Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 43 - The Drama - Early Recollections - Burlesques

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Miss Woolgar - Potter's Knot - J. L. Toole - Paul Bedford - Phelps - Louis XI - Miss Marriott - Fechter - Miss Bateman - Sothern - Buckstone - Adelina Patti - Mme Tietjens - Santley - Burnand - James and Thorne - Elise Holt - H. J. Byron - W. Brough - Black-eyed Susan - Alice Burville  -W. S. Gilbert - Burlesques.

THE juvenile theatrical experiences to which I have now and then referred were not quite solitary ones although my inclination for the stage was never very strong nor uncontrollable. As a small boy, I was taken occasionally to the play, and soon became aware that the resources of the drama were not all comprehended in the antics of the clown - even if he were the "great Grimaldi " - and pantaloon.
    One of my earliest recollections is of the Adelphi Theatre some time in the late fifties when Miss Woolgar (Mrs. Alfred Mellon) was playing a boy's part there. She was the first lady I ever saw in tights, at all events the first I realised to be in that guise. I inquired whether she didn't feel cold, for in the booking-hall I had noticed illustrations of this able actress in parts in which the crinoline of the period was conspicuous and the transition from the dense circumvallations of the pictures to the attenuity of the actual hose strongly suggested draughts and shivers to my untutored understanding.
    The same or following year the Porter's Knot, played at the Olympic, made a durable impression. In 1877 I saw it again at the Criterion with J. S. Clarke in the title part, on which occasion he made an extraordinary slip of the tongue, causing men to gasp and then to laugh and women to blush and get behind their fans. He immediately corrected him-[-329-]self by repeating the proper phrase, " I am not in the habit of picking my words" a declaration that seemed so incontestably true that another round of merriment ensued.
    My next recollection was again of the Adelphi and Miss Woolgar. The piece, the Pretty Horsebreaker, gave me my first introduction to J. L. Toole and Paul Bedford.
    In 1861 I had the good fortune to see Mr. Phelps in Louis XI at Sadler's Wells. I had not at that time read Scott's Quentin Durward or Victor Hugo's Notre Dame and the play, if impressive, was a bit beyond me.. In after-years Louis XI and I became better acquainted. When Irving produced the piece at the Lyceum about 1878, his musical director, Robert Stoepel, a brother-in-law of Vincent Wallace and a good friend of mine, composed some new music for the occasion, and, as this did not fit in well with the words of two of the lyrics, he asked me if I would write new lines for the Peasants' Chorus and the Orison. This I did, and, after the first few nights, they were sung during the run of the piece.
    In 1863 I was again at Sadler's Wells seeing Mr. Phelps and Miss Marriott, a lady who used to play Shakespearian male parts, even Hamlet, Macbeth and Richard III, although it was never my fortune to see her in any of them. After this occasion fifty years were to elapse before I entered the building again.
    Recollecting this visit in 1913, the whim took me to seek the old Wells once more, and, faring thither by the newfangled Rosebery Avenue, I booked for 1s. 6d. what proved to be a commanding seat indeed-sole possession of one of the largest stage boxes. The way to it lay through dilapidated corridors of a solidity more suggestive of a fortress than a playhouse. The pit and gallery were well filled, but elsewhere the demon who presides over empty benches held unchallenged sway, no other patron having risen to the giddy height of 1s. 6d. The play was a musical comedy called Captain Cupid. It was acted with considerable spirit by a numerous company to a well-behaved audience who did not leave the mummers to bite their nails for lack [-330-] of applause. But I was grieved to note the faded dinginess of the theatre, so different from the brightness of former times. Whether the seats were the same I cannot say, but I had no difficulty in locating the place where I had sat fifty years before - about six rows from the front, a little to the right of the centre. Since the war I believe the poor old Wells has further degenerated into a picture-house, so that Joe Grimaldi, his ghost, would be puzzled indeed were he, too, to revisit it.
    The year 1864 stands out well in my remembrance, for I saw and was impressed by Kate Terry and Fechter in Bel Demonio at the Lyceum and Miss Bateman in Leah at the Adelphi. The curse so powerfully uttered by the Jewish maiden in the latter piece was talked of by everybody, and made the actress's name extremely well known. This malediction was for her a blessing in disguise, for it was certainly the foundation of her subsequent prosperous career. When in Jersey the following year, Leah was advertised at the old theatre there-the future training place of Mrs. Rousby - and I made a point of seeing it. But, although quite a good piece, telling practically the same story, it was very different from the Adelphi version, the imprecation being extremely mild and homoeopathic in comparison.
    It was in 1864 too that I made the acquaintance at the Haymarket of Sothern and Buckstone in Our American Cousin. Lord Dundreary made me laugh so continuously as to displease a lady sitting near, who turned and regarded me reprovingly. The laugh died from my lips - an eerie feeling crept down my spine: she had a glass eye!
    Some years later I saw Sothern in a one-act and one-character piece - its name I forget - which was also amusing. His David Garrick, which some considered his best part, I never witnessed.
    Buckstone I liked too. In later years I saw him play, when over eighty years of age, in Gilbert's Pygmalion and Galatea.
And '64 introduced me to Grand Opera and the unparalleled Adelina Patti, La Diva, then some twenty-one years of age. Jenny Lind was before my time: consequently of her I [-331-] cannot speak; but certainly no operatic artist I ever saw or beard, and they were not a few, approached this Adelina, veritable nightingale from Olympus. The best blessings of the gods were hers-beauty in a high degree, voice incomparable, acting excellent, vivacity overflowing. She may have had rivals, in one or other of these gifts but not in all. The last time I heard her was in Aberdeen in the mid 1880s. Passing the Concert Hall one evening I found quite a crowd assembled in attitudes suggestive of expectation. I inquired what was afoot and was told that Patti was singing in the Hall and that if I waited I should hear her voice presently. Sure enough, in a few minutes, through some window or skylight incautiously left open by the management (which ought to have known better in Aberdeen) came the sound of those melodious tones.
    Amongst my cherished possessions is a signed portrait of the gifted singer that she was good enough to send me by way of recognitiOn of a slight service I was once enabled to render her.
    While Patti was at Covent Garden, Madame Tietjens, a talented German artiste, and Charles Santley were appearing in Tannhauser at Her Majesty's; but I had not the good fortune to hear our own baritone for many years afterwards, and then it was in Vincent Wallace's Lurline - somewhat of a contrast to Tannhauser!  It was a current wheeze that Madame Tietjens used to find a tankard of London stout a good refresher for the voice in the course of a trying evening.
    F. C. Burnand, afterwards editor of Punch, came into notice about this time as a writer of burlesques, once an extremely popular but now almost forgotten class of entertainment, which, whatever may be remembered to its demerit, was a more amusing and even brainy affair than the modern so-called revue. He had had a very successful run at the Royalty Theatre with Ixion, in which a truly graceful and musical young lady, Miss Furtado, had done well. He followed up with another classical piece - Paris, or Vive Lemprière! (a pun on Vive l'Empereur, a phrase then familiar in connection with Napoleon III) at the old Strand [-332-] Theatre, now a Tube-station. In it appeared two actors, James and Thorne, destined to achieve fame in later years, and a pretty and clever little actress called Elise Holt, who sang, danced and kept things going with rarely matched alacrity. She was a great asset at the Strand until, in an unlucky hour, she went to America, and, after touring successfully for a time (during which she horsewhipped an editor), died at the early age of twenty-seven.
    Other Strand burlesques which I remember well were Fra Diavolo, Esmeralda and William Tell, by H. J. Byron; Caliph of Bagdad and Field of the Cloth of Gold, by W. Brough, brother to the veteran Lionel Brough, who only left us a few years ago. James, Thorne and Elise Holt appeared in most of these. In Esmeralda Miss Holt played Pierre Gringoire, a part originally taken by Marie Wilton. In the Entente d' Or piece Henry VIII and Francis I put on the gloves and had a hearty sparring match. In a revival in the 1870s the part of the French King was taken by M. Marius, a Parisian actor who came to London after the Commune, learned English, and became popular on our stage. He made the boxing scene very funny, and the Strand patrons were much amused at the idea of a Frenchman presuming to stand up at le boxe to an Englishman.
    Perhaps the most successful of all burlesques was Burnand's Black-eyed Susan, already mentioned in connection with the Atlantic cables, which ran at the Royalty for two or three years. In it Miss M. Oliver was encored four or five times nightly in Pretty Se-usan, don't say no! a duet in which Charles Wyndham also took part; and Mr. Dewar two or three times in a version of Champagne Charlie. I must have seen this burlesque quite half a dozen times. It was performed at the Greenwich Theatre by a different company and I saw it there also. It was revived in the 1870s at one of Mr. Hollingshed's houses, but by that time the charm had fled, although a very charming actress and singer, Miss Alice Burville, did well in the title part. Burlesque had already become old-fashioned - Opéra Bouffe had pushed it from its stool.
    In 1868 a burlesque, The Merry Zingara, by W. S. Gilbert [-333-] - a skit on The Bohemian Girl - was produced at the Royalty with a bevy of attractive girls - there were pretty girls in every burlesque but they had to be clever ones as well, not merely mannikins - of whom, I think, Miss Emily Fowler, afterwards distinguished in more serious drama, was the chief. She played Thaddeus, and got into great trouble over a borrowed umbrella. Merry Zingara is not mentioned nowadays in a list of Gilbert's plays, but it had a good rim nevertheless.
    Burlesques were parodies on plays or stories, written in ten-syllable rhymed lines which, in harmony with the accepted wit of the day, abounded in puns and whimsicalities and were interspersed with songs, choruses and dances borrowed from opera, music-hall or other source. The music was never original. The hero was always a girl, and there was often a female character depicted by a man, in which respects the wont and usage of pantomime were closely followed. It is said that the great Irving had in his early days played the Mother in Jack and the Beanstalk, and risen to quite sublime heights (I suppose he would be expected to with such a sky-scraping son) with a mop and pail.
    Incongruities were frequent in burlesque and puns were sometimes more than verbal. For instance, in Burnand's Paris, Orion was got up as an Irishman with knee-breeches and shillelagh, spoke with a brogue and was called O' Ryan- "the only Irish constellation in the skies." Topical allusions likewise abounded. In this piece D. James and T. Thorne were very funny as Castor and Pollux.
    A few specimen lines will show at what our fathers deigned to laugh in their hours of ease.
    This excerpt from Paris was rendered funny by the makeup and delivery of the speaker, a man in female disguise:
        "Last night he smiles on me, my husband do,
        And says 'I'm going out.' Says I, 'Where to?'
        Says he, which ain't polite, 'What's that to you?'
        'Nothing to me,' I says, 'I only ask;
        Of course, if 'ollow 'arts will wear a mask,
        Then, as the poet says, the time will be
        When, hubby darling, you'll remember me.'"
[-334-] In William Tell, that hero, appealing to his fellow-countrymen against taxation, exclaims (the dog-tax had just been imposed):
        Nobbles your very best October brew,
        Grabs it and skips away  -upon it pops
        And literally takes your malt and hope?
     Who makes you pay your taxes - who carouses
        At home, whilst he shuts the public-houses?
        Who, but this most tyrannical of villings
        Makes us for every puppy pay five shillings?"
His son (Elise Holt) says to his mother:
        "Give me the glorious days of Robin Hood!"
Who replies:
        "I haven't got 'em, boy, or else I would."
The same lady, referring to the family washing, declares:
        "I gets my clothes in early, an improvement
        On what is called the early closin(g) movement."
    A verse from a set called "What's a burlesque?" contributed by W. S. Gilbert to one of the magazines, may perhaps fitly wind up this sketch of a by-gone amusement:
        "Pretty princess-beautiful dress:
         Exquisite eyes-wonderful size:
         Dear little dress (couldn't be less)
         Story confused - frequently used:
         Sillified pun - clumsily done.
                Dresses grotesque.
                Girls statuesque.
                Scene picturesque-
                That's a burlesque!"

source: Alfred Rosling Bennett, London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, 1924