Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Music Hall - Character of - 'London Music Halls'

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Cornell University Library - Making of Amercia




LONDON music halls might be roughly grouped into four classes—first, the aristocratic variety theatre of the West End, chiefly found in the immediate neighborhood of Leicester Square; then the smaller and less aristocratic West End halls; next, the large bourgeois music halls of the less fashionable parts and in the suburbs; last, the minor music halls of the poor and squalid districts. The audiences, as might be expected, correspond to the social scale of the particular place of entertainment, but the differences in the performances provided by the four classes of music halls are far less strongly marked.
    Let us take a typical establishment of the first class. Its exterior is more handsome and imposing than that of most London theatres, even of the highest rank. Huge cressets in classical tripods flare between the columns of the facade, the windows and foyer glow with stained glass, the entrance hall, lighted by softened electric lamps, is richly and tastefully decorated. You pass through wide, airy corridors and down stairs, to find yourself in a magnificent theatre, and the stall to which you are shown is wide and luxuriously fitted. Smoking is universal, and a large proportion of the audience promenade the outer circles, or stand in groups before the long refreshment bars which are a prominent feature on every tier. Most of the men are in evening dress, and in the boxes are some ladies, also in evening costume, many of them belonging to what is called good society. The women in the other parts of the house are generally pretty obvious members of a class which, so long as it behaves itself with propriety in the building, it would, whatever fanatics may say to the contrary, be neither desirable nor possible to exclude. The most noticeable characteristic of the audience is perhaps the very slight attention it pays to whatever is going on upon the stage. In the upper parts of the house the conversation renders it impossible to hear distinctly anything that is said or sung, though the same remark does not apply to the stalls, where the occupants, if not enthusiastic, are at least languidly attentive. There is a large and excellent [-191-] orchestra, with just a tendency to overdo the drum and cymbals. Stage footmen, more gorgeous of livery but far meeker of aspect than their brethren in private service, slip a giant card hearing a number into a gilded frame on either side of the proscenium before each item of the programme. The electric bell tings, the lights are raised, the orchestra dashes into a prelude, and the artiste whose “turn” it is comes on. The main and distinctive feature of the entertainment, however, is the ballet divertissernent, for which all else is scarcely more than padding, and these ballets are magnificent enough to satisfy the most insatiate appetite for splendor. There are two in one evening, and each lasts about half an hour, during which time the large stage is filled with bewildering combinations of form and color. Company after company of girls, in costumes of delicately contrasted tints, march, trip, or gallop down the boards, their burnished armor gleaming and their rich dresses scintillating in the limelight; at each fresh stroke of the stage-manager’s gong they group themselves anew or perform some complicated figure, except when they fall back in a circle and leave the stage clear for the premiere danseuse. To the writer this lady’s proceedings are a source of never-failing enjoyment. There never was such artless naiveté in any other human being. To see her advance on the points of her toes, her arms curved symmetrically above her head, a smile of innocent childlike delight on her face, as if she had only just discovered the art of dancing and was quite surprised to find it so agreeable a pastime, is an experience indeed. Then her high-stepping prance round the stage, her little impulsive runs and bashful retreats, the astonishing complacency with which she submits to being seized and supported in every variety of uncomfortable attitude by the personage next in importance to herself, her final teetotum whirl, are all evidently charged with a deep but mysterious significance. It is not uninstructive, too, to watch the countenances of the corps de ballet during these evolutions. Some are severely critical, and obviously of opinion that they could do it infinitely better themselves; others whisper disparagement to sympathetic ears; others again study the signorina’ s every movement until she is opposite them, whereupon they assume an ostentatious abstraction, as if she was really below their notice. And then she stops suddenly, amidst thunders of applause, the infantine smile giving place to a calm supe[-192-]- riority as she haughtily makes her way to the wings through the ranks of coryphées. At last the end comes; the ballet girls are ranked and massed into brilliant parterres and glittering pyramids, the premiere danseuse glides on in time to appropriate the credit of the arrangement, and the curtain falls on a blaze of concentrated magnificence.
    Such is the main attraction on the programme of a first class music hall. Lately an attempt has been made to introduce an intellectual element into the other portion of the entertainment at one establishment, where the management engaged a celebrated and justly popular actress to recite dramatic pieces by Lord Tennyson and other poets. On the night when the writer was present, the lady appeared after a man-serpent and before a couple of child clog-dancers, and was heard with respect and attention, being rewarded by applause quite equal to that accorded to the clog-dancing, though a shade less enthusiastic than the acclamation which greeted the contortions of the man-serpent.
    It is unnecessary to describe the second class of music halls, in which neither audience nor entertainment presents any characteristic features.
    Both externally and internally the bourgeois and suburban music hall differs considerably from its more fashionable rival. For one thing, it is generally dingier and gaudier of appearance; the entrance is covered with huge posters and adorned with tea-garden plaster statues bearing colored lamps; the walls are lined with tarnished looking-glass, gilded trellis-work, or virgin cork. Sometimes there is a skittle-alley or a shooting-gallery in the “Grand Lounge.”
    The interior is as often rectangular as semicircular, and the scheme of decoration of the old gaudy crimson, plaster, and gilding order. In many places, too, the chairman still lingers. This personage is, of course, a survival from the old “Cave of Harmony” days, and his duties are now confined to sitting at a table either in front of the orchestra or in the centre of the stalls, from whence he rises at the conclusion of each “turn” to announce “Ladies and gentlemen, that celebrated comedian. Mr. Paul Pongwell [or that favorite lady vocalist, Miss Peggie Patterville,as the case maybe] will appear next,” after which he resumes his seat and applauds himself with a little auctioneer’s hammer. There is a melancholy dignity about him, however, which causes him to be approached with much deference and respect by the young clerks and shop-boys who take their pleasure here, and who are proud to be distinguished by a shake of the hand from him, and flattered when he condescends to accept liquid refreshment or “one of the best twopenny smokes in London” at their expense. Even the torrent of chaff from a lady artiste, with a talent for improvising light badinage which would render an archbishop ridiculous in two minutes, fails to rob him of his prestige. 
    The audience is not a distinguished-looking one; there are no dress-coats and caped cloaks, no dashing toilets, to be seen here; but the vast majority are in easy circumstances and eminently respectable. You will see little family parties—father, mother, and perhaps a grown-up daughter or a child or two—in the stalls. Most of them are probably regular visitors, and have the entrée here in return for exhibiting bills in their shop-windows; and these family parties all know one another, as can be seen from the smiles and handshakes they exchange as they pass in or out. Then there are several girls with their sweethearts, respectable young couples employed in neighboring workshops and factories, and a rusty old matron or two, while the fringe of the audience is made up of gay young clerks, the local “bloods,” who have a jaunty fashion in some districts of wearing a cigar behind the ear. Large ham sandwiches are handed round by cooks in white blouses and when a young woman desires to be very stylish indeed, she allows her swain to order a glass of port for her refreshment. Taken as a whole, the audience is not remarkable for intelligence; it is seldom demonstrative, and never in the least exacting, perfectly ready to be pleased with dull songs, hoary jokes, stale sentiment, and clap-trap patriotism.
    The character of the performances which find favor maybe best illustrated by a description of part of the actual programme at a well-known music hall in South London when the writer was present. After a song and some feats by a troupe of acrobats, came an exhibition by a young lady in a large glass tank filled with water. She was a very pretty and graceful young lady, and she came on accompanied by a [-193-] didactic gentleman in evening dress, who accompanied the announcement of each new feature of her performance by a little discourse. “Opening and shutting the month under water,” he would say, for example. “It has ion g been a theory among scientific men that by opening the mouth while under water a vacuum is created, thereby incurring the risk of choking the swimmer. Miss So-and-so, ladies and gentlemen, will now proceed to demonstrate the fallacy of that opinion by opening and shutting her mouth several times in succession while remaining at the bottom of the tank.” Which Miss So-and-so accordingly did, to our great edification. Then came “gathering shells under water,” which was accomplished in a highly elaborate manner, so that there could be no mistake about it. “Sewing” and “writing under water.” “Eating under water,” when the lady consumed a piece of bread with every appearance of extreme satisfaction. “Drinking from a bottle under water. Most of you,” remarked the manager, sympathetically, “are acquainted with the extreme difficulty of drinking out of a bottle under any circumstances.” Then a cigar was borrowed from the audience, lighted, and given to the lady, who, shielding it with her hands retired under the water and smoked vigorously for a minute or two, reappearing with the cigar still unextinguished. Lastly the manager announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, Miss So-and-so will now adopt the position of prayer”; whereupon the lady sank gracefully on her knees under water, folded her hands, and appeared rapt in devotion, while the orchestra played “The Maiden’s Prayer,” and the manager, with head reverently bent, stood delicately aside, as one who felt himself unworthy to intrude upon such orisons. Then the lady adopted a pose even more imploring, and a ray, first of crimson and then of green light, was thrown into the tank, presumably to indicate morning and evening prayer respectively. After some minutes of this, the fair performer, a little out of breath from her spiritual exertions rose, sleek and dripping, to the surface hopped nimbly out, and bowed herself off. After that there was a lady vocalist who informed us in song of her self-denial on a recent occasion, when 
“She wouldn’t call for sherry; she wouldn’t call for beer; 
She wouldn’t call for cham, because she knew ‘twould make her queer; 
She wouldn’t call for brandy, rum, or anything they’d got; 
She only called for Bovril—hot! hot! hot!"
—a ditty to the moral of which not even the Brick Lane Branch Temperance Association could reasonably take exception. Next we had an exposure of some familiar conjuring tricks by a gentleman with a foreign accent, who was genuinely amusing; some fantasias performed with hammers on a grisly instrument constructed of bones—veritable skeleton music; and, to wind up, the great sensational sketch, The Little Stowaway, which apparently touches the hearts of the audience. 
    Music halls of the fourth and lowest class are perhaps the most characteristic, and certainly not the least entertaining, although a visit to one of them makes a stronger demand upon one’s powers of physical endurance. You must penetrate to the heart of some obscure and unsavory region, until, in a narrow thoroughfare of small shops stocked with the most uninviting comestibles—skinned sheep’s-heads, with a gleam of lackadaisical sentiment in their upturned eyes, pale pigs’ feet, fried fish, and appalling arrangements in pastry and jam—you come upon a public-house with bills in the window which inform you that it is part of the establishment of which you are in search. There is no other indication; no transparency or illumination of colored crystal. You find a narrow steep staircase at the side, leading up from the street, and, half-way up, a rough pay box and barrier. The first performance (for there are two every evening) is just concluding, you are told, but by paying ninepence you can retain your seat in one of the side boxes as long as you please. You have to force your way through a dense crowd standing packed at the back of the dress circle, and eventually stumble into a partitioned recess, fitted with rough benches, cushionless and without backs. The house is dingy and tawdry, and a kind of grimy murk is in the air; the atmosphere is something terrible, with that acrid sting in it which is so indescribably depressing to an unaccustomed sense. There is a curious absence of color in the audience, probably due to the scarcity of the female element, the majority being youths of between seventeen and twenty. A man on the stage in crumpled evening dress is giving a series of imitations of popular music-hall “comiques,” of whom lie speaks with a laudable absence of professional jealousy. “I will now give you an imitation of that justly celebrated comedian Mr.- , or that quaintly comic vocalist Jerry Something, or [this with a touch of manly pathos] that great singer who has lately been taken from us, and whom I am sure we all sadly miss, the inimitable Blank,” he says by way of preface to each imitation; and his mimicry, to judge from the enthusiasm of his hearers, is of a high order, though we are not in a position to form any personal opinion. Then follows an eccentric performance by two Irish comedians, who exchange a fire of rapid repartee interspersed with assault, to the unbounded delight of the spectators, after which the curtain is lowered, and the audience is expected to make way for others. All the dirty youths in the pit jostle and shove their way to the doors, where they meet an entering stream of equally dirty youths. A cascade of whooping hobbardyhoydom pours down the steep incline of the gallery; for some minutes there is a deafening babel of the piercing whistles by which the social greetings of the local society are conveyed. The last puff at the clay pipes is stealthily taken, for smoking is forbidden here, the seething, sombre mass of pot-hatted youths, many in their shirt sleeves —though these last, being flannel and of subfusc hues, impart little relief or color to the general effect—slowly settles down, and some produce “penny dreadfuls,” with which they beguile the interval of waiting. At last the orchestra, a small but fairly efficient body, appears, to be rapturously “chihyked” and whistled at, and the second performance begins. There are comic songs of precisely the same kind as may be heard at higher-class music halls, duets and step dances if anything rather better done, and free from any offensiveness; the refrain, indeed, of one is a recommendation to “Listen to the old church bells,” and is sung by two pretty young ladies in costumes which, for taste and propriety, would be quite worthy of more ambitious surroundings. After this comes a farce, “licensed by the Lord Chamberlain expressly for this theatre,” and called The Tinker’s Holiday. Here we are introduced to a nobleman [-195-] who bears the aristocratic title of “Lord Crumpet,” and wears evening dress, a gray dressing-gown, and a brown felt bat in the privacy of his gilded saloons. He is a stout elderly man with a yellow wig and a black mustache, and he tells us he is desperately in love. Unhappily the object of his passion is a ward in chancery, and, as he complains, “a strick watch is kep’ over her,” which prevents him from approaching her in his ordinary patrician garb. Consequently be is anxious to disguise himself in some old clothes, and presently discovers the ragged coat, leather apron, and brazier of a travelling tinker, who, being, as he says, “out for a beano,” has naturally deposited them temporarily in his lordship’s apartments. Lord Crumpet exchanges the dressing-gown and brown pot hat appertaining to his rank for the tinker’s coat and apron, and departs on his amorous adventures. The tinker, entering later, puts on the peer’s discarded raiment, and finds himself mistaken by the whole household for their master. His “head-ostler” comes in to inquire what horse his lordship will ride. “What ‘orses have you got ?“ asks the tinker lord. “Well, there’s old Jumbo and little Jenny.” “Ah! And is little Jenny a goer?” “Why, surely, my lord, you ‘aven’t forgot seein’ her come in first for the Hascot Cup? You were on the lawn.” “Right!” says the tinker. “I was there” — adding, “sellin’ ‘ard-boiled eggs,” behind the brown hat. However, the only directions he can be induced to give are to the effect that the “head-ostler” is to “go and get as drunk as he can, break little Jenny’s leg, and bung old Jumbo’s eye up,” a piece of practical pleasantry which convulses the house. The ostler protests feebly, but eventually departs to carry out his instructions. Next comes the French cook, whom the tinker accosts as "Old Grub-shunter," and who comes to know what his lordship wishes to have for dinner. “Well, ‘ow’s Kippers—elthy?” is the only suggestion the tinker can make. But at length he selects what he is pleased to term “a good old full-roed saveloy and a buster,” with a strict injunction to the cook to get drunk immediately. Then come interviews with the house-maids, who [-196-]  enter to ask in what chamber Lord Crumpet wishes to sleep that night—” the Scarlet Room, the Magenta Room, or the Lavender Room ?“ But the pseudo-nobleman astonishes them by saying that they may put him “in the rabbit-’utch,” which they justly regard as an eccentric preference. Needless to say, he makes love to them both, and easily persuades each that he has long secretly marked her with the eye of affection, or, as he prefers to word it, “kep’ his off-side lamp” on her. Having made two separate appointments to elope with them both, the tinker retires under the table to enjoy the sequel. The real Lord Crumpet returns, having been completely successful, and, as he says, “the ‘appiest man in creation.” Whereupon he is surrounded by the ostler, who hiccoughs out that he has broken little Jenny’s leg and bunged old Jumbo’s eye up, the French cook, who staggers up, presenting a sausage and a penny roll to the perplexed and indignant nobleman, and the two house-maids, who urge him to keep his promise and elope with them to be married, while the tinker in the background rubs his hands and exclaims, delightedly, that he “is ‘aving a beano !“ and the curtain falls.
    To say that this performance amuses the audience would convey a very faint and inadequate idea of their demeanor. They rock with laughter, the whole pit swaying like a field of wheat in a breeze. Those who assert that the London poor are a joyless class, incapable of merriment, should see this crowd when genuinely amused, and consider whether there is not some exaggeration in descriptions of their hopeless gloom. True, the farce that provokes their risibility is not a masterpiece of refined humor, but there is real humor of a rough and primitive kind in it nevertheless, in spite of the touch of quite unnecessary brutality in the treatment of the horses, which, it must be owned, was not the least successful hit in the piece. 
    At another of the minor  music halls we came upon our friends Lord Crumpet and the Tinker in a farce called In the Law. This time the comedian whom we had last seen as the Tinker enacted a solicitor’s clerk, and was discovered lunching surreptitiously under the lid of his desk, upon a pig’s foot, or trotter, which he apostrophized in an eloquent eulogium. “Good ole trotter !“ he remarked, enthusiastically. “I like a trotter, I do. Some toffs when they lunch ull weigh in their tanner; but I ain’t that sort; no, I go in two an’ a orf; and—well, that’s a different thing, ain’t it? It ain’t the ‘Orseshoe, nor yet the Criterion, but if you shet your eyes and dab on a bit o’ mustard, why, it’s like turkey! Ah, the bloke oo invented trotters must ha’ known a bit.” When his employer, a gentleman in whom we immediately recognized Lord Crumpet, surprised him at his repast, he feared to receive his dismissal, which he characteristically expressed by saying, “I shall cop the push.”
    While he was gone to fetch a certain deed-box, the solicitor soliloquized thus: “‘E little thinks that that box contains the deed that would make ‘irn a gentleman; but so it is. ‘Is father, the late Colonel Jinks, left ‘im £5000 by will when he came of age. As executor under the will, I am entitled to the interest in the mean time, and though he is long past twenty-one, I cannot bring myself to relinquish the interest yet.”
    However, Colonel Jinks’s ill-used son discovered the will, whereupon his ecstasy was quite lyrical. “What !“ he cried. “All that mine? Five thousand jimmy-oh goblets, five thousand good old golden sorce-pin lids! To think I’ve bin sech a bloomin’ crackpot all this time and never tumbled on it! I’ll be a gentleman now, and live in stoyle. No more trotters for me, arter this. I’ll lunch on champagne and faggits every day, I will. ‘Ere” —and at this he took the once-lauded pig’s foot from his desk and threw it off the stage-— “outsoide, trotter.”
     His employer returned to be confronted by his victim, with the cold. observation, “Guv’nor, I’ve got you weighed up !“ But eventually the matter is compromised by the couple agreeing to share the £5000, and retire from the practice of the law. But the dramatic pieces at the minor halls are not all farces. It has been our privilege to see at least two thrilling miniature melodramas. The first was called The Wrecker, and the principal character was a scandalous old fisherman, who lured ships to their doom by means of a lantern suspended to a mast. He had an inconvenient daughter, who disapproved of this form of industry, which drove him to the misogynistic lament that “Adam ever lost a rib.” Having pacified her, and induced her to retire, he returned to his nefarious occupation, first [-197-] cautiously remarking, “I cannot see her, and so I suppose she is out of sight.” He was next interrupted by a young naval officer, whom he slew, and bending over the body, he said solemnly, as he felt the heart: “'E’s all right. ‘Es learning the great secret !“ Then, to insure against the rope which hoisted the lantern being lowered, he artfully lashed a pistol in the fastenings. His daughter reappeared. and implored him to desist from crime. “Think of all those poor suffering souls at sea !“ she said (or rather shouted, for in these pieces all the characters shout). “Think of their lives! Think of their mothers!” 
    [-198-] “I’ll think of nothing,” was the stern reply.
    “Then Heaven help them—and me.”
     “Amen !“ said the wrecker, grimly. “You are a woman, and nothing shall save you”—and here he dropped into blank-verse. ‘The learning of my secret takes from you your life, and I will have it!” 
    “Take it, then !“ retorted the spirited girl, rushing to the mast, and in the attempt to undo the rope, discharging the pistol, which, of course, shot her unnatural old parent, greatly to his chagrin. 
    But the other piece perhaps contained the stronger situation. There is a wicked step-father who forges bank-notes, and sends his innocent step-daughter out to change them. He suspects her of an intention to betray him, and resolves that she must die, or, as one of the characters poetically phrases it, “to put her light out.” “This phial,” he says, speaking through music ‘‘contains a deadly poison which leaves no trace be’ind. Now, to prepare the draught for Jane.” So, to a chord from the orchestra, he pours the contents of the phial into one of two glasses on the table, and composedly sits down to await Jane’s return. But he little knows that a friend of Jane’s, a small and extremely cheeky gamin, has been concealed under the table, from which retreat he has, indeed, been making running and very audible comments upon the villain’s soliloquy. While his attention is distracted (he “thought he heard a sound”). the small boy deftly changes the position of the glasses, and dives behind the table again. Jane returns.
    “Jane,” says her perfidious relative, “you look pale, my girl. Drink this glass of wine. Nay, to encourage you, I myself will drink a glass. The wine for me,” he adds, in a sinister aside; “the poison for Jane!”  Jane drains the glass, whereupon the forger informs her who and what he is. “The wine you have just drunk contained a deadly poison which leaves no trace be’ind. In less than ten minutes you will be a corpse !“ 
    “No, she wont, old Tiddlywinks !“ says the boy, rising suddenly from his hiding-place. “In less than ten minutes you will be a corpse !“ 
    “What mean you ?” cries the villain. 
    “Why, after you’d filled the glasses, I changed them, and so she got the good stuff, and you the poison which leaves no trace be’ind.” 
    “Thank Heaven!” exclaims the girl; “you are caught in your own trap !“ 
    “Have you spoken the trewth?” the baffled forger demands, trembling.
    “Ah, you’ll soon see if it’s true or not, old cock; and the best thing you can do now is to say yer prayers and lay down and die.”
    The forger neglects the first part of this recommendation, but adopts the latter, after much clutching at his dressing-gown, and as lie falls lifeless, the boy pronounces this touching funeral oration: “‘E’s a stiff ‘un, and the devil will ‘ave his doo!” Whereupon the drama comes to an impressive and highly moral conclusion. 
    The vocal portion of the entertainment has been purposely left to be treated last. At every music hall from twenty to thirty songs, or even more, will be sung in the course of the evening, and of all these, perhaps two or three in a year will catch the popular favor, be played on barrel-organs, whistled bystreet boys, adapted for burlesques and pantomimes, and overrun the entire country in a marvellously short time, until it palls upon the very villagers. Some fifteen years ago, for example, it was impossible to go anywhere in the United Kingdom without hearing a certain Tommy being vocally adjured to make room for his uncle. It would be curious to resuscitate Tommy and his uncle now and see how much success they would obtain with the public of to-day. The tune was irresistibly catching; but it would probably fall on deaf ears now. No superannuated thing is so utterly dead and forgotten as a once popular music-hall song, compared to which Jonah’s gourd was a hardy annual. Who compose these ephemeral tunes? Their names seldom or never appear, any more than do those of the gentlemen who write the songs, though it is safe to conclude from internal evidence in either case that they are not persons of exalted musical and literary eminence. And what are the songs like? Do they show any graphic or satirical power, any command of the pathos and humor which appeal to popular tastes? One would hesitate to answer in the negative, since these ditties are found acceptable by those whom they are intended to delight, and yet to hear or read them is apt to produce a conviction that the music-hall public is entertained with the same facility as excited Mr. Pickwick’s envy in the case of Mr. Peter Magnus’s friends.
    [-199-] Let us take a few typical specimens. The patriotic song is a very frequent feature, and always rouses the most stolid audience to enthusiasm. They like to hear the national virtues summed up in some refrain of this kind:
    “Old John Bull is ever faithful; 
        His money from his pocket he will pull; 
    He’s gentle, and he’s kind, and you’ll never, never find 
        A better friend than old John Bull
    The amorous is another familiar type. A young lady in a startling costume, with yellow hair, and a smile of knowing artlessness (a paradoxical expression not uncommon with lady vocalists), will trip forward and sing, or more usually half sing and half speak, some verses with the following chorus:
    “Oh! the girls, oh! the girls, and the boys, yes, the boys! 
        You’ll find them together in all sorts of weather; 
      They go kiss, kiss—yes ! they go kiss, kiss! 
        And they squeeze, and they spoon, and they say, ‘Oh, what joys!’ 
      For the boys are in love with the dear little girls, 
        And the girls are in love with the boys
    Then there is the vocalistic sketch, written to display the singer’s versatility. The comedian appears in ordinary evening dress, and produces his effects by suggesting a series of typical characters, comic and tragic. For instance, one such song begins thus:
    “On the bridge at midnight stood I in dismay, 
        Watching weary stragglers passing on their way.”
    First comes “the wretched gambler, looking deathly white, All his fortune vanished in one single night.” And his desperate soliloquy, with the refrain, “Crushed and broken-hearted, too, Across the bridge he goes !“ “Next, with steps erratic, comes the city clerk, Button-hole and stick, too, ready for a lark,” and so on, who “lights another cigarette, As o’er the bridge he goes.” Then the pretty little actress, who remarks, “Didn’t they go frantic when I did my dance I I told you I should knock them when I got the chance.” And lastly, as a tragic contrast, the betrayed one, who “frantically her hands high, In the air she throws. A sigh, a leap, a scream; ‘tis done, As o’er the bridge she goes!”
    Another song of this sort is entitled “Called to the Bar,” which deals with [-200-]  “the youth of modern culture, where he fails and where succeeds.” In the refrain to the first verse we are told:
    “Now his student days are past, 
        And he dons the silk at last, 
    Wig and gown and thoughtful face, 
        Pleads with telling speech the case. 
    Nothing his success can mar 
        Now that he’s called to the bar.”
    Unfortunately the young barrister indulges in “midnight orgies” with “chosen friends. Gambling — baccarat they teach him—anything to gain their ends.” After which he naturally falls into the toils of a barmaid at the Horseshoe. “Flossie’s his attractive star, Since he’s been called to the bar.” From this to forgery is an easy step, and in the dock, “He stands there undefended, Who for others used to plead.” Now comes the melodramatic moment of the song. He is supposed to be in jail, and the jailer has brought him a letter containing the news of his father’s death. Thereupon the singer, in the rays of green light which are thrown upon the stage, commits suicide, to the following refrain:
    “Poor old father, slain by me! 
        This small phial shall set me free. 
      To the great unknown I’ll leap.”
    Here he drinks, staggers, and falls, rise presently to impersonate the jailer, while keys and bolts are jingled outside: “Now, then, prisoner, still asleep ?“ Then, to a solemn organ chord, “Passed from earthly justice far, He’s called to the last great Bar I” Songs of this Hogarthian type are invariably well received, and if they strike some minds as slightly absurd, it must be confessed that they are distinctly above the general level of music-hall compositions. Then there is the sentimental song, in which the singer touches his audience by reminding them of
    “Friends, deah friends, friends we ‘ave left at ‘ome! 
        Though perchance in di-istant la-ands we ro-home!”
    And the frankly inane, of which perhaps the following specimen, descriptive of a wedding party, will suffice: 
        “Uncle Thomas’s wooden leg fairly made the people roar. 
            Some one at him threw an egg, and it made them laugh the more.” 
        Chorus.—” Sister Mary walked like that—pit, pat, pit-a-pat; 
                                Then came uncle, stout and fat—ho, ho! ho, ho, ho! 
                                Uncle Thomas walked like so—ho, ho ho, ho, ho! 
                                And I walked like this, yon know—ho, ho, ho!’’
    In what the fascinations of some of to the female singers precisely consist is a [-201-] little hard to understand. They cannot sing in tune, their playfulness is of a kind to cause a shiver, their voices are metallic. and even their personal appearance by no means prepossessing, as a rule; but still they are always greeted with applause, and parted from with reluctance. It would be infinitely more difficult to fail than succeed in satisfying a music-hall audience. The songs of the “Lady Serio” are of much the same character, and it is an established rule that two songs cannot possibly be sung without a change of costume, for which a wait of two or three minutes is always allowed. The performer will come on the stage with that peculiar walk, as of a puppet hung on wires which Lady Serios affect, and a fixed smile of intensely humorous appreciation of nothing in particular, to deliver herself of a ditty with a tantalizing refrain, such as:
    “Oh, I dessay you’d like to—I dessay you would! 
        I dessay you’d try to steal a kiss upon the sloy
—a liberty which she is very properly pre pared to resent to the utmost. 
    Comic calamity is of course a favorite topic with male singers, who sing a long song describing, for instance, a visit to the sea-side, when 
        “Martha swallowed a jelly-fish, 
            Janie got the cramp, 
          My ma-in-law began to jaw 
            Because the sea was damp! 
          While I was floundering through the waves, 
            A crab got ‘old of me! 
          And when we looked for the bathing-machine, 
        It had drifted out to sea!”
    Disinterested attachment is another frequent subject. A gentleman in evening dress and a tall hat will come before a scene representing a country lane and describe his courtship of some rustic beauty, called Mary, who is, of course, “like a fairy, the pride of the dairy,” and so on. Here are some extracts from a music-hall idyl:
        “I leant across the railings, and in conversation got.
             She asked me if I’d step inside, as the day was rather hot. 
        While I was in her company, I own I felt confused. 
            I made a proposition, which of course was not refused, 
        That in the evening, after tea, I should meet her again.”
    He tells his love, whereupon
        “She said she’d no objection, if her father would consent. 
            I said I’d go and see him. To wed her I was bent. 
So now it is all settled, and the day is drawing near 
            When I shall wed my farmyard belle. I’ve not the slightest fear 
        But what she’ll make me good wife, so I never shall repent 
            The day I met my Mary working on the farm in Kent.”
    If the reader is spared any further samples from the effusions of the Muse of the music halls, he must not conclude that it is owing to any want of material, which is practically inexhaustible; but probably the specimens that have been given will be found more than sufficient; possibly, too, they will not inspire any great respect for the intelligence of a public which derives enjoyment from these and similar productions.
    It has often been said, especially of late, that music-hall audiences are quite capable of appreciating a higher form of entertainment if they were given the opportunity. This may be so, though they seem anything but dissatisfied with the amusement at present provided for them; but if the songs and entertainment generally were raised to a higher level, one fact is certain—artists of a very different calibre would be required to interpret them. There are a few at present with decent voices, a power of humorous or grotesque invention, and sufficient intelligence to deliver their lines as they are written, but they are the exceptions, and most of them gravitate, sooner or later, to the regular stage.
    And, after all, people who are critical in the matter of amusement do not go to music halls, which are chiefly patronized by men who can enjoy nothing without the aid of tobacco, and women who dislike any entertainment which entails the slightest mental exertion. Some people, too, go because although they do not expect to be greatly entertained, they are sure of finding the brightness and comfort which are lacking at home, while others, no doubt, are influenced by motives which it is unnecessary to particularize here.

F. Anstey, Harper's New Monthly Magazine, January 1891






ONE of the most remarkable developments in Living London of late years is that of the modern music-halls - or Theatres of Varieties, as they are mostly called, except when they are described as Empires or Palaces. The variety form of entertainment now so prevalent is a real boon to those amusement-seekers who cannot, even if they would, indulge in playgoing at the so-called regular " theatres." Working hours have for many to be continued until it is too late to reach home in time to come out again to the play - especially for those who are only able to afford unbookable seats.
    For these hampered toilers the music-hall or variety form of entertainment is the only thing of the show kind available. They can take or leave the entertainment at any hour they please - the programme given being, of course, everything by "turns" and nothing long. Besides all this - and it is an important factor - there is the chance of enjoying a smoke, a luxury prohibited in all theatres run under the Lord Chamberlain's licence.
    The most striking examples of the modern variety theatres in London are the Empire, the Alhambra, and the London Hippodrome. Next to these would undoubtedly rank those other popular West-End resorts, the Palace Theatre, the Oxford, the Tivoli, and the London Pavilion.
    The Empire is one of the most beautiful buildings, as regards its interior, to be found in the Metropolis. Its entertainment is of a high class, and its gorgeous ballets and other extensive and expensive spectacular productions are patronised not only, in addition to its large general audience, by our "gilded youth," but by all sorts of society folk, who need an hour or two's bright and ever changing entertainment after dinner.
    The Alhambra - a huge Moorish building - is in its status and its style of entertainment, similar to the Empire, with the differeence that it claims - and rightly - precedence of all neighbouring places of the sort. Indeed, its own proud description is, Thc Premier Variety Theatre of London. This house was certainly the first to introduce the big ballet and spectacular form of entertainment. For many years a large proportion of visitors to the Metropolis made the Alhambra their first variety house of call. Nowadays, however, these visitors must perforce take in the Empire and the other important varied palaces.
    A few steps from these huge halls is the London Hippodrome, one of the most remarkable buildings in the great city. Although so close to the Empire and the Alhambra, the entertainments and the audiences are of a totally different character. The Hippodrome programme is principally made up of equestrian, gymnastic, and menagerie "turns," plus a burletta or pantomime. This last must include at least one aquatic scene of some sort, in which the comedians (most of them expert swimmers) disport on or in the large lake which, by a wonderful mechanical process, when required, fills up the circus ring. The Hippodrome's audiences are not of the lounging after dinner or "round the town" kind, but are in a great measure formed of family groups, headed by pater or mater, or both. Indeed, most of its patrons are of the sedate domestic sort. There is no doubt that the fact of the Hippodrome being, like so many of the new large variety theatres, forbidden a liquor licence, is in itself (however unfair it may seem) an attraction for most of those who take their youngsters to such entertainments. The Hippodrome - the auditorium of which is a sight-resembles the Alhambra and the Empire in one respect, namely that not a few of its artistes are foreigners, and that many of its performances are in dumb show. Our photographic illustration on page 224 depicts a scene beneath the arena of the Hippodrome. Here are heavy wooden [-223-]

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[-224-] "properties" about to be conveyed above, while "supers" and stage hands are crowded together in readiness for their particular duties.
    The Oxford, the Tivoli, and the London Pavilion are likewise sumptuous if somewhat smaller establishments. At these resorts, however, comic and "serio" singing, sandwiched with short acrobatic, dancing, and trick cycling "acts," and fifteen or twenty minutes' sketches, are the rule. The best musichall2.gif (65376 bytes)available artistes are engaged at these three houses. Oftentimes the same "stars" appear on the same evening at the three halls, which I are virtually run by one syndicate. When a comic or a "serio" star books an engagement with this syndicate, he or she is required to stipulate by contract not to appear at any other hail within a radius of so many miles. This "barring out" clause, as it is called, has also of late prevailed in connection with certain of the larger music halls in suburban London.
    The Palace Theatre, in Shaftesbury Avenue, is a beautiful building, which was opened by Mr. D'Oyley Carte as the English Opera House. In spite of such excellent operatic works as Sir Arthur Sullivan's Ivanhoe and André Messager's Le Basoche, Fortune frowned upon the enterprise. Ere long Sir Augustus Harris transformed it into a variety theatre, with its present name. Under Sir Augustus's successor, Mr. Charles Morton, who deserves special mention here as being " the father of the modern music-hall," the Palace Theatre was lifted into the high position it has since sustained. Its entertainment is one of the best of its class, not only as regards its singers and dancers, pantomimists, mimics, sketch artists, and others of all nations and denominations, but also its beautiful and realistic tableaux vivants and biograph pictures.
    It is no wonder that the old-time stuffy music-hall has been killed by such places as the splendid variety houses just named, to say nothing of those other large and admirably conducted halls such as the Royal in Holborn, the Metropolitan in the Edgware Road, the Canterbury in the densely crowded Lambeth district, and the Paragon in the still more densely crowded Mile End region. Besides these resorts there have sprung up several vast "Empires" such as those respectively at New Cross, Holloway, Stratford and Hackney, all [-225-] under the direction of the wealthy syndicate that runs the London Hippodrome and a number of "Empires" in the provinces.

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    If one should desire to get some notion of how the "toiling, moiling myrmidons "(as Béranger calls them) patronise these new "Empires," he has only to watch outside any of them just before the doors are opened for the first or second house. For be it noted that two entire performances are given at each nightly, and at small prices of admission. Moreover, the programmes always contain several highly-paid variety artistes - whether of the comic singing, acrobatic, canine, or sketch kind. Indeed, it is not at all unusual to find here a favourite performer in receipt of at least one hundred pounds per week ; not to mention this or that leading serio-comic lady or "Comedy Queen" at a salary not much lower. Yet, in spite of such princely salaries, the prices of admission are small, ranging, say, from two shillings or eighteenpence in the best parts to threepence in the gallery.
    That these "Empires," "Palaces," and similar halls are run not only with excellent programmes but also on strictly proper lines is proved by the fact that, moderate though the admission prices may be, the patrons come from some of the best parts of Hampstead, Stoke Newington, Catford, Blackheath, Woodford, and so forth. Here recreation-seekers may - and do - have placed before them all sorts of "turns" besides those above-mentioned, and comprising many examples, such as conjurers, acrobats, performing elephants, seals, bears, instrumentalists - comic and otherwise. Often will be found certain old stagers or juvenile performers of dramatic sketches made up of boiled-down plays - even of Hamlet, in a twenty- minutes version of that play. 
    To those amusement-seekers who may prefer to take their variety entertainment in a rough-and-ready form there are still such haunts as that Whitechapel resort fancifully named "Wonderland." In this big hall are provided entertainments of the most extraordinary description. They include little plays, songs, and sketches, given first in Yiddish dialect and afterwards translated into more or less choice English by, as a rule, a Hebraic interpreter. This interpreter often improves the occasion by calling the attention of kind - and mostly alien - friends in front to certain side shows consisting of all sorts of armless legless, skeleton, or spotted " freaks " scattered around the recesses of this great galleryless hall. When once the "freaks" have been examined, or the "greeners" and other foreign and East-End "sweated" Jew toilers have utilised the interval to indulge in a little light refreshment according to their respective tastes, the Yiddish sketches and songs - comic and otherwise - are resumed until closing time.
    It is, however, on its Boxing Nights (which in this connection means [-226-] Mondays and Saturdays) that "Wonderland" is to be seen in its most thrilling form. Then it is indeed difficult either to get in or to get out. In the first place it is hard to get in because of the great crowds of hard-faring - often hard-faced - East-End worshippers of the fistic art; several types of which are to be seen in our photographic illustration on page 223. In the second place, if you do contrive to get in you speedily find yourself so hemmed in by a sardine-like packed mob that all egress seems hopeless.
    Several other extremely typical East-End variety resorts, each of a totally different kind, are close at hand. One is the huge Paragon Theatre of Varieties, further east in the Mile End Road. Another is the much smaller Cambridge Music-Hall, which is in Commercial Street, a little way westward from Toynbee Hall. There are also the Queen's Music-Hall at Poplar, the Royal Albert at Canning Town, and the Eastern Empire at Bow.
    In spite of its cheap prices and its seething audiences, the Paragon entertainment is exactly on a par with those given in the West-End and South of London Variety Theatres. Indeed, the entertainment at the Paragon is mostly identical with that supplied at the Canterbury, Westminster Bridge Road, and is under the same syndicate. As for the Canterbury, the better class South London tradesfolk and toilers go there, excepting, of course, when they visit the newer and equally well managed South of London variety shows.
    The Cambridge Music Hall, between Spitalfields and Shoreditch, deserves a few special lines. In point of fact, ever since the time when, years ago, it was converted from a synagogue into a music-hall, the Hebrew residents of the locality have made it a point of honour to attend the Cambridge.
    With them they often bring not only their wives, but also their black-curled, black - eyed infants, who may often be seen toddling calmly about the stalls - especially during the earlier of the two "houses" per night.
    Round the corner in Shoreditch is the London Music-Hall, wherein the stranger who pays his first visit will undoubtedly fancy for the nonce that he has lost his way and has by accident strayed into one of the best West- End halls.
    Further north there are several more or less large and more or less classy variety houses for example, the new two "houses" per night resort, the Euston, opposite St. Pancras Station the Bedford, in Camden Town the still newer Islington Empire, next door to the Agricultural hall the old-established music-hall, Collins's, on Islington Green and the still older Sadler's Wells, adjoining the New River Hlead in Rosebery Avenue.
    The west-central district and southern suburbs are also well provided for in a music-hall sense. Among others, one notes the old Middlesex, or "Mogul," in Drury Lane; a Theatre of Varieties at Walham Green ; Empires at Balham and Deptford an Empress at Brixton ; a Royal Standard at Pimlico, and a Star at Bermondsey; and Palaces at Camberwell, the London Road (Southwark), and Croydon. Besides these [-227-] may be mentioned Gatti's in the Westminster Bridge Road, another Gatti's at Charing Cross, and a Grand at Clapham Junction.
    Like the halls themselves, the agents who supply the managers with artistes at so much per cent. commission on the salaries have, too, not only much improved in character, but have in many cases migrated from their former dingy haunts in the York Road, Lambeth, to more commodious not to say palatial - offices in or around the Strand, the Haymarket, and elsewhere. Some few of them, however, still have their offices near a well-known tavern at a corner of York Road ; and at certain hours a large number of minor music-hall entertainers and their agents may - as shown in the above illustration - still be seeml congregating near this old-established hostelry.
    Music-hall "artistes " (as they love to call themselves) have also vastly improved. Not many years ago these were mostly shiftless and thriftless from the "stars" downward. Nowadays the music-hall ranks include large numbers of the worthiest of citizens. And, what is still better, they have combined together of late years to organise several protective associations, such as the Variety Club and the Music-Hall Railway Rates Association, as well as to found some excellent charities for benefiting their brethren out of health - or out of work - and to provide for the widows and orphans of comrades who have fallen by the way.
    The chief of these charities is the Music-Hall Benevolent Fund, a very fine organisation, the committee of which consists of many of the most important and most honourable men to be found in any department of life. From time to time the smaller associations assist their parent fund, or the Music-Hall Home for the Sick and Aged, by [-228-] arranging matinées or sports. In the case of the Music-Hall Railway Rates Association all the surplus of the money subscribed thereto for the purposes of getting the fares reduced for travelling "artistes" is handed over to one or other of the aforesaid charities.
    And though the members of the smaller music-hall societies delight to call themselves by such names as "Water Rats," " Terriers," and "J's," and to dress themselves as ostriches, savages, cowboys, Red Indians, and so on at their annual sports, or to disport as comic cricketers in all sorts of extraordinary costumes - what does it matter, seeing that they do it all for charity's sake? Thus, by drawing vast crowds of the general public, they add substantially to the funds of their excellent charities. In these benevolent affairs Mr. Dan Leno is mostly at the head (as he is with regard to his profession) On such occasions he is indeed a Jack of all trades and master of most.
    As will be seen from the photographic illustration on page  223, the "behind the scenes" life of Music-Hall London is not without its humours. In "Waiting to Go On" we have, indeed, a motley throng of variety "turns." These include a famous "serio" in Early Victorian "dandy" costume; a popular "comic" in the usual battered hat and ill-fitting clothes which such comedians always adopt a celebrated conjurer, a couple of clever descriptive singers, a noted strong man, and several others. This "Waiting to Go On" represents, of course, quite a different state of things from the arrangements in a regular theatre, where every entrance and exit is fixed, and where the players have to report themselves, as a rule, some time before the curtain rises. Music-hall entertainers must, if they wish tq earn a remunerative amount per week, do three or four "turns" a night and in order to travel from hall to hall, a brougham - or in the case of a troupe, a private omnibus - has to be provided. When they arrive they are naturally in a hurry to get their work over, and are apt to get in each other's way, either in the dressing-room or at the wings. As most music-hall entertainers start from home already "made up," and even sometimes change in their vehicles en route, it does not take them long to be ready for their respective "turns" ; and their punctuality is remarkable.
    To sum up, it may in common fairness be said that without its Palaces of Variety and its Music-Halls Living London would only be half alive.

George R. Sims (ed.), Living London, 1902