Story type: Essay
They were “tuning up” in a wooden hall, stupidly built on the pier to shut off the sea and the night (a penny to pay for the privation), and in that strange cacophony of desolate violin strings, tuneless trombones, and doleful double basses, in that homeless wail of forlorn brass and lost catgut, I found a music sweeter than a Beethoven symphony; for memory’s tricksy finger touched of a sudden the source of tears, and flashed before the inner eye a rainbow-lit panorama of the early joys of the theatre–the joys that are no more. Was it even at a theatre–was it even more than an interlude in a diorama?–that divine singing of “The Last Rose of Summer” by a lady in evening dress, whose bust is, perhaps for me alone in all the world, still youthful? Was it from this hall of the siren, or was it from some later enchantment, that I, an infant Ulysses, struggled home by night along a sea road, athwart a gale that well-nigh blew me out to sea? How fierce that salt wind blew, a-yearn to drive me to the shore’s edge and whirl me over! How fresh and tameless it beats against me yet, blowing the cobwebs from my brain as that real breeze outside the pier could never do! When my monitory friends gabble of change of air I inhale that wind and am strong. For the child is of the elements, elemental, and the man of the complexities, complex. And so that good salt wind blows across my childhood still, though it cannot sweep away the mist that hovers thereover.
For who shall say whether ‘t was I or my sister who was borne shrieking with fear from the theatre when the black man, “Othello,” appeared on the boards! The first clear memory of things dramatic is of an amateur performance–alas! I have seen few others. ‘T was a farce–when was an amateur performance other? There was much play of snuff-boxes passed punctiliously ‘twixt irascible old gentlemen with coloured handkerchiefs. Also there was dinner beforehand–my first experience of chicken and champagne. And then there is a great break till the real theatre rises stately and splendid, like Britannia ruling the waves–nay, Britannia herself, or, as they call it lovingly down Shoreditch way, “the Brit.”
When to my fashionable friends I have held forth on the glories and the humours of “the Brit.,” they have taken it for granted, and I have lacked the courage or the energy to undeceive them, that my visits to this temple of the people were expeditions of Haroun Al Raschid in the back streets of Bagdad or adventures of Prince Florizel in Rupert Street; but of a truth I have climbed the gallery stairs in sober boyish earnestness, elbowed of the gods, and elbowing, and if I did not yield to the seductions of “ginger-beer and Banbury” that filled up clamantly the entr’actes, ‘t was that I had not the coppers. “Guy Fawkes” was my first piece, in the days when the drama’s “fireworks” were not epigrams, and so the smell of the sulphur still purifies the air. All the long series of “London successes,” with their array of genius and furniture, have faded like insubstantial pageants, but the rude vault piled with flour-barrels for the desperado’s torch is fixed as by chemic process. Consider the preparation of the brain for that memory. What! I should actually go to a play–that far-off wonder! “The Miller and his Men” cut in cardboard should no longer stave off my longing for the living passion of the theatre. ‘T was a very elongated young man who took me, a young cigar-maker fond of reciting, spouting Shakespeare from a sixpenny edition, playing Hamlet mentally as he rolled the tobacco-leaf. There was a halo about his head, for he was on speaking terms with the low comedian of the “Brit.,” and, I understood, was permitted upon occasion to pay for a pint of half-and-half. Alas! all this did not avail to save him from an early tomb. Poor worshipper of the green room, perchance thy ghost still walks there. Or is there room in some other world for thy baffled aspirations?
In such clouds of glory did the drama first come to me, sulphurously splendid. In the “Brit.” I made my first acquaintance with the limelit humanity that, magnificent in its crimes and in its virtues, sins or suffers in false eyebrows or white muslin to the sound of soft music. Here I met that strange creation, the villain–a being as mythic, meseems, as the centaur, and, like it, more beast than man. The “Brit.” was a hot place for villains, the gallery accepting none but the highest principles of speech and conduct, and ginger-beer were not too weighty a form of expressing detestation of the more comprehensive breaches of the decalogue. Hisses the villain never escaped, and I was puzzled to know how the poor actor could discriminate betwixt the hiss ethical and the hiss aesthetic. But perhaps no player ever received the latter; the house was very loyal to its favourites, all of whom had their well-defined roles in every play, which spared the playwrights the task of indicating character. Before the heroine had come on we knew that she was young and virtuous–had she not been so for the last five and twenty years?–the comic man had not to open his mouth for us to begin to laugh; a latent sibilance foreran the villain. Least mutable of all, the hero swaggered on, virtuous without mawkishness, pugnacious without brutality. How sublime a destiny, to stand for morals and muscle to the generations of Hoxton, to incarnate the copy-book crossed with the “Sporting Times!” Were they bearable in private life, these monsters of virtue?
J. B. Howe was long this paragon of men–affectionately curtailed to Jabey. Once, when the villain was about to club him, “Look out, Jabey!” cried an agonised female voice. It followed from the happy understanding on both sides of the curtain that–give ear, O envious lessees!–no play ever failed. How could it? It was always the same play.
Of like kidney was the Grecian Theatre, where one went out between the acts to dance, or to see the dancing, upon a great illuminated platform. ‘T was the drama brought back to its primitive origins in the Bacchic dances–the Grecian Theatre, in good sooth! How they footed it under the stars, those regiments of romping couples, giggling, flirting, munching! Alas! Fuit Troja! The Grecian is “saved.” Its dancing days are over, it is become the Headquarters of Salvation. But it is still gay with music, virtue triumphs on, and vice grovels at the penitent form. In such quaint wise hath the “Eagle” renewed its youth, for the Grecian began life as the Eagle, and was Satan’s deadliest lure to the ‘prentices of Clerkenwell and their lasses:
Up and down the City Road,
In and out the Eagle;
That’s the way the money goes!
Pop goes the weasel.
Concerning which immortal lines one of your grammatical pedants has observed, “There ain’t no rhyme to City Road, there ain’t no rhyme to Eagle.” Great pantomimes have I seen at the Grecian–a happy gallery boy at three pence–pantomimes compact of fun and fantasy, far surpassing, even to the man’s eye, the gilded dullnesses of Drury Lane. The pantomimes of the Pavilion, too, were frolicsome and wondrous, marred only by the fact that I knew one of the fairies in real life, a good-natured girl who sewed carpet-slippers for a living. The Pavilion, by the way, is in the Whitechapel Road, not a mile from the People’s Palace, in the region where, according to the late Mr. Walter Besant, nobody ever laughs. The Pavilion, like the “Brit.,” had its stock company, and when the leading lady appeared for her Benefit as “Portia,” she was not the less applauded for being drunk. The quality of mercy is not strained. And what more natural than that one should celebrate one’s benefit by getting drunk? Sufficient that “Shylock” was sober!
In Music-Halls, the East-End was as rich as the West,–was it not the same talent that appeared at both, like Sir Boyle Roche’s bird, winging its way from one to t’ other in cabs? Those were the days of the great Macdermott, who gave Jingoism to English history, of the great Vance, of the lion comiques, in impeccable shirt-fronts and crush hats. There was still a chairman with a hammer, who accepted champagne from favoured mortals, stout gentlemen with gold chains, who might even aspire to conversation with the comiques themselves. Sic itur ad astra. Now there is only a chairman of directors who may, perhaps, scorn to be seen in a music-hall: a grave and potent seignior whose relations with the footlights may be purely financial. There were still improvisatori who would turn you topical verses on any subject, and who, on the very evening of Derby-day, could rhyme the winner when unexpectedly asked by the audience to do so. A verse of Fred Coyne’s–let me recall the name from the early oblivion which gathers over the graves of those who live amid the shouts of worshippers–still lingers in my memory, bearing in itself its own chronology:
And though we could wish, some beneficent fairy
Had preserved the life of the Prince so dear,
Yet we WON’T lay the blame on Lieutenant Carey;
And these are the latest events of the year.
With what an answering pandemonium we refused to hold the lieutenant accountable for the death of the victim of the African assegais! And the ladies! How ravishingly they flashed upon the boards, in frocks that, like Charles Lamb at the India Office, made up for beginning late by finishing early! How I used to agree with the bewitching creature who sang that lovely lyric strangely omitted from the Anthologies:
What a nice place to be in!
What a nice place, I ‘m sure!
Such a very jolly place,
I’ve never seen before.
It gives me, oh! such pleasure,
And it fills my heart with bliss,
I could stay here for ever:
What a nice place is this!
Such eyes she made at me–at whom else?–aloft in the balcony; and oh, what arch smiles, what a play of white teeth! If we could only have met! Yester-year at a provincial town some one offered to introduce her to me. She was still playing principal boy in the pantomime–a gay, gallant Prince, in plumed cap and tights. But I declined. Another of the great comic singers of my childhood–a man–I met on a Margate steamboat. He told me of the lost glories of the ancient days quorum pars magna fuit, and of the after-histories of his great rivals. One, I recollect, had retired with a fortune, opened a magnificent Temperance Hotel at the seaside, and then broken his neck by falling down his own splendid staircase, drunk. “Ah,” said the veteran, sighing at an overcrowded profession, “there were only two or three comic singers in those days.” “There are only two or three now,” quoth I. And the old man beamed. Another ancient hero of the halls, long since translated to the theatres, whom I first saw at a music-hall in St. Giles’, buttonholed me the other night in St. James’, in the halls of a Duchess: a curious meeting. That I should have ever reverenced him seemed as strange as that there should be still people to reverence the coronet of the Duchess. Yes, it is very far off, that magic time when the world was full of splendid things and splendid men and women, a great Fair, and I, like the child in Henley’s poem, wandered about, enjoying, desiring, possessing. Now I know there is nothing worth wanting, and nothing but poor flesh and blood, despite all the costumes and accessories. For there is no sense in which I have not been “behind the scenes.” And as for the literal theatric sense, I have flirted with the goddesses at the wings till they have missed their cues, I have supped at the Garrick Club of a Saturday night, when all the stars come out, I have toured with a travelling company, I have had words of my own spoken by dainty lips,–nay, I have even played myself, en amateur, the irascible old gentleman with the snuff-box and the coloured handkerchief. And what is there to say of the human spectacle, but that perhaps the pains and the crimes are necessary to the show, and that without a blood-and-thunder plot human life would not run, drying up of its own dullness? “All the world’s a stage,” and we are all cast for stock roles. Some of us have the luck to be heroes, the complacent centre of eternal plaudits, some are born for villainy and the brickbat. And while others have had to play goodness knows what–mediaeval Italian princesses, Cockney cabmen, old Greek hetairae, German cuirassiers, American presidents, burglars, South Sea Islanders–I find myself–for the first time on any stage–in the applauded role of man of letters, if with little option of throwing up the part. They have an optimistic phrase, those happy-go-lucky creatures of the footlights, when, on the very day of production, nobody knows his words or his business, the scene will not shape itself, and chaos is lord. “It will be all right at night,” they say. And we, who play our parts gropingly on this confused and noisy scene, wondering what is the plot, and where is the manager, and straining our ears for the prompter’s whisper, can but echo with another significance their cheery hope: “It will be all right at night.” Perhaps, when the long day’s work has drawn to its end, and the curtain, has fallen upon the plaudits and the hisses, we shall all sit down to supper after the play, complimented by the Author, smiling at the seriousness with which we took our roles of hero or villain, and glad to be done with, the make-up and the paint. And in the music that shall hover about our table, we may perhaps find a celestial restfulness, compared to which the most exquisite orchestras of this earth shall sound but as “tuning up.”