Victorian London - Publications - Humorous - Lights and Shadows of London Life [by James Payn], 1867 - Vol. 2 -  Chapter 19 - Behind the Scenes

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EVERY child who hears a watch tick, and marks the golden hands revolve so deftly over the smooth face, desires to see the inside of it, and will not be persuaded by his elders that wheels and mainspring are disappointing spectacles. Similarly every young fellow who goes to the Play, and beholds from stall or box the Fairy wonders of the Stage, is desirous of going Behind the Scenes. It is not idle curiosity alone which, as in the child's case, prompts this yearning. He knows that the opening of the stage-door is not so easily compassed as that beside the box-office there are difficulties in the way which whet his ambition, he understands, too, that the aristo-[-235-]cracy (male) of his native land pass their evenings in the precincts in question; and he dearly loves to be where they are. Finally, the idea that there is a soupcon of impropriety about the proceeding - a touch of "fastness" and town-life - completes the catalogue of incitements. It will be easily believed that this third reason, at all events, had nothing to do with the visit of this Home Correspondent - who is Nothing if he is not Correct - behind the scenes of the Great British Theatre. That element, it will be acknowledged at once, was as foreign to his enterprise as to the undertaking of Christopher Columbus, or to the rediscovery of Nineveh. Nor is it necessary to disclose by what means the H. C., whose initials are an open Sesame everywhere from the Palace to the Refuge for the Destitute, obtained admission to that mysterious locality of "wings," and "traps," and "flats," fraught with such danger to the Impressionable.
    The stage-door of the G. B. T. (like the alphabet, through which we pass to the delights [-236-] of literature) does not impress one favourably in itself, nor at all foreshadow those realms of splendour and enchantment to which it gives access. It is situated in an ill-lighted back-lane, always filled by cabs, which, having once deposited their dramatic fares, are forbidden (as I conclude) by the narrowness of the way from all return, and remain there until some favourable opportunity (such as the burning of the Theatre, which takes place at pretty regular intervals) shall occur, and once more restore them to their legitimate Rank. The vestibule reminds one - or rather would have reminded any one who was acquainted with such localities - of that apartment, half-cell, half-office, in which the inspector at a police station is accustomed to take the night-charges; while a winding narrow stair, with steps of stone and railings of iron, precisely such as ornament Her Majesty's prisons - except that it is far from clean - leads down to the Bowers of Bliss and Dells of Dreamland.
    What strikes one most, upon first setting foot [-237-] on these mysterious boards, is the enormous space they occupy. There seems to be a theatre-  except that it has no dress-circle nor gallery, and terminates not in ceiling but in chaos - behind the scenes, fully as large as that which we know to be before them. Vast curtains, canvasses, obstacles with whose very nature we are unacquainted, but which look like advertising hoardings, interpose at various distances between ourselves and the stage, on which the Christmas pantomime is being enacted, and yet there appears to be room enough to drill a Volunteer brigade in. A solitude like that of Sahara, and about equally dusty, spreads around us, illumined by flaring gas-jets in wire cages, and overshadowed in one corner by an artificial firmament not in use, out of which the moon has dropped, and the stars hang in a state of doubt, as well they may, as to what course should be taken by their courses in a case so altogether unexampled. The great globe itself is also there, but drunk and incapable, its fair proportions dinted like a squeezed orange, and the [-238-] Pacific Ocean clean carried away (as might have been expected) by the fall of the moon.
    There are seasons of spectacle when the stage of the G. B. T. is used to its very limit (to represent excessive Distance or vast Numbers), but upon the present occasion, as I have said, there is a great deal of space unoccupied save by theatrical lumber, and untrodden by the human form divine. But not so by the fairies, who are diviner still. See, here comes one, in a charming costume, although there is so little of it, all gauze and glitter, with a gleaming crescent on her brow, to shew that she is not the Venus which we took her for, and a silver something in her hand of eccentric shape, which we know to be a bow, because at her back there clangs a quiver; like a sunbeam, threading its way through dust and gloom, how gracefully she trips among the rubbish, here coasting by a gigantic paint-pot, there tacking to avoid an oil-jar, but always smiling like the Morn she never sees. The Home Correspondent trembles in all his limbs, grasps at his introducer (who regards his weakness [-239-] with contemptuous pity), and acknowledges in every lineament the fealty which he pays to passing beauty. There is a pasteboard fountain in her way, suggestive, by-the-by, of anything but water, and I hasten forward to remove it it yields to my unnecessary force, as lightly as though I had taken a roll of bonnet-ribbon for an iron garden-roller, and I almost measure my length at the fairy's feet. "Pray mind my wings, sir," says she, with a pettishness which, in one's wife perhaps, one would call ill-humour, but which appears in this sylph to be the prettiest form remonstrance ever took; and on she trips, as though a human heart like mine could recover from her relentless tread as easily as a crushed daisy.
    "How are you, Kitty ?" observes my friend, and this etherial being responds: "How are you?" at the same time giving him an enchanting hand, which he does not raise reverently to his lips, but shakes with unaffected heartiness, as though it belonged to some club-friend of his newly turned up from the country. "A thorough good girl is [-240-] Kitty," remarks he in explanation, as she vanishes round a corner, "who supports her sister, who has a bad spine, and I am afraid stints herself to procure little luxuries for that invalid."
    So, you see, she was an angel instead of a fairy, after all.
    To suppose, indeed, that "behind the scenes" is a place devoted to flirtation, or that every Coryphée is a flower for the human butterfly to amuse himself with, is to commit something worse than a mistake: it is to do a wrong. The thoroughly business air with which she goes about her duties (which are by no means light because they are graceful) is worthy of Threadneedle Street or (let us say) of Angel Court. There is this marked difference, however, in favour of the lady; becoming as are her artificial adornments, there is an unaffected good-humour about her which is more winning (to honest folks) than they. Her manners are totally free from mauvaise honte, but they are by no means "bold." She is unaware of there being any peculiarity in her costume, for indeed she is [-241-] attired like the vast majority of her sex in that strange sphere. Her mamma is there, very likely, in a poke-bonnet and ordinary wraps of a warm texture, and I protest that she looks the more grotesque and unreal of the two; so familiar has the scene already grown; so easily do we conform ourselves to that world of tinsel and gilding, peopled by Fays and Sprites - that atmosphere of heat and intense light, with sullen waves of sound (which is Applause) breaking in at times from the "house before the curtain.
    Fay meets Fay with a cordiality (although they have doubtless their jealousies) which is very rare among ladies of fashion: "Jemima, darling, just set my quiver right, will you?" or "Kitty, dear, let me straighten your wings." Their behaviour, too, with those young gentlemen who are evidently habitués of the place, is artless and sister-like. There was certainly less flirtation than is seen, after a déjeuner a la fourchette, on the lawn of many a respectable villa-residence on the banks of Thames; and perhaps less misunderstanding of mutual position. [-242-] I am bound to say that there was one exception to this good-conduct upon the part of a certain visitor, who, in the graphic and well-chosen words of an indignant goddess about to ascend to the empyrean upon a cloud, was both "old enough and ugly enough to know better." This ancient gentleman - or nobleman for all that I know - went about with his faded airs and smileless face, whispering soft nothings to very little purpose, and, as it appeared to us, got considerably snubbed ; but after a little, to our great content, he took himself off, instead of being taken, as he ought to have been, down the nearest trap, by Demons, and condemned there to wind windlasses of endless chains until the theatrical season terminated. There were depths below that would have afforded every accommodation that he deserved; gloomy abysms, which we presently explored, with a vague impression of dust, and darkness, and the lifting of heavy weights, such as might have been produced by visiting Great Tower Street in July during an eclipse. Then again we mounted to [-243-] the "flies," where, in dusty gloom, the carpenters sat by the vast cylinders of rope, with their fingers on the iron handles, waiting for the signal from below; also into the Painting Room, a desolate chamber, whose immense extent might have taught perspective to the artist of the willow-pattern plate nay, we were even shown the door - only the door - that opened on the sanctum which "young persons" in the receipt of a guinea a week as ballet-dancers entered shawled and cloaked, and came forth from glorious with gauze and spangles as Daughters of the Sun. But wherever we went, no matter what the gloom, through cracks and clefts, the glare and glitter of the stage would force its way; and no matter what the distance from "the house," those sullen waves of sound, that were Applause, would yet be heard.
    Then once again back to our place at the Wing, for the juveniles, attendant sprites of the stage princess, are about to "go on," and that is a sight not to be missed. Not one of those little folks before the curtain, the clapping of whose tiny [-244-] hands, and whose shrill laughter gladden all ears, is merrier than these child-actors. The officials who are appointed for that purpose (and a kinder set of teachers I never saw) have enough to do to restrain their eager pupils, as they crowd around to receive their various "properties" to take with them on the stage. how they shake their little wings with glee, and perk and chatter like a flock of linnets, as the kind old lady gives them each what he or she should have; and how proud and happy seem the two or three pale women in humble dress, who have come to see how their little darlings look in all their bravery. A considerable number of these, however, are not to be seen at all, being the inmates of peripatetic game-pies, trussed turkeys, and a score of other gigantic delicacies which are to form an enchanted banquet on the stage; and it was pretty to hear the bystanders telling the Punchbowl to walk straight, and to see them guiding the slender Bottles of Champagne in the way that they should go. This mixture of domesticity with the unreal splendours of the place, [-245-] is to be met with everywhere. The clown, who is not yet dressed for the harlequinade, and, indeed, who looks uncommonly like a Methodist parson, is asking some question of his wife, who is not herself of the theatrical calling, with respect to their youngest child, who, I gather from the conversation, has been sufficiently unwell to require a gray powder; while the young princesses, who apparently inhabit the same palace together, are debating as to whether the clerk of the kitchen (who may be a maid-of-all-work or their own mother) will remember to have cooked their potatoes for supper with their jackets on, as was particularly enjoined.
    Looking from the wing at the house itself, the spectators seem to be a totally different set of persons from ourselves, who are by this time thoroughly identified with the folks on our own side of the curtain. It is the former who are the puppets, not the latter; or, rather, they are so unindividualised and massed together, and at the same time so diminished by distance, that they appear [-246-] to be more a counterfeit presentment of our fellow-creatures than real people. But something is now occurring to engage our wrapt attention, as it engages that of all those who have not their own work to do upon the stage just at present: a long "trap" in the floor is opened, and reveals a deep dark chasm, down which a poor carpenter fell, as we were told, a few nights before, and was carried out dead to pantomimic music; up this comes slowly an enormous iron frame, gaudily painted to represent foliage, and which is to bear for fruit the most beautiful of the "rose garden of girls" about us. This is presently to form the background of the magnificent Transformation Scene, at which the dropping fire of applause will culminate into a feu de joie from all parts of the house. Again and again, the slow progress of the huge machine is checked, that this or that lovely creature shall be, Andromeda-like, securely bound to it, and always in the most graceful position to please that exigeant Monster, the Public, for whom she is designed. We are close by, and watch them [-247-] under the full glare of a hundred gas-jets, and certainly, for form and comeliness, they have no cause to dread the jealous scrutiny of the most powerful opera-glass; but to see them as they laugh and talk good-humouredly among themselves during the initiatory process, is a pleasanter sight than the stereotyped smile and artificial languor which will steal over them in a few minutes. It is upon this scene, that in these days of spectacle, the success of a pantomime mainly depends; and among sylphs and fairies, to possess beauty and shapeliness is to be in a position to demand a considerable salary. It is entirely from this practical point of view that the whole affair is regarded from "behind the scenes," and if any remark of a depreciatory character is overheard, it has reference to that only.
    "I call it disgusting !" observes a shrill female voice in my neighbourhood, so shrill that it cannot but reach the ears of the lovely being for whom it is intended, reclining upon a golden branch about twenty feet above us, in a costume unquestionably [-248-] scanty. "I should be ashamed to get my money that way."
    That was the first and the last observation that I heard in the G. B. T., which was calculated to produce shame, and therefore pain ; the remark was as much out of place and taste as though in an exhibition of statuary somebody should begin to talk of tailors ; but not by the twitching of a muscle did the lady aloft betray that she was aware of the presence of the lady below. The latter stood in no danger of such a temptation as that which she seemed so self-persuaded of being able to resist; she had seen her thirty summers, and to judge by her worn pinched face, poor thing, at least the corresponding number of winters; her garments, though gauzy, were limp and soiled; her white satin shoes were dingy; her wings were battered; her silver wand had very little of the precious metal left upon it. She was that most obvious example of the text Vanitas vanitatum, an Old Ballet-girl! Never more would manager demand her services at her own price, by virtue [-249-] of that haggard face, that shrunken form. Long after the beautiful being at whom she sneered - who, by-the-bye, it is but fair to say, I was afterwards informed, was one of the best and honestest girls in the theatre, the chief part of whose salary found its way to other pockets than her own - long after the coryphées of the Transformation Scene had gone home, this poor faded creature, and a hundred others like her (a painful sight, indeed, by contrast with their more prosperous and youthful sisterhood), had to wait until the conclusion of the piece, when they "came on" amid the red-fire and the blue (for what complexions, alas! had they to suffer by it?) and waved with their thin arms a mute adieu to people who were putting on cloaks and shawls, and scarcely looked at them at all. It is as though Nature should send us ancient butterflies with faded down in the late autumn. In future, when we go to the play, my friends, let us always keep a "brava" and a clap of the white gloves for the Last Scene of All.
    Saddened by this sight, yet not so sad but that [-250-] we felt we could eat supper, we left the G. B. T. with that good end in view, when, behold, the winter sky to southward one dull glare of red, and every other word that we heard spoken in the streets was "Fire ! Fire !" At that sound, I thought with a shudder of the atmosphere of blinding light and intense heat (and yet with draughts which would have smitten flame to frenzy) in the place we had just left; of the hundreds of flickering gas-jets; of the pasteboard scenes that would be touch-wood to every tongue of fire; of the gauze and gossamer garments, scathed at a flash along with those they clothed; of the iron frame upon which those helpless beauties might have been offered up to Moloch in that valley of Tophet from which we had just emerged - I had almost said escaped. "Where is the fire ?" asked we. And each hurrying passenger, bound for the same spot, but with his own peculiar notion of where it was, gave us a different reply. "The Houses of Parliament!" "Westminster Abbey!" "The Archbishop's Palace at Lambeth "- while one old gentleman who [-251-] had supped freely, and forgotten the points of the compass, replied "The Br-ish Museum, sir. At last we came upon a fireman's station, where the engine was being got ready in hot speed, and learned where the fire really was.
    It was at the Surrey Theatre!