1910s

The Night Side of Europe

Exterior of the Moscow Art Theatre, via The Theatre, vol. 20, 1914

Source: Karl Kingsley Kitchen, The Night Side of Europe, as seen by a Broadwayite abroad (Cleveland: The David Gibson company, 1914), pp. 93-99

Production: Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, Nikolai Stavrogin, Moscow Art Theatre, Moscow, September 1913

Text: It was the first night of “The Possessed” at the Moscow Art Theatre. I had been warned to be in my seat at eight o’clock as it is the custom at the Moscow Art Theatre to close the doors at that hour and allow no one in the auditorium after the play has begun. So I arrived early for I was anxious to study the audience at this famous theatre in the heart of the Czar’s dominions.

A few minutes in the foyer were sufficient to convince me that the first performance of the Dostoyefsky drama would be witnessed by a gathering of “intellectuals.” There were no gorgeous uniforms, no elaborate gowns. Less than a dozen persons were in evening dress. Yet the orchestra chairs were five roubles ($2.50) each.

A warning bell sent me hurrying to find my seat. I was just in time for the doors were being closed. A few moments later — promptly at eight o’clock — the lights were dimmed and the curtain rose. There was no overture. In fact, there is no orchestra pit in the Moscow Art Theatre. When music is needed it is played under the stage.

“The Possessed” proved to be a succession of detached scenes from Dostoyefsky’s novel of the same name rather than its dramatization. The Moscow Art Theatre is equipped with a double decked revolving stage which enables scene to follow scene with only the darkening of the auditorium for a few moments to punctuate the intervals. Unlike most revolving stages it moved noiselessly.

The acting was magnificent. Although I did not understand a single word that was spoken I was able to follow the story of the play. What higher praise can be accorded actors!

I expected an outburst of applause at the end of the act but when the curtain fell the greater part of the audience silently left their seats for the foyer-promenade. Applause is never accorded the artistes at the Moscow Art Theatre. Nor are curtain calls ever allowed. Realism and naturalness above everything else are striven for.

During the second act M. Stanislauski [sic], one of the directors of the theatre, took me behind the scenes to see the double decked revolving stage in operation. There I met three Russian priests who were watching the performance. Priests in Russia are forbidden to attend theatrical performances but many of them visit the Moscow Art Theatre and witness the performances from the wings, safe from the public gaze. M. Stanislauski showed me through the dressing rooms which are so arranged that the male and female players do not meet until they reach the stage made up for their parts. They have separate green rooms and separate exits. In no theatre in the world is the comfort of the actor given so much attention.

At the end of the second act I was presented to Madame Knipper, the widow of the famous Tchekoff, who was enacting the leading role in the new play. I also had the honor of shaking hands with Mlle. Koreneff and M. Katchaloff, two other leading players. A first night in most playhouses is a nerve-racking affair — neither players nor managers have time for idle conversation. But at the Moscow Art Theatre a first performance after three months of rehearsals runs as smoothly as clockwork.

Never has the old adage, “Great oaks from little acorns grow,” been better exemplified than by this unique theatre. Beginning as an amateur theatrical society, without funds or wealthy members, it has become in little more than a decade one of the foremost theatrical organizations in the world. Its home is the best equipped playhouse in Europe. And its productions are the most perfect given on any stage.

Although in Russia the Moscow Art Theatre is looked upon as the first theatre in the land it is almost unknown outside of the Czar’s Empire, except in Germany. Its company has only appeared in the leading cities of Russia and a few of the larger German capitals. Moscow is so far off the beaten track of travel that few American writers on theatrical subjects visit it. And naturally, as Russian is understood by so few people interested in the drama, the Moscow Art Theatre must remain “a thing apart.” But its influence is already so great that no one interested in theatrical affairs can afford to be ignorant of it, or to ignore it.

The Moscow Art Theatre was the first playhouse in the world to have a double decked revolving stage. Prof. Max Reinhardt adopted the idea for the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, and later the idea was copied by the designer of the New Theatre in New York (now the Century Opera House).

But it is in the conduct of the theatre and its productions that this playhouse is the most interesting. It is a co-operative organization owned by thirty-one actors and actresses, who appear on its stage. The entire organization consists of 360 men and women who devote their time exclusively to the artistic, financial and operating side of the playhouse. In addition to its two directors, who have practically equal responsibility, there is a governing board that passes on all important matters. After ten years’ service an actor or actress becomes a shareholder, and there is a pension system for superannuated players, as well as funds for cases of emergency. Every player is given ten weeks’ vacation with pay — their services being contracted for by the year. Thus it will be seen that from the actor’s standpoint the Moscow Art Theatre is about ideal.

Only three new productions are made each year. However, a repertory of twelve is given, former successes being repeated as often as the receipts warrant. At least three months are devoted to the preparation of each play. Consequently only finished productions are given. While the theatre is the home of the Russian drama, the dramas of other countries are not neglected. Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Hauptmann are almost as much in evidence as Tolstoy, Gorky, Gogol and Tchekoff.

It is very difficult to obtain a seat for a new production at this unique theatre. For the first ten performances of each new play every seat is subscribed for, which, of course, gives the theatre working capital. The expenses of the organization are about $350,000 a year, but as its receipts are always over $400,000 it is very prosperous. However, it makes very little money in Moscow, where a full house means only $1,500. Its season in Petersburg, where it plays in the Imperial Mikhailovsky Theatre (the Royal French Theatre) means $4,000 a night, and in Kieff, Warsaw and Odessa it plays to enormous business.

The third act was on before M. Stanislauski and I returned to the auditorium. Of course he was able to pass the closed doors and he sat with me until the final curtain fell.

“Is it a success?” I asked as we emerged to the brilliantly lighted foyer.

“I think so,” he replied simply, “but we will know in the morning when we see what the critics have to say.”

Moscow is one of the few cities in the world that takes its dramatic critics seriously.

Comments: Karl Kingsley Kitchen (1885-1935) was an American travel writer, newspaper columnist and bon viveur. The Moscow Art Theatre company (MAT) was co-founded by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and Konstantin Stanislavski, and was highly influential in its advocacy of naturalistic theatre, making its mark in particular with the plays of Anton Chekhov. The production of Nemirovich-Danchenko’s Nikolai Stavrogin, an adaptation of Dostoyevsky‘s novel The Possessed, became controversial after it stirred Maxim Gorky to write vehement articles in protest at MAT’s staging of a reactionary novel. The performers included Olga Knipper, widow of Anton Chekhov and Vasili Kachalov. A different version of this essay was published as ‘Moscow Art Theatre’ in the American journal, The Theatre, vol. 20, 1914.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust
Alternative version published in The Theatre

The Diaries of Franz Kafka

Source: Franz Kafka (ed. Max Brod, trans. Joseph Kresh), The Diaries of Franz Kafka 1910-1913 (London: Secker & Warburg, 1948), pp. 79-82

Production: Joseph Lateiner, Der Meshumed, Café Savoy, Prague, 4 October 1911

Text: October 5 … Last night Café Savoy. Yiddish troupe. Mrs. K., “male impersonator.” In a caftan, short black trousers, white stockings, from the black vest a thin white woolen shirt emerges that is held in front at the throat by a knot and then flares into a wide, loose, long, spreading collar. On her head, confining her woman’s hair but necessary anyhow and worn by her husband as well, a dark, brimless skull cap, over it a large, soft black hat with a turned-up brim.

I really don’t know what sort of person it is that she and her husband represent. If I wanted to explain them to someone to whom I didn’t want to confess my ignorance, I should find that I consider them sextons, employees of the temple, notorious lazybones with whom the community has come to terms, privileged shnorrers for some religious reason, people who, precisely as a result of their being set apart, are very close to the center of the community’s life, know many songs as a result of their useless wandering about and spying, see clearly to the core the relationship of all the members of the community, but as a result of their lack of relatedness to the workaday world don’t know what to do with this knowledge, people who are Jews in an especially pure form because they live only in the religion, but live in it without effort, understanding or distress. They seem to make a fool of everyone, laugh immediately after the murder of a noble Jew, sell themselves to an apostate, dance with their hands on their earlocks in delight when the unmasked murderer poisons himself and calls upon God, and yet all this only because they are as light as a feather, sink to the ground under the slightest pressure, are sensitive, cry easily with dry faces (they cry themselves out in grimaces), but as soon as the pressure is removed haven’t the slightest specific gravity but must bounce right back up in the air.

They must have caused a lot of difficulty in a serious play, such as Der Meshumed by Lateiner is, for they are forever – large as life and often on tiptoe or with both feet in the air – at the front of the stage and do not unravel but rather cut apart the suspense of the play. The seriousness of the play spins itself out, however, in words so compact, carefully considered even where possibly improvised, so full of the tension of a unified emotion, that even when the plot is going along only at the rear of the stage, it always keeps its meaning. Rather, the two in caftans are suppressed now and then, which befits their nature, and despite their extended arms and snapping fingers one sees behind them only the murderer, who, the poison in him, his hand at his really too large collar, is staggering to the door.

The melodies are long, one’s body is glad to confide itself to them. As a result of their long-drawn-out forward movement, the melodies are best expressed by a swaying of the hips, by raising and lowering extended arms in a calm rhythm, by bringing the palms close to the temples and taking care not to touch them. Suggests the šlapák

The talmudic melody of minute questions, adjurations or explanations: The air moves into a pipe and takes the pipe along, and a great screw, proud in its entirety, humble in its turns, twists from small, distant beginnings in the direction of the one who is questioned.

October 6. The two old men up front at the long table near the stage. One leans both his arms on the table and has only his face (whose false, bloated redness with an irregular, square, matted beard beneath it sadly conceals his old age) turned up to the right toward the stage, while the other, directly opposite the stage, holds his face, which old age has made quite dry, back away from the table on which he leans only with his left arm, holding his right arm bent in the air in order better to enjoy the melody that his fingertips follow and to which the short pipe in his right hand weakly yields. “Tateleben, come on and sing,” cries the woman now to one, now to the other, at the same time stooping a little and stretching her arms forward encouragingly.

The melodies are made to catch hold of every person who jumps up and they can, without breaking down, encompass all his excitement even if one won’t believe they have inspired it. The two in caftans are particularly in a hurry to meet the singing, as though it were stretching their body according to its most essential needs, and the clapping of the hands during the singing is an obvious sign of the good health of the man in the actor. The children of the landlord, in a corner of the stage, remain children in their relationship to Mrs. K. and sing along, their mouths, between their pursed lips, full of the melody.

Comments: Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was a Bohemian Jewish novelist and short story writer, author of ‘Die Verwandlung’ (‘The Metamorphosis’) and Der Process (The Trial). He first encountered Yiddish theatre in his home city of Prague in 1910, and between September 1911 and January 1912 documented in his diary his close interest in a Yiddish theatre group that performed at the Café Savoy. The entertainments were a mixture of songs, turns, jokes and plays. The play Kafka saw was the prolific Yiddish playwright Joseph Lateiner‘s Der Meshumed (The Apostate). His impressions were recorded over two day entries in his diary, and he goes on to describe the action of the play in great detail. Mrs K was the actress Flora, or Florence, Klug. A šlapák was a type of dance. Kafka’s diary reveals how the theatre troupe affected his imagination and his dreams, with elements of this helping to inform his subsequent novels.

Links:
Guido Massino, ‘Franz Kafka’s Vagabond Stars’, Digital Yiddish Theatre Project

Outline

Little Tich filmed in Paris in 1900 by Clément-Maurice, via Wikipedia

Little Tich filmed in Paris in 1900 by Clément-Maurice, via Wikipedia

Source: Paul Nash, Outline: An Autobiography (London: Columbus Books, 1988 [orig. pub. 1949]), pp. 170-172

Text: As we took our seats, the orchestra struck up one of those brisk and merry tunes which are inseparable from Tich’s public personality – a very different personality from his private character which was rather grave and inclined to studiousness. Tich, as we and the world knew him, was an expression of comic genius, and he was, without question, what is so often glibly claimed for such ‘artistes’, a true artist. He was able to be funny in so many ways – in appearance – his physical appearance in itself was a considerable creative comic gesture of chance or design. Only four feet high, a face rather like Punch’s but more intelligent, agile as a mongoose, but capable of the most absurd and alarming tumbles and gestures, and then a voice of modulations from shrill girlish piping to guttural innuendoes and sibilant ‘doubles entendres’. But his strangest most compelling asset were his feet. these I think were normal in themselves, but were habitually inserted into the most monstrous boots, long, narrow, and flat, so long that he could bow from the boots and lean over at almost an acute angle from his heels. At the same time they were so flat and pliable that Tich could flap and slap with them in a kind of tap dancing that was never known before or since. The scene tonight was a familiar one – a street with a background of houses and trees. On the right-hand wing, a corner house with an area and a grating. Tich has on his fantastic boots and his little comic hat and he waves and waggles his little swagger cane. With this equipment he can make you laugh and can fascinate you endlessly with his nimble dancing and twittering songs. Presently he will inadvertently hit his long boot with his cane and his surprise and pain will be unbearably funny. Suddenly he sees the grating. At once the gay, innocent comic becomes a mischievous little monster, all leers and terrible chuckles. Turning his back he leans over his boots – which is funny enough in itself – he peers through the grating and begins to show signs of naughty excitement, his little stick held casually behind his back somehow begins to look like a little dog’s tail which begins to wag with pleasure. The audience is not slow to get all these signs and they laugh and hoot and whistle rude whistles. Tich is delighted with his peep show and, as the band begins to play its catching tune again, he begins to sing:-

‘Curi-uri-uri-osity, curiosity,
Most of us are curious,
Some of us furious,
I do think it’s most injurious
Curious to be.
What did I get married for,
Curiosity.’

After this Tich makes some patter and when the chorus breaks out again, there is a crescendo of laughter and applause. Tich becomes tremendously animated and does a wonderful little dance, slapping his boots together in mid-air. He throws up his hat and in his ecstasy throws away his little stick. This aberration suddenly halts the whole show. The band stops: while Tich tries to move towards recovering his hat but hesitates and turns to the direction of his stick, and then changes his mind again, and so on, until he is demented with worry. However, the band creep in sotto voce and this seems to encourage him to pick up his stick firmly. But as he stoops to gather up his hat, the toe of his long boot pushes the hat ahead, sometimes it goes only just out of reach, sometimes it positively jumps like a frog, Then suddenly Tich either kicks it, or hits it in a miraculous way so that it spins into the air and he catches it on his head. This is the signal for the band to open up again. Tich resumes his dance and amid a storm of applause the turn is over.

Comments: Paul Nash (1889-1946) was a British artist, linked to the Surrealists, and serving as an official war artist in both world wars. His unfinished autobiography was published posthumously in 1949, ending just before the First World War with memories of this visit to the Oxford Music Hall in London. Harry Relph (1867-1928), known professionally as ‘Little Tich‘ was one of the great figures of the English music hall. He was four feet six inches high, and his best-known turn was the ‘big boots’ routine.

The Diary of an American Physician in the Russian Revolution

Source: Orrin Sage Wightman, The Diary of an American Physician in the Russian Revolution (Brooklyn, NY: The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1928), pp. 116-117

Text: September 19th, 1917

… I had a wonderful treat in going to a little theatre where they have Russian plays and real Russian people. We made up a party including the Captain, the Princess Kropotkin, Madame Morosoff and two gentlemen, one a Frenchman and the other a Caucasian Prince.

The theatre was on a side street. It did not have a conspicuous entrance and there was a total absence of light. Entering a door of modest proportion, we went down a long runway with a queerly painted side wall. The colors were Russian and the figures were grotesque. This narrow entrance hall led to a sort of big vestibule where there were maids in attendance who took the coats and the boots, etc. From the second vestibule we entered the theatre proper. It had a wooden, arched ceiling, rather low and with a tier of boxes on the first half story. The aisles, which run from the back of the theatre to the stage, had tables extending full length, and at these tables people were able to obtain refreshments and watch the performance. The stage was very diminutive, but the scenery and costumes were of the best. The materials looked fresh and the goods were the real thing without tinsel. It was a marked change from the poverty of material in the stores and the street. The audience was quite intelligent, with a good representation of the Russian higher classes. In fact, it was the first time and place that I have seen so many of the aristocracy at one time.

The Princess Kropotkin is a slim, blue-eyed woman of about thirty-four or thirty-five, a most attractive Russian, but sad and discouraged with the poor showing the soldiers are making. She is extremely interested in the Red Cross and wears many decorations as a result of her work at the Front. There was, she said, a funeral this afternoon among her women’s soldiers. It seems that while one of them was riding on a trolley, and doing as many of them do in the crowded condition of traffic, clinging to the back rail and hanging on, an officer who wished her place, took her hands from the rail so that she fell under the trolley and was killed.

The plays were short sketches, performed by artists who did single acts in comedy, all in excellent taste and well appreciated by those who could understand. Even with my ignorance of Russian, I could almost interpret them from the gestures and expression. The singing was good and the voices fresh. The play was a short one, interpreting a poem by Pushkin, the famous Russian poet.

Comments: Orrin Sage Wightman (1873-1965) was an American doctor who in 1917 went on an American Red Cross medical mission to Russia, taking photographs and films of his time there. Princess Alexandra Kropoktkin was the daughter of the anarchist Prince Pyotr Kropotkin.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

London Particulars

Source: C.H. Rolph, London Particulars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 113-116

Text: [I]t was Jim who introduced me to the music hall, a process which involved deception at home. I forget what the pretence or deception had to be, but my mother in particular would never have allowed me to go into a music hall. I had never been inside a theatre, not even to a pantomime. I had wondered why we were taught at school to revere the plays of Shakespeare but were not allowed to see them performed in the places built for them. I pondered about the play-titles on the hoardings and on the sides of buses. Martin-Harvey in The Only Way, Are you a Mason?, The Blue Bird; there must have been something sinister or indecent about these. A young woman who lived across the road had given a song and dance at a Scouts’ concert (we were not there) and a neighbour had told my mother in a low voice that she had ‘tights right up to her thighs’. Harold and I thought they wouldn’t have been very interesting any lower down, but we had come to understand how it was that there were Two Worlds, to be acknowledged and talked about only on rigidly separate occasions and in separately recruited company.

I simply could not understand what could be evil about a hall with music in it. I did understand that the music halls had bars where you could drink during the intervals or (if you preferred it) throughout the evening; and my mother had sad memories of what drunkenness had meant to some of her childhood friends. It was her belief, and Grandma Speed’s, that the theatre and the music hall were mere devices for encouraging people to drink. Charlie Chaplin records in his autobiography that every music-hall entertainer, after his act, was expected to go to the bar and drink with the customers – and would get no further engagements if he didn’t. Many of the Fulham pubs advertised ‘musical evenings’, and those with gardens made a special feature of open-air concerts in summer. My mother thought this was where a great number of young people began a lifetime, usually a short one, of drunkenness. And she was probably right.

But the music hall, having begun as a sing-song in a pub, had already become the Palace of Varieties, and its progress from drunken knees-up to theatrical respectability was nearly complete. Charles Booth had written as early as 1889 in his Life and Labour of the People in London that ‘the story of progress in this respect may be traced in many of the existing places which, from a bar parlour and a piano, to an accompaniment on which friends “obliged with a song”, have passed through every stage to that of music hall; the presiding chairman being still occasionally, and the call for drinks in almost every case, retained. But the character of the songs on the whole is better, and other things are offered: it becomes a “variety” entertainment.’ In 1912 King George V decreed (or perhaps merely acquiesced in) the first of all the Royal Command Performances. But if this was intended as the music hall’s final accolade of respectability it was not so regarded in our house, and indeed it may well have been that the reputation of royal households was such that even a King of England couldn’t decree anything into respectability.

By 1911 the ‘presiding chairman’ was a thing of the past; and for my part, far from being seduced into drunkenness, I never even saw the bar. (Jim was a non-drinker.) I think the biggest surprise of my first music-hall visit – at the Hammersmith Palace of Varieties – was the orchestra. I was accustomed by this time to the sound of a band or orchestra tuning up, and to me it has always been a strangely pleasant and exciting cacophony, full of mouth-watering promise and chaotic splendour. The orchestra at the Hammersmith Palace spent less time over this than I had expected, but it was still effective enough as a musical aphrodisiac. And then it played! Its speed was ludicrous, maniacal, contemptuous. The raucous ‘Overture’ lasted about thirty deafening seconds and ended with an irrelevant crash of cymbals. I was extremely disappointed and scornful, but I was to discover that all music-hall orchestras did it; and that, indeed, these places were not halls of music but theatres where entertainers told funny stories, enacted funny sketches, abused each other, conjured, juggled, contorted themselves, sang and danced, performed highly dangerous acrobatics and – very occasionally – played popular classics on piano, violin, trumpet, or mouth-organ. I thought they were all utterly enchanting.

Fred Karno was then at the height of his fame as producer of the ‘Birds’ series of comedy sketches – Early Birds, Jail Birds, Mumming Birds, and others; and on these he constructed a huge theatrical empire of over thirty companies, fostering such outstanding performers as Charlie Chaplin, George Graves, Harry Weldon, and Billie Reeves. On that first evening at the Hammersmith Palace we saw Bransby Williams in a series of the impersonations for which he was renowned – Uriah Heep, Micawber, and the Abbé Liszt. In the last-named, for some reason, he staggered about the stage playing a concertina, and someone in the gallery threw a coin on to the stage. A dropped coin in those days made a bright and unmistakable ringing sound. Bransby Williams stopped playing. ‘That’, he shouted, ‘is an insult, and I’m not accustomed to insults.’ I was petrified. He strode off the stage to cries of ‘Come back Bransby’, ‘Come on mate, get on with it’, ‘Good old Bransby’, etc. And after a while, encouraged no doubt from off-stage, he graciously came back to complete his act.

On other Saturday evenings in those exciting years I was taken to the Granville at Walham Green, the Putney Hippodrome and Shepherds Bush Empire, seeing the same variety artistes (as they liked to be called) time after time: Ernie Mayne, Sam Mayo, T.E. Dunville, Ernie Lotinga, and a host of less famous names. I have before me a Granville Theatre of Varieties programme for 18 August 1911, in which Fred Karno presented ‘Mumming Birds’, with a caste including the now forgotten names of Fred Arthur, Wheeler and Wilson, The Martins, Terry and Birtley, Arthur Clifton, Madoline Rees (most of whom I saw on other occasions) and ‘The Cinematograph Showing New Pictures’. Seats in the Orchestra Stalls cost one shilling, Pit Stalls ninepence, Circle Sixpence, Gallery threepence. ‘Mumming Birds’ was the mildly bawdy sketch in which, three years earlier, Charlie Chaplin had played, at the age of eighteen, the part of a comedy drunk in a highly individual way that ensured his future and his fortune. But I never saw Charlie Chaplin on the stage.

I remember being astonished at the coarseness and the sexual innuendos of T.E. Dunville and Sam Mayo; I could outdo them both (I believed) in suitable company, but it was probably because of them and their imitators that, while I was uncomfortable when female artistes were on the stage (I suppose I didn’t like to think they had to associate with the Dunvilles and the Mayos), I positively hated the females who impersonated males, the Vesta Tilleys and the Hetty Kings. I was unable to see why all comedians couldn’t be as unembarrassing as Billy Merson. I never saw pantomimes until I took my own children to them, and even then they were spoiled for me by the transvestite principal boy and pantomime dames, theatrical eccentricities I have simply never understood. To this day Danny La Rue, gifted as I’m sure he must be, makes my flesh crawl. George Robey was reputed to be the supreme pantomime dame, but his double handicap was that I regarded him anyway as a self-satisfied bore. And although I saw Harry Lauder only once, I thought him a bore too: his success and réclame have always mystified me.

Comments: C.R. Rolph (real name Cecil Rolph Hewitt) (1901-1994) was the son of a policeman. His family lived in Southwark, then Finsbury Park, then Fulham. He became a Chief Inspector in the City of London Police, Vice-President of the Howard League for Penal Reform and served on the editorial staff of the New Statesman. London Particulars is the first of two classic volumes of autobiography.

Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Extract from interview with Violet May Flynn, C707/37/1-2, 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

Production: Arthur Conan Doyle, The Speckled Band, Oxford, 1910

Text: Q. And did you yourself as a child, did you ever get taken to a concert, or a cinema or a play?

A. No.

Q. Nothing like that?

A. Only one. My mother when we were in Bullingdon Road, I was in next door, I suppose, perhaps playing with the kids there or something. My mother had a ticket given her to go to the theatre, and she took me to see ‘The Speckled Band’.

Q. ‘The Speckled Band’, what was that, a play?

A. Yes. It was of a family and, um, I suppose there was a girl in the family perhaps they didn’t want her or something. For two or three nights she said she heard a band playing and saw something speckled, and there was a box and there was a snake cane out and it killed her, see. It was ‘The Speckled Band’, she heard the band and sthe speckled thing was the snake. I can see it now.

Q. Did you enjoy it?

A. It was horrifying. No I didn’t ‘cos I was quite young.

Q. It scared you did it?

A. Yes. Yes. ‘The Speckled Band’.

Comments: Violet May Flynn (1901-?) was one of six children of an Oxford working class family. Her father was a builder’s labourer; her mother was in service and later took in laundry. ‘The Speckled Band’ that made such an impression on her was a stage adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes short story ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band‘. Arthur Conan Doyle adapted the story himself into a play in 1910. It opened at the Adelphi in London before going on tour in England. Flynn probably saw it in Oxford in December 1910. She 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 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.

Just Like It Was

Source: Harry Blacker, Just Like it Was: Memoirs of the Mittel East (London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1974), p. 173

Text: Appreciation of dramatic art was usually confined to the older natives who paid sporadic visits to the Pavilion in Whitechapel Road. Here, the Yiddish theatre flourished in all its sentimental glory, offering the romance-deprived audiences improbable slices of life where virtue always triumphed over vice. At predictable intervals during each performance the actors broke into ballads that wrung the heart and brought tears to the eyes of the audience, already smarting from the pall of tobacco smoke that partially obscured the stage. Upstairs, in the overcrowded gallery, and looking amazingly like an animated Hogarth cartoon, where the mums and dads who watched the action and at the same time consumed gargantuan snacks of schmaltz herring, fish and chips, pieces of cold chicken, oranges, pineapple chunks and monkey nuts, all openly carried into the theatre in shopping baskets. The unconsumed portions of their repast were tossed over the rails onto the heads of the ‘Capitalists’ in the pit below. The remote verbal exchanges that followed the bombardment often provided better entertainment than the advertised play. It was here that the great Joseph Kessler hammed his way through a thousand roles, ably supporting his assorted aged leading ladies through the vicissitudes of Jewish life in the ghetto to the rapturous applause of his many fans.

Comments: Harry Blacker (1910-1999) was a cartoonist and illustrator. His memoirs describe Jewish life in London’s East End in the 1910s and onwards, for which he defines his ‘Mittel East’ as being Bethnal Green, Hackney, Shoreditch, Whitechapel and Stepney. Joseph Kessler (1881-1933) was a Hungarian-born star of the Yiddish theatre in London, who appeared at the Paragon and Pavilion theatres in London’s East End throughout the 1910s and 20s.

‘Hamlet’ at the Front

Source: ‘A Correspondent’, ‘”Hamlet” at the Front: Impromptu Acting by a Khaki Company’, The Times [London], 24 August 1915, p. 9

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, somewhere in France, July/August 19115

Text: It is difficult to realise that before leaving France I saw Hamlet performed by soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force within a few hours’ distance of the firing line. An officer of high standing who saw the play hit off the situation: “Our men do not live by bully beef alone; they need some food for the mind, and there is nothing better for them than the great thoughts of our great writers.” The play was performed in costume, with scenery painted in camp, and with not a word misplaced or forgotten in the rendering.

Four scenes were chosen – the Ghost scene; the room in the castle where Hamlet decides on revenge; the great soliloquy and the graveyard. The cast was chosen on the spot, neighbouring towns and libraries were scoured for copies of the play, as there was no time to send to England. Luck turned our way, copies were secured, and in a town close by was a branch of a Paris theatrical costumier. Horatio looked more like Henry VIII on the Field of Gold than the friend of Hamlet; while Hamlet’s costume reminded one more of Madame Tussaud’s than of Sir J. Forbes-Robertson; but on active service one cannot be particular.

Scenery at Short Notice

The Colonel commanding the base was informed of what was in progress on the Saturday evening; he suggested scenery. Imagine the burst of joy when we discovered a sergeant-major who had been stage carpenter. We went altogether to the Y.M.C.A., where the play was to be performed; there we found two A.S.C. men working at the stage, and preparing footlights. The thrilling moment in the preparations came when two privates of the London Scottish offered to paint the scenery if we could find paint and brushes.The difficulty of bringing together all the equipment left us until Monday morning before we began, and I still wonder if there is anything in military or civil life to approach the calm confidence of these men who were to play Hamlet that night, and at 10 a.m. of the same day were faced with a few boxes of dry paint, some brushes, and several square yards of canvas stretched on tent poles; but they did it, and just before the play began the last scene was carefully slung up, still wet.

Long before the time of starting, a great queue assembled. The colonels and officers of the battalions represented honoured the production by their presence; also the matrons and nursing staff of the hospitals, and over a thousand men gained admission. The doors and the windows of the hut were opened so that the crowd outside could hear. Yet during this growing excitement we were shutting out the thought that any one of our company of actors and stage-hands might be called on duty any minute, for most of them were standing by waiting to go to the firing line. The curtains were drawn and, instead of the usual respectful silence that greets the opening of a scene in Hamlet, there were yells of full-throated applause.

Hamlet was embarrassed by the cheers of the gods at the splendid fresh colours in the scenery, for many of these men had not seen stage colours since they left home, and for the time being Hamlet’s scenery outshone Hamlet. Before the play was half through we breathed easily and knew the experiment to be justified. The life behind the scenes was distinctly of the emergency type. A careless gunner smudged out of existence a whole tower of Elsinore with his shirtsleeve. Men accustomed for many months to obey suddenly found themselves in command. One was told to stitch up a hole in silk hose with a darning needle; another wanted a belt; “Give him a puttee.” “My face is too white for the footlights”; “Here, stick on some red distemper”; and I believe the red distemper is still “stuck on.”

An Enthusiastic Audience

The company got itself together in an hour; it learnt its parts from two books in the spare time allowed in three days; it painted and erected its scenery in less then 12 hours and acted, in a way that baffled the keenest critics, to an audience whose vociferous approval would make any actor – Shakespearian or variety – green with envy. Hamlet will long be remembered; a 6ft. 2in. Horatio and limping with a convalescent ankle could not, through physical disparity, keep himself within his shadow; the Ghost wore a fine suit of old French armour shrouded in white muslin. The proceedings were brought to a close by Henry V, clothed in all his shining accoutrements before Harfleur. Flashing his great sword he cried out the famous speech before the battle –

Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more
Or close up the wall with your English dead.

and so on, right through breathlessly to

The game’s afoot, follow your spirit
And upon this charge
Cry God for Harry, England, and St. George!

The effect was electrical. Had the bugle sounded the charge every man would have rushed out of that building, as he was. All the latent warrior spirit of our race seemed to leap to a flame. As we went out into the still night our hearts were stronger, our minds brighter, our courage high, and in the quiet stars above brooded the certain promise of victorious and lasting peace.

Comments: The unsigned article naturally does not identify the location. J. Forbes Robertson was the most notable Shakespearean actor of the period.

Links: Copy at The Times (subscription site)

Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Extract from interview with Reginald Spurgeon, C707/12/1-2, 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. And what did you spend your pocket money on?

A. Well, it was on perhaps sweets. I don’t think I was smoking, ‘cos I wouldn’t be smoking at that age. Or there might be a fair. A fair might come into town d you’d go to that. Occasionally a tuppenny gaff.

Q. What is a tuppenny gap?

A. There’d be a portable theatre come and put up in one of the meadows in the town, and they would run plays. And they was a repertory company and was changing every night. You see, a travelling repertory company. And, terribly cold, no heating, I remember I’ve sat in there, tiered up on just wooden planks, and I’ve felt cramp, you know, almost got like cricket balls underneath my feet. Just sat there and listened. And the people on one occasion they stayed here quite a time and got friendly with people. Course they had a hard struggle. Then there would have been, the play would have been, you know, “Maria Martin in the Red Barn”, “East Lynne”, and all those things. “The Face at the Window”.

Q. I’ve heard of “East Lynne” and “The Red Barn”. What was the first ore?

A. “Maria Martin”, you’ve never heard of that?

Q. No I haven’t.

A. Well, this was a murder that took place at Polstead. A village. Murdered – this girl was supposed to have been murdered in the Red Barn at Polstead.

Q. Oh. It was “Maria Martin in the Red Barn” was it?

A. Yes. Murdered in the Red Barn. This actually did happen.

Q. And they made a kind of play cut of it?

A. Yes. They made this melodrama sort of thing.

Comments: Reginald Spurgeon (1903-?) was one of eight children of a Halstead iron moulder and his silk weaver wife. Penny, or tuppenny, gaffs were cheap theatrical entertainments put on for working class audiences. There were numerous plays made about the ‘Red Barn Murder‘ of Maria Marten, in Polstead in 1827. The memory dates from late 1900s/early 1910s. Spurgeon 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).