To the Lord Chamberlain: The Reports of a Volunteer Commissioner
TO THE LORD CHAMBERLAIN.
THE REPORTS OF A VOLUNTEER COMMISSIONER.
SIX IN NUMBER.
Report the First.
The present writer read, with much interest, your Lordship's circular, addressed to the managers of the London theatres, and has followed, with equal interest, though with some slight astonishment, the correspondence and remarks that have thereupon ensued. It has been pleasant to him to observe that on both sides of this question there is much, of various degrees of merit, to be said, and that, in especial, the opposite parties in the controversy, which was brought about by your Lordship's excellent (if somewhat timid) advice, assert the whiteness of black and the blackness of white with edifying affability. The manager of a prominent theatre, in recognition of the invitation given in the circular in question, advises your Lordship to take severe measures with the Music Halls, whence, according to the opinion of this gentleman (well entitled to be heard), the mischief originally comes. Certain Music Hall proprietors, on the other hand, write to the papers, accusing the Theatres of all that is improper, vaunting the spotless purity of their own establishments, and challenging contradiction. Similar differences of opinion exist amongst those members of the public at large, who have joined the fray. As between Music Halls and Theatres, the quarrel appears to be merely a revival of an old difficulty between the managers of rival classes of entertainments, and, as such, has little or no real interest for the public. But in the matter really touched upon in your Lordship's remarks, and from which the controversialists have somewhat wandered, the public is gravely interested.
It is said that the managers of Theatres have been, and are gradually more and more drifting into a habit of exhibiting on their stages, improprieties, vitiating to the public taste, and hurtful to the public morals. It is suggested that the ladies who are engaged to play in the pantomimes and burlesques, to which it may be presumed your Lordship's remarks especially apply, seize with eagerness the opportunity of displaying too much of their charms to appreciative audiences. Contrariwise, it has been urged in more than one letter by the managers of Theatres, and by casual critics, that the fault is not with them, but with the public; that the public has ceased to be decorous itself, and calls aloud for a want of decorum in its entertainers; that managers give, in a word, the kind of entertainment, which has at last brought upon them the mild thunders of your Lordship's office, because that kind was imperatively demanded by their exacting supporters. This is a serious charge to bring against a public; but it is a still more serious matter when the accused assumes its truth and glibly runs off, as one of the slipshod topics of the day, with commonplaces about the indecencies of the stage. People who talk thus forget the important fact that the drama with a large class of spectators takes the place of books, and is a popular instructor for good or for evil, of vast importance—an engine of enormous power in forming the public tastes, which it is of the highest importance to keep in good working order—an institution which loses all its influence for good, if discredit be allowed to be cast upon it. The state of the theatre fairly reflects, although, occasionally, it may be conceded, in a somewhat distorted mirror, the state of the society of the day; at any rate, the tone of the stage is in a great degree derived from the tone of the audiences—each reacts upon the other; and, if mischief be done, it is difficult to apportion the blame among the parties concerned.
The first important question, however, would appear to be this: Is mischief being done? Have we been getting gradually worse and worse, until we have all imperceptibly assisted in the creation of a nuisance that now cries aloud for suppression?
Your Lordship yourself discreetly confines your remarks to "some of the metropolitan theatres," although the circular is sent to all; but the fact of the solemn warning being addressed to every manager, would make it appear that there must be several who have incurred your Lordship's displeasure. In certain evidence given before a committee of the House of Commons, your Lordship expressed yourself satisfied with the powers vested in the office of Lord Chamberlain, considering them sufficient for all necessary purposes of supervision, and, in case of need, suppression. From this it would appear that the observations in the press and the remarks from other sources which instigated the circular of the 28th of January last, applied to so many theatres that your Lordship felt it impossible to exercise the authority vested in the Lord Chamberlain's office, and that the evil had attained too great a height to be cured by a coup-de-main, and that gradual measures were judged the most likely to be successful.
A constant playgoer from his youth up, the gravity of the charge thus made against managers, actors, and audiences, considerably startled the Commissioner who has the honour of making this report. He was concerned to think that he had assisted at entertainments, at which costumes were worn of an impropriety so marked, as to call for the interference of the State. He was horrified to think that he had permitted the ladies of his family to sanction by their presence exhibitions of questionable decency. Much disturbed in mind, thinking it possible that there might be special reason for complaint that had hitherto escaped his eyes, and anxious to see how matters really stood, he formed himself into a Volunteer Commission of one, and devoted himself to the study of the pantomimes and burlesques of the season. He also carefully studied the kind of entertainment presented at Music Halls. And with (or without) your Lordship's permission he has now the honour to lay his report at your feet.
Your Commissioner may respectfully point out to your Lordship that in the course of his remarks upon the numerous performances he has attended, there will be found observations on subjects not specially connected with the department of Lord Chamberlain, and not in any respect under your Lordship's authority. Your Commissioner, being a volunteer, and under his own command, has not thought it necessary to regulate his report by any strict rules of departmental discipline, and has no doubt that such cases will frequently occur in the present document.
In fact, the whole of the earlier portion of the report now presented, treats of matters foreign to your Lordship's department. That they may soon be brought under strong influence, and sharp discipline, is much to be desired.
Report the Second.
THE ROYAL PANDEMONIUM PALACE.
That we are the most moral people on the face of the earth, was once almost the boast of the complacent Briton. Now, such a vaunting would be disclaimed as arrogance, and in something of this key: we have our faults, and failings, and vices; and in the metropolis, particularly, there is much to amend, scenes of rude vice, the squalor of wickedness, as it were, arising from the vastness and the complex organisation of the great city, which we call, with pardonable pride, the capital of the world. But in the English people, and the London people, there is a true moral sense, after all; and none of that coarse publicity, that flaunting of vice which so shocks us in Paris. We may justly thank Providence for having a police force, as well as a House of Lords, which, directed by a nice public opinion, takes care that vice shall pay the proverbial homage to virtue, or go at once to the Station. "No, sir," says Mr. Complacent Briton, "we may have a scandal now and again; but we have none of your brazen Paris morals over here. They must keep in the dark. Men are pretty much the same all the world over. I don't set up to be squeamish, but we won't have decency affronted here."
Some such remark Mr. Complacent Briton has often made to the observing foreigner, parting with him, perhaps, in the neighbourhood so congenial to aliens, or actually, perhaps, in sight of a mouldy square, towards the smaller hours; at one side of which rises a large illuminated lantern of Moorish pattern, all ablaze with windows, and stars, and devices, and through whose doors are pouring in and out streams of men and women. This flaming tabernacle, he will be told, is the Royal Pandemonium Palace; and, as an acute Frenchman, he will take its measure, as it were, in a second—for it speaks in a language that he perfectly understands—and with a smile of delight will enter to spend his night there.
It seems like a great vicious beehive, all seething within and without, with life and humanity. The blaze and the light in which the insects revel suffuse it through and through. Round the openings rises the eternal din of arriving broughams and hansoms, their setting down and driving away. The far-off East-ender and shop boy, passing by, gazes with simplicity, and thinks this must be a very palace of delights, and is tempted in. Wiser men than he, who read their newspapers conscientiously, may be tempted in too, perhaps, even into bringing their wives and daughters, for have they not read in broadsheets that no more admirably "conducted" place exists, and that we are under the deepest obligations to its "enterprising" proprietor.
Light in floods is always enticing—it is beauty, richness, colour, gold, silver, jewels; and there is plenty of it here. Were there another intelligent foreigner, with misgivings as to whether all this were not a sham, a mere pinchbeck imitation of his dear Paris, which would break down on examination, and discover the uncouth John Bull morality underneath; his mind would be set at rest by a short study of the successively arriving hansoms, which stream up, each filled with what is termed "a lovely burden;" that is, with more ermine, and velvet, and bags of yellow hair, than would be quite agreeable to Mr. Complacent Briton. Each lovely burden descends briskly, pays her fare handsomely, and is gallantly helped out by a bearded, brawny officer of the establishment, dressed in gold lace, wearing earrings, who greets each with a natural familiarity, founded on an acquaintance of many thousand successive nights. The number of these burdens is something alarming. As it grows towards eleven, it becomes a perfect block; burden after burden is set down, and hurries in, fearful of losing a second, for the moments are golden. Up comes, too, the frequent brougham, dark and glistening—the lady from the opera—who drops the white-tied "votary of pleasure," and drives away. The votary of pleasure hurries in. Let us do the same.
Through the blaze at the entrance, we admire those noble soldiers, each about six feet two high, splendid men, privates in a corps, enrolled, no doubt, in defence of the order and morality of the house. They wear blue and gold tunics, with bright scarlet facings, scarlet and gold képis, and white belts, exquisitely pipeclayed. The uniform size of these heroes is something amazing; their great chests and stalwart arms seem suitable for ox-felling, for which they are not required. In a well conducted establishment like this, Mr. Complacent Briton will be told, where all classes are mixed up in the pursuit of rational pleasure, it is quite necessary to have strong men on the spot, who can rally in a moment, and stamp out the beginning of disorder. In a well-conducted establishment where a vast quantity of liquor is drunk, and where vast numbers of the class on whom liquor has a decided effect, attend, the strong men act promptly before the police can be troubled, and with a creditable roughness cast out anything like drunkenness, upon the streets, when of course it is some one else's business to deal with it. On any idiotic cries, or challenges to fight, the strong men rush up, seize the disturber by the throat, and hustle him out in a second. For the place must be well conducted.
What a scene inside!—vestibules blue, gold, and white, all champagne and glorified bars, and velvet sofas, and little pigeon-hole boxes, and painted Houris serving drinks. The crash of music comes from within; charming gentlemen are in crowds, all apparently devoted to lovely burdens, who seem to be never weary of accepting homage in the shape of what the Bar of England, behind which the Houris stand, can offer. Inside, what a spectacle!—loftiness, decoration, majesty, size, and a dim dome-like spaciousness not to be surpassed. Even the Frenchman owns that his dear Paris cannot boast its equal. Think of the noble stage, with its enormous opening, the grand orchestra in front, nearly a hundred strong, crashing out; then gallery after gallery ascending, as it were, to be lost in the cathedral-like roof, lost in the mists of too much light! But one may think more of the enormous crowd with which that vast tabernacle is bursting, with which it is boiling over—not the "sea of heads," still and steady, which is known to theatres, but an ever-circulating mass, floating to and fro, indistinct, undistinguished to a great degree. There is lovely burden after lovely burden, itself to another great degree glittering with the jewels and gold of the quality to which the burden itself is partial. They seem happy and in the highest spirits, and well may bless the kindly patronage which affords them this magnificent shelter and gaily encourages their presence; but at the same time regulates them with a firm hand, the hand of the strong men. For this is "a well-conducted place of amusement," and every young gentleman who is making his manners, or marring his head. comes to the Royal Pandemonium.
Down in the great area, what eating and drinking, what glittering silver tankards—or seeming silver—what Bass, what Allsopp, what innumerable "sodas"! Animated and crowded as that huge space appears, it is in truth the dullest part of the house; for here are herded the stupid homely souls who come merely to look at the magnificent entertainments provided on the stage, and for whom, I suspect, the proprietor has a befitting contempt. Even the strong men in their scarlet and blue uniform—handsome Life Guardsmen they look too—we can see despise these clodhoppers, who know nothing of life, and who do not come to see life. They do not order champagne wine for themselves, or for lovely burdens. They do not command costly suppers; they pay their shilling or so at the doors. Yet they are scrupulously treated; not for the world would the least disrespect be offered to them, or to the humdrum wives and daughters whom they bring with them to stare at the show. Nothing can be more generous than this treatment, for no sort of account can be found in it; to carpers like the present writer, the proprietor of this well-conducted place of amusement can retort, "Look down there at my patrons—the pure wives and daughters of England. They come to me. What are these idle charges?"
Well may they stare at the noble scenery that seems to run riot in fancy and colouring, at the endless troops of dancing seraphs, who seem to live, quite naturally, above in golden branches, to float in the air, and hang from clouds in the most natural way. So with the orchestra, its general leading them facing the audience. As we survey this motley crowd, all engaged in what is called harmless pleasure, it is impossible not to consider it a school of some sort, open every night in the year, and which is teaching all the young gentlemen and ladies who resort there lessons of some description.
The scholars, if we consider the hour during which the academy is open, resort there in thousands, some nearly every night, and for some their studies have quite a fascination. Some arrive from the opera in full dress—with opera hat, white tie. Every one newly come from the country repairs there at once, eager to see a little scholastic life. But it offers far more advantages to the mere youth—clerk or shopboy—who has here a career not to be pursued under other circumstances, so advantageously. In this splendid realm he gains an importance, a spurious manabout-township, at a cheap cost. He can ruffle it like a real gallant, according to his degree. Here he can generously "stand" refreshment, and purchase the converse and the smiles of lovely burdens; from here he can return, boasting, to any less fortunate brethren of the counter, of his acquaintances. So with the young soldier from Aldershot, so with the "city man," the "gent," the "swell," and the curious species known as the "Champagne Charlie." There are various ways of showing oneself "a real gentleman;" but here we can see there is one true touchstone, that is, remunerating everybody magnificently. To have the good word or the recognition of the strong men in uniform and of the glorious army of red waiters—they serve us in flame-coloured jackets—is indeed most precious. I see high-spirited young fellows, of "the true breed," giving their five shilling pieces and half sovereigns to these noble giants, who obsequiously touch their caps and go on before them, making way. To be well known at the Royal Pandemonium is grand. Many a gay spark pays heavily, but cannot succeed, for there is an art in doing this. To be "admitted to the canteen," to have that entrée, is indeed happiness. There, as Lamb says, "earth touched heaven." This select abode is under the stage, and is crowded by lovely burdens; but mark—hither resort the ladies of the stage, enwrapped in cloaks; here is your true bouquet and charm.
Many sigh to enter here, but a strong man, of yet vaster proportions than his brethren, is told off specially to guard. Only "real" gentlemen and friends of the house are admitted. The powers of recognition in the strong men must be carefully kept alive, or they forget old friends in the strangest way. But to reach the stage is bliss, reserved but for very few indeed. The tenderest friendship with the strong men, based on true pecuniary esteem, will not purchase that. Happy warders! Their lives are laid in smooth places; with them it is eternal drink, their friends treating them, from the very pride of that office. Indeed, to be even one of the army of waiters, wearing a flame-coloured jacket, seems almost a competence. Every one loads them with benefactions. At the various brilliant bars they come in for their seizings, in the shape of, I fear, unauthorised draughts. In every corner, too, are little stalls for cigars and trinkets—fans, what not, each controlled by a fascinating and highly decorated shopwoman. With these the white-tied Elegans in their apprenticeship to life, converse easily and with pleasant badinage, so as to be the envy of their friends and despair of young clerks, but have to buy their favours very dearly—a sovereign for, perhaps, ten minutes' banter, is high. Gold is expected. Everywhere gold and silver is pouring out. The admiring shopboy would give the world to have gold to give away in this fashion.
Hark to M. Breviary's orchestra, full and crashing. The flame-coloured curtains have gone up for the opening of the superb ballet. The Loves of the Water Lilies, with the skies and mountains even, rising behind, with the exquisite colours dazzling, and the waterfall trickling down with a melodious gush. In this department the Royal Pandemonium holds its own: to give the proprietor his due, so does it hold its own also, as the thousand and one limbs group and wind, and fall into artistic shapes to the sweetest music, and the fairy-like dresses glitter. Then a cave opens, and down the centre, from Paradise surely it seems to the boy clerks and shopmen, comes the famous Nudita, bounding down as if stepping on a cloud. Nudita is from some great Italian house, her services, we are told, being purchased at an enormous sum. These services are certainly of the most amazing sort, and an excess of modesty, which should have been left outside, causes some of us to droop our eyes in confusion. At another time the incomparable Minette, lured at great cost from some French dancing garden, throws us into ecstasies of delight by her diverting piquancies, kicking a supernumerary's hat off with one skilful touch, introducing for the first time to us the archest and most midnight of Paris dances. The best music hall singing, the best tumbling, the best glees sung decorously in black suits and evening dresses—for the tone of the house must be kept up—the best of everything. The army of entertainers behind the curtain is prodigious—no cost is spared. The beggarly shillings that Cox the shopkeeper gives for self and wife surely do not pay for this, neither does the profit on his meagre pint. It is wonderful how it can be done!
Such is the romantic view of the Royal Pandemonium Palace. So it appears to the young mind behind desk or counter, all the day long. It is an enchanting and fascinating temple; and he longs for night to set in, when he can go down with a friend and cheaply learn what life is. To know a real "Pandemonium girl" with that rank, is considered the height of ton, that is, provided it be known that he knows one. To this end vast sacrifices are made. To devote the Sunday to taking down one of these young ladies to Greenwich, with a select party, is what few can attain to. Wan decayed faces, sickly with over drink and over smoke, attest what suffering is undergone in this pursuit. To be able to take a friend past one of the glorious giants in scarlet and blue and receive a gracious nod, that is another goal. A word from a singer, is quite a crown, for it betokens freedom of the stage. Such is the picture of this "well-conducted place of amusement," which is praised in the leading journal, which is open every night, which has firm root in this great metropolis, and which has been so successful, that by and by, we shall have copies multiplied all over the city. Yet for all its admirable conducting, a more deadly or pernicious school of vice cannot be imagined.
There are certain immoral windmills which it would be sheer folly to fight with, and which it would be impossible to control; but it is not too much to say that the Royal Pandemonium Palace, Foreigneering-square, has worked the ruin of thousands of foolish boys; has shown them a smooth and expeditious road to destruction, and is doing its work steadily every night, and adding to the many problems by which London is embarrassed. The whole system, in every detail, is conducted on the most demoralising principles. The squandering of money invited at every turn; the bravos dressed up in stage uniform, and who are merely the hired bullies of the place; the affectation of strict decency and order, the very magnificence, are all so many disguises, and add to the fatal character of the show. The Royal Pandemonium Palace is, indeed, no more than a vast public-house, "admirably conducted;" but really no more in principle than the humble ale-house, where the fiddler or Ethiopian is introduced to play for the company.
But mark the precious inconsistency of our police and magisterial regulations. If it was known that to such a place Moll Flanders and her companions resorted to meet old friends and make new ones, the licence would be lost for ever. Some of the Haymarket refreshment houses which Moll is fond of patronising, are pursued with merciless rigour, and the owners properly dragged to the magistrate and fined. But with the Royal Pandemonium it is a different story. It is so well conducted that not a dozen or so, but hundreds of Moll Flanderses are invited to assemble, and assemble with exceeding profit to themselves. The police would not for the world bring the excellent proprietor before the magistrate; for he is unwearied in co-operating with them. Punctually at twelve the house is cleared, it is not kept open a second beyond the time. The gaudy bullies hustle every one out. When the dancing licence is renewed each year, the inspector has not a fault to find with this well-conducted house. To it, unless something be done, and done speedily, we shall owe the public recognition of vast undesirable French habits and morals; and it is to the shame of legislation, that such an institution should be protected by the law, which affects to reprove its principle. At this moment, under ordinary magistrates' law, this plague-spot, which is training up so many dozen per night of George Barnwells and Brummagem Lovelaces, might be stamped out. There is a law against the business or pastime that goes on, and even against the "harbouring" or assembling of certain special classes of the community. In other cases this is strictly, and even harshly enforced. But these parties do not keep vast cathedrals blazing with lights and colour, they have not capital, nor do they give large employment, nor do they keep hired bullies—and above all they have not influential patrons, of wealth and rank. A few intelligent policemen, well acquainted with London faces and London figures, would see enough in ten minutes to justify a summons, and a heavy fine; which, repeated persistently, would soon reduce the attractions of the place to good music, fine dancing, exquisite scenery, and of course shut up the place. How the intelligent Frenchman will smile and shrug, when he learns that my Lord Chamberlain cannot lay his finger on places like this—that really require his supervision. Royal Pandemonium Palace, indeed. It is a scandal that anything "Royal" should prefix what is merely a factory, busy every night in working up material for bankruptcy, divorce, and police courts, for the hospital, for the grave, and certainly not for heaven.
Report the Third.
All Music Halls are not as the Pandemonium. To the height of that glittering, well-conducted, audacious temple of "life" no other manager has yet attained. It is true that ballet finds a place on the smaller stages of many halls. Minette and her bold comrades have found imitators about town. Moll Flanders forms a large and important portion of the attraction at other establishments besides that in Foreigneering-square—notably at one in the immediate neighbourhood, which appears to be very conveniently placed for that lady—but nowhere else is she so obviously the attraction; nowhere else is her presence so clearly relied on, to draw the shillings of credulity and inexperience. There is elsewhere, as a rule, a larger element of respectability among the audience: the dancing performances elsewhere, though often daring enough, are scarcely up to the standard of Nudita and her like. How long this will last it is difficult to say. Probably an early change may be looked for. It is scarcely likely that enterprising managers, pondering over the success of the Pandemonium, and musing on twenty-five per cent dividend paid its fortunate shareholders—for the mighty power of Limited Liability sways the destinies of the Palace—should hold their hands. New halls, arranged on principles derived from experience, may be expected to rise in all directions. As matters stand at present, there seems no reason why every quarter of London should not have, each its own Pandemonium. Possibly your Lordship may think this matter worthy of somebody's attention.
At present Your Commissioner has nothing to report adverse to the general run of Music Halls. That they are more undisguisedly public-houses, plus singing and dancing, than was the case in their earlier days, is plain. When the Music Hall first sprang into existence, and when it began to take its place among the recognised popular places of recreation a better class of entertainment was presented on its boards than is now the rule. The proprietors were eager to advertise good music: the comic singer was kept to a discreet extent in the background. Circumstances have changed. If any attempt be now made to get through an operatic selection, or any piece of good music, it is felt by all concerned to be a mere pretence—an impediment to the enjoyment of the real pleasures of the evening. It is the trapeze performer, on whose behalf the roof is festooned with strong rigging, and for whom complicated arrangements of trestles and carpets have to be made, who is wanted; or, worse still, it is the comic singer.
This comic singer (or comique as he loves to call himself) is a remarkable product of the last few years. That people, not afflicted with any obvious form of mental disease, can calmly sit and listen to—nay even sometimes laugh at—the extraordinarily imbecile and senseless outpourings of the music hall comic muse, is, to one of Your Commissioner's way of thinking, quite amazing. The words of these comic songs are, as a rule, beneath contempt. The loves of barmaids, the exploits of Rollicking Rams and other unpleasant persons whose sole themes are the delights of drink, and the pleasures of reeling home with the milk, are the subjects chiefly treated of. Snobbery and vulgarity are rampant and blatant in these effusions. The devices resorted to by the singers to raise a laugh, are feeble and melancholy in the extreme. Preposterous coats of violent colours and startlingly braided; great hats, frequently of the brightest blue or green; long yellow whiskers of the Dundreary type; these are some of the dreary substitutes for humour that are offered to the public on the Music Hall stage. The comic singer of to-day is responsible for the education of a very terrific form of snob, or gent. The younger male frequenters of the Music Hall are distinguished by an insolence of manner and tone, faithfully copied from the manners of their favourite on the stage. Constant familiarity with the topics treated of in the Champagne Charley kind of song, must have a deteriorating effect, and the breed of the little snobs, now coming to be usually called after their distinguished prototype, is alarmingly on the increase.
All these comic singers sing the same kind of song, all wear the same sort of costume, all have the same sort of "business", and, except when a pretty tune crops up among them, from some old country-dance book, the airs to which their words are set are all in the same vulgar, commonplace style. Half a dozen of these gentlemen will sing at the same hall, on the same night, each about half a dozen songs. Whether the audience want the singer again or no, matters not. Until he has got through the number of songs for which he is engaged, he must be encored, if by nobody else then by the chairman, and "the big Bounce will oblige again." Successful "comiques" will be engaged at two or three halls on the same night, and have to hurry from one to the other in an equipage, usually combining the taste of the late Mr. Thomas Sayers with the professional air of a veterinary surgeon, which the visitor may notice in waiting. There is nothing so remarkable in connection with this subject, as the dreadful uniformity that rules in all these places of entertainment. The same singers, the same acrobats, the same unvarying dull routine, everywhere. For the purposes of this Report, Your Commissioner has visited, he believes, every Music Hall in London; but, whether he was in the far west, where the scarlet jackets of long-legged life-guardsmen gave a pleasant warmth to the scene; or in the remote east, where there was a prevailing flavour of tar and docks all about the room, the entertainment was precisely the same. The little hall in the north is in no way to be distinguished from the larger one in the south. Dulness is the badge of all their tribe.
The comic singer has one redeeming point, which Your Commissioner thinks it fair to mention. He is nearly always vulgar, not unfrequently coarse; but he is never indecent. If credit can be given him for nothing else, he may at least have the credit of invariably keeping within the bounds of propriety.
If Your Commissioner suffered much at the hands, or rather at the brazen throats, of these gentlemen; what is he to say concerning the tremendous performances of the serio-comic ladies? Champagne Charley is bad enough: Champagne Charlotte is intolerable. A foolish and vulgar song from a man's lips, is a sorry matter; but when the dreary business is done by a woman, it is most repulsive.
In these remarks Your Commissioner has treated of comic singers as a class, and an undiverting class; here and there an occasional exception may be found. Your Commissioner has, though rarely, met with a good comic singer; and there are some Music Hall performers, but not many—gentlemen as well as ladies—who are undoubtedly clever and able.
On the whole, except in the case of the comic singers, Your Commissioner finds little amiss at the Music Halls. Of course, if the public like the comic singers, and insist upon hearing them, the public must have its way. No one can suggest any legislative interference with mere nonsense. But the Pandemonium is so striking a warning of what a Music Hall may become, that Your Commissioner is very strongly of opinion that the Music Halls should be put under more efficient supervision than that of the licensing magistrates, and without loss of time.
Your Commissioner will now proceed to the consideration of the state of things, at those places of public entertainment over which your Lordship already has authority.
Report the Fourth.
It ought of course to have been well known to Your Commissioner, before he commenced his theatrical labours, that the dramatic art is at a low ebb, and rapidly decaying. It ought to have been known to him that there are no actors now-a-days, and no dramatic authors. It would have been becoming in him to have given up the whole thing as in a bad way. So much to this effect has been said and written, that indeed he had been almost brought to believe it against the evidence of his senses. But the reflection that at all periods of his life he had heard the same story; that the same complaint has been fashionable since the days of Plautus; prevented this charming belief from taking any strong hold upon his mind. With increasing years Your Commissioner had more than once caught himself depreciating the present generation; and had, with shame, found himself saying, on a comedian being praised for his performance in a certain play, "Ah! now Wright could play that part." With shame, for was it not a fact, that when the late Mr. Wright was still diverting the public, seniors in the audience used to make disparaging remarks to that gentleman's detriment, with reference to his predecessor, Mr. John Reeve? Furthermore, "You should have seen Munden, sir," and "There are no actors since John Kemble," are dogmas wearily familiar to most of us. Without violent optimism, Your Commissioner declines to depreciate the merits of the performers of to-day, by comparing them with those of a totally different time, and school of art and taste.
Similarly, however depressing the modern burlesque, a slight acquaintance with the literature of the stage is sufficient to assure the student, that dramatic doggerel and nonsense are not the exclusive possessions of this age. Our forefathers had a deal of rubbish served up to them. The heavy, stupid, unreal five-act comedies in fashion comparatively few years ago, and now happily forgotten, do not get the best of it in comparison with a few of the livelier works of to-day. Many of the dramas of the last few years are worth, in human life and interest, any number of the stilted, flat, sham-classical tragedies of early Drury Lane and Covent Garden.
Also, having been told on high authority that the morals of the stage are deteriorating, Your Commissioner perhaps ought to have accepted the statement as a fact. He preferred, however, to judge for himself.
With a notion that it was barely possible that some of the morbid self-depreciating tendencies of Englishmen—always particularly rife in stage matters, and always eagerly grasped at by the enemies of the theatre as weapons against it—might be at work in the present complaints; and yet with sincere anxiety to consider the question with thorough impartiality, the tour of the theatres was commenced by Your Commissioner.
Your Commissioner may say, once for all, that the ballet has always appeared to him to be a violent, gymnastic exercise, usually ungraceful, and almost always stupid; and it is his conviction that a large portion of the public are of his mind. For it will doubtless have been observed, when in the course of a drama and for no obvious reason, the ladies of the corps de ballet are introduced, their gambadoes are watched with scant interest by the audience, and the conclusion of their portion of the evening's entertainment is usually hailed with the feeblest applause. In the pantomime, and where it is allowed the first or chief place in the performance, the ballet may be more appreciated; owing to the varied combinations of colour and form, afforded by the ingenious grouping of a large corps de ballet, on an ample stage. Those ballets which consist chiefly of elaborate processions, marches, and the like, are invariably more popular than those relying on dancing alone.
The two theatres first on Your Commissioner's list, are both famous for their ballet effects: undoubtedly a rich, barbaric, and fantastic display in the one pantomime was better received than an elegant and prettily arranged dance in the other. The dance was of its kind good, and the principal dancer nimble and clever; but there can be little novelty in mere dancing feats, and the audience, although appreciative, were not enthusiastic. The costumes at both theatres were gorgeous in the extreme, but differed little, if at all, from those that the public eye has been content to gaze upon, without dismay, for many years. The costumes of a stage fairy, and of a pantomime prince or princess, are perfectly well known, and it cannot be said that in either of the cases now under treatment any very special divergence from established rules was noticeable; most certainly there was nothing to call for interference from without. Your Commissioner feels it, however, necessary to mention, that the personages who caused him the most satisfaction, and whose antics, highly relished by the audiences, were most ingenious and diverting, were certainly clothed but lightly. At the same time it is necessary to remark that both these personages were of the male sex; that one of them represented a benighted, though amusing savage, whose ideas of dress would naturally be limited; and that the other, whose most conspicuous article of dress was a pair of top boots, was a cat.
At both these theatres several points presented themselves strongly to Your Commissioner's notice. Two may here be mentioned beyond State control, and two on which your Lordship's opinion may fairly be asked.
Firstly, the public must by this time have had pretty nearly enough of the Girl of the Period. The present writer can speak strongly for himself on this point. The original papers written under this title were of a not particularly agreeable nature. The satire, however, if a little unfair, was at all events brisk, and the subject was not unsuited for satiric handling. Unfortunately, the name and subject have been seized upon by all the smaller wits, who have never ceased worrying them ever since. The town has been deluged with Girls of the Period. The lady has been served up in every form, musical, illustrative, theatrical; and with every kind of sauce, piquante and otherwise—chiefly otherwise. She has been flourished at the heads of unfortunate readers in every newspaper and magazine. She has become an unmitigated nuisance. she was followed by a caricature still more untrue and repulsive, in the shape of the Young Man of the Day; a caricature so repulsive, and so unlike the truth, that it proved to have no vitality whatever. The young man, it may be hoped, will now conduct his sister to oblivion. The Girl of the Period is produced at the two theatres in question, at a vast advertising expense, and with a magnificence remarkable to behold. Nothing comes of it but a gorgeous exhibition of impossible dresses.
In connexion with this point attention may be called to a most aggravating custom which appears, year by year, and more and more, to find favour with managers. Advertising is one of the theatrical nuisances of the time. The playbill is a mere advertisement, and the names of the performers have to be hunted out from a mass of glycerine, and rose water, and cosmetics. The pantomime reeks with advertisements. What does anybody care about the makers of the dresses of the Girls of the Period? Can it interest the public to know that Messrs. Want and Ask, or Knag and Rankle, are responsible for the paniers and fichus worn by those charmers? Suppose the eminent firm of Wheedler and Co. did supply the gloves, what then?
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that nothing is done even by the clowns at the establishments under notice, unconnected with advertising. The well-known boxes suggestive of droll surprises, are continually being carried in by tottering supers for advertising purposes. Harlequin wags his head, and flourishes his wand, but after the usual sounding slap on the canvas no laughter-moving trick ensues. The box opens, and the affair is found to be an advertisement pure and simple; a puff of somebody's sherry, or somebody else's mustard, or yet another person's coats. Whole scenes are arranged with this object alone; and the result is most distressingly dismal.
When the clowns are not engaged in calling attention to the different wares to be recommended, they are occupied with beating and maltreating policemen. And this brings Your Commissioner to points which he really thinks worthy of your Lordship's attention. From time immemorial a policeman has been the natural butt of the clown. He has been deceived, cajoled, punched, bonneted, in countless pantomimes. His miseries have been invariably received with delight. But, in the present season, this matter takes a wholesale form. The police force is held up to persistent ridicule, and claptrap appeals to the gallery against the police are made in every scene. The gratification with which these are received, stimulates the clown to fresh exertions, and the changes are persistently rung on the muzzle rules, on the hoop regulations, and on the supposed general incompetency of the force. The police have just now a difficult task to perform, and it would be just and politic to ensure them fair play. Your Commissioner is not desirous of emulating the colonel of marines at Plymouth, and is of opinion that no man or body of men is the worse for a little harmless "chaff." But in this case the chaff is not a little, nor is it harmless. It would possibly not be detrimental to the public interest if your Lordship were to consider the propriety of slightly abbreviating the present licence in this matter. It appears to Your Commissioner to be at least as important as the elongation of the skirts of the ballet.
Again, does the new Factory Act apply to theatres? If it do, how comes it that the stage swarms with "young persons and children" to an advanced period of the night? If it do not, does it not appear desirable that some effective supervision should be instituted over the work done by absolute babies, in pantomime? It appears a singular anomaly that the proprietor of a mill should not be allowed to employ children of a certain age at all; should be strictly under regulation as to the kind of work to be done by older children; and should be absolutely restricted to certain hours of work; if the manager of a theatre be allowed to do in this respect exactly as he likes. For little children to go through their share of the pantomime from two till five, and then again from eight till eleven, and this twice a week, seems hard work. Your Lordship may think the question worth consideration. The unhappy appearance and visible terror of some of the "young persons" grilling high up among the gas battens, in transformation scenes, may likewise not be lost upon your Lordship.
Only one pantomime remains to be considered to complete the list of that kind of entertainment at the West-end of the town. Burlesque has driven the pantomimists from all but three theatres in this quarter. This third pantomime offers but little for Your Commissioner's remark. A singularly active, and apparently boneless, grotesque, executing strange and weird dances with excellent effect, was the chief feature in this entertainment. The Music Hall songs, the advertisements, the dances, the transformation scene, the maltreatment of Colonel Henderson's force, the Girl of the Period, and all the rest of it, were as per regulation.
Pantomime, at all events at the West-end, offered no special reason for your Laordship's animadversions. The dresses of the ladies of the companies, and of the ballets, appeared no scantier than they have ever been in Your Commissioner's recollection. There were plenty of ballets; for the matter of that there was plenty of dancing of all sorts; everybody danced; but there was nothing in any way offensive to any one not morbidly apprehensive of being shocked. With the exception of certain unsavoury business suggested by a recent notorious Old Bailey case, and indulged in more or less, as far as Your Commissioner's observations went, by every clown in London, there was nothing suggestive of coarseness. It was obvious that the causes of your Lordship's now famous circular must be sought for elsewhere.
Report the Fifth.
Travelling for some distance in a north-easterly direction, Your Commissioner was landed at the door of a very large public-house. The stucco of this building had a greasy appearance; but the paint of its doors was worn in a manner suggestive of much friction, and a number of thirsty idlers were hanging about before it. The place looked as little like the entrance of a theatre as might be, and indeed was merely the ante-chamber or vestibule to a theatre. The wicket-gate leading to the temple of the drama was a little beyond the main building, and was approached by a dim court. A narrow passage, not so clean as it might be, led from the entrance gate into another court, larger and dimmer than the first. A platform for dancing—on which, on this occasion, the rain stood in pools—occupied this festive space, and, as well as the eye could make out in the darkness, it was surrounded by arbours or boxes for the consumption of refreshment. Beset by visions of acute rheumatism and chronic bronchitis, Your Commissioner hurried over the watery waste, and found himself in the stalls of the Dramatic Temple of the Bird of Jove.
It should be observed of the stalls at this theatre, that they are in every respect unlike the stalls at the theatres previously visited. There are not many of them; they are not reserved; they are cheap; they are not comfortable. Their occupants are, likewise, eminently unlike the occupants of the stalls in the West. In the West, Your Commissioner, laughing aloud at the witticisms of the clown, or what not, was concerned to find at least fifty elegant persons gazing at him with looks of surprise, not unmixed with horror. In the East, suspicious glances are cast upon him who remains unmoved by what is passing on the stage, and ominous whispers may reach him referring darkly to "pride" and "swells." In the stalls at the West, the only remark made by an occupant of a stall, in any way relating to the proceedings on the stage, which reached Your Commissioner's ears, proceeded from a gentleman, young but used up, who occupied the next seat. This individual was accompanied by a friend, who might have been his twin brother. They were both faultlessly dressed; their white ties were of precisely the same form and size; the flowers in their button-holes might have grown on the same stalk; their shirts were of the same pattern; each youth's collar stood up round his neck, and drooped under his chin, as if the starch had run short, at precisely the same angles. There was no difference in the parting of their hair; their foreheads sloped in unison. All that these young bucks could find to say, touching the entertainments in progress, was said at a critical moment of the pantomime, when the greater part of the audience was in a state of hilarity. The remarks were not otherwise brilliant than as signs of life in objects apparently inanimate. One used-up twin said, glancing with a contemptuous expression at your appreciative Commissioner: "Doosid stoopid all this;" the other used-up twin friend replying "Yas," the conversation dropped.
In the East, things were different. Remarks flew about freely all the evening. They were in general commendatory, but if any one had a low opinion of what was being done for his amusement, he had no hesitation in expressing himself, without reserve.
The theatre was crowded—so crowded that when the performance flagged a little—and it did flag a little sometimes—the audience struggled a good deal to get more room. But, when matters mended on the stage, or when the symphony of a popular song was struck up, the public, after a cry of expectant joy, settled down in strict and decorous silence. The cracking of nuts, like minute guns at sea, alone interrupted the proceedings. The amount of nuts consumed, was amazing. It appeared as if this refreshment had peculiar charms for the frequenters of the Bird, for every man, woman, and child, seemed to consider a pocketful of Barcelonas quite indispensable. Possibly the dry nature of these provisions was intended as a whet, or relish, to the more genial entertainment presented on the stage. The pantomime might not be called a good one, but was presented with care, and perfect propriety, and nothing in it of an offensive nature could be pointed out by the most captious critic. A most excellent and humorous gymnastic pantomimist, the delight of his audience, is the mainstay of this house, and has probably no superior in his own line.
The pantomime was a long one, and when Your Commissioner emerged from the theatre, he found the dreary space he had crossed before, occupied by promenaders regardless of damp. They were about to dance: not, however, on the sloppy boards, but in a large room adjoining: to which an extra charge for admission was made, and which appeared to fill well. An individual with a weighing machine had planted himself in a dry spot in the centre of the wet platform and implored the public in piteous accents to try their weights—an invitation responded to by none. Possibly the individual thought that some one might be curious to know how much weight he had lost in the theatre, where the heat was extreme.
Your Commissioner next visited Shoreditch. It is his deliberate opinion that Shoreditch on a damp night is not a pleasing thoroughfare. He found in it, much mud, many public-houses, several tripe shops, and a few "penny gaffs." Cheap tailors have laid violent hands on a large number of the houses in this very unpleasant neighbourhood, and, from behind acres of plate glass, offer amazing garments at surprising prices. Here, the proprietors of baked-potato cans are not as their brethren in other parts of London, forasmuch as it is the fashion for a Shoreditch potato-can to be decorated and illumined by three enormous lamps, of the shape, and nearly of the size, of the ordinary street lamp. Probably the pie and potato interests here find it impossible to compete with the fried fish and other cooked provision shops, which abound, without going in for splendour and paraffine. A considerable number of the native population do not appear imbued with the fine arts, to the extent of having their manners softened; or themselves prevented from becoming ferocious. Pugilists' public-houses are numerous. Gentlemen who are occasionally to be seen flying from race-courses, bleeding, half torn to pieces, and pursued by unpaid backers of horses, have their Welch fastnesses not far from the Great Eastern Railway Station. Cheap photographers swarm. Everything for sale is ticketed. All sorts of articles of dress, ornament, and refreshment, are displayed on barrows along the margin of the pavement, and hoarse cries of vendors rend the air.
Pursuing his way among these surroundings on a very wet evening, Your Commissioner looked forward with an evil eye to the theatre he was about to visit. He pictured it to himself as a squalid, dirty, inconvenient house; where the audience would be wretched and the performance worse; where the arrangements would be bad, and the ventilation nil. He had serious thoughts of giving it up and turning back. Duty, however, nailed his colours to the mast, and virtue was rewarded.
Large convenient approaches from Shoreditch lead, by lobbies equally convenient, into one of the finest and largest theatres in London. Handsome in shape, thoughtful in arrangement, excellently conducted, this theatre is a model place of public entertainment. From every part of it, an excellent view of the stage can be had; the comfort of the audience is well cared for; there is everywhere ample space, and to spare, and the ventilation is perfect. There is an enormous pit, divided into two classes; there are large galleries, here called upper and lower circles; there is an elegant and comfortable balcony, corresponding to a West-end dress circle; and there is a sufficiency of private boxes all round the house. It is really a surprising theatre. If it could be taken up bodily and set down in the Strand, it would mightily astonish the playgoers of the West. It was nearly full on the night of Your Commissioner's visit; not quite full, but this is not surprising when it is considered that it can seat five thousand three hundred persons, and that there is, besides, standing room for many more. The audience were very quiet and appreciative, and the pantomime afforded extreme delight. It was liberally and judiciously put upon the stage, and, in accordance with the general custom, abounded in princes and in ballet. Your Commissioner is unable to report that he has any fault to find with the costumes of any of the dramatic company. Neither was there anything in the proceedings of the clowns calling for extraordinary remark.
Your Commissioner deems it needless to multiply examples of his experience. In Hoxton, he found another great Theatre, admirably designed, built, and managed. Several pantomimes are on his list; but one was so like another, that his Shoreditch report may stand for all. They were inoffensive, decorous, and carefully done.
Report the Sixth.
Your Commissioner's researches in the region of burlesque remain. He is unable to approach this portion of his subject with any great degree of satisfaction. Your Commissioner, yielding to pressure from hungry boxkeepers, became the purchaser of several "books of the burlesque." Bitterly does he regret the shillings thus expended: tearfully does he caution the public against so fatal an error. He offers the solemn warning from the depths of his dismal experience: Listen, but do not read. As burlesque was a dozen years ago, so is it now. The same jokes, the same situations, the same business, occasionally the same stories. With each successive repetition the thing appears to have become weaker, until a point has been reached beyond which Your Commissioner trusts that the force of feebleness can no further go. As the burlesque writers have, in most cases, gone to the Music Hall for their music, so occasionally they appear to have adopted the style of the gentlemen who provide words for the "comiques." Your Commissioner, but for his regard for your Lordship's feelings, could quote from his collection of books of burlesques, effusions here and there, in comparison with which even the ditty of Tommy Dodd, or Up in a Balloon, can claim a sort of literary merit. This deplorable state of things appears to be, in some way, the Nemesis inseparable from burlesque, and not the result of incompetence in the authors, inasmuch as many of those gentlemen have done, and still do, real good work in other departments of art, dramatic and otherwise.
Burlesques undoubtedly rely largely on the introduction, by the lady members of the company, of very vigorous dancing; the flourishing of green satin boots is a most important element in their success. But the "break-down" and the "walk round", though almost always slangy and occasionally disagreeable, cannot with any fairness or reason be called indecent. There are very many more of such dances than was once the case; and many charming young ladies figure in tights and little boots, who have nothing whatever to do with the subject matter of the burlesque, until the particular scene occurs in which their dancing powers are called into action. They are engaged, in fact, to dance and to look well. At the New Goahead Theatre this matter particularly impressed Your Commissioner, and it became distinctly clear to him that the burlesque at this house is a "leg piece." But leg pieces are not the invention of the present epoch, and Your Commissioner has faint remembrance of an Opera House near the Haymarket, in which, and an Omnibus-Box from which, such things have been seen ere now by some of your Lordship's friends. However glad he would be to have a little more humour and good acting, and a little less reliance on bold dancing and costume, he does not think the present state of things justificatory of any special hysterical outbreak in behalf of the public morals.
That the true spirit of burlesque is extinct, and that the theatre possesses no artists capable of presenting a burlesque picture, carefully and humorously touched, Your Commissioner denies. The performance of a travesty of one of the masterpieces of German romanticism, some few months back, was marked by an extraordinary whimsicality and drollery on the part of the gentleman principally concerned, and by a refined humour and most captivating grace and elegance on that of the lady, that would alone have been sufficient refutation of any such statement. Neither has the excellent fooling attending the adventures of one Captain Crosstree escaped Your Commissioner's grateful notice. Some of our best comedians occasionally play in burlesque, and, though frequently placed in circumstances unworthy of their powers, they have the Art to bring out good results from unpromising materials. And it is a noteworthy fact that of the early members of the excellent company which made the Feathers Theatre the resort of lovers of comedy, two at least began their London stage career in burlesque, and for some time were not suspected by their audiences to possess any higher order of talent. Again, Your Commissioner is of opinion that the public quickly find out what is good, and that, irrespective of the number of legs on view, they will go and see it.
Your Commissioner, to sum up, begs to state that he has observed the skirts of the ladies of the ballet. Some were voluminous; some were scanty; some were short; some—not many—long. Some were stiff and expansive; others had to make up in spangles, what they lacked in starch. Some were whisked about in conventional ballet figures; others, passed across the stage, or manœuvred on it in marches and processions. Of the ladies wearing these various costumes, some were elderly. Those figured in the background. Some were mere children. Active young women bounded over the stage, and threaded their corkscrew path among their humbler sisters, apparently oblivious of all else; and little mites of girls danced their infantine boleros close to the footlights, and with eyes fixed immovably on the conductor's baton. Princes, also of all ages (and some of remarkably prepossessing appearance), have been passed in review by Your Commissioner. Stout princes, lean princes, tall princes, short princes; princes in mauve, in red, in blue, in green; princes differing from one another in every respect, except that they were almost all clad in doublet and hose, and that they had all been to a Music Hall or two, and had brought away some of the popular airs of the day. All the princes danced; hornpipe, clog dance, break-down, champion jig, or what not.
Your Commissioner now, recalling his experiences, begs to say that he is unable to report the existence of stage indecency, such as is suggested by your Lordship's circular. If the ordinary stage dress of a ballet girl, and of a stage prince, be improper, then the stage swarms with improprieties, and has so swarmed for many years. If it be asserted that less attention is given to public decency, in the costumes in question, at the present time, than has for years and years been the case, Your Commissioner begs totally to deny the fact. If it be intended to be conveyed that exhibitions are commonly to be witnessed in the pantomimes and burlesques of the day, which a man should think twice about taking the ladies of his family to see, Your Commissioner, with all respect for the remarks in the press and "other sources," on which your Lordship's strictures are founded, respectfully but uncompromisingly and firmly says that it is not so.
Certain managers, plunging eagerly into print, and commenting on your Lordship's circular, assumed that the facts were as your Lordship's informants stated them, and immediately fell foul of the public, by whom improprieties were encouraged. If by this it were meant that the public taste is becoming so vitiated and debased as to call for questionable exhibitions on the boards of a theatre, Your Commissioner enters against any such hardy representation his energetic protest. Any manager who may think it well to try the experiment, and to pander to this supposed depraved taste, will soon have ample leisure to meditate on the vanity of earthly things in the seclusion of Whitecross-street.
The really disgraceful exhibition of a low French dancing company at a London theatre last year, might have called justly for your Lordship's attention. It was so little relished by the audience, that it speedily had to be transplanted to more congenial soil. The lesson has probably been taken to heart, for nothing of the sort has been attempted this year.
Your Commissioner thinks that your Lordship may take heart of grace, and that, after all, the public may be trusted. At the same time he thinks it will do no harm to any one, either before or behind the footlights, to know that your Lordship's department is on the alert, and that any breach of public decorum will be sternly repressed. But he submits, in justice to all concerned, that on the next occasion on which your Lordship deems it necessary to interfere, you should point out exactly what it is that has moved your Lordship to action, and should take the earliest opportunity of proving to the offending manager that the Lord Chamberlain's rebuke is no brutum fulmen. So will the public learn what it is that they ought to avoid, and so will innocent managers, untouched by your Lordship's anger, reap the reward of their virtuous actions.