Pit

An Evening at Collins’s

Source: James Agate, ‘An Evening at Collins’s’, in Alarums and Excursions (London: G. Richards, 1922), pp. 153-164

Text:

Vulgarity is an implicit element of the true music-hall. . . . Out of the vulgarity of the people did the music-hall arise, nor will anyone be so foolish as to contend that, by tampering with its foundations, we shall go one step towards refining the people.

Max Beerbohm.

That delicate and penetrative writer, Dixon Scott, imagines in one of his playful essays the more than cosmopolitan Mr Walkley for the nonce desorienté. The Five Towns it is which bring to a disconcerting standstill this “picked man of countries.” “Where are they?” he asks wearily and a trifle shamefacedly, after the manner of a schoolboy stumped for the whereabouts of Carthage. I, in my turn, no “student of the drama” since there is little on the English stage left to study save Mr Oscar Asche’s sham orientalism and Mr Hichens’s real camels, must confess to a singular ignorance of theatrical activity outside the quarter-mile radius. “Where is Collins’s?” and “Who is Mr George Carney?” would therefore have risen naturally to my lips, and not at all in the judicial manner, pour rire, when a youth, engaged in mending my bicycle, hopelessly confused his tale of the machine’s defects with references to a place called Collins’s, that fellow Carney, and a certain history confided by some colonel to his adjutant. Would have risen to my lips, I say – but here some explanation is necessary.

I have from youth up cherished an extreme dislike for lack of definition in the things that matter, and an equal repugnance for a pedantic accuracy in the things which do not matter at all. I abhor all those befogged conceptions and blurred declarations of faith which are the stock-in-trade of half the philosophers and three-fourths of the clergy. Tell me definitely that Space is curved and I will believe it, though truth wear a German complexion. Deny that Space is curved, and certify the same on the Royal Society’s proper form for denials, and I will consider to which camp I will belong. But let there be no “iffing and affing,” as they say in Lancashire. It annoys me that people can turn the careless side of their intelligence to such fundamental affairs as Time and Space, the nature of matter, the impasse of a self-existent or a created universe, whilst taking the most passionate interest in such trivia as dates and places, the addresses of tradespeople and the hours of trains. I do not ever hope to remember the name or number of the street in which I live, nor have I for years been able to discriminate between the keepers of my lodging- houses. All landladies are one, co-equal, co- eternal and co-incomprehensible. I hate to decide what I shall do on Saturday, to determine whether the air will be fresher at Ramsgate or Margate, Southend or Clacton-on-Sea. I am in complete ignorance of the geography of London, and invariably take what is called a hackney coach from King’s Cross to St Pancras. I have for many years left the choice of place of amusement to the discerning cabby. “Anywhere you like,” say I, “except Chu Chin Chow. Wherever one may be set down, the prime condition of life will be fulfilled — to see yet more of an amusing world and its humanity. Few people have shown a more philosophic appreciation than Bernard Clark and Ethel Monticue when they “oozed forth” into the streets. The phrase accurately describes my first attempt to find Collins’s music-hall.

I had always “placed” Collins’s as lying vaguely south of the river, somewhere between the Elephant and the Obelisk, Now the game of inattention to the trivialities of life has its rules, and one of them is that having made your intellectual bed so you must lie on it. You are to have the courage of your lack of mental industry. You have not attended to the lesson; you may not crib the answer. To dine at Princes’ and bid the commissionaire whistle an instructed taxi were outside the code. No; I had placed Collins’s near the Obelisk, and near the Obelisk I must find it, first dining befittingly and then oozing forth afoot. This may not be the place to describe a dinner “at the Obelisk.” Sufficient to say that if the cuts were not prime, the manners of my fellow-guests undoubtedly were. They did their meal the courtesy of being hungry; they ate, but not because it was the polite hour. They made no conversation, because they were not afraid of silence. My neighbour, an itinerant musician — in plain English he played a fiddle in the gutter — was, I judged, a man of uncertain character, but definite education. He forbore to relate his history. I discovered that he spoke French perfectly when, apropos of the oeillades of some poor draggle-tail at a neighbouring table, we fell to discussing the efficacy of the Duchess’s revenge in Barbey d’Aurevilly’s story — a good tale, but sadly lacking the American quality of “uplift.” I let slip, as they say, that I was bound for Collins’s, and my friend took occasion to point out that I was very much out of my course. I thanked him and listened to his indications for the following evening, it being a dispensation of the Inattentivists that you are not bound to reject information thrust upon you. We talked until the hour at which a paternal Government decrees that polite conversation in public places shall cease. And separated. But not before my fellow-artist had warmed sufficiently to me to hint that he was “doing well,” and that he hoped next year to enter his son for Eton.

Islington I found to be perfectly well informed both as to the locality of Collins’s and the reputation of Mr Carney. If not within a stone’s-throw of the Angel, the hall yet contrives to be at so nice a distance that one may transfer oneself from one house of entertainment to the other without, as old Quex has it, the trouble of drawing on one’s gloves. There is nothing of listless, well-bred indifference in a visit to Collins’s; you must be prepared to take the red plush benches by storm if you would be in at North London’s taking to heart of that rarity among comedians, an actor with a comic sense. I like to watch the curtain go up, having first enjoyed my fill of its bewitching advertisements. I like to watch the musicians file in, to see the flute-player put his instrument together, and that honest workman, the double-bass, spit on his hands, as all honest workmen should. I adore the operation of tuning-up, the precision of those little runs and trills executed in as perfect light-heartedness as the golfer’s preliminary swing. The conductor at these places is a captivating personage; he epitomises the glory of suburbia — dinner jacket, “dickey,” and white, ready-made bow. The overture at Collins’s, perfunctory, gladiatorial, had a familiar air about it, although the programme was not helpful. I should hate to think that a piece with which I am familiar can really be The Woodbine Willie Two-Step. Followed turns of which, or of whom, the chief were a juggler striking matches on his skull, a stout lady with a thin voice, prima donna of some undisclosed opera company, and a Versatile Comedy Four having to do with bicycles. At length and at last, Mr George Carney.

The first of his two “song-scenas” is a study of grandeur and decadence, of magnificence on its last legs, dandyism in the gutter, pride surviving its fall; in plain English, a tale of that wreckage of the Embankment which was once a gentleman. He wears a morning coat which, in spite of irremediable tatters, has obviously known the sunshine of Piccadilly, has yet some hang of nobility. The torn trousers still wear their plaid with an air. Enfin, the fellow was at one time gloved and booted. There is something authentic, something inherited, something ghostly about this seedy figure. Trailing clouds of glory does he haunt the Embankment. The ebony cane, the eyeglass with the watered ribbon, the grey topper of the wide and curling brim — all these fond accoutrements of fashion bring back the delightful nineties, so closely are they the presentment, the counterfeit presentment, of the swell of those days. “Bancroft to the life!” we mutter. And our mind goes back to that bygone London of violet nights and softly-jingling hansom cabs, discreet lacquer and harness of cheerful brass—nocturnes, if ever such things were, in black and gold — the London of yellow asters and green carnations; of a long-gloved diseuse, and, in the photographer’s window, a delicious Mrs Patrick Campbell eating something dreadfully expensive off the same plate as Mr George Alexander; of a hard-working Max with one volume of stern achievement and all Time before him; of a Cafe Royal where poets and not yet bookmakers forgathered; of a score of music- halls which were not for the young person. … But I am getting away from Mr Carney.

The matter is not very much above our heads — something about a Count who has “taken the count.” The purest stuff of the music-hall, as a music-hall song should be. “There’s a n’ole ‘ere!” pipes with fierce glee the cherub boot-black, bending over the broken boots and abating the deference to the broken swell no jot of his Trade Union rate of “frippence.” How it hurts, the contempt and raillery of this pitiless infant? Enfant goguenard if ever there was one, a capitalist in his small way, and with all the shopkeeper’s scorn of failure. “There’s a n’ole ere!” he insists, and we are reminded of Kipps’s tempestuous friend, “a nactor-fellow.” “Not a n’ole — an aperture, my dear fellow, an aperture,” corrects the noble client, “the boots were patent, but the patent’s expired.” Here the Count drops his cigar and indulges in unseemly scuffle with the urchin. “No, you don’t,” says the riper smoker, regaining possession, “that’s how I got it.” But the child has yet another arrow. “Landlady says as ‘ow you’ve got to share beds wiv a dustman.” But the shaft fails to wound; clearly our hero is of the Clincham mould to whom social distinctions are as “piffle before the wind.” “Want a pyper?” goads the boy, and his client lays out his last remaining copper. He unfolds the sheets and instinctively his eye runs over the fashionable intelligence. “Know Colonel Br’th’l’pp at all?” he inquires. This one recognises as the delightful touch of the man of the world anxious to put a social inferior at his ease. Something after this manner, one imagines, Royalty. “Doing very well in Russia. Was up at Cambridge with his brother, the elder Br’th’l’pp, don’ cher know.” And so to babble of the day’s gossip to the scornful child at his feet. The courtesy, I submit, of one man of polish to another.

Night falls, the river puts on its jewels, the result of a cunning arrangement of n’oles and n’apertures in the back-cloth, it draws very cold. More pitiful than the accustomed heir of destitution, but with stiff upper lip, our déclassé shivers, draws his rags more closely about him and moves on.

But it is the second song which brings down the house. Here the actor appears as an Army cook, and at Islington we have all been Army cooks in our time. A couple of dixies, the stew in which is discoverable last week’s “Dickey Dirt,” talk of “jippo ” and “the doings ” — all the familiar traffic of the camp rises to the mind’s eye and sets the house in a roar. We are not, we gather, in any theatre of war, but safely at home in halcyon, far-off training days. Almost you can hear the cheerful clatter of the canteen, the thud and rattle of the horse-lines. The wording of the song is in no sense precious.

“What was the tale the Colonel told the Adjutant
What did the Adjutant say to Major Brown?”

There is a chorus, also serving as corps de ballet, and consisting first of the inveterate grumbler who objects to the presence in his coffee of so harmless a beastie as a “drahned mahse “— the accent is a mixture of Devon and Berkshire with a dash of Cockney. Then comes the superior youth of ingratiating, behind-the-counter manner, the proud possessor, we feel sure, of a manicure set in ivory — does he not abstractedly polish his nails with the end of the towel? After him the “old sweat” who will neither die nor fade away, and lastly our rosy boot-black, now the dear brother-in-arms of the immortal Lew and Jakin. This nucleus of an Army has but a single mind: to know what has become of its blinking dinner. Many and various are their ways of putting it, and it appears that they are no more than Messengers or Forerunners of the cohorts pressing on their heels. But the orderly beguiles their impatience.

“What did the Major whisper to the Captain?
The Captain told the Subs to hand it down.”

The orderly is the slipshod, inefficient, imperturbable “bloke” we know so well; with him we are to rise to what Mr Chesterton calls “the dazzling pinnacle of the commonplace.” I am not sure that this is not the best of all this author’s fireworks; it is so stupendous a rocket that the stick has cleared the earth, never to return but to go on whirling around us for evermore. Mr Carney is the embodiment of the commonplace civilian turned warrior. He is the cook who will drop into the stew all manner of inconsidered [sic] trifles: cigarette ash, match ends, articles of personal attire. He is the hero who will be up to all the petty knavery and “lead-swinging” that may be going, who will “work dodges ” with the worst of them, and, on occasion, join with the best in such deeds — he would still call them “dodges” — as shall put terror into the hearts of a ten times outnumbering foe. Of that order of heroic cooks which held Ypres. But it is part and parcel of this actor’s generalship that he will have no truck with heroics. Tell Mr Carney that he raises tears and he will make a mock of you. Or more probably he will continue his song.

“What did the Quarter-master tell the Sergeant?
The Sergeant told the Corp’ril, it appears;
The Corp’ril told the Private and the Private told his girl,
Now she’s looking for Mademoiselle from Armenteers.”

Have I over-glorified my subject, whose talent is not more remarkably expended than on a dixie and a soldier’s ration of stew? Ah, but was not always one of the great tests for comic acting the power to throw a preternatural interest over the commonest objects of daily life? “What,” say you, pricking your ears at the familiar phrase, “surely at this time of day you are not going to dish up that old stuff about kitchen tables and constellatory importance, joint-stools and Cassiopeia’s chair?” Oh, but I am, and let appositeness be my apology. “So the gusto of Munden antiquates and ennobles what it touches. His pots and his ladles are as grand and primal as the seething-pots and hooks seen in old prophetic vision.” Why should I not elevate, an it please me, Mr Carney’s pot and ladle to the same high category? I do not ask you to see in this actor an image of primeval man lost in wonder of the sun and stars, but I do ask you to believe that a tin of “bully” contemplated by him amounts, or very nearly amounts, to a Platonic idea. Grant at least that he understands a dixie in its quiddity. It may be that in my estimate of this conscientious comedian I have overshot the just mean. Well, granting that my little appraisement is an error, it seems to me to be an error on the right side. I have a comfortable feeling that Islington at least is with me, that I have a solid popular backing. Collins’s pit and stalls, circle and gallery would have borne me out that the actor diffused a glow of sentiment “which made the pulse of a crowded theatre beat like that of one man”; would have probably agreed that he had “come in aid of the pulpit, doing good to the moral heart of a people.”

I do not think that in expanding Islington’s approval I have misread it. Its ecstatic hand-clapping and shouts of “Good ole George! Good ole George!” cannot deceive an ear attuned to shades of applause. The civilian on my left with the wound-stripes on his sleeve is dumb with appreciation. His lips are parted, his breath comes in short gasps, his eyes are fixed on the stage seeing and not seeing, his whole soul in some setting of the past. I am sure he hears once more the clatter of the canteen and the cheerful rattle of the horse-lines. The soldier on my right, still in the Army’s grip and not yet victim of the nostalgia to come — a very small fly in demobilisation’s ointment, but there it is — is drunk, simply, uncomplicatedly drunk, with the lilt and swing of the tune. He rises half out of his seat, puts a steadying hand on my arm, and with the other wildly conducts the house now singing in chorus:

“What was the tale the Colonel told the Adjutant?
What did the Adjutant say to Major Brown?
What did the Major whisper to the Captain?
The Captain told the Subs to hand it down.
What did the Quarter-master tell the Sergeant?
The Sergeant told the Corp’ril, it appears,
The Corp’ril told the Private and the Private told his girl,
Now she’s looking for Mademoiselle from Armenteers.”

There is a limit to the number of recalls even the most grateful servant of the public may permit himself, and at last Mr Carney is allowed to retire in favour of the next turn. But my friend on the right takes some little time to simmer down. “Good ole George!” he continues to mutter under his breath. “Oh, good ole George!” And as the tumblers who come next are a dull pair, I wend my way out.

Comments: James Agate (1877-1947) was a British theatre critic, essayist and diarist. George Carney (1887-1947) was a British music hall entertainer and film actor, particularly known for his portrayal of working class characters. Collins’s Music Hall was located in Islington, London, and had a history going back to 1794. It ceased operating after having been damaged by fire in 1958. Mr Walkley is the theatre critic Arthur Bingham Walkley. Bernard Clark and Ethel Monticue are characters from Daisy Ashford’s juvenile novel The Young Visiters, as is the Earl of Clincham. Bancroft refers to the Victorian actor-manager Squire Bancroft. Lew and Jakin are drummer boy characters in Rudyard Kipling’s story ‘The Drums of the Fore and Aft’.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

A Fortnight’s Ramble to the Lakes

Source: Joseph Budworth, A Fortnight’s Ramble to the Lakes in Westmoreland, Lancashire, and Cumberland (London: J. Nichols, 1810 [orig. pub. 1792]), pp. 210-212

Production: William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Keswick, 1792

Text: In the evening we went to see the Merchant of Venice in an unroofed house. The sky was visible through niches of boards laid across the upper beams. The walls were decorated, or rather hid, with cast-off scenes, which shewed in many places a rough unplastered wall. Some of the actors performed very well, and some very middling. Their poverty shall stop the pen of criticism; and their endeavours were well expressed by their motto – “TO PLEASE.”

Between the acts a boy, seated upon an old rush chair in one corner of the stage, struck up a scrape of a fiddle. By his dress, which was once a livery, we suppose he was a servant of all work, and had belonged to the manager in better days. But I must do Shylock the justice to say, he performed well; and although no person bawled out “this is the Jew that Shakspeare drew,” when he was expressing his satisfaction at Antonio’s misfortunes, a little girl in the gallery roared, “O mammy! mammy! what a sad wicked fellar that man is!”

The house was as full as it could possibly cram, and my friend counted but thirty-six shillings’ worth of spectators in the pit, at eighteen pence a head, including a young child that squealed a second to the Crowdero of the house. Perhaps, as the actors were so near the audience, it was frightened by Shylock’s terrific look. Whilst I remained, not even the “Hush a be babby” of its mother had any effect.

I found it so extremely hot, and I felt some knees press so hard upon my back, against a piece of curtain which composed the separation of pit and gallery, that I took my departure, and enjoyed a walk to the head of Derwenter [sic] lake. The moon was in splendour, and had just escaped out of a cloud that had really a terrific look. Skiddow [sic] and the hills to the right were buried in blackness; and there was an easterly breeze which seemed to assist the moon in getting the better of her sable enemies.

Comments: Joseph Budworth (c.1756-1815) was a British soldier and writer. His A Fortnight’s Ramble to the Lakes, originally published as being by ‘A Rambler’, is an early tourist’s guide to the Lake District. his account is known in particular for the first description of the experience of climbing a mountain, and for his discovery of local beauty ‘The Maid of Buttermere’. He saw The Merchant of Venice in Keswick, by Derwentwater lake, presumably in a disused building, as there was no actual theatre in Keswick at this time.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Some Theatrical Audiences

Turlututu at the Britainnia Theatre, from Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 6 January 1877, via East London Theatre Archive

Source: Anon., ‘Some Theatrical Audiences’, All the Year Round, no. 442 (new series), 19 May 1877, pp. 273-278

Production: Frederick Marchant, Turlututu; or, The Three Enchanted Hats, Britannia Theatre, London, 1877

Text: Why should the function of the playhouse critic be confined exclusively to the players? Why should the Aristarchus of the stalls for ever project his eagle glance behind the footlights? Why should he take heed only of the mimic life enacted upon the stage, while humanity itself as it exists behind and around him, affording a definite standard by which the imitation may be judged, is all unnoticed in his oracular verdicts? There should be a critic for the public, as well as for the players. The behaviour of the audience, the degree of intelligence exhibited in their demeanour, and the interest they take in the performance, is quite as susceptible of judicial analysis as the deportment of the actors and actresses. There is as much matter for attentive consideration in the composition of the spectators, as in the cast of a play; there is as much of edification to be derived from studying their manners and character, as from the critical contemplation of eminent tragedians and accomplished artists in comedy-drama.

Theatrical audiences, moreover, have their idiosyncrasies, just as much as theatrical companies. The purely society, or orthodox fashionable audience; the fast fashionable audience; the domestic audience; the respectable audience; the mixed audience; the working-class audience; these are only some of the varieties which may be enumerated. The last-mentioned, the working-class audience, is itself capable of sundry subdivisions — the transpontine, the extreme East-end, the flash, the decorous, the criminal, the honest, the drunken, the sober. Only a few of these can be glanced at now, but few though these may be, they will be sufficient, if taken in connection with an article that appeared more than a quarter of a century ago in the weekly journal from which ALL THE YEAR ROUND sprang, to give some idea of the width and fruitfulness of this new field of dramatic criticism.

The purely society audience is not to be confounded with that chiefly characterised by the ubiquitous presence of amateur critics, of the tooth-pick school. The ultra-fashionable differ wholly from the fast fashionable houses. The tooth-pick critics come late, and enter somewhat noisily; when society goes to the play, it comports itself with frigid tranquillity, and in consideration of the hour at which the performance is fixed — eight P.M. — takes its seat with astounding punctuality. Society affects social comedies, sparkling with what it likes to speak of and consider epigrams, but what are in reality quaint and smart verbal antitheses and contrasts; the fast fashionable audience tolerates the drama pure and simple, but never really enjoys itself, save when burlesque is on the boards.

If the society audience is to be observed in its perfection, it is to Tottenham-street or Sloane-square that one should go. At the Thespian temple reared in either locality, the wants and wishes of society are considered and supplied with the tenderest solicitude, and society is good enough in return to be pretty constant in its patronage, and to be seated ns soon as, or very shortly after, the curtain rises. The degree of attention with which the performance is watched varies. Society is not demonstrative; it seldom applauds; it frequently accompanies the dialogue of the drama with a monotonous undertone of well-bred chatter, the general effect of which is rather that of a low and barely audible murmur, than of articulate sounds. Society is not moved to laughter or to pity. It occasionally smiles at the sparkling repartees which are so much in fashion; it seldom fails to smile when the situation placed before it on the stage is intended by the dramatist to appeal with exceptional strength to its tenderer sentiments. At times, a look of puzzled surprise at the weaker feelings of humanity, as depicted by actors or actresses, plays over society’s countenance. Bat, for the most part, its face is as passionless and undecipherable as the Sphinx. Altogether it is not an audience which inspires, save so far as a consciousness of its selectness can inspire, the actor; neither on the other hand does it discourage or disturb.

The audience in which the toothpick element is largely represented cares but little for comedy-dramas, and is insatiable of extravaganza and burlesque. As a concession to public usage, the burlesque of the evening is generally preceded by something in the form of a play—comic, farcical, melodramatic, or tragic. But it is not till nine or ten that the patrons, for whom the management chiefly caters, appear upon the spot. Whether they occupy private boxes or stalls, they are readily distinguishable. The amplitude of shirt-front and wristband, the strident tones, the echoing laugh, proclaim at once the tooth-pick critic. Some of these gentlemen are up from Aldershott bent on a metropolitan holiday; others are scions of, or it may be are, themselves, hereditary legislators; others again are baronets, guardsmen, and their hangers-on; others — and these perhaps constitute the majority — are gentlemen whose days are given to commercial pursuits in the City, and whose evenings are devoted to enjoyment at the West-end. Their devotion to the drama, so far as it goes, is beyond Suspicion; and if once an extravaganza or burlesque has won their favour, it is surprising how long that favour lasts. Their manners have not that reserve which signalise the purely society audience. They are demonstrative, and even turbulent. Their critical comments in the stalls, which are mostly of a strikingly personal nature, are made in a tone so loud that the actors and actresses can overhear. But whatever their demerits they are staunch and liberal cultivators of the dramatic art, and with- out their support the assistance of society alone would be insufficient for the material prosperity of the stage.

The audience which patronises the theatrical matinée presents various features, which are distinctively and peculiarly its own. It combines many of the attributes of what would be loosely styled Bohemianism with those of most orthodox respectability. It is conspicuous for the blending of the professional and theatrical element with the decorous suburban — for the meeting of the ladies and gentlemen of “the profession” and the denizens of Clapham, Sydenham, Hampstead, Highgate, as well as of quarters considerably more remote, upon common ground. Be the occasion one of those benefits which have been witnessed on a remarkable scale in the course of the last two or three months, or the afternoon performance of a farce which is for a while the talk of the town, or the appearance of some Gallic histrio of note, you shall observe unmistakable specimens of these and other classes of playgoers congregated in the auditorium. The lady to whom you sit next in the stalls is the most finished and artistic of living actresses in comedy-drama; on your right, with dishevelled locks and keenly-piercing eyes, is an eminent tragedian; just before you a highly promising jeune premier, the scion of a famous house, who “would be an actor;” just behind you the protagonist in a drama of domestic life, who from the unparalleled success achieved by the play seems likely to figure in the same rôle incessantly to the end of his natural days. There, too, are the invalids of both sexes, who love the stage, but to whom the night air is the deadliest of foes; those also, who inform you that they should patronise the drama more frequently than they do were not the hours of the performance such that they interfere with the consumption of their dinner or their night’s rest; those again, already mentioned, who live outside the metropolitan radius, but who have objections to the dissipation and the late hours involved in theatre trains; those, lastly, who inform you that they never go to theatres on principle, but they occasionally make an exception in favour of afternoon performances. This final class is a numerous one, and is almost coextensive with that which sees no harm in the “entertainment” but a great deal of harm in the play. An expedition to the Thespian shrine by gaslight is an abomination to be eschewed; but though when the portal of the theatre be once passed gas is still the illuminating medium employed, the theatrical visit has an innocence which it could not possess if undertaken at the hour when Melrose should be viewed aright. Thus it is that the theatrical audience which affects the matinee is a motley composition of parsons and players, severely devout spinsters, superior men, and strong-minded women, lovers of pleasure and lovers of tranquillity, the strong and the feeble, the London lounger and the country cousin.

As for the spectacle which the regulation theatrical audience presents in the older houses on ordinary nights, it would be as impossible to detail any novel feature as to discover some theory, hitherto unbroached, of the madness of Hamlet, or some excellences, as yet ignored, in the poetry of Pope. What they were in the days of the Rejected Addresses, that they are now, due allowance being made for difference in costume and the advance of social civilisation generally. Perhaps we have become more genteel than we were; perhaps theatrical audiences generally are less demonstrative and impressionable. It may be that the British public devotes itself with less abandonment, less surrender of its whole moral and intellectual being, to the entertainment provided on the stage. But that the popularity of the theatre has not diminished, we know from the records of managers and comparison of figures. Theatres are more numerous; theatrical audiences more representative, not only because the population has grown, but because with the growth of population there has been developed a new taste for theatrical entertainment, while the prejudices and scruples have been swept away.

Modern taste is curiously compounded of a liking for extremes and opposites. It is elaborate, and it is plain. It finds pleasure in the most complex of forms, as of costumes; and yet is delighted with what, at least, wears the appearance of simplicity. Are not broad beans and bacon a fashionable dish at great dinner-parties? Is it not only two years ago that the melodies produced by musical-glasses — slightly disguised in character — were the rage in society? Do not full-grown men and women puzzle themselves with the riddles, and revel in the pastime erewhile confined to the nursery and school-room? A penchant for the juvenile is in vogue with modern society. Surely this was never displayed more conspicuously than in the favour with which a stage-performance of children, already noticed in this Journal, was received during the past winter months. The theatre-goer who makes it his duty to meditate on the sights of the auditorium, as well as the spectacles on the stage, never could have enjoyed a more fertile field for his observation than the Royal Adelphi, when the Children’s Pantomime was in course of representation. There were children by scores amongst the audience; but there were grown-up people as well, and, strange to say, it was the latter — the papas and mammas — who seemed to relish the thing the most heartily. As for the boys and girls, they gazed, indeed, intently upon what they beheld. The Lilliputian actors and actresses were to them as fairy children; it was difficult for the youngest of the audience, as they looked at the members of the juvenile company, to realise that little Goody Twoshoes and Boy Blue were made of the same mortal clay as themselves. Others, again, there were, or, let us use the present tense, and — fancying the whole scene before us — say are, who have just arrived at that age which affects superiority to whatever is purely childish. To laugh at the doings of the urchin-artists is beneath them; and so they sit as still as they can, while some may assume an approach to contemptuous condescension, leaving all the laughter to their elders, who, to speak the truth, discharge the task heartily. But it is not mere unreflecting amusement which, to judge from the expression on the rows of faces, possesses the adult audience. There are looks which tell of anxious, almost maternal, interest in the doings of the wee players. There is the young mother, with her chicks about her, who, as she directs her gaze towards the stage, seems to be looking wistfully into a more distant perspective. Is there not something of sadness visible in those soft, clear brown eyes? Is it an inevitable maternal impulse, or only an odd speculative instinct, which makes her ponder for a moment on what the dim, concealed future may have in store for those children on the stage; and, while she thus questions herself, press more closely the wondering little one at her side? Contrast with such a sympathetic critic as this those gentlemen and ladies of the audience who look on with an air of unconcerned surprise. “Curious little mortals; they really do it very well,” is a phrase that drops from the lips of these. Others, again, regard the whole thing with eyes of puzzled interest; and others — they are the oldest of all there — are, to judge from their faces, the amused recipients of anew sensation. Young men, too, there are, and young girls, recently “come out,” in the audience, whose countenances, whether eloquent of supercilious patronage or tender solicitude, are not less a book wherein we may read instructive things.

The scene is changed, and we have transported ourselves to a different quarter of the town. It is only a few nights ago that we took a cab from St. James’s, and were conveyed to the transpontine Surrey. It was an enthusiastic, nay, a noisy audience which crowded Mr. Holland’s theatre from floor to roof; but it was well-behaved, most cordial, and sincere, if most vehement in the applause which it showered on its favourites. There was nothing specially instructive about it unless, indeed, it be its countenance of delight. There were visible social gradations in the audience. The two rows of stalls — the rest of the area was occupied by the pit — were filled by the elite of the vicinity of Kennington and a few pilgrims from the West End; the boxes were occupied, for the most part, by the magnates of local trade, and by young gentlemen who had evidently formed a party for the evening. It is somewhat late in the year to speak about pantomimes; but the Surrey pantomime, it may be said, in passing, was exceptionally good; and, as the audience was more than commonly demonstrative in its expression of good-will and encouragement, so did the actors, from the opening to the final scene, fling themselves with a heartiness into the fun of the parts which they were creating, that might have done the jaded critic of society real good. But to-night we have gone much farther afield than the Surrey Theatre. Is our cabman one of the exclusive Jehus who decline to ply east of Temple-bar? It is certain that he has deposited us at our destination only after much circuitous wandering, many enquiries as to direct routes, some doubt on our parts as to whether the goal proposed was practicable. How very few of those who live West know anything of that world which we have traversed in our drive due East — have any idea of the better and more attractive aspects of the most unfashionable quarter of London! True, we have threaded some stifling thoroughfares, where flaming gas-jets have lit up bulks on which malodorous fish are exposed for sale, and whose surface is covered with decaying vegetables and unsightly morsels; have seen many signs of misery and vice; much filth; much squalor; much of dirt, and rags, and drunkenness. But we have emerged from all this now. We find ourselves being whirled through broad streets, in which are bright, cleanly shops, full of cleanly, sober people, flanked by houses, unpicturesque, it may be, but substantial and healthy. The whole place is airy and light; there is much bustling about on the part of neatly-clad women, and children, and men; for it is Saturday night, and the week’s shopping is in progress.

But a hundred yards farther to go — so one of the numerous guides whom we have been compelled to consult informs us — and we shall be there. Where is “there?” “Britannia, the Great Theatre, Hoxton,” where there is to be seen “an entirely new, magnificent, comic Christmas Pantomime,” by name “Turlututu;” and at the Britannia — sharply turning a corner and coming on a frontage brilliantly illuminated with gas — we arrive accordingly. There are few hangers-on about the door. A gentleman attached to the establishment, who is lounging on the steps with a colossal cigar in his mouth, informs us that there is not standing room in the house. But we have already engaged a box, and to it we are led by the most civil of attendants through long passages, their floors unlined by matting, and their brick walls covered only with paint. There is no effort at decoration, and for sanitary reasons it is as well that such should be the case. It is a peculiar smell that which assails the nostrils — a component odour, whose chief ingredients seem to be the perfume of disinfecting fluids and the fragrance of very coarse tobacco smoke. But what does the outside atmosphere matter? It is the inside sight which we have come to see, and that sight is not behind the footlights, but before it, consists not of the actors, but the audience. Imagine a vast semicircular structure, more capacious in appearance — though the result may be due to the absence of all trappings and other ornaments — than Drury-lane, packed with between five and six thousand men and women; not a vacant space on which the eye can rest, above, below, around; heads and bodies rising tier upon tier, till in the distance they dwindle to indistinct specks of humanity. Gallery, upper boxes, dress circle, pit — these comprise the divisions of the huge edifice; the box in which we are being the only one used this evening, at least, as private. The stage-boxes opposite are occupied by some dozen spectators, each paying two shillings a head, the price of admission to other parts of the house varies from one shilling to threepence. Next to the enormous multitude collected, the great feature which strikes us is the character and the demeanour of the crowd. The great proportion are working-men and women, clad in their working clothes; a few are mechanics and artisans, in broad cloth and dark tweed. As for the women, they are all neatly, but none showily attired. There is a fair sprinkling of children in arms. Some thirty per cent. of the entire audience are probably boys between the ages of twelve and sixteen. It is not a polished assemblage; the faces are for the most part grimy, and the hair unkempt, but the patient attention and tranquillity of the huge concourse are quite admirable. Nuts are cracked, Brobdingnagian sandwiches, as thick as bricks, and of much the same hue, are consumed, foaming pots of porter are quaffed. It is no polite show of light refreshments which is witnessed, but good, solid eating, and earnest drinking. Yet these do not prevent the audience from diligently noting all that is said and done on the stage. Nothing could be more orderly, nothing could be more decent. As for the entertainment itself, it is in character quite unexceptionable. There is no expression nor allusion, in dialogue or song, which can raise a blush; no phrase or sentiment which can shock the most susceptibly loyal of subjects. Surely, a mighty instrument for the harmless amusement of five thousand of the poor of London, in the heart of such a district as Hoxton, at an average of ninepence a head, such as the Britannia theatre, is a boon for which the moralist and philanthropist may well be grateful.

Comments: The two main London theatres described here are the Surrey, in Lambeth, and the Britannia in Hoxton, a favourite haunt of Charles Dickens, who had founded the periodical All the Year Round. The earlier article to which this piece refers was George Augustus Sala’s ‘Down Whitechapel Way‘ [qv], Household Words, 1 November 1851, which includes a vivid description of a ‘penny gaff’ theatre. Turlututu was a fantastical pantomime, adapted from a French original by Frederick Marchant, which ran at the Britannia for over thirteen weeks 1876-77.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Down Whitechapel Way

Source: George Augustus Sala, ‘Down Whitechapel Way’, Household Words, 1 November 1851, pp. 129, 131

Text: … We will, if you please, cross over, leaving the curbstone market (which only exists on one side), and, allured by the notes of an execrably played fiddle, enter one of those dazzling halls of delight, called a “penny gaff.”

The “gaff” throws out no plausible puffs, no mendacious placards, respecting the entertainment to be found therein. The public take the genuineness of the “gaff” for granted, and enter by dozens. The “gaff” has been a shop—a simple shop—with a back parlour to it, and has been converted into a hall of delight, by the very simple process of knocking out the shop front, and knocking down the partition between the shop and parlour. The gas-fittings yet remain, and even the original counters, which are converted into “reserved seats,” on which, for the outlay of twopence, as many costers, thieves, Jew-boys, and young ladies, as can fight for a place, are sitting, standing, or lounging. For the common herd—the οἱ πολλοί—the conditio vivendi is simply the payment of one penny, for which they get standing rooms in what are somewhat vaguely termed the “stalls,”—plainly speaking, the body of the shop. The proscenium is marked by two gas “battens” or pipes, perforated with holes for burners, traversing the room horizontally, above and below. There are some monstrous engravings, in vile frames, suspended from the walls, some vilely coloured plaster casts, and a stuffed monstrosity or two in glass cases. The place is abominably dirty, and the odour of the company generally, and of the shag tobacco they are smoking, is powerful.

A capital house though, to-night: a bumper, indeed. Such a bumper, in fact, that they have been obliged to place benches on the stage (two planks on tressels), on which some of the candidates for the reserved seats are accommodated. As I enter, a gentleman in a fustian suit deliberately walks across the stage and lights his pipe at the footlights; while a neighbour of mine, of the Jewish persuasion, who smells fearfully of fried fish, dexterously throws a cotton handkerchief, containing some savoury condiment from the stalls to the reserved seats, where it is caught by a lady whom he addresses by the title of “Bermondsey Bet.” Bet is, perhaps, a stranger in these parts, and my Hebrew friend wishes to show her that Whitechapel can assert its character for hospitality.

Silence for the manager, if you please!—who comes forward with an elaborate bow, and a white hat in his hand, to address the audience. A slight disturbance has occurred, it appears, in the course of the evening; the Impresario complains bitterly of the “mackinnations” of certain parties “next door,” who seek to injure him by creating an uproar, after he has gone to the expense of engaging “four good actors” for the express amusement of the British public. The “next door” parties are, it would seem, the proprietors of an adjacent public-house, who have sought to seduce away the supporters of the “gaff,” by vaunting the superior qualities of their cream gin, a cuckoo clock, and the “largest cheroots in the world for a penny.”

Order is restored, and the performances commence. “Mr. and Mrs. Stitcher,” a buffo duet of exquisite comicality, is announced. Mr. Stitcher is a tailor, attired in the recognised costume of a tailor on the stage, though, I must confess, I never saw it off. He has nankeen pantaloons, a red nightcap—a redder nose, and a cravat with enormous bows. Mrs. Stitcher is “made up” to represent a slatternly shrew, and she looks it all over. They sing a verse apiece; they sing a verse together; they quarrel, fight, and make it up again. The audience are delighted. Mr. S. reproaches Mrs. S. with the possession of a private gin-bottle; Mrs. S. inveighs against the hideous turpitude of Mr. S. for pawning three pillow-cases to purchase beer. The audience are in ecstacies. A sturdy coalheaver in the “stalls” slaps his thigh with delight. It is so real. Ugh! terribly real; let us come away, even though murmurs run through the stalls that “The Baker’s Shop” is to be sung. I see, as we edge away to the door, a young lady in a cotton velvet spencer, bare arms, and a short white calico skirt, advance to the footlights. I suppose she is the Fornarina, who is to enchant the dilettanti with the flowery song in question …

… Another “gaff” on the right-hand side of the road—but on a grander scale. The Effingham Saloon, with real boxes, a real pit, and a real gallery; dreadfully dirty, and with a dirtier audience. No comic singing, but the drama —the real, legitimate drama. There is a bold bandit, in buff-boots, calling on “yon blew Ev’n to bring-a down-a rewing on ther taraytor’s ed.” There is nothing new in him, nor in the young lady in pink calico, with her back hair down, expressive of affliction. Nor in the Pavilion Theatre over the way, where “Rugantino the Terrible” is the stock piece, and where there are more buff-boots, rusty broad-swords, calico-skirts, and back hairs …

Comments: George Augustus Henry Sala (1828-1895) was a British journalist, among the most celebrated of his day, though at the time of his article on life in London’s East End, from which the above extract is taken, he had just started out in the profession, writing for Charles Dickens‘s journal Household Words. ‘Penny gaff’ was term describing the cheap Victorian theatre which flourished in London’s East End between 1830 and 1900. These were generally located in vacant shops or warehouses, and could house anything from a few dozen to an audience of 400 or more. Their programmes were a mixture of melodrama, cut-down Shakespeare, variety acts, dances and songs. The Effingham saloon, established in 1834, was adapted into a theatre in 1858, the New Garrick. It was followed on the same site by the Yiddish theatre venue New East London Theatre (burned down 1879), which was in turn followed by the renowned boxing venue Wonderland (burned down 1917). In 1921 it became the Rivoli Cinema.

Links: Copy at Dickens Journals Online

The Diary of Philip Hone

Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library. “Madlle. Fanny Elssler in La tarentule.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1840. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/2678e780-9d9b-0131-9bb0-58d385a7b928

Source: Bayard Tuckerman (ed.), The Diary of Philip Hone, 1828-1851 (New York, Dodd, Mead, 1889), vol. 2, p. 28

Text: Many and many a night has passed since the walls of the Park have witnessed such a scene. Fanny Ellsler [sic], the bright star whose rising in our firmament has been anxiously looked for by the fashionable astronomers since its transit across the ocean was announced, shone forth in all its brilliancy this evening. Her reception was the warmest and most enthusiastic I ever witnessed. On her first appearance, in a pas seul called la Cracovienne which was admirably adapted to set off her fine figure to advantage, the pit rose in a mass, and the waves of the great animated ocean were capped by hundreds of white pocket-handkerchiefs. The dance was succeeded by a farce, and then came the ballet “La Tarantule,” in which the Ellsler [sic] established her claim to be considered by far the best dancer we have ever seen in this country. At the falling of the curtain she was called out; the pit rose in a body and cheered her, and a shower of wreaths and bouquets from the boxes proclaimed her success complete. She appeared greatly overcome by her reception, and coming to the front of the stage, pronounced, in a tremulous voice, in broken English, the words “A thousand thanks,” the naiveté of which seemed to rivet the hold she had gained on the affections of the audience.

All the boxes were taken several days since, and in half an hour after the time proclaimed for the sale of pit tickets the house was full, so that when we arrived, which was a full hour before the time of commencing the performance, placards were exhibited with the words “Pit full,” “Boxes all taken.” This wise arrangement prevented confusion. The house, although full in every part, was not crowded, and a more respectable audience never greeted the fair danseuse in any country she has charmed.

Comments: Philip Hone (1780-1851) was an American businessman and diarist, who was Mayor of New York 1825-1826. Fanny Elssler (1810-1884) was an Austrian ballerina, considered to be one of the finest dancers of the Romantic ballet period. After much success in Europe, she toured the USA for two years from 1840, with her dancer sister Therese.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Diary of an Invalid

Source: Henry Matthews, Diary of an Invalid, being the Journal of a Tour in pursuit of health; in Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, and France, in the years 1817, 1818, and 1819 vol. 1 (London: J. Murray, 1824, 4th edition), p. 141

Production: unidentified opera, Rome, 8 January 1818

Text: In the evening we went to the Italian comedy, which was so tiresome that we could not endure more than one scene. We drove afterwards to the opera. The theatre large and handsome;— six tiers of boxes. The seats in the pit are numbered, and divided off separately with elbows:— so that you may take any one of them in the morning, and secure it for the whole evening. Some plan of this kind would surely be a great improvement in our own theatres. The dancing was bad, and the singing worse. A set of burlesque dancers amused us afterwards, by aping the pirouettes of the others. The dancing of the stage gives but too much foundation for such caricatures. It is daily becoming less elegant, as the difficult is substituted for the graceful. What can be more disgusting than to see the human figure twirling round with the legs at right angles? In such an attitude, “Man delights not me nor woman neither.” All postures to be graceful should be easy and natural, and what can be more unnatural than this?

Comments: Henry Matthews (1789-1828) was a British judge. On account of ill health, he went on a recuperative tour of Europe over 1817-1819. The published diary of his travels, The Diary of an Invalid (1820), was very popular and went through a number of editions. The two-volume diary has several entries on theatregoing. The theatre he visited in Rome may have been the Teatro Argentina.

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 Diary of Sylas Neville

Source: Basil Cozens-Hardy (ed.), The Diary of Sylas Neville 1767-1788 (London: Oxford University Press, 1950), pp. 44-45

Production: William Shakespeare, Richard III, Drury Lane, London, 29 September 1768

Text: Thursd. Sept. 29 … Hearing about 7 o’clock that Garrick did Rich. III, one of his very capital characters which he has not done these 7 or 8 years, resolved (if I could get in to see him) to bear the abhorred sight of that woman-like painted puppy, the King of Denmark. After one unsuccessful attempt got into the Pit with the greatest difficulty after the 3rd Act. Garrick is inimitably great in Richard & very different from the other Richards I have seen; his expression of the dying agony of that wretch is beyond description. Some actors speak with as strong & loud a voice in that scene as if they had received no wound & were not dying. One, Lloyd, who waits on Garrick sometimes, observed that he himself says he never acted better in his life, modestly observing that something must be allowed to the improvement of his judgment. During the Dance (for there was no Farce) I was within a yard of the Danish tyrant. O Heaven! what an instance of the corruption of mankind that a great nation should submit to the will – nay, the absolute will – of a puny vicious boy, unfit to govern himself & made for the distaff (like Sardanapalus) not for the rod of power!

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. David Garrick appeared in Richard III at Drury Lane on 29 September 1768. At the end of the play there was a comic dance. Christian VII, King of Denmark, attended the performance. Sardanapalus, a legendary Assyrian king, was a byword for decadent living.

Letters written during a short residence in Spain and Portugal

Source: Robert Southey, Letters written during a short residence in Spain and Portugal (Bristol: Printed by Bulgin and Rosser, for Joseph Cottle, and G.G. and J.Robinson, and Cadell and Davies, London, 1797), pp. 9-13

Text: Letter II. Tuesday Night.

I am just returned from the Spanish Comedy. The Theatre is painted with a muddy light blue, and a dirty yellow, without gilding, or any kind of ornament. The boxes are engaged by the season: and subscribers only, with their friends, admitted to them, paying a pesetta each. In the pit are the men, seated as in a great arm’d chair; the lower class stand behind these seats: above are the women; for the sexes are separated, and so strictly, that an officer was broke at Madrid, for intruding into the female places. The boxes, of course, hold family parties. The centre box, over the entrance of the pit, is appointed for the magistrates; covered in the front with red fluff, and ornamented with the royal arms. The motto is a curious one, “Silencio y no fumar.” Silence and no smoaking.” The Comedy, of course, was very dull to one who could not understand it. I was told that it contained some wit, and more obscenity; but the only comprehensible joke to me, was “Ah !” said in a loud voice by one man, and “Oh!” replied equally equally loud by another, to the great amusement of the audience. To this succeeded a Comic Opera; the characters were represented by the most ill-looking man and woman I ever saw. My Swedish friend’s island of hares and rabbits could not have a fitter king and queen. The man’s dress was a thread-bare brown coat lined with silk, that had once been white, and dirty corduroy waistcoat and breeches; his beard was black, and his neckcloth and shoes dirty: but his face! Jack-ketch might sell the reversion of his fee for him, and be in no danger of defrauding the purchaser. A soldier was the other character, in old black velveret breeches; with a pair of gaters reaching above the knee, that appeared to have been made out of some blacksmith’s old leathern apron. A farce followed, and the hemp-stretch man again made his appearance; having blacked one of his eyes to look blind. M. observed that he looked better with one eye than with two; and we agreed, that the loss of his head would be an addition to his beauty. The prompter stands in the middle of the stage, about half way above it; before a little tin screen, not unlike a man in a cheese-toaster. He read the whole play with the actors, in a tone of voice equally loud; and, when one of the performers added a little of his own wit, he was so provoked as to abuse him aloud, and shake the book at him. Another prompter made his appearance to the Opera, unshaved, and dirty beyond description: they both used as much action as the actors. The scene that falls between the acts would disgrace a puppet-show at an English fair; on one side is a hill, in size and shape like a sugar-loaf, with a temple on the summit, exactly like a watch-box; on the other Parnassus, with Pegasus striking the top in his flight, and so giving a source to the waters of Helicon: but, such is the proportion of the horse to the mountain, that you would imagine him to bet only taking a flying leap over a large ant-hill; and think he would destroy the whole oeconomy of the state, by kicking it to pieces. Between the hills lay a city; and in the air sits a duck-legged Minerva, surrounded by flabby Cupids. I could see the hair-dressing behind the scenes: a child was suffered to play on the stage, and amuse himself by sitting on the scene, and swinging backward and forward, so as to endanger setting it on fire. Five chandeliers were lighted by only twenty candles. To represent night, they turned up two rough planks, about eight inches broad, before the stage lamps and the musicians, whenever they retired, blew out their tallow candles. But the most singular thing, is their mode of drawing up the curtain. A man climbs up to the roof, catches hold of a rope, and then jumps down; the weight of his body raising the curtain, and that of the curtain breaking his fall. I did not see one actor with a clean pair of shoes. The women wore in their hair a tortoise-shell comb to part it; the back of which is concave, and so large as to resemble the front of a small bonnet. This would not have been inelegant, if their hair had been clean and without powder, or even appeared decent with it. I must now to supper. When a man must diet on what is disagreeable, it is some consolation to reflect that it is wholesome; and this is the case with the wine: but the bread here is half gravel, owing to the soft nature of their grind-stones. Instead of tea, a man ought to drink Adams’s solvent with his breakfast.

Comments: Robert Southey (1774-1843) was a British poet, historian and biographer, serving as Poet Laureate for the last thirty years of his life. He travelled to Portugal and Spain in 1795, staying with an uncle who was chaplain to the British community in Lisbon. Southey’s account of his stay was his first published prose work.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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