London in the Eighteen-Eighties
DINING once with a charming woman, and matching minds, as was our habit, about London, she asked me: ‘If you kept a public house in London, what would you name it?’
‘Well,’ I replied, after a moment’s thought, ‘if my “pub” had a good connection, — meaning thereby, if every old soak in the neighborhood preferred to buy his drink of me rather than of another, — I should keep the old name, whatever it was. If, on the other hand, I had to name it myself, I should call it the Bunch of Grapes, suggesting thereby expensive wines rather than cheap malt liquor; then also it would be called by the cockney, the “ Bunch of Gripes ” — and that would delight me. What would you call yours?’
‘ “ The Marquis of Granby,” ‘ she replied promptly; ‘I’ve always thought that a very elegant name. You’d call it “Markis,” of course.’
‘Certainly, I should,’ I replied. ‘ What’s your favorite railway-station? ‘
‘Victoria, Brighton Line,’ she said. ‘And yours?’
‘Oh, there’s only one for me,’ I answered. ‘Euston, the station by which I first entered the great town, one evening in June, just forty years ago.’
We drifted on to other subjects and the matter went out of my mind until the other day when, happening to pass the great granite portals of that station, I thought of the joy that was mine when I first realized that I was actually in London.
I was traveling entirely by myself and my chief preparation for my tour had been a course of the Rollo Books — and I can hardly imagine a better. By them I was in some measure prepared for whatever came my way, whether ‘Upon the Atlantic,’ ‘In London,’ or elsewhere. When my boat, the British Prince, a tub that sailed from Philadelphia, touched at Queenstown, greatly to my surprise a letter was put into my hand. It was from a young lad, a distant cousin whom I had heard of only remotely; but it welcomed me to English shores.
‘If I knew what you looked like,’ he said, ‘I would meet you at Euston.’ I wondered where Euston was. But as my cousin was not prepared to recognize me, his letter went on to say that perhaps I would take a cab at the station and come along to No. 2 Rupert Street, where I could live with him very cheaply, if I wanted to. When, upon arrival, I stepped out into the almost unspeakable confusion of Euston, I wondered how ever was I to make my way to my destination; but all difficulties vanished as I approached them, and half an hour later I was being welcomed by a boy about my own age into a cheap and dingy boarding-house where he was living, and I found I could secure a tiny room — a mere closet in which I could sleep — and that bed and breakfast would be a pound a week. The bargain was soon struck. I liked the price, even if I did not care for the accommodation and we sallied forth into the streets. I have, I suppose, been happier since — but not much. And London always makes the same appeal to me. I enter with a feeling of elation — supremely happy; I leave it with a feeling of depression. Some day I shall leave London and never see it again. Well, be it so; we can die but once.
The London of the eighteen-eighties was a much noisier and a far more crowded city than now. The streets were narrower and fewer; the great thoroughfares of Shaftesbury Avenue and the Charing Cross Road were not cut through; Kings way and Aldwyeh were undreamed of and, above all, there were no tubes — only one underground railway into which it was worth one’s life to enter, so filled was it with filthy smoke and sulphurous gases, the accumulation of years. The noise of tens of thousands of horse-drawn vehicles made a confused and ceaseless roar as of distant waves breaking upon a rocky shore. The streets were brilliantly lighted with gas lamps and alive with people surging in every direction; most men wore silk hats and carried canes; the poorer class looked very poor, indeed, and wore caps; soldiers gayly dressed, with tiny round caps of about the size of pill boxes held on over one ear by a narrow strap, carrying canes about as thick as a lead pencil and two feet long, were everywhere in evidence.
‘So this is London,’ I said to myself.
We ate something, somewhere; I have no idea where or what, for my friend had said to me, ‘I have half a sovereign, let’s go to the theatre. Florence St. John (pronounced Sinjin) is playing in Olivette. She’s a beauty! I don’t suppose you have ever heard of Olivette.'
‘Don’t you?’ I cried. ‘If Florence St. John can beat Katharine Lewis singing and dancing in Olivette, she must be a good one. I know it, every bit of it, words and music. Let’s go to the theatre by all means.’
We went, and I was forced to admit that never before had I seen such a wonderful performance. Florence St. John was superb; she danced and sang all the songs I knew so well, and I was in the seventh heaven of delight. I was told that she was a very naughty woman and that that wealth of golden hair was her own — or was n’t — I forget which. I vowed it made no difference and it hardly seemed possible that anyone so beautiful — in tights — could be so very bad. Plainer women had set such rumors afloat out of mere jealousy. If anything could make me happier than I was it would be to meet Florence St. John in the flesh—there was a good deal of it. ‘Wait till you see Marie Tempest,’ said my friend.
We went to bed. In five minutes I was asleep, in another five, seemingly, I was awake and, if I ever knew that London was a late riser, I had forgotten it. There was much to be seen. I would get up and see it. It was almost seven o’clock. Dressing quietly, for not a sound was to be heard in the house, I went downstairs and let myself out into the street. Not a soul was in sight. Of the roar of the traffic, which had so impressed me the night before, nothing was to be heard. It seemed very strange that the pulse of London should have ceased beating. I did not know which to see first — the Tower, or Westminster Abbey. Consulting my map I found the Abbey to be the nearer and I quickly found my way into Trafalgar Square and walked rapidly on through Whitehall, stopping for a moment opposite the Horse Guards. Reaching the Abbey, I tried the door. I might just as well have tried the door of the Bank of England. It was a little better than half past seven. I think I had not passed a single person on my walk. I walked by and admired Westminster Hall, the House of Parliament, and crossed over Westminster Bridge.
Then I began to feel hungry, very. I tried the doors of several restaurants — finally one yielded to my hand. I went in; on the bare wooden tables were stacked equally bare wooden chairs, harpies were on their hands and knees scrubbing with an ecstasy I had never seen before. I asked for coffee and a roll. I might just as well have asked for canvas-back duck and champagne. This occurred at Lockhart’s: these establishments are gone now. If I remember correctly they have been swallowed up by the A.B.C’s. I then decided to return to Rupert Street, trying restaurant doors as I did so, always with one result. Entering the house, — I had a key,— I went to my friend’s room and saw him preparing for his ablutions with about a quart of hot water in a small basin. He asked me where I had been. I told him. ‘My word! you are early,’ was all he said. ‘Go downstairs. I’ll join you in a few minutes. You’ll find my newspaper at my place in the breakfast-room. I take in the Chronicle.'’
I had a very bad cup of tea, an egg that had met with an accident, bread, butter, and something that was called marmalade — but I was in London and I was very happy.
No. 2 Rupert Street is next to the corner of Coventry Street and just across the street, on the opposite corner of what would still be Rupert Street if that street had not tired of its name, was the Prince of Wales’s theatre. At that theatre a young and beautiful girl, as exquisite as a Dresden china shepherdess, — her name Marie Tempest, — was playing in an opérette called Dorothy. It has not, I think, been played in the United States — why, I could never understand. Over the gulf of years I remember it as a sort of combination of Erminie and Robin Hood. It was lovely! There was a fine song, ‘Be wise in time, O Phyllis Mine,’ and another, ‘Queen of My Heart,’ sung by Hayden Coffin, then in his prime, that I thought the finest songs I had ever heard. They might seem rather flat to-day, but at the time, — it was forty years ago, dear reader, and I was twenty, — I thought nothing more melodious had ever been written. And there was a hunting song that almost turned me into a sportsman. Night after night I used to climb to the gallery of the Prince of Wales’s, until I knew the words and music so well that I could have taken any part, on short notice.
And in after years, whenever and wherever Marie Tempest was playing, I always used to see her and with all the enthusiasm of youth. Some who read these lines may remember how beautiful and graceful she was in the title-part in The Fencing Master, in which, years later, she toured the United States. Finally, she gave up comic opera and became a comedy actress of charm and grace, occasionally singing some simple song with such skill as only a cultivated musician can, playing her own accompaniment. Once I saw her as Polly Eccles in Robertson’s old-fashioned, but amusing, play, Caste, and more recently, — but Marie Tempest is only of yesterday,— or is it to-morrow, — and the whole world is at her feet.
The last time I saw her, I did what I had always been threatening to do: I told her that I loved her. But many men have told her so, and my declaration occasioned her no surprise. It came about in this way: it was during the war and for economy’s sake we had closed our house in the country and were living at the Ritz in Philadelphia. One evening after the play, she came into the supper-room with her husband, Graham Browne, and seated herself at a table not far from where my wife and I were sitting. On the spur of the moment I got up, and telling my wife that something very pleasant, or very unpleasant, was almost immediately going to happen to me, I went over to where she sat and, holding out my hand after the manner of an old friend, I said, ‘Miss Tempest, I cannot suppose that you remember me; but we have met many times in London.’
She gave me her hand with the merest trace of bewilderment, and asked me to sit down. As I did so, I observed that it was in 1884, when she was playing in Dorothy at the Prince of Wales’s, and that I had never forgotten and never should forget how unspeakably lovely she was. Instantly she became the actress again and, holding my hand to detain me, said, ‘Run away, my boy, run away; there was no such year.’
‘I have left my wife over there,’ I went on, pointing to my table, ‘to come and sing to you, “Be wise in time.” It may be a little late, but— ‘
‘It is, it is,’she cried with a laugh; ‘but do you know my husband?’ Then followed about the merriest ten minutes’ talk I have ever had, when, telling her that I should love her to my dying day, I returned to the wife of my bosom whom I have always suspected of hoping that I would meet with a rebuff.
A few minutes later Graham Browne got up, and coming to my table held out his hand to my wife saying, that as I had been making love to his lady he thought it only fair that he should be allowed the same privilege. So the honors were even, and I am waiting anxiously for our next encounter. Please Heaven it may soon come!
Theatrical reminiscence is rarely interesting: the stage from the front is all motion and light and color; one would say that an actor’s life could not fail to be delightful; but in reality it is not so. It is a life of difficulty, drudgery, and jealousy; and, when one comes to read of it, one is confronted by a maze of names, real and fictitious, and dates which are useful but not inspiriting. In writing about the success of this actor in that part, or the failure of another in some other part, one finds one’s self indulging in exclamations rather than explanations. Indeed, how is one to suggest the power of a glance, a gesture, and the voice by a written word? The actor’s is a fleeting art. Perhaps it is only fair that this should be so, for what other artist enjoys such immediate and tumultuous applause? The author produces his effect in his study, alone; the artist paints his picture wondering whether the public will accept it; the successful actor is instantly rewarded — and almost as instantly forgotten. Confronting these difficulties I want to speak of Irving and Terry.
Charles Lamb once wrote, ‘I have no ear’; and then went on to explain. In like manner, I have no eye. When by chance I remember a face I rarely fasten the proper name to it. But I have ‘ear,’ and after a lapse of years I can yet hear, in imagination, Ellen Terry, as Beatrice, say to Henry Irving, as Benedick, ‘ I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick. Nobody marks you’; and I can still see the lift of his eyebrows as he replies, ‘What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?' and a moment later, when she says she would rather hear a dog bark than a man swear he loves her, he replies, ‘God keep your ladyship still in that mind! so some gentlemen or other shall ‘scape a predestinate scratched face.’
These words, uttered in the Chestnut Street Opera House in Philadelphia in 1883, still ring in my ears; from that moment the great theatrical passion of my life has been Irving and Terry. All the scenes of ‘ Much Ado’ — it was the first of Shakespeare’s comedies that I had seen — come before me as I write. How electrified I was when Beatrice in the church scene cries out to Benedick to ‘ Kill Claudio! ‘ And who that has heard it can forget Benedick’s soliloquy in the garden, in which he details the charms a woman must have ere he marry her, ending ‘And her hair, her hair shall be of what color it please God.’
I have heard it said that Irving could neither talk, walk, nor act: that his mannerisms were offensive, that he was ‘always Irving.’ I am willing for the sake of the argument to admit all that may be said in his despite; but no actor in my day had such intellectuality, was so full of that quality we call magnetism, without which an actor cannot reach the top of his profession. Call to mind Creston Clarke: he had a fine stage presence, a beautiful voice; he was conscientious and painstaking; yet he left one cold. Irving was electrical; one knew him for a great man. Who that has seen him can forget his noble brow, his piercing eye, his long and graceful hands? And as for Ellen Terry (‘dear Ellen Terry’ as Irving always called her in the little speeches which he used to make before the curtain), her delicious voice is still ringing in your ears, if, unluckily, your ears are as old as mine. Shall you ever forget her fascinating, if irregular, beauty?
When and where, and in what I saw these complementary and supplementary actors, what matters it? Suffice it to say I saw them in all, or almost all, their great parts: in ‘Romeo’ — in which I confess Irving was awful but Terry lovely, — in ‘Lear,’ and ‘The Merchant’; in Macbeth, and in Hamlet — which was, I think, Irving’s greatest part; in The Vicar of Wakefield, during one scene of which every man, woman, and child in the audience cried as frankly and openly as one does at a funeral. How well he played Charles the First! Certainly no actor ever looked the part more perfectly than Irving: I can see him now in the leave-taking scene, with Ellen Terry crying quite as much as Henrietta Maria in real life could have done.
Then there were those fine plays in which Irving acted without Terry — Louis XI, Waterloo, and The Bells. In these, especially in Waterloo, Irving was supreme. As a character study it remains unsurpassed. The Bells I first saw in Philadelphia one winter’s night when there was so much snow on the ground that the street cars were not running, and I had to walk home after midnight, a distance of several miles. I had never seen such acting before. The ‘ bells ‘ continued to ring in my ears as I trudged along, and occasionally actual sleigh bells could be heard. To this day, therefore, I never hear sleigh bells of a winter’s night without thinking of Irving in the death scene where, as Mathias, he cries, ‘Why is not Christian here?’ Sound seems to have for me the reminiscent quality that smell has in others.
In the early productions the part of Christian was taken by the gifted young actor William Terris: who ever saw a better lover than he? What a matinée idol he would have made! only they hardly had matinée idols in those days. And what a handsome and reckless young villain he was as Thornhill in ‘The Vicar’! Poor fellow! When still a young man, not having an enemy in the world, he was stabbed by a lunatic at the stage-door of the Adelphi.
I saw Irving in Ravenswood, a lugubrious dramatization of The Bride of Lammermoor which cannot, I think, be called one of his successes, in The Amber Heart, of which I remember nothing, and in Madame Sans-Gêne, of which what I remember I do not care for. What did, however, delight me, was Tennyson’s Becket, produced in 1893, a few months after the great poet’s death. Incidentally, in the years to which I am reverting, I scarcely ever went into Westminster Abbey without treading upon the new-made grave of some great man whose name was so vital to me that it seemed as if I were treading on a living thing. The names of Tennyson, Browning, and Irving instantly occur to me. Great men don’t die to-day — they are all dead.
But to return to Becket. It was a beautiful, dignified performance for which Irving was by nature especially suited. With what exquisite care it was produced! How well one remembers the beauty of the first act. The curtain rises and reveals two men playing a game of chess: there is complete silence for a time, then moves are made and at last the King, beaten, knocks over the chessboard, and Church and State in the persons of Becket and the King come actually to grips.
I never pass the Lyceum Theatre in Wellington Street — and I passed it no later than last night on my way to see a sporting melodrama, Good Luck, at Drury Lane — without thinking of the wonderful ‘first nights’ when it was the most fashionable theatre in London. For full twenty years Irving was on the crest of the wave. Nightly people stood in line at the pit entrance for hours, waiting for the doors to open; and when, to save them from fatigue and exposure, Irving permitted them to secure reserved seats at the regular admission prices, they were so outraged that immediately they got in they tore up the seats and a riot was with difficulty averted. Who ever heard of the pit being reserved? A three-century-old tradition had been violated: the old order of things was quickly restored. What is the Lyceum now? It is given over to Hall-Caine melodrama at popular prices: no theatre in London has fallen so low.
It is not, perhaps, surprising that Irving’s greatest financial, was not his greatest artistic, success. Faust, the most melodramatic spectacle produced up to that time, has always seemed to me unworthy of the great traditions of the Lyceum — as better suited to Drury Lane, although Irving’s physical gifts and peculiarities especially fitted him in the part of Mephisto. In these days, when the production of elaborate spectacles is a matter of such ordinary event as to call for no comment whatever, a run of six hundred nights and ‘takings’ of a million dollars seem nothing remarkable; but in 1885 the world gasped. And well it might. Irving employed the best artists and spared neither pains nor expense to secure the most wonderful effects. The scene in the Brocken was really marvelous: elaborate electrical effects were used for the first time in a theatre; electrically charged iron plates were so placed upon the stage that, when one stood upon two of them, an electric circuit was completed. In the fight between Faust and Valentine, when their swords clashed, sparks flashed therefrom as occasionally they did from Irving, as Mephisto; and when he, in a scarlet robe, with red lights playing on him, raised his tall figure to its full height and hurled his curse at all and sundry — well, the audience fairly gasped. Ellen Terry as Margaret was lovely, as always; but my own feeling was that the play was not worthy of the powers of the actors. Irving was at his best in subtly intellectual parts —parts in which the workings of his refined and melancholy face and above all, of his wonderful eyes, could be seen to better advantage than during the play of colored lights, in clouds of steam, and amidst the crash of stage thunder. I always regretted that I did not see him as Alfred Jingle, for in eccentric comedy Irving was as remarkable as in tragedy.
Alas! that there is always an apex to an actor’s career — to any career. Why can we not, having been present at the glorious ascent, be spared the pain of witnessing the declension of our idols. Ellen Terry — the lovely and lovable, whose voice w as music and whose smile a reward for a day’s labor — began to grow old: after twenty-five years together she and Irving parted. There was no quarrel; as has been said, their separation was due to the fact that she was no longer suited to play young girls’ parts, and to redeem financial losses, Irving became more and more inclined to melodramatic rôles in plays in which there was no part for Terry. Could she who had delighted the town as Juliet, come to play the Nurse? Irving, never a robust man, toward the last played against great physical weariness, and he died in harness. Becket was his last part, and his last words spoken on the stage were: ‘Into thy hands, O Lord! into thy hands!’
At the bottom of St. Martin’s Lane, not far from the world’s worst statue — that of Edith Cavell — is a statue of Henry Irving, erected to his memory by friends in his profession. It shows Irving in academic robes and is in a deplorable condition: anything long exposed to the damp air of London soon becomes covered, as with a veneer, with grime and dirt. The statue should be cleaned; a few buckets of hot water and soap would soon set things right. I must write a letter to the Times about it. In the Guildhall Art Gallery, perhaps the most incongruous collection of art objects in the world, is a beautiful marble statue of Irving as Hamlet by Onslow Ford, the talented sculptor, who died young; if it could have been reproduced in bronze it would have been a much finer monument to the great actor than the one which now represents him as an academician.
In the days I am reviewing, just round the corner from the Lyceum, was the Gaiety Theatre. It was well named. The old building was swept away when the Strand was widened and Aldwych built, and to me, the name of the present Gaiety is a misnomer. Music and mirth have departed from it; I have n’t seen a good show there for years.
In the old days as soon as I reached London I secured lodgings, and then drove to Strand and bought theatre tickets at the Lyceum and Gaiety for alternate evenings. Those were the days, or nights, rather, when they always ran a burlesque there. They were light and witty and took a lot of acting, and I think it will be admitted that never before or since, on the London stage or any other, has there been seen such beautiful dancing. Kate Vaughan is credited with having introduced a new style of dancing which came to be called skirt, dancing. She was enormously popular and at the height of her career is said to have received one pound per minute for her work upon the stage. ‘The poetry of motion’ is a phrase which must have been invented to describe her exquisitely rhythmical movement. Later on came Sylvia Gray, Letty Lind, Marion Hood, and a host of others — all of whom danced divinely. There was no suggestion of vulgarity in the best dancing at the Gaiety; rather it seemed as though a number of singularly beautiful and refined creamy, country girls, in long frocks, soft and fluffy, with innumerable colored silk petticoats, had stumbled into the theatre while on their way to a very swagger garden-party, and, having done so, decided to lark it a bit with some interesting men they had quite innocently discovered. Then the orchestra began a tune, as infectious as it was original, and, in a moment, the stage was a blaze of multicolored Liberty-silk petticoats, out of which would occasionally project a silkstockinged leg and a dainty foot. In those days the jeunesse doré of London might nightly be seen in the front rows of the stalls, picking out their brides — ‘reinvigorating the peerage,’ it was called.
How these Gaiety shows — Miss Esmeralda, Faust up to Date, Ruy Blasé or the Blasé Roué, and the rest — caught the town! They were full of comedy, not too refined, and were as English as boiled beef and carrots. The English have always been great rhymers and punsters: puns were as common on the old Gaiety stage as flowers are in the country, to mutilate one of Oscar Wilde’s best witticisms. What fun was made by that great comedian, Fred Leslie, so graceful and accomplished, who died when he was but thirty-seven, his great ambition to play Hamlet unachieved! And there was Arthur Roberts, another Gaiety wit! The spirit of comedy seems to have deserted the stage to-day. One form of amusement crowds out another. The Gaiety burlesques of my youth, themselves the followers of opera bouffe, an importation from the continent, gave way to musical comedies, — Morocco Bound was the first of them, — as these have given way to vulgar and meaningless revues.
I was speaking of Arthur Roberts. I saw him at the Pavilion a year or two ago, playing the part of an octogenarian in a bath-chair at Brighton, and doing it very well, too, talking to another old crony of his experiences in London before the war — with Napoleon. But Arthur Roberts was a wag off the stage as well as on: I remember a story of which he was the hero. They are always holding exhibitions of one land or another in London — the Motor Show is the latest of them; but in the year I have in mind they had an exhibition of foodstuffs — they usually referred to it as ‘The Healtheries.’ Food, en gros et en petit, was exhibited and occasionally samples would be given out. Well, one day Arthur Roberts had the bright idea of having a lot of cards printed — ‘ Please Take One Home.’ Those he stuck freely over pyramids of exhibits, — tins of sardines, bottles of olives, boxes of dates, and the like, — with the result that, before the distracted exhibitors realized what had occasioned it, thousands of small parcels were set in motion as if by magic.
I have almost forgotten Nellie Farren — ‘ Our Nelly ‘ as she was popularly called. She played boys’ parts, mostly, and at sixty was divine in tights. She and Fred Leslie played against each other for years. She had graduated from the Old Vic and was an accomplished actress before she became the star of the Gaiety — if the Gaiety can be said to have had any one bright particular star. She did not have an especially good singing voice, but she had wit, a rare thing in woman, and she was tireless in her efforts to please. I have mentioned Letty Lind: she was a tall, blonde, dangerously demure creature who early danced her way into the hearts of her audience and stayed there; but my own passion was for Sylvia Gray, who is now the Mrs. Fenwick one reads about in the newspapers as a daring rider in the Quorn Hunt.
But good things must come to an end: Fred Leslie died, Nellie Farren retired wisely at the height of her fame, and the famous beauties married and lived happily ever after — let us hope! A new theatre, Daly’s, opened to divide with the Gaiety the patronage of those in search of music and laughter. Musical comedies became the rage and four of them, The Geisha, San Toy, A Country Girl, and The Merry Widow ran for a total of ten years. One of the greatest successes of a slightly earlier period was The Belle of New York, an importation which succeeded in spite of a onetime prejudice against an American musical comedy. It ran — somewhere over here — for two years or more, thanks to its tuneful music and the ability of that excellent comedian, Dan Daly, and the charms of the demure Salvation Army Girl, Edna May, who soon became a peeress and is now the widow of one of America’s very rich men.
Shall we ever forget Florodora with its famous double sextette — ‘Tell me pretty maiden’? There are ladies, now firmly established in high places, who owe their rank largely to the fact that in the ‘original sextette’ they were given a chance to display such charms as, in the past, have changed the course of empire. When I saw Florodora in London, Marie Tempest was no longer in the caste; therefore I never heard her sing ‘When I Leave Town,’ — you remember it? — one verse goes: —
London seems so bright and gay,
Policemen smile, as I drive thro’ the park in style!
Busmen greet me from above,
Cabmen drive me just for love,
And every waiter says that he,
Waits exclusively for me.
I ‘m known everywhere, from Bayswater to Berkeley Square,
I’ve got that sort of an air
, That positively knocks ‘em over.’
And she had, too.
With the Arcadians, musical-comedy shows came practically to an end. It ran for over two years in London and then came to New York where I first saw it. I have forgotten the name of the man who played the high comedy part; but the lugubrious jockey with his song, ‘Always Merry and Bright,’ was the inimitable Alfred Lester. In it, too, was Connie Ediss, a vulgar cockney comedienne with a rasping voice, graduated from ‘the halls’ — a great favorite of mine. And what was the name of the girl who sang ‘I’m so tired of violets’ so delightfully?
But I must be careful not to mix my dates. I am verging upon the present. Most writing about the theatre is done by old men who paint the past in radiant colors against the dull background of the present. I cannot think of myself as an exception to this rule, but before leaving this subject I want to remind my severest critic—my wife — that twenty-odd years ago, when we were enjoying to the full the wonderful shows then being given at Weber and Fields’s in New York, I said that never before had there been, and in all probability never again could there be, assembled in any theatre such a brilliant caste as that which, in addition to these two clever comedians themselves, included Charles Ross, Peter Daly, and Dave Warfield among the men, and Lillian Russell — and here I fall into reverie from which I do not wish to be disturbed.
I could, if it were necessary, give the exact date upon which I took a young and charming lady — the lady aforesaid, indeed, now a grandmother and wearing glasses very becomingly — into a small music hall in the Strand, and saw, through a haze of fog and tobacco smoke, a large fat man in ridiculous trousers, and listened to a song in which occurred words something to this effect: —
And they ‘re after me, after me,
I’m the individual they require.’
’Isn’t he wonderful!’ I said to my little bride, gasping for breath at my side. ‘That’s Herbert Campbell, one of the most popular music-hall artists in London.’
‘Artists!’ the girl cried, ‘I think he’s disgusting.’
‘Never mind,’ I replied, ‘that feeling is like seasickness; you’ll get over it; keep quiet and listen to the words and try to learn them’; and joining in the chorus I sang at the top of my voice: —
Herbert Campbell was a large man with an unctuous voice, enormously popular with his audience, and much in demand for pantomimes at Drury Lane, for which, on account of his size, he was particularly well adapted. His once popular song would n’t go now: the present Prince of Wales is the most popular man in England.
Who shall explain the popularity of a song? What quality is it of words or music that gives it vitality? When I was last in Buffalo I visited the Public Library and was interested to note the efforts then being made, under the direction of a distinguished citizen. Judge Louis B. Hart, to preserve for all time the once popular songs of the nation, the abstract and brief chronicles of their time. Songs may be as important in a nation’s history as its laws; frequently they are written by wiser men.
Let us join in singing ‘Grandfather’s Clock,’ which swept over America in the Centennial year, 1876. And let us not forget ‘Silver Threads among the Gold,’ or ‘After the Ball,’ which is the musical monument of the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. These unconsidered trifles have, of course, no musical or literary value, but in after years they will be interesting as showing the varying sophistications of their day.
To return to London. In what year was it (upon the day when it had been discovered that Charles Stewart Parnell, the great Irish leader, had been indulging in an illicit amour with Mrs. O’Shea) that a man came out on a music-hall stage and sang a song, the words and music of which had been written only a few hours before? I remember that the chorus went something like this: —
Naughty, naughty boy,
Who’d have thought you’d have interfered
With another fellow’s joy?’
The next lines I forget, but the last lines were: —
And you can’t home rule yourself.’
Instantly there was a riot; when two or three Irishmen are gathered together there usually is. The Irish determined that the song should not be sung; the English wanted it badly. We were a hundred to one — but what are odds to an Irishman? While it lasted it was a very pretty scrap, but just as it was getting interesting the policemen came and put an end to it, just as firemen do to a fire — I could never understand why.
If I was not the first person in America to sing Lottie Collins’s great song, —
I don’t want the credit for it; but certainly I was her most steadfast defender when anyone happened to say that that song was not designed to be sung by a perfect lady. No, I am mistaken; the song in that way challenged was not Lottie Collins’s acrobatic song and dance, which swept round the world as it deserved to; it was another balladic masterpiece: —
It was the pathetic story of a beautiful young country girl who came to London to see the sights, ‘with her golden hair a-hanging down her back.’ It took many stanzas to tell of the experiences that befell her: her name was Flo, and the chorus went this way: —
When she left the village she was shy;
But alas, and alack, she came back
With a naughty little twinkle in her eye.’
I well remember the fate of my copy of this song. My wife, growing tired of playing my accompaniments, once remarked to herself: ‘ I wish someone would burn this song’; whereupon my daughter, then a girl of seven, before anyone could stop her, placed it upon the embers of a wood fire. Hut the words of most of it have been burnt into my brain.
Does anyone remember the rattling chorus?—
Rolling up and down,
Tasting every kind of wet,
Having a h — of a time you bet;
Treating all the boys,
Did n’t care a sou
Fair old, rare old,
Ricketty, racketty crew.’
If you have forgotten it, I would be pleased to sing it for a small remuneration. I learned it with lots of other songs in St. Bartholomew’s Hospital to which I was conveyed with a broken leg just thirty years ago to-morrow.
How can a lot of boys and men more harmlessly spend two or three hours of an evening, after a hard day’s work, than in listening to and singing a lot of nonsensical, and sometimes absurdly sentimental, songs? Don’t let us try too hard to ‘ uplift ‘ our fellows in the street. Life is a dull, unhappy business at best for them; before they were born the cards were stacked; the chances against them are ten thousand to one. Think of the homes that many of the patrons of the halls come from! Think of the streets into which they must go for recreation and remember that
In the Seven Dials
As in Belgravia Square.’
The streets of London are ceaselessly interesting and Coster songs, as sung by Gus Ellen, and above all by that great artist, Albert Chevalier, have always had a powerful fascination for me. Poor fellow, Chevalier died not long ago, and his books were sold at auction only last week. I hope to get some of them.
And what has become of Vesta Tilley — later to become Lady de Freece — who for years wore men’s clothes, especially evening clothes, better than most men, and sang and danced in them to the distraction of the chappies about town. The ‘Great: Little Tilley’ she was called, and she deserved both adjectives. She was christened Matilda and assumed the name of Vesta from a match box. Wherever she is, I hope she is happy. She ought to be for she has given so much and such innocent pleasure. At one time she was earning, not being paid merely, as much as £500 a week. Nor have I forgotten Vesta Victoria (I don’t suppose she was so christened) with her famous song, — ‘Waiting at the Church’ — the words and music of which are kept under lock and key at home, lest it, too, may find its way into the fire.
Marie Lloyd — another great favorite. I happened to be in London a year ago when she died, almost the last of her line, and a great to-do was made at her funeral. She was vulgar, but droll, and enormously popular. At the time of her death she supposed herself to be very rich, and left a lot of money to charity; but she had lived rich and died, as so many of her profession do, poor. Years ago, when she first became popular, the story goes of a man in London for the first time, being shown the sights by a friend who, although long a resident, was not over-sure of his facts. On top of a horse-drawn bus, the town innocent explained to the country innocent this building and that, not often giving the building its proper name. But the driver who knew every inch of the road was imperturbable. At last, nearing St. Paul’s, the countryman inquired, ‘What is the name of that statur’ there?’ For several centuries it has been Queen Anne; but the Cockney, at a loss, paused for a moment, whereupon the driver with a face like a frostbitten apple, turned round and, chuckling to himself said, ‘Don’t ‘esitate, don’t ‘esitate, say its Marie Lloyd.’
Who that has seen him has forgotten Dan Leno? He was an exquisite artist, always in trouble — on the stage; poor fellow, if I am not mistaken, he went insane. ‘Genius is to insanity allied,’ and Dan Leno was a genius. He made you laugh inside rather than out; no smutty word or suggestion ever came from him. He was a little fellow and when, during the Christmas pantomime, Drury Lane claimed him, he was lost in the immensity of that huge stage; but at the Tivoli, gone now, alas, he was in his element. I do not seem to remember any songs of his, but as a dancer he was superb. Fifty years ago, nearly, at Tony Pastor’s in New York, I remember two blackfaced comedians who used to sing and dance to words something like this: —
And we ‘re always full of jokes,
And it’s watch a nigger’s educated feet,
Tah, rah, rah.’
Then would come a patter of feet as faultlessly rhythmical as a verse by Swinburne. This forgotten jingle suggests one of Dan Leno’s great accomplishments: with his educated feet, sometimes in shoes almost as long as he was tall, he would clog-dance with a grace and agility that I have never seen equaled. Even Royalty, and Royalty is hard to amuse, found him amusing.
But the old-fashioned music hall was not entirely given over to song and dance. I have seen animals do incredible things; I have seen cyclists ride wheels until my heart was in my mouth; I have seen feats of strength, and I have heard ‘Datas,’ the man whose memory was so remarkable that he could, as he said, ‘give the correct answer to any question found in the following books of reference.’ Then followed a long list — and he could do it too. I primed myself to catch him, as others did, but always failed. Tumblers and acrobats, too, I have seen — they are still with us, but alas! Paul Cinquevalli is no more. He was an Austrian, his right name was Kestner, a sensitive gentleman; the war broke his heart. As a juggler, I suppose he never had an equal. I have seen him keep in the air, at one time, a cannon ball, an egg, and a lighted lamp.
At a music hall as long as I can smoke, I can stand anything. ‘Jonathan Wild is not too low for me, nor Shaftesbury too genteel’; but I hate a contortionist. When a contortionist comes on, I always close my eyes and sometimes go to sleep. Many years ago, in the smoke-room of the old Teutonic, I fell into conversation with a man about ‘the halls.'
‘I am glad that you enjoy them,’ he said; ‘you have probably seen me.’
I looked at him carefully and tried to place him, but could not, and I told him so.
‘I am the “Human Corkscrew,”’ he replied.