902), pp. 143-147

Text: At Turin, to turn to one of the lesser capitals, there are a number of theatres, but among them the one which rises most distinctly before my mental vision, is the Teatro Carignano, a playhouse which may possibly be quite as old as the Valle, but which is infinitely superior to it in interior beauty. The Carignano of course follows the old pattern, with its box-fronts rising tier above tier to the very dome, — the only pattern of theatre which was known in Europe a century ago. In this particular it resembles the Valle, but where the Roman interior is dreary and bare this is covered with elaborate decoration. The whole surface of the box-fronts seems to be overlaid with gold-leaf subdued to a dull lustre, and in this series of gilt frames the occupants of the boxes are set off in picturesque relief against the deep crimson hangings. Up on the ceiling some clever hand has painted a flight of graceful figures in soft colors, forming a suitable and harmonious piece of decoration. The drop-curtain is not occupied with advertisements but is ornamented — or was as I remember it — with a Venetian picture, showing a high terrace in the foreground and a stretch of lagoon under a sunset sky behind.

It was in this theatre that we first saw Eleonora Duse — saw her in one of those pitiful plays of modern social life of which Camille is the prototype and which has had, alas, so many, many after-types. As we went to the Carignano that evening we found ourselves wondering what particular shape the unfortunate happenings of the play would assume. Would the husband or the wife be the criminal? And how would the wife die in the last act? For that she would come to a tragic end in one way or another, there was little room to doubt. Our preconceptions of what the stuff of the drama would be were, as it proved, wholly justified. It happened to be the husband who was unfaithful, — and the wife’s suffering, which commenced with the first rising of the curtain at nine o’clock, was continued until midnight, and ended finally in suicide. A very large and very representative audience, containing elements from every section of Turinese society, and delegations of reporters from other cities, went to listen to the unhappy tale and showed their appreciation of it by frequent applause while the scenes were in progress and by clamorous recalls after each descent of the curtain. One of the notable features about the tragedienne’s acknowledgment of these noisy plaudits was that she never for a moment issued from her role. If the applause continued persistent after the descent of the curtain, as it generally did, a door would open from the subterranean recesses of the Venetian terrace and the slight and frail-looking figure would come into view. A few sad steps would be taken with a melancholy smile before the footlights and the sorrowful figure would disappear through the other door. There were none of the grimaces by which the “artist” in general seeks to compensate the audience for the honor of its approbation. The unity of the role was never once broken. The note of tragedy was consistently maintained.

It was Flavio Ando who sustained the second rôle on this particular evening, — an ungrateful part which, used as he is to rendering such characters, he must have disliked to assume. Possibly this excused or explained his imperfect memorizing of his lines, which at certain points rather marred the effect of his acting. The rôle of the prompter has not become a wholly superfluous one in Italian theatres, and on this particular evening the invisible man in the hooded box had to recite many passages of the second actor’s part. It was, to say the least, trying to the nerves of the listeners to hear the words which Ando was to utter, hissed out in a more than audible whisper, before they were taken up by the actor himself; and at certain points where this halting echo was supposed to represent an impetuous and spontaneous outburst of passion the effect bordered on the ridiculous.

As to the acting of the heroine, the distinctive quality in it which impressed us at that time, and which has re-impressed us on every occasion when we have heard her since, was its poignant naturalism. She seemed to be not so much putting on agony as actually suffering. The absence of conventional gestures was one of the incidents of her art which contributed very much to this general effect. Intonation was much. The perfect naturalness of the tone and the total suppression of the declamatory and rhetorical counted for a great deal. But the avoidance of “gestures” in the technical sense, certainly had its share. Eleonora Duse as we all know does not keep her hands still. She does not walk about with them glued to her side. But what she does with them is what a natural woman does. She smooths out the folds of her dress. She arranges her hair. She does a thousand and one things which are feminine, which are human, which are natural; and she does not wave them and pose them in the flourishes and the curves which have so long been favored by the artificial persons of the stage.

Comments: Ashton Rollins Willard (1858-1918) was an American art critic, who specialised in Italian art. This extract comes from a chapter on theatres in a his travel book on Italy. The Teatro Carignano in Torino opened in 1753. Eleonora Duse (1858-1924) was an Italian actress of worldwide renown, the performances celebrated for the depth of their sensitivity. She performed in this unidentified production alongside the Italian actor Flavio Andò (1851-1915).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Classic Slum

Source: Robert Roberts, The Classic Slum: Salford life in the first quarter of the century (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1971), pp. 147-150

Text: For the tired and umambitious there were other allurements. in our midst stood the usual ‘Blood Tub’, a low-grade theatre whose presence impinged on life social and cultural over a wider area. With actors, as with bookmakers, feeling remained ambivalent. Star performers,of course, were wholeheartedly admired save by the narrowly religious few, but ordinary theatricals who made up the weekly touring companies and who lodged, keeping themselves, in the larger houses close to the theatre, both impressed and shocked us. We watched the small-part actors with cheroots swaggering through the stage door in lush coats, astrakhan collared, and were amazed to discover through the matriarchs (who knew everything) that many of them owned but a single shirt apiece or one pair of socks. Though when ‘the ghost walked’ – pay night – and they popped in at the shop to buy generously of boiled ham, mustard pickles and pineapple chunks, they seemed well-heeled enough. Undoubtedly some kept up a bold face on most meagre incomes: a pair of sisters we knew, competent artists, as late as 1913 kept going in some style on the combined pay of 35s a week, out of which they had to find 8s 6d for a place to sleep. We saw actresses powdered and mincing, befurred and large-bosomed, cheeks bright with rouge (‘Red John’ the matrons called it), and we knew they had shared a pair of kippers for lunch. And all were immoral! Of that the respectable had no doubt. Yet they brought glamour, new ideas, tilillating catch-words, beauty, fantasy and a sense of style to our wretched reality, and we loved them for it. Occasionally a girl in her early teens, to the envy of all others, would leave us to ‘go on the stage’, i.e. join a touring dance troupe. On fleeting visits home afterwards, ‘dolled up to the eyes’, she would often pass down the street and ignore everyone. But neighbours had the satisfaction of thinking the worst.

Nowhere, of course, stood class division more marked than in a full house at the theatre, with shopkeepers and publicans in the orchestra stalls and dress circle, artisans and regular workers in the pit stalls, and the low class and no class on the ‘top shelf’ or balcony. There in the gods hung a permanent smell of smoke from ‘thick twist’, oranges and unwashed humanity. Gazing happily down on their betters the mob sat once a week and took culture in the shape of ‘East Lynne’, ‘The Silver King’, ‘Pride of the Prairie’, ‘A Girl’s Crossroads’, ‘The Female Swindler’, ‘A Sister’s Sacrifice’ and the first rag-time shows. The drama critic of our weekly press invariably ladled handsome praise over all plays and performers, though when, in ‘A Woman of Pleasure’, the heroine was abducted in the first act, and again (by balloon) in the second, chased through the third across Africa by natives and wild beasts, then, in the finale, snatched at the last moment from a burning ship – all this to the rattle of the South African war – he felt that the title was ‘somewhat misleading’.

In later years, after cinema had begun to outstrip live entertainment as an attraction, our theatre, like many others, tried ‘go as you please’ competitions on Friday evenings when local amateurs, good to outrageous, trod the boards. Two turns, at least, after debut could not have pursued their art much further, and the first, a nerve-fraying soprano, brought down what, for a moment, looked like a genuine protest from heaven. In the middle of her rendering of ‘The Holy City’ a bolt of flame burst from the upper dark and fell like a judgement to consume itself over vacant seats in the stalls. It turned out, however, that some careless smoker had ignited a lady’s cotton shawl and she had cast it forth blazing from the gods. The altercation which followed, aloft, added much to our evening.

The other artist, who called himself Houdini II, performed to slow piano music. He invited members of the audience to tie him with ropes, guaranteeing to be free ‘in a trice’. Two dockers then trussed him up so effectively that a few minutes later the stage manager and his aide had to carry him off like a parcel, bent double and almost asphyxiated, the audience having watched his frenetic struggles in dead silence. Later he appeared at the tail end of the prize-winners and received a five shilling consolation award for ‘effort’.

Many patrons of the cheapest seats in the theatre, lacking the benefits of literacy, revelled in song and the spoken word much as Shakespeare’s ‘groundlings’ had done three hundred years before. Often two friends would go together; one to learn by heart the air of the latest hit, the other to concentrate on getting hold of the lyric. Songs first heard in the theatre were taken up in pubs then rendered with dreary iteration by street buskers for the next several years. Professional ‘cadgers’ came among us in hard times, as many as ten a week. Some made no attempt to earn reward but begged openly from door to door; others strutted in a stylized walk down the middle of the ‘cart road’ quavering loud enough for householders to hear. Local members of the fraternity, though, never had the bad taste to perform in their own district. Some after singing broke into oratory, when reasons for their destitution came crying along the wind. This form of appeal, however, was generally frowned on. ‘I didn’t know where to put myself!’ said one woman in the shop, ‘when that — today started shoutin’ the odds!’ There was common agreement that a man should not ‘cry poverty’. One doubts if beggary ever profited much by it.

Comments: Robert Roberts (1905-1979) became an English teacher following his Salford childhood, where his parents ran a corner-shop. His book is a classic of working-class autobiography.

Journals and Letters of Reginald, Viscount Esher

Henry Ainley and Lily Brayton in As You Like It, postcard

Henry Ainley and Lily Brayton in As You Like It, postcard

Source: Maurice V. Brett (ed.), Journals and Letters of Reginald, Viscount Esher (London: I. Nicholson & Watson, 1934-38), vol. 2, p. 271

Production: William Shakespeare, As You Like It, His Majesty’s Theatre, London, 31 December 1907

Text: January 2nd, 1908. Two nights ago we took Chat to see As you like it, and he was moved, as everyone must be, to see it interpreted as it is just now (by Oscar Asche, Lily Brayton and Ainley). The fairy spirit of Shakespeare, and his reading of the child nature which is in all men till they die, come floating through every scene of the lovely play. Laughter and tears alternate, and sweep through the audience. It is not only the soul of the Renaissance, but the spirit of eternal joy, which dominates the Forest of Arden.

Comments: Reginald Baliol Brett, second Viscount Esher (1852–1930) was a British historian and an influential Liberal politician. Oscar Asche‘s production of As You Like It at the His Majesty’s Theatre in London was notable for the large number of potted plants and leaves employed to give the illusion of a real forest. Brett saw the play on 31 December 1907.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Sitting in Judgment with the Gods

Source: Channing Pollock, extract from ‘Sitting in Judgment with the Gods’, in The Footlights, Fore and Aft (Boston: Richard G. Badger/The Gorham Press, 1911), pp. 383-402 [originally published in Smith’s Magazine, March 1906]

Production: Lured from Home, Thalia Theatre, New York, November 1905

Text: The Thalia, where I began my travels, is full of contrasts. Evidences of departed grandeur
elbow old dirt and new gaudiness. In the lobby, with its marble floor and lofty ceiling, stand hard-faced officials in uniforms that glitter with gold braid. Lithographic representations of various kinds of crime and violence hang on the walls, advertising the attraction to follow that holding the boards. The auditorium is architecturally stately and old fashioned, bearing an outline resemblance to the colosseum at Rome. The ground floor is a succession of steps, on each of which is a row of seats, while three balconies of horse-shoe shape afford opportunities to the patron whose financial limit is ten, twenty or thirty cents. There are queer little boxes on either side of the stage, which slopes perceptibly and has in its middle a prompter’s hood — survival of the days when parts were so long, and so many had to be learned each week, that no actor could be trusted out of sight of the man with the manuscript. The Thalia is a theatrical anachronism, dilapidated, decayed and degraded. It is a royal sepulchre containing rags and old iron, a family mansion utilized as a boarding house, a Temple of Thespis managed by “Al” Woods and devoted, on the night of my visit, to the representation of a stirring comedy drama in five acts, entitled “Lured From Home.”

The audiences at the Thalia are composed principally of peddlers, longshoremen and girls from the sweat shops. Farther up town one sees sailors and mechanics, with a sprinkling of families large enough, numerically and physically, to delight Roosevelt. Everywhere small boys abound and Jews predominate. Perched aloft in the gallery, one picks out scores of types and observes dozens of humorous incidents. Down town there were men who took off their coats and kept on their hats, probably for no better reason than that they were supposed to do neither. A fat negress sat next to a loudly dressed shop girl, who was too absorbed to draw the color line while the performance was in progress, but glared furiously between acts. The contention that the Third Avenue is “a family theater” was supported by a mother who nursed her baby whenever the curtain was down and the lights up. Two precocious youths discussed the “form” of certain horses that were to race next day, while their “best goils”, one on either side, alternately stared at each other and at their programs. Reference to this bill of the play, printed by the same firm that supplies programs for the better class of theaters, disclosed the fact that a large part of the pamphlet was devoted to articles on “What the Man Will Wear” and “Chafing Dish Suggestions.” It seemed to me that these indicated utter lack of a sense of humor on the part of publisher and manager. “The Man” at the Third Avenue probably wears whatever is cheapest, and I can’t fancy the woman feeling a keen interest in oyster pan toast or orange mousse.

Barring a little difference in millinery and a difference of opinion as to the indispensability of neckwear, the audiences at all these theaters are very much alike. They read pink papers assiduously before the play begins and eat industriously throughout the intermissions. Melodrama seems to affect the American appetite much as does an excursion. You may have noticed that lunches appear the moment a pleasure trip begins, and every cessation of histrionic action at a popular-priced house is a signal for the munching of apples, candy, pop-corn, peanuts or chewing gum. Most of the material for these feasts is furnished by small boys who begin the evening selling “song books” and conclude it dispensing provisions. Just as the orchestra emerges from under the stage the merchant appears, taking his place at the foot of an aisle and unburdening his soul of a carefully prepared announcement. “I wish to call your attention for just about a few minutes to the company’s ‘song book'”, he commences. These volumes invariably are marked down from ten to five cents, and, for good measure, the vendor throws in an old copy of The Police Gazette. Sweets arc his stock in trade between acts, though one also has the pleasure of hearing him announce: “Now, friends, I’ve a postal card guaranteed to make you laugh without any trouble.”

Reserve is not a characteristic of these gatherings. They hiss steamily at what they are pleased to consider evil, and applaud with equal heartiness that which seems to them good. Especially remarkable instances of virtue also bring out shrill whistles, verbal comment and the stamping of feet. The management maintains in the gallery a play censor with a club, who knocks loudly against the railing when he feels that these evidences of approval are passing bounds. What would not your two dollar impressario give if he could transplant this enthusiasm to Broadway? How gladly Charles Frohman or Henry W. Savage would trade his surfeited first night audience for one of those which requires only an heroic speech to wear out its individual hands in frenzied applause!

They are a queer, child-like lot — the people who compose the clientele of the Murray Hill and the Third Avenue. Intermissions have to be made short for them, because they have not the patience to wait for setting scenery, and he would be an intrepid dramatist who would put sufficient faith in the intensity of a situation to trust to its keeping them quiet in the dark. To an assembly at the Thalia the turning out of the lights for the husband’s confession in “The Climbers” would have proved only an opportunity for making weird noises without danger of being “spotted” by the “bouncer.” Their tastes are primitive and their sympathies elemental. They have no time for fine distinctions between right and wrong; a character is good to them or it is bad, and there’s an end to the matter. Ready and waiting with their pity, one cannot help believing that they feel only on the surface, since they are quite able to forget the tragedy of one moment in the comedy of the next. I have seen them sob like babies at the death of a child in the play and break into uproarious laughter a second later at the intrusion of the soubrette. Their prejudices are explicable, but unexpectedly strong, favoring the unfortunate under any circumstances and finding vent in bitter hatred of the prosperous. They are the natural enemies of the police officer, and, by the same token, friends to the cracksman or the convict who expresses a particle of decency. Physical heroism is the only kind these men and women recognize, and emphasis rather than ethics influences their verdict on questions of virtue and vice. Apparently the element of surprise is not a dramatic requisite with them, since every habitual playgoer of their class must know by heart every melodramatic theme in existence, together with its incidents and its outcome. Undivided in their approval of the noble and their disapproval of the ignoble, one soon learns that their ideas on the subject are theories not intended for practice. The man who most loudly applauds defence of a woman on the stage is not always above disciplining his wife vigorously when he gets home. “Zash right!” I heard an inebriate call to a melodramatic hero who had spurned the glass offered him. “Zash right! Don’t you tush it!”

I have said that the stories and situations of melodrama must be familiar to the folk who attend such performances, and I speak advisedly. One melodrama is as much like another as are two circuses. Drifting into the American one night just as the players were indulging themselves in that walk before the curtain which is their traditional method of acknowledging a “call”. I might easily have mistaken the principal pedestrians for the characters I had seen fifteen minutes before at the Third Avenue. There they were without exception — the sailor-hero, the wronged heroine in black, the high-hatted villain, the ragged child, the short-skirted soubrette, the police officer, the apple woman, the negro and the comic Jew. Some of these types, notably the apple woman and the negro, are as old as melodrama, while others are but recently borrowed from vaudeville. Whatever their origin, they are the handy puppets of the man who writes this kind of play; identified the moment they step on the stage and hissed or applauded according to the conduct expected of them.

This sameness of character is paralleled by a sameness of dialogue that is amazing. Few melodramatic heroes do very much to justify their popularity, but all of them have a pugilistic fondness for talking about what they are going to do. Certain phrases favored by this class of playwright have been used so often that the most casual theater-goer will be able to recall them. “I can and will”, “my child”, “stand back”, “on his track”, “do your worst”, “you are no longer a son of mine” and “if he knew all” are convenient terms for expressing a variety of violent emotions. Most of them mean nothing specific, and herein lies their recommendation. It is so much easier to say “if he knew all” than to figure out precisely what part of a purple past is of sufficient theatrical value to be dilated upon in a speech.

Apropos of purple pasts and of heroines in black, it is worthy of note that propriety in the hue of one’s garb is another of the inviolable conventions in the cheap theaters. Olga Nethcrsole probably thought she was doing a wonderfully original thing some years ago when she announced that she would wear various colors to typify the regeneration of Camille, but a chromatic index to character antedates the English actress by many decades. To anybody acquainted with sensational plays a white dress means innocence, a black dress suffering and a red dress guilt just as infallibly as the cigarette habit had a penchant for sitting on the arms of chairs indicates utter depravity in a female. If you told an Eighth Avenue amusement-lover that good women sometimes smoke and often sit on the arms of chairs he wouldn’t believe you.

With puppets and speeches to be had ready-made, the receipt for writing a melodrama would not seem to be particularly complicated. The favorite story for a piece of this sort concerns two men — one poor and good, the other wealthy and bad — who love the same girl. For that reason and because the hero “stands between” him and “a fortune”, the villain plans to “get him out of the way.” The soubrette saves the intended victim from death, the would-be assassin is disgraced, and the play “ends happily.” There may be a dozen variations of this theme, such as an effort to send the hero to prison “for another’s crime”, but, until managers found a gold mine in the lechery of their low-browed patrons, it formed the central thread of four offerings out of five. The stock plot now-a-days is the frustration of sundry attempts to sell women to waiting despoilers; the dramatization of what the newspapers describe, hideously enough, as “white slavery.” This is an unpleasant subject in any form, but the part it plays in current melodrama is so gross and evil that I shall risk referring to it again in another paragraph.

The “fortune” that serves as bone of contention in the tale related above never happens to be less than a million. Such trifling sums as fifty thousand pounds or a hundred thousand dollars are given very little consideration in melodrama. Everyone of importance lives in a “mansion” and carries about huge rolls of greenbacks. When the villain tries to murder the hero he resists the temptation to stab or shoot him quickly and quietly, having found the expedient of binding him across a railway track or throwing his insensible body on a feed belt more conducive to a thrilling rescue. Handmade murder has no place in melodrama; all reputable scoundrels do their killing by machinery. The strongest situation possible in the sensational play is that in which the comedienne flags the train or stops the belt. Next to this “big scene” is the inevitable encounter between the villain with a knife, the unarmed hero, and the heroine, who arrives with a revolver at what Joseph Cawthorne calls “the zoological moment.” I have seen the superiority of the pistol over the dagger demonstrated five times in a single melodrama, yet the villain never seems to profit by experience. One would think he would learn to carry a “gun”, just as one would think that the hero would learn not to leave his coat where stolen bills might be placed in the pockets, but the playwrights of the popular-priced theaters seem to model their people on the dictum of Oscar Wilde, who said: “There are two kinds of women — the good women, who are stupid, and the bad women, who are dangerous.” Notwithstanding their crass improbabilities, many melodramas of the better sort are interesting and not without occasional evidences of clumsy originality and crude strength.

Comments: Channing Pollock (1880-1946) was an American playwright and critic. Its subject is the cheap theatres of New York and their audiences’ taste for melodrama. The Thalia, also known as the Bowery Theatre, was located on the Bowery in Lower East Side Manhattan, New York City. Lured from Home (author unknown) opened at the Thalia on 20 November 1905.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive