SITTING AT A PLAY.
Among the multifarious duties which fall to the lot of the
Thumbnail Sketcher (who may be said to have sold himself for life to a printer's
devil) that of visiting theatres on first nights for the purpose of supplying
disinterested notices of new pieces for a certain critical journal, is, perhaps,
the least remunerative. He does not confine the practice of speaking his mind,
such as it is, to the readers of these Thumbnail Sketches: he is always in the
habit of indulging in that luxury whenever he is called upon to express a
printed opinion on matters of public interest. But the consequences of recording
an unbiassed opinion on any theatrical question are of a peculiarly unpleasant
description, if that unbiassed opinion happens to be of an unfavourable nature,
for they subject the audacious critic to the undisguised sneers of ponderdous
tragedians, dismal comic men, and self-satisfied managers---in addition to the
necessity of paying for his stall whenever he has occasion to visit a theatre
for critical purposes. The sneers amuse him, but he is free to confess that he
is annoyed at having to pay for his admission; and the consequence is that
whenever he takes his place in a theatre he does go under a sense of injury
which might possibly have the effect of unintentionally warping his critical
faculties, such as they are, were it not that to speak the bare truth of a
theatrical performance, is to avenge one's six shillings to the uttermost
farthing. But although the Thumbnail Sketcher feels that he meets a manager on
even terms, he can with difficulty compose himself to regard an audience with
feelings of anything like equanimity. Their behaviour during the progress of the
representation of a new piece, on its first night, irritates him beyond
endurance. In the first place, there is almost always a party who hiss, without
any reference to the merits or demerits of the piece. It is a somewhat curious
fact that in England hisses are seldom heard save on "first nights;"
and of the fifty or sixty new pieces that have been recently produced at
West-end London theatres, hardly a dozen have altogether escaped hissing on the
occasion of their first performance. "Caste" was not hissed, neither
was the "Doge of Venice," nor the Haymarket "Romeo and
Juliet," nor "A Wife Well Won;" but these pieces form the
principal exceptions to the rule. But it is not so much of indiscriminate
hissing, as of indiscriminate applause, that the Thumbnail Sketcher complains. A
clap-trap sentiment, a burlesque "break-down," a music-hall parody, a
comic man coming down a chimney, an indelicate joke, a black eye, a red nose, a
pair of trousers with a patch behind, a live baby, a real cab, a smash of
crockery, a pun in a "comedy," an allusion, however clumsy, to any
topic of the day, a piece of costermonger's slang, or any strongly-marked
tailoring eccentricity, is quite sure of a raturous reception whenever it is
presented to an audience. Then I take objection to people who crack nuts---to
people who go out between all the acts, without reference to the inconvenience
they occasion to their neighbours. I take objection to people who know the plot,
and tell it, aloud, to their friends---to people who don't know the plot but
guess at the denouement---to people who borrow playbills and
opera-glasses---to donkeys who talk of actresses by their Christian names---and,
above all, to those unmitigated nuisances who explain all the jokes to friends
of slow understanding. The Thumbnail Sketcher, being about to treat of people he
meets in theatres, thinks it is only fair to admit this prepossession against
them, in order that it may be distinctly understood that as he cannot pledge
himself to look at them in an unprejudiced light, everything that he may have to
say of them may be taken cum grano.
There was a time when to go to a theatre was, in the Thumbnail Sketcher's mind, the very highest enjoyment to which a mortal could legitimately aspire in this world. There was nothing in any way comparable to it, and all other forms of amusement resolved themselves into mere vexatious vanities when placed in juxtaposition with the exquisite embodiment of human happiness. At that period he was accustomed to regard the signs of weariness exhibited during the last farce, by relations who had him in charge, as a piece of affection of the most transparent description, assumed for the purpose of demonstrating that their matured tastes could have nothing in common with those of a little boy of six or seven years of age, and further to overwhelm him with a sense of the martyrdom which they were undergoing on his account. But a long course of enforced theatre-going has modified his views on this point; and it is some years since he awoke to the fact that the last farce is often a trying thing to sit out---to say nothing of the five-act legitimate comedy, or the three-act domestic drama that frequently precedes it. He has learned that human happiness is finite, and that even farces pall after the fifteenth time of seeing them.
The Mephistophelian gentleman on the next page is a disappointed dramatist, and an appointed critic to a very small, but very thundering local journal published somewhere in the wilds of South London. He has a very poor opinion of the modern drama, and is very severe indeed upon every piece that is produced generally, for no better reason than that the author is still alive. He has formed certain canons of dramatic faith, derived from a careful study of his own rejected dramas, and he is in the habit of applying them to all new productions, and if they stand the test (which they usually do not) they are qualified to take their place as a portion of the dramatic literature of the country. He has a withering contempt for all adapters, and particularly for Mr. Tom Taylor, who is, and has been for years, the butt of obscure and illiterate critics. He is in the habit of alluding to himself in the third person as "the Press;" and when you hear him say that "the Press don't like this," or "the Press won't stand that," and that you have only to wait and see what "the Press" have to say about it to-morrow, you are to understand that he is referring simply to his own opinion, which, no doubt, from a characteristic modesty and a laudable desire to avoid anything like an appearance of egotism, he veils under that convenient generality.
The lady who follows is intended as a representative of that extensive element in most dress-circles which finds its way into theatres by the means of free admissions. It is a curious feature in theatrical management---and a feature which doesn't seem to exist in any other form of commercial enterprise---that if you can't get people to pay for admission, you must admit them for nothing. Nobody ever heard of a butcher scattering steaks broadcast among the multitude because his customers fall off, neither is there any instance on record of a banker volunteering to oblige penniless strangers with an agreeable balance. Railway companies do not send free passes for general distribution to eel-pie shops, nor does a baker place his friends on his free-list. But it is a standing rule at most theatres that their managers must get people to pay to come in, if possible, but at all events they must get people to come in. A poorly-filled house acts not only as a discouragement to the actors, but it depresses the audience, and sends them away with evil accounts of the unpopularity of the entertainment. The people who find their way into a theatre under the "admit two to dress-circle" system, hail, usually, from the suburbs, but not infrequently from the lodging-letting districts about Russell Square. They usually walk to the theatres, and, consequently, represent an important source of income to the stout shabby ladies who preside over the bonnet and cloak departments. They may often be recognized by the persistency with which they devour acidulated drops during the performance.
This heavy gentleman with the tawny beard is one of that numerous class of profitable playgoers who do not venture to exercise any critical faculties of their own, but go about endorsing popular opinions beacuse they are popular, without any reference to their abstract title to popularity. A gentleman of this class will yawn through "King John," and come away delighted: he will sleep through "Mazeppa," and come away enraptured. Nothing pleases him more than a burlesque "break-down," except, perhaps, the "Hunchback," and if there is one thing that he prefers to the "Iron Chest" it is a ballet. He is delighted in a sleepy general way with everything that is applauded. Applause is his test of excellence, and if a piece doesn't go well, it is "Awful bosh!" He is enraptured with the Parisian stage (although his knowledge of the language is fractional), because in Paris all pieces go well; and the sight of a compact mass of enthusiasts in the centre of a Parisian pit is sufficient to justify him in any amount of solemn eulogy. His presence is much courted by managers, for if he never applauds, he never hisses, and always pays.
The highly-respectable old gentleman on the right is an unwavering patron of the old school of dramatic literature. A five-act piece, even by a modern author, will always attract him, and every Shakespearian revival is sure of his countenance and support. He reads his Shakespeare as he reads his Bible---with a solemn reverential belief in its infallibility. He won't hear of "new readings," and even looks upon any departure from the traditional "business" as a dangerous innovation, smacking of dramatic heresy and literary schism. The "Honeymoon" commands him---so do the works of the elder and younger Morton; so does "She Stoops to Conquer." Sheridan is always sure of him, and Lord Lytton may generally reckon on his support. His taste in dramatic matters is irreproachable, as far as it goes, but it is based upon tradition, and he pays little attention to pieces that are not old enough to have become traditional.
The young gentleman on the next page is one of those intolerable nuisances, who, having a reputation for waggery within a select circle of admirers, find, in the production of every piece in which pathetic interest is an important feature, an opportunity for displaying a knowledge of the hollowness of the whole thing, and the general absurdity of allowing oneself to be led away by mere stage clap-trap. He will remind you, as Juliet is weeping over her dead Romeo, that a petition for a divorce, filed by the Romeo against the Juliet, and in which the comfortable Friar is included as co-respondent, is high up in the Judge Ordinary's list. He will sometimes affect to be bathed in tears, when there is no excuse for any demonstration of the kind, and he will interrupt a scene of deep pathos with a "Ha! ha!" audible all over the house. He is very angry at anything in the shape of a vigorous denunciation, or a pathetic appeal of any kind; and he indulges in a musing exclamational commentary of "Oh! I say, you know!" "Come, come." "So ho! gently there!" "St-st-st," and "really, I say---by Jove!" which meets with much admiration from his believing friends, and general indignation from others in his immediate neighbourhood who have not the advantage of his acquaintance.
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W.S.Gilbert , London Characters and the Humorous Side of London Life, 1870?