Victorian London - Theatre and Shows - Plays - Realism

The realisation of the gloomy aspect of prison life is vividly depicted in the second part. The treadmill, with the prisoners at work upon it, a gang of convicts picking oakum, a convict weaving at the loom with which he has been supplied, and all the details of penal punishment, are here exhibited with appalling minuteness. The great scene, however, in this part is that which represents the corridors of the model prison, a singularly effective stage arrangement, evidently copied from the Pentonville establishment, though the locality is not identified. The receding passages, with the cells ranged along them on each side, and illuminated by jets of gas, whilst huge iron winding staircases communicate with the different stories, produces a marvellous appearance of depth, and excites some wonder even in the minds of those most familiar with the devices of theatrical mechanism, how so complicated a set' can be presented in so short a time. The object of the novelist, it will be remembered, was to reform the abuses of the 'solitary' and the 'silent' system, which, under the sanction of ignorant and unfeeling officials, had at last grown to a height that called forth the interference of the Home Secretary. The atrocities perpetrated in the Birmingham Borough Gaol, as recorded in the 'Blue Book,' which published the facts elicited during the Parliamentary investigation, have long since ceased to exist, and it seemed therefore felt by the audience, who saw them reenacted on the stage, that an unnecessary shock was given to their feelings by forcing upon their notice the sight of brutalities which made the heart sicken and the mind shudder to contemplate, even with the knowledge that the barbarity was only assumed and the writhing of the tortured victims merely simulated. Whether from the feeling that these thrilling examples of bygone cruelty were simply brought forward to no more profitable purpose than that of creating a stage 'sensation,' or that a strong objection to the degradation of supernumeraries by compelling them to wear the felon's garb, provoked remonstrances from playgoers of acute sensibility, may be left to conjecture. Certain it is that a storm of indignation broke forth during the last scene of the act, after some ominous premonitory mutterings that threatened to bring the piece to a premature conclusion. Voices were heard from the stalls loudly protesting against the representation as revolting,' and one of the dissentients, whose excitement was stronger than his discretion, made himself so conspicuous at the moment that he was readily identified as a well-known dramatic critic [Guest Tomlins of The Morning Advertiser] who, with other modes of expressing his opinion, might perhaps have more judiciously reserved his utterances for the morning newspaper he represented. The clamour thus raised compelled Mr. Vining to drop for a time his assumed character of Tom Robinson and address the audience as follows:
    'Ladies and Gentlemen, - With all due submission to public opinion, permit me to call your attention to one fact, which appears to have been overlooked. It has been acknowledged that the work from which this piece is taken has done a great deal of good. We are not here representing a system as it is, but the abuses of a system, and I may refer to the Blue Book - here a voice from the pit shouted out 'we want no Blue-Books on the stage' - for the truthfulness of these things. This question can be discussed elsewhere, and I believe that I am not wrong in supposing the most of the dissentient persons have not - Here the Manager paused significantly - 'Come in Free.'
    The words had the effect, in some measure, of allaying the turbulent spirit that had been aroused and the act-drop soon after fell amidst applause. Several ladies in the stalls were much distressed during the representation of some of the sterner examples of the 'Governor's' brutality and the vindictive conduct of the hardened warders acting under his instructions, and when the poor boy, Josephs, so pathetically personated by Miss Louise Moore, was seen on the point of committing suicide by hanging, to escape the infliction of further tortures, there was an indescribable thrill of horror running through the whole body of spectators. It may be seriously doubted, however, whether the retention of such a painful exhibition as that of the convicts undergoing severe punishment is in accordance with managerial policy, and notwithstanding the excessive outlay on this portion of the piece, there is every reason to believe it might be omitted with every advantage to the Theatre and the public.

The Era, 8th October, 1863 (on 'Its Never Too Late to Mend')