This edited article about the nineteenth-century theatre originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 733 published on 31 January 1976.
The Jack Tars in the audience of the Plymouth theatre could scarcely believe their eyes. There on the stage was a large dark man called Othello seizing his wife by the throat as she lay on her bed, and clearly about to strangle her. One of the Tars up in the gallery could stand it no longer. “Come on, lads,” he roared with manly British emotion. “Let’s rescue her!” Then he hurled himself over the side of the gallery and rushed on to the stage. In a trice the unfortunate girl was torn from her husband’s grasp, and moments later Othello was heading for the street. Once there, he ran down back lanes to his lodgings, still dressed in his costume, and clutching his dagger firmly by the hand.
That happened around 1810 when some audiences believed everything they saw on stage with the sometimes spectacular results that we have seen. Not that audiences were always big. When a touring manager named Edward Stirling played at Tenterden in Kent some years later in an epic called The Foundling of the Forest, there was an audience of one boy in the gallery, whose “sense of solitude caused him to fall asleep.”
Our 19th century ancestors had mixed feelings about the theatre, and they tended to change them decade by decade. In the early days audiences in London were often as rowdy as in Plymouth and elsewhere in Britain.
Because of this, many people refused to attend, including religious folk who thought theatres were Temples of Sin. It was a poor era for new plays, but great actors could stir even those difficult audiences to a frenzy of excitement unknown today. Edmund Kean, a short, almost ugly, ill-educated genius with piercing eyes, first conquered London in 1814. Soon afterwards, as the wicked Sir Giles Overreach in A New Way to Pay Old Debts, his acting was so powerful that when he fell to the ground foaming at the mouth, the audience was thunderstruck, the great poet Byron had a convulsion, and even Kean’s fellow actors were so shaken that one of them had hysterics.
The sad thing was that though these audiences had the sense to hail a genius like Kean, their behaviour so often upset so many who would have liked to have gone to the theatre more. A German visitor noted in his diary that audiences were coarse and brutal, and that spectators in the pits (our modern stalls) “were liable to find orange peel, apple cores or worse raining down on them.”
They certainly liked a varied diet. There were dramas starring dogs and horses, and sometimes the stage was flooded and mock naval battles took place, while one Master William Betty just before Kean’s day made a sensation as a 13-year-old Hamlet, causing even the House of Commons to adjourn to watch him. Admittedly, he seems to have been good in this and other parts, but because he was too young for them, he was really a freak appealing to audiences who wanted something different.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert loved the theatre, and when things were quietening down a little in the 1850s they patronised Charles Kean and his Shakespeare company. He was the son of Edmund, not half the actor that his father was, but as good as his father had been naughty. The Victorians approved of young Charles. But it was not until the 1870s, when Henry Irving became famous, and, later, the first theatrical knight, that audiences of all classes flocked to the theatres for the first time since Shakespeare’s day, and a golden age of theatregoing began.
As well as appearing in Shakespeare, Irving played in melodramas, a form of theatre adored by our ancestors. Today, dramas like Sweeney Todd or The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (whose victims were turned into pies) are played for laughs, if at all, but then these simple stories were played for real. Normally, each had a Hero, Heroine, Villain, Comedian and, often, a Hero’s friend, and whatever occurred by way of murder, battles, shipwrecks, slaughter etc., everyone in the audience knew that Virtue would triumph in the end and villainy be defeated. And the poor, who made up so much of the melodrama audiences during the century, were only too delighted that the Villain was often a Wicked Landowner, a Lord or a harsh master. Heroes were cheered, villains were hissed, and the very buildings sometimes seemed to rock with the excitement of it all. Gradually, melodramas were taken up by the “serious” theatre, indeed it was in one, The Bells, that Irving first became famous in 1871. They lasted until the cinema came to steal their tricks and their public.
There is simply no space to spare on much loved Victorian entertainments like the circus and the pantomime, but more popular than either, and even more popular than melodrama, was the Music Hall.
Music Halls were born in taverns in the mid-19th century and they spread all over Britain. London was their birthplace and the first real one was in Lambeth, where the shrewd Charles Morton, “the father of the halls”, first bought the Canterbury Arms in 1848, then added a special hall with a platform as a stage and plenty of room for tables and chairs. Laughter-loving Lambethites were soon flocking to the Canterbury to eat, drink and be entertained, first by amateurs, then by professionals.
Morton was a star-spotter, one he spotted in a low Whitechapel tavern being George Leybourne. It was at the Canterbury that the first “lion comique”, as early star entertainers were known, became “Champagne Charlie”. Dressed as a “swell”, the comic, with his famous song, “Champagne Charlie is my name, Champagne drinking is my game”, did just that, made and spent a fortune, and created a new class of comedian. The enterprising Morton soon engaged women actresses, too, and the scene was set for later stars like Vesta Tilley and Marie Lloyd.
Music Halls became a marvellous expression of British working-class life and the poor flocked to them, not so much to forget their troubles, but to sing and laugh about them. As the century wore on, the rich discovered the joys of the halls, too, and some very grand ones were built. Not until 1902 did they change, for then licensing laws abolished drink from the halls where patrons sat, sang, threw abuse or actual objects – rotten eggs, vegetables – at some unfortunates, and cheered their favourites to the echo. The drinks were removed to bars and the halls became like theatres. Later, beyond our period, films and, finally, television killed the halls, though many of our top entertainers graduated in them.
Performers and audiences alike revelled in mocking Victorian respectability and snobbery, and many songs were earthy and hilarious, but others were sentimental, like Albert Chevalier’s “My Dear Old Dutch” in which a husband sings of the joy of his 40 years of marriage.
Fortunately television’s The Good Old Days is a regular reminder of the halls, with their comic and serious singers, jugglers, funny men, dancers etc. But with no criticism of a splendid programme, the audience is far more respectable than in the real “good old days”. True, the big later halls were patronised by all classes, but most of them – by the 1870s London alone had nearly 350 – were thronged with workers, their wives and sweethearts, who laughed till it hurt and cried as well.
Jenny Hill, the Vital Spark, could make them cry as well as laugh. Like her audience, she knew about life. She had married an acrobat who nearly killed her teaching her his tricks, then abandoned her with a baby. She had sung on East End tavern tables before becoming a star, then, like others, she lived it up and died young. But she had genius, and she and the other great stars, and others who merely had talent, gave countless thousands, whose lives were an unending struggle against poverty and hardship, marvellous, magical joyous hours off duty.
From the 1870s, some, like Dan Leno and Little Tich, became pantomime stars as well, when modern pantomime was being born, so generations of children could thrill to their comic art. But it was in the music halls that the stars shone brightest, for there, without benefit of a microphone, and alone on the stage, each of them could hold an audience in the palm of their hand with a song, a smile, a joke, even a raised eyebrow. They and the people were one.
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