Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Tempted London : Young men, [Anon.], [c1889] - Chapter 11 - The Evils of Theatres

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IT is as much the fashion now to applaud the theatre as it was but recently to decry it. The theatre is spoken of by some as "a means of education," as calculated to "improve the minds of the young;" as a channel through which we may hear "the noblest thoughts of our noblest poets nobly rendered" as at the worst, not more harmful than novel-reading. We are told that the modern drama teaches us our duty to our fellows, that it inculcates temperance, good morals, and well-living, and that, moreover, bishops and clergymen are frequently to be found among the audience. The force of all this, however, is somewhat marred by the fact that it is usually said by persons whose impartiality, to say the least of it, is open to doubt, such as actors, dramatic authors, and managers of theatres; in other words, the people who certainly profit by the enlargement of the public taste for this class of amusement. It is not for us to discuss whether they really think what they say, because even if they do at cannot have much bearing upon the case. The keeper of a casino must be a doubtful authority upon the advisability of encouraging dancing, the publican an equally unsatisfactory arbiter upon the [-202-] evils of drink, the manager of a theatre a dubious authority upon the ethics of the stage. An instance of what we mean may not be amiss. The lessee of a leading London theatre recently produced a play on a very expensive scale, setting forth the manner in which young men go to ruin. He advertised the moral merits of the play far and wide. He said, "Parents should take their sons and daughters to see this drama;" he produced testimonials from a certain clergyman praising its instructive qualities; and after this he described the sensational scenes and the "roars of laughter" that were produced by a popular low comedian. To the unbiassed eye the whole advertisement looked like a cleverly worked-up preparation for the purpose of inducing all classes of people to go and see the play, and it owed not a little of its success to the Machiavellian manner in which it seemed to hint at scenes from real life being reproduced on the stage in a manner repulsive to any but coarsely constituted minds. In the days of the old Victoria Theatre the play-goer could always rely upon seeing virtue triumphant and vice humbled to the dust before the curtain fell ; but, for all that, he never thought of taking his wife or daughter there. The triumph of virtue is always accompanied by so much that is distasteful and repellent that we prefer our own domestic circles not to be witnesses of it, since, after all, there is no great credit in being virtuous when you happen to know that it will all come right in the end. Now there seems to be a widespread opinion that although it may not be right for us to take our daughters to certain places of amusement, there can be no harm [-203-] in taking our sons; but from this we most strongly dissent. If fathers could only bring themselves to understand that youths should be taken nowhere where it would be impossible to take their sisters also much ultimate mischief might be saved. Why should there be one code of morals for men and another for women ? True it is, as an eminent Unitarian minister once said in the pulpit, that the almost universally accepted idea that young men should be allowed to sow their wild oats is an abomination, condoning, and even excusing, as it does, youthful viciousness. Young men should frequent no places of amusement to which they would be ashamed to take their mother or sisters, and it is certain that there are some theatres and many more plays to which respectable women could not allow themselves to go.
    The question as to whether the theatre on its theoretical merits is to be approved or disapproved cannot claim any attention from us in this chapter. Alt we have to deal with is the practical question whether the theatre as it exists is a fit place for the young to frequent. To say broadly that it is not might be capable of misconstruction. But even when nothing can be said against the play there is always much that is objectionable in the environment and associations. The youth who is allowed to go with two or three companions to the play probably takes a seat in the pit and watches the mimic show with intense interest. He becomes more or less enamoured of a "singing chambermaid" or the "leading lady," both of whom display their personal attractions with more emphasis than [-204-] modesty; and when the latter appears in some thrilling scene clad in a white robe, her hair flowing loosely in extravagant luxuriance down her back, her white arms bared to the shoulder, her neck and bosom by no means jealously guarded from the vulgar gaze, he loses his head in the enchantment of her presence, and carries away a mental impression of her which can do him no good and may do him much harm. The crowded and heated state of the pit, in which he has taken up his position, renders an adjournment to the bar between the acts a matter of pleasant anticipation, and theatrical bars are usually presided over by young women who have been carefully selected for their good looks. When the play is over the youth, with his imagination excited and his senses in a whirl, comes out into the region of the Strand, amongst the crowd issuing at the same time from other theatres, notes the men and women in evening dress seeking their conveyances, observes the brilliant bars and supper-rooms, whose attractions are of too expensive a nature to permit him to approach them otherwise than through the imagination, looks up the gaily apparelled women who flit around him with laughing eyes, and altogether feels no inclination to seek his dismal suburb and his own sparsely furnished bedchamber. Everything here seems so full of life and brilliancy that even the drudgery of the desk fades from his mind, and so long as he treads the enchanted ground he almost fancies himself as free as the giddy throng around him seem to be. At such a moment the ordinary routine of life strikes him as being especially odious, and he defers the return to his home as long [-205-] as he dares, in order to postpone the evil moment of a resumption of his daily duties. Every youth knows that directly he lays his head on his pillow and closes his eyes the grey morning seems to come upon him, with its call to the distasteful duties of the office, and so he puts off sleep as long as his companions will remain with him. Perhaps he catches the last train, or perhaps he has to walk home; but in either case his imagination is heated and his fancy excited sufficiently to keep his mind in a state of dazed dreaminess that makes him but dimly cognizant of the real dulness of the life around him.
    This effect of the theatre upon the youthful mind does not seem to be as fully recognized as it deserves to be, and yet many warnings of its potency are matters of common notoriety. It is certain that under the influence of a visit to a theatre youths will prefer to stop in drinking-bars, mix in the society of dubious women, or visit a low dancing-saloon, to returning to their homes and the dulness of every-day life, not knowing that this ephemeral excitement has a much worse effect upon them than any dulness, however unchanging in its character. 
    But all that we have said up to now is true of the best theatres at which the best plays are produced; it is the result of the unusual visit to a theatre, let the play be Shakespeare's or Tippy Cook's, and the players Mary Anderson or Minnie Palmer. The attendant occurrences of a visit to the theatre are always fraught with danger to the young, let the class of performance be what it may. When the drama is a healthy drama it is limited to [-206-] the exterior of the theatre, and the playhouse is therefore only indirectly to be charged with it; but when the performance is a burlesque, or a comic opera, or a farcical comedy, or any of the other objectionable loose productions that do duty for plays at so many theatres it is to be found as largely within the walls as without. The entertainments at more than two-thirds of the London theatres at the present moment appeal to the senses and not to the mind, and such appeals must have the yet worst effect upon the young. Within the last few years the drama, which seemed to be rising in character, has fallen back again, and in place of the poetical play or the genuinely comic dramas of Bryon and Robertson, we have unhealthy melodramas, sickly, spurious, shoddy-classical productions, whose sole reason is to feed the vanity of some managing "star ;" the modern burlesque, which depends for its attention upon catchy tunes, pretty actresses, and a spice of vulgarity ; or the much more objectionable Palais Royal offshoot, which depends for its success upon the comicalities arising out of a husband deceiving his wife, or vice versa.
We have mentioned the fact that several music-hall performers find their natural home in burlesque, and there are not wanting instances of leading male comic-singers who have attained a popularity on the stage far in excess of their music-hall celebrity. They bring their vulgar songs, their absurd antics, their tricks, jokes, and sayings (funny enough, possibly, from their own standpoint) to the adornment of a burlesque or a comic opera, and find that they are much appreciated. The youths who fre-[-207-]quent the music-hall come here instead, and when they come something must be done to keep them. Thus it is that at a theatre which we could easily name the class of entertainment provided is almost entirely of a music-hall character, depending primarily upon the efforts of a late variety-theatre "star" and secondarily upon a posse of pretty young women, who crowd the stage at every conceivable opportunity, ogle the audience with unabashed impertinence, and disport themselves generally in an obtrusive manner. The light-headed boys who assemble night after night in the pits of this and similar theatres, just as we have shown that they appear in the music-hall, become so familiar with the characteristic names of these women that they soon believe themselves to have become intimate with them. They talk to each other in loud tones of the charms of "Miss Dottie May" or the particular young person whose peculiar agility in making-up happens to please their taste; they applaud her vigorously as the meaningless procession or "compound movement" brings her periodically across the footlights ; they nudge each other as they clap, and whisper, "Isn't she a fine girl!" and if their vociferations cause her to throw her impudent eyes in their direction they raise themselves on tip-toe, and occasionally wave their hats, exalted beyond all measure in their own minds if the meet with recognition. The foolish boy will then look round upon the less-favoured crowd with a conscious air of superiority, only anxious that as many people as possible shall see that he is on terms of close acquaintance with one of the actresses. [-208-] Between the acts he goes into the lobby and smokes a cigarette, and at the end of the performance he adjourns, in company with a crowd of other equally foolish young men, to the stage-door, with no other intention but the inane one of observing his "Dottie" in ordinary attire. The small crowd of misguided youths always to he seen at the stage-doors of theatres employing coryphčes, after the conclusion of the performances, is a sufficiently significant sight. Most of them are clerks, and their appearance suggests their ambition. To paraphrase the celebrated Jeffrey's saying, they cultivate gentility on a very little oatmeal, and have no better idea of appearing fast than to indulge in loud, slangy chaff for the edification of the policeman who is told off for the particular duty of keeping the path clear. Directly the first shabbily clad young woman, carrying the well-known actress's basket, in which are stowed her materials for making-up, her small flask of spirits and the one or two other things that she accustoms herself to bear backwards and forwards, appears at the door and hurries off down the street the loungers cease talking, and huddle up as close to the entrance as they dare, since bitter experience has probably taught them that it is one thing to recognize a young woman on the stage and quite another to distinguish her at the stage-door; indeed if it were not for the growing habit of female supers of not washing off their make-up until they get home it would be next to impossible to do so, since the usual change from rosy cheeks, red lips, and black eyebrows to the pale, dirty complexions common to these young women in their natural [-209-] state is sufficient to throw the most ardent pursuer off the scent. If, however, he does not miss her the young man whom we have already been following blushes all over his face when she appears at the door and, after an impudent stare at the people congregated around, pursues her way with the mincing tread peculiar to stage-dancers. The giddy-headed boy, quite thrown off his balance, feels a hot glow all over his body, and steps hastily back into the crowd for fear she should recognize him there, as he would, of course, not like her to think that he was waiting fur her. But as she has had no chance of distinguishing him in the audience, this is of course not likely. For a moment he hesitates as she walks away, and then, as some of his companions make remarks at his expense, he shambles off in a weak-minded way and follows in the wake. If he is very young the extent of his adventure is limited to such following until she turns into a wine-bar or meets somebody she seems to know; but if he has the necessary impudence he probably accosts her, when, if she is not expecting to be otherwise engaged, she may speak to him for a time until she can take his measure. The melancholy and ridiculous spectacle of a shamefaced youth hanging upon the heels of a ballet-girl, unable to make up his mind either to accost her or to go away, at times passing her, then walking slowly until she repasses him then getting in front of her and standing at the edge of the pavement while she passes, and finally, perhaps, being sent about his business when he at length screws up his courage, may be seen on any night in the neighbourhood of the Strand.
   [-210-] To get behind the scenes of a theatre appears to be the aim of all young men who claim to be considered "fast"; and so necessary is it deemed to the maintenance of such a character, that it is by no means uncommon to hear youths boast of an acquaintance with the "flies" which the technically educated mind at once discovers to be imaginary. Notwithstanding the printed notices found at the stage-doors of the West End theatres, setting forth that none but those engaged are allowed to enter on any pretext whatever, it is a comparatively easy thing to get behind the scenes of most of them. There is little desire evinced to accomplish this, except at such places as employ a number of young women, and here it is only necessary to be an acquaintance of one of the performers or, better still, "a friend of the manager's," to secure a passport. Going behind the scenes of the West End theatres is, however, much too expensive a pleasure to be indulged in by any but those people who have plenty of money in their pockets, since the "standing's" of champagne and the tipping of officials are beyond the scope of a clerk's modest income.
    The actor, speaking in a general way and omitting several noteworthy exceptions, has but two pleasures - drinking and betting. To the pursuit of these he devotes all his spare time and money, talking of horses whilst he is waiting for his call, whispering about them at the wing whilst watching for his cue, and often making them the subject of those stage conversations which are required occasionally to fill up the picture. Many actors "make books" on their own account, and are ready to do business for [-211-] their brothers and sisters in art on the spot But the sporting tout, with his latest information and his news from the clubs, is always welcome, and thus it is that he is so often to be found behind the scenes, surrounded by an eager crowd of principals and supers, all hanging on his words to hear if he can tell them anything fresh. His presence is, of course, forbidden; but as it is winked at by every one, from highest to lowest, it is difficult to enforce his absence. Besides, he is frequently the husband of one of the actresses and is, of course, there to "look after" his wife; and when a man is behind scenes with such a laudable object it is impossible, of course, to prevent his conversing on any subject he chooses.
    The connection between bookmaking and the profession is very close, and we could give many instances of bookmaking husbands with actresses as wives, and even some instances of the reverse. Actors' salaries, when they have any at all, are higher than the remuneration of commercial men, quite a "stick" or a "walking gentleman" receiving from £6 to £8 a week and as with the exception of rehearsals, which in these days of abnormally long runs are not nearly as numerous as they were, they have nothing to do in the daytime but parade the Strand or Stamford Street it follows that the t are peculiarly liable to the temptations alluded to. At a time when the stage as a profession is gravely discussed and approved, both for well-educated young men and women, and when other walks are so unremunerative and so over-crowded, it is difficult to get parents to listen to facts in an impartial way; [-212-] but if any should read these lines who are intending to consent to their children adopting the stage as a profession we would urge them, in the strongest manner possible, to pause before it is too late. The theatrical calling is certain ruin, both mental and physical, to the bulk of the persons who embrace it; and although there are not wanting very many examples of God-fearing, respectable, hard-working people therein, yet these are but the exceptions. The topsy-turvy manner of living which it necessitates, the highly objectionable people whom it is not only absolutely necessary to come into contact with, but to make close friends of as well, the looseness of conversation, the impertinences of managers an others with whom engagements and salaries rest, combine to hedge it round with dangers both for man and woman. To permit a son to go on the stage is, in the majority of cases, to doom him to ultimate penury and to intervening foolishness of life ; but to send a daughter to the theatre for her living, no matter how easy and proper the earlier stages may seem, is in 90 per cent. or more cases to expose her to temptations presented in such guise that it is almost impossible for her to resist them and to prosper in her profession.
    The West End theatres have no lack of patrons behind the scenes, and the ordinary " pleasure-seeking" youth, with little money in his pocket, is not induced to invent some reason for entering, and feels exceedingly out of place if he does ; but some of the outlying theatres, unwilling to forego the chances of profit resulting from the visits of greenhorns to the wings, put every facility in their passage [-213-] from the auditorium to the green-room. An instance of this, from the personal experiences of one of our commissioners, will better explain the case.
    He says,- "I went with a friend to the pantomime at a well-known theatre on the Surrey side of the Thames. He was unacquainted with the reason of my visit, and believed only that I had come, as did he, to see the performance. We were provided with an order for a private box. Orders for this and similar theatres are easily obtainable. Indeed, when the play is not very successful they are distributed broadcast amongst the surrounding tobacconists and public-houses, and any customers may have them for the asking. Such orders, however, are mere decoys, for the attendants do not scruple to inform the holders of them that they must give sixpences each for a programme, and the same amount for the use of the cloak-room. I know a theatre where notices to this effect are posted up inside. Therefore an order to admit two necessitates the expenditure of two shillings at the least. A most obsequious waiter received us from the check-taker, and conducted us to a private box in which four other persons were already seated, it being the rule to admit people to such seats on payment of half a crown. He gave us a programme and deferentially demanded sixpence from each of us. Being desirous of being imposed upon as much as possible, I did not demur, and he then asked if we required any refreshments. We had two glasses of port wine, for which we were charged a shi1ling and fourpence. He then stooped down and whispered in my ear, 'I can take you behind the scenes presently, if you [-214-] would like to go.' I expressed delight, and my companion was equally ready. The waiter then adopted a mysterious manner, told us we were not to let the other people in the box know anything about it, as he could only take 'such as he could see were gentlemen,' and added that he would go round behind and see the manager and come back for us presently. During his absence we watched the performance, which was of the usual pantomime character. Presently he returned with a troubled look on his face to announce 'that the manager wouldn't allow it, but he thought he was going out presently, and if so he would take us down on his own responsibility.' I concluded that all this was so much strategy, intended to raise the price of his services. In about a quarter of an hour he returned in a suspicious hurry, and said that 'Mr. So-and-so had gone away for the evening, that he had squared somebody else, and we could come down now.' When we got out of the box into the passage his confiding manner became more confidential. He told us that there was no occasion to spend any money 'behind'; of course if we chose to 'stand' the stage-manager a drink, we could do so, but it was not imperative. We went down the stairs nearest the proscenium, and he opened a door with a key, and admitted us to semi-darkness, amongst a lot of side-wings, ropes and pulleys. He shut the door after us, and then stopped and explained to us with much redundancy of language that 'gents never gave him less than half a crown for this.' We maintained the standard, and followed him round behind a flat scene to the opposite side of the stage. 
"On the boards behind the flat scene some of the performers were trying, with much silent laughter, some new steps, and they continued this without regard to us only one of the men with a horrible painted face, giving us 'Good evening,' and winking as he did so at one of the girls. The unprotected gas-jets on the inner sides of the flies were very dazzling to the eyes, and we were not sorry when our guide opened a door and ushered us into the prompter's box. This was a narrow little place between the proscenium and the first wing, commanding a good view of the stage and of the O.P. side of the auditorium. A chalk line was drawn on the boards where the stage proper began, and the waiter explained that there was half a crown fine if any one put a foot over it, as by so doing he could be seen from the front. Near the stage end was a big gong, with a sounder attached, and a card of directions for each scene, showing when lights were to be turned down, limelight to be turned on, blue fire to be kindled, gong to be sounded, scenes to be shifted, etc. The prompter, who looked after all this, was the stage-manager as well, and the waiter whispered us that it was usual to invite him to have a drink. We did so. Presently to us came a shabby-looking individual with a card, on which was printed 'Scene-shifters' Sick Fund': asking for a donation. We subscribed. After him, but with a space of some minutes between, appeared a small boy, who said, 'Please, sir, the chorus would like to drink your health.' The principals came in one by one to speak to the prompter, and the waiter was always close at hand, and the performers quickly [-216-] made friends with us. Then a stalwart young fellow with a nice-looking face, but made up to appear hideous, came and inquired in a knowing way if we would like to take a walk round. We acquiesced, and he took us out of the cribbed prompter' s box into a dreary region of dust and stone staircases, where impertinent faces peeped out at us from doors, and figures in spangles and tights now and again rushed out of a room, looked at us, gigg1ed, and darted away through some other door. Presently a childish-looking little person in a blue knickerbocker suit, open at the neck, with short sleeves, and short curly hair like a boy's, appeared at the top of a staircase and looked down upon us with large wondering eyes. She had pretty rosy cheeks and the blackest eyebrows imaginable, and our guide introduced us to her as Miss Somebody, who was playing 'principal boy.' We took off our hats; she ducked and smiled and said, in a loud, harsh common voice, 'How do you do - quite well?' and then fell at once into a chat with the three of us. The irrepressible waiter opportunely appeared, and I had the temerity to ask her if she would have anything. 'A glass of stout, please,' she said, and continued her running remarks. Just then a whistle was heard, and shouting out, 'I'll be back presently,' she ran down the stairs to take up her cue. 'Why, she is quite a child?' said I, interrogatively. 'She is twenty-give, and has got two children,' said the painted young man, and then he suddenly darted away at the sound of the whistle. Seeing us left alone, two or three young women came round and fell into easy talk, and made us promise to wait for [-217-] them outside. I asked one of them (for they were all in the scantiest of attire) if they did not often catch cold in those stone passages and draughty flies in their stage costumes. Her face changed abruptly from its previous seductive smile to a most business-like air. 'Oh, yes, dreadful!' she said ; 'we have nearly always got coughs, and some of them gets awful bad chests sometimes.'  She gazed thoughtfully on the ground for a second or two, and then dropped back into the light chaffy manner natural to her. Presently we had a whole crowd round us, all of them painted to a horrible extent, the colours in great streaks and utterly repulsive to the eye. The effect, however, from the auditorium is all right, and they never venture beyond the precincts of the theatre until they have washed the worst of it off. Emboldened by their numbers, they commenced vieing with each other in taking liberties with us - tipped our hats off called us endearing names, slipped their arms into ours, pulled our hair, all of which we took in good part, anxious to bear out our character of greenhorns. Then they all suddenly left us with a rush at the sound of a bell, though not before they had put their hands into our pockets and taken what loose money they could. This of course was done by them as a great joke, but they nevertheless kept their spoil. As by this time we had spent as much money as we considered the experience was worth, we escaped through a labyrinth of passages into the street.
    We have received other accounts of similar experiences which bear a strong family likeness, being nothing but a continuance of spending money on [-218-] the one side, and unchecked "cadging" on the other.
    Within the last few years the growing favour in which all things theatrical are held has resulted in the growth of many amateur theatrical clubs, the members of which comprise both young men and women of the shop-serving classes. We havereceived many particulars of these clubs, and can come to no other conclusion than that they are an unmixed evil. There is one which holds its fortnightly performance at a hall in Hammersmith. All the young men are terribly clean-shaved, let their hair grow as it will, wear long coats, and in many instances white hats. They have cards printed, with their names followed by the word "comedian," and they imitate the lowest class of provincial stock-companies by sharing whatever profits may arise from the money taken at the doors, after the cost of the hall and other expenses have been deducted. Frequently the result is a loss, not a profit. As new plays are produced at nearly every performance, rehearsals are numerous, and the young women who are members do not on such occasions get home until past 11 o'clock at night. Enthusiastic amateur actors are found in both sexes, and one of our commissioners witnessed the performance of the part of "Jo," the crossing-sweeper, in an adaptation of " Bleak House," with all the necessaries of costume to depict it properly, by a young woman employed at a shop, who did not in any way ashamed of herself for appearing in such guise. Another club, which makes its headquarters in Camden Town, is not content with the [-219-] ordinary comedy and farce, but goes in for burlesques and extravaganza, and the young-lady members vie with each other in travelling as far as the dare in the direction of approved burlesque costume.
    If those people who defend the theatre could see as much as we have seen they would probably change their tone. When they compare the watching of a play to the reading of a novel they might as well remember that the latter does not necessitate stopping out late at night, mixing with all kinds of dubious company, nor the midnight revelry of the Strand. Theatre-going amongst the young should be discouraged by all means open to parents and persons in authority, since it is fraught with a great deal more of future evil than appears to be at all properly comprehended.