Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Tempted London : Young men, [Anon.], [c1889] - Chapter 10 - The Variety Theatres of London

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THE half-dozen leading music-halls of London may be grouped under the name of variety theatres. It cannot be necessary to mention me names of these palatial places of entertainment; those who know them do not require to be told, and those who do not know them are all the better without the information. They are of quite a recent growth, and are a curious commentary upon the supposed improvement in the public taste for entertainment. Hardly one of the big music-halls of London is more than ten years old; and although the old Alhambra was at one time a music-hall, it was found to be too large to pay, and was converted into a theatre. Lately it was found not to pay as a theatre, and was reconverted to a music-hall, since when it has returned good profits to its owners. It is not yet time to consider theatres proper, but we may remark in passing that the increase in the taste for variety-entertainments seems to have grown with the descent of the drama from what was known as the "legitimate" to the modern comedy, the opera bouffe, the Palais Royal farce, and the recent form of burlesque. From the latter to the music-hall is an imperceptible gradation. Indeed the [-193] performers on both stages are largely the same, for whilst the music-hall artistes are constantly being drafted into burlesque, acknowledged burlesque performers take to the music-hall as a stop-gap whilst they are what is technically called "resting" - in other words, out of work. The burlesque, indeed, differs little from the variety-entertainment, except that the former makes some attempt at illustrating a continuous plot or story, whilst each item in the latter is supposed to be distinct. To the former men take their wives, and nobody seems to think that they should not; but to the palatial music-halls of the west men take their wives as well, and there does not seem to be any unanimous opinion against it. And yet the performances at the leading halls are of the same tone and character as those at the lesser ones; indeed, the self-same performers, in many instances, appear at both of them. If men may take their wives to these entertainments without a warning voice being raised against it, how long will it be before they take their daughters as well, and how long after that before there is no such thing as modesty left in the world? If young men see their employers in a private box at the Pavilion or the Empire, accompanied by their wives, how can they see any harm in taking their own sisters there ? as they probably would, were it not for the fact that young men who pass their time in this way hardly ever take their sisters out at all. People seem to think that because the auditorium is large, handsomely decorated, with well-furnished seats, luxurious boxes, and brilliantly lighted the character of the place is altered. They see that the stalls are [-194-] expensive ; that they are filled by men in evening dress, and women without their bonnets; they see that the boxes are occupied by fashionable-looking people in faultless attire, with all the attendant paraphernalia of wraps, fans, opera-glasses, and broughams outside; they see a first-class orchestra, scented programmes, a handsome curtain, and a gorgeous proscenium, and everything seems to them quite as it should be. They take no heed of the brilliant bars so plainly to be discerned from all parts of the house, of the carpeted promenades on which the "unfortunates" lay themselves out to attract the notice of the men, of the half-tipsy swells who come in late for purposes best known to themselves, of the fact that when the curtain goes up the same vulgar men and women that we have already introduced our readers to in other halls make their appearance on the stage, and sing the same vulgar songs, and accompany them with the same vulgar gestures and repellent facial contortions. The exhibition is in every way as low-class as that of the minor hall, except for the ballets in one or two houses (not a very high-class exception, it may be said) and an occasional good ballad-singer, who is listened to with more or less of impatience, and regarded generally as a bore interfering with the appearance of some more lively performer.
    It is unfortunately the fact that what cannot be called otherwise than the worst part of the performance is the portion received with the most favour. The quick-change artiste, who can transform his appearance from an old man to a lady in a ball-dress is something under a minute, receives but a scanty amount of applause, although it cannot be denied [-195-] that there is some amount of ingenuity in his movements ; the juggler who has devoted months of practice to attaining completeness in his manipulation, the equilibrist whose performance is the result of much rehearsal, the acrobat whose contortions are the outcome of years of painful training, only command the appreciative attention of the gallery; but the loud-voiced comic singer, in evening dress, who shouts out some wretched lines to a taking tune, lines which are replete with double meaning, often descending to base indelicacy, has the "hands" of all the house, and stands bowing before a storm of tumultuous applause as a reward for the prostitution of his talents and impudence. How can we hold our heads up, and talk of the progress made in the nineteenth century, when such an exhibition as this enables the performer to make his two and three thousands a year, and have his name and achievements gravely discussed in the columns of all the leading journals of the day? There is no censorship of his songs, which are sure of failure if they do not teem with vulgarity and bristle with objectionable meaning. The wretched singer cannot he blamed, as he only does that which is expected of him, and would not be tolerated if he were not utterly devoid of self-respect.. It is the public who must reform the music-hall, and not the performer. So long as people will pay handsomely to hear the latter, so long will he certainly give them what they want : if they would not tolerate him, if they would abstain from listening to him, he would soon cease to sing, and speedily sink into the oblivion which is the best fate that could be wished for him.
    A word must be said about the acrobatic perform-[-196-]ances that now disgrace every music-hall in London, if that can be disgraced which is in itself disgraceful and in no way to be defended. Tumblers nowadays perform much more dangerous feats than formerly and necessarily so if they are to demand attention. These persons of old were wont to receive sufficient applause for feats which would now be regarded as insipid and devoid of interest. What satisfied an audience ten years ago will not satisfy it now, and the complicated contortions and gyrations that are attempted by acrobats in order to gain engagements depend for success upon their danger. Such lissomness of limb is now required that none but very young acrobats have any chance of acquiring it, and thus it is that we see children of from five to ten years of age twisting their limbs and throwing themselves about in a manner that, as we are authoritatively informed, stunts and warps the growth and actually shortens life. We know that an acrobat rarely lives to be forty years of age, that he is trained to his disgusting business when he can make no choice of his own and he is under the brutal power of a relentless master. The accomplishment of his "tricks" as his somersaults are called, can only be arrived at hr much painful practice and cruel treatment. Boys are strapped in unnatural positions for long periods of time in order to get the proper bends in their limbs. The disgusting brutality practised by the "Arab" leader upon his apprentices, and which was discovered and exposed by Mr. Littler a few years ago, cannot be forgotten. He found that in order to get his apprentices to bend their heads back and put them between [-197-] their legs, a thick strap, furnished with a buckle, was passed round the throat, and the legs and the head forced backwards, whilst the strap was tightened. The boy was left thus for about a quarter of an hour, and then the strap was taken up another hole. Each day the strap was further tightened, and a case occurred of one of the boys having his back broken by this disgusting cruelty. Every man who applauds such performances as these should remember that he is encouraging an exhibition which is more cruel than bull-fighting and almost as immoral as the performances in the Roman arena. Every music-hail artiste can tell heartrending tales of the brutalities practised upon embryo acrobats, the hard-and-fast rule with all trainers being that when once a "trick" is attempted the child should not be allowed to desist until it is accomplished. Trapeze performers, who are now frequently girls, suffer chronic pains in the head and have to endure racking pains in the limbs and back. A trapezist informs us that she always has a splitting headache after her performance, but that although she is now virtually her own mistress, she is fit for nothing else, and is therefore bound to stick to her profession. The training for this sort of thing is done in France, whither all children are sent whose parents are despicable enough to allow it. It can hardly be denied that the witnessing of performances which are known to be dangerous, or at any rate hurtful, to the performers is to be deprecated, since it must have a vitiating effect upon the mind and lower the sense of moral responsibility; although it would probably be a long time before every spectator of [-198-] such painful exhibitions could be brought to understand that he must hold himself partly responsible for whatever is presented upon the stage.
    At these leading music-halls there are the usual "popular promenades" this meaning any portions of the house to which the admission is a shilling or two shillings and to which the young men of London flock in order to inspect the girls who go there to he inspected. But there is a great difference in the appearance of the promenades at these halls as contrasted with the minor halls. Here there is none of the freedom which is the distinctive feature of the others ; attendants in uniform are ready to check any lightness of behaviour or loudness of voice, so the chaffing, and laughing, and scraping of acquaintance have to be carried on in a much more subdued manner. But such as it is, it is even of a mote vicious character than that which obtains at smaller places. At one hall in the west of London there is a shilling promenade on the floor of the house and a two-shilling promenade in an upstairs balcony. To the latter resort the showiest and fastest of women, intent upon their business, and well versed in all the tricks so necessary to their success. Also as the evening wears on there is an influx of young men in evening dress, some of whom are what the vulgar call "swells," whilst others are simply young men employed in the city, who don their evening dress for the sole purpose of impressing the poor wretched creatures whom they meet with the idea that they fill a better position in life than they really do; also the usual medley of young men, of somewhat higher social positions than those who go to [-199-] the shilling promenade, positions in which they are probably allowed to live at home and keep their salaries for their personal use. Parents cannot be too deeply impressed with the folly of this. Youths with two pounds a week in their pockets, and no necessaries but clothing to purchase with it, waste it in absurd adornment of their body and in ruining their health by smoking, drinking,, and other pleasures. The clerks and others who allow themselves to drift into the habit of frequenting this part do so because they think it sounds fast and impresses others with the idea that they are gay livers. They are, unfortunately, more or less devoid of natural acumen, and persuade themselves that the men they see around them are "real swells," living as real swells do. These foolish youths, in their morning-coats, and top hats, and high collars, watching with wide-opened eye the movements of the gentry, so as to be able to go home and practise it seem to have no doubts about their genuineness, nor any suspicions that the men they see are little better than themselves. And yet that is, of course, the case. The full-dressed men to be found in such a place comprise the loafers of the West End, the sons of the big shopkeepers, the smaller members of the Stock Exchange, the livery-stable keepers, the West End wine-bar proprietors, and all those men who, daily brought into contact with gentlemen, fancy they have only to assume the feathers to become counterparts of the bird. In due time the envious youth gets a cheap suit, and puts it on and goes up to the promenade, and converts himself into a mean-minded little snob, who does not mind whether he [-200-] is really a gentleman or not, so long as he can make other people think so. If he have any right feeling left he goes home utterly ashamed; or if he be utterly irrepressible, as most young men of his class are, he supports his spirits by the knowledge that he is attired after the fashion of other swells, and endeavours to cut a dash by "palling on" to one of the showiest of women, paying for some wine for her, and talking in as loud a voice as his fear of the attendants will permit. This is the sort of thing that a youth will descend to if he attempts to ape the vices of his superiors. There must be something radically wrong in the way our boys are brought up when the majority of them, or a great minority, are  imbued with such wrong ideas in respect of gentlemen and enjoyment. We do not mean to convey that the sons of wealthy people, who have been educated at college, do not disport themselves in ways that it would be best to refrain from; but, with rare exceptions, they do not misbehave themselves in music-halls and drinking-bars, nor swagger about with their hats on the back of their heads and their coats thrown open, and big cigars protruding from their lips. Another fault to be found with the big music-halls of the West End is that, in addition to the time-wasting movements encouraged at all such places, they add  the development of snobbery and shoddy gentility ; they inculcate into the weak minds of young men the ideas that to be a gentleman is to do everything that no gentleman would do, and that to be low, insolent, immoral and disgusting is the sincerest flattery that can be paid to the "upper ten."

source: Anon., Tempted England: Young Men, c.1889