Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, by Alfred Rosling Bennett, 1924 - Chapter 44 - The Drama (continued) - Further Recollections - Unity Club

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New Standard Theatre - Queen's Theatre - Irving - First telephone in England - Dynamite demonstration - Labouchere - Gaiety Theatre - Nellie Farren - Adah Isaacs Menken - Mazeppa - T. W. Robertson - Marie Wilton - Grande Duchesse - Mrs. Howard Paul - Can-can - Miss Furtado - Unity Club - G. R. Sims - Theatrical hours and customs - Music-halls - The chairman -Weston's - Unrehearsed turn - Poses Plastique - Judge and jury - Florentine Venus - Benefits.

IN 1867, I think it was, that the New Standard Theatre, Shoreditch, replacing the one burnt down some time before, was opened with a season of opera in English and a tremendous orchestra, a hundred strong or thereabouts. Most of the popular operas were given, Miss Blanche Cole, a sweet singer, being the principal lady. I attended several times, for a stall at the Standard cost notably less than one at Covent Garden, and the opportunity of making the acquaintance, on such favourable terms, of Don Giovanni, Faust, Lucrezia Borgia, etc., was too good to be neglected. The decorations of the fine new house were magnificent - gold and crimson, but mostly gold.
    I forget who the conductor was, but he had a big task to drive a hundred-in-hand. One evening I sat in the front row of the stalls, divided from the orchestra by a railing only, and was amused and also enlightened by several things I witnessed. The conductor worked hard, but rarely looked round, and in such a mass of sound it seemed impossible for him to know whether his team were all doing their duty. In front of me was a man who handled - I can't say played - a flageolet or instrument of that species who was apparently perplexed with his music, fingering the leaves helplessly and ever and anon lilting his pipe to his lips but piping nothing. At last he spoke to a violin-player behind him, [-336-] evidently asking for guidance, as this man leaned forward and with his bow over the other's shoulder turned the windy one s music, pointed decisively to a place and then went on with his own fiddling. The disciple of Pan lifted his tube quickly, as if determined to catch opportunity on the wing and make up for lost time, tootled two or three notes - and put it down again. Evidently incompetent, yet the conductor went ahead happily ignorant of the delinquency.
    I remember the opening of the new Queen's Theatre, Long Acre (now No. 92), by Mr. Henry Labouchere, afterwards, in the next decade, proprietor of Truth, a copy of No. 1 of which ever-veracious journal he was good enough to send me. The Lady with the Lamp was as conspicuous on the cover as she is to this day. Certainly she has shed light into some dark places since then. The company comprised Toole, Irving, Lionel Brough, Alfred Wigan, Clayton, Emery and Henrietta Hodson, afterwards Mrs. Labouchere - a veritable hot-bed of talent. I believe it was Irving's first appearance in London and that his salary - according to a subsequent revelation by the sapient "Labby" - was in the immediate neighbourhood of £2 10s. per week. They put on some good pieces, of which Dearer than Life and The Lancashire Lass, both by H. J. Byron, who was now deserting burlesque and pantomime for comedy, live best in my remembrance. In the former, Irving made up as an outcast starving in the Australian bush with almost terrifying effect.
    It was at this Queen's Theatre, in 1877, during a season of Promenade Concerts under Jules Rivière and Alfred Cellier, that the first telephone publicly exhibited on this side of the Atlantic was shown. The news of Bell's wonderful discovery was occupying the Press, and it occurred to the management to vary their concerts with a demonstration of Cromwell Varley's telephone. For this purpose the Queen's Theatre was joined to the Canterbury Music-hall, Westminster Bridge Road, by overhead wires and every evening several simple tunes were transmitted and emitted from a large drum-like apparatus suspended over the proscenium.
    It could only manage the melody and was accompanied [-337-] softly by the full orchestra directed by M. Rivière, baton in hand. The inventor, Cromwell Varley, was one of the very competent electricians already mentioned in connection with the Atlantic cable. He had a beautiful house at Bexley, where his experiments might very likely have resulted in the first practicable speaking telephone, had not Alexander Graham Bell been in such a hurry in Canada.
    It is notable that the wires to Westminster were double, or metallic circuit, a stage of development not reached by the exploiters of the Bell telephone until after some dozen years of experience. And they were also the very first of the legions of overhouse telephone wires which afterwards decorated London and all other British towns.
    Hamilton Clarke was in musical charge of the exhibit, the electrical and engineering arrangements being under my own direction. At that time Varley's instrument could transmit music only; subsequently it was made to speak, but never rivalled Bell's in clearness or simplicity.
    A special preliminary performance was given for the benefit of the Press at which I delivered a little explanatory lecture. One of the representatives - he of the Standard - had just come up from an exhibition of blasting in Kent and had several dynamite cartridges in his pockets. Alter the performance, when a good many were assembled in the manager's room, he started to demonstrate the safety of dynamite, when properly and discreetly handled, by lighting one of the cartridges in the fireplace. I never saw a room cleared so quickly-the press gentlemen stood not on the order of their going, but went at once-and all at once!
    As a scientific man possessed of the knowledge that dynamite ought to burn harmlessly if tactfully treated I could hardly rim away; nevertheless, I did feel relieved when the cartridge eventually gave a last splutter and went out. I can smell it now.
    The management wished my lecture repeated to the first ordinary audience, but they would have none of it. They came to be amused, not instructed. So "Professor" Field, a prestidigitateur with a smiling face and loud voice, was retained to "introduce" the telephone, which he did with [-338-] one or two more or less apposite jokes which "went" amazingly. Some of the papers very funnily got hold of the idea that he was Cyrus Field, the American financier and prompter of the Atlantic Cable, and instructed their readers accordingly.
    Inspired by the Queen's Theatre performance, the comic paper Funny Folks, in its number of June 16th, 1877, gave a cartoon in which many of the uses to which the telephone is put in 1924 - including loud-speakers and "broadcasting "- were foreshadowed in quite a remarkable manner.
    Many years later, in 1892, I met Mr. and Mrs. Labouchere at the house they then occupied in Abingdon Street, under the shade of Westminster Abbey and next door to its Poets' Corner. Their little daughter, now by marriage an Italian Princess, was with them. "Labby" told me a funny story of the dining-room he had had built over what had been the back garden of this house. The level having to be reduced, his contractor, to save himself expense, threw some of the soil over the wall on to what was then vacant ground. The authorities promptly carted it away. More was deposited, with the same result; and finally all the surplus earth, a good many tons, followed the same road. The cynical M.P. thought the fact demonstrated the simplicity of local authorities and their officials and hugely enjoyed the notion of his rubbish being removed at the ratepayers' expense. At the time I was inclined to think this had really happened; but some years later I met a Westminster official who gave the matter a different complexion. "At that time," he said, "we wanted some good soil for an extension we had in hand of a public garden. 'Labby' was good enough to present us with the well-manured topdressing of his and we gratefully took it. We would have paid him any reasonable sum rather than lose it, but of course didn't like to hurt his feelings by mentioning the fact."
    Another event of the late 1860s was the conversion of the unsuccessful Strand Music-hall into the Gaiety Theatre. It also opened with a goodly phalanx of talent, but this time it was the ladies - Nellie Farren, Madge Robertson, [-339-] Emily Fowler, Constance Loseby - who preponderated. A burlesque by Reece, Robert the Devil, was the first of a very long series of attractions. The curtain-raiser was somewhat of an innovation, a one-act operetta called The Two Harlequin's, with some pretty music by Emile Jonas. It ran for a long time, and was followed by others of the same character.
    During the sixties that extraordinary woman, Adah Isaacs Menken, kept Astley's Amphitheatre well to the fore with Mazeppa, or the Wild Horse of Tartary - really a well-trained tamed steed. She had a good figure, and hid it not under a bushel, but I imagine that the scantiness of her raiment, then something to wonder at, would make no great sensation now. Every night, bound to the raging courser, she was galloped over the Steppes at Astley's - the said Steppes being zig-zagging inclines amongst mountains - at about half a mile an hour, so that the horizon took a long time to reach and patrons had plenty of anatomy for their money. Menken was a compound of contradictions; she had preserved a good deal of the "sugar and spice and all things nice" of her girlhood, and was a poetess-a published one too-yet content to make a doubtful exhibition of herself and marry Jack Heenan, the prize-fighter. It is to be hoped that her mercurial temperament made the compound a real amalgam. She was friendly with Swinburne and Alexander Dumas (père). A photograph was sold for a time showing her sitting on the latter's knee, but it was understood to have been a faked one. Poor Menken! many a worse woman climbed the shaky ladder of public esteem further than she did.
    And T. W. Robertson's plays at the Prince of Wales's, with Marie Wilton, Carlotta Addison, Lydia Foote, Hare and Bancroft, must not be forgotten. Of these Play and School preserve their freshness best in my recollection. Pandora's Box in 1867 was another pleasing production at this secluded temple of Thespis off the Tottenham Court Road.
    Offenbach's Grande Duchesse was produced at the Olympic in 1868 with Mrs. Howard Paul in the principal part and [-340-] Odell, an eccentric Irish actor, whose acquaintance I made In after-years, as Baron Grog. It went well and the chief melodies, particularly Voici le Sabre de mon Sire, were speedily heard all over London. I remember Miss Furtado, already mentioned in connection with Ixion at the Royalty, singing Dites lui delightfully and getting encored times out of number. Mrs. Howard Paul either could not or would not dance the Cancan - I believe she had conscientious objections - and a French girl, similarly attired, had to be put on for that moving scene; and she kicked high enough to fully justify the managerial selection.
    These are a few of my theatrical reminiscences. Later, in the 1870s, I came to know a good many of the personages I have mentioned, meeting them chiefly at the Unity Club, a sort of junior Junior Garrick, characterised by free-and- easy Bohemianism and much good-fellowship, situated between Wych Street and the Strand, where I was not an infrequent guest. There, also, it was my lot to make the acquaintance of the late G. R. Sims while he was still an unacted author, contemned of managers, and, in occasional despondent moments, doubtful whether he would ever obtain a hearing. This was in 1874 and 1875, shortly after Sims had published anonymously his very faithful translation of Balzac's Contes Drolatiques. That Sims was the author was an extremely open secret at the Unity. I once heard Mr. Sims recite a Christmas Carol of his own composition which I have never seen amongst his published writings, the occasion being the presence of a Welsh musician who had a reputation for setting carols-a form of lyric not excessively in vogue at the Unity. I remember that each verse concluded with a line or two in which red holly berries glistened "like drops of His dear blood." Ordinarily laughing and vivacious, finding a joke and founding a pun in and on anything and everything, Sims became grave to impressiveness for this recitation. Tatcho had not yet been conceived, perhaps because that exuberant cranium was not yet in want of thatching.
    Of other frequenters of the Unity I specially remember Edward and Arthur Swanborough, managers of the adjacent [-341-] Strand Theatre at the corner of Surrey Street; Odd, the Irish actor already mentioned, who wore his hair very long and constituted a sort of butt for the wit of his brother members.
    There and elsewhere I met many another theatrical luminary. Augustus Harris, surnamed Druriolanus; Fred Sullivan, brother of Arthur, a quaint little man who was the first Judge in Trial by Jury; E. Righton; D'Oyley Carte, good musician and accompanist, slight, active and vivacious; George Dolby, brother of the noted songstress, Madame Sainton Dolby; Fisher, light tenor, a handsome young man with a pleasant voice, both singing and speaking. While playing at the Criterion in the 1870s in Lecocque's Fleur de Thé, he went to sleep on a couch while the principal lady, Miss Alice Burville, was working through a double encore; on conclusion, he ought to have jumped up full of love and admiration, but, instead, snored. The couch was luckily close against the scenery, through which the Stage Manager thrust his penknife and effectually put a period to his untimely dreams.
    I have specially pleasant recollections of Alfred Cellier, composer of Dorothy. Tall, handsome, dignified, with fair moustache and closely brushed hair, he combined with his rare musical ability an intimate acquaintance with the turf. An amiable man, rather given to letting things slide. Although a musical conductor, he belittled the importance of the art, and wielded his baton in lackadaisical fashion, holding that good musicians were little influenced by conducting.
    Two other conductors of my acquaintance, R. Stoepel and Jules Rivière, thought and acted very differently, but I doubt whether either achieved better practical results than Cellier.
    Playgoers in those days got a deal more for their money than they do now. At most theatres the curtain went up at 7 or 7.30 o'clock and the evening finished no sooner than at present. The performance began with a short piece, farce or operetta, followed at about 8 by the principal attraction, which, if not very long, would be succeeded by a second farce.
    [-342-] Seats and accessories were cheaper, although dress clothes were more insisted upon for stalls and first circle. Serving round of tea, ices, chocolates, etc., by attendants was almost unknown. There was usually a Refreshment Bar, to which pilgrimages had to be made by those in need of nutriment. An exception to this existed in some theatres in favour of pittites and galleryites, to whom oranges and ginger-beer were purveyed even in their seats; and before intoxicants became strictly regulated I believe beer was taken round in big cans and measured out in pints and "hails to thirsty patrons. Orange-girls still haunted the entrances to Drury Lane and other theatres, and at pantomime time pirated programmes were hawked at half the inside prices.
    Music-halls I was discouraged from attending, and did not see much of, mostly becoming acquainted with the successes of the "lions comiques" as filtered through the burlesques and barrel-organs. Nevertheless, the halls were not entirely put out of bounds, and I made acquaintance with several of them.
    The chairman who announced the various "turns," forerunner of the present numbered tablet, was still a great Institution. Clad in immaculate evening dress and armed with an ivory hammer, he sat at a table within easy reach of the waiters, and marvellous were the tales of the capacities for stowing away liquor told of this one and that of them. In the late 1860s one of the best of the halls was Weston's in Holborn (now the Holborn Empire), where Nellie Power and other leading artistes were wont to appear. In 1868 it fell to my lot to entertain a young French engineer visiting London, and, as he particularly wished to see a music-hall, I took him to Weston's, getting seats close up to the orchestra. The musical conductor was one of those unfortunates who, while perhaps quite exceptionally abstemious, have been provided by undiscriminating Nature with a countenance of rubicund and inflamed complexion, aggravated in his case by the inclusion of a striking outline and highly bulbous nose. In fact, he looked as though he had become a music-hall conductor only after a long apprenticeship in the capacity of chairman.
    [-343-] My French friend, who was a bit of an artist, took out a pocket-book and in it made a highly comical sketch of the poor musician, in which his peculiar characteristics were not left unemphasised. One of the violinists noticed the sketch and asked permission to take a closer look. The book was handed to him; he laughed and passed it to his nearest neighbour, who smiled and transferred it to the next. It was curious to watch the countenances of the musicians light up with amusement, one after the other, as the book made a complete tour of the orchestra, chief only excepted. Eventually it came back to my friend, but the fiddler who had first taken it motioned that it should be shown to the chairman, located in all his glory, close at hand. This was done, and that worthy nearly collapsed with mirth while he circulated it round the ranks of the admirers surrounding his table. Many compliments were passed, and at one time I really thought that the chairman was going to ask us to have drinks with him-which would have been an honour Indeed and a complete reversal of the usual course of music-hall etiquette.
    I remember that a young tenor sang the then popular air, Beautiful Isle of the Sea, very sweetly, apparently with the help of the song, which he held and turned over with his white-gloved hands. Our friend the violinist, while accompanying, leant over the rail to us and whispered, "Doesn't know a note of music!"
    So my French engineer had quite a little insight into London artistic life which he would have enjoyed better had he not been almost entirely ignorant of English.
    Other well-known entertainments of the time were shows known as the Poses Plastiques and Judge and Jury, both, I believe, located in the neighbourhood of Leicester Square; but these were of somewhat evil repute, and I never attempted to see them. The second-named tried pretended divorce and breach-of-promise actions, after the manner of the Dunmow flitch-of-bacon Court, and was said to be often very amusing. Another entertainment of the sort was the Florentine Venus, described as a female figure in sections, which an Italian doctor took apart and fitted together [-344-] after the manner of a jig-saw puzzle to the accompaniment of a lecture, anatomical in character, although it is questionable whether all who attended it were, strictly speaking, anatomists. Rather funnily, women were not admitted to this demonstration: lady doctors were not yet, and an exhibition of the feminine frame to females was too indelicate to be thought of.
    Theatrical benefits were still not Infrequent although the custom of paying a part of actors' remuneration in that form was already falling into desuetude.