[-161-] CHAPTER V.
Their supposed number—Computed attendance in them—Their moral tendency— The manner in which they are fitted up—Destitute condition of the performers— Squabbles between proprietors and actors about pay—Differences among the performers—Abridging pieces— Character of the productions written by the actors— The intimacy which subsists between the actors and the audience—Dramatic taste of the audiences—Specimens of the pieces—The play bills—Mr. Guff and his bear—Mr. Abel Smith’s two dogs—Quality of the acting—The suppression of the Penny Theatres recommended.
PENNY Theatres, or
“Gaffs,” as they are usually called by their frequenters, are places of
juvenile resort in the metropolis which are known only by name to the great mass
of the population. I myself knew nothing of these places in any other way, until
I lately visited a number of them with the view of making the subject of one of
my sketches. With regard to their statistics I must still confess myself to be,
to a certain extent, ignorant. There exist no means for ascertaining
satisfactorily their number, or the number of the young persons in the habit of
attending them. Other facts, however, I have succeeded in learning, though not
without personal inquiry, respecting these cheap places of juvenile amusement.
They exist only, as would have been inferred from what I shall afterwards have
occasion to state, though I had not mentioned the thing, in poor neighbourhoods.
There is not a single one of them met with in any respectable part of the town.
It needs but little if any philosophy to account for this. Respectable parents
would never allow their children to visit such places. Their great patrons are
the children not only of poor parents, but of parents who pay no attention to
the morals of their offspring.
Though the number of Penny Theatres in London cannot be ascertained with certainty, it is beyond all question that they are very numerous. They are to be found in all the poor and populous districts. At the east end of the town, they literally swarm as to numbers. Ratciffe-highway, the Commercial-road, Mile-end-road, and other places in that direction, are thickly studded with Penny Theatres. St. George’s-in-the-Fields can boast of a [-162-] fair sprinkling of them. In the New Cut alone I know of three. In the neighbourhood of the King’s-cross there are several; while in the west end of Marylebone, they are not only numerous, but some of them are of a very large size. One of them, I understand, in Paddington, is capable of containing two thousand persons; and what is more, is usually filled in every part, or, as the proprietors say, is honoured with “brilliant and overflowing audiences.” Incredible as it may appear, I am assured that, by some means or other, the proprietors of one of these penny establishments in the western part of the metropolis, have actually procured a license. In Marylebone, I know, some of them, conducted on a very extensive scale, have lately, in consequence of memorials to that effect being presented to the vestry by the more respectable portion of the neighbouring inhabitants, been put down as regular nuisances. It can scarcely be necessary to say, that all the other Penny Theatres are unlicensed. I should suppose, from all the inquiries I have made, that the entire number of these places, in London, is from 80 to 100. Assuming, as wishing to be under rather than above the mark, the lowest number to be correct, there will be little difficulty in making a conjecture which may approximate to the truth, as to the average number of youths in the habit of nightly attending these places. The average attendance at these penny establishments which have come under my own observation, I should estimate at 150; but then a large proportion of these places have, in the winter season, from two to nine distinct audience or, to keep by the phraseology of the proprietors, “houses,” each night. About three-quarters of an hour’s worth of tragedy, or comedy, or farce, or very likely all three hashed up together, is all that is allowed for a penny; and a very good pennyworth the actors think it is, too, though the little urchins who principally form the audience, often think very differently. At the end of the “first house,” there is a clearing out of the audience, which is followed by the ingress of another set of “little fellows.” If any one choose to treat himself to the second “entertainment for the evening,” it is all well; only he must pay for his pleat sure by the prompt production of penny the second; and so on, at each successive “house,” till the last scene of all is enacted. In many cases, each “house” has its two pieces and a song, thus allowing about twenty minutes to each piece, and five minutes to the doggrel dignified with the name of song. Supposing, which certainly is a moderate computation, that forty out of the assumed eighty Penny Theatres have severally their plurality of “houses” every night, and average 450 patrons, that would give an entire aggregate nightly attendance of 18,000; to which, if we add, for the other forty penny establishments which [-163-] are supposed to have only one ‘house” per night, 6000, we should have an entire average attendance on the Penny Theatres of the metropolis, of 24,000.
The audiences at these places, as has been already intimated, almost exclusively consist of the youthful part of the community. Now and then, it is true, you will see an audience diversified by some coal-heaver rejoicing in a dove-tailed hat, which completely overspreads his neck and shoulders; or it may be an adult chimney-sweep, whose sooty visage, with his head graced by a night-cap, is sure to attract the eye of the visitor; but grown-up personages are rarely to be seen in such places: youths, from eight to sixteen years of age, are the great patrons of such places. There is always a tolerable sprinkling of girls at the Penny Theatres; but, usually, the boys considerably preponderate.
No one who has not visited these establishments, if, indeed, it be not a misnomer to use the word,—could have the faintest conception of the intense interest with which boys in the poorer neighbourhoods of London regard them. With thousands, the desire to witness the representations at the Penny Theatres amounts to an absolute passion. They are present every night, and would at any time infinitely sooner go without a meal than be deprived of that gratification. There can be no question that these places are no better than so many nurseries for juvenile thieves. The little rascals, when they have no other way of getting pence to pay for their admission, commence by stealing articles out of their parents’ houses, which are forthwith put in pledge for whatever can be got for them; and the transition from theft committed on their parents to stealing from others, is natural and easy. Nor is this all at these Penny Theatres the associations which boys form with one another are most destructive of all moral principle. The one cheers on the other in crime. Plans for thieving, and robbing houses and shops, and other places, by way of joint-stock Concerns, are there formed and promptly executed, unless the little rogues be detected in the act. Then there are the pieces which are performed at these places, which are of the most injurious kind, as I shall afterwards have occasion to state at greater length. The dexterous thief or villain of any kind is always the greatest hero, and the most popular personage, with these youths; and such are the personages, as a matter of course, who are most liberally brought an the stage, if so it must be called, for their gratification. i have not a doubt that a very large majority of those who afterwards find their way to the bar of the Old Bailey, may trace the commencement of their career in crime to their attendance in Penny Theatres. The “gods,” as Garrick used to call those who [-164-] tenant the shilling galleries of our larger theatres, first formed, for the most part, their dramatic predilections in the Penny ones.
The interior of the larger theatrical establishments is often the subject of laboured panegyric by the press, as well as of admiration by the public. There is what an American would call a pretty considerable contrast in this respect between the leviathan houses and the penny establishments. The latter are all a sort of out-door houses: most of them, before being set apart for histrionic purposes, were small stables, sheds, warehouses, &c. They are, with scarcely an exception, miserable-looking places. Judging from their appearance when lighted up, I suppose they must have a frightful aspect through the day. The naked bricks encounter the eye wherever the walls are seen; while, in an upward direction, you see the joist-work in the same naked state in which it proceeded from the hands of the carpenter. These establishments, in fact, have all the appearance of prisons: and would answer the purposes of punishment admirably, were they sufficiently secure against the escape of the inmates. The distinctions of boxes, pit, and gallery, are, with a very few exceptions, unknown. It is all gallery together. And such galleries! The seats consist of rough and unsightly forms. There is nothing below the feet of the audience; so that any jostling or incautious movement may precipitate them to the bottom. The ascent to the galleries is usually by a clumsy sort of ladder, of so very dangerous a construction, that he who mounts it and descends it without breaking his neck has abundant cause for gratitude. In many of these establishments, the only light is that emitted by some half-dozen candles, price one penny each. The stage and the lower seats of the gallery communicate with each other, so that should the actors or actresses chance to quarrel with the occupiers of the first row, in consequence of anything said or done by the latter—and such things do sometimes happen—they can adjust their differences by a fistical decision,—which, being translated into plain English, means, that they may settle their differences by having recourse to a pugilistic rencontre. The stages in all the Penny Theatres are of very limited dimensions, it being desirable, in the estimation of the proprietors, that as much space as possible should be set apart for the accommodation of the audience,—meaning, by the word “accommodation,” that room should be provided for the greatest possible number of persons who are willing to pay their pence. In some places, the stage is so small that the actors must be chary of their gesture, lest they break one another’s heads. On the article of scenery, the expenditure of the proprietors of Penny Theatres is not extravagant. They have [-165-] usually some three or four pieces of cloth, which are severally daubed over with certain clumsy figures or representations; and these are made to answer all purposes. I am sure I need not add, that the wardrobe of these gentry is, for the most part, equally limited in quantity, and moderate in expense. The same dresses, in many of the establishments, serve for all pieces, no matter what their diversity of character. The costume that suits the broadest farce is found to answer equally well in the deepest tragedy. The “lovely bride,” about to be led to the hymeneal altar, appears in the same apparel as the widow overwhelmed with grief at the death of her husband. The Ghost of Hamlet is to be seen in the same suit as Paul Pry.
Most of the Penny Theatres have their orchestra, if the term can be applied to a couple of fiddlers. In fine weather, the musicians usually stand at the door, because in such cases their “divine strains” are found to answer a double purpose: they attract the attention of the passers-by to what is going on inside, and they at the same time administer to the love of sweet sounds which may be cherished by any of the audience, in cold or rainy weather, the fiddlers take their station nearer the gallery, though even then they do not venture farther than the top of the ladder. In many cases, the proprietors dispense with music altogether, by which means the sixpence usually paid to the fiddler is saved; and that is, in most of these establishments, a very important consideration.
Shakspeare has given a touching picture of the wretchedness of a strolling player’s life. He describes his wardrobe as a mass of rags, and his appearance that of starvation personified. The same description applies with equal truth to the histrionic personages who grace the boards of our Penny Theatres. Their costume is literally a thing of shreds and patches: in many cases the repairs made on the original garment have been so numerous, that not a vestige of it remains. As for their physiognomies, again, they must be guilty of bearing false witness, if a substantial meal be not an era in the history of the parties. The fact of Penny Theatre performers living, in a great measure, on chameleon’s fare, satisfactorily accounts for the violent squabbles which often occur among them when the piece represented requires there should be something in the shape of an
eating exhibition, as to who has the best right to the slice of bread provided on such occasions. In November last, a very ludicrous scene, arising out of a squabble between two of the actresses as to who had the best right to a piece of bread which required to be munched, occurred at one of those establishments in the immediate neighbourhood of the Victoria Theatre. I do not recollect the name of the piece represented, but the [-166-] leading characters in the plot were a Queen and a Duchess. These characters were sustained by two females, tall and bony, and with a most hungry expression of countenance. Everything went on smoothly enough for a time: never seemingly were there two more attached friends in the world, than her majesty and her grace. At length, her majesty ordered dinner to be provided for herself and the duchess. The servant in waiting promptly put a piece of board across two chairs, which was made to answer the purposes of a table admirably well. A piece of cloth, which had all the appearance of being the half of a potato-sack, was spread on the board as the only substitute for a table-cloth which the palace could furnish at the time. A slice of bread, about half an inch in thickness, was then brought in on the fragment of a plate, by one of the queen’s servants, and laid on the table. Every one who saw it must have grieved to think that the sovereign, who but a few minutes before had been heard talking in pompous strains, as with an air of royal dignity she strutted across the stage, of her extensive empire and inexhaustible riches,—should not have had a better meal provided for her; but so it was. Her most gracious majesty and her grace the duchess had nothing for dinner between them but the one slice of bread: they had not even a morsel of’ butter, or a modicum of cheese. While dinner was being laid, they had, as became the dignity of their station, retired to the robing-room, which robing-room is made out of a corner of the stage, cut off by a small wooden partition, with a door to admit of egress and ingress. As this Lilliputian box adjoined the first row of seats, everything that passed in it was distinctly heard by a large portion of the audience, except when the noise, caused by the performances on the stage, was sufficiently great to drown the voices of the inmates. At this time, there being not only no noise, but nobody on the stage, every word that was spoken by either of the exalted personages in the little room, was audible to all in that end of the house who did not choose to put their fingers in their ears to exclude the sounds. In the first instance, a sort of whisper was heard in the inside; and for a time, as neither of the inmates was likely to make her appearance, it looked as if the dinner were to remain untouched. One could not help thinking, homely as the meal was, that this was a pity; for it was clear, from the eagerness with which some of the audience, especially a chimney-sweeper’s apprentice, gazed on the slice of bread, that there were no want of mouths in the house that would have despatched the humble meal ordered by the queen, with an edifying expedition. The whisper, which was at first so faint as to be scarcely cognizable by the ear, soon broke out into sounds so loud as to be almost terrific. “I won’t— [-167-] I shan’t—I will not let her have it to-night again,” said her majesty, advancing to the door of the little room, and looking quite savage as well as hungry.
“Let her have it to-night,” said a voice, evidently that of a man, soothingly, “and it will be your turn to-morrow night.”
“Oh, but I won’t, though !“ shouted the queen, with great energy. As she spoke, she came out of the robing-room, and walked, with all the appearance of offended majesty, a few steps along the stage. “I don’t see why she should have it oftener than me,” she added, wheeling about on her heels, and again approaching the Lilliputian apartment.
“You have had it twice for my once for a week past,” said the duchess, apostrophizing her sovereign in very indignant accents.
The audience were all this time lost in utter ignorance of the cause of the scene; and it seemed for some time to be quite a question, with many of them whether the parties to it were actually quarrelling with each other, or only acting. To any one of ordinary penetration, it must at once have appeared that there was too great a fidelity to nature for the scene to be acted; and that, therefore, there existed some real ground of quarrel between her most gracious majesty and her grace the duchess. The sudden appearance of the two amazons—for that was now the character in which they appeared—on the stage, where the quarrel rose to an alarming height, coupled with the frequent reference made to the slice of bread, soon satisfied the audience that —it was the innocent cause of the deadly quarrel. The duchess, not only forgetting all personal respect herself for her sovereign, but regardless of the tendency of her disloyal conduct to lower royalty in the estimation of the audience, was unmeasured in her vituperation of her majesty. Her grace stoutly asserted that the queen had a stomach for everything; that she was never contented with her own share of victuals, but wished to have that of everybody else; and that were she to have her own way, she would waste all the proceeds of the establishment in administering to the cravings of her insatiable appetite.
“Miss,” said her majesty, with much affected dignity, “you know you don’t speak the truth.”
“Marm,” shouted the duchess, “I do speak the truth, and you know it too. You know you ‘ye got an appetite as there is no satisfying; you have, indeed, you starvation-looking ‘ooman.” As her grace spoke, she looked quite furiously at the queen, and strutted a few paces across the stage. The audience, as might be expected, were quite shocked at the insult thus offered to her majesty.
[-168-] “You are a good-for-nothing individwal—indeed you are, Miss,” retorted the queen, with great warmth, and violently stamping her foot on the floor.
It was now, for the first time, that those of the audience not previously acquainted with the actresses learnt that her majesty was married, and that her grace was single.
“Vy don’t you divide it between you?” said a voice in the gallery.
“Yes,” responded another of the penny spectators; “and that would set all to rights.”
“Ay, do,” said the actor already referred to, who all this time had been looking very much concerned at the quarrel that was going on between the queen and the duchess, but seemed afraid to interfere. “Ay, do, there ‘s good creatures; and that will end all disputes.”
“Well, I don’t mind though I do it this once,” said her majesty, assuming an aspect of great condescension. The duchess also assented to the compromise without a word of murmur; and both sat down to the frugal repast the best friends in the world. The division of the slice, which was made by her majesty, appeared, as far as the audience could judge, to be of the most equitable kind. The exalted personages, however, were not allowed to eat their meal in peace. Before they had munched the piece of bread, a noise, like that of an infant screaming, was heard to proceed from behind the curtain, and, in a moment afterwards, a shrill tremulous voice from the same locality, evidently addressed to her majesty, was heard to say, “ Make haste, Mrs. Junks—do pray make haste, for Lubella is crying for the breast.” The matter was clear in an instant; the screaming proceeded from a young princess. Her majesty, to her credit be it spoken, did not allow the dignity of her situation to interfere with her maternal duties; but hastily snatching up the remainder of her share of the slice of bread, and poking it into her mouth, quitted the stage to administer to the wants of her infant princess, leaving the duchess to enjoy her dinner at leisure.
It is curious to contrast the actual condition of the histrionic personages who figure at the Penny Theatres with the circumstances in which they are often professionally placed. Their assumed character, I have frequently thought, must very materially aggravate the evils of their real condition. On the stage, they often appear as emperors, kings, dukes, empresses, queens, duchesses, &c., and as such talk, in pompous and boasting strains, of their inexhaustible wealth, their immense resources, and their vast power; when the real truth is, that they cannot command a single sixpence wherewith to procure themselves a homely meal; nor does their power extend so far as to induce [-169-] any one to bestow on them a morsel of bread. How great the contrast between the poor creatures strutting about on the stage with the assumed dignity of monarchs, while they are at the very moment enduring the pains of hunger, and know not an individual in the world who would move a step to rescue them from the horrors of actual starvation.
The severity of the privations which these parties are often doomed to undergo, will at once be inferred when I state what are the usual salaries they receive. Fourteen pence per night, and this, be it observed, for performing, it may be, in six or seven pieces, is thought a high rate of remuneration for the histrionic services of a poor wight acting at a Penny Theatre. Tenpence, or five shillings per week, is the more common rate of salary. How the poor creatures manage to subsist at all on this, I am at a loss to know; for between rehearsals through the day, and committing new pieces to memory, they have not time, even if they had the opportunity, to endeavour to eke out a miserable existence in any other way. But even this is not all. I know many instances in which penny theatre performers have a wife and three or four children dependent on them for support. Mr. Hector Simpson, the proprietor of the Tooley-street penny establishment, and also of a theatre in the neighbourhood of Queen-square, Westminster, lately detailed several affecting cases of this kind to me. When I spoke of one in particular, in which each member of the family had not above three halfpennyworth of food per diem, I asked him how they managed in such a case to preserve existence.
“That’s quite a mystery, Sir,” replied Mr. Hector Simpson.
“It is, indeed, a mystery. I cannot think how it can be done at all.”
“They do it, though,” observed Mr. Simpson, significantly shaking his head.
“But how?” I again inquired.
“Ay, that ‘s the rub,” observed Mr. Hector Simpson, quoting Shakspeare quite seriously, and still declining to enlighten me on the subject.
“But it appears to me,” I added, “that the thing is physically impossible.”
“Oh, you’ve come to physical impossibilities, have you? These are things we know nothing about, Sir; there are no physical impossibilities with us. Mr. Hector Simpson drew his hand across his beard as he spoke.
“I’m happy to hear it, Mr. Simpson; it’s very fortunate for you.”
“It ‘s the case, Sir,” said the latter, with an air of some importance; “it is, indeed, Sir.”
[-170-] In many cases the proprietors of Penny Theatres are as poor as the players. In other words, the speculation does not pay, and they are sometimes obliged to withhold the supplies, scanty as they are at best, from the poor performers. This, as might he expected, often leads to disputes between the lessees and the actors; and it does sometimes happen that, in imitation of the conduct which has of late been once or twice pursued at some of the larger theatrical establishments, the actors unanimously refuse to play until their arrears, or at least an instalment of them, are paid up. This usually has the effect of either prompting the proprietor to make some extraordinary exertions to raise what they call the “wherewith,” or of breaking up the concern altogether. In those cases in which the latter alternative occurs, it does occasionally happen that, in imitation of the example set them some short time since, by the company at the English Opera House, the corps dramatique enter into the speculation on their own account, thankful if they are able, at the close of the establishment each evening, to divide among themselves as much profit as will make the remuneration of the services of each, tenpence or one shilling.
It sometimes happens that the proprietor of a Penny Theatre takes advantage of the good nature of some particular performer by allowing his salary to “run up,” while he is pretty prompt in the payment of the salaries of others. Such proprietors, however, are sure to find in the end, that even the best-natured of mortals cannot be always trifled with, or unjustly treated, with impunity. “A hungry man is an angry man,”—so says the proverb; and never was there a truer adage. I need not repeat Lord Bacon’s just observation, “that of all rebellions the rebellion of the belly is the worst.” Hence when a good-natured actor is goaded on by hunger to quarrel with his employer in consequence of the non-payment of his salary, he usually assumes a very determined aspect, and acts with a decision and spirit which no one would otherwise have expected of him. At one -of the Penny Theatres over the water, an amusing scene of this kind lately occurred. The fall of the curtain intimated that the first piece was over. A considerable space of time having elapsed without any appearance of the second piece being about to be commenced, the audience became impatient, and set up the shouts and exclamations usual in such circumstances. Eventually the curtain was raised; but, behold, the stage was unoccupied! After the lapse of about half a minute, cries of “Why don’t you begin?” proceeded from all quarters; but for a time no one appeared on the boards to answer the question. The conduct of the audience eventually became alarmingly uproarious. Apprehensive of an actual riot, the lessee at last [-171-] came forward, and begged the indulgence of the “ladies and gentlemen,” on the ground that a temporary accident had occurred to the actor who was the leading character in the piece.
“Vat accident is it?” inquired an unwashed ragged youth in the midst of the audience.
“Vy, it was—hem; it was —.“ Here the lessee hesitated, as if unable, on the moment, to invent some plausible answer.
“I say, old ‘un, you seem at a loss,” shouted a tailor’s apprentice.
“Voy, I’m blessed if he knows vat to say,” said another patron of the penny drama.
“Come, old chap, can’t you tell us vat ‘a the matter,” said a third.
“Vy, ladies and gemmen, he ‘s ashamed on himself,” observed one of the actors, rushing on the stage. “The cause, ladies and gemmen, of this delay is, that I von’t hact, because this ‘ere person von’t pay me my salary.”
Cries of “Shame! shame!” proceeded from every throat in the house.
“Vill you allow me to explain?” inquired the lessee of the establishment, with great earnestness, looking imploringly towards his patrons, dignified with the name of an audience.
“No, don’t you !“ said the actor, casting a most piteous glance in the same direction,—” no, don’t; he owes me a-fortnight’s salary, and I can’t get a stiver from him.”
The cries of “Shame! shame !“ were here renewed with redoubled energy.
“I do assure you —“ The unfortunate lessee again struggled hard to obtain a hearing, but without effect. His voice was drowned amidst a volley of exclamations denunciatory of his conduct in withholding the poor actor’s miserable salary from him.
“I will pay him to-morrow,” said the lessee.
“Don’t believe a word he says,” observed the actor.
“I pledge myself to pay him to —“
“Vy don’t you do it now?” interrupted a gruff voice in the gallery, the proprietor of which was afterwards ascertained to be an errand-boy in the employ of a neighbouring cheese-monger.
“Ay, vy don’t you do it now ?“ echoed the poor actor, whose lank cheeks bespoke his distressed condition; “you knows that no one can hact well without vittals, and I have not had a mouthful since yesterday.”
The lessee renewed his promises to settle matters on the morrow.
[-172-] “Oh, it von’t do,” said the actor, drawing back his head, and giving it a significant shake; I ‘ve had a precious deal too many of your promises already, not to know that they are not worth a straw.
This short speech of the unfortunate actor was greeted with loud cheers and cries of “ Bravo! Bravo!”—” Go it! old boy.”
“Vill you just allow me one word? Upon my honour—”
“We didn’t know you ever had any,” interrupted a small shrill voice.
“If he has, I never saw any of it,” observed the refractory actor, with some sharpness.
“I vill pay you to-morrow,” said the lessee, in soothing strains, addressing himself to the histrionic personage whose refusal to act had caused the unpleasant scene which was being exhibited.
“I will not move a step nor utter a word until I’m paid,” said the latter, in a firm and audible voice.
“I really cannot pay it you just now; I have not got as much money at my own disposal.
“I’ll take a part, then, just now, and the rest to-morrow,” said the poor half-famished performer.
Loud cheers, mingled with cries of “ Surely, the old chap can’t refuse that,” greeted the intimation.
“Here’s five shillings, just now,” said the lessee, after fumbling some time in his pocket.
“And you’ll pay me the other five shillings to-morrow,” said the actor, as he held out his hand to receive the crown.
“ "I vill."
“Then let the play commence,” shouted the histrionic personage, advancing some paces on the stage with an aspect of great dignity, but still keeping the five shillings close in his hand, which by this time had been thrust into his pocket. The piece was accordingly begun, amidst the cordial applause of the audience, and it was a positive luxury to witness the spirit and effect with which the poor fellow now went through his part, compared with the feeble, spiritless, and inefficient way in which he performed his character in the first piece. And it is no wonder; for not only did he now see the prospect of “summut to eat to supper,” but it was an epoch in his history to have five shillings in his possession at once.
But though many of the Penny Theatres are such losing concerns to the proprietors and all concerned, that it is with difficulty that either can obtain as much from them as will support life, there are some of them that prove profitable speculations. Mr. Hector Simpson has the supreme satisfaction of thinking, that if he loses money by his theatre at Westminster, he gains more than he loses by the penny establishment in the classic regions of Tooley-street.
[-173-] The rentals of the Penny Theatres vary, as a matter of course, according to the size and condition of the house. Perhaps the average rental is fifteen shillings per week. In some cases, when a place is to be fitted up for the first time as a theatre, the proprietors of the house enter into an arrangement with the Lessee, that when the latter thinks fit to leave the place, or is ejected from it by the proprietor, the latter shall take every thing in the shape of fixtures off the lessee’s hand, paying him whatever money he expended in the article of fitting up. When such arrangements have been entered into between the parties, the lessee is expected to produce a separate bill for every thing he had, even in matters of the most trifling nature, for his fitting up. One of these lessees Lately mentioned to me a variety of articles, for which he had separate hills to produce whenever he and the proprietor should tire of each other. Some of them are rather funny. Among the number, one for a pennyworth of nails, made out as all of them were, in due form, ran thus
Bought of SAUNDERS and RAFF,
One pennyworth of nails for his establishment in the New Cut £0 0 1
1837. Received payment,
Nov. 20. SAUNDERS and RAFF.
Let the reader only fancy
three or four score accounts, all for articles whose individual price was under
threepence, made out in the same way, and he will be able to form some idea of
the regularity which the lessees of Penny Theatres are obliged to observe in
their financial dealings with the proprietors. Mr. Tobias Trunk, observing that
I felt considerably surprised at the circumstance of his asking a bill duly
receipted for so trifling a purchase as a pennyworth of nails, said, with a
shake of the head, and a slight twitch of his nose, “I have no doubt, Sir, you
think this very strange; but still it is necessary it should be done. We never
take one another’s word in such matters; we must have black and white for
every thing we do; we must indeed, Sir.”
“But, Mr. Trunk,” said I, “what did the merchants whom you patronized when making your penny and twopenny purchases think, when you asked them for a bill and receipt?”
“Bless my soul, Sir,” answered Mr. Tobias Trunk, “they thought, as I suppose you do, that I was a little cracked.”
“Oh, Mr. Trunk! that’s too bad; I neither have said nor done anything that could justify you in concluding that I had formed that opinion of you.”
“Youhave not; but I could easily see that they thought there was a screw loose in the upper part of my machinery; for [-174-] they first looked as amazed at me as if I had asked them to make me a present of their property, and then observed that they were not in the habit of making out accounts for such small purchases.”
“But still you managed to get them to do it at last, Mr. Trunk.”
I did, Sir, I persewered; and persewerance, as the world now wags, you know is everything.”
“It certainly performs wonderful feats, Mr. Trunk.”
“Wery vonderful feats, Sir.”
Among the most amusing circumstances to be met with in the annals of penny theatrical establishments, are the squabbles which take place betwixt the performers in the private room, when contrasted with the ardent friendship and boundless affection they show towards each other on the stage. At one of these theatres in the New Cut, a very laughable instance of this kind occurred about six weeks since. Mr. Trotter appeared in the character of a gay Lothario, paying his addresses to an old and masculine-looking female, rejoicing in the appellation of Miss Honoria Chessmore. I will answer for it that two more devoted lovers than this interesting couple, never existed in a poet’s imagination, far less in the regions of actual life, seen only as they trod the classic boards of the theatre in question; and yet, the moment they made their exit, in order that other of the dramatis personae might appear on the stage, they renewed with a vigour and point seldom equalled, (surpassed were out of the question,) an old quarrel, which I afterwards learnt was of very considerable standing, respecting the share which each had in the emptying of a pot of beer which the lessee had left in the green-room, while none but themselves were present. After being engaged for about a minute, in an altercation on the subject, of so violent a nature that the whole of the audience who heard it, must have momentarily expected it would end in a throttling match, it became their turn again to appear on the stage. They did so with the strictest histrionic punctuality, and again embraced each other with a fervour of affection which it was a positive luxury to witness; while the words in which they conversed together, were of the most honed description that ever escaped human lips. By-and-bye it again became their duty to retire, to allow other characters to unfold the part of the plot with the developement of which they were entrusted, when the mortal quarrel about the pot of beer was recommenced with the same energy as before. These transitions from being the most deadly enemies; which they were in reality in the green-room, to the most devoted of loveis on the stage, were continued for about ten minutes, and afforded a view of [-175-] human nature in its connection with the realities and assumed circumstances of life, which the philosopher might have contemplated with an interest of no ordinary kind.
In connection with the observations I have just made, I may mention that it often happens, that a husband and wife, not in the habit of living on the most affectionate terms at home, have to personate a married couple whom the author has described as living in a state of the purest love and of uninterrupted concord. The contrast between their appearance on the stage and at home, must, in such cases, forcibly strike the minds of all such parties, if not lost to all reflection. Not long since, a poor wight of a husband at one of these penny establishments, was so affected with the acting of his spouse in the character of a devoted wife, though a perfect Xantippe at home, that he could not help whispering in her ear in the midst of the performance—” Ah, my dear, I would give the whole world to see you as kind and affectionate at home as you appear just now.” On the following night a new piece was produced at the same establishment, in which the poor hen-pecked fellow had again to sustain the character of husband, and in which his better half appeared in the character of his wife. In the case of the latter, however, there was this very important difference, as compared with her appearance the previous evening—that it now devolved on her to act the part of a wife who played both the tyrant and virago at home. Here her acting far surpassed that of the former evening, though it was wonderfully fair; because she now appeared in her natural character. She had now simply to exhibit on the stage what she had for years nightly, practised without an effort at home. And so great was the resemblance of her manner on the stage, to what it was in her capacity of wife in the domestic relations of life, that the poor fellow could not help bursting out, looking significantly and with uplifted hands, towards the audience—” It’s so like—jist the thing— that’s the very way she goes on at home.”
The histrionic gentlemen and ladies who grace the boards of Penny Theatres, are remarkably dexterous hands at mangling, or, as they call it, abridging pieces. Hamlet is often performed
in twenty minutes; and Macbeth, and Richard the Third, and the other tragedies of Shakspeare, are generally “done” in much about the same time. Of all Shakspeare’s plays, Othello is the greatest favourite of these establishments; very possibly because it is easier to assume the appearance of the Moor; than of any other of Shakspeare’s heroes. A little soot smeared over the phiz of the actor undertaking the part, is deemed a sufficient external qualification for the part; whereas in many other cases, Something in the shape of dresses is supposed to be necessary.
[-176-] In the abridging of pieces the performers at the Penny Theatres are guided by no fixed rules. Time is the only counsellor to whose directions they will condescend to lend an ear. They will sometimes unwittingly devote perhaps ten minutes to the representation of some of the more interesting scenes in the first act, and then on being apprised that they have only ten minutes more to finish the whole, they overleap the second, third, and fourth acts, and very possibly land about the middle of the fifth. Should they even then be getting on more slowly than the lessee deems it right, and he wishes to have the piece “done out of hand,” he desires them to come at once to the “last scene of all,” which they do, and then enact that scene with an expedition with which it were in vain for any steam power to attempt to compete. I was lately very much amused on learning that at most of these places the lessee is in the habit of standing on one side of the stage watching the time, and that when it is within a minute or two of that which he has in his own mind allotted for that particular piece, he exclaims, “Time up finish the piece !—down with the curtain !“ and it is all done as he desires. Scarcely have the words passed his lips, when the whole affair is over, and down falls the curtain. In those cases in which he knows how the thing ought to end, he is more precise in his directions. In the case of Othello, for example, when the time has expired, even though the performers should not have got beyond the first act, he says, “The time is up —commit the murder, and down with the curtain.” Desdemona is then strangled in a moment, down goes the curtain, and out go the audience.
In several of these establishments, as many as from ten to twelve new pieces are sometimes produced in one week. In the theatre in Queen-square, Westminster, a round dozen new pieces were actually brought out in one week in the middle of last December. Of course, in such cases, but little pains are bestowed on the composition. Even suppose the writer, and there are seldom more than one or two writers for one establishment, had the talents requisite to the production of a tolerable piece, he can neither have the time nor the scope to display those talents to any advantage. With regard again to the performers committing pieces to memory, that were altogether out of the question. They are told a few of the leading incidents, and are either allowed to look at the manuscript of the piece, and by that means endeavour to remember some of the phrases, or to express themselves in any words which occur to themselves. They are, in fact, obliged to do from necessity, what John Reeve used to be in the habit of doing from sheer indolence, namely, express themselves in the [-177-] best way they can. And horrible work, as might be expected, from the very imperfect education of many of their number, do they usually make of it. They murder the Queen’s English much more remorselessly than they do their own heroes; for, in the latter case, you sometimes see in their countenances, or demeanour, the operation of some qualm of conscience; but in the former there is nothing of the kind. To speak the truth, they remain ignorant, and will do so to the last, of ‘he butchery of the English language of which they have been guilty.
But there is something still more ludicrous in the Penny Theatre productions. Their authors, who are always performers in the establishment, often begin not only to write them without having made up their minds as to how they will end, but even cause the acting of the first part to commence before the latter part is finished. When the author sees the length of time which the manuscript he has given out takes to act, he is then able to decide on the length to which he ought to extend the remainder of the piece. The performers, in such cases, after being made acquainted with the incidents, must do the best they can with them. An instance of this kind occurred about six weeks since, under my own observation. I asked the lessee what was the nature of the new piece which was then beginning to be acted. “Upon my word, Sir, I cannot tell you,” was the answer. “I usually leave these things to the actor who gets them,” he added. After a moment’s pause, he asked, for my information, the author-actor who chanced to pass us at the time, how the piece would end. “Vy,” said the latter, whose name was Hardhead, “I’m not exactly sure yet; but I think I’ll end it either with a murder or a suicide.”
“‘Why not with both ?“ suggested the lessee.
“That certainly would give the piece a more tragic termination,” I observed.
“Werry vell, then, I shall have both on ‘em,” said Mr. Hardhead, with the utmost indifference, as if it were quite immaterial in which way the piece should end; and with what the penny-a-liners call a “shocking case of suicide,” and a “dreadful murder,” it did accordingly end.,
The dramatis personae of the Penny Theatres keep up, in most cases, a very close intimacy with the audience. In many instances they carry on a sort of conversation with them during the representations of the different pieces. It is no uncommon thing to see an actor stop in the middle of some very interesting scene, to answer some question asked by one of the audience, or to parry any attempted witticism at his expense. This done, the actor resumes his part of the performance as if nothing had [-178-] happened; but possibly before he has delivered half a dozen sentences more, some other question is asked, or some other sarcastic observation made by one of the auditory, in which case the performer again stops to answer or retort, as if by way of parenthesis. A cross fire is thus sometimes kept up between the audience and the actors for several minutes at a time, and, to my taste, such “keen encounters of the wits” of the parties are much more amusing than the histrionic performances themselves. Decidedly the best thing of the kind which I ever witnessed while collecting, by personal observation, materials for this chapter, occurred about four months since, in an establishment some forty or fifty yards off High Holborn. A poor fellow, short in stature, and half-starved in appearance, with a ragged coat, which, but for its tails, would, from its shortness, have been mistaken for a jacket, came forward in the midst of the piece to treat the audience to one of his best vocal efforts. I do not now recollect the name of the song, but it was one of course of a prodigiously comical kind; for all the songs at these establishments are remarkable for their excess of the comical. I could not help thinking with myself, what a difference there must have been between the poor fellow’s actual mood of mind, and that in which the song made him appear. The audience, however, did not seem to be encumbered by anything in the shape of moralization, but were clearly resolved to have as much amusement as possible for their pence. Most heartily did they laugh at the most laughable things in the song. So far all was well; for they had an undoubted right, having paid for it, to exercise their risible faculties as much as they pleased; but in the middle of the song, a little urchin threw a potato at the vocalist, and hit him right on the forehead. As might be expected, he suddenly paused: and made a remarkably rapid transition from the comical to the tragic. He put his hand to his forehead, and looked for a few seconds terrifically at the part of the house whence the potato was projected. At last he stammered out, in half indignant half pathetic tones, “Who did that ?“
“It was not me,“ answered one.
“Nor me,” said another.
“I didn’t do it, any how,” observed a third.
“Nor I either,” shouted a chorus of voices.
“Perhaps nobody did it,” said the poor fellow, with an aspect of great simplicity.
“Per’aps not,” answered a little rogue, amidst peals of laughter.
“Whoever did it,” said the songster, becoming better humoured as the pain abated; “whoever did it, might, at any rate, have boiled the potato first.”
[-179-] “Vat for?” inquired another of the patrons of the penny drama.
“I’ll tell you what for ____“
Here the vocalist was interrupted by a voice—” O I knows vat for!”
“No you don’t,” said the actor.
“I do though.”
“Vell, vat is it for?” inquired a little sickly-looking noy who sat beside him.
“Vy, bekase as how if it had been a boiled’ un, it would have been so soft as not to have ‘urt him.”
“No, that ‘s not it,” said the poor fellow.
“Vell, vat is it then?” shouted a dozen voices.
“I’m blessed if I don’t know,” said a tin-trumpet sort of voice, from the centre of the audience.
“Let’s have it then,” said the vocalist.
“Voy, bekase if as how it ‘ad been a boilt, you could have eaten it.”
A shout of laughter followed the clever observation of the urchin, in which the vocalist could not refrain from joining. He then endeavoured to resume the song at the place at which he was interrupted; but not being able to remember it, observed, with infinite good nature, “O, we must begin again ;“ and he did begin again, and end too, in excellent style.
I will just mention one other amusing proof of the familiarity which so generally subsists between the corps dramatique at Penny Theatres and the audience. It occurred about eight weeks since, at Cooke’s establishment in the New Cut. The piece which had been performing was one of so awfully a tragic kind, especially towards the conclusion, that even two policemen, a class of men not said to he remarkable for their susceptibilities on such occasions, who had stationed themselves in a dark corner of the house, for the purpose of pouncing on two young thieves whom they expected to make their appearance that evening, could not refrain from affording some indications that they, any more than the rest of the audience, were not insensible to the touching scenes which were passing before them. The dénouement was at length at hand. The piece was a love one; and the lover, goaded on by the violence of the green-eyed monster’s operation in his bosom, determined to be revenged both on his rival, and on the mistress of his heart, for countenancing the tender advances of any one but himself. No sooner had he formed his determination than he prepares to carry it into immediate effect. He procures a pair of pistols and a dagger. He loads the former, and concealing them, with the dagger, under his cloak, seeks a meeting with the intended victims.
[-180-] That meeting he soon gets: he discovers them both together in very earnest and affectionate conversation. He discharges one pistol at his rival, and the other at his sweetheart, and then plunges the dagger into his own bosom. The whole three fall almost instantaneously; but as they fell, and while the audience were all wrapt in horror at the frightful tragedy, out came from behind the scenes a ragged boy, with a corduroy jacket, and a basket in his extended hand, and stepping over the bodies of the dying trio, as careless-like as if he had been walking on Waterloo-road, sang out, “Apples !—six a penny I” A little dog, at the same instant, as if the thing had been the result of concert, sprung also from behind the scenes, and set up a loud barking. The affair was infinitely ludicrous, and converted, as if by some magical influence, the horror and sorrow with which the audience were overwhelmed but a moment before, in consequence of the dreadful tragedy they had witnessed, into a loud and universal roar of laughter, which was only put an end to by the fall of the curtain.
The audiences at the Penny Theatres are peculiar in their dramatic taste. They are not only fond of extremes, but will tolerate nothing else. Comedy is completely proscribed by them; they must either have the deepest tragedy or the broadest farce. In the tragic way, they evince a remarkably strong predilection for “horrible murders ;“ and the moment that accounts of any such occurrence appear in the newspapers, a piece embodying the most shocking incidents in that occurrence is got up for representation at these establishments. The recent atrocity known by the name of the Edgeware murder, was quite a windfall to many of the Penny Theatres. Pieces founded on the most frightful of the circumstances connected with it were forthwith got up, and acted to crowded houses, amidst great applause. It will hardly be believed, yet such is the fact, that so late as November last—that is, full ten months after the occurrence took place—it was represented in these establishments to numerous audiences. The following is a verbatim copy of one of the placards, announcing it for a particular night, as the leading piece for the benefit of one of the performers
THE BENEFIT OF MR. TWIG.
On Tuesday next will be performed the Grand National Dramar
THE MURDER OF CARPENTER’S BUILDINGS.
[-181-] The farces, as I have just stated, are of the broadest kind: the broader and more absurd, the better do they take. At a penny establishment on the Lambeth side of the water, which my curiosity, and the desire of procuring accurate information, induced me to visit seven or eight weeks since, one of the most successful pieces consisted of such matter as the following
Enter Tom Snooks, Harry Finch, and Ned Tims.
Tom SnooksI say, Harry, will you lend me a tanner (a six-pence) till to-morrow?
Harry Finch.—I vould if I could, but blow me tight if so be as I’ve got one.
Tom Snooks.—I say, Ned, old ‘un, can you do anything?
Ned Tims.—Voy, Tom, may I never smoke another pipe o’ baccy, if I’ve got a stiver in the world.
Tom Snooks.I say, chaps, as we are all poor alike, vat do you say to a goin’ a robbin’ o’ some old rich fellers?
Harry Finch.— Capital, Tom, nothing could be better; don’t you think so, Ned?
Ned Tims-Voy, yes, if it were not for wot follows.
Tom Snooks.— Vat do you mean?
Ned Tims.—Vat I means is this ‘ere, that I’m afear’d we might all three get scragged (hanged).
Tom Snooks.—Pooh, pooh! all nonsense.
Harry Finch.—Vell, Ned, I’m bless’d if I ever thought you were such a coward.
Ned Tims.—Vell, dash my vig if I cares vat be the consekence— I’ll go. I say, chaps, hush—I’m blowed if there be not an old feller on the road there: let’s begin with him.
Tom Snooks - Done, Ned, done.
Harry Finch.— Come, Ned (patting him on the shoulder, and looking him coaxingly in the face), may I never have a button to my coat if you ben’t a regular trump.
Enter an eccentric-looking Stranger.
Stranger.—Can you tell me, friends, how far I am from the next inn?
Ned Tims (seizing the stranger by the throat) .—Your money or your life, Sir. -
Tom Snooks. —Yes, my old bowl, your money or your life.
Harry Finch.— And this moment too.
Stranger.—Oh, ho! that’s it, is it? But how do you know I’ve got any?
Ned Tims.—Then out goes your brains (putting his hand beneath a sort of cloak, as if grasping a pistol in his hand).
Stranger.—Why, my good friends, if the truth must be told, I’m quite as destitute of brains as of money: I’ve got none of neither.
[-182-] Ned Tims (to the stranger) .—Come, old feller, no gammon with us. If you don’t fork out the yellow boys (sovereigns) presently, I’ll send a ball through your carcass, which will make a passage broad enough to let a coach and six be driven through with ease.
Stranger.—You don’t mean that?
Ned Tims.—We do, indeed. Don’t we, young men.
Harry Finch.— Ay, that we do.
Tom Snooks.— Yes; and no mistake.
Here the appearance of some person puts an end to the dialogue, the trio of scamps taking to their heels without loss of time. In a short time afterwards, they again appear on the stage, when they are found in a very jocular mood, and conversing on a variety of subjects.
Tom Snooks.—They say the cholera is coming to wisit this town.
Harry Finch.— Vell, and vat about it?
Tom Snooks.—Voy, it’s wery alarming.
Ned Tims.—But voy should they let it come into the town?
Tom Snooks.—But how can they keep it out?
Ned Tims.— Voy, by giving the toll-keeper strict orders not to let it pass the turnpike-gate on any account.
I shall only give one more short specimen of the sort of dramatic literature which is most popular at the Penny Theatres.
Harry Finch.— I say, Ned, old feller, do you know I’ve become a father this morning?
Tom Snooks.— Vat! a papa, Harry?
Mr. Finch nodded in token of assent.
Ned Tims (seizing his hand).— Ah, Harry, my boy, I wish you much joy. Pray, vot have you got?
Ned Tims.— A boy?
Harry Finch.— No; guess again.
Ned Tims.—Per’aps a girl, eh?
Harry Finch (apparently with great surprise).—Bless my soul, Ned, I’m blow’d if you ain’t a guessed it.
This has but little effect in the mere telling; but when spoken with a certain archness of manner, it sets the whole audience in a roar of laughter.
The play-bills of the Penny Theatres are never printed. The expense of printing is too great for the state of the treasury to admit of that. They are all written, and are seldom to be seen anywhere but on a board in the immediate neighbourhood of the various places. The titles of the pieces are always of a clap-trap kind. The following is a specimen
Thursday next will be performed at Smith’s Grand Theatre,
THE RED-NOSED MONSTER,
THE TYRANT OF THE MOUNTAINS.
Red-nosed Monster - Mr. SAVAGE.
The Assassin - Mr. TONGS.
The Ruffian of the Hut - Mr. DARTMAN.
The Villain of the Valley - Mr. PRICE SHORT.
Wife of the Red-nosed Monster - Mrs. TAPSTER.
Daughter of the Assassin - Miss BLACK.
To conclude with the
THE MURDER IN THE COTTAGE.
The Characters by the Company.
The Christmas holidays are the most productive seasons at the Penny Theatres. The Pantomimes “draw” houses “crowded to excess.” The playbills, on such occasions, are written in unusually large and striking letters. The following specimen is copied, without the alteration of a word, or the slightest departure from the punctuation, from a placard which was exhibited at one of these establishments in St. George’s Fields, on the 28th of December last:—
Will, be produced. A splendid
With, New. Scenery Dresses.
Tricks (and) Decorations, Written and
Got, up. under (the) Direction, of
Mr. CLARKE entitled
DR. BOLUS OR HARLEQUIN—THE FAIRY
Albert, afterwards Harlequin - Mr. GUTHRIE.
Gobble, afterwards the Clown - Mr. BUCKSKIN.
Dr. Bolus, afterwards Pantaloon - Mr. DRINKWATER.
Runabout – Mr. SMITH.
Dozey - Mr.JONES.
Rosa, afterwards Columbine - Miss SHUTTLE.
Sunbeam, a Fairy - Miss SHORT.
Fishwoman - Mrs. SPRATT.
[-184-] In imitation of the conduct of the managers of the larger establishments,—places which are professedly set apart, in a special manner, for the protection and encouragement of the legitimate drama,—the Penny Theatre lessees occasionally treat their audiences to the performances of the brute creation. I need hardly say that their boards are not sufficiently large to admit of the performances of elephants or of horses. The largest animal I have ever heard of as performing on the stage of a Penny Theatre, was a bear. Bruin was amongst the largest of his species, and was remarkably ferocious in his appearance, to boot. He was the property of a little, lank-cheeked, sharp-eyed man, named Monsey Guff. To his master, Bruin was very strongly attached, though a perfect brute to everybody else; and it is but justice to Mr. Guff to say that there was no love lost between them, for Mr. Guff was exceedingly partial to his bear. The affection of the parties for each other was far stronger than anything of the kind which goes by the name of Platonic. A very interesting practical display of their mutual attachment was afforded, under very trying circumstances, some years ago. It was arranged between the two that they should make the tour of Scotland together, to see what luck they should have in the way of an exhibition; for Bruin, under the able instructions of his master, had made considerable progress in the art of dancing. It is doubtful, indeed, whether he would have made greater proficiency had he been under the tuition of the most distinguished French master extant; for Mr. Guff thoroughly understood the genius of his pupil, which a stranger could not be expected to do. With the bear’s acquirements in the art of tripping on the light fantastic toe, Mr. Guff confidently calculated on realizing a rich harvest from the tour in Scotland. He fancied that Bruin would be just the thing to “draw” the Scotch. Alas! how different the event from the expectation! Mr. Guff says, that he soon found, to his sad experience, that the Caledonians either had no “siller” to spare, or that they would not part with it. In the lower districts of the country, he, and his friend the bear, just- managed to get a subsistence; but when they came to the Highlands, nothing but starvation stared them in the face. Before setting out on their journey, the parties came to a distinct understanding that they should live or die together; and for some days they bore their privations with a fortitude that would have done credit to philosophers of the first order. Mr. Guff says that not a single murmur escaped his lips,—unless, indeed, the occasional utterance of a wish to be back to England deserved the name; while poor Bruin, as far a~ his friend and master could understand what was passing within his mind — if a bear can be said to have a mind— [-185-] contented himself with wishing that he were once more in the polar regions. At length, however, matters reached a crisis: the hunger of Mr. Guff and Bruin became so great, that, as in the case of a shipwrecked crew who have been several days without food, no other alternative presented itself to them but that of the one eating the other to preserve life. The question, therefore, was, whether Mr. Guff should eat the bear, or whether the bear should eat Mr. Guff. It was true, that the animal could take no audible part in discussing the matter; but Mr. Guff, who says he clearly understood, on this occasion, Bruin’s thoughts, from his physiognomy and manner, unhesitatingly affirms that the bear was perfectly willing to be sacrificed for the preservation of his master and friend; but that he (Mr. Guff) could not reconcile it to his notions of justice, or to his attachment to the bear, to entertain for a moment the idea of eating him up, without first drawing lots, and by that means giving him the same chance as himself for life. Mr. Guff was accordingly about to draw lots as to whether he or the bear should be the victim, when he happened, after having travelled through a bleak and barren part of the country, fifteen miles in length, without seeing a single house,—to discover smoke issuing from a small turf hut about forty or fifty yards before them. To the hut they both proceeded, and so far from the inmates, two aged brothers, being frightened at the sight of Bruin, as they had invariably found the peasantry to be before,—they were delighted to see him, observing that he recalled to their minds the repeated voyages they had made years before, when sailors, to the polar regions. Both Mr. Gulf and the bear were treated to a homely but abundant repast, and from that day to this, Mr. Guff says that neither he nor the bear has ever known what hunger is.
But, of all quadrupeds, those teachable animals called dogs are most frequently introduced to the juvenile personages who grace with their presence the Penny Theatres. Some years ago, a Mr. Abel Smith had acquired a tolerable reputation for the exploits which he had taught a couple of Newfoundland dogs to perform. He used to tell a curious story about one of his engagements with the proprietor of a Penny Theatre.
For some time he and his dogs confined their exhibitions to Sadler’s Wells, which has been for more than a century, as many of my readers are aware, the leading establishment in town for appreciating merit in the brute creation, or anything in the shape of “astonishing” gymnastic performances in the two-legged class of animals. Mr. Abel Smith’s dogs, like actors of another kind, eventually ceased to “draw” at the Wells ; and accordingly their engagement soon came to a termination. The proprietor of one of the penny establishments having been ap-[-186-]prised of this, thought it would prove a profitable speculation if he could get a fortnight of Mr. Abel Smith’s dogs on reasonable terms. He said the thing would be a novelty, at any rate, and could not fail to please, whether it paid or not. Mr. Cross, the Penny Theatre proprietor, consequently waited on Mr. Abel Smith. “Mr. Smith,” said the other, “I have come to have a word or two about your dogs.”
“Very good, Sir: very wonderful animals, Sir.”
“They are said to be very clever, Mr. Smith.”
“They are very clever, Sir.”
“What terms would you propose for the use of them in my theatre, in Shoreditch, for a fortnight?”
“For a fortnight of successive nights ?“ said Mr. Abel Smith.
“Just so,” answered Mr. Cross.
“Oh, we had ten shillings each per night at ‘Sadler’s Wells.’”
“Ah; but, Mr. Smith, you must remember, that while the price of admission to the boxes at Sadler’s Wells is half-a-crown, the pit eighteen pence, and the gallery one shilling, I have got neither boxes nor pit in my establishment; and the price of admission is only one penny.”
“Bless my heart !“ said Mr. Abel Smith, looking surprised, “I’m not sure, Mr. Cross, if it would be respectable for us to appear on the boards of such an establishment.”
“Well, certainly, Mr. Smith,” said Mr. Cross, pulling himself up, “you do astonish me. This is the first time I have heard anything about the respectability of dogs.”
“Do you mean to say we’re not respectable, Sir ?“ remarked Mr. Abel Smith, with great emphasis, entwining his arms on his breast.
“Not at all, Mr. Smith. I assure you, nothing could be farther from my intention as regards yourself personally: I only meant your dogs.”
“My dogs, Sir !“ exclaimed Mr. Smith, with great energy, and looking Mr. Cross fiercely in the face.
“Yes, Mr. Smith, only your dogs.”
“Only my dogs! I tell you what, Mr. Cross, those dogs are very respectable animals. I wish all animals with two legs conducted themselves with as much propriety.” Mr. Abel Smith made two or three hasty paces through the room as he spoke.
“Do you mean any reflection on me, Sir ?“ said Mr. Cross, with much sharpness. “Do you mean to say that your dogs are more respectable than me?”
“I mean to say this,” answered Mr. Abel Smith, with a firm and steady voice, but evading the question put to him; “I mean to say this, that I shall never stand silent by while the re-[-187-]spectability of my dogs is called in question. I will not, Mr. Cross. They are noble animals; they are, Mr. Cross.”
“Mr. Smith, you seem to labour under a strange misconception,” observed Mr. Cross, in a more conciliatory tone. “I never impugned, nor meant to impugn, the respectability of your dogs.”
“Then you admit that they are respectable ?“
“I have no doubt they are, in their own way, Mr. Smith.”
“Very good,” said the latter, in a tone that showed he was quite satisfied. “Very good: if you wish to engage us, our terms are seven shillings a-piece.”
“Seven shillings a-night; that is fourteen shillings altogether,” observed Mr. Cross, in a slow and subdued tone, and fixing his eye on the hob, as if lost in a calculation as to what the entire sum would be which he would have to pay Mr. Abel Smith for the fortnight’s performances of his dogs.
“Fourteen shillings!” said Mr. Abel Smith, with much surprise; “you’re mistaken, Sir; it’s a- guinea.”
“A guinea! How do you make that out? There’s only two dogs.”
“Very true, Sir; but there’s me.”
“Oh, but it is not necessary to have you, Mr. Smith. You don’t act; you only say two or three words to the animals. which we can say ourselves.”
“Sir,” said Mr. Abel Smith, -adjusting his collar, “if we don’t go together, we don’t go at all.”
“Really, Mr. Smith, I think that is unreasonable.”
“It shall be the case, Sir. My dogs and myself, or no dogs at all. Besides, Sir, the animals won’t perform their wonderful feats with any one but myself.”
“I don’t see why they shouldn’t.”
“But I tell you- they won’t, Sir,” said Mr. Abel Smith, in a gruff voice.
“ Have you any objections to let me try them ?“ “Oh, none in the least.”
“Well, then, Mr. Smith, perhaps you would call in the first one, and see whether, on my running across the room and repeating the words you use, the animal does not seize me by the neck of the coat without doing me any injury.”
“Oh, certainly, Sir. Stampheels! here, here, here.”
A large lively-looking dog immediately responded to his master’s call, and quitting a back yard, presented himself before Mr. Abel Smith and Mr. Cross.
The latter made a sort of run through the room, and uttered the words which Mr. Smith invariably used in Sadler’s Wells when he wished the animal to perform the exploit of seizing [-188-] him by the neck of the coat without hurting him; but the dog remained motionless at his master’s feet.
“Well, Sir,” said Mr. Abel Smith, triumphantly, “you are convinced now, I suppose, that the animals won’t perform without me
“It strikes me,” answered Mr. Cross, “that if you were to say, ‘Go, Sir,’ in a harsh tone, when I repeat the words, that he would go at once, and perform the feat.”
“Very well, Sir; we shall try the experiment, if you wish it.”
“Do, Mr. Smith.”
Mr, Cross again made a bound across the room, repeating the particular words; on which, Mr. Abel Smith, addressing himself in an assumed angry tone to Stampheels, said, “Go, Sir!” The animal that moment started to his feet, and springing on Mr. Cross, seized him ferociously by the neck of his coat. He then threw him on his back on the floor, and gave two or three tremendous growls, as if he had been about to tear him to pieces. Here Mr. Abel Smith interfered, and by rescuing Mr. Cross from the paws and mouth of the animal, prevented the occurrence of any such catastrophe. Mr. Cross, as might be expected, was petrified with fright at the horrible situation in which he had been placed.
“Satisfied now, Sir, I presume, that the dogs won’t do without me ?“ said Mr. Abel Smith, with an air of much self-complacency, addressing himself to Mr. Cross, on the partial recovery of the latter from his fright.
“Oh! quite satisfied, Mr. Smith,” said the latter. “You shall come with the dogs, and you’ll have your own terms.”
Mr. Abel Smith has told this story about “me and my dogs” with infinite zest, a thousand times over, and he tells it still with a glee and earnestness of which no description could furnish an idea.
It is amusing to contrast the respect which the speculators in Penny Theatres pay to their audiences when going in, with the rudeness they often show to them when coming out. When a person is going into one of these establishments, he meets with every politeness from the proprietor, or the person whom he may have stationed at the door to take up the money. When coming out again, the audience are ordered to clear the way, just as if they were so many serfs at the beck of the proprietor or his servants. At some of these establishments, the audience are told on going out, in most authoritative tones, by the proprietor, to “make haste out of the way, to let, in my fresh audience.” The “fresh audience” are treated with all deference on their entrance, because they then pay their money; but they in due course become what I suppose the proprietors would call their [-189-] stale audience, and meet with the same disrespectful treatment on their quitting the place which they saw those receive whom they encountered in the passage coming out, while they themselves were going in. And yet this is but a modification of a principle which is every day seen and felt in its operations in the ordinary affairs of life. So long as we are of service to our fellow men, they treat us with at least the outward manifestations of respect; but the moment we cease to be so, we meet with a very different treatment. The fable of the man who overlooked the ninety-nine times in which the greyhound had caught the hare, when the animal failed in the hundredth attempt, is hourly illustrated in every walk of life. Of course, there are exceptions, but they are comparatively few in number.
I must in justice say there are some such exceptions—for I know of two—in the case of the proprietors of Penny Theatres. Mr. Hector Simpson, to whom I have made such frequent reference already, is one. So respectfully does Mr. Hector Simpson treat his audiences, that he often goes into the pit unobserved by his company of actors, to see that they do full justice to the audience by fairly acting the piece; and if he sees that any part of the piece has been slovenly represented, or rather misrepresented, or, worse still, not represented at all, he immediately starts up with the suddenness of an apparition, and sternly commands his actors to play the part over again, or to perform that which they omitted, adding, in indignant and stentorian accents, “I ‘m determined that no persons in my employment shall insult my audience with impunity.” Mr. Hector Simpson is most assiduous in enjoining on his performers, that they pay the utmost respect, on all occasions, to his audience. It is not improbable that this is one of the principal causes of the great success of his establishment in Tooley-street, while he sees so many other Penny Theatres around, him in so deplorable a condition. There is one thing which, in this respect, is in Mr. Hector Simpson’s favour: he never suffers the salaries of his actors or actresses to fall into arrear, which very naturally insures obedience to orders that otherwise might be slighted.
Hitherto I have said little of the quality of the acting at the Penny Theatres. In those cases in which the arrangements are such that pieces must be got through in a certain time, without regard to effect, there can, of course, be no good acting, even where there is the requisite talent on the part of the performers. In some of the establishments, however, where there are only two & three, instead of six or seven, “ houses” in one night, and where the proprietor trusts to a superior order of acting drawing numerous audiences, and by that means making up for a reduced number of “houses,” the acting is, in many cases, really good. [-190-] I have seen some pieces, both in tragedy and farce, represented at these establishments, with wonderful effect. Indeed, I am convinced that the acting, as a whole, in the cases to which I refer, would have been applauded at some of our more respectable larger theatres. This will appear the less surprising, when I mention, that many of those who are now subsisting on the miserable pittance they receive for their performances at Penny Theatres, were once great favourites at the larger establishments. One of these unfortunate persons was lately pointed out to me as not only the bosom friend of the late Mr. Munden, one of the most distinguished comedians of his day, but as having many years acted with him in important characters at Drury-lane, and most efficiently supported him in his most arduous parts. And now the poor fellow has only tenpence a night. I forbear mentioning his name, as that would only add to the unhappiness of his condition. It is really painful to think that one who had for so many years been a popular actor, should now, in his old age, partly from the infirmities of his advanced years, and partly from the fickleness of the public taste, be unable to obtain an engagement in any of the larger houses, and consequently be driven as a last resource against the workhouse, to toil night after night at one of these miserable places.* (* It is generally admitted that there is no class of men more improvident than the members of the theatrical profession, taken as a body. In many cases, they have what, in speaking of the pieces in which they perform, they would call such “a run” of good luck, that in a few years they might, with proper economy, save as much as would place them beyond the reach of want; yet it so happens that very few of them have the prudence to lay aside a part of their earnings. They usually live up to their means; very often above their means, even when those means are abundant. They never contemplate for a moment the possible, not to say probable contingency of their popularity declining, and eventually dying away altogether or of any of the accidents of life occurring to prevent their successful prosecution of their professional pursuits. They take for granted that they are to continue to run an equally prosperous career, and think it enough if they make the day and the journey alike; consequently, when a reverse of circumstances occurs, they have nothing to fall back upon, but are obliged to accept of any engagement, no matter how disrespectable, or how painful to their feelings, which is offered to them. But while I thus refer with regret to the improvidence which is so general among the members of the histrionic profession, it must be admitted, that from the extreme precariousness of that profession, the most provident are often unable to make any provision against a future period. I believe that between improvident habits and the precarious nature of their pursuits, there is more suffering among actors and actresses, than among the members of any other body that could be named.) Yet so it is; and not in his case only, but also in that of many others. These unfortunate men, as will easily be understood, having been in the habit of acting well, now act well without an effort; it has become a sort of second nature to them. There are others, again, who have a natural. talent for the stage, hut who, having never been fortunate enough to get an engagement in any larger house, are obliged to [-191-] vegetate in obscurity in these Penny Theatres; so that between these two classes .f actors, good acting, where sufficient time is allowed by the proprietors, may often be witnessed at them. In the generality, however, of these establishments, there is no such thing as acting at all. The performers say what they like and do as they like. Stabbing and thrusting in the tragic pieces, and slapping one another’s faces, and pulling one another’s caps over each other’s eyes in the farces, are the principal kinds of acting which are to be seen. The pleasure which would otherwise be enjoyed by those who can appreciate the good acting, must necessarily be much diminished by the consciousness that the actors are so miserably remunerated for their services. I have often wondered how they are able to keep up their spirits sufficiently to enable them to play their parts so well.
I may here observe, not having done it when speaking of the number of Penny Theatres, that they are rapidly on the increase. The oldest of them is of comparatively modern growth, and if they continue for a few years to increase as rapidly as they have done for the last five or six years, they cannot fail to attract the attention of the magistrates, if not the legislature itself. I am’ quite satisfied, from what I have myself witnessed at these establishments, to say nothing of what has been communicated to me by persons whose word or opportunities of acquiring correct information I had no reason to question, that they do incalculable mischief to the morals of the youths who frequent them.* (* I could indeed refer to particular cases in confirmation of the injurious consequences to the morals of both sexes from attendance on Penny Theatres, but that is unnecessary. One has only to spend a single half hour in one of these places to see mid hear what is passing, to be convinced of their highly immoral tendency. A. few visits to Penny Theatres by the moralist or philanthropist, could not fail to afford information which might be made conducive to the interests of society.) Whenever the police have reason to believe that some particular boy has been guilty of any act of theft, or other crime cognizable by the civil authorities, they proceed as a matter of course to some spot in the neighbourhood of some of these establishments, not doubting they will meet with the youth of whom they are in quest, either when going in or coming out. But to expatiate here on the mischievous tendency of these places on the morals of the youths who frequent them, would only be to repeat what has been said on the subject in the opening of the chapter. My purpose in again adverting to the matter, is to impress, if possible, on the minds of the civil authorities, the propriety of shutting up the Penny Theatres. The process by which this may be done, is sufficiently simple and easy. The magistrates have only to indict them as nuisances, which they undoubtedly are, to the neighbourhoods in which [-192-] they are severally placed. This has already been done by the proper authorities in several districts in town. A year or two ago, two or three of them were put down in the east end. leading, if I remember rightly, out of Ratcliffe Highway; and within the last ten or twelve months, several of them, as before stated, have been shut- up in the West End. The evil has already reached a sufficient height to justify the interference of the magistrate. Were it likely to abate of itself, that might afford some excuse for looking passively on these places; but when, as already stated, the evil is rapidly on the increase, instead of being on the decline, and when, as I have lately been assured by the proprietors of two of these establishments, they are likely to go on increasing to an extent of which no one has at present any conception, it is surely high time that the proper authorities interfered. As before observed, they must sooner or later be put down by the arm of the law; and consequently it were better they were put down now. Enough of evil has already been done by these places in the way of corrupting the morals of the youths in their respective neighbourhoods; let not the amount of that evil be increased, by not only suffering those already in existence to continue their nightly performances, and by that means extend the mischief, but by allowing new ones to be called into being in different parts of the town.
[nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.]