1920s

A Letter to Martin Harvey

Source: Letter from Maurice B. Adams to John Martin-Harvey, 4 January 1920, Lucie Dutton collection

Production: William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Covent Garden, London, 2 January 1920

Text: Jan 4, 1920

Martin Harvey Esq.

My dear sir,

I do not want to trouble you with a long note. It would be far from a short one if I ventured to express all that I felt about the excellence & artistic rendering of your treatment of “Hamlet”. I do wish to thank you for the real treat you gave us on Friday and to say how entirely the setting of the scenes & grouping of personages presented most telling pictures. The draperies in lieu of elaborate architecture & other scenery helped us to realize that the play itself & the acting of the players after all must be the chief importance. The restraint of the whole idea struck me most impressively and in this everyone seemed in accord. Nothing seemed overdone & no detail seemed over looked while the costumes in subdued colourings with here & there a dash of primaries in some subordinate gave the joy of contrast which I for one did not fail to notice. I was so glad you did not allow Hamlet to be really mad. Of course I saw Hamlet at the Lyceum & at the Haymarket. Irving was a master in his get up & boundless expenses on detail, but always it was Irving & of Tree with all his reputation & cleverness it must be confessed that he left me unconvinced, much as I enjoyed their efforts & need not indulge in any comparisons. I am happy to have seen your work once more & I do hope this season will repay you for all your loving care. It is evident throughout & needs no bush, least of all from a mere outsider in theatrical affairs. As an art craftsman myself at any rate I speak with a sense of recognition which pray accept in the spirit of good fellowship.

Faithfully

Maurice B. Adams, F.R.I.B.A.

Comments: Maurice Bingham Adams (1849-1933), the author of this fan letter, was an architect living in Chiswick. He had been Architect to Brighton Borough Council, and was a prolific designer of public libraries. John Martin-Harvey (1863-1944) was appearing as Hamlet at the Covent Garden Royal Opera House. He was a British stage actor, who began his career with Henry Irving‘s Lyceum Theatre company, before establishing a reputation as a leading performer, particular in The Only Way (an adaptation of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities). My thanks to Lucie Dutton for permission to reproduce this letter from her personal collection.

Links: John Martin-Harvey and Fan Letters to Hamlet (Lucie Dutton’s blog)

The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan

(L-R) Ludmilla Pitoëff, Georges Pitoëff and Marcel Herrand in Orphée in 1926, via https://cocteau.biu-montpellier.fr

(L-R) Ludmilla Pitoëff, Georges Pitoëff and Marcel Herrand in Orphée in 1926, via https://cocteau.biu-montpellier.fr

Source: Count Harry Kessler (translated and edited by Charles Kessler), The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan 1918-1939 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson), p. 303

Production: Jean Cocteau, Orphée, Théâtre des Arts, Paris, 15 June 1926

Text: First night of Cocteau’s Orphée, under Pitoeff’s direction, at the Théâtre des Arts. Tickets costs a hundred francs each (the same as for the Russian Ballet) and the audience was the usual smart and international et, including many Americans, British, and even Japanese. The play, which the Serts have long praised as a masterpiece, disappointed me. I thought it fumbling, neither true tragedy nor true comedy. Its focal point is an impossible, unintentionally funny figure of an angel (calculated appeal to the fashionably Catholic trend of taste). The part is played by a revoltingly mawkish, effeminate young man who appears to have escaped from some dreadful hairdresser’s. This sugary youth completely spoiled my taste for a production which was not improved by the fact of Mme Piteoff being once again far gone in pregnancy, a detail lending the part of Eurydice a touch of the grotesque. I was so ruffled that I quickly took myself off after the performance, greeting neither Cocteau nor the Serts.

Comments: Harry Kessler (1868-1937) was an Anglo-German aristocrat and diplomat. His diaries are an exceptionally vivid and observant account of art and politics in Weimar Germany. Jean Cocteau‘s Orphée had its debut at the Théâtre des Arts (now the Théâtre Hébertot) in Paris on 15 June 1926. It was directed by Georges Pitoëff (who also played Orphée). His wife Ludmilla played Eurydice. The ‘angel’ Heurtebise was played by Marcel Herrand. The Serts were the artist Josep Maria Sert and his pianist wife Misia. Most sources say that the play had its premiere on 17 June.

New York

Source: Paul Morand (trans. Hamish Miles), New York (London: William Heinemann, 1931 [orig. pub. 1930]), pp. 186-188

Text: Manhattan’s taste is taking shape; the old melodrama’s life is done. The new musical comedy in the English mode, of the style of The Geisha, La Poupée, The Belle of New York, is all the rage, and will lose its pre-eminence only to the Viennese light opera. The music-hall in its turn develops, modelled on the Empire or the Alhambra in Leicester Square. They clamour for all the Parisian stars, even for Cléo de Mérode and La Belle Otéro. The music-hall adopts English workings, but remains specifically New York in tone. It springs from the downtown Jewish quarters, a sort of neo-Hebraic commedia dell’ arte, known as “burlesk.” Burlesk can still be seen in a good many humble districts, notably at the National Winter Garden or the Irving Place Theatre. Here we no longer have realistic actors surrounded by Rembrandtesque co-religionists, rolling in epileptic scenes beneath the bearded portrait of Karl Marx that hangs like an ikon on the wall; here is the original music-hall, with its audience of counter-jumpers in bell-shaped trousers, a completely masculine audience. The actresses have on no clothing except bust-supporters and drawers-costumes which are far more indecent than the “artistic nudes ” of the Casino de Paris which shock so many Americans on account of the uncovered breasts. The performers are in duty bound to perform contortions of the hips and shakings of the torso, in the “moukère” or “rumba” style, called the “kooch dance,” which is extremely pleasing to these audiences of Orientals. It was here that there began the fashion, so much favoured shortly before the war, of running a bridge out over the orchestra; when the women passed along it, above the heads of the spectators, some of the audience, inflamed by this proximity, laid their Visiting-cards along the pathway. . . . The programme is changed every Friday, before the Sabbath. Once a Week, on Wednesdays, the clothes of the prettiest actress are put up to auction; as each part of her dress is knocked down in turn, she has gradually to undress. . . . During the entr’actes, while people drink lemonade in paper tumblers, they proceed to further auctioning. This American fondness for auctions, whether in the theatre or in the smoking-room “pools” on board liners, comes direct from the synagogue, where the community proceed thus on certain days. I enjoy the vulgarity, the broad humour, the Elizabethan obscenity, of certain comedians adored by the burlesk public. It is low New York in the crude form.

Comments: Paul Morand (1888-1976) was a French author and intellectual. He held ant-Semitic views, and during the Second World War we was a supporter of the Vichy regime in France. He made trips to New York between 1925-1929, resulting in his travel book New York, published in French in 1930.

London Letter

Marie Lloyd, via Wikipedia

Marie Lloyd, via Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan

Source: Count Harry Kessler (translated and edited by Charles Kessler), The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan 1918-1939 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson), p. 257

Production: Noël Coward, The Vortex, Comedy Theatre, London, 19 March 1925

Text: Saw Noel Coward’s Vortex at the Comedy Theatre. He also plays the lead, a young drug addict. A very powerful piece. Coward’s performance is superb. With shattering realism yet masterly restraint, and no cheap tricks, he acts the tragedy on the son of a vain, pleasure-seeking, thoroughly depraved and heartless beautiful woman. The ending, though, is inconclusive because there is in fact no way out of the situation.

Comments: Harry Kessler (1868-1937) was an Anglo-German aristocrat and diplomat. His diaries are an exceptionally vivid and observant account of art and politics in Weimar Germany. Noël Coward‘s controversial play The Vortex originally opened at the Everyman on 25 November 1924, transferring later to the Royalty and then the Comedy.

The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan

Source: Count Harry Kessler (translated and edited by Charles Kessler), The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan 1918-1939 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson), p. 352

Production: William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Berliner Theatre, Berlin, 27 October 1928

Text: Saw Reinhardt’s production of Romeo and Juliet at the Berliner Theatre. An incredible muddle. So much intellect and so many bright ideas that the upshot is an inferior provincial performance. A Palladian setting, with Juliet’s bedroom in the courtyard between screens and the balcony scene acted backstage so that Romeo’s words are totally inaudible and Juliet’s nearly so. Dreadful. At one point, during Juliet’s duologue with the Nurse, the audience broke into loud laughter. Elisabeth Bergner and the Nurse, greatly upset, rushed offstage between the screens and an interminable pause followed, with the house lights left down, while presumably Juliet was being soothed by some manager or other in the wings. The production had an icy reception, except from an obvious claque. At the end the real members of the public, including those in the more expensive seats left without applauding. Young Franz Lederer and Elisabeth Bergner make a handsome pair (he bears a striking resemblance to Byron), but that is all the performance has to offer.

Comments: Harry Kessler (1868-1937) was an Anglo-German aristocrat and diplomat. His diaries are an exceptionally vivid and observant account of art and politics in Weimar Germany. Kessler saw Max Reinhardt‘s production of Romeo and Juliet starring Elisabeth Bergner and Franz Lederer, at the Berliner Theatre, Berlin, on 27 October 1928.

The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan

Alcestis being performed at Pompeii, Illustrated London News, 28 May 1927

Alcestis being performed at Pompeii, Illustrated London News, 28 May 1927

Source: Count Harry Kessler (translated and edited by Charles Kessler), The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan 1918-1939 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson), p. 315

Production: Euripides, Alcestis, Odeon theatre, Pompeii, 12 May 1927

Text: During the morning the usual tour of Pompeii, but in the afternoon, starting at half past four, we saw the first performance that has taken place for two thousand years in the ancient theatre: Euripides’ Alcestis, in Italian. A very fine and in parts (especially the first half) very harrowing production. The strangely obscure personality of Admetus perhaps defies (like that of Hamlet) the range of any actor. The play’s stupendous boldness of imagination and genius nevertheless remains as fresh as ever. There is a romantic, Shakespearian quality too in the structure of the work, with its compound of tragic and comic elements. And finally, as is the case with Shakespeare, the spectator is left with the feeling that the human soul is a riddle to which events, situations, and catastrophes occasionally supply clues without revealing its ultimate springs of inspiration.

Comments: Harry Kessler (1868-1937) was an Anglo-German aristocrat and diplomat. His diaries are an exceptionally vivid and observant account of art and politics in Weimar Germany. Euripides‘ fifth-century BC play Alcestis was performed in the Odeon theatre at Pompeii. The production was directed (and translated) by Ettore Romagnoli, with Letizia Celli playing Alcestis.

Just Like It Was

Source: Harry Blacker, Just Like it Was: Memoirs of the Mittel East (London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1974), pp. 174, 176

Text: One Saturday after lunch my mother said to me, ‘Enjoy yourself, but don’t come home late like last week. Daddy and me are going to Uncle Barnet’. This was my special outing to the West End. I had recently been apprenticed to a process-engraving establishment that made blocks for printers, and was now earning 17s. 6d. a week. This enabled me to indulge in the luxury of an occasional visit to the fleshpots of the metropolis where, for the expenditure of two shillings, I could see a show and indulge in coffee and chocolate eclairs at one of Lyons Corner Houses.

My friend Norman, who lived round the corner, would join me after tea and we would go into a lengthy argument as to which theatre we should patronise that night. This was usually decided by watching the buses go by on the main road. Shows were advertised on their sides. Having solved the problem to our mutual satisfaction, we would take a threepenny ride from the quarter to Piccadilly Circus and go to the gallery entrance of our particular theatre. With luck, we would be up front of the queue and settle down to a steady wait of an hour or so.

The time was passed pleasantly listening to the buskers who entertained the crowd. Songs, recitations (including Shakespeare), acrobatics, escapologists, barrel organs, and the inevitable blind beggar led by a pathetic helper, passed among us soliciting alms. With a jerk and a metallic clank the gallery door would be opened by a uniformed commissionaire, and we would pelt up the dozens of stone steps to the box-office like an avalanche in reverse. Here we paid our shillings and obtained tickets for the show. This was followed by yet another mad scramble up the remaining flights of stairs until, puffed and panting, we found ourselves at the back of the gallery barrier. Followed yet another sortie, but this time in a downward direction, in order to get a seat as near to the front as possible. We looked like a crack infantry regiment going into battle. Usually we managed to get into the centre of the first or second rows, being young, athletic and having a good head for heights. Here, on a hard unsympathetic seat, we made ourselves as comfortable as possible, knowing full well that as the gallery filled up, we would have to shift or close up in order to make room for other people. Unless you were fortunate enough to get into the very front row, leg room was at a premium. The seats were merely cloth-padded shelves with no arm-rests in between. The man in front of you sat on your feet; you in turn, sat on the feet of the people behind. This led to a lot of harsh words and occasional kicks up the rear.

After a twenty-minute wait, the orchestra would creep into position from under the apron and tune up. We could never afford a programme so the violinist might have been Yehudi Menhuin for all we knew. Two or three popular classics were normal pre-curtain fare, usually drowned in chatter and the rustle of sweet bags and chocolate paper. Finally, to thin applause, the leader would take a bow, the house lights dim, and in the sudden and expectant silence, the curtain would slowly rise.

I saw Fred Astaire dance at the old Empire and watched young Basil Rathbone act in light comedy. Noel Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, John Gielgud, Matheson Lang, Esme Percy, Edith Evans, Sybil Thorndike, Gladys Cooper, and a host of other luminaries filled the stages of my theatreland. Occasionally an instinctive need for culture took us to the Old Vic or Sadlers Wells (a new place this), where ‘early doors’ were Sixpence in the gallery. Charles Laughton, the Livesey brothers, Athene Seyler, and other actors of their calibre performed the works of the masters.

After the final curtain and the playing of the National Anthem, we would push our way out into the street, where the pavements were overflowing with the crowds leaving adjacent theatres. Private cars for the ‘dressed’ clientele and taxis for the suburbanites who panicked over the last trains to Wimbledon were waiting at the kerbside. Still excited by the show and trying to recall details of some of the highlights or a moving dramatic moment, Norman and I would push our way through the crowd like a couple of salmon swimming upstream, until we reached the Corner House facing Charing Cross Station. Here we rounded off the evening with a coffee and a plateful of creamy chocolate eclairs. Thus fortified, we would walk our way home to the Mittel East, our finances too meagre for the extra threepence fare, leaving the magic of the theatre and the bright lights of the West End behind us at the bottom of Ludgate Hill.

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.

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.