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I never visit a music-hall without reflecting concerning the great future there must be before the human race.
How young we are, how very young! And think of all we have done! Man is still a mere boy. He has only just within the last half-century been put into trousers. Two thousand years ago he wore long clothes--the Grecian robe, the Roman toga. Then followed the Little Lord Fauntleroy period, when he went about dressed in a velvet suit with lace collar and cuffs, and had his hair curled for him. The late lamented Queen Victoria put him into trousers. What a wonderful little man he will be when he is grown up!
A clergyman friend of mine told me of a German Kurhaus to which he was sent for his sins and his health. It was a resort, for some reason, specially patronized by the more elderly section of the higher English middle class. Bishops were there, suffering from fatty degeneration of the heart caused by too close application to study; ancient spinsters of good family subject to spasms; gouty retired generals. Can anybody tell me how many men in the British Army go to a general? Somebody once assured me it was five thousand, but that is absurd, on the face of it. The British Army, in that case, would have to be counted by millions. There are a goodish few American colonels still knocking about. The American colonel is still to be met with here and there by the curious traveller, but compared with the retired British general he is an extinct species. In Cheltenham and Brighton and other favoured towns there are streets of nothing but retired British generals--squares of retired British generals--whole crescents of British generals. Abroad there are pensions with a special scale of charges for British generals. In Switzerland there has even been talk of reserving railway compartments "For British Generals Only." In Germany, when you do not say distinctly and emphatically on being introduced that you are not a British general, you are assumed, as a matter of course, to be a British general. During the Boer War, when I was residing in a small garrison town on the Rhine, German military men would draw me aside and ask of me my own private personal views as to the conduct of the campaign. I would give them my views freely, explain to them how I would finish the whole thing in a week.
"But how in the face of the enemy's tactics--" one of them would begin.
"Bother the enemy's tactics," I would reply. "Who cares for tactics?"
"But surely a British general--" they would persist. "Who's a British general?" I would retort, "I am talking to you merely as a plain commonsense man, with a head on my shoulders."
They would apologize for their mistake. But this is leading me away from that German Kurhaus.
Recreation for the Higher clergy.
My clergyman friend found life there dull. The generals and the spinsters left to themselves might have played cards, but they thought of the poor bishops who would have had to look on envious. The bishops and the spinsters might have sung ballads, but the British general after dinner does not care for ballads, and had mentioned it. The bishops and the generals might have told each other stories, but could not before the ladies. My clergyman friend stood the awful solemnity of three evenings, then cautiously felt his way towards revelry. He started with an intellectual game called "Quotations." You write down quotations on a piece of paper, and the players have to add the author's name. It roped in four old ladies, and the youngest bishop. One or two generals tried a round, but not being familiar with quotations voted the game slow.
The next night my friend tried "Consequences." "Saucy Miss A. met the gay General B. in"--most unlikely places. "He said." Really it was fortunate that General B. remained too engrossed in the day before yesterday's Standard to overhear, or Miss A. could never have again faced him. "And she replied." The suppressed giggles excited the curiosity of the non-players. Most of the bishops and half the generals asked to be allowed to join. The giggles grew into roars. Those standing out found that they could not read their papers in comfort.
From "Consequences" the descent was easy. The tables and chairs were pushed against the walls, the bishops and the spinsters and the generals would sit in a ring upon the floor playing hunt the slipper. Musical chairs made the two hours between bed and dinner the time of the day they all looked forward to: the steady trot with every nerve alert, the ear listening for the sudden stoppage of the music, the eye seeking with artfulness the likeliest chair, the volcanic silence, the mad scramble.
The generals felt themselves fighting their battles over again, the spinsters blushed and preened themselves, the bishops took interest in proving that even the Church could be prompt of decision and swift of movement. Before the week was out they were playing Puss-in-the-corner; ladies feeling young again were archly beckoning to stout deans, to whom were returning all the sensations of a curate. The swiftness with which the gouty generals found they could still hobble surprised even themselves.
Why are we so young?
But it is in the music-hall, as I have said, that I am most impressed with the youthfulness of man. How delighted we are when the long man in the little boy's hat, having asked his short brother a riddle, and before he can find time to answer it, hits him over the stomach with an umbrella! How we clap our hands and shout with glee! It isn't really his stomach: it is a bolster tied round his waist--we know that; but seeing the long man whack at that bolster with an umbrella gives us almost as much joy as if the bolster were not there.
I laugh at the knockabout brothers, I confess, so long as they are on the stage; but they do not convince me. Reflecting on the performance afterwards, my dramatic sense revolts against the "plot." I cannot accept the theory of their being brothers. The difference in size alone is a strain upon my imagination. It is not probable that of two children of the same parents one should measure six foot six, and the other five foot four. Even allowing for a freak of nature, and accepting the fact that they might be brothers, I do not believe they would remain so inseparable. The short brother would have succeeded before now in losing the long brother. Those continual bangings over the head and stomach would have weakened whatever affection the short brother might originally have felt towards his long relation. At least, he would insist upon the umbrella being left at home.
"I will go for a walk with you," he might say, "I will stand stock still with you in Trafalgar Square in the midst of the traffic while you ask me silly riddles, but not if you persist in bringing with you that absurd umbrella. You are too handy with it. Put it back in the rack before we start, or go out by yourself."
Besides, my sense of justice is outraged. Why should the short brother be banged and thumped without reason? The Greek dramatist would have explained to us that the shorter brother had committed a crime against the gods. Aristophanes would have made the longer brother the instrument of the Furies. The riddles he asked would have had bearing upon the shorter brother's sin. In this way the spectator would have enjoyed amusement combined with the satisfactory sense that Nemesis is ever present in human affairs. I present the idea, for what it may be worth, to the concoctors of knockabout turns.
Where Brotherly (and Sisterly) Love reigns supreme.
The family tie is always strong on the music-hall stage. The acrobatic troupe is always a "Family": Pa, Ma, eight brothers and sisters, and the baby. A more affectionate family one rarely sees. Pa and Ma are a trifle stout, but still active. Baby, dear little fellow, is full of humour. Ladies do not care to go on the music-hall stage unless they can take their sister with them. I have seen a performance given by eleven sisters, all the same size and apparently all the same age. She must have been a wonderful woman--the mother. They all had golden hair, and all wore precisely similar frocks--a charming but decolletee arrangement--in claret-coloured velvet over blue silk stockings. So far as I could gather, they all had the same young man. No doubt he found it difficult amongst them to make up his mind.
"Arrange it among yourselves," he no doubt had said, "it is quite immaterial to me. You are so much alike, it is impossible that a fellow loving one should not love the lot of you. So long as I marry into the family I really don't care."
When a performer appears alone on the music-hall stage it is easy to understand why. His or her domestic life has been a failure. I listened one evening to six songs in succession. The first two were sung by a gentleman. He entered with his clothes hanging upon him in shreds. He explained that he had just come from an argument with his wife. He showed us the brick with which she had hit him, and the bump at the back of his head that had resulted. The funny man's marriage is never a success. But really this seems to be his own fault. "She was such a lovely girl," he tells us, "with a face--well, you'd hardly call it a face, it was more like a gas explosion. Then she had those wonderful sort of eyes that you can see two ways at once with, one of them looks down the street, while the other one is watching round the corner. Can see you coming any way. And her mouth!"
It appears that if she stands anywhere near the curb and smiles, careless people mistake her for a pillar-box, and drop letters into her.
"And such a voice!" We are told it is a perfect imitation of a motor- car. When she laughs people spring into doorways to escape being run over.
If he will marry that sort of woman, what can he expect? The man is asking for it.
The lady who followed him also told us a sad story of misplaced trust. She also was comic--so the programme assured us. The humorist appears to have no luck. She had lent her lover money to buy the ring, and the licence, and to furnish the flat. He did buy the ring, and he furnished the flat, but it was for another lady. The audience roared. I have heard it so often asked, "What is humour?" From observation, I should describe it as other people's troubles.
A male performer followed her. He came on dressed in a night-shirt, carrying a baby. His wife, it seemed, had gone out for the evening with the lodger. That was his joke. It was the most successful song of the whole six.
The one sure Joke.
A philosopher has put it on record that he always felt sad when he reflected on the sorrows of humanity. But when he reflected on its amusements he felt sadder still.
Why was it so funny that the baby had the lodger's nose? We laughed for a full minute by the clock.
Why do I love to see a flabby-faced man go behind curtains, and, emerging in a wig and a false beard, say that he is now Bismarck or Mr. Chamberlain? I have felt resentment against the Lightning Impersonator ever since the days of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. During that summer every Lightning Impersonator ended his show by shouting, while the band played the National Anthem, "Queen Victoria!" He was not a bit like Queen Victoria. He did not even, to my thinking, look a lady; but at once I had to stand up in my place and sing "God save the Queen." It was a time of enthusiastic loyalty; if you did not spring up quickly some patriotic old fool from the back would reach across and hit you over the head with the first thing he could lay his hands upon.
Other music-hall performers caught at the idea. By ending up with "God save the Queen" any performer, however poor, could retire in a whirlwind of applause. Niggers, having bored us with tiresome songs about coons and honeys and Swanee Rivers, would, as a last resource, strike up "God save the Queen" on the banjo. The whole house would have to rise and cheer. Elderly Sisters Trippet, having failed to arouse our enthusiasm by allowing us a brief glimpse of an ankle, would put aside all frivolity, and tell us of a hero lover named George, who had fought somebody somewhere for his Queen and country. "He fell!"--bang from the big drum and blue limelight. In a recumbent position he appears to have immediately started singing "God save the Queen."
How Anarchists are made.
Sleepy members of the audience would be hastily awakened by their friends. We would stagger to our feet. The Sisters Trippet, with eyes fixed on the chandelier, would lead us: to the best of our ability we would sing "God save the Queen."
There have been evenings when I have sung "God save the Queen" six times. Another season of it, and I should have become a Republican.
The singer of patriotic songs is generally a stout and puffy man. The perspiration pours from his face as the result of the violent gesticulations with which he tells us how he stormed the fort. He must have reached it very hot.
"There were ten to one agin us, boys." We feel that this was a miscalculation on the enemy's part. Ten to one "agin" such wildly gesticulating Britishers was inviting defeat.
It seems to have been a terrible battle notwithstanding. He shows us with a real sword how it was done. Nothing could have lived within a dozen yards of that sword. The conductor of the orchestra looks nervous. Our fear is lest he will end by cutting off his own head. His recollections are carrying him away. Then follows "Victory!"
The gas men and the programme sellers cheer wildly. We conclude with the inevitable "God save the King."
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