Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London Up to Date, by George Augustus Sala, 1895 - A First Night at the Lyceum

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    You have but a very indefinite idea as to how you became the proud possessor of a coupon for stall 93 at the Royal Lyceum Theatre for the First Night's performance of a new drama, the plot and characters of which will subsequently be revealed. It is certain that although you have been for years an enthusiastic follower of Henry Irving, and admire him quite as much in comedy as in tragedy - did not Garrick excel in both? - you have no kind of personal acquaintance with that accomplished dramatic artist. You have not even met him in the smoking rooms of the Garrick or the Reform Club, of neither of which institutions you are a member. Thus it is indubitable that the card for the stalls did not come from Mr. Irving.
    Scarcely, moreover, can the favour which you have received be due to your being connected with the press; since your brief association with journalism was confined to your having contributed, a long while ago, to the Poets' Corner of the Chawbacon, Gazette, published at Wiggle-Waggle, Hants. How on earth, then, did you get that most coveted ticket? You surely never bought the precious pasteboard. Stalls, for a Lyceum [-49-] first night, are as difficult to obtain as blue diamonds, four-leaved shamrocks, or Great Auks' eggs. Besides, your principles, as regards admittance to theatres, are precisely those adopted with regard to oysters by the renowned Dando. He never paid for the bushels of bivalves which he devoured; and you never pay - when you are in England, at least, - to go to the play.
    Here you are, at all events, right in the centre of the stalls on the evening of a day in a week, month, and year, unnecessary to specify. You have come, purposely, very early; and gazing round the rows of stalls you are unable for some time to recognise, among the sparse groups of occupants scattered about, more than half a dozen people whom you know intimately or slightly. Yonder, indeed, is old General Gadabout - they really ought to make the gallant old veteran a Field-Marshal - who is supposed to have seen Edmund Kean in Richard III, and who was certainly present - for you saw his name in the newspapers of the time - at Macready's farewell benefit. The General never misses a first night at the Lyceum. By his side, and closely foregathering with him, is young Mr. Protocol Peach- blossom, of the Foreign Office, who, youthful as lie looks, and really is, has every right to be considered as a high authority on matters dramatic. He knows the names of all the actors and actresses of London, and can tell you how many of the former are graduates of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and heirs to baronetcies, and how many of the latter are nieces of archbishops or first cousins of viscounts.
    [-50-] Turning round in your stall, you scan, first, the pit; and then, elevating your opera-glass, you inspect the boxes and the gallery. The pit itself presents one solid, serried phalanx of anxiously expectant humanity; and so dense is the mass of these conscientious playgoers that it seems a matter of mathematical certainty that, were an attempt made to wedge one more individual into the pit, another pittite would be wedged out of it, and come bounding over into the stalls. The private boxes are as yet almost unoccupied; but the dress circle, by half-past seven, is filling rapidly; the upper tier is full, and the gallery is crowded. You will not fail to remark that the "gods" are very quiet. They seem to have arrived at a tacit understanding among themselves that the Lyceum is not a theatre to be noisy in; and, again, it is possible that among them, as among the pittites, there may be people who have been waiting at the outside doors since 2 P.M., or earlier, who have brought camp-stools (and copies of Ally Sloper to while away the time withal), refreshing themselves, from time to time, with ham-sandwiches, and something from a bottle-something, of course, never stronger than cold tea, or lime-juice cordial and water. Turn again, not Whittington, but First Nighter "on the cheap" - turn towards the proscenium, and you will find the aspect of the stalls completely transformed. The audience have thronged into their places in rapidly succeeding batches; and by eight minutes to eight this, the most luxurious portion of the house, is nearly full The uninitiated would see in this smiling, well-dressed assemblage, only [-51-] so many ladies and gentlemen moving in the "smartest" society; but you know better. Either because you have been at some time or other a linkrnan, or a hall-porter at a club, or a call-boy at a theatre, or a private detective, you are aware that on First Nights the "smart" people are mainly to be found in the private boxes or the dress circle. Yonder, for example, in a pit-box, is the Baroness Bountiful, with a large circle of her fashionable friends, whom she has bidden to partake of her hospitality on an occasion which, like its many predecessors, can scarcely fail to be memorable. The Royal box is occupied by certain Ineffables, from whom you discreetly avert your lorgnon; Royalty very properly objecting to be stared at, save on State occasions.
    The stalls, on the other hand, present much livelier interest than is ordinarily excited by a thickly-packed assemblage of gentlemen in faultless evening dress, the majority of them with gardenias or carnations in their button-holes, and ladies in ravishing toilettes. You have often seen similar gatherings of "smart" folks, not only at theatres, but at morning and evening concerts and so forth; and you have generally noticed that while some of the grandees are affably chatting with each other, they regard, and are regarded, with a stony glare by a very large proportion of ladies and gentlemen as handsomely dressed as they. The fact is, that the "classes" are divided into innumerable sections, and that certain sections make it a point of honour not to know other sections. Very often it happens that they are really altogether ignorant as to the identity of the [-52-] exquisitely-dressed ladies and the portly or thin gentlemen who, for that evening only, are their immediate neighbours in the stalls; and even if they knew them by sight it would clearly never do for the Duchess of Beaurivage to bestow even a nod on a lady in mauve velvet and diamonds, who might turn out to be Mrs. Stockyard, the wife of a pork-packer from Chicago; or for that acknowledged leader of Brahminical society, Lady Camomile Flowers, to greet with a friendly simper the imposing dame in white satin broché, trimmed with pink chiffon and gold passementerie, and embellished with an amazing wealth of pearls and turquoises, who, unfortunately, is only Mrs. Humper Swag, the widow of an enormously wealthy Queensland squatter. There are four Miss Humper Swags, each of whom has a fortune of three hundred thousand pounds. They are not in society yet; but the day may not be far distant when the entire family will be invited to the best balls, receptions, and garden parties in London, and will spend the autumn at Bonassus Castle, in the Dukeries, or at Glen Shorthorn in the Highlands, as the guests of the noble proprietors of those princely domains.
    The peculiar characteristic of the concourse in the stalls on this actual First Night is that everybody seems to know everybody else. No frigid silence, no stony glare, no averted gaze of mingled indifference or contempt from the people one does not know, are apparent here. Everybody is laughing or chatting, or shaking hands, or waving salutations to friends in the distance. Yonder bald-headed, bright-eyed, smiling, genial-looking [-53-] man is Sir Ophthalmos Blepow, the great oculist. He is conversing affably with grey-haired, handsome Sir George Findout, the eminent solicitor, of Rochester Row, Westminster, who carries the secrets of half the peerage in his waistcoat pocket, and has the other half locked up in the iron safe at his office. Yes; the diminutive gentleman with the leonine mane - it puzzles you to know how, in court, he contrives to tuck his tresses under his forensic wig - is Mr. Blatant, Q.C. Secure him, by all means, if you have any thoughts of going to law with anybody. Blatant, Q.C., is a great favourite with special juries, and has the ear of the Bench besides; and he will get you a verdict to a certainty. But beware of Blatant if he be against you; take care of him in cross-examination; in fact, perhaps the best thing you can do, if Blatant is having you "on toast," so to speak, in the witness-box, is to be affected with a sudden and acute fit of deafness. The infirmity will at least constrain the cross-examining counsel to repeat every one of his questions; and that will give you time to frame a more or less evasive answer.
    How they are trooping in to the stalls now, to be sure! Far away you espy the portly form of Sir John Romney Gainsborough, R.A. The President of the Academy is not in the stalls; but his intellectual countenance is visible in a private box, where he is being made much of by Her Grace of Beaurivage and the Cochin-Chinese Ambassadress. But Lady Camomile Flowers, who will not and cannot know Chicago pork-packers and Australian squatters until next season, sits [-54-] benignly smiling in the third row of the stalls, and talks the most charming gossip possible to Mr. James Rob Roy Macgregor Barker, the famous impressionist painter, and Mr. Burbage Davenant - he is really the Hon. Fabian Fitzdottrel, the Earl of Muchdoddering's youngest son, - wa1king gentleman at the Royal Inanity Theatre.
    Here they are at last!-the whole bright band of First Nighters,-editors of newspapers and magazines, playhouse-loving Peers and Barts., members of the Garrick, the Beefsteak, and the Bachelors' Clubs; guardsmen, foreign diplomatists, artists, authors, yea, and authoresses galore; for there, in black tulle over black satin, is the renowned writer of fiction, Miss Gruesome Ghastly. You remember the enormous success of her novels, The Bandit's Bride; or, Hypnotism and Hysterics, and The Convict Countess; or, The Coronet and the Cribbed Teacaddy. Close to her, in crimson brocade, is plump, jovial Mrs. Gladsome Gracious, who has written fifty three-volume novels, from the profits of which she has purchased a mansion in Grandolphus Gardens, S.W., and built herself a lovely country house in the Weald of Kent, and a snug shooting-box in Argyleshire. Another writer of fiction, but of the ruder sex, is Mr. Cairngorm Glenlivet, the well-known salmon-fisher, and owner of the yacht Killicrankie. Writing, painting, sporting, party and dinner-giving, legal, scientific, medical, dandified, courtly, military, journalistic London, have all their most prominent representatives in the Lyceum stalls this evening.
    Close over against you, you become aware of the [-55-] presence of a select band of dramatic critics. These formidable personages are not, after all, so very terrible to look upon. For example, Mr. Forcible Feeble, of the Parthenon, is quite lamb-like in his aspect. Bulky Mr. Hezekiah Flail, of the Evening Sledgehammer, is saying most agreeable things in a shrill treble voice; and old Mr. Goutly, of the Morning Damocles, who cannot help an occasional growl in his voice, is evidently in a good temper to-night; since you hear him tell Mr. Chickweed, the rising dramatic author, that the new piece about which all the town has been talking for months, is certain to be an astoundingly brilliant success. Chickweed does not appear to be actually ecstatic with joy at this announcement, in fact, his countenance rather falls than otherwise; and he subsequently takes occasion to remark in an undertone to Sparrowgrass, the dramatic critic of the Daily Cauliflower, that Ollendorff Methodman, the author of the long-expected drama, has written a lot of confounded rubbish in his time, and has, in all probability, stolen this particular new play from the French, and spoilt it in the stealing. Ollendorff Methodman will not hear these words of unkind disparagement. The dramatist is the most nervous of men; and it being a fine night, he is just now pacing the Mall of St. James's Park, biting his nails to the quick, hearing imaginary hisses, and rather regretting that the gates of the enclosure are locked, and that he will consequently be unable to drown himself in the Ornamental Water. The oddest thing about [-56-] these dramatic critics, and, indeed, about the denizens of the stalls in general, is that although you know all of them quite well, not one of them knows you. You are, in fact, Mr. Nobody, and it is only your head that has come to the Theatre Royal, Lyceum, this momentous night. Somewhere in that head there must be some kind of a mind, and that mind has a pair of eyes.
    One at least of these mental organs of vision pierces through the curtain; wanders behind the scenes; ascends a staircase, and enters a room, one end of which is furnished with a huge similitude of a gridiron, behind which cooks, in their white jackets and aprons, are visible at work before a blazing fire. How many years ago was it? you ask yourself, when your long- deceased friend, Mr. John Jones, the well-known sculptor, took you to dine with the "Sublime Society of Steaks. You remember the little chunks of rump steak, served hot and hot; the horse-radish, the port, the potent punch-champagne was strictly prohibited; -the chairman, who wore the robe which Garrick donned in Richard III, and who on that particular occasion was, you think, a famous physician, Sir Charles Locock. Quite as distinctly you recall the mock-heroic speeches and the free-and-easy songs; but, distinctest of all, you recollect that among the Sublime Steakers you met that night, were two elderly gentlemen, each of whom told with a strong northern accent many a droll story. The name of one of these facetious members of the Society was John, Lord Campbell; the other was Henry Brougham.
    [-57-] But the play - the play is the thing. The house is packed from floor to roof: the flower of English rank and intellect are all here, their eyes bent on the curtain. There is the silence of intense curiosity - a respectful expectancy -  an earnest hope that another glorious Lyceum triumph is about to take place. The curtain rises on an admirably painted view of a Spanish Plaza by moonlight. There is a window brightly lit up, and in front of it a balcony, in which there is a lady in a mantilla. Enter a tall figure in a mantle, with a slouched hat; be carries a guitar, the strings of which he begins to touch, and serenades the Señorita. Enter from the house an ancient gentleman of noble aspect. Apparently he is incensed with the tall gentleman in the mantle, who throws down his guitar. Swords are drawn and a desperate combat follows - the lady in the balcony screaming pitiably meanwhile. The old gentleman is killed; the tall figure in the cloak disappears; but, roused by the lady's screams, all the windows of the houses are thrown open. The inmates descend with lanterns and torches; a crowd gathers; the City Guard arrive; a procession of cowled monks bears off the corpse of the murdered gentleman; and the scene closes on a splendid, although lugubrious spectacular effect.
    There is plenty of sparkle and merriment, combined with darkest tragedy, however, in the four succeeding acts. The tall gentleman in the cloak turns out to be a Spanish grandee of incurably dissolute manners, who has a comic servant who makes the house roar with his [-58-] witticisms. Then there are two tragic heroines, and one light comedy lady, who marries the comic gardener, and on her wedding day indulges in an innocent, but still reprehensible flirtation with the profligate grandee. Just about the time of the flirtation scene, which is received with tremendous applause, Mr. Ollendorff Methodman, the dramatist, the night being still fine, has shifted his quarters to the Victoria Embankment, which he perambulates, between the Savoy Hotel and Charing Cross, in such a very excited manner, that Policeman X 199 follows, and keeps the wariest of eyes upon him. In Act the Third there is a sumptuous representation of a grand festival, given by the profligate Don to his friends; and in Act the Fourth we have the moonlight Plaza again, with the equestrian statue of the ancient gentleman whom the Don has slain, and which that reckless rake has the hardihood to ask to supper. The effigy bows its stony head in assent to the invite. In Act the Fifth the marble guest makes his appearance at the supper, and the comic servant hides under the table. Catastrophe; blue fire; shrieks of remorse, and the wicked libertine descends into Tartarus in the arms of the stony visitant. Immense success; everybody in raptures; and the papers the next morning are full of enthusiastic accounts of the new Lyceum play, The Statue. Don Juan - Mr. Henry Irving. Donna Elvira - Miss Ellen Terry. Don Ottavio - Mr. William Terriss. Zerlina - Miss Helen Forsyth ; and the Commander - Mr. Arthur Stirling.

[--nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.--]

source: George Augustus Sala, London Up to Date, 1895