Seating

American in Italy

Source: Herbert Kubly, American in Italy (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1955), pp. 114-115

Text: Sicily had made me a puppet fancier. I wanted to visit a Neapolitan puppet theater, known as the Olympia. At the consulate I had been urged not to go. The theater was in a northwest corner of the old central section, a crowded and violent part of Naples said to be hostile to outsiders. “Americans are robbed and beaten,” an official warned. “The police had to rescue four American sailors from a mob last week.”

I found an American journalist to make the expedition with me. We climbed narrow crowded streets that rise from the heart of the town. It was an ordinary midweek night, but the streets were noisy and gay as a saint’s feast. Neon light illuminated holy statues, and the smell of roasting chestnuts was in the air. Young women sold American cigarettes, not in packs, but singly, neatly laid out with American contraceptives, also sold singly. At a wineshop we drank a tumbler of extremely potent dark thick stuff. Many persons greeted us. “It’s all in our psychology,” the journalist explained. “If you reflect a feeling of confidence, don’t appear nervous, and never get angry, you avoid trouble. It’s only when you show fear, nervousness, or temperament that difficulties arise.”

We moved deeper into the human jungle. Jagged walls of bombed and deserted buildings loomed up around us. On a bombed side street we found the Olympia. Tickets cost forty lire, about seven cents. It was a new cement structure, clean, whitewashed, and well illuminated; quite different from the dank smelly caves of the Palermo puppeteers. There were about one hundred and fifty chairs and all of them were occupied. Unlike Sicily, there were several shawled women in the audience. The stage was small, and the puppets were smaller than the brass and tin Sicilian warriors. A piano, violin, and horn played Neapolitan folk tunes. Like a movie house, the show, which began at five o’clock, was repeated until midnight. The melodrama upon which we entered ran the gamut from banditry, murder (by stabbing and shooting), and rape to kidnapings. This wide variety of carnage seemed to please the audience greatly. The wicked villain leered at the virtuous lady wearing a tiara and furs and demanded, “Be my mistress or be destroyed!” The virtuous lady screamed, but her husband did not hear her; she chose death and was immediately stabbed. “A scandal! A scandal!” were her dying words. The villain stole the dead woman’s baby and took it to a cabin in the forest kept by a Shakespearean buffoon in pointed boots and a belled cap. The buffoon burned the villain in a furnace and reared the kidnaped child in the forest in the manner of A Winter’s Tale. Twenty years and six scenes later, the child, full grown, was returned to his real father.

In an intermission boys hawked soft drinks, peanuts, and sweets, and members of the audience unpacked lunches from newspapers. The theater became pungent with garlic. The next part of the performance was a variety show, a burlesque with triple-jointed dancers, pumpkin-bosomed female puppets singing ribald songs, sailors paddling little boats across the stage, and a patriarchal fisherman in a candy-striped costume involved in a salty intrigue with some mermaids. I understood very little of the Neapolitan dialect, but the toy performers were wondrously agile and it was enough to watch. The dialogue was peppered with American idioms, G.I. contributions to the patois of Naples. Liberal use of Anglo-Saxon vulgarisms sent the audience into roars. Apparently we had been spotted behind stage as Americans, and the four-letter words were meant as a friendly gesture to us.

Comments: Herbert Kubly (1915-1996) was an American travel writer and playwright.

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 Night Side of Europe

Exterior of the Moscow Art Theatre, via The Theatre, vol. 20, 1914

Source: Karl Kingsley Kitchen, The Night Side of Europe, as seen by a Broadwayite abroad (Cleveland: The David Gibson company, 1914), pp. 93-99

Production: Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, Nikolai Stavrogin, Moscow Art Theatre, Moscow, September 1913

Text: It was the first night of “The Possessed” at the Moscow Art Theatre. I had been warned to be in my seat at eight o’clock as it is the custom at the Moscow Art Theatre to close the doors at that hour and allow no one in the auditorium after the play has begun. So I arrived early for I was anxious to study the audience at this famous theatre in the heart of the Czar’s dominions.

A few minutes in the foyer were sufficient to convince me that the first performance of the Dostoyefsky drama would be witnessed by a gathering of “intellectuals.” There were no gorgeous uniforms, no elaborate gowns. Less than a dozen persons were in evening dress. Yet the orchestra chairs were five roubles ($2.50) each.

A warning bell sent me hurrying to find my seat. I was just in time for the doors were being closed. A few moments later — promptly at eight o’clock — the lights were dimmed and the curtain rose. There was no overture. In fact, there is no orchestra pit in the Moscow Art Theatre. When music is needed it is played under the stage.

“The Possessed” proved to be a succession of detached scenes from Dostoyefsky’s novel of the same name rather than its dramatization. The Moscow Art Theatre is equipped with a double decked revolving stage which enables scene to follow scene with only the darkening of the auditorium for a few moments to punctuate the intervals. Unlike most revolving stages it moved noiselessly.

The acting was magnificent. Although I did not understand a single word that was spoken I was able to follow the story of the play. What higher praise can be accorded actors!

I expected an outburst of applause at the end of the act but when the curtain fell the greater part of the audience silently left their seats for the foyer-promenade. Applause is never accorded the artistes at the Moscow Art Theatre. Nor are curtain calls ever allowed. Realism and naturalness above everything else are striven for.

During the second act M. Stanislauski [sic], one of the directors of the theatre, took me behind the scenes to see the double decked revolving stage in operation. There I met three Russian priests who were watching the performance. Priests in Russia are forbidden to attend theatrical performances but many of them visit the Moscow Art Theatre and witness the performances from the wings, safe from the public gaze. M. Stanislauski showed me through the dressing rooms which are so arranged that the male and female players do not meet until they reach the stage made up for their parts. They have separate green rooms and separate exits. In no theatre in the world is the comfort of the actor given so much attention.

At the end of the second act I was presented to Madame Knipper, the widow of the famous Tchekoff, who was enacting the leading role in the new play. I also had the honor of shaking hands with Mlle. Koreneff and M. Katchaloff, two other leading players. A first night in most playhouses is a nerve-racking affair — neither players nor managers have time for idle conversation. But at the Moscow Art Theatre a first performance after three months of rehearsals runs as smoothly as clockwork.

Never has the old adage, “Great oaks from little acorns grow,” been better exemplified than by this unique theatre. Beginning as an amateur theatrical society, without funds or wealthy members, it has become in little more than a decade one of the foremost theatrical organizations in the world. Its home is the best equipped playhouse in Europe. And its productions are the most perfect given on any stage.

Although in Russia the Moscow Art Theatre is looked upon as the first theatre in the land it is almost unknown outside of the Czar’s Empire, except in Germany. Its company has only appeared in the leading cities of Russia and a few of the larger German capitals. Moscow is so far off the beaten track of travel that few American writers on theatrical subjects visit it. And naturally, as Russian is understood by so few people interested in the drama, the Moscow Art Theatre must remain “a thing apart.” But its influence is already so great that no one interested in theatrical affairs can afford to be ignorant of it, or to ignore it.

The Moscow Art Theatre was the first playhouse in the world to have a double decked revolving stage. Prof. Max Reinhardt adopted the idea for the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, and later the idea was copied by the designer of the New Theatre in New York (now the Century Opera House).

But it is in the conduct of the theatre and its productions that this playhouse is the most interesting. It is a co-operative organization owned by thirty-one actors and actresses, who appear on its stage. The entire organization consists of 360 men and women who devote their time exclusively to the artistic, financial and operating side of the playhouse. In addition to its two directors, who have practically equal responsibility, there is a governing board that passes on all important matters. After ten years’ service an actor or actress becomes a shareholder, and there is a pension system for superannuated players, as well as funds for cases of emergency. Every player is given ten weeks’ vacation with pay — their services being contracted for by the year. Thus it will be seen that from the actor’s standpoint the Moscow Art Theatre is about ideal.

Only three new productions are made each year. However, a repertory of twelve is given, former successes being repeated as often as the receipts warrant. At least three months are devoted to the preparation of each play. Consequently only finished productions are given. While the theatre is the home of the Russian drama, the dramas of other countries are not neglected. Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Hauptmann are almost as much in evidence as Tolstoy, Gorky, Gogol and Tchekoff.

It is very difficult to obtain a seat for a new production at this unique theatre. For the first ten performances of each new play every seat is subscribed for, which, of course, gives the theatre working capital. The expenses of the organization are about $350,000 a year, but as its receipts are always over $400,000 it is very prosperous. However, it makes very little money in Moscow, where a full house means only $1,500. Its season in Petersburg, where it plays in the Imperial Mikhailovsky Theatre (the Royal French Theatre) means $4,000 a night, and in Kieff, Warsaw and Odessa it plays to enormous business.

The third act was on before M. Stanislauski and I returned to the auditorium. Of course he was able to pass the closed doors and he sat with me until the final curtain fell.

“Is it a success?” I asked as we emerged to the brilliantly lighted foyer.

“I think so,” he replied simply, “but we will know in the morning when we see what the critics have to say.”

Moscow is one of the few cities in the world that takes its dramatic critics seriously.

Comments: Karl Kingsley Kitchen (1885-1935) was an American travel writer, newspaper columnist and bon viveur. The Moscow Art Theatre company (MAT) was co-founded by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and Konstantin Stanislavski, and was highly influential in its advocacy of naturalistic theatre, making its mark in particular with the plays of Anton Chekhov. The production of Nemirovich-Danchenko’s Nikolai Stavrogin, an adaptation of Dostoyevsky‘s novel The Possessed, became controversial after it stirred Maxim Gorky to write vehement articles in protest at MAT’s staging of a reactionary novel. The performers included Olga Knipper, widow of Anton Chekhov and Vasili Kachalov. A different version of this essay was published as ‘Moscow Art Theatre’ in the American journal, The Theatre, vol. 20, 1914.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust
Alternative version published in The Theatre

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

Thomas Platter’s Travels in England

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links: English text at The Norton Anthology of English Literature

The Diaries of a Cosmopolitan

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

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

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

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

Lotos-time in Japan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Two Views of a Cheap Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just Like It Was

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments: Harry Blacker (1910-1999) was a cartoonist and illustrator. His memoirs describe Jewish life in London’s East End in the 1910s and onwards, for which he defines his ‘Mittel East’ as being Bethnal Green, Hackney, Shoreditch, Whitechapel and Stepney.

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