Down Whitechapel Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links: Copy at Dickens Journals Online

The 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


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

‘Ghosts’ at the Royalty

Source: Anon., ‘Ghosts’ at the Royalty, The Daily Chronicle, 14 March 1891

Production: Henrik Ibsen, Gengangere [Ghosts], Royalty Theatre, London, 13 March 1891

Text: Mr. J.T. Grein, the “founder and literary manager,” and apparently general superintendent of “The Independent Theatre of London,” has, perhaps unconsciously, done the Lord Chamberlain’s department an exceedingly good turn. He last night at the Royalty demonstrated that there must be some value in an office that can save the general public — that is to say the public paying money at the doors of a theatre, and not always sure of the performance that is to be witnessed — from a domestic drama so revoltingly suggestive and so blasphemous as Ibsen’s “Ghosts.” By resorting to an invitation representation of this loathsome production, the disciples of the Norwegian playwright have at last carried out the idea they are believed to have long entertained, and the time has now arrived when it would be injurious to the interests of the English stage to do otherwise than speak plainly. The large audience, which included more females than might have been expected, considering the nature of a play of which very few persons knowing anything of the modern drama can be ignorant, consisted solely of members or guests of the “Independent Theatre” association, but this circumstance did not prevent one healthy-minded individual at the fall of the curtain on a deplorable picture of youthful insanity, constituting the inheritance of a father’s unbridled passion (they call it in “Ghosts” “The joy of life”), exclaiming, “It’s too horrible!” Mr. Grein, however, was loudly summoned by the more appreciative majority, and stating that he should like to explain his views respecting the “Independent Theatre,” proceeded to say that he desired to foster a more literary species of drama than that now prevailing on the English stage, that he intended to bring forward masterpieces for the benefit of our younger dramatists, and that generally he wished to stimulate more artistic productions. The hopes of the advanced school of dramatic authors — by which we mean those who in one way or another may be anxious to emulate Ibsen — must have been considerably raised by Mr. Grein’s further declaration that he should “stand firm” in his endeavour to elevate the literary standard of stage work. With a plea for help in his undertaking, and thanking the assemblage for their “gracious reception” of what he admitted was a terrible although artistic play, Mr. Grein retired. Some people appeared to consider this little march somewhat of a mistake, but there were others who were grateful to learn the speaker to which they are henceforward to look for the regeneration of the drama in this country.

We have alluded to “Ghosts” as revoltingly suggestive and blasphemous. Justification of the former term would involve a more detailed explanation of the relations of three of the characters towards each other than we care to enter upon; of the second charge it is sufficient perhaps to say that a vile elderly being, as distorted in person as he is in mind, whose darling design it is to employ a young girl — supposed by some to be his daughter, though he knows to the contrary — as a decoy at a “sailors’ tavern,” where there shall be “singing and dancing, and so forth,” is allowed to say to an extremely simple-minded clergyman, whom he is partly befooling and partly threatening, that he knows “a man that’s taken others’ sins upon himself before now,” emphasising the statement by raising his right hand to heaven. “Ghosts,” however, as a play contains greater faults even than those of lack of decency or of respect for religious convictions. The characters are either contradictory in themselves, uninteresting, or abhorrent. The only really respectable individual in the piece, Pastor Manders, is nerveless just when courage is required, is an easy prey to schemers, and is rather too addicted to figuratively bringing the pulpit into private houses. To Mrs. Alving — the long-patient wife of a dissolute husband — we should by no means like to pin our faith. She has loved the pastor, and in the course of conversation with him makes one or two remarks that are certainly not in good taste respecting what might have been in the past had the clergyman succumbed to temptation when she left her drunken spouse and sought Manders’s roof. Nor can we forgive her — although her life is bound up in that of her son — for not setting her face to the very end against the association of Oswald, “worm-eaten from his birth,” with Regina. As the just and outspoken critic last night declared, “It’s too horrible!” This Regina, it should be added, is quite as artful as Rebecca West in “Rosmersholm,” though she is less constant and more self-seeking. She attempts to captivate the son of the kindly woman who has dragged her from a life of squalor and degradation, but when she learns that Oswald is ill, and that she cannot wed him, coolly throws him over, and says, with a shrug of the shoulders, “A poor girl must make the best of her young days, or she’ll be left out in the cold before she knows where she is.” This same minx, when she learns that her mother was betrayed by her employer, says, “So mother was that kind of woman after all.” Of the reputed father of this girl and of the melancholy insane youth who persistently cries for “the sun” as the curtain descends, after he has striven to persuade his mother to give him a fatal dose of morphia to free him from the dread by which he is possessed, we have sufficiently spoken. The one is detestable in his craft and hypocrisy, the other a pitiful, mean, and abject creature in the exposition of the doctrine of heredity.

If anything could have made the play last night tolerable to those not stricken with the Ibsen fever it would have been the excellent acting it obtained. Few professional actresses could have given a more realistic or forcible impersonation of the distressed Mrs. Alving than Mrs. Theodore Wright; whilst the Oswald of Mr. Frank Lindo and the club-footed Jacob Engstrand of Mr. Sydney Howard were also embodiments that commanded approval for unswerving faithfulness to the cause in hand. Mr. Leonard Outram too did his best to avoid prosiness as the lecturing and eventually frightened Pastor Manders, and Miss Edith Kenward’s representation of Regina had several meritorious points. The interpretation, indeed, far exceeded in harmoniously artistic quality the worth of the play from the theatrical aspect. There were times last night when laughter was evoked by the commonplace utterances of some of the characters, but on the whole the audience behaved decorously. As there is such a tendency in the Ibsen “social dramas” to throw a strong light upon “the seamy side of life,” it is as well that occasionally — either purposely or by accident — excuse should be afforded for merriment. Finally, the experience of last night demonstrated that the official ban placed upon “Ghosts” as regards public performance was both wise and warranted.

Comments: Henrik Ibsen‘s Gengangere, given the title Ghosts by its English translator William Archer, was written in 1881 and first staged in Chicago in 1882 by a Danish touring company, after it had been rejected by Scandanavian theatre companies, alarmed by its themes of free love, syphilis, incest and its attacks on religion. It enjoyed some performances in continental Europe through the 1880s, but the first British production (using Archer’s translation) was not until 13 March 1891, in a private performance by the subscription-based Independent Theatre Society (founded by critic Jacob Grien). It was held at the small Royalty Theatre in Soho, in defiance of the Lord Chamberlain’s ban on the play. The outrage caused by the single performance is encapsulated in the above review.

Links: Copy at All About Henrik Ibsen (National Library of Norway)

The Diary of Philip Hone

Source: Bayard Tuckerman (ed.), The Diary of Philip Hone, 1828-1851 (New York, Dodd, Mead, 1889), vol. 1, pp. 265-266

Production: Richard Brinsley Sheridan, The Rivals, National Theatre, New York, 4 September 1837

Text: September 4. — Wallack opened the National Theatre (late the Italian Opera House) this evening, with the comedy of “The Rivals.” He has brought with him from England a very strong company, several of whom appeared this evening. I never saw a play go off with more spirit. Wallack, in the dashing part of Captain Absolute, with a handsome scarlet uniform coat, and his one beautiful leg (the other being a little crooked ever since he broke it by being upset in the stage at Brunswick), made a most captivating entrée, was received with great applause, and made, at the falling of the curtain, one of the best, most graceful, and eloquent speeches I ever heard on such an occasion. But I fear he will not succeed. The National is the prettiest theatre in the United States; but it is not in Broadway, and the New Yorkers are the strangest people in the world in their predilection for fashionable locations. In Paris the theatres are scattered over the whole city, and the fashionable milliners, jewellers, tailors, and all those who depend for their support upon the gay, the rich, and the fashionable, are to be found in by-streets, or in the mazes of narrow, dark alleys; but our people must have their amusements thrust under their noses, and a shopkeeper, if he hopes to succeed in business, must pay a rent of $4,000 or $5,000 in Broadway, when he might be equally well accommodated for $600 or $800 ten doors from it. But there is a greater obstacle to the success of the new establishment in the great number of theatres at present open in the city, each one of whom has some “bright particular star” shining to attract and dazzle the eyes of the multitude.

It is almost incredible that in these times of distress, when the study of economy is so great an object, there should be nine of these money drains in operation: The Park; the old Drury, of New York, which has done well during the whole of the hard times; the Bowery, with Jim Crow, who is made to repeat nightly, almost ad infinitum, his balderdash song, which has now acquired the stamp of London approbation to increase its éclat; the Franklin, in Chatham square; Miss Monier’s Theatre, in Broadway, opposite St. Paul’s, — little and weakly, and likely to die; the Euterpean Hall, Broadway, below Canal street, — short-lived, also, I suspect; the Broadway Theatre, next to Tattersall’s, which has been handsomely fitted up, and is to be opened next week; Mrs. Hamblin’s Theatre, formerly Richmond Hill, where the Italian opera first placed its unstable foot in New York; the Circus, in Vauxhall Garden, nearly in the rear of my house; and Niblo’s Vaudevilles, — the best concern of the whole at present, with a strong company playing little pieces à la française. Concerts, and rope-dancing, and other performances of the Ravel family, consisting of eight or ten of the most astonishing performers in their line who have ever appeared in this city. If Wallack can stand all this, he is immortal.

Comments: Philip Hone (1780-1851) was an American businessman and diarist, who was Mayor of New York 1825-1826. The National Theatre originally opened as the Italian Opera House in 1836. The actor-manager James William Wallack took over management in 1837, putting on a repertory of classic dramas. Wallack played Sir Anthony Absolute in this production of Sheridan‘s The Rivals. The theatre burned down in 1839, was rebuilt only to burn down again in 1841.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust