Food and drink

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.

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.

Thomas Platter’s Travels in England

Source: Thomas Platter, diary entry for 21 September 1599, translated by Clare Williams, in Thomas Platter’s Travels in England (London: Jonathan Cape, 1937), German original reproduced in E.K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930), vol. II, p. 322

Production: William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, London, 21 September 1599

Text: On September 21st after lunch, about two o’clock, I and my party crossed the water, and there in the house with the thatched roof witnessed an excellent performance of the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius Caesar, with a cast of some fifteen people; when the play was over they danced very marvellously and gracefully together as is their wont, two dressed as men and two as women.

On another occasion not far from our inn, in the suburb at Bishopsgate, if I remember, also after lunch, I beheld a play in which they presented diverse nations and an Englishman struggling together for a maiden; he overcame them all except the German who won the girl in a tussle, and then sat down by her side, when he and his servant drank themselves tipsy, so that they were both fuddled and the servant proceeded to hurl his shoe at his master’s head, whereupon they both fell asleep; meanwhile the Englishman stole into the tent and absconded with the German’s prize, thus in his turn outwitting the German; in conclusion they danced very charmingly in English and Irish fashion. Thus daily at two in the afternoon, London has sometimes three plays running in different places, competing with each other, and those which play best obtain most spectators.

The playhouses are so constructed that they play on a raised platform, so that everyone has a good view. There are different galleries and places, however, where the seating is better and more comfortable and therefore more expensive. For whoever cares to stand below only pays one English penny, but if he wishes to sit he enters by another door, and pays another penny, while if he desires to sit in the most comfortable seats which are cushioned, where he not only sees everything well, but can also be seen, then he pays yet another English penny at another door. And during the performance food and drink are carried round the audience, so that for what one cares to pay one may also have refreshment.

The actors are most expensively costumed for it is the English usage for eminent Lords or Knights at their decease to bequeath and leave almost the best of their clothes to their serving men, which it is unseemly for the latter to wear, so that they offer them for sale for a small sum of money to the actors.

How much time then they may merrily spend daily at the play everyone knows who has ever seen them play or act.

Comments: Thomas Platter (c.1574-1628) was a Swiss physician and traveller. A diary that he kept on a visit to England over September-October 1599 includes a visit to the newly-opened Globe theatre in London. The Julius Caesar play that he saw on 21 September 1599 is very likely to be that written by Shakespeare.

Links: English text at The Norton Anthology of English Literature

Lotos-time in Japan

Source: Henry T. Finck, Lotos-time in Japan (New York: C. Scribner’s sons, 1895), pp. 91-99

Production: Unnamed kabuki drama, Shintomi-za theatre, Tokyo, 1890s

Text: During the hot lotos months the theatres of Japan, as of most countries, are closed. On July 7 and 8, however, there happened to be, for the benefit of sufferers from the failure of the rice crops, a special charity performance by the Danjiuro Association, at the Shintomi Theatre, to which foreigners were able to purchase tickets at two dollars each, and which was on no account to be missed, for Danjiuro is the greatest of Japanese actors. It was expected that a great many foreigners would be present, and for their benefit the principal play to be given had been abbreviated so that it would last only seven hours. For the same reason the performance was begun at three p.m. instead of at six o’clock in the morning, which is the orthodox Japanese hour for beginning a play that usually lasts till six in the evening, — sometimes like our newspaper serials, “to be continued” next day.

It was raining when we rode up to the theatre, which we found to be somewhat larger than ordinary Japanese buildings, but without any pretensions to architectural beauty, which would be too expensive a luxury in a city where destructive fires are as frequent as in Tokyo. Being already provided with tickets, we were able to dodge the custom indulged in by well-to-do Japanese, of securing their seats in an adjoining tea house, instead of at the box office. These tea houses also provide lunches during the intermissions of the play, and in various ways absorb a large share of the general theatrical profits, to which fact the frequent collapse of managers has been attributed.

Kurumas by the score discharged their foreign or native occupants at the door, while hundreds of other natives came along on clogs, that lifted them stilt-like above the mud of the unpaved streets. Before entering they left these clogs near the door, where a pile of at least a hundred pairs had accumulated, which servants were rapidly carrying to a corner within. Leaving our umbrellas — but not our shoes — in charge of an attendant, we were ushered up a flight of stairs to a gallery facing the stage, and provided with chairs — luckily, for it would have been torture to sit or squat for hours on the mats, as the natives did in the side galleries and in the parquet. This parquet was divided into small square boxes, somewhat as we divide the floor of a church into pews; there were, of course, no benches or chairs, but everybody knelt on mats during the whole performance.

On a first visit to a Japanese theatre the audience is quite as interesting as the play, for the reason that the family groups in the parquet behave very much as they would if they were between the paper walls and screens of their own homes. No one is so rude as to disturb others by coming or going during the continuance of an act; but between the acts the scenes in the parquet constitute an entertaining side-show. Every family group is provided with a lunch, which has either been brought along, or is ordered from an adjoining tea house. Two gangways, right and left, called hanamichi or flower paths, on a level with the stage, run from it to the other end of the hall, and from these gangways (which are also used sometimes for special entrances of the actors or for processions) male attendants distributed tea, cakes, and other refreshments to the audience. A number of the spectators took their lunch unceremoniously on the stage, in front of the curtain. Almost every man and woman was smoking a thimble-sized pipe, and this indulgence was not limited to the intermissions, but continued most of the time, except when the tears over a tragic situation threatened to put out the pipe.

Although many Japanese plays are very immoral, according to our notions of propriety, boys and girls of all ages are taken to them by their parents of the lower classes; but in justice to the Japanese, it must be added that until recently, on account of the coarseness of the stage, the upper classes did not frequent the ordinary theatre, but only certain ancient and highly respectable, unintelligible, and tiresome performances — quasi-operatic — known as . The actors of these were honored in society; but ordinary actors were held in such contempt that, as Professor Chamberlain tells us, “when a census was taken, they were spoken of with the numerals used in counting animals. … Those to whom Japanese is familiar will,” he adds, “appreciate the terrible sting of the insult.” The strictness of Japanese etiquette on this point is illustrated by the account given, only a few decades ago, by Sir Rutherford Alcock of a visit to a theatre, which he made in Osaka, prefaced by this information: “In Yeddo I had never been able to gratify my desire to see this illustration of national manners, because no person of rank can be seen in such places; and it would have been a breach of all rules of propriety for a minister to visit a theatre.” Within recent years there has been a change and improvement, in consequence of which theatres and actors are no longer tabooed, which is a fortunate circumstance, for the reason that, to quote Chamberlain once more, the theatre is “the only remaining place where the life of Old Japan can be studied in these radical latter days.”

Apart from us foreigners seated on chairs in one gallery and our method of applause, which the Japanese have adopted in their public places, there was nothing in this theatre that could not have been seen in Old Japan. The dresses of the spectators may have been less sombre in former days; but this sombreness only served to enhance, by contrast, the beautiful colors and patterns of the accurate historic costumes worn by the actors. I cannot add “and actresses”; for even yet women are not considered to be fit to appear in a first-class play, and their parts are still taken by men — admirably taken by them, it must be confessed, with a grace truly feminine. Of the men’s costumes the oddest were the trailing trousers — those most extraordinary garments, which were part of the court costume until a few decades ago, and which amazed Sir Rutherford Alcock when he was received by the Shogun. He relates that facing him were fifty officials,

“all in gauze and silks. …. The most singular part of the whole costume, and that which, added to the headgear, gave an irresistibly comic air to the whole presentment, was the immeasurable prolongation of the silk trousers. These, instead of stopping short at the heels, are unconscionably lengthened and left to trail two or three feet behind them, so that their feet, as they advanced, seemed pushed into what should have been the knees of the garment.”

These trailing trousers played a conspicuous role in the drama we saw at the Shintomi. It has been suggested that, as such a garment must make its wearer clumsy and helpless, it was prescribed by the rulers to ward off the danger of assassination. But when I asked Mr. Shugio what he thought was the original object of this strange costume, he replied that it was to give the impression that the Shogun’s subjects were on their knees even when walking. The Japanese are indeed always on their knees, both for courtesy and comfort, except when walking or sleeping, and it would not be inappropriate to entitle a book on them, The Kneeling Nation. If one of them wrote a book on us, he would probably be tempted to entitle it, The Sitting Nation; for kneeling and walking are fast becoming lost arts among us.

Our performance consisted of a tragedy in four acts, a short comedy, and a dance in four acts, in which last the Misses Fukiko and Jitsuko, daughters of Danjiuro, took part — models of elegance in appearance and grace in gesture. An English program was distributed, containing the “dramatic (sic) personae” and a brief sketch of the tragic plot, the scene of which was placed at the beginning of the seventeenth century, and which had a good deal to do with fighting and plotting and poisoned cakes. I have never seen better acting than that in the poisoning scene of this play. However much the Japanese may differ from us in customs and etiquette, in the expression of grief and joy their faces are like ours, and their actors have such wonderful mimetic powers that I found no difficulty whatever in following the plot, both in the tragedy and the comedy. Danjiuro might come to America and act in his own language, as Salvini has done; he is the Salvini of Japan, and would be a popular idol anywhere. One of our party had intended to return to Yokohama at six, but I heard him say that he liked the play (of which he could not understand a word) so well that he had decided to stay to the end — four hours more, including an hour’s intermission for supper.

The only disagreeable feature of the performance was the tone in which the actors spoke their parts. In ordinary conversation the Japanese speak in a low, musical voice and with natural inflections, but on the stage they have adopted the idiotic Chinese sing-song, squeaking falsetto, unearthly yells, and other extraordinary sounds which make a Chinese theatre seem like an improvised lunatic asylum. Almost everything that is really absurd in Japan comes from China, and prominent among the absurdities which ought to yield as soon as possible to Occidental influences is the stage falsetto. I was surprised by another peculiarity of the theatrical diction. My grammars had told me thatthe Japanese have practically no verbal or oratorical accent, every syllable and word having about the same emphasis. But it seemed to me that these actors positively swooped down on certain syllables and words, with an emphatic sforzando. I had also noticed previously that railway guards often accented one syllable much more strongly than the others; for instance, Kamákura.

In its scenic features the Japanese stage has gone far beyond the Chinese, which is still in the primitive condition of Shakspere’s [sic] time when a board with “This is a Forest,” or whatever else was to be suggested, took the place of real or painted trees, mountains, and so on. It would be strange, indeed, if, with their passionate love of nature, which makes them paint a maple branch or a Fuji on every fan, screen, and teapot, the Japanese had been willing to dispense with a scenic background on the stage. Episodes of street life, domestic interiors, dogs, horses, boats, moats, and castles, forest scenes — are all painted, or bodily introduced, with an art that is thoroughly realistic, and illusory in its perspective. What is more, to save time, or rather, to shorten intermissions, the Japanese were the first to invent a revolving stage, which makes it possible to set up one scene while another is in use, thus facilitating rapid changes. The curtain is sometimes raised, as in our theatres, sometimes dropped out of sight, or again pushed aside and closed, as at Bayreuth. The Shintomi has two ornamental curtains, — one Dutch, the other the gift of a Hawaiian monarch.

But again, just as the splendid acting is marred by the silly Chinese intonation, so the scenic illusion is destroyed by incongruities. One might forgive the gangways running from the stage across the parquet, and the occasional appearance of actors on them, especially when they are arrayed in their most gorgeous costumes, genuine works of art which have few counterparts at the present day, and which can be better seen this way than on the stage itself; but one fails to understand how the Japanese can tolerate the Chinese nuisance of allowing stage attendants to walk about among the actors, light up their faces with candles, prompt them from an open book, bring on or remove furniture, etc., in an obtrusive manner which destroys all illusion. What is amusing about this farce is the Oriental naiveté of supposing these attendants to be invisible, as is indicated by their wearing black garments and veils. An explanation of this absurdity may perhaps be found in the fact that until recently the Japanese theatre was frequented only by the lower classes, whose illusion is not easily marred.

Shall I attempt to describe the music which accompanied the tragedy? It must be admitted that the Japanese, as well as the Chinese, anticipated Wagner in the idea that a tragedy needs a musical accompaniment. It is their way of carrying out this idea that Western ears object to. I frankly confess that I found a certain charm in the barbarous music of the Chinese theatre in San Francisco after I had heard it four or five times. If this Japanese dramatic music gave me less pleasure, it may be owing to the fact that it was too deep to be understood at first hearing. I will give it the benefit of the doubt, — the more willingly as I did subsequently hear samisen and koto playing which was truly musical in its way. What was surprising in the play at the Shintomi Theatre was the variety of musical effects and groupings. To the left of the stage was a sort of menagerie cage with bars, the occupants of which kept up a monotonous strumming on their samisens in accompanying the dialogue. In a row on the back of the stage there were some flute players and more samisenists, whose performance sometimes assumed a well-defined rhythmic form. In a sort of proscenium box on our right, ten feet above the stage, there were two more samisen players, besides two doleful vocalists, looking, with their shaven crowns, like Buddhist priests. Their song consisted of an occasional melodic bud, with a great deal of garnishing that it would be impossible to indicate in our musical notation. But the prima donna of the occasion was the fellow with the big drum. He had his innings when a ghost came on the stage, and again, when the ghost made his exit. That drummer could give points to a thunderstorm in the Alps. It is said that the Japanese do not stand in real awe of ghosts, but look upon their possible appearance with a certain kindly interest; yet I fancy that when accompanied by such an unearthly drum solo, a ghost must be awful even to them.

If I have neglected to mention the name of the play or its writer, that is not my fault. No name or author was given on the playbill, it being the custom to ascribe new dramas to the manager who produces them. Many of the plays are the result of the co-operation of a writer with the actors, scene painters, and carpenters, and there is much improvisation during the performance. Such a thing, after all, is not unknown in our own theatres. I have been told that of the original “Black Crook” nothing whatever remains but the name; yet the author still draws his royalty.

Comments: Henry Theophilus Finck (1854-1926) was an American music critic. Ichikawa Danjūrō IX (1838-1903) was among the greatest of Japanese Kabuki theatre performers, ninth in a line of actors all bearing the sane name. According to the http://www.kabuki21.com site, the names of his two acting daughters were Ichikawa Suisen II and Ichikawa Kyokubai II. Women  would occasionally perform in Kabuki, but in minor roles only.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Two Views of a Cheap Theatre

Edward G. Dalziel, 'A Cheap Theatre, Sunday Night', illustrating The Uncommercial Traveller, 1877 edition

Edward G. Dalziel, ‘A Cheap Theatre, Sunday Night’, illustrating The Uncommercial Traveller, 1877 edition

Source: Charles Dickens, ‘Two Views of a Cheap Theatre’, All the Year Round, vol. 2, 25 February 1860, pp. 416-421. Reproduced in The Uncommercial Traveller (1861, 1868, 1875)

Text: I shut the door of my lodging behind me, and came out into the streets at six on a drizzling Saturday evening in the last past month of January, all that neighbourhood of Covent-garden looked very desolate. It is so essentially a neighbourhood which has seen better days, that bad weather affects it sooner than another place which has not come down in the World. In its present reduced condition it bears a thaw almost worse than any place I know. It gets so deadfully low-spirited when damp breaks forth. Those wonderful houses about Drury-lane Theatre, which in the palmy days of theatres were prosperous and long-settled places of business, and which now change hands every week, but never change their character of being divided and sub-divided on the ground floor into mouldy dens of shops where an orange and half-a-dozen nuts, or a pomatum-pot, one cake of fancy soap, and a cigar box, are offered for sale and never sold, were most ruefully contemplated that evening, by the statue of Shakespeare, with the rain-drops coursing one another down its innocent nose. Those inscrutable pigeon-hole offices, with nothing in them (not so much as an inkstand) but a model of a theatre before the curtain, where, in the Italian Opera season, tickets at reduced prices are kept on sale by nomadic gentlemen in smeary hats too tall for them, whom one occasionally seems to have seen on race-courses, not wholly unconnected with strips of cloth of various colours and a rolling ball—those Bedouin establishments, deserted by the tribe, and tenantless, except when sheltering in one corner an irregular row of ginger-beer bottles, which would have made one shudder on such a night, but for its being plain that they had nothing in them, shrunk from the shrill cries of the news-boys at their Exchange in the kennel of Catherine-street, like guilty things upon a fearful summons. At the pipe-shop in Great Russell-street, the Death’s-head pipes were like theatrical memento mori, admonishing beholders of the decline of the playhouse as an Institution. I walked up Bow-street, disposed to be angry with the shops there, that were letting out theatrical secrets by exhibiting to work-a-day humanity the stuff of which diadems and robes of kings are made. I noticed that some shops which had once been in the dramatic line, and had struggled out of it, were not getting on prosperously—like some actors I have known, who took to business and failed to make it answer. In a word, those streets looked so dull, and, considered as theatrical streets, so broken and bankrupt, that the FOUND DEAD on the black board at the police station might have announced the decease of the Drama, and the pools of water outside the fire-engine maker’s at the corner of Long-acre might have been occasioned by his having brought out the whole of his stock to play upon its last smouldering ashes.

And yet, on such a night in so degenerate a time, the object of my journey was theatrical. And yet within half an hour I was in an immense theatre, capable of holding nearly five thousand people.

What Theatre? Her Majesty’s? Far better. Royal Italian Opera? Far better. Infinitely superior to the latter for hearing in; infinitely superior to both, for seeing in. To every part of this Theatre, spacious fire-proof ways of ingress and egress. For every part of it, convenient places of refreshment and retiring rooms. Everything to eat and drink carefully supervised as to quality, and sold at an appointed price; respectable female attendants ready for the commonest women in the audience; a general air of consideration, decorum, and supervision, most commendable; an unquestionably humanising influence in all the social arrangements of the place.

Surely a dear Theatre, then? Because there were in London (not very long ago) Theatres with entrance-prices up to half-a-guinea a head, whose arrangements were not half so civilised. Surely, therefore, a dear Theatre? Not very dear. A gallery at three-pence, another gallery at fourpence, a pit at sixpence, boxes and pit-stalls at a shilling, and a few private boxes at half-a-crown.

My uncommercial curiosity induced me to go into every nook of this great place, and among every class of the audience assembled in it—amounting that evening, as I calculated, to about two thousand and odd hundreds. Magnificently lighted by a firmament of sparkling chandeliers, the building was ventilated to perfection. My sense of smell, without being particularly delicate, has been so offended in some of the commoner places of public resort, that I have often been obliged to leave them when I have made an uncommercial journey expressly to look on. The air of this Theatre was fresh, cool, and wholesome. To help towards this end, very sensible precautions had been used, ingeniously combining the experience of hospitals and railway stations. Asphalt pavements substituted for wooden floors, honest bare walls of glazed brick and tile—even at the back of the boxes—for plaster and paper, no benches stuffed, and no carpeting or baize used; a cool material with a light glazed surface, being the covering of the seats.

These various contrivances are as well considered in the place in question as if it were a Fever Hospital; the result is, that it is sweet and healthful. It has been constructed from the ground to the roof, with a careful reference to sight and sound in every corner; the result is, that its form is beautiful, and that the appearance of the audience, as seen from the proscenium—with every face in it commanding the stage, and the whole so admirably raked and turned to that centre, that a hand can scarcely move in the great assemblage without the movement being seen from thence—is highly remarkable in its union of vastness with compactness. The stage itself, and all its appurtenances of machinery, cellarage, height and breadth, are on a scale more like the Scala at Milan, or the San Carlo at Naples, or the Grand Opera at Paris, than any notion a stranger would be likely to form of the Britannia Theatre at Hoxton, a mile north of St. Luke’s Hospital in the Old-street-road, London. The Forty Thieves might be played here, and every thief ride his real horse, and the disguised captain bring in his oil jars on a train of real camels, and nobody be put out of the way. This really extraordinary place is the achievement of one man’s enterprise, and was erected on the ruins of an inconvenient old building in less than five months, at a round cost of five-and-twenty thousand pounds. To dismiss this part of my subject, and still to render to the proprietor the credit that is strictly his due, I must add that his sense of the responsibility upon him to make the best of his audience, and to do his best for them, is a highly agreeable sign of these times.

As the spectators at this theatre, for a reason I will presently show, were the object of my journey, I entered on the play of the night as one of the two thousand and odd hundreds, by looking about me at my neighbours. We were a motley assemblage of people, and we had a good many boys and young men among us; we had also many girls and young women. To represent, however, that we did not include a very great number, and a very fair proportion of family groups, would be to make a gross mis-statement. Such groups were to be seen in all parts of the house; in the boxes and stalls particularly, they were composed of persons of very decent appearance, who had many children with them. Among our dresses there were most kinds of shabby and greasy wear, and much fustian and corduroy that was neither sound nor fragrant. The caps of our young men were mostly of a limp character, and we who wore them, slouched, high-shouldered, into our places with our hands in our pockets, and occasionally twisted our cravats about our necks like eels, and occasionally tied them down our breasts like links of sausages, and occasionally had a screw in our hair over each cheek-bone with a slight Thief-flavour in it. Besides prowlers and idlers, we were mechanics, dock-labourers, costermongers, petty tradesmen, small clerks, milliners, stay-makers, shoe-binders, slop-workers, poor workers in a hundred highways and byways. Many of us—on the whole, the majority—were not at all clean, and not at all choice in our lives or conversation. But we had all come together in a place where our convenience was well consulted, and where we were well looked after, to enjoy an evening’s entertainment in common. We were not going to lose any part of what we had paid for through anybody’s caprice, and as a community we had a character to lose. So, we were closely attentive, and kept excellent order; and let the man or boy who did otherwise instantly get out from this place, or we would put him out with the greatest expedition.

We began at half-past six with a pantomime—with a pantomime so long, that before it was over I felt as if I had been travelling for six weeks—going to India, say, by the Overland Mail. The Spirit of Liberty was the principal personage in the Introduction, and the Four Quarters of the World came out of the globe, glittering, and discoursed with the Spirit, who sang charmingly. We were delighted to understand that there was no liberty anywhere but among ourselves, and we highly applauded the agreeable fact. In an allegorical way, which did as well as any other way, we and the Spirit of Liberty got into a kingdom of Needles and Pins, and found them at war with a potentate who called in to his aid their old arch enemy Rust, and who would have got the better of them if the Spirit of Liberty had not in the nick of time transformed the leaders into Clown, Pantaloon, Harlequin, Columbine, Harlequina, and a whole family of Sprites, consisting of a remarkably stout father and three spineless sons. We all knew what was coming when the Spirit of Liberty addressed the king with a big face, and His Majesty backed to the side-scenes and began untying himself behind, with his big face all on one side. Our excitement at that crisis was great, and our delight unbounded. After this era in our existence, we went through all the incidents of a pantomime; it was not by any means a savage pantomime, in the way of burning or boiling people, or throwing them out of window, or cutting them up; was often very droll; was always liberally got up, and cleverly presented. I noticed that the people who kept the shops, and who represented the passengers in the thoroughfares, and so forth, had no conventionality in them, but were unusually like the real thing—from which I infer that you may take that audience in (if you wish to) concerning Knights and Ladies, Fairies, Angels, or such like, but they are not to be done as to anything in the streets. I noticed, also, that when two young men, dressed in exact imitation of the eel-and-sausage-cravated portion of the audience, were chased by policemen, and, finding themselves in danger of being caught, dropped so suddenly as to oblige the policemen to tumble over them, there was great rejoicing among the caps—as though it were a delicate reference to something they had heard of before.

The Pantomime was succeeded by a Melo-Drama. Throughout the evening I was pleased to observe Virtue quite as triumphant as she usually is out of doors, and indeed I thought rather more so. We all agreed (for the time) that honesty was the best policy, and we were as hard as iron upon Vice, and we wouldn’t hear of Villainy getting on in the world—no, not on any consideration whatever.

Between the pieces, we almost all of us went out and refreshed. Many of us went the length of drinking beer at the bar of the neighbouring public-house, some of us drank spirits, crowds of us had sandwiches and ginger-beer at the refreshment-bars established for us in the Theatre. The sandwich—as substantial as was consistent with portability, and as cheap as possible—we hailed as one of our greatest institutions. It forced its way among us at all stages of the entertainment, and we were always delighted to see it; its adaptability to the varying moods of our nature was surprising; we could never weep so comfortably as when our tears fell on our sandwich; we could never laugh so heartily as when we choked with sandwich; Virtue never looked so beautiful or Vice so deformed as when we paused, sandwich in hand, to consider what would come of that resolution of Wickedness in boots, to sever Innocence in flowered chintz from Honest Industry in striped stockings. When the curtain fell for the night, we still fell back upon sandwich, to help us through the rain and mire, and home to bed.

This, as I have mentioned, was Saturday night. Being Saturday night, I had accomplished but the half of my uncommercial journey; for, its object was to compare the play on Saturday evening with the preaching in the same Theatre on Sunday evening.

Therefore, at the same hour of half-past six on the similarly damp and muddy Sunday evening, I returned to this Theatre. I drove up to the entrance (fearful of being late, or I should have come on foot), and found myself in a large crowd of people who, I am happy to state, were put into excellent spirits by my arrival. Having nothing to look at but the mud and the closed doors, they looked at me, and highly enjoyed the comic spectacle. My modesty inducing me to draw off, some hundreds of yards, into a dark corner, they at once forgot me, and applied themselves to their former occupation of looking at the mud and looking in at the closed doors: which, being of grated ironwork, allowed the lighted passage within to be seen. They were chiefly people of respectable appearance, odd and impulsive as most crowds are, and making a joke of being there as most crowds do.

In the dark corner I might have sat a long while, but that a very obliging passer-by informed me that the Theatre was already full, and that the people whom I saw in the street were all shut out for want of room. After that, I lost no time in worming myself into the building, and creeping to a place in a Proscenium box that had been kept for me.

There must have been full four thousand people present. Carefully estimating the pit alone, I could bring it out as holding little less than fourteen hundred. Every part of the house was well filled, and I had not found it easy to make my way along the back of the boxes to where I sat. The chandeliers in the ceiling were lighted; there was no light on the stage; the orchestra was empty. The green curtain was down, and, packed pretty closely on chairs on the small space of stage before it, were some thirty gentlemen, and two or three ladies. In the centre of these, in a desk or pulpit covered with red baize, was the presiding minister. The kind of rostrum he occupied will be very well understood, if I liken it to a boarded-up fireplace turned towards the audience, with a gentleman in a black surtout standing in the stove and leaning forward over the mantelpiece.

A portion of Scripture was being read when I went in. It was followed by a discourse, to which the congregation listened with most exemplary attention and uninterrupted silence and decorum. My own attention comprehended both the auditory and the speaker, and shall turn to both in this recalling of the scene, exactly as it did at the time.

‘A very difficult thing,’ I thought, when the discourse began, ‘to speak appropriately to so large an audience, and to speak with tact. Without it, better not to speak at all. Infinitely better, to read the New Testament well, and to let that speak. In this congregation there is indubitably one pulse; but I doubt if any power short of genius can touch it as one, and make it answer as one.’

I could not possibly say to myself as the discourse proceeded, that the minister was a good speaker. I could not possibly say to myself that he expressed an understanding of the general mind and character of his audience. There was a supposititious working-man introduced into the homily, to make supposititious objections to our Christian religion and be reasoned down, who was not only a very disagreeable person, but remarkably unlike life—very much more unlike it than anything I had seen in the pantomime. The native independence of character this artisan was supposed to possess, was represented by a suggestion of a dialect that I certainly never heard in my uncommercial travels, and with a coarse swing of voice and manner anything but agreeable to his feelings, I should conceive, considered in the light of a portrait, and as far away from the fact as a Chinese Tartar. There was a model pauper introduced in like manner, who appeared to me to be the most intolerably arrogant pauper ever relieved, and to show himself in absolute want and dire necessity of a course of Stone Yard. For, how did this pauper testify to his having received the gospel of humility? A gentleman met him in the workhouse, and said (which I myself really thought good-natured of him), ‘Ah, John? I am sorry to see you here. I am sorry to see you so poor.’ ‘Poor, sir!’ replied that man, drawing himself up, ‘I am the son of a Prince! My father is the King of Kings. My father is the Lord of Lords. My father is the ruler of all the Princes of the Earth!’ &c. And this was what all the preacher’s fellow-sinners might come to, if they would embrace this blessed book—which I must say it did some violence to my own feelings of reverence, to see held out at arm’s length at frequent intervals and soundingly slapped, like a slow lot at a sale. Now, could I help asking myself the question, whether the mechanic before me, who must detect the preacher as being wrong about the visible manner of himself and the like of himself, and about such a noisy lip-server as that pauper, might not, most unhappily for the usefulness of the occasion, doubt that preacher’s being right about things not visible to human senses?

Again. Is it necessary or advisable to address such an audience continually as ‘fellow-sinners’? Is it not enough to be fellow-creatures, born yesterday, suffering and striving to-day, dying to-morrow? By our common humanity, my brothers and sisters, by our common capacities for pain and pleasure, by our common laughter and our common tears, by our common aspiration to reach something better than ourselves, by our common tendency to believe in something good, and to invest whatever we love or whatever we lose with some qualities that are superior to our own failings and weaknesses as we know them in our own poor hearts—by these, Hear me!—Surely, it is enough to be fellow-creatures. Surely, it includes the other designation, and some touching meanings over and above.

Again. There was a personage introduced into the discourse (not an absolute novelty, to the best of my remembrance of my reading), who had been personally known to the preacher, and had been quite a Crichton in all the ways of philosophy, but had been an infidel. Many a time had the preacher talked with him on that subject, and many a time had he failed to convince that intelligent man. But he fell ill, and died, and before he died he recorded his conversion—in words which the preacher had taken down, my fellow-sinners, and would read to you from this piece of paper. I must confess that to me, as one of an uninstructed audience, they did not appear particularly edifying. I thought their tone extremely selfish, and I thought they had a spiritual vanity in them which was of the before-mentioned refractory pauper’s family.

All slangs and twangs are objectionable everywhere, but the slang and twang of the conventicle—as bad in its way as that of the House of Commons, and nothing worse can be said of it—should be studiously avoided under such circumstances as I describe. The avoidance was not complete on this occasion. Nor was it quite agreeable to see the preacher addressing his pet ‘points’ to his backers on the stage, as if appealing to those disciples to show him up, and testify to the multitude that each of those points was a clincher.

But, in respect of the large Christianity of his general tone; of his renunciation of all priestly authority; of his earnest and reiterated assurance to the people that the commonest among them could work out their own salvation if they would, by simply, lovingly, and dutifully following Our Saviour, and that they needed the mediation of no erring man; in these particulars, this gentleman deserved all praise. Nothing could be better than the spirit, or the plain emphatic words of his discourse in these respects. And it was a most significant and encouraging circumstance that whenever he struck that chord, or whenever he described anything which Christ himself had done, the array of faces before him was very much more earnest, and very much more expressive of emotion, than at any other time.

And now, I am brought to the fact, that the lowest part of the audience of the previous night, was not there. There is no doubt about it. There was no such thing in that building, that Sunday evening. I have been told since, that the lowest part of the audience of the Victoria Theatre has been attracted to its Sunday services. I have been very glad to hear it, but on this occasion of which I write, the lowest part of the usual audience of the Britannia Theatre, decidedly and unquestionably stayed away. When I first took my seat and looked at the house, my surprise at the change in its occupants was as great as my disappointment. To the most respectable class of the previous evening, was added a great number of respectable strangers attracted by curiosity, and drafts from the regular congregations of various chapels. It was impossible to fail in identifying the character of these last, and they were very numerous. I came out in a strong, slow tide of them setting from the boxes. Indeed, while the discourse was in progress, the respectable character of the auditory was so manifest in their appearance, that when the minister addressed a supposititious ‘outcast,’ one really felt a little impatient of it, as a figure of speech not justified by anything the eye could discover.

The time appointed for the conclusion of the proceedings was eight o’clock. The address having lasted until full that time, and it being the custom to conclude with a hymn, the preacher intimated in a few sensible words that the clock had struck the hour, and that those who desired to go before the hymn was sung, could go now, without giving offence. No one stirred. The hymn was then sung, in good time and tune and unison, and its effect was very striking. A comprehensive benevolent prayer dismissed the throng, and in seven or eight minutes there was nothing left in the Theatre but a light cloud of dust.

That these Sunday meetings in Theatres are good things, I do not doubt. Nor do I doubt that they will work lower and lower down in the social scale, if those who preside over them will be very careful on two heads: firstly, not to disparage the places in which they speak, or the intelligence of their hearers; secondly, not to set themselves in antagonism to the natural inborn desire of the mass of mankind to recreate themselves and to be amused.

There is a third head, taking precedence of all others, to which my remarks on the discourse I heard, have tended. In the New Testament there is the most beautiful and affecting history conceivable by man, and there are the terse models for all prayer and for all preaching. As to the models, imitate them, Sunday preachers—else why are they there, consider? As to the history, tell it. Some people cannot read, some people will not read, many people (this especially holds among the young and ignorant) find it hard to pursue the verse-form in which the book is presented to them, and imagine that those breaks imply gaps and want of continuity. Help them over that first stumbling-block, by setting forth the history in narrative, with no fear of exhausting it. You will never preach so well, you will never move them so profoundly, you will never send them away with half so much to think of. Which is the better interest: Christ’s choice of twelve poor men to help in those merciful wonders among the poor and rejected; or the pious bullying of a whole Union-full of paupers? What is your changed philosopher to wretched me, peeping in at the door out of the mud of the streets and of my life, when you have the widow’s son to tell me about, the ruler’s daughter, the other figure at the door when the brother of the two sisters was dead, and one of the two ran to the mourner, crying, ‘The Master is come and calleth for thee’?—Let the preacher who will thoroughly forget himself and remember no individuality but one, and no eloquence but one, stand up before four thousand men and women at the Britannia Theatre any Sunday night, recounting that narrative to them as fellow creatures, and he shall see a sight!

Comments: Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was a British novelist and journalist. All the Year Round was a periodical owned by Dickens, for which one of his major contributions as a writer was the series of travel articles later collected as The Uncommercial Traveller (originally 1861, but expanded subsequently). The Britannia Theatre in Hoxon, London, was founded by Samuel Haycraft Lane in 1858, replacing an earlier, smaller theatre. It seated 3,000 (originally nearly 4,000 including those standing). Dickens was a regular visitor. The building became a cinema in 1913 but was destroyed in the Blitz in 1940.

Links:
Copy of All The Year Round edition at Dickens Journals Online
Copy of The Uncommercial Traveller (1905 edition, used for above text) at Project Gutenberg
‘A Cheap Theatre, Sunday Night’ image from 1877 edition at The Victorian Web

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.

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

Pepys’ Diary

Source: Diary of Samuel Pepys, 2 November 1667

Production: William Shakespeare, Henry IV (i), Drury Lane, London, 2 November 1667

Text: Up, and to the office, where busy all the morning; at noon home, and after dinner my wife and Willett and I to the King’s playhouse, and there saw “Henry the Fourth:” and contrary to expectation, was pleased in nothing more than in Cartwright’s speaking of Falstaffe’s speech about “What is Honour?” The house full of Parliament-men, it being holyday with them: and it was observable how a gentleman of good habit, sitting just before us, eating of some fruit in the midst of the play, did drop down as dead, being choked; but with much ado Orange Moll did thrust her finger down his throat, and brought him to life again. After the play, we home, and I busy at the office late, and then home to supper and to bed.

Comments: Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was a British naval administrator and diarist. He saw Shakespeare‘s Henry the Fourth, part 1, at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, on 2 November 1667. Cartwright is the actor William Cartwright (?-1686). ‘Orange Moll’ was Mary Meggs, a former prostitute and friend of Nell Gwyn who was a seller of fruits and sweetmeats at the Theatre Royal.

Links: http://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1667/11/02/

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.