LONDON AT PLAY
Sitting at Evans's, we moralise on the sad pleasures of
the English. There is the British Museum. The wonders of Nineveh the Elgin
Marbles; the mummies, the Natural History rooms, the geological collections, the
matchless reading-room, are full of entertaining knowledge, which every man and
woman would do well to master. Under this roof, lie the artfully disposed
records of the earth's history, from the formations of the crust told in
geological strata, to the highest developments of vegetable and animal life.
There is the South Kensington Museum, which sprang out of the first Universal
Exhibition of Industry in Hyde Park; and is now a gorgeous collection of modern
art-industry and invention which expresses completely the dominant spirit of the
times in which we live. There are, the Zoological and Horticultural Gardens; the
Museum of Practical Geometry in Jermyn Street; the India, and College of
Surgeons, Museums; the Houses of Parliament; the Tower of London; the Mint; and
there is the National Gallery. Where to spend a holiday, the moralist will say,
cannot, with these resources, be a difficult problem, except through the embarras de richesses. The places open to
the holiday makers are surely various enough to meet all tastes! The parks are
noble; and round about London are such superb historical places as Windsor
Castle, Hampton Court Palace, and Greenwich Hospital. Who loves the wonders of
the vegetable kingdom, may wander through it at Kew. The explorer of the animal
empire may roam the world over in the Regent's Park, or travel from the coral
insect to the carnivore, in Bloomsbury. The lover of art can have no richer
treat than that which is spread for him in Trafalgar Square. The art-workman can
wish for no more entertaining and instructive collection t than that to which
Mr. Henry Cole has devoted his admirable public life. Accepting Mr. Gladstone's
dictum that recreation is only a change of employment; London may be said to be
bountifully stored for her citizens' play-days.
London at play, however, does not mean a survey of the mastodon at the British Museum, nor a journey through the schools of painting at the National Gallery, or in the Bethnal Green Museum. When the bow is loosened, the overworked Londoner requires "violent delights." His pleasures must be bounding. He has very few resources within himself. He shouts and gesticulates, like a boy let out from school. A few carts loaded with holiday-makers travelling from the East End to Hampton Court races, or returning thence, afford a good illustration of the way in which the lower class of London work-folk love to amuse themselves. To them play means coarse jests, practical joking of a very brutal kind, all copiously covered with beer and tobacco. Observe this cartload of hawkers, who are fixed between an omnibus and a carriage. It is a golden opportunity, dear to the heart of the Whitechapel rough. He falls upon the gentleman who wears a white hat, and tells him to take care of the lady. He exhausts his humour upon the groom, criticising every item of his livery. Everybody is "governor." He calls upon each passer-by whom he detects with bottle or pocket pistol, to give him a drink; recommends every horseman to get up inside; asks a gentleman of particularly dignified air whether the " missus" is quite well, and generally conducts himself with a levity, the spirit of which is closely akin to that of undergraduates on their great holiday. Now what should these poor, ignorant fellows do at the National Gallery, or poring over Mr. Layard's Assyrian stones? Listen to their songs, and you will soon know what kind of people society has made them.
When these poor holiday-makers, whose idle days are rare indeed, knock off the work to which they are chained for nearly all their waking hours; and wash their faces in token of the determination they have taken to seek an evening's amusement; they go to the kind of entertainment which their limited intelligence will allow them to understand.
Next door to the Whitechapel Police Station, in Leman Street, is the Garrick Theatre. Gallery, one penny; pit, twopence; boxes, threepence. The pieces played at this establishment are, of course, adapted to the audience, the aristocrats among whom pay threepence for their seats. The first time we penetrated its gloomy passages, great excitement prevailed. The company were performing the "Starving Poor of Whitechapel ;" and at the moment of our entry the stage policemen were getting very much the worst of a free fight, to the unbounded delight of pit and gallery. The sympathies of the audience, however, were kindly. They leant to the starveling, and the victim of fate; for four out of five understood only too well what hard life in Whitechapel meant: and had spent nights with the stars, upon the stones of London. In this, and kindred establishments, the helper of " a female in distress " (dismissed from the West End long ago) is sure of his rounds of applause. The drama was roughly performed. An infant prodigy (whom the manager afterwards introduced to us) piped its lines of high-flown sentiment intelligently; the manager himself took the leading part in a broad, stagey sort of way, excellently well adapted to the audience, to judge from their applause; and everything was spiced highly to touch the tough palates of a Whitechapel audience. But in the "Starving Poor" comedy, let me note, albeit the jests were of a full flavour and the dialogue was uniformly ungrammatical, the sentiments were worthy. Virtue is always rewarded in these humble dramatic temples; manly courage gets three times three; and woman is ever treated with respectful tenderness. It is not in such establishments as the Garrick (the boards of which famous men have trod) that the ignorant poor learn how to slip from poverty into crime.
The true penny gaff is the place where juvenile Poverty meets juvenile Crime. We elbowed our way into one, that was the foulest, dingiest place of public entertainment I can conceive: and I have seen, I think, the worst, in many places. The narrow passages were blocked by sharp-eyed young thieves, who could tell the policeman at a glance, through the thin disguise of private clothes. More than one young gentleman speculated as to whether he was wanted; and was relieved when the sergeant passed him. A platform, with bedaubed proscenium, was the stage; and the boxes were as dirty as the stalls of a common stable.
"This does more harm than anything I know of," said the sergeant, as he pointed to the pack of boys and girls who were laughing, talking, gesticulating, hanging over the boxes, and joining in the chorus of a song, a trio were singing.
An overwhelming cocked hat, a prodigious shirt collar, straps reaching half way to the knees, grotesque imitations of that general enemy known to the Whitechapel loafer as a "swell," caricatures of the police, outrageous exaggerations of ladies' finery, are conspicuous in the wardrobe of the penny gaff. What can that wardrobe be? An egg chest, an old bedstead, a kitchen drawer? In vain do I strive to convey to the reader the details of the picture, of which my fellow pilgrim has caught some of the salient points. The odour, the atmosphere, to begin with, is indescribable. The rows of brazen young faces are terrible to look upon. It is impossible to be angry with their sauciness, or to resent the leers and grimaces that are directed upon us as unwelcome intruders. Some have the aspect of wild cats. The lynx at bay, has not a crueller glance than some I caught from almost baby faces.
The trio sing a song, with a jerk at the beginning of each line, in true street style; accompanying the searing words with mimes and gestures, and hinted indecencies, that are immensely relished. The boys and girls nod to each other, and laugh aloud: they have understood. Not a wink has been lost upon them: and the comic ruffian in the tall hat has nothing to teach them. At his worst they meet him more than half way. For this evening these youngsters will commit crimes, the gaff being the prime delight of the pickpocket.
In the East of London such a Music Hall as the Cambridge, the proprietor of which boasted that no police case had come out of his establishment, must have done good. It is a handsome hall, with appointments as good as those of the halls in the West: only the company is largely mixed with desperate thieves, many of whom, in holiday clothes and smoking cigars with affected airs, we met on the staircase.
Pursuing our way one night about Aldgate, Shoreditch and Whitechapel, we were attracted to a theatre something under the rank of the Garrick, by the announcement that Blondin was to walk upon the high rope with a cloth over his head. The house was thronged; and as we entered, a man with a cloth reaching well over his shoulders, was just venturing upon the rope. The sea of upturned faces was almost the saddest sight I can remember. With the exception of the sailors (who delight in the strongly seasoned drama and rollicking songs of the East End) every human countenance was haggard, scarred with the desperate battle of life, defaced, degraded, or utterly brutalised. The stage, too, was crowded with an extraordinary company. The seal of poverty was upon all those wondering heads: and of vice, upon most of them. We are changing all this,
however, in the East, as it has been changed within the memory of middle-aged men, in the West. How long ago is it since gentlemen of the highest degree went to the Cider Cellars and the Coal Hole? Speculating on the changes in London at play, within the last five-and-twenty years, in that corner of Evans's where, any night, you could at once tell by a sudden influx that the House was up; we trundle back through the seasons, to the time when the bar parlour of the Cider Cellars, a dirty, stifling underground tavern in Maiden Lane, behind the Strand, was the meeting place from Fop's Alley, after the opera. The Cave of Harmony was a cellar for shameful song -singing, where members of both Houses, the pick of the Universities, and the bucks of the Row, were content to dwell in indecencies for ever. When there was a burst of unwonted enthusiasm, you might be certain that some genius of the place had soared to a happy combination of indecency with blasphemy. The horrid fun was at its height in that famous season when Sam Hall took the town by storm: the said Sam being a rogue of the deepest dye, who growled blasphemous staves, over the back of a chair, on the eve of his execution. He was excellently well represented by the actor; but how manners and tastes have changed since he exhibited to the best audience in London, assembled over beer and kidneys in the small hours: and since Baron Nicholson held his orgies, and did his utmost (employing admirable parts in the bad work), to lower the mind of the rising generation, long after that generation should have been in bed. Evans's is changed with the rest of the shades, and caves and cellars; and long ago, renouncing the errors of his early ways, Mr. Paddy Green has tapped his snuff-box to only the discreetest and sweetest of tunes. Evans's, in the days when Mr. Green presided in an underground room, at the head of a long table, and you could hardly catch the sharp features of the noble earl opposite to you, for the tobacco clouds; was as bad, that is, as coarse and profane, as the Cider Cellars. Vulgarity woke roars of laughter; and the heads of the first families rapped the tables with their empty tumblers, calling for the slang chorus, once again.
And, Mr. Roberto obliged.
Now, we sit at Evans's at marble tables, with prim waiters at hand; and the theatre at the end of the hall, is suddenly blackened with a flight of singing birds of all sizes, who chirp nothing more harmful than the "Chough and Crow." The comic business is that of the Christy Minstrels (sentimentalists, with ripples of laughter breaking upon them): then comes a Professor Carolus with the india-rubber young Caroluses, who are de rigueur . The while, Mr. Paddy Green trusts that we are comfortable, offers us a pinch, and tells us the dear old story over again, of the rank, the genius, and the plutocracy, the echo of whose laughter eddies still in the corners of his beloved hall.
I suppose that in the old times, that is, some thirty years ago, men had a decided taste for the underground. To feel most at ease, like the mole, they must work their way under the earth's surface. For in those days, cellars and shades and caves were the chosen resorts of roystering spirits of all degrees. Under the harmless wool work of Miss Linwood in Leicester Square, were cavernous spaces devoted to the late orgies of men of fashion. The City had dark kitchens, lighted by perpetual gas, where fruity port could be had in imperial measure; and whither knowing young gentlemen of fortune from Oxford and Cambridge, would occasionally repair to show their friends how very acute and penetrating they were. There were Holes in the Wall, and Bob's and Tom's; and there were famous places by the river side, as near the level of the bed of the Thames as could be reached, where the dirt and gloom must have been the main attraction; which had their day when the century was more than half its present age. The tradition of this hole-and-corner epoch, when heroes were ranked by the number of bottles they could stow away at a sitting, still lingers about a few old-fashioned places near Covent Garden; and the uncleanliness has a triumphant monument in the City tavern known as Dirty Dick's, an establishment, the foulness of which is the only valuable fixture.
We are now in the Music Hall and Refreshment Bar epoch: an epoch of much gilding and abundant looking glass, as, on the stage, we are in the era of spangles and burlesque: as, at the Opera, we are in the age of the Traviata. It is a bright, gay, sparkling, dazzling time. Let us hope that vice loses half its evil by losing all its grossness; for, if this be so, we have made a tremendous advance upon our grandfathers. The example of the West is, as I have observed, tending eastward, and penetrating the lowest of the population. The Cambridge Music Hall is superseding the penny gaff, and the sing-song at the thief's public-house. The Standard Theatre at Shoreditch is emptying the Garrick in Leman Street. In the City, the cavernous drinking-places are dying out, before the gilded glories of Crosby Hall, and the refinements of the Palmerston and the Lombard. It is a lighter time than our fathers', a more moderate, a soberer time, that in which we live.
The young men, and the old who are grouped around us, are turning over the leaves of the book of songs; talking for the most part rationally; and refreshing themselves lightly. There is no drunkenness; and there is very little of the heavy supping that meant heavy drinking in the old time.
The improvement in London at Play has struck me, in the course of this pilgrimage, on many occasions. At a beanfeast, sitting near the chief of an immense establishment, he said to me:, "Different from the men of twenty years ago? There's no comparison. Twenty years ago they were all drunk before it was dark. Nothing would take them from the table. They had no games. Very few of them could sing. Now, as you will hear, some of them sing passably, some recite; some are members of boating clubs; and to-day, among their amusements, is a cricket match."
The songs and recitations were, as one of the men observed in a speech of thanks, "open to improvement ;" but they were good evidence of a growing taste among the working classes for intellectual recreation. The development of this taste, and the development of the power of gratifying it, will as surely reduce intemperance and brutal manners among the working classes; as the spread of a knowledge of art and science has driven cock-fighting, the prize-ring, and drinking-bouts out of the list of the diversions of the educated classes. The stage has not progressed with the spread of education, that is, not in fashionable parts of London. This is not the place to develop the reasons why; but it may be noted that the drama is spreading through the poorer and less educated portions of society, who always crowd to the theatres where classic or sterling modern drama is played.
Macaulay wrote of Horace Walpole: "His writings, it is true, rank as high among the delicacies of intellectual epicures as the Strasburg pies among the dishes described in the 'Almanach des Gourmands.' But as the pate-de-foie-gras owes its excellence to the diseases of the wretched animal which furnishes it, and would be good for nothing if it were not made of livers preternaturally swollen, so none but an unhealthy and disorganised mind could have produced such literary luxuries as the works of Walpole." It may be that the intellectual luxuries which are common food nowadays are grown on unhealthy soil: but just as Walpole was infinitely better with his culture than he would have been without it; so is our modern society an improvement on that of the past. If the cultivated man cannot say to his wife, "A plain leg of mutton, my Lucy, I pr'y thee get ready at three, " but must confer with her as to the best way of giving those millionaire Stanley Joneses quite as good a dinner as they gave last week; this is better than the tipsy riots that passed for entertainments in the good old time.
A recent writer on the season, tells us that balls are on the decline, because only very young men, and, I presume, not very advantageous ones, matrimonially considered,, can be got to stand up; and that therefore "devotion for life, dearest," is now "bad form during dance music." A dejeuner is recommended as not a bad opportunity, if the words need be said at all; but a garden party is the latest thing in opportunities for breaking fresh ground. A garden party is a good, a very good opportunity, and so is Hurlingham: but do either equal a thorough croquet party?
Archery and croquet are two out-door amusements of fashionable London which no foreigner understands. They are conducted with a demureness and serious, business-like precision, that look more like performances of strict duty, than the abandon of pleasure, to the superficial observer. These are the hours for sentiment. It may be said that a man is nearer the church-door when he has a mallet in his hand, than when to the strains of Godfrey, he has his arm round a lady's waist.
Beyond all doubt the amusement that delights the largest number of the cultivated in London, is the opera. It is the quiet evening of the fagging pleasure week. The opera and then home, is an off-night which is delightful to the weary traveller from garden party, to tea, to dinner, to conversazione, and rout, and ball, who has no rest from sunset to sunrise, and is then due in the park in the morning. Or it is an hour's rest, before the fatigues of the night begin. "As one cannot go to bed in the middle of the afternoon, 11.30 p.m., it is necessary to go somewhere after the opera," is the declaration of a well-known poseur on the subject. Without the opera, the pleasures of a London season would count its victims by the score." That model of a meritorious English gentleman", as Lucy Aiken described John Evelyn, said, "For my part I profess that I delight in a cheerful gaiety, affect and cultivate variety; the universe itself were not beautiful to me without it." The gaiety which meritorious English gentlemen of our day affect, often ceases to be cheerful; and they discover a deadening sameness in the variety of the round of pleasure which circulates from the meeting of Parliament, till Goodwood. From the weariness of the round, the opera is the glorious and delightful rest. It is repose to the body and comfort to the mind.
The effect of music and of the dramatic art on all classes of a civilised community is of a most wholesome kind, especially where the individual life, either mentally or physically, is at high pressure. The rapid extension of a love of music among the English people is, I believe, in great part due to that craving for relief from the pressure of the business of life, which is heavier in this country than in any other with which I am acquainted The success of Music Halls, Popular Concerts, and the musical festivals at the Crystal Palace; and the resolution with which attempts to put down street organs has been opposed as a designed cruelty on the poor, who have no other music, express the general comfort that is to be found in this art.
"The power of music all our hearts allow."
The barrel organ is the opera of the street-folk: and Punch is their national comedy theatre. I cannot call to mind any scene on our many journeys through London that struck the authors of this pilgrimage more forcibly than the waking up of a dull, woe-begone alley, to the sound of an organ The women leaning out of the windows, pleasurably stirred, for an instant, in that long disease, their life, and the children trooping and dancing round the swarthy player!
It is equalled only by the stir and bustle, and cessation of employment, which happen when the man who carries the greasy old stage of Mr. Punch, halts at a favourable "pitch;" and begins to drop the green baize behind which he is to play the oftenest performed serio-comic drama in the world. The milk-woman stops on her rounds: the baker deliberately unshoulders his load: the newsboy (never at a loss for a passage of amusement on his journey) forgets that he is bearer of the " special edition:" the policeman halts on his beat, while the pipes are tuning, and the wooden actors are being made ready within, and dog Toby is staring sadly round upon the mob. We have all confessed to the indefinable witchery of the heartless rogue of the merry eye and ruby nose, whose career, so far as we are permitted to know it, is an unbroken round of facetious brutalities.
Wife-beating is second nature to him. To be sure Judy does not look all that man can desire in the partner of his bosom. The dog, indeed, makes the best appearance; and is the most reputable member of this notorious family.
Yet how would a "goody" Punch and Judy succeed? Make the Mr. Punch of the street corner, the high-minded, amiable, distinguished, and elegant gentleman, we have known so many years in Fleet Street. Turn him into a sounding moralist, and give a serious purpose to his shrill voice. Gift his wooden tongue with the unsleeping wit of Shirley Brooks. I believe the milkmaid would hook her pails, at the first passage of the play: the news-boy would deliver the special edition forthwith.
The Pilgrims held a conversation one day, at a little breakfast in my library, on the unflagging renown of Punch, of the streets, of Punch the unconquerable vagabond! Nobody could remember an occasion when Mr. Punch's performance had fallen flat.
"Stay," cried the editor of Mr. Punch of Fleet Street, "I can. We had been talking about Punch's popularity, longer ago than I care to say, at the Fielding Club. In our enthusiasm we agreed to bring him, drum and pipes and all, into the club smoking-room one evening, and have him all to ourselves, over our cigars. The night came: the room was crowded with a great company of men who knew how to laugh, and who had made up their minds to have a merry time of it. The show was as good as I have ever seen in the streets. Swift action of the puppets; a capital Toby, with a face of admirably profound melancholy; such a performer on the pipes, such a drum! But, it was a dead failure: the very dreariest night I can remember. We couldn't, and we tried hard, get up the smallest laugh."
Yet surely he is the very merriest fellow, the truest benefactor, that has ever paced the hard streets of London! We should
call blessings down upon the man who wakes those shrill pipes, and sounds the rub-a-dub that quickens the pulses of the infant poor, of this ragged nurse of nakedness, dreaming in the street! He is comedy, farce and extravaganza to his audiences, Shakespeare and Moliere, Morton and Planche. Many strangers with whom I have lingered over the great street comedy, have surveyed the tiers of pale faces, from the babes pushed to the front to the working men and women in the rear, and have exclaimed that it was a terrible sight. Laughter sounded unnatural from the colourless lips. To take the cause of this smile from them, because there are fastidious ears which shrink at the sharpness of the street pipes, would be a downright cruelty and shame.