Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Round London : Down East and Up West, by Montagu Williams Q.C., 1894



The old Adelphi—The Lyceum—Why is extravaganza dead ?—Dramatic authors—Henry Byron—Frank Burnand—  The Princess’s – Mr and Mrs. Kean—Alfred Wigan—The Haymarket – Benjamin Webster— John Baldwin Buckstone — Compton — Edward Sothern —“ First nights “—The opera — Operatic singers —Theatrical managers — Is there room for all the theatres ?— Theatrical expenditure – Theatres versus music halls—Suggested alterations.
   EVEN before, as a young man, I myself became connected with the stage, theatres had for me a great attraction. When I came home from Eton for the holidays I was a frequent visitor to the pit of the old Adelphi Theatre. There I have seen casts which, with all the talent of the present day, it would be hard indeed to beat.
   Webster, Céleste, Alfred Wigan, Leigh Murray, Mr. and Mrs. Keeley, and Miss Woolgar in one piece! What would the public say to a treat like that in the present day, when actors and acting are far more widely popular than they were at the time of which I am writing?
   The pit at the old Adelphi was not the most comfortable place in the world, and if you were unfortunate enough to be relegated to a back seat you could only see the performance at the cost of a cricked neck. I used often to pay this penalty, and I did so without complaining. .
   How my heart quailed at the melodramatic acting of O. Smith as Grampus in “The Wreck Ashore”; how my sides shook with laughter at the delightful comedy of Wright and Paul Bedford in “The Flowers of The Forest”; how breath­lessly I sat watching the superb acting of Benjamin Webster in “The Sea of Ice,” and “Janet Pride” ; and how deep was [-173-] my juvenile admiration for Miss Woolgar and other beautiful actresses who appeared on those boards!
   I sometimes transferred my affections to the Lyceum, which for some time was under the joint management of the Keeleys and a partner. Subsequently the theatre passed into the hands of Madame Vestris and Charles Mathews. At that time it was the home of burlesque and extravaganza. How I have delighted in “The Fair One with the Golden Locks,” “The King of the Peacocks,” and “The Golden Branch” How very witty and elegant were the lines of dear old Planchê, who was pre-eminent in this field of dramatic authorship!
   Why is extravaganza dead? Why has the same fate be­fallen burlesque—I mean true burlesque, not mere sketches filled in with gag, and pulled through by skirt-dancing and limelight?
   Who, among the playgoers of my early days, will ever forget Jem Bland and such pieces as “ Valentine and Orson,” and “The Forty Thieves”? Among the authors of distinc­tion at that time were William and Robert Brough, Tom Taylor, Albert Smith, and Charlie Kenny, not to forget Charles Dance, who wrote one or two excellent pieces. But Planché stood head and shoulders above them all. Then came the days of Frank Talfourd, whose fame is particularly associated with the Olympic and Haymarket. What a treat it was to see Robson in “Medea” and Shylock, and Compton in “Pluto and Proserpine”!
   Subsequently we had the less classical and, if I may use the expression, more emphasized burlesque of that most popular author, my old friend Henry Byron. Originally his pieces were produced at the Strand, which was then under the management of the beautiful Miss Swanborough. The inter­preter of his excellent lines was Marie Wilton, that perennial favourite, whose equal, in my humble opinion, we have never seen. I would travel any distance, or get up in the middle of the night, for the privilege of once more seeing her in the “Maid and the Magpie.” This period also gave us the burlesque of “Kenilworth,” in which Miss Swanborough her­self played, looking simply magnificent. it was written, if I remember rightly, by Andrew Halliday, also an author of no mean repute.
   Who ever saw the equal of Jeremy Rogers as an impersonator of female characters? I remember laughing over the Widow Twankey until my sides ached. Among his contem-[-174-]poraries one gratefully recalls Johnny Clarke, Martha Oliver, and Charlotte Saunders.
   Of course my old and intimate friend Frank Burnand was the last of this school of authors, and his burlesque of “ Black-eyed Susan” undoubtedly entitles him to take a foremost place among the famous men I have mentioned. I suppose his multifarious engagements prevent him giving us another piece of the same sort. I confess that I wish he would do so. It is doubtful whether any other living man is capable of writing a really fine burlesque.
   In my youth of course I did not neglect the Princess’s. Here as elsewhere I patronised the pit, a part of the house which in the days of Charles Kean was made very comfortable. This was as it should be, for is not the pit the financial back­bone of the theatre?
   I think I saw Mr. and Mrs. Kean in all their Shakespearian revivals. They were the first to mount the plays with splendid scenery and stage accessories, and, as we know, successive managers have vied with one another in this direction until Mr. Henry Irving—who, I think, besides his foremost position as an actor, is the cleverest theatrical man of business of the age—has, in his recent productions, attained a point of scenic excellence which apparently does not admit of being improved upon.
   The Keans were backed up by Walter Lacy, John Ryder, Meadows, Carlotta Leclercq, and the incomparable Miss Kate Terry; but otherwise their companies were not, as a rule, very strong ones.
   I remember a rather funny story that was told about Ryder. Charles Kean was very particular about the language and conduct of every one engaged about the theatre, from the principal of the company to the call-boy. One day some­thing seriously annoyed Ryder, and, in a fit of temper, he gave loud utterance to a big, big D. The incident came to the knowledge of Kean, who lost not a moment in carpeting the delinquent and pointing out to him the enormity of his offence. Poor Joe Langford, for so many years a favourite at the Garrick Club, on hearing of the occurrence, wrote some very witty lines, entitled: “The man who said ‘damn’ in the green—room.”
   I was a very great admirer of Mr. Kean; but a still greater admirer of Mrs. Kean. The former I think I liked best in the part of Louis the Eleventh, and, after that, as the twins [-175-] in “The Corsican Brothers.” Alfred Wigan was simply perfect as Chateau Renaud. Though it was my privilege to see Fechter in the principal part on this side of the English Channel, I never saw the piece in Paris, where, however, it could not have been better performed than at the Princess’s.
   Wigan was one of the most accomplished men I ever met. He was a magnificent fencer and a masterly swordsman. He spoke French with the accent of a Parisian, he was tolerably well acquainted with every other modern language, and he was the most delightful and amusing of companions, being an excellent conversationalist and possessing one of the most pleasant and musical voices I have ever heard.
   In those days actors kept to their own artistic set, and were not eager to rush into society. This was true even of Charles Kean—an old Etonian and a most scholarly man— Alfred Wigan, Charles Mathews, and others who would certainly have graced what are termed the most polite circles.
   In these reminiscences of my juvenile theatre-going I must not forget to mention the Haymarket, then the home of comedy. That, with Drury Lane, which, until E. T. Smith took it, was rarely open for theatrical purposes, and the St. James’s, which, after Braham’s time, seemed to be pursued by some demon of ill-luck, pretty well exhausts the list of the principal theatres of that day.
   When I first made the acquaintance of the Haymarket the lessee was Benjamin Webster, who was managing the Adelphi at the same time. I, however, knew very little of the Haymarket until it passed into the hands of that prince of low comedians, John Baldwin Buckstone. Besides being a genuine comedian, Buckstone was a first-rate dramatic author, as such dramas as “The Green Bushes,” “The Dream at Sea” and several successful farces prove. He was always backed up by a very good company, some of the principal members of which remained with him for years. Among these was Compton, best of Shakespearian clowns and the driest of dry comedians, and others were little Clark, William Farren, and Chippendale. It was at this house that I saw the best piece of acting, in what I believe would be called the juvenile line, that it has been my good fortune to witness. It was that of Miss Blanche Fane as Gertrude in “The Little Treasure,” Buckstone playing Captain Walter Maydenblush, a perform­ance once seen never to be forgotten. It was about this time, [-176-] too, that that excellent comedienne, Miss Reynolds, delighted the Haymarket audiences, which were always the most fashion­able in London.
   Afterwards came “The Overland Route,” one of the best pieces ever put upon the stage. It was produced after Charles Mathews’s return from America, whence he brought his second wife. What visitor to the theatre at that time will ever forget Compton, when the ship is on the sands, walking about in despair searching for his lost false teeth? This was as well cast and acted a piece as could be desired.
   Then came an entirely new style of entertainment. A stranger from a distant shore, Edward Sothern, introduced us to Lord Dundreary. All London—nay, all England—went mad over it. The box-office was besieged, places were booked months in advance, and the questions asked you on all hands were: “Have you seen Lord Dundreary? Have you heard him tell that story of brother Sam?” The plot itself was of the barest construction, and extremely bad; but as a novelty I confess I am not surprised that the eccentric representation of this remarkable comedian commanded one of the longest runs known on the English stage.
   After the withdrawal of “Our American Cousin,” Sothern remained on at the Haymarket. Several pieces were tried, notably “David Garrick,” but I very much doubt if any of them were genuine successes.
   After I married and settled permanently in London, it was my habit, if my health and business pursuits permitted, always to attend “first nights,” that is, the inaugural representations of fresh pieces In this practice I was by no means singular. It is the custom of a great many literary, artistic, and profes­sional people to be present at “first nights.” The attendance of the same individuals is so regular that, so far as the stalls and private boxes are concerned, one can count with tolerable certainty upon whom one will see at the theatre. Naturally the audience, which of course includes the critics, is in the nature of a happy family. Everybody knows everybody else, and a buzz of conversation goes on between the acts. Of late yeas toe tendency has been for these gatherings to become more and more fashionable.
   In my early days- there were not nearly so many critics as there are now. Their numbers have increased with the growth of journalism and the multiplication of theatres. It [-177-] is not an uncommon thing in the present day for two or three new pieces to be presented at different theatres on the same night.
   John Oxenford and afterwards Tom Taylor, represented The Times, E. L. Blanchard The Daily Telegraph, and Shirley Brooks, Bayle Bernard (“Billy” Bernard, Céleste used to call him), Stirling Coyne, Heraud, Tomlin, and Chorley attended on behalf of various other papers.
   In my early days I very seldom went to the opera, but I have had the pleasure of hearing Jenny Lind, Piccolornini, Patti, and Albani. On one occasion, too, if I remember aright, I was privileged to hear Grisi, Mario, Lablache, Tamburini, and Persiani in the same opera. I was at Mario’s last appearance on the London stage, which was on July 19th, 1871. It was in Donizetti’s opera of “La Favorita.” At the beginning he was evidently keeping his voice under, but in the fighting scene he sang as well as he had ever sung in his life. What a voice and what an actor!
   In the present day theatres are rearing their heads in every direction, and it is difficult to believe that so many are required. I have known a number of theatrical managers, but I scarcely ever heard of one of them making a fortune. Of course, some have achieved great successes, notably Boucicault (with the “Colleen Bawn” at the Adelphi), Sothern, Chatterton, and Falconer; but, in every case, after the triumph came a series of failures.
   The number of theatres already in existence is very large, and at the present moment three or four others are in process of erection. Can it be possible, I ask, that there is room for them all? In the early days of which I have been speaking there were no music halls and theatres of variety; now they are to be found almost all over London. That these establish­ments are well patronised is proved by the large crowds to be seen standing outside before the doors are opened. A great many people like ballets, and prefer what is termed a “variety show” to an ordinary theatrical performance. Thousands of people flock to the Alhambra and the Empire, and almost within a stone’s throw of these places are the Trocadero, the London Pavilion, and the Tivoli, which are nightly crammed from floor to ceiling.
   Make what allowance you will for the increase of population, the greater craving for amusement, and the better times—if [-178-] indeed they exist—how is it possible to suppose that so many theatres can pay? Pay? Well, they certainly pay those responsible for their construction. You only have to run up a block of buildings in any part of the West End, and call it a theatre, to be able to command an enormous rent. But what about the individuals who pay the rent, engage the artistes, and run the show? Well, of course, those responsible for the control do not themselves find the money. The capital is provided by men of fortune who remain in the  background, waiting for profits. But it is to be presumed that the patience of these gentlemen is limited, and that they will some day realise that, as investments, theatres are nowhere in the com­petition with soap and hotels.
   Look at the salaries that are paid nowadays to actors and actresses, and look at the remuneration received by the authors. Poor Albert Smith used to make the remark, for which there was some ground, that the only person connected with a theatre of lower grade than the call-boy was the play­wright. In former days an author was glad to receive his fifty pounds an act, and that sum covered country, American, and all other rights. Now he demands, and obtains, a portion of the nightly receipts, and one melodramatic writer is said to have recently received, at the end of the run of his piece at the Princess’s, a sum considerably in excess of ten thousand pounds.
   In several other directions, too, theatrical expenditure is much larger to-day than it was in my youth. The posting and advertising have become much more extensive, the scenery and stage decorations are more costly, and considerably more money is spent on the costumes, especially those of the actresses. Well, if the lessee or proprietor could not make his fortune fifty years ago, I cannot for the life of me see how he can do so now.
   The old question as between theatres and music halls has lately been revived. I know as much about it as most men, for when the music halls were first started, an association of theatrical managers was formed to prevent the proprietors of the new concerns trespassing on their ground, and I was appointed standing counsel to the organisation. Benjamin Webster was the chairman, and Messrs. Webster and Graham were the solicitors. A number of summonses were heard at Marlborough Street Police Court, before Mr. Knox, and [-179-] finally a case was taken to the Queens Bench to determine what was a stage play, or, rather, what could be produced at a music hall and what could not. The upshot of the case was that spectacular ballet was practically prohibited, and, in consequence, the Middlesex magistrates temporarily put an end to the dancing licenses of some of the principal music halls. It is now suggested that farces, and other short pieces that can be performed within a certain limit of time, should be permitted at the halls; and I, for my part, cannot see why this suggestion should not be carried out. A good little comedietta or farce could not possibly work more mischief than at present results from allowing the audience to contem­plate a paucity of costume and the gyrations of a number of bare legs. The particular attraction of a music hall is that smoking and drinking are permitted in the auditorium, and possibly alcohol and nicotine would assist the appreciation of the farce writer’s jokes and quips. The innovation would no doubt be a good thing for the joint-stock companies that run the halls, but I question whether it would be hailed with satisfaction by theatrical lessees.
   It has struck me that it might be a good thing if, now that there are so many places of amusement, some change were made in the character of the performance at a few of the theatres. Why should not some of the old farces be written up to date and revived, and why should not a manager of to-day do what Vestris did at the Lyceum in times gone by, and let the bill be composed of three or four short pieces, such as farces and comediettas?
   The experiment has lately been tried by Mr. Weedon Grossmith and Mr. Brandon Thomas, with “The Pantomime Rehearsal,” etc., and found to exceed their most sanguine expectations. Why should not some of the theatres not only try such a programme, but also go back to the half-price system? How pleasant it used to be, after dining at one s club, to saunter round to the theatre at nine o’clock, and, for instance, see Robson in “Retained for the Defence,” “The Thumping Legacy,” or one or other of the little pieces in which he was so entertaining!
   Again, why not, in some of the new theatres at all events, adopt the Parisian system of allowing ladies to wear their bonnets in the stalls? How much more often would they go to the theatre were they not under the necessity of arranging [-180-] their hair and dressing elaborately! Besides, what a convenience this would be to ladies living in the suburbs!
   These are only some ideas that have occurred to one who I has, throughout his life, derived much pleasure from theatrical performances, and who numbers among his friends many members of the dramatic profession.

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