Hebe Near the Stage


IF there is anything that is calculated to shake one’s loyalty to the modern maxims about putting sex out of consideration in estimating the value of service, it is a visit to a London theatre. One has heard so often that service, to be of the best, must, like college education, be sexless ; that any other view seems to savor of retrogression, of a return to the old superstition that women can do with instinct in the place of training. Only a concrete illustration of the attractiveness of feminine ministrations could give one the courage to say what one thinks on the other side of the question. Any one who has watched the young woman who, in London, nightly performs the services we relegate to the neutral, black-coated individual called the usher will, we believe, find it hard to deny that by her genial and domesticated appearance she contributes more than her wages’ worth to the æsthetic pleasure of an evening at the theatre.

It is while descending the outside corridor, which, like a comfortably carpeted pathway to Avernus, leads gradually downwards, that the play-goer catches the first glimpse of this pleasing feminine functionary. She is standing, waiting, just outside the door that leads into the subterranean auditorium, above which is rumbling the traffic of the crowded streets. Her costume is the closely fitting black gown that is the conventionally accepted equivalent for the masculine regimentals of broadcloth and swallow-tail. On her head is the ever neat and appropriate white cap. At the sight of this eminently becoming bit of head-gear, one wonders, as always, why the damsel from Erin who graces our own institutions should so resolutely object to confining her errant tresses beneath its light and ornamental folds. In the costume of the usheress, who here stands ready to show the visitor to his or her “ stall,” its effect is heightened by the adjunct of a jaunty apron with pockets, and perhaps also by a frilled fichu across the shoulders. The hands of the personage thus trimly attired are filled with the decorative tasseled booklets by which, in lien of the crudely printed advertising sheet we are in our own country invited to peruse, the London manager compliments the cultivated taste of his audience.

It is, however, precisely in connection with this tasteful announcement of the mise en scene and the cast that the manager may cause the first unpleasant jar to his patron’s agreeably anticipatory feelings. If the latter has just placed himself in a stall at the Lyceum or the Garrick, or any other of the theatres that carry out the reformed principle of “ no fees to attendants,” there need be nothing—in the sternly enforced absence of obscuring bonnet and feathered hat — to ruffle the serenity of his enjoyment of a first glance around the house, from well-filled pit to uppermost gallery. But if he has, on the contrary, chosen a performance at the Criterion or the St. James, where the broom of reform has not yet made a clean sweep of petty annoyance (or light pilfering, if he prefer the term), he will presently be made aware that a trifling obligation still rests with him. Just how he will be made to feel this is one of the neat secrets of the British functionary, male or female. Not a perceptible gesture will be made, still less a word spoken, yet somehow, in some mysterious and altogether indefinable yet quite unmistakable manner, he will be made to know that in return for the programme a fee is expected from him. Only a trifle, of course, — “anything you please,” in the phrase customary on such occasions. But by what possibility could one please to offer less than a sixpence to a correct person in a diaphanous white apron with a cherry bow on the pocket, and still another cherry bow in the fresh white cap ?

At the end of the act, when the drop curtain has fallen, the usheress, who has discreetly withdrawn behind the swinging doors into the corridor, again reappears in the auditorium. This time more than ever she comes in the guise of a typical divinity of the hearthstone, her mission being to offer delicious refreshment to the palate. She has in her hand a small salver, on which there are a miniature ice, a sweet wafer, an infinitesimal cup of café noir. With these delicacies exposed to view, she passes up and down the aisles, or between the rows of stalls that the entr’acte has emptied of their occupants. You may take your choice of them, depositing in exchange the necessary coin upon the silver tray. Nor need one disturb one’s self if the coin deposited has to be larger than the price demanded. In due course of time the change will be accurately returned in the smaller coinage of her Majesty’s mint by the careful attendant, who to our mind lends the finishing touch of friendliness and comfort to a theatre in the metropolis of Irving and Tree and Wyndham. She is not necessarily a youthful person, nor is she always fair to look upon. But she is unfailingly sedate and well-mannered, and will relieve a lady of her cloak, or other incumbrance that is to be stowed away for the evening, with alacrity and attention.

In addition to the deft performance of her practical duties, and to the æsthetic touch she lends to the ensemble of the evening’s entertainment, the usheress may serve to lay the train for the mild reaction of opinion that seems inevitable and desirable. Have we not pushed the logic of identical performance for men and women to illogical lengths ? It certainly is a paradox that the generation that has listened heedfully to the pleas of Rusk in and the William Morris brotherhood for the expression in art and handicraft of the individuality of the workman should wish rigorously to exclude the individuality of sex from our humbler industries. If this point of view can be brought home by them, our notes of a minor difference of detail between our own theatrical arrangements and those of our next of kin across the sea will not have been taken in vain.