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Chapter 13

PRIVATE THEATRES

'RICHARD THE THIRD.--DUKE OF GLO'STER 2l.; EARL OF RICHMOND, 1l;
DUKE OF BUCKINGHAM, 15s.; CATESBY, 12s.; TRESSEL, 10s. 6d.; LORD
STANLEY, 5s.; LORD MAYOR OF LONDON, 2s. 6d.'

Such are the written placards wafered up in the gentlemen's
dressing-room, or the green-room (where there is any), at a private
theatre; and such are the sums extracted from the shop-till, or
overcharged in the office expenditure, by the donkeys who are
prevailed upon to pay for permission to exhibit their lamentable
ignorance and boobyism on the stage of a private theatre. This
they do, in proportion to the scope afforded by the character for
the display of their imbecility. For instance, the Duke of
Glo'ster is well worth two pounds, because he has it all to
himself; he must wear a real sword, and what is better still, he
must draw it, several times in the course of the piece. The
soliloquies alone are well worth fifteen shillings; then there is
the stabbing King Henry--decidedly cheap at three-and-sixpence,
that's eighteen-and-sixpence; bullying the coffin-bearers--say
eighteen-pence, though it's worth much more--that's a pound. Then
the love scene with Lady Ann, and the bustle of the fourth act
can't be dear at ten shillings more--that's only one pound ten,
including the 'off with his head!'--which is sure to bring down the
applause, and it is very easy to do--'Orf with his ed' (very quick
and loud;--then slow and sneeringly)--'So much for Bu-u-u-
uckingham!' Lay the emphasis on the 'uck;' get yourself gradually
into a corner, and work with your right hand, while you're saying
it, as if you were feeling your way, and it's sure to do. The tent
scene is confessedly worth half-a-sovereign, and so you have the
fight in, gratis, and everybody knows what an effect may be
produced by a good combat. One--two--three--four--over; then, one-
-two--three--four--under; then thrust; then dodge and slide about;
then fall down on one knee; then fight upon it, and then get up
again and stagger. You may keep on doing this, as long as it seems
to take--say ten minutes--and then fall down (backwards, if you can
manage it without hurting yourself), and die game: nothing like it
for producing an effect. They always do it at Astley's and
Sadler's Wells, and if they don't know how to do this sort of
thing, who in the world does? A small child, or a female in white,
increases the interest of a combat materially--indeed, we are not
aware that a regular legitimate terrific broadsword combat could be
done without; but it would be rather difficult, and somewhat
unusual, to introduce this effect in the last scene of Richard the
Third, so the only thing to be done, is, just to make the best of a
bad bargain, and be as long as possible fighting it out.

The principal patrons of private theatres are dirty boys, low
copying-clerks, in attorneys' offices, capacious-headed youths from
city counting-houses, Jews whose business, as lenders of fancy
dresses, is a sure passport to the amateur stage, shop-boys who now
and then mistake their masters' money for their own; and a choice
miscellany of idle vagabonds. The proprietor of a private theatre
may be an ex-scene-painter, a low coffee-house-keeper, a
disappointed eighth-rate actor, a retired smuggler, or
uncertificated bankrupt. The theatre itself may be in Catherine-
street, Strand, the purlieus of the city, the neighbourhood of
Gray's-inn-lane, or the vicinity of Sadler's Wells; or it may,
perhaps, form the chief nuisance of some shabby street, on the
Surrey side of Waterloo-bridge.

The lady performers pay nothing for their characters, and it is
needless to add, are usually selected from one class of society;
the audiences are necessarily of much the same character as the
performers, who receive, in return for their contributions to the
management, tickets to the amount of the money they pay.

All the minor theatres in London, especially the lowest, constitute
the centre of a little stage-struck neighbourhood. Each of them
has an audience exclusively its own; and at any you will see
dropping into the pit at half-price, or swaggering into the back of
a box, if the price of admission be a reduced one, divers boys of
from fifteen to twenty-one years of age, who throw back their coat
and turn up their wristbands, after the portraits of Count D'Orsay,
hum tunes and whistle when the curtain is down, by way of
persuading the people near them, that they are not at all anxious
to have it up again, and speak familiarly of the inferior
performers as Bill Such-a-one, and Ned So-and-so, or tell each
other how a new piece called The Unknown Bandit of the Invisible
Cavern, is in rehearsal; how Mister Palmer is to play The Unknown
Bandit; how Charley Scarton is to take the part of an English
sailor, and fight a broadsword combat with six unknown bandits, at
one and the same time (one theatrical sailor is always equal to
half a dozen men at least); how Mister Palmer and Charley Scarton
are to go through a double hornpipe in fetters in the second act;
how the interior of the invisible cavern is to occupy the whole
extent of the stage; and other town-surprising theatrical
announcements. These gentlemen are the amateurs--the Richards,
Shylocks, Beverleys, and Othellos--the Young Dorntons, Rovers,
Captain Absolutes, and Charles Surfaces--a private theatre.

See them at the neighbouring public-house or the theatrical coffee-
shop! They are the kings of the place, supposing no real
performers to be present; and roll about, hats on one side, and
arms a-kimbo, as if they had actually come into possession of
eighteen shillings a-week, and a share of a ticket night. If one
of them does but know an Astley's supernumerary he is a happy
fellow. The mingled air of envy and admiration with which his
companions will regard him, as he converses familiarly with some
mouldy-looking man in a fancy neckerchief, whose partially corked
eyebrows, and half-rouged face, testify to the fact of his having
just left the stage or the circle, sufficiently shows in what high
admiration these public characters are held.

With the double view of guarding against the discovery of friends
or employers, and enhancing the interest of an assumed character,
by attaching a high-sounding name to its representative, these
geniuses assume fictitious names, which are not the least amusing
part of the play-bill of a private theatre. Belville, Melville,
Treville, Berkeley, Randolph, Byron, St. Clair, and so forth, are
among the humblest; and the less imposing titles of Jenkins,
Walker, Thomson, Barker, Solomons, &c., are completely laid aside.
There is something imposing in this, and it is an excellent apology
for shabbiness into the bargain. A shrunken, faded coat, a decayed
hat, a patched and soiled pair of trousers--nay, even a very dirty
shirt (and none of these appearances are very uncommon among the
members of the corps dramatique), may be worn for the purpose of
disguise, and to prevent the remotest chance of recognition. Then
it prevents any troublesome inquiries or explanations about
employment and pursuits; everybody is a gentleman at large, for the
occasion, and there are none of those unpleasant and unnecessary
distinctions to which even genius must occasionally succumb
elsewhere. As to the ladies (God bless them), they are quite above
any formal absurdities; the mere circumstance of your being behind
the scenes is a sufficient introduction to their society--for of
course they know that none but strictly respectable persons would
be admitted into that close fellowship with them, which acting
engenders. They place implicit reliance on the manager, no doubt;
and as to the manager, he is all affability when he knows you
well,--or, in other words, when he has pocketed your money once,
and entertains confident hopes of doing so again.

A quarter before eight--there will be a full house to-night--six
parties in the boxes, already; four little boys and a woman in the
pit; and two fiddles and a flute in the orchestra, who have got
through five overtures since seven o'clock (the hour fixed for the
commencement of the performances), and have just begun the sixth.
There will be plenty of it, though, when it does begin, for there
is enough in the bill to last six hours at least.

That gentleman in the white hat and checked shirt, brown coat and
brass buttons, lounging behind the stage-box on the O. P. side, is
Mr. Horatio St. Julien, alias Jem Larkins. His line is genteel
comedy--his father's, coal and potato. He DOES Alfred Highflier in
the last piece, and very well he'll do it--at the price. The party
of gentlemen in the opposite box, to whom he has just nodded, are
friends and supporters of Mr. Beverley (otherwise Loggins), the
Macbeth of the night. You observe their attempts to appear easy
and gentlemanly, each member of the party, with his feet cocked
upon the cushion in front of the box! They let them do these
things here, upon the same humane principle which permits poor
people's children to knock double knocks at the door of an empty
house--because they can't do it anywhere else. The two stout men
in the centre box, with an opera-glass ostentatiously placed before
them, are friends of the proprietor--opulent country managers, as
he confidentially informs every individual among the crew behind
the curtain--opulent country managers looking out for recruits; a
representation which Mr. Nathan, the dresser, who is in the
manager's interest, and has just arrived with the costumes, offers
to confirm upon oath if required--corroborative evidence, however,
is quite unnecessary, for the gulls believe it at once.

The stout Jewess who has just entered, is the mother of the pale,
bony little girl, with the necklace of blue glass beads, sitting by
her; she is being brought up to 'the profession.' Pantomime is to
be her line, and she is coming out to-night, in a hornpipe after
the tragedy. The short thin man beside Mr. St. Julien, whose white
face is so deeply seared with the small-pox, and whose dirty shirt-
front is inlaid with open-work, and embossed with coral studs like
ladybirds, is the low comedian and comic singer of the
establishment. The remainder of the audience--a tolerably numerous
one by this time--are a motley group of dupes and blackguards.

The foot-lights have just made their appearance: the wicks of the
six little oil lamps round the only tier of boxes, are being turned
up, and the additional light thus afforded serves to show the
presence of dirt, and absence of paint, which forms a prominent
feature in the audience part of the house. As these preparations,
however, announce the speedy commencement of the play, let us take
a peep 'behind,' previous to the ringing-up.

The little narrow passages beneath the stage are neither especially
clean nor too brilliantly lighted; and the absence of any flooring,
together with the damp mildewy smell which pervades the place, does
not conduce in any great degree to their comfortable appearance.
Don't fall over this plate basket--it's one of the 'properties'--
the caldron for the witches' cave; and the three uncouth-looking
figures, with broken clothes-props in their hands, who are drinking
gin-and-water out of a pint pot, are the weird sisters. This
miserable room, lighted by candles in sconces placed at lengthened
intervals round the wall, is the dressing-room, common to the
gentlemen performers, and the square hole in the ceiling is THE
trap-door of the stage above. You will observe that the ceiling is
ornamented with the beams that support the boards, and tastefully
hung with cobwebs.

The characters in the tragedy are all dressed, and their own
clothes are scattered in hurried confusion over the wooden dresser
which surrounds the room. That snuff-shop-looking figure, in front
of the glass, is Banquo: and the young lady with the liberal
display of legs, who is kindly painting his face with a hare's
foot, is dressed for Fleance. The large woman, who is consulting
the stage directions in Cumberland's edition of Macbeth, is the
Lady Macbeth of the night; she is always selected to play the part,
because she is tall and stout, and LOOKS a little like Mrs.
Siddons--at a considerable distance. That stupid-looking milksop,
with light hair and bow legs--a kind of man whom you can warrant
town-made--is fresh caught; he plays Malcolm to-night, just to
accustom himself to an audience. He will get on better by degrees;
he will play Othello in a month, and in a month more, will very
probably be apprehended on a charge of embezzlement. The black-
eyed female with whom he is talking so earnestly, is dressed for
the 'gentlewoman.' It is HER first appearance, too--in that
character. The boy of fourteen who is having his eyebrows smeared
with soap and whitening, is Duncan, King of Scotland; and the two
dirty men with the corked countenances, in very old green tunics,
and dirty drab boots, are the 'army.'

'Look sharp below there, gents,' exclaims the dresser, a red-headed
and red-whiskered Jew, calling through the trap, 'they're a-going
to ring up. The flute says he'll be blowed if he plays any more,
and they're getting precious noisy in front.' A general rush
immediately takes place to the half-dozen little steep steps
leading to the stage, and the heterogeneous group are soon
assembled at the side scenes, in breathless anxiety and motley
confusion.

'Now,' cries the manager, consulting the written list which hangs
behind the first P. S, wing, 'Scene 1, open country--lamps down--
thunder and lightning--all ready, White?' [This is addressed to
one of the army.] 'All ready.'--'Very well. Scene 2, front
chamber. Is the front chamber down?'--'Yes.'--'Very well.'--
'Jones' [to the other army who is up in the flies]. 'Hallo!'--
'Wind up the open country when we ring up.'--'I'll take care.'--
'Scene 3, back perspective with practical bridge. Bridge ready,
White? Got the tressels there?'--'All right.'

'Very well. Clear the stage,' cries the manager, hastily packing
every member of the company into the little space there is between
the wings and the wall, and one wing and another. 'Places, places.
Now then, Witches--Duncan--Malcolm--bleeding officer--where's the
bleeding officer?'--'Here!' replies the officer, who has been rose-
pinking for the character. 'Get ready, then; now, White, ring the
second music-bell.' The actors who are to be discovered, are
hastily arranged, and the actors who are not to be discovered place
themselves, in their anxiety to peep at the house, just where the
audience can see them. The bell rings, and the orchestra, in
acknowledgment of the call, play three distinct chords. The bell
rings--the tragedy (!) opens--and our description closes.

Charles Dickens