Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Some Habits and Customs of the Working Classes, by Thomas Wright, 1867 - Part 2 - Work and Play - Among the Gods

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AMONG other things theatrical, the gallery, and its occupants the "gods," have often been the subjects of remark, but as such of the remarks upon the gods as reach the public are generally made by those who occupy the lower and more select parts of "the house," I - a god of many years' experience - have thought that a few observations upon the manners and customs of the gods may not be altogether uninteresting if made by one of their own body, and I cannot better illustrate these manners and customs than by giving a brief account of some of my own experiences as a god.
    Although a god when in the theatre, when out of it I am a working man, and like the working man in Mr. Hollingshead's farce of "The Birthplace of Podgers," I rise at six, and from that hour in the morning until the same hour in the evening, I am engaged in a mechanical pursuit that involves a considerable amount of physical exertion. And being of opinion that a man who works hard for twelve hours a day requires and is fairly entitled to some amusement during a portion of his leisure time, and my idea of amusement being the witnessing of a theatrical performance, and my limited income forbidding the idea of my frequenting any of the more expensive parts of a theatre, I am by choice and of necessity a theatrical god. Perhaps I ought to feel very much ashamed of myself for expressing a belief that a working man ought to have some amusement; [-153-]  the theory I have often been told is a wrong and dangerous, not to say sinful one, but then it is a very pleasant one to the believers therein, and that may perhaps account for it being so difficult to persuade those believers that their theory is a wrong one. I am told that instead of spending my hard-earned money in visiting places of amusement, I ought to imitate my shopmate Jones, who will go home after a hard day's work and employ himself in cultivating his garden, or making or repairing some article of household furniture; or to take example by Brown, who devotes his evenings to arduous study, and the acquisition of some art or science. But from doing as Jones does I may readily be excused, as I am a single man, and being "only a lodger," I have neither garden or household furniture, or indeed anything else in the "domestic economy" line to exercise my industry or mechanical ingenuity upon; and as to imitating Brown, I may as well at once confess that I have in my composition none of that determined perseverance and untiring patience that produces " self-made" and self-taught men, and so I am compelled to fall back upon the amusement theory, and the theatre, as being my idea of what constitutes amusement.
    My earliest recollections of the interior of a theatre are associated with juvenile nights, and Christmas pantomimes, and the beautiful fairies, crystal lakes, transformation scenes, comic business, and the host of other juvenile enchanting things connected therewith. On these memorable occasions I was taken by my parents to one of the theatres royal of the large seaport town in which I was born, and my first visit took place when I was about six years of age, and from that time until I was twelve years old I was generally taken three or four times a year. I need scarcely say [-154-] that during that period I entertained an implicit belief in the reality of all that I saw in the theatre, and was desperately in love with divers young fairies, and felt within myself that had any of those fairies asked me for anything of which I was possessed, even had it been the almost life-size rocking-horse presented to me as a birthday gift by a rich aunt, I could not have found the heart to refuse their request; nor need I now stay to dwell upon how I secretly resolved that when I was a man I would go to the theatre every night. At this time my pocket-money was all invested in "characters," and twopenny boxes of paints and brushes wherewith to colour them, and many were the thrashings that I received through these same characters. Sometimes I would be thrashed for not being able to say my "night lessons," having been so busy colouring "Mr. T. P. Cooke as 'William,'" as to forget all about them, or if I managed to find time to prepare my lessons, I was almost sure to "catch it" for being too late for school, through loitering at shop windows to gaze at "Mr. Hicks as 'Dirko the Bloodthirsty,'" or "Mr. Macturk as 'The Mysterious Pirate.'" And if by great good fortune I contrived to avoid punishment at school, I was certain to get my ears boxed at home for daubing my wearing apparel or some of the household linen with paint. But this period of my theatre-going career cannot justly be considered as the experience of a god, since at that time I was always taken into the pits of the theatres that I visited.
    My career as a "celestial" commenced when I was a little over twelve years of age, and my "first appearance in any gallery" will always be associated in my mind with an adventure, or rather misadventure, that befell me upon that occasion, and through which [-155-] I received a most painful illustration of the truth of the text, "Be sure your sins will find you out," and which happened in this wise. Among my schoolmates was one in whom I found, so far as an intense admiration of things theatrical went, a kindred spirit. He was about my own age, and he had informed me in the course of one of our confidential conversations that he was in love with the lady whom he had seen playing Juliet on the night that he had been treated to the theatre by his "big brother," and that he would never have any one else for a sweetheart. As our roads home from school lay for a considerable distance in the same direction, Tommy Davies - for that was my companion's name - and I generally walked home together, making numerous stoppages by the way, to read, admire, and compare the playbills of the different theatres. One afternoon in the latter end of the month of October we were going home, when our attention was forcibly arrested by a bill of an unusually attractive character. It was a very large, very highly coloured, and very profusely illustrated bill. The central illustration was a representation of a "terrific combat," in which a stage "tar," with the usual portable armoury of pistols and cutlasses hanging about him, was fighting a great number of characters of the "black-hearted pirate" type, and as the tar was represented surrounded by heaps of slain, the pirates were evidently getting much the worst of the combat. This picture was surrounded by a number of smaller, though scarcely less vivid ones, representing "the robbery at the bank," "the escape of the lovers," "the midnight funeral," "retribution," and other stock situations of a melodrama. The letterpress of the bill informed us that these illustrations were scenes from a play of "thrilling interest," entitled "The [-156-] Guilty Banker; or, the Convict's Return," which was then being played with " immense success at the Theatre Royal, Ruff Street, the prices of admission into which ranged from two shillings to threepence. How we gloated over this bill, and how, after stopping for half an hour dwelling admiringly on its details, we turned to take "a last fond look" at each of the numerous copies of it that we saw, may be more easily imagined than described. On the following morning "The Guilty Banker" was the all-absorbing topic of conversation between Master Davies and myself, and after a number of dark hints had been thrown out on either side, we found that each secretly entertained the idea of paying a visit to the Ruff Street Theatre, without the knowledge of our parents, who we knew would have forbidden it; for by the respectable inhabitants of the town that theatre was regarded as anything but an eligible place of amusement, and I had frequently heard my mother stigmatize it as "a sink of iniquity." But the desire to see "The Guilty Banker" was strong within us, and we resolved to go at all hazards, and having arrived at this determination, we were not long in arranging a plan for carrying out our purpose. Magic lanterns, and other entertainments suitable for children, had occasionally been given in our schoolroom, and turning this circumstance to account, we agreed to tell our parents that there was to be an exhibition of a magic lantern at the school that evening, and that all the scholars were expected to attend it. Having given this reason for our absence, we proposed to go to the theatre, and by leaving as soon as the first piece ("The Guilty Banker") was over, manage to get home in time to give a colouring of truth to the magic-lantern story. This "strategic movement" we carried out in a manner that would [-157-] have done credit to an American general, and at a little after seven o'clock Tommy Davies and I were comfortably seated in the gallery of the Huff Street Theatre, anxiously waiting for the curtain to rise upon the thrilling drama of "The Guilty Banker." The Huff Street Theatre was anything but an elegant one, even in the best parts of it, and the gallery was of an exceedingly early style of architecture, the seats in that part of the house being simply pieces of narrow plank nailed across trestles, and rising one above another, until the heads of those who occupied the furthest back one almost touched the ceiling, and the floor being level, there was, of course, a space under the seats sufficiently large for parties to walk about in. Two of the three acts of the drama had passed off in the most satisfactory manner, and I was leaning forward watching -with breathless interest a scene in the last act, in which two vile myrmidons of the libertine lord were about to carry off a virtuous maiden, when my feet were seized from below, and before I could comprehend the object of the attack or raise an alarm, my shoes (a recently purchased pair) were taken off my feet, and the depredators had disappeared in the dark cavern below the seats. I made a few feeble attempts to draw the attention of some person in authority to my misfortune, but I was soon awed into silence by the scowling looks and threatening hushes of the indignant audience; so I quietly sat out the play, my feeling of interest in which was not altogether extinguished, though of course very much weakened by the sense of my own painful position. I left the theatre in a very unhappy frame of mind, and on reaching the street found that it had been raining heavily. I had to walk home through the wet muddy streets with nothing on my feet but a [-158-] pair of thin white stockings which were soon not white. On arriving at home, my distressed looks instantly attracted the notice of my mother, who in a tone of alarm asked what had happened to her dear boy, but on learning from my confession what had happened, and how it had been brought about, she gave her dear boy such a thrashing as made him ever afterwards retain a very vivid recollection of his visit to the Huff Street Theatre.
    This visit, which, like a melodrama, terminated with the detection and punishment of vice, was the only one I ever paid to the gallery of a theatre during my schoolboy days; but during the term of my apprenticeship I was a regular Saturday-night frequenter of the galleries of the various theatres of the town in which I resided during that time; and since I have been "lord of myself" I have had an extensive experience among the gods in all parts of England. For though I have not exactly fulfilled the terms of the secretly registered vow of my childhood, to go to the theatre every night when I was a man, I have been, and still am, a pretty constant visitor to the galleries of the theatres of the towns in which I have been, or may be, residing or visiting; so that I am enabled to speak with all the authority of experience of the ways of the gods.
    The regular frequenters of the gallery may be divided into the roughs, the hypocrites or snobs, and the orderlies. Of these the roughs are the most numerous division; it consists of those who come to the theatre with unwashed faces and in ragged and dirty attire, who bring bottles of drink with them, who will smoke despite of the notice that "smoking is strictly prohibited," and that "officers will be in attendance;" who favour the band with a stamping accompaniment, and take the most noisy part in applauding or giving [-159-] "the call" to the performers. The females of this class are generally accompanied by infants, who are sure to cry and make a disturbance at some interesting point in the performance. The snobs comprise those who will tell you that they prefer the gallery to any other part of the house, and that they would still go into it if the price of admission into it was as high as that charged for admission to the pit or boxes; nevertheless, they seem very ill at ease in the place of their choice, and shrink from the glances of the occupants of the pit and boxes. The snob, also, is of those who stand on the back seats, and while talking loudly among themselves, but at the other occupants of the gallery, are at great pains to inform you that they have merely come into the gallery for a "spree," or "just to see what kind of place it is," but who strangely enough are to be found there two or three nights a -week, and are amongst the most deeply attentive portion of the audience. The orderlies are those who, while they admit that the gallery is the least comfortable, and it may be the least respectable part of the house, and that they would much rather be in the boxes, go into the gallery because it is the cheapest part of the house-because they can go into that part twice for the same amount of money that they would have to pay to go into any other part once. 
    Considering that the gods are, as a rule, passionately fond of the drama, the majority of them are surprisingly ignorant of all relating to it. Many of them have never heard of Betterton, Garrick, Kemble, or the other great theatrical names of a few generations back. And even since the tercentenary festival, I have sat side by side with a god who, after a thoughtful pause, hesitatingly confessed that he had heard something of a theatrical "bloke" named Shakspeare, and believed he had written [-160-] the play of "Jack Sheppard," but could not say whether he lived in the time of Alfred the Great or George the Fourth. Sometimes this ignorance on dramatic subjects comes out in a very laughable manner; for the gods are very fond of talking upon such subjects, and will, with that freedom from the trammels of etiquette which is one of their characteristics, unceremoniously join in the conversation of any persons who may be sitting beside them. Owing to this habit, a god very often, to use a gallery phrase, puts his foot into it. I remember upon one occasion I was in the gallery of a theatre in a populous county town, and between the acts of the principal piece of the evening, I was speaking to a friend who was with me. Our discourse turning upon stage scenery, I said to him - alluding to the act drop, which was, of course, straight before us - "That seems a beautiful representation of the City of Venice." "Yes," said my friend, "it is very good." I was about to make some answer, when a man who was seated next to me, and who had, I suppose, been listening to our conversation, touched me on the shoulder and said- "I say, mate, was the City of Venice a theatrical cove?" "Yes," said my friend, interposing before I could reply to this strange question, "he was an actor, and his name was 'City,' he used to play the principal part in a celebrated tragedy called Venice Preserved,' in the course of which he sung a song entitled 'Beautiful Venice,' and so to distinguish him from another and inferior actor of the same name, he was called the 'City of Venice.'" "I had often heard the name before," said my interrogator, who was much pleased and interested by this explanation, "but I never knew who he was, and so I thought as I heard you speaking about him I would ask you." Another time, while on a visit to Manchester, I went into the [-161-] Theatre Royal there. In order to secure a good seat, I had gone in half an hour before the time announced for the performance to commence. While waiting for the rise of the curtain, I entered into conversation with the man beside whom I was seated, and from him I learned that the drama with which the entertainments of the evening were to begin had been running for some weeks past, and that he had seen it twice. "What do you think of that ?" asked my new-found acquaintance at the end of the first act. "It's very good indeed," I answered. "Oh, that's nothing!" said he, evidently disappointed by my tone of admiration; "the murders haven't come yet." "That's cutting, isn't it ?" observed my acquaintance as the curtain descended on the last act of the drama. "Oh, yes," I said, in a slightly indifferent tone. "Well, it made me cry, anyhow," he said, with an emphasis that implied that that was an exceedingly strong and incontrovertible proof of the "cutting" nature of the drama. "Yes, it did," he continued, seeing that I made no reply; "and so I must go and have a pint of beer; will you come?" "No, thank you." "Well, will you mind my seat till I come back ?" "Oh, yes," I said. There was a song and dance between the pieces, and while the dance was on my acquaintance returned. "What's next ?" he asked when he had resumed his seat. "A farce," I answered, looking at the playbill. "A farce," he said, repeating my words in a tone of inquiry; "what's a farce?" "Something laughable," I explained. "Oh, then, I don't like a farce," he said. "I like something deep, I do."
    And this predilection for "something deep" is a general characteristic of the gods, who at all times prefer a melodrama or tragedy to a farce, however "laughable" or "screaming" the latter may be. But [-162-] a burlesque, with its grotesque and beautiful dresses, cleverly arranged dances, and parodies on "new and popular songs," often finds favour in their sight; though the few good and the many feeble and farfetched puns which a burlesque generally contains are quite thrown away upon the great majority of them. That the celestials are often noisy, and are sometimes given to discharging nutshells, peas, orange-peel, and other annoying, though harmless missiles, at the heads of the devoted occupants of the "regions below;" and that their "chaff" often assumes an unpleasantly personal tone, previous to and during the intervals of the performance, is but too true. But as Falstaff was not only witty himself, but the cause of wit in others, so the celestials, during the progress of the performance, arc not only orderly themselves, but the cause of order in others. For instance, when those two stupid-looking and more than half-drunken "swells," who have come into the boxes at half-price time, begin to annoy the audience by talking and laughing in a very loud tone, and making grimaces at and trying to interrupt the actresses, is it not the gods who bring them to order? The scornful looks and indignant hushes from the pit and boxes have no effect upon them, but when, at the end of the scene, the gods give loud utterance to their well-known war-cry, "turn them out," the effect is instantly apparent. The swells at once subside into silence, and suddenly become very much interested in the perusal of the playbill. And beside materially assisting to keep order during the performance, it is admitted by all who know anything of theatrical matters, that the gods are by far the most lively portion of a theatrical audience, and the witticisms and eccentricities of those in the gallery are sometimes quite as entertaining as any part of the [-163-] legitimate performance. Most of the "good things" of the gallery are, however, so intimately connected with some local or incidental circumstance, as to lose much of their wit and point, when heard by or repeated to persons who are unacquainted with those circumstances, but still there are a few specimens of gallery "wit and humour" that I have heard, that I think will bear repeating. And should they appear dull or stupid to the reader, the fault must be mine, for they were decidedly "good" when I heard them, and brought down as much laughter and applause in the theatres where they were first spoken, as was ever heard within the walls of those theatres. The incidents connected with the first of these "flashes of wit" occurred in the principal theatre of an important seaport town, and were the means of fixing a nickname upon a gentleman well known in that town, which stuck to him till the clay of his death, and by which he became quite as well, if not better known, than by his proper name. On the night on which these incidents took place, a then very popular tragedian was making his farewell appearance in England, as he was to sail for Australia on the following day. As this actor was an especial favourite in L?, the theatre was crowded in every part long before the rising of the curtain. So great was the crowd that women were fainting, children were screaming to be taken out, and the worst phases of an over-crowded assembly were to be seen and heard. When the performance began, it was found to be utterly impossible to hear the actors, or obtain silence among the audience. Many of the most influential gentlemen in the town were, with their families, seated in the boxes, and among them Mr. R? , a well-known police-court magistrate, who was noted for his severity to those who were [-164-] brought before him charged with being drunk or disorderly, for on persons so charged he generally inflicted the heavy (comparatively speaking) penalty of "forty shillings and costs." The performance had proceeded for about an hour and a half amidst a noise and clamour that practically converted the tragedy into a pantomime, when suddenly the densely packed audience seemed to have shaken and crushed themselves into something like a comfortable position, and a silence that, compared with the previous uproar, seemed almost death-like, reigned over the theatre. But this blissful state of things had scarcely lasted two minutes, when one of the gods shouted out, "Gentlemen, what is the meaning of all this quietness? I'll go out !" and everybody beginning to cry "Order, order," the audience were again thrown into a state of uproar, and it was a full half hour before quietness was again restored, and then the same voice again called out, " What is the meaning of all this quietness?" But this time no one called order, but those who could manage to turn their heads looked in the direction from which the voice proceeded, to try and discover who this disturber of the peace was, and one of the most scrutinizing of the gazers was Mr. R?. "What is the meaning of all this quietness, I ask ?" the same voice again cried out. "Why, don't you see old forty-shillings-and-costs in the boxes?" shouted another of the gods, in that impatiently contemptuous tone which a person uses when giving what they consider to be a self-evident explanation of any circumstance, to some particularly stupid and obtuse party. This reply, though it put an end to all order for the remainder of the performance, was received with thunders of applause, and cries of "Bravo, gods," from all parts of the house, and the name thus bestowed upon him Mr. R? was never able to get rid of.
    [-165-] On another occasion I was in one of the metropolitan theatres, on the Surrey side of the water, witnessing the performance of a very exciting sensation drama. The actor who played the principal character in the drama, and whom I shall call Bricks, seemed to be a particular favourite with the audience in general, and with the celestial portion of it in particular, and was applauded "to the very echo," whenever he made one of his numerous "points." In the closing scene of the drama, the character sustained by Bricks was killed, after a "terrific combat" against overwhelming odds, and in doing the "dying business" Bricks writhed about the stage in a style that a contortionist might have envied, and groaned in the hollowest and most approved melodramatic fashion, and altogether died so particularly "hard" that it might reasonably have been supposed that he was trying to give a practical illustration of the pain endured "when a giant dies." This hard dying pleased the gods immensely, and when at last Bricks lay still they applauded him most lustily, and when they had finished cheering, one of them, led away by his enthusiasm, stood upon his seat, and putting his hands to his mouth, so as to form a speaking trumpet, roared out at the topmost pitch of a very strong voice, "Die again, my bold Bricks die again!" and the cry being taken up by the other gods, was repeated with a frequency and strength of lungs, that proved sufficient to wake the (stage) dead. For, in obedience to the call, Bricks got up and did "die again," and the second dying was, if possible, harder than the first; and if the applause of the gods is any reward for hard dying, Mr. Bricks did not go unrewarded, though I scarcely think he would relish the roars of laughter that succeeded the second burst of applause.
    [-166-] Of the style in which the gods will comment upon a bad performance, I will not speak, as it is well known to all play-goers, while those who are not playgoers have probably read "Great Expectations," and will remember how the gods criticised Mr. Wopsle's playing of Hamlet. When "chaffed" by the gods, actors generally stand on their dignity, and affect to treat the disapproval of the gallery with contempt. But should the derided actor be also a manager, he will sometimes resent the strictures passed upon him or his company by those in the celestial regions; though as the gods are usually able to "speak for themselves," a manager seldom gains anything by such a mode of procedure, and sometimes gets the worst of the encounter. I was once present in a provincial theatre when a somewhat laughable occurrence of this kind took place. The "enterprising lessee" who had taken the theatre for a season, played "first parts," and was his own stage-manager; and he was noted for putting his plays upon the stage in such a mutilated manner as to render them utterly incomprehensible to those who had never seen them played elsewhere, and almost unrecognisable by those who had. Of himself, and each and every member of his company, it could be truly said that they were emphatically, and in every sense of the word, "poor players," and breaks-down was the order of each performance. On the night in question, the manager having, despite of the energetic prompting that he received, broken down more frequently and more completely than usual, and the recommendation of the gods to "take him away" not having been complied with, they (the gods) loudly hissed him, whereupon he came to the front of the stage and made an "indignation" speech, in the course of which he attributed the "beggarly account [-167-] of empty boxes" that had characterized his term of management to the malignant influence of the gods. "It is their blackguard conduct, and nothing else," he said, "that has driven respectable persons from the theatre, for I have done everything that a man could do to attract the public. I have introduced stars-""Oh, my stars, there's a fib!" broke in one of the gods. " Oh, no, it's not," shouted another, "for he's introduced star-vation amongst his company." "I have introduced stars," repeated the manager, heedless of the interruption, "and I have introduced pieces." "We know you've introduced pieces," derisively shouted another of the gods, "and nothing but pieces, for you have never given a complete play yet;" and his well-known abridging propensities making this a palpable hit, the manager wisely withdrew from the contest, and assuming his tragedy air and his "I am ready; lead on" stride, left the stage.

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