Galleries

Riot at Covent Garden Theatre

‘Riot at Covent Garden Theatre, 1763 print, Theatre and Performance Collection, Victoria & Albert Museum

Source: The Gentleman’s Magazine, February 1763, vol. XXXII, p. 97

Production: Thomas Arne, Artaxerxes, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 24 February 1763

Text: A riot happened at Covent-Garden theatre occasioned by a demand being made for full prices at the opera of Artaxerxes. The mischief done was the greatest ever, known on any occasion of the like kind; all the benches of the boxes and pit being entirely tore up, the glasses and chandeliers broken, and the linings of the boxes cut to pieces. The rashness of the rioters was so great, that they cut away the wooden pillars between the boxes, so that if the inside of them had not been iron, they would have brought down the galleries upon their heads. The damages done amount to at least 2000l. Four persons concern’d in the riot have been committed to the Gatehouse.

Comments: The opera Artaxerxes by Thomas Arne premiered successfully at Covent Garden on 2 February 1762. When it was revived at the same theatre on 24 February 1763 a riot occurred in protest at the abolition of half-price admissions. It has been the custom to sell half-price tickets for latecomers who would see only the short afterpiece rather than the main attraction of the evening. This change in policy was fiercely opposed by some and led to several such riots, at Drury Lane and Covent-Garden. The protests caused the half-price concession to be re-introduced when the theatre re-opened on March 2nd. 2000l is £2,000.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Journal and Letters of Samuel Curwen

Margaret Farrell, who became Margaret Kennedy on her second marriage, as Macheath in 1777, University of Illinois Theatrical Print Collection

Source: George Atkinson Ward, The Journal and Letters of Samuel Curwen, an American in England, from 1775 to 1783 (Boston, Little, Brown and company, 1864 [4th ed.]), p. 305

Production: John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 25 September 1780

Text: Sept. 25. At Covent Garden Theatre; performance, “Beggar’s Opera;” parts well played, but great impropriety, not to say indecency, in Mrs. Kennedy’s personating McHeath. Bravery, gallantry, and a fearless disregard of death, the characteristics of that notorious highwayman, which female softness awkwardly imitates. Following entertainment, falsely so called; execrably foolish and childish. I am sorry to arraign even the shilling gallery for want of judgment, in suffering such unmeaning stuff to pass for a farce.

Comments: Samuel Curwen (1715-1802) was an American merchant and justice. As a British loyalist fled America in 1775, having been attacked for not opposing the British military action at Lexington and Concord, and spent ten years in Britain, during which time he became a supporter of the American cause. John Gay‘s ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera was performed at Covent Garden on 25 September 1780 with the contralto Margaret Kennedy, well-known for her performances in male roles, playing Macheath.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Diary of Sylas Neville

Source: Basil Cozens-Hardy (ed.), The Diary of Sylas Neville 1767-1788 (London: Oxford University Press, 1950), pp. 15-16

Production: Anon., The Taylors, a Tragedy for Warm Weather, Haymarket Theatre, London, 2 July 1767

Text: Thurs. July 2. Dined at St Clement’s Eating house. ½ past 6 went to the Haymarket Theatre, but could not get into the Pit or first Gallery, so stood on the last row of the shilling Gallery, tho’ I could see little, to see how ‘The Taylors’, a new Tragedy for warm weather, would go off, being the first night of its performance. 3rd Act hissed – the Gods in the shilling Gallery called for the ‘Builders Prologue’ – hissed off the part of the old Maid twice and Davies, who came to make an excuse. The Gentlemen, many of whom were there, cried ‘No Prologue’, but to no purpose. At last Foote said if he knew their demands he would be ready to comply with them. The noise ceasing, after some time he was told the Builders Prologue was desired. He said he had done all in his power to get the Performers, having seen them. After some time he came and informed them that he had got the performers together and if the house would be pleased ‘to accept the prologue in our dresses as we are you shall have it’. This was followed by a great clapping, which shows the genius of our English Mobility, ever generous after victory.

Comments: Sylas Neville (1741-1840) was an English gentleman of unclear origins, who had studied medicine but spent much of his adult life travelling while being continually short of money. His surviving diary frequently mentions visits to the theatre in London. Samuel Foote (1720-1777) was an English actor, dramatist and theatre manager. The Taylors, a Tragedy for Warm Weather, later also known as The Quadrupeds, was a burlesque of the manners of tragic dramas, set among the world of tailors, with Foote playing Francisco and Thomas Davis playing Bernardo (some sources give Foote as the author, but the evidence is unclear). The ‘Builder’s Prologue’ was another name for a popular piece by Foote, An Occasional Prologue in Prose-Laconic, written to celebrate the Haymarket Theatre gaining its royal patent to perform spoken drama in 1766. ‘Mobility’ was a vogueish term for ‘mob’.

The O.P. War

George and Isaak Cruikshank, ‘Acting magistrates committing themselves being their first appearance on this stage as performed at the National Theatre Covent Garden. Sepr 18 1809’ © The Trustees of the British Museum. The Riot Act was read from the stage on 18 September, but the placards, rattles etc. did not start appearing until the following day.

Source: Thomas Tegg, The Rise, Progress, and Termination of the O.P. War, in Poetic Epistles, or Hudibrastic Letters, From Ap Simpkins in Town, to his Friend Ap Davies in Wales; including all the best songs, placards, toasts &c. &c.Which were written, exhibited, and given en the Occasion; with illustrative notes (London: Thomas Tegg, 1810), pp. 1-6

Production: William Shakespeare, Macbeth, plus The Quaker, New Covent Garden Theatre, London, 18 September 1809

Text: LETTER I

From Ap Simpkins to Ap Davies

SINCE now the O.P. battle’s o’er,
And peace the partisans restore,
To you, Ap Davies, my dear friend,
A brief account of all I’ll send,
From the beginning to the end:
But, lest your patience I should tire,
And send you more than you’d desire,
Lest I too many letters might
On this theatric contest write,
Which letters, as they’ll go by post.
Would in the end some shillings cost,
On leading points I’ll only dwell,
And all that’s entertaining tell.

Where the old playhouse lately blazed,
In Covent Garden, soon was raised
Another playhouse, as intended,
On which the managers expended
A sum indeed beyond all bounds,
It was thrice fifty thousand pounds!!!
In ten month’s time it was erected,
And from th’ exterior much expected.
But though so very grand without,
Within, ’tis very plain no doubt,
‘Twas on the eighteenth of September,
(The day I very well remember)
For which Macbeth was advertised;
A play so generally prized.
Near to the doors what numbers push’d!
As soon as opened in they rush’d.
At first the pit seem’d rather dull —
By six o’clock the house was full;
And the first lady that appear’d,
With loud huzzas by all was cheer’d.
The band struck up God save the King,
And several times the song they sing :
Then Rule Britannia next they play’d,
Which some to sing also essay’d.
The band their music might have sav’d,
While hats and handkerchiefs were wav’d.
At length the curtain up they drew,
And Kemble on the stage we view.
To give us an address he came.
To talk of “sparks from Greece” — the “flame
Of “an illumined age” — “the fire
Of Shakspeare,” which we must admire:
But so vociferously they roar’d,
I did not hear a single word.
The play began, but at this time
‘Twas like the Circus pantomime,
And gave as little satisfaction
As Elliston’s ballet of action.
When Kemble entered as Macbeth,
It was in vain he spent his breath,
For not a word could reach the ear:
E’en Mrs. Siddons I cou’dn’t hear.
With noise was Charles Kemble hail’d —
The uproar every where prevail’d.
“Off! off!” “Old prices!” were the cries;
“No Catalani!” and “No rise!”
What hissing, yelling, howling, groaning!
What barking, braying, hooting, moaning!
The people bellow’d, shouted, storm’d,
The actors in dumb show perform’d.
Those in the pit stood up with rage,
And turn’d their backs upon the stage.
Yes, my dear friend, their backs they turn’d,
And thus were the performers spurn’d.
The tragedy thus tragediz’d,
Brunton came forward, as surmis’d,
T’ announce for the next night the play;
But still they bark, and yell, and bray.
I heard him not, and all could see,
Was his lips move, then exit he.
The Quaker was the farce, they say;
I thought it was the Devil to pay
In short, it went on like the play.
I’m certain that the quaker quaked.
Each head too with the tumult ach’d.
About ELEVEN, or before,
The stage amusements all were o’er
But not until the clock struck one
Were those before the curtain done;
The cry of “Managers!” went round;
From all parts did the cry resound.
The eager, the impetuous crowd,
Then for old prices call’d aloud.
In vain they call’d — they brandish’d sticks,
The boards too trembled with their kicks;
When lo! upon the stage, indeed,
Two magistrates — yes, Nares and Read,
Made their appearance — ’tis a fact —
They came to read the Riot Act,
But all these worthies wish’d to say
Was treated like the farce and play —
“No magistrates! off! off! away!
Let Harris, if you please, appear,
Or send John Philip Kemble here.”
They thought to make the gentry quiet,
To prove that words were acts of riot:
But ‘twould not do — “Off! off! enough!”
So exeunt Ambo in a huff.
And now the galleries began:
They curs’d the building and the plan.
They thought the managers unkind —
They were in pigeon-holes confin’d.
Pat cries — ” I will be squeez’d to death;
I will be kilt for want of breath.”
Those in the upper boxes now
Assisted in the general row,
And, ‘midst their fury and their heat,
They happen’d to break down a seat.
Impossible, in such a fray,
But that some benches must give way;
At this, however, much displeased,
The Bow-street runners came and seized
Two or three gentlemen — they swore —
They dragg’d them out — their coats they tore.
These men it seems, on this condition,
Had to all parts a free admission.
‘Twas to the managers’ disgrace.
An officer, in such a place,
Should, uninvited, show his face.
But to the rest — the bell was heard,
And engines* on the stage appear’d.
This gave the folk some discontent:
They thought that Mr. Kemble meant
To play upon them. This gave rise
To further hisses, groans, and cries.
Some in the pit now form’d a ring,
They danc’d, and sung God save the King;
And while performing these wild feats,
They play’d the devil with the seats.
No matter — they evinc’d their spite,
Then bade the managers good night;
And I the same must bid my friend —
But take my word—on this depend —
My pen I will resume again, –
Till when your servant I remain.

Strand, Jan. 1810. S.

* The introduction of the water-engines on the stage was, it is asserted, through a mistake. Engines are kept in the theatre, and placed on the stage after the evening’s performances, in case of danger, particularly as the fire offices have refused to insure the house to the full amount. Mr. Kemble perceiving from his private box that the audience were not gone, ordered the bell to be rung for the stage lights to be replaced. This order was misunderstood by the prompter, and instead of the lights the engines were brought upon the stage. Certainly they might have been designedly brought on to intimidate the malcontents, but without the manager’s knowledge.

Comments: Thomas Tegg (1776–1845) was an English bookseller, publisher and author. His long poem ‘The O.P. War’ documents, through a series of ‘letters’ the turmoil that followed the decision made by Covent Garden Theatre to raise ticket prices to help cover the cost of the rebuilding of the theatre after the fire of 20 September 1808. At the re-opening of what was named New Covent Garden Theatre on 18 September 1809, and for three months thereafter, there were vehement protests inside the theatre from audience members against the price rises, dubbed the Old Price, or O.P., Riots. The actor-manager John Philip Kemble was eventually forced to lower the prices. Tegg’s poem documents the events in some detail across eighteen letters, with annotations as above. Letter I covers the day of the re-opening. The Riot Act was indeed read from the stage during the evening. The production of Macbeth included John Philip Kemble as Macbeth, his sister Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth and their brother Charles Kemble as Macduff, though such was the noise throughout (and for the afterpiece The Quaker) that the performances were rendered inaudible.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

‘Poets are borne not made’

Source: Leonard Digges, untitled poem, in Poems: written by Wil. Shake-speare, Gent. (London: John Benson, 1640)

Text: Poets are borne not made; when I would prove
This truth, the glad rememberance I must love
Of never dying Shakespeare, who alone,
Is argument enough to make that one.
First, that he was a Poet none would doubt, (if only he knew!)
That hard th’ applause of what he sees set out
Imprinted; where thou hast (I will not say)
Reader his Workes (for to contrive a Play:
To him twas none) the patterne of all wit,
Art without Art unparaleld as yet.
Next Nature onely helpt him, for looke thorow
This whole Booke, thou shalt find he doth not borrow,
One phrase from Greekes, nor Latines imitate,
Nor once from vulgar Languages Translate,
Not Plagiari-like from others gleane,
Not begges he from each witty friend a Scene
To peece his Acts withal; all that he doth write,
Is pure his owne, plot, language exquisite.
But oh! what praise more powerfull can we give
The dead, than that by him the Kings men live,
His Players, which should they but have shar’d the Fate,
All else expir’d within the short Termes date;
How could the Globe have prospered since through want
Of change, the Plaies and Poems had growne scant.
But happy Verse thou shalt be sung and heard,
When hungry quills shall be such honour bard.
Then vanish upstart Writers to each Stage,
You needy Poetasters of this Age,
Where Shakespeare liv’d or spake, Vermine forbeare,
Least with your froth you spot them, come not neere;
But if you needs must write, if poverty
So that otherwise you starve and die,
On Gods name may the Bull or Cockpit have
Your lame blancke Verse, to keepe you from the grave:
Or let new Fortunes younger brethren see,
What they can picke from your leane industry.
I doe not wonder when you offer at
Blacke-Friars, that you suffer: Tis the fate
Of richer veines, prime judgements that have far’d
The worse, with this deceased man compar’d.
So have I scene, when Cesar would appeare,
And on the Stage at halfe-sword parley were,
Brutus and Cassius: oh how the Audience,
were ravish’d, with what wonder they went thence,
Whom some new day they would not brooke a line,
Of tedious (though well laboured) Catiline;
Sejanus too was irkesome, they priz’de more
Honest Iago, or the jealous Moore.
And though the Fox and subtill Alchimist,
Long intermitted could not quite be mist,
Though these have sham’d all the Ancients, and might raise
Their Authours merit with a crowne of Bayes.
Yet these sometimes, even at a friend’s desire
Acted, have scarce defrayd the Seacoale fire
And doore-keepers: when let but Falstaff come,
Hal, Poins, the rest you scarce shall have a roome
All is so pester’d: let but Beatrice
And Benedick be seene, loe in a trice
The Cockpit Galleries, Boxes, all are full
To heare Malvolio that crosse garter’d Gull.
Briefe, there is nothing in his wit fraught Booke,
Whose Sound we would not heare, on whose Worth looke
Like old coynd gold, whose lines in every page,
Shall passe true currant to succeeding age.

But why do I dead Shakespeare’s praise recite,
Some second Shakespeare must of Shakespeare write
For me tis needlesse, since an host of men,
Will Pay to clap his praise, to free my Pen.

Comments: Leonard Digges (1588-1635) was a minor poet and translator. It is unclear whether he knew William Shakespeare (his mother’s second husband was named by Shakespeare as one of the overseers of his will) but he certainly saw the plays in performance while Shakespeare was alive. He wrote a tribute poem to Shakespeare for the 1623 First Folio, and this posthumously published, longer poem, from the 1640 edition of Shakespeare’s poems, presumably dates from the same period. The poems refers to several of Shakespeare’s plays in performance, comparing them to the works of Ben Jonson, as well as several London theatres: the Globe, Blackfriars, Cockpit and Red Bull.

Links: Digital facsimile at British Library

William Allingham: A Diary

Source: H. Allingham and D. Radford (eds.), William Allingham: A Diary (London: Macmillan, 1908), pp. 42-43

Production: Vincenzo Bellini and Felice Romani, La Sonnambula, Theatre Royal, Dublin, 10 October 1848

Text: Tuesday, October 10. — Dublin; to Hawkins St. Theatre to see Jenny Lind in Sonnambula, her opening night here. An hour at door, crowd thickening, rush and crush upstairs to lower gallery. Curtain rises, the charming Jenny has to wait till the reiterated greetings subside. ‘Three cheers for Jenny Lind!’ (from the gallery). ‘Wan cheer more!’ ‘A cheer for her Mother!’ at which Amina smiled. Then we had Come per me sereno etc., all to perfection, but sung as I fancied more floridly than when I heard her in London. She looks thinner. Flower-scene most exquisite and touching! O fiore — Ah non credea, the flowers falling through her hands as she sings. Ah! non giunge not very good, I thought; encored, on account of its difficulty. Half a dozen to a dozen bouquets were thrown, no extraordinary excitement.

When curtain fell I rushed down and made my way into the pit in the hope of getting one of Amina’s flowers which had fallen near the footlights, but it was gone. Cold air outside, crowd, Jenny’s carriage, police.

The Theatre at best a hollow, unwholesome, unsatisfying excitement.

Comments: William Allingham (1824-1889) was an Irish poet. Jenny Lind born Johanna Maria Lind (1820-1887) was a Swedish opera singer. Revered as the ‘Swedish Nightingale’, she was highly popular across Europe and America. The Theatre Royal in Dublin’s Hawkins Street opened in 1820 and burned down in 1880. La Sonnambula is a two-act opera with music by Vincenzo Bellini and libretto by Felice Romani. The lead character is the sleepwalker Amina.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Adventures and Letters of Richard Harding Davis

Source: Charles Belmont Davis (ed.), Adventures and Letters of Richard Harding Davis (New York: Scribner’s, 1917), pp. 223-226

Production: Nellie Farren Testimonial Benefit Fund event, Drury Lane, London, 17 March 1898

Text: London, March 20, 1898

Dear Mother,

The Nellie Farren benefit was the finest thing I have seen this year past. It was more remarkable than the Coronation, or the Jubilee. It began at twelve o’clock on Thursday, but at ten o’clock Wednesday night, the crowd began to gather around Drury Lane, and spent the night on the sidewalk playing cards and reading and sleeping. Ten hours later they were admitted, or a few of them were, as many as the galleries would hold. Arthur Collins, the manager of the Drury Lane and the man who organized the benefit, could not get a stall for his mother the day before the benefit. They were then not to be had, the last having sold for twelve guineas. I got two the morning of the benefit for three pounds each, and now people believe that I did get into the Coronation! The people who had stalls got there at ten o’clock, and the streets were blocked for “blocks” up to Covent Garden with hansoms and royal carriages and holders of tickets at fifty dollars apiece. It lasted six hours and brought in thirty thousand dollars. Kate Vaughan came back and danced after an absence from the stage of twelve years. Irving recited The Dream of Eugene Aram, Terry played Ophelia, Chevalier sang Mrs. Hawkins, Dan Leno gave Hamlet, Marie Tempest sang The Jewel of Asia and Hayden Coffin sang Tommy Atkins, the audience of three thousand people joining in the chorus, and for an encore singing “Oh, Nellie, Nellie Farren, may your love be ever faithful, may your pals be ever true, so God bless you Nellie Farren, here’s the best of luck to you.” In Trial by Jury, Gilbert played an associate judge; the barristers were all playwrights, the jury the principal comedians, the chorus girls were real chorus girls from the Gaiety mixed in with leading ladies like Miss Jeffries and Miss Hanbury, who could not keep in step. But the best part of it was the pantomime. Ellaline came up a trap with a diamond dress and her hair down her back and electric lights all over her, and said, “I am the Fairy Queen,” and waved her wand, at which the “First Boy” in the pantomime said, “Go long, now, do, we know your tricks, you’re Ellaline Terriss”; and the clown said, “You’re wrong, she’s not, she’s Mrs. Seymour Hicks.” Then Letty Lind came on as Columbine in black tulle, and Arthur Roberts as the policeman, and Eddy Payne as the clown and Storey as Pantaloon.

The rest of it brought on everybody. Sam Sothern played a “swell” and stole a fish. Louis Freear, a housemaid, and all the leading men appeared as policemen. No one had more than a line to speak which just gave the audience time to recognize him or her. The composers and orchestra leaders came on as a German band, each playing an instrument, and they got half through the Washington Post before the policemen beat them off. Then Marie Lloyd and all the Music Hall stars appeared as street girls and danced to the music of a hand-organ. Hayden Coffin, Plunkett
Greene and Ben Davies sang as street musicians and the clown beat them with stuffed bricks. After that there was a revue of all the burlesques and comic operas, then the curtain was raised from the middle of the stage, and Nellie Farren was discovered seated at a table on a high stage with all the “legitimates” in frock-coats and walking dresses rising on benches around her.

The set was a beautiful wood scene well lighted. Wyndham stood on one side of her, and he said the yell that went up when the curtain rose was worse than the rebel yell he had heard in battles. In front of her, below the stage, were all the people who had taken part in the revue, forming a most interesting picture. There was no one in the group who had not been known for a year by posters or photographs: Letty Lind as the Geisha, Arthur Roberts as Dandy Dan. The French Girl and all the officers from The Geisha, the ballet girls from the pantomime, the bare-back-riders from The Circus Girl; the Empire costumes and the monks from La Poupee, and all the Chinese and Japanese costumes from The Geisha. Everybody on the stage cried and all the old rounders in the boxes cried.

It was really a wonderfully dramatic spectacle to see the clown and officers and Geisha girls weeping down their grease paint. Nellie Farren’s great song was one about a street Arab with the words: “Let me hold your nag, sir, carry your little bag, sir, anything you please to give – thank’ee, sir!” She used to close her hand, then open it and look at the palm, then touch her cap with a very wonderful smile, and laugh when she said, “Thank’ee, sir!” This song was reproduced for weeks before the benefit, and played all over London, and when the curtain rose on her, the orchestra struck into it and the people shouted as though it was the national anthem. Wyndham made a very good address and so did Terry, then Wyndham said he would try to get her to speak. She has lost the use of her hands and legs and can only walk with crutches, so he put his arm around her and her son lifted her from the other side and then brought her to her feet, both crying like children. You could hear the people sobbing, it was so still. She said, “Ladies and Gentleman,” looking at the stalls and boxes, then she turned her head to the people on the stage below her and said, “Brothers and Sisters,” then she stood looking for a long time at the gallery gods who had been waiting there twenty hours. You could hear a long “Ah” from the gallery when she looked up there, and then a “hush” from all over it and there was absolute silence. Then she smiled and raised her finger to her bonnet and said, “Thank’ee, sir,” and sank back in her chair. It was the most dramatic thing I ever saw on a stage. The orchestra struck up “Auld Lang Syne” and they gave three cheers on the stage and in the house. The papers got out special editions, and said it was the greatest theatrical event there had ever been in London.

Comments: Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916) was a celebrated American journalist and novelist, known for his war reporting and sharp eye for a sensational subject. Ellen ‘Nellie’ Farren (1848-1904) was a British actor and singer, renowned for her principal boy performances in Gaiety Theatre productions, which attracted a huge, chiefly male, following. She was forced to retire through ill health in 1892. On 17 March 1898 a performance in aid of the Nellie Farren Testimonial Benefit Fund at Drury Lane drew an unprecedented cast of late Victorian stage greats, and raised an estimated £7,000. The show included a production of Gilbert and Sullivan‘s one act comic opera Trial by Jury, with Gilbert himself playing the Associate. Other accounts of the event state that Dan Leno appeared in a scene from the Drury Lane pantomime with Herbert Campbell, and not a scene from Hamlet.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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.

Letters from England

Source: Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella [Robert Southey], Letters from England (translated from the Spanish) (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees and Orme, 1808 [orig. pub. 1807]),  vol. 1, 2nd ed., pp. 33-35

Production: William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, Drury Lane, London, probably 11 May 1802

Text: LETTER XVIII.

Drury-Lane Theatre.—The Winter’s Tale. —Kemble.—Mrs. Siddons.—Don Juan.

I here is nothing in a foreign land which a traveller is so little able to enjoy as the national theatre: though he may read the language with ease, and converse in it with little difficulty, still he cannot follow the progress of a story upon the stage, nor catch the jests, which set all around him in a roar, unless he has lived so long in the country that his ear has become perfectly naturalized. Fully aware of this, I desired J– to take me there on some evening when the drama would be most intelligible to the sense of sight; and we went accordingly yesternight to see The Winter’s Tale, a play of the famous Shakespeare’s, which has been lately revived for the purpose of displaying to advantage their two most celebrated performers, Kemble, and his sister Mrs. Siddons.

In the reigns of Elizabeth and James, the golden age of the English drama, London was not a tenth part of its present size, and it then contained seventeen theatres. At present there are but two. More would succeed, and indeed more are wanted, but these have obtained exclusive privileges. Old people say the acting was better in their younger days, because there were more schools for actors; and the theatres being smaller, the natural voice could be heard, and the natural expression of the features seen, and therefore rant and distortion were unnecessary. They, however, who remember no other generation of actors than the present, will not be persuaded that there has ever been one more perfect. Be this as it may, all are agreed that the drama itself has woefully degenerated, though it is the only species of literary labour which is well paid. They are agreed also as to the cause of this degeneracy, attributing it to the prodigious size of the theatres. The finer tones of passion cannot be discriminated, nor the finer movements of the countenance perceived from the front, hardly from the middle of the house. Authors therefore substitute what is here called broad farce for genuine comedy; their jests are made intelligible by grimace, or by that sort of mechanical wit which can be seen; comedy is made up of trick, and tragedy of processions, pageants, battles and explosions.

The two theatres are near each other, and tolerably well situated for the more fashionable and more opulent parts of the town; but buildings of such magnitude might have been made ornamental to the metropolis, and both require a more open space before them. Soldiers were stationed at the doors; and as we drew near we were importuned by women with oranges, and by boys to purchase a bill of the play. We went into the pit that I might have a better view of the house, which was that called Drury-lane, from the place where it stands, the larger and more beautiful of the two. The price here is three shillings and sixpence, about sixteen reales. The benches are not divided into single seats, and men and women here and in all parts of the house sit promiscuously.

I had heard much of this theatre, and was prepared for wonder still the size, the height, the beauty, the splendour, astonished me. Imagine a pit capable of holding a thousand persons, four tiers of boxes supported by pillars scarcely thicker than a man’s arm, and two galleries in front, the higher one at such a distance, that they who are in it must be content to see the show, without hoping to hear the dialogue; the colours blue and silver, and the whole illuminated with chandeliers of cut glass, not partially nor parsimoniously; every part as distinctly seen as if in the noon sunshine. After the first feeling of surprise and delight, I began to wish that a massier style of architecture had been adopted. The pillars, which are iron, are so slender as to give an idea of insecurity; their lightness is much admired, but it is disproportionate and out of place. There is a row of private boxes on each side of the pit, on a level with it; convenient they must doubtless be to those who occupy them, and profitable to the proprietors of the house; but they deform the theatre.

The people in the galleries were very noisy before the representation began, whistling and calling to the musicians and they amused themselves by throwing orange-peel into the pit and upon the stage: after the curtain drew up they were sufficiently silent. The pit was soon filled; the lower side-boxes did not begin to fill till towards the middle of the first act, because that part of the audience is too fashionable to come in time; the back part of the front boxes not till the half play; they were then filled with a swarm of prostitutes, and of men who came to meet them. In the course of the evening there were two or three quarrels there which disturbed the performance, and perhaps ended in duels the next morning. The English say, and I believe they say truly, that they are the most moral people in Europe; but were they to be judged by their theatres,—I speak not of the representation, but of the manners which are exhibited by this part of the audience,—it would be thought that no people had so little sense of common decorum, or paid so little respect to public decency.

No prompter was to be seen; the actors were perfect, and stood in no need of his awkward presence. The story of the drama was, with a little assistance, easily intelligible to me; not, indeed, by the dialogue; for of that I found myself quite unable to understand any two sentences together, scarcely a single one: and when I looked afterwards at the printed play, I perceived that the difficulty lay in the peculiarity of Shakespeare’s language, which is so antiquated, and still more so perplexed, that few even of the English themselves can thoroughly understand their favourite author. The tale, however, is this. Polixenes, king of Bohemia, is visiting his friend Leontes, king of Sicily; he is about to take his departure; Leontes presses him to stay awhile longer, but in vain—urges the request with warmth, and is still refused; then sets his queen to persuade him; and, perceiving that she succeeds, is seized with sudden jealousy, which, in the progress of the scene, becomes so violent, that he orders one of his courtiers to murder Polixenes. This courtier acquaints Polixenes with his danger, and flies with him. Leontes throws the queen into prison, where she is delivered of a daughter; he orders the child to be burnt; his attendants remonstrate against this barbarous sentence, and he then sends one of them to carry it out of his dominions, and expose it in some wild place. He has sent messengers to Delphos to consult the oracle; but, instead of waiting for their return to confirm his suspicions or disprove them, he brings the queen to trial. During the trial the messengers arrive, the answer of the god is opened, and found to be that the queen is innocent, the child legitimate, and that Leontes will be without an heir unless this which is lost shall be found. Even this fails to convince him; but immediately tidings come in that the prince, his only son, has died of anxiety for his mother: the queen at this faints, and is carried off; and her woman, comes in presently to say that she is dead also.

The courtier meantime lands with the child upon the coast of Bohemia, and there leaves it: a bear pursues him across the stage, to the great delight of the audience, and eats him out of their sight; which doubtless to their great disappointment. Sixteen years are now supposed to elapse between the third and fourth acts: the lost child, Perdita, has grown up a beautiful shepherdess, and the son of Polixenes has promised marriage to her. He proceeds to espouse her at a sheep-shearing feast; where a pedlar, who picks pockets, excites much merriment. Polixenes, and Camillo the old courtier who had preserved his life, are present in disguise and prevent the contract. Camillo, longing to return to his own country, persuades the prince to fly with his beloved to Sicily: he then goes with the king in pursuit of them. The old shepherd, who had brought up Perdita as his own child, goes in company with her; he produces the things which he had found with her; she is thus discovered to be the lost daughter of Leontes, and the oracle is accomplished. But the greatest wonder is yet to come. As Leontes still continues to bewail the loss of his wife, Paulina, the queen’s woman, promises to show him a statue of her, painted to the life, the work of Julio Romano, that painter having flourished in the days when Bohemia was a maritime country, and when the kings thereof were used to consult the oracle of Apollo, being idolaters. This statue proves to be the queen herself, who begins to move to slow music, and comes down to her husband. And then to conclude the play, as it was the husband of this woman who has been eaten by the bear, old Camillo is given her that she may be no loser.

Far be it from me to judge of Shakespeare by these absurdities, which are all that I can understand of the play. While, however, the English tolerate such, and are pleased not merely in spite of them, but with them, it would become their travellers not to speak with quite so much contempt of the Spanish theatre. That Shakespeare was a great dramatist, notwithstanding his Winter’s Tale, I believe; just as I know Cervantes to have been a great man, though he wrote El Dichoso Rufian. But you cannot imagine any thing more impressive than the finer parts of this representation; the workings of the king’s jealousy, the dignified grief and resentment of the queen, tempered with compassion for her husband’s phrensy; and the last scene in particular, which surpassed whatever I could have conceived of theatrical effect. The actress who personated the queen is acknowledged to be perfect in her art; she stood leaning upon a pedestal with one arm, the other hanging down—the best Grecian sculptor could not have adjusted her drapery with more grace, nor have improved the attitude; and when she began to move, though this was what the spectators were impatiently expecting, it gave every person such a start of delight, as the dramatist himself would have wished, though the whole merit must be ascribed to the actress.

The regular entertainments on the English stage consist of a play of three or five acts, and an afterpiece of two; interludes are added only on benefit nights. The afterpiece this evening was Don Juan, our old story of the reprobate cavalier and the statue, here represented wholly in pantomime. Nothing could be more insipid than all the former part of this dramas, nothing more dreadful, and indeed, unfit for scenic representation than the catastrophe; but either the furies of Aeschylus were more terrible than European devils, or our Christian ladies are less easily frightened than the women of Greece, for this is a favourite spectacle everywhere. I know not whether the invention be originally ours or the Italians’; be it whose it may, the story of the Statue is in a high style of fancy, truly fine and terrific. The sound of his marble footsteps upon the stage struck a dead silence through the house. It is to this machinery that the popularity of the piece is owing; and in spite of the dullness which precedes this incident, and the horror which follows it, I do not wonder that it is popular. Still it would be decorous in English writers to speak with a little less disrespect of the Spanish stage, and of the taste of a Spanish audience, while their own countrymen continue to represent and to delight in one of the most monstrous of all our dramas.

The representation began at seven; and the meals in London are so late, that even this is complained of as inconveniently early. We did not reach home till after midnight.

Comments: Robert Southey (1774-1843) was an English poet, historian and biographer, Poet Laureate for thirty years until his death. His Letters from England was written under the pseudonym of Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella and supposedly translated from Spanish (Southey was a scholar of Spanish literature and history). The fiction was that it documented a journey through England taken over 1803-03. There was a production of The Winter’s Tale, with Sarah Siddons, with a Don Juan afterpiece (author not known) at Drury Lane in London, on 11 May 1802, which is presumably the production described here.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Sitting in Judgment with the Gods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links: Copy at Internet Archive