Smells

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

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