Lightning artists

An East End Music-Hall

Source: Robert Machray, The Night Side of London (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1902), pp. 112-124

Text: AN EAST END MUSIC-HALL

Let youth, more decent in their follies, scoff
The nauseous scene, and hiss thee reeling off.”

Steele, The Tatler, No. 266.

The music-hall must be considered a chief feature of the Night Side of London; it is certainly one of the most popular, whether in the West End or the East. Its leading comedian, Mr. Dan Leno, has been honoured by a “command” of the King. It is a far cry, however, from the humour and whimsicalities of “good old Dan” to the comicalities of the typical East End music-hall star. But it matters not whether the hall is within a stone’s throw of Piccadilly or outside the radius, it is ever a popular institution. One of the sights of the town is the long queue of people standing outside the Alhambra, the Empire, the Palace, the Tivoli, the “Pav.,” the Oxford, and other halls, until the
doors leading to pit and gallery are thrown open. The queue often has to wait for a considerable time, sometimes in the pouring rain, but it does so with wonderful patience and good-humour — the wait being frequently enlivened by the strains of the n[—–] minstrel, or some other open-air entertainer. To-night you shall go to the Palace of Varieties at Greenwich. Last night you were at Deptford, and now you travel half a mile or more further south-eastward. Perhaps you begin this particular evening with a fish-dinner at the famous Ship, just opposite Greenwich Hospital, and though the Ship is not quite the fashionable resort it once was, you may do a great deal worse than dine there.

You make your way to the Palace of Varieties, Greenwich. You are. perhaps, a trifle late, and on inquiry you find the only seats left are “fauteuils,” price one-and-six. For a thorough appreciation of the humours of the scene you should have come earlier and got a place in the gallery, price threepence. But you have no option, so you plunge recklessly, and bang goes one-and-sixpence. The fauteuils prove to be seats in the front row, and those vacant when you arrive are immediately behind the conductor of the orchestra. Well, you are a bit too near the music, but there is some compensation, for you are able to see how the conductor conducts and at the same time adds to the quality and tone of his band. With his left hand, you observe, he plays a piano what time he manipulates a harmonium with his right. And all the while he seems to be able to exchange confidences with the first violin, who, you cannot fail to perceive, is a wag. You do not take this in all at once, for your eyes at first are fastened on the stage, where two comely females are engaged in a vigorous encounter of words, which you surmise may lead eventually to something very like blows — as it does. You pick up the subject or the object, which you please, of the duel of tongues between the two ladies, one of whom is dressed like a superior shop-assistant, while the other might be a factory-girl. They both lay claim to the affections of a certain “Charlie,” and in the wordy warfare that ensues they do not spare each other. “Do you know,” asks the superior shop-assistant in a shrill voice, “that I have blue blood in my veins?” “What I do know,” retorts the other, with great deliberation, “is that you’ll soon have red blood on your nose!” Whereat the house, hugely tickled, roars delightedly. “Do you know,” cries the first, “that my father occupies an important, a very important, position in the town?” “As a mud-pusher, I suppose!” And again the audience screams its appreciation; indeed, the audience does this on the slightest provocation during this particular “turn.” Finally, the end you have foreseen comes. A little fisticuff battle concludes the action — without any damage to either of the scrappers, who suddenly stop, shake hands, and stand bowing and smiling before the footlights. The curtain descends, and the band plays a loud and lively air, the cornet, in particular, adding several horse-power to its volume and momentum, so to speak.

Next appears upon the stage a young lady, rouged, powdered, decolletée, short-frocked; she is a mimic, and, as you soon perceive, a clever one. She gives personations of some well-known popular music-hall favourites. Thus, she imitates Eugene Stratton in his “Lily of Laguna,” and Happy Fanny Fields in a American-German song. In the latter character she says to the audience, “Why don’t you applaud me more? Don’t you know that the more you applaud me the more money I make?” And don’t they applaud! The place fairly rocks with laughter and hoarse shouts. To this young lady succeeds the Artist Lightning Sketcher — he is also a ventriloquist. He provides himself with the figures ventriloquists usually introduce into their pieces by a very simple device. He draws them on a large sheet of paper with chalks of red, black, and green, while you look on. Next he makes you a picture of St. Peter’s at Rome on a big smoked plate — and all in a minute or two. Then he does something even more ambitious — it is his great lightning picture, called “The Home of the Sea Gull.” There is a large white sheet of paper on a board; he takes various chalks — vermilion, blue, green, black, orange — and hey! presto, there are blue sky, green water, black rocks, white gulls, and a black steamer (a Newcastle boat, evidently) belching forth black smoke, to say nothing of a black man in a black boat! And all in a moment. No wonder the audience shouts its approval. This spurs the lightning artist to a Still More Amazing Feat. Stepping forward with a profound bow, he announces that he will, in a couple of moments, without rubbing out a single mark on “The Home of the Sea Gull,” convert that masterpiece into another, and very different, picture, entitled ” A Summer Evening Walk in the Country.” And he does it! Wonderful man! Again flash the chalks of vermilion, blue, green black, orange. The blue sk ynow gorgeous with the splendours of a dying sunset; the green water becomes green earth; the black rocks are transformed into black trees; the black steamboat, and the black man, and the black boat, are replaced by black trees with black foliage; and the white gulls roost under cover of the black leaves also. Finally, a touch or two, and there is a pair of lovers in the foreground. “I calls that fine,” says a deep voice behind you; “‘e’s clever, ‘e is!” Every one thinks the same, for the lightning artist is awarded thunderous applause, as is only right in the circumstances. And yet there may be some who say that Art is not appreciated in this country!

Now there trips upon the platform another young lady. First she sings a song about a young angel from the Angel (at Isling-t-u-n) who had four little angels at ‘ome, although the gay young spark who was courting her appeared to be unaware of this extremely interesting fact.
Somehow, the fact does not interest the audience, and the song is received with the sort of silence that is audible half a mile awav. “Ain’t no good,” says the deep voice in the rear: “she’ll ‘ave to go!” Poor girl! But her second turn is a dance, and this is received with considerable favour, so perhaps she will be kept on after all. To fail at even an East End hall must be a terrible business for an artiste; it means, if it means anything, the streets, starvation, death. While your mind may, perhaps, run on in this melancholy fashion a lion comique puts in an appearance, and your thoughts are whirled away. The lion comique is nothing if not immensely patriotic. In an enormous voice he shouts that King Edward is “one of the best” of kings; is a second verse he yells that Lord Charles Beresford is “one of the best” in the navy; in a third that General Buller is “one of the best” in the army — all of which statements are uproariously welcomed. This patriotic ditty is followed by a sentimental song, “When the Children are All in Bed,” and it is keenly appreciated. The audience, led by the first violin, who plays and, at the same time, sings the air with all the strength of his lungs, takes up the chorus with might and main. For your East Ender loves a sentimental song nearly as much as he loves his beer.

And now there comes the chief turn on the programme — it is a Sketch, by the Lynn family — Brother Lynn, so to speak, and two Sisters Lynn, though the family resemblance between them all is remarkably faint. The two ladies prove to be the same who appeared in the Abusive Duet of which “Charlie” was the subject a little while back. Mr., or Brother, Lynn, is new to you. The superior shop-assistant is now “Mrs. Guzzle,” and the factory-girl is her servant, “Sloppy.” Brother Lynn is “Mr. Guzzle,” Mr. Peter Guzzle. These are the dramatis personae. When the curtain goes up Mrs. Guzzle is bewailing to Sloppy the sad fact that her Peter no longer comes home early o’ nights, and that when he does come he is invariably the worse, much the worse, for “booze.” They take counsel together as to what is to be done to win Guzzle from his evil ways, and they hit on a great idea. This is nothing less than to lie in wait for Peter this very evening as ever was, get him to bed, and then pretend when he wakes up that he is dead — as dead as a red herring, or anything else that is most emphatically dead. Peter arrives upon the scene very drunk — he explains that he has been presiding at a teetotal meeting, and that it has gone slightly to his head. He is got off to bed, but in a surprisingly short time he reappears attired in his nightshirt, which is a commodious garment, whereunto is attached an enormous frill. He announces that he is come in search of the “water-bottle,” a statement which the audience receives with a yell of derision. And now enter Sloppy, who with tears (perhaps they keep her from seeing her master) laments the death of “poo’ mahster,” but is inclined to rejoice that her missus is rid of such a scamp. “It won’t be long before she marries agin. There was that ‘andsome feller that admired her sech a lot – o’ course, they’ll make a match of it!” And so on. Guzzle listens in amazement, exclaiming that he is not dead, but Sloppy makes as if Guzzle did not exist. So much so that Mr. Guzzle begins to think there must be some truth in what she says — he is dead, and he howls out the question, “Where am I — in Heaven, or in the Other Place?” (Great laughter.)

The action is advanced another stage by the arrival of the undertaker to measure Guzzle for his coffin. The undertaker, you see without any wonder whatever, is no other than Mrs. Guzzle. Assisted by Sloppy, they lay out Mr. Guzzle on a sofa — Guzzle keeps on protesting he is
not dead, hut that makes no difference — and measure him. “He’s the sort o’ size,” says the pretty undertaker, otherwise the superior shop-assistant, otherwise Mrs. Guzzle, with husiness-like grasp of the situation and of Peter, “that we keep in stock. I’ll send the coffin round at once. He’ll look pretty well laid out.” (Peter groans.) But, hold, something has been forgotten. Peter died suddenly, it seems, and the circumstances are a little suspicious. It is necessary, therefore, that there shall be an inquest by the coroner — Peter will have to be “opened up.” (Loud and long-contiimed shrieks from Peter: “Cut up! Opened up! I won’t be cut up! I won’t be opened up! I’m not dead! O! what a bad dream! What an awful nightmare!”) Then Sloppy and the undertaker talk about the “dear departed.” Sloppy tells him that her master was a good ‘usband to missus until he took to bettin’ and drinkin’. Well, Guzzle was dead now (“I must be dead!” cries Guzzle, with sudden conviction), and missus would soon console herself — ” A ‘andsome woman like ‘er won’t have to wear the willer long.” (Peter groans dismally.) Exit undertaker, promising to send the coffin at once.

Meanwhile there is a noise outside, and Sloppy remarks that must be the coroner come to hold the inquest, and he must be sharpening up his instruments to “open up mahster.” (Peter shrieks, howls, kicks, tears his hair — the audience shouting with inextinguishable laughter the
while.) But the coroner never comes upon the stage; instead of him enter the Devil to take Peter off to the Other Place. (The Devil, you will notice, has on this occasion a trim female figure — in fact, that of Mrs. Guzzle.) The Devil is too much for Peter, and he (Peter) goes off into a fit. When he comes out of it, his wife and Sloppy are by his side. He tells them he’s had a frightful nightmare, but that, thank goodness, it was nothing else. “Do you know,” he says confidingly, “I dreamt I was dead, and that the undertaker came to measure me for my coffin, and that there was to be an inquest, and that I was to be opened up, and that the Devil — but it was all a bad dream! Well, my dear, it’s taught me a lesson. I’ll never bet or go to the Pig and Whistle again.” Brother Lynn and the two Sisters Lynn now join hands, while the crowd rocks and reels with tumultuous cheers, hand-clappings, and cat-calls. The Lynn Family, or Guzzle Family, as you like it, has scored a huge and gorgeous success!

To them succeed acrobats, who appear to think that jumping in and out of barrels, blindfolded, is quite a usual way of “getting around,” — but by this time you have seen enough. You abandon your fauteuil, get out of the smoke-laden, beer-stained atmosphere, and pass out into the street.

Comments: Robert Machray (1857-1946) and illustrator Tom Browne (1870-1910) wrote The Night Side of London, a observant and vividly illustrated account of all kinds of entertainment in Edwardian London, from which this chapter on the music hall comes. The illustrations are those that feature in the text. Machray was a journalist and a crime novelist; Browne was a prolific comic artist. The Parthenon Theatre of Varieties at Greenwich was renamed the Hippodrome and continues today as the Greenwich Theatre. The text has had one word removed which could cause offence.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust