Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 11

ASTLEY'S

We never see any very large, staring, black Roman capitals, in a
book, or shop-window, or placarded on a wall, without their
immediately recalling to our mind an indistinct and confused
recollection of the time when we were first initiated in the
mysteries of the alphabet. We almost fancy we see the pin's point
following the letter, to impress its form more strongly on our
bewildered imagination; and wince involuntarily, as we remember the
hard knuckles with which the reverend old lady who instilled into
our mind the first principles of education for ninepence per week,
or ten and sixpence per quarter, was wont to poke our juvenile head
occasionally, by way of adjusting the confusion of ideas in which
we were generally involved. The same kind of feeling pursues us in
many other instances, but there is no place which recalls so
strongly our recollections of childhood as Astley's. It was not a
'Royal Amphitheatre' in those days, nor had Ducrow arisen to shed
the light of classic taste and portable gas over the sawdust of the
circus; but the whole character of the place was the same, the
pieces were the same, the clown's jokes were the same, the riding-
masters were equally grand, the comic performers equally witty, the
tragedians equally hoarse, and the 'highly-trained chargers'
equally spirited. Astley's has altered for the better--we have
changed for the worse. Our histrionic taste is gone, and with
shame we confess, that we are far more delighted and amused with
the audience, than with the pageantry we once so highly
appreciated.

We like to watch a regular Astley's party in the Easter or
Midsummer holidays--pa and ma, and nine or ten children, varying
from five foot six to two foot eleven: from fourteen years of age
to four. We had just taken our seat in one of the boxes, in the
centre of the house, the other night, when the next was occupied by
just such a party as we should have attempted to describe, had we
depicted our beau ideal of a group of Astley's visitors.

First of all, there came three little boys and a little girl, who,
in pursuance of pa's directions, issued in a very audible voice
from the box-door, occupied the front row; then two more little
girls were ushered in by a young lady, evidently the governess.
Then came three more little boys, dressed like the first, in blue
jackets and trousers, with lay-down shirt-collars: then a child in
a braided frock and high state of astonishment, with very large
round eyes, opened to their utmost width, was lifted over the
seats--a process which occasioned a considerable display of little
pink legs--then came ma and pa, and then the eldest son, a boy of
fourteen years old, who was evidently trying to look as if he did
not belong to the family.

The first five minutes were occupied in taking the shawls off the
little girls, and adjusting the bows which ornamented their hair;
then it was providentially discovered that one of the little boys
was seated behind a pillar and could not see, so the governess was
stuck behind the pillar, and the boy lifted into her place. Then
pa drilled the boys, and directed the stowing away of their pocket-
handkerchiefs, and ma having first nodded and winked to the
governess to pull the girls' frocks a little more off their
shoulders, stood up to review the little troop--an inspection which
appeared to terminate much to her own satisfaction, for she looked
with a complacent air at pa, who was standing up at the further end
of the seat. Pa returned the glance, and blew his nose very
emphatically; and the poor governess peeped out from behind the
pillar, and timidly tried to catch ma's eye, with a look expressive
of her high admiration of the whole family. Then two of the little
boys who had been discussing the point whether Astley's was more
than twice as large as Drury Lane, agreed to refer it to 'George'
for his decision; at which 'George,' who was no other than the
young gentleman before noticed, waxed indignant, and remonstrated
in no very gentle terms on the gross impropriety of having his name
repeated in so loud a voice at a public place, on which all the
children laughed very heartily, and one of the little boys wound up
by expressing his opinion, that 'George began to think himself
quite a man now,' whereupon both pa and ma laughed too; and George
(who carried a dress cane and was cultivating whiskers) muttered
that 'William always was encouraged in his impertinence;' and
assumed a look of profound contempt, which lasted the whole
evening.

The play began, and the interest of the little boys knew no bounds.
Pa was clearly interested too, although he very unsuccessfully
endeavoured to look as if he wasn't. As for ma, she was perfectly
overcome by the drollery of the principal comedian, and laughed
till every one of the immense bows on her ample cap trembled, at
which the governess peeped out from behind the pillar again, and
whenever she could catch ma's eye, put her handkerchief to her
mouth, and appeared, as in duty bound, to be in convulsions of
laughter also. Then when the man in the splendid armour vowed to
rescue the lady or perish in the attempt, the little boys applauded
vehemently, especially one little fellow who was apparently on a
visit to the family, and had been carrying on a child's flirtation,
the whole evening, with a small coquette of twelve years old, who
looked like a model of her mamma on a reduced scale; and who, in
common with the other little girls (who generally speaking have
even more coquettishness about them than much older ones), looked
very properly shocked, when the knight's squire kissed the
princess's confidential chambermaid.

When the scenes in the circle commenced, the children were more
delighted than ever; and the wish to see what was going forward,
completely conquering pa's dignity, he stood up in the box, and
applauded as loudly as any of them. Between each feat of
horsemanship, the governess leant across to ma, and retailed the
clever remarks of the children on that which had preceded: and ma,
in the openness of her heart, offered the governess an acidulated
drop, and the governess, gratified to be taken notice of, retired
behind her pillar again with a brighter countenance: and the whole
party seemed quite happy, except the exquisite in the back of the
box, who, being too grand to take any interest in the children, and
too insignificant to be taken notice of by anybody else, occupied
himself, from time to time, in rubbing the place where the whiskers
ought to be, and was completely alone in his glory.

We defy any one who has been to Astley's two or three times, and is
consequently capable of appreciating the perseverance with which
precisely the same jokes are repeated night after night, and season
after season, not to be amused with one part of the performances at
least--we mean the scenes in the circle. For ourself, we know that
when the hoop, composed of jets of gas, is let down, the curtain
drawn up for the convenience of the half-price on their ejectment
from the ring, the orange-peel cleared away, and the sawdust
shaken, with mathematical precision, into a complete circle, we
feel as much enlivened as the youngest child present; and actually
join in the laugh which follows the clown's shrill shout of 'Here
we are!' just for old acquaintance' sake. Nor can we quite divest
ourself of our old feeling of reverence for the riding-master, who
follows the clown with a long whip in his hand, and bows to the
audience with graceful dignity. He is none of your second-rate
riding-masters in nankeen dressing-gowns, with brown frogs, but the
regular gentleman-attendant on the principal riders, who always
wears a military uniform with a table-cloth inside the breast of
the coat, in which costume he forcibly reminds one of a fowl
trussed for roasting. He is--but why should we attempt to describe
that of which no description can convey an adequate idea?
Everybody knows the man, and everybody remembers his polished
boots, his graceful demeanour, stiff, as some misjudging persons
have in their jealousy considered it, and the splendid head of
black hair, parted high on the forehead, to impart to the
countenance an appearance of deep thought and poetic melancholy.
His soft and pleasing voice, too, is in perfect unison with his
noble bearing, as he humours the clown by indulging in a little
badinage; and the striking recollection of his own dignity, with
which he exclaims, 'Now, sir, if you please, inquire for Miss
Woolford, sir,' can never be forgotten. The graceful air, too,
with which he introduces Miss Woolford into the arena, and, after
assisting her to the saddle, follows her fairy courser round the
circle, can never fail to create a deep impression in the bosom of
every female servant present.

When Miss Woolford, and the horse, and the orchestra, all stop
together to take breath, he urbanely takes part in some such
dialogue as the following (commenced by the clown): 'I say, sir!'-
-'Well, sir?' (it's always conducted in the politest manner.)--'Did
you ever happen to hear I was in the army, sir?'--'No, sir.'--'Oh,
yes, sir--I can go through my exercise, sir.'--'Indeed, sir!'--
'Shall I do it now, sir?'--'If you please, sir; come, sir--make
haste' (a cut with the long whip, and 'Ha' done now--I don't like
it,' from the clown). Here the clown throws himself on the ground,
and goes through a variety of gymnastic convulsions, doubling
himself up, and untying himself again, and making himself look very
like a man in the most hopeless extreme of human agony, to the
vociferous delight of the gallery, until he is interrupted by a
second cut from the long whip, and a request to see 'what Miss
Woolford's stopping for?' On which, to the inexpressible mirth of
the gallery, he exclaims, 'Now, Miss Woolford, what can I come for
to go, for to fetch, for to bring, for to carry, for to do, for
you, ma'am?' On the lady's announcing with a sweet smile that she
wants the two flags, they are, with sundry grimaces, procured and
handed up; the clown facetiously observing after the performance of
the latter ceremony--'He, he, oh! I say, sir, Miss Woolford knows
me; she smiled at me.' Another cut from the whip, a burst from the
orchestra, a start from the horse, and round goes Miss Woolford
again on her graceful performance, to the delight of every member
of the audience, young or old. The next pause affords an
opportunity for similar witticisms, the only additional fun being
that of the clown making ludicrous grimaces at the riding-master
every time his back is turned; and finally quitting the circle by
jumping over his head, having previously directed his attention
another way.

Did any of our readers ever notice the class of people, who hang
about the stage-doors of our minor theatres in the daytime? You
will rarely pass one of these entrances without seeing a group of
three or four men conversing on the pavement, with an indescribable
public-house-parlour swagger, and a kind of conscious air, peculiar
to people of this description. They always seem to think they are
exhibiting; the lamps are ever before them. That young fellow in
the faded brown coat, and very full light green trousers, pulls
down the wristbands of his check shirt, as ostentatiously as if it
were of the finest linen, and cocks the white hat of the summer-
before-last as knowingly over his right eye, as if it were a
purchase of yesterday. Look at the dirty white Berlin gloves, and
the cheap silk handkerchief stuck in the bosom of his threadbare
coat. Is it possible to see him for an instant, and not come to
the conclusion that he is the walking gentleman who wears a blue
surtout, clean collar, and white trousers, for half an hour, and
then shrinks into his worn-out scanty clothes: who has to boast
night after night of his splendid fortune, with the painful
consciousness of a pound a-week and his boots to find; to talk of
his father's mansion in the country, with a dreary recollection of
his own two-pair back, in the New Cut; and to be envied and
flattered as the favoured lover of a rich heiress, remembering all
the while that the ex-dancer at home is in the family way, and out
of an engagement?

Next to him, perhaps, you will see a thin pale man, with a very
long face, in a suit of shining black, thoughtfully knocking that
part of his boot which once had a heel, with an ash stick. He is
the man who does the heavy business, such as prosy fathers,
virtuous servants, curates, landlords, and so forth.

By the way, talking of fathers, we should very much like to see
some piece in which all the dramatis personae were orphans.
Fathers are invariably great nuisances on the stage, and always
have to give the hero or heroine a long explanation of what was
done before the curtain rose, usually commencing with 'It is now
nineteen years, my dear child, since your blessed mother (here the
old villain's voice falters) confided you to my charge. You were
then an infant,' &c., &c. Or else they have to discover, all of a
sudden, that somebody whom they have been in constant communication
with, during three long acts, without the slightest suspicion, is
their own child: in which case they exclaim, 'Ah! what do I see?
This bracelet! That smile! These documents! Those eyes! Can I
believe my senses?--It must be!--Yes--it is, it is my child!'--'My
father!' exclaims the child; and they fall into each other's arms,
and look over each other's shoulders, and the audience give three
rounds of applause.

To return from this digression, we were about to say, that these
are the sort of people whom you see talking, and attitudinising,
outside the stage-doors of our minor theatres. At Astley's they
are always more numerous than at any other place. There is
generally a groom or two, sitting on the window-sill, and two or
three dirty shabby-genteel men in checked neckerchiefs, and sallow
linen, lounging about, and carrying, perhaps, under one arm, a pair
of stage shoes badly wrapped up in a piece of old newspaper. Some
years ago we used to stand looking, open-mouthed, at these men,
with a feeling of mysterious curiosity, the very recollection of
which provokes a smile at the moment we are writing. We could not
believe that the beings of light and elegance, in milk-white
tunics, salmon-coloured legs, and blue scarfs, who flitted on sleek
cream-coloured horses before our eyes at night, with all the aid of
lights, music, and artificial flowers, could be the pale,
dissipated-looking creatures we beheld by day.

We can hardly believe it now. Of the lower class of actors we have
seen something, and it requires no great exercise of imagination to
identify the walking gentleman with the 'dirty swell,' the comic
singer with the public-house chairman, or the leading tragedian
with drunkenness and distress; but these other men are mysterious
beings, never seen out of the ring, never beheld but in the costume
of gods and sylphs. With the exception of Ducrow, who can scarcely
be classed among them, who ever knew a rider at Astley's, or saw
him but on horseback? Can our friend in the military uniform ever
appear in threadbare attire, or descend to the comparatively un-
wadded costume of every-day life? Impossible! We cannot--we will
not--believe it.

Charles Dickens