Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Sketches of London Life and Character, by Albert Smith et. al., [1849] - The Coulisses

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IN an unpretending little work which must, one would imagine, be found very useful in promoting a partial comprehension of fashionable newspaper accounts of aristocratic festivities, we find the word Coulisse explained thus:- " s.f. Groove. Scene of a playhouse. Gutter." Not one of these synonymes quite imparts the sense contained in the term, as ordinarily used, though it has a certain affinity with all three. Let us venture to add a foot-note to the favourite volume we have cited, popularly known as Le Nouveau Dictionnaire de Poche, par THOMAS NUGENT.
    Some years ago, before children's books were abolished, and tiny novels and fairy tales were set aside for illustrations of the steam-engine and heterodox German twaddle, there was a very clever little story, called "Curiosity and Enquiry." It was certainly a book "with a purpose," and that was the only thing that could be said against it, for the purpose was utterly annihilated by the liveliness of the tale. There were two young ladies, one "curious," and the other "enquiring," and the author designed to show the difference, and to set forth the advantage which the latter possessed over her rattled-brained sister. But the author's favourite is not always the reader's, as has been shown in various excellent works, from Paradise [-134-]Lost, in which a Royal Highness, stated by Shakspere to be also a gentleman, certainly "has the pull," to Sir Bulwer Lytton's last romance, in which that pious AEneas, Harold, is completely ecrasè by his more effective rival the Achilles of Normandy. And so it was with our little story, in studying which we irreverently eschewed the improving narrative of the good Miss Enquiry, whose hair was always nicely patted down, and who asked pertinent questions, or begged grand-papa to point out a book in which she might obtain the information she desired, and we gave our heart to the bright-eyed scapegrace Curiosity, who wishing to know how the clock in the hall was made, and why it struck, piled a mountain of footstools upon a kitchen chair, and scrambling up the ascent, opened the glass-door, tampered with the works, set the clock striking all kinds of wild hours, got frightened, and came tumbling down, dusty and dishevelled, and bumped her head on the marble floor. All through life, we are sorry to say, we have had the same deplorable taste for the wrong side of the question; and hence, though the proper way of treating our present subject is clearly that of prosaic explanation as to what Coulisses are, and then adding some sensible advice against "dispelling the illusion of the stage," and so forth, we prefer to scramble into the works, like Curiosity in our story-book.
    The "Pet of the Ballet" is, unquestionably, the queen of the Coulisses. In that strange, motley scene, exhibited behind the opera curtain, between the time grudged to Mozart and that gladly yielded to Pugni, comes the Pet's nightly coronation. There, amid that busy, chattering mob, her sovereignty is manifest. Look! there stands magnificent Grisi, flushed with the [-135-] exertion of the night, and there staggers away her servant under the merciless load of the flowers which have been hurled to her. She is excited with her new triumph, and is the centre of a group of first-rate artists, in the gorgeous costumes of the opera just concluded, a mass of colours relieved by the simple black of half-a-dozen young aristocrats from the stalls, who are lavishing well-worn compliments in French of various merit. The stage is filling - fair girls in fleecy clouds of gauze, trip on by twos and threes, striking out their well-turned limbs, and pointing their pliant feet, that no mischance amid the mysteries of dress may interfere with their flexible movements in the approaching ballet. Peasants, red, green, and blue, straggle in towards their proper places in the "picture" upon which the curtain is to rise. Carpenters hurry about, urged to frenzy by the officer in command, who alternately storms at a misplaced "flat," and bows to some vacant-looking lounger. The little " Vanity Fair" is at its busiest, when a lane is suddenly formed, and into the heart of the crowd glides the Pet of the Ballet. A graceful gyration or two, more a matter of habit than of business, and the little creature stands, with a gracious smile, to receive the incense every hand is bringing. See how the white (don't say whitened) arms fold gently across, a finger tip just reaching the opposite elbow! How the diamonds sparkle in the gaslight! Even the radiant Grisi nods, friendlily, to the star of another sphere. A Duke, not a young one, salutes her, with the bow which has become as proverbial as a certain other Duke's touch of the hat. Danseuses know the value of Dukes - nobody better; and nothing can be sweeter than the answering look. But [-136-] His Grace's attentions are merely courtesies, and he is as calm as an ice-lake. But look there. That young Marquis is in the Guards, and he is in love with her; and observe how restless his eye is. He sees a new bracelet of emerald on her arm, and he does not see his own last present; and although he is a Marquis, and a guardsman, and moreover a member of Parliament, who ought, at this moment, to be in his place, supporting the Religious Education Bill (on which he spoke very well the night before the Derby), he is about as plebeianly jealous as any shopman out for a Sunday with his little milliner. And here comes another of her admirers, a Hebrew Croesus, with a bow not so fine as the Duke's, but with a waistcoat far finer than his - and he presents a bouquet, fastened into a jewelled band. And there comes the grave but courteous manager, to hope that Mademoiselle has recovered from her headache, and with him the writer of a leading journal - see how she smiles at him though he brings neither a bouquet nor a fine waistcoat. And how everybody looks at her, especially all the third and fourth rate dancers, who envy her, and attribute her success not to her wonderful power and her intense industry, but to all sorts of unworthinesses; the fact being that she is as good a girl as one knows, and keeps a bronze-coloured, old, snuffy, French father, and a fat mother, and a long, sallow, scampish billiard-playing brother, and some scrags of sisters, together with the legion of other relations who infest her (as they do all foreign artists), in noble lodgings in the Haymarket. She works terrifically hard-harder than anybody, who does not know a dancer's life, can imagine, and deserves all the honours, as every one does [-137-] who labours, honourably, for them. Let us hope that she saves money, and will not marry that gambling Parisian Count, who will spend it all, and then beat her (as happens in so many cases one hears of); and that she will enjoy the dinner the Duke is going to give to a picked party, at the Castle at Richmond, on Sunday; and that she will be well cared for when her day is over - for that day will come, when, as Mrs. Norton says (in one of the most exquisite poems in the language), 
        "Younger slaves have skill, and those thy lords employ."
    Nobody ought to be allowed to go behind the scenes of a theatre, except those who have a business connection with it. And this is a rule which is fast gaining ground; and which, to the credit of lady-managers be it recorded, they were the first to lay down, and are the most rigid in observing. Without going into the cant of "abstraction," and "absorption into a character"- feats happily rendered less and less necessary, now that the nuisance of the heavy drama is abating, under the sanitary jurisdiction of public taste - no actor can do his work so well when constantly diverted from the personation he is attempting, as when his mind is allowed to repose, as well as to exert itself in the author's conception. That many artists act admirably, in spite of interruption, is no answer, because the highest order of talent can do anything; but that scores of performers of lesser merit would play far better than they do, had they fewer distractions from their business, is a melancholy commonplace perpetually forced upon everybody who understands theatrical matters. And experience proves [-138-] that the more exclusive the green-room, the more perfect is the stage. 
    "Behind the scenes" has been so well and so often described (and by nobody better than by our friend the Editor of this series of sketches), that we shall certainly abstain from essaying anything of the kind. But we shall tell a story as twas told to us.
    We have a friend - a man who would rather do us a good turn than an ill one, if the former gave him no more trouble than the latter, which is about equivalent to the friendship David felt for Jonathan, or Damon for Pythias - allowing for the modern depreciation of social currency. He lives, when he has done stockbroking, or whatever he calls it, in a pleasant villa at Notting Hill, where he has a phaeton and three horses, and most of Edwin Landseer's prints, and a capital cellar, and a meerschaum, silver mounted, and a wife, and many other luxuries. Something put it into this foolish stockbroker's head that he wanted to go "behind the scenes." For nearly a year he kept poking his wish at us in various forms, and over various wines and spirituous liquors. Now, although in reality "behind the scenes" is a far more harmless place than any club, from the House of Commons upwards; or than a good many drawing-rooms where we have met doctors in divinity; and though the ladies and gentlemen of "the profession" are just as likely to encourage or allow a stranger to commit himself in any way as Alboni is likely to stop in the middle of her divine Non piu mesta to ask M. Costa what he means to have for supper - there is in lady-minds a prejudice against the green-room. And we had - have - a considerable respect for our friend's wife, inasmuch as she never [-139-] lets him give a dinner-party without asking the present writer. So we were as deaf as a railway-clerk. But when, finally, deliberately, and with open and advised speaking, our friend, Paul Honeyball, demanded of us an introduction to the green-room of a certain theatre, very dear to us, what could be done! We ejaculated something, neither mentally nor ornamentally, obtained managerial permission, and this is Paul's report of the result:-
    "Now then, as Mrs. Paul's gone, try that Burgundy, and I'll tell you all about it. I went to the stage- door, and sent in your note. Presently a man came and told me to 'come this way.' I followed him through a dark place, with many turns, and I kept knocking my hat against something soft (not my head - ha! ha! put that in your next play, my boy), and then I came upon the lady of the establishment. She had a sword and a shield, so we could not exactly shake hands; but she spoke in a ringing, merry voice, and asked how you were. Before I could answer she rushed on the stage, and defied a fellow, all over hair, to fight her. I wanted to see the fight, so I went forward, when a man, in his shirt-sleeves, told me I was in sight of the audience. 'Oh!' I said, and went somewhere else. Then another man told me I mustn't stand there. 'Oh!' I said, and changed my place; when I felt something hot going down my neck; and looking back, a demon was shaking a fiery torch, full of rosin, at the lady. I ran back, when a scene was suddenly shoved up, and I was fixed against a white wall. I bawled, and the prompter looked round, and swore at me for making a noise."
    " It's a sad thing, but prompters will swear."
    [-140-]  "I wriggled out, when a scene-shifter came, begged my pardon, and said he should be glad to drink my health."
    "He was glad to do it - so am I. Well ?"
    "Well, I was all over white, so I went into the green-room - d'ye see - put that in your next play! Everybody looked at me, and then took no further notice. So I asked a young lady, with pink legs, if she was fond of acting. She said she never acted; then she went away. A man came in, with a brown George and grey stockings. I recognised him, and told him he had often made me laugh. He looked very grim, and said I did him proud, and went away. Then a sort of lady's-maid came with a basin and towels, and a rouge-pot and a woman's dress in her hand, and all the men were turned out of the room - something about a quick change - I didn't understand. So not knowing what to do next, I went up some steps, and looked out at the window of a castle. In a minute I heard a roar of laughter, and found I was in front of the audience ; but before I could retreat, an old man in a king's dress pushed me away, told me I was mad, put his head out at the same hole, and said he wasn't at home. I came down, but could not get away, for about twenty dirty soldiers, with halberts, informed me I must wait till they 'went on,' so I stood stewing there for half-an-hour, while they grinned at me. Presently they all levelled their weapons, shouted very loud, and ran upon the stage, every one trying to push me over. I had enough of it, so I got out - thanks to a little girl who piloted me - and you don't catch me there again, I can tell you, It s all very dull, except what's very disagreeable. "
    [-141-] Doubtless other people give other versions. For ourselves, we have had many a pleasant evening in the society of artists, who, if anything more than artists, are, from opportunity of observation and manner of narration, most delightful raconteurs, and sometimes very brilliant conversationists. But if the truth were told, we fancy the much-coveted entrée to the Coulisses would result, in nineteen cases out of twenty, in the same disappointment as our friend Honeyball's. We are, of course, aware that there are faultlessly dressed gentlemen, and faultily dressed Gents, who alike covet that entrée for other reasons than Paul's; but with the vice which they form most exaggerated hopes of discovering, we have nothing to do. We love a truism - there are bad and good people everywhere, even in the Coulisses - a term we trust we have now made comprehensible by the million.


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