One of our greatest delights was the theatre. The English stage was waking out of its three-hundred-year-old torpor, and beginning to realize that it was heir to the great traditions, not of Shakespeare alone as so many seemed to think, but of Wycherley and Marlowe, of Massinger and Beaumont and Fletcher and of Sheridan. The days of artistic insularity which acclaimed everything that was foreign and condemned everything that was English were slowly but surely passing away, the days when The School for Scandal was hissed off the stage and Sheridan bowing to the hostile audience spoke his prophetic words:
"Ladies and gentlemen you have seen fit to damn my play: let me tell you that my play will live, long after you are all dead and . . ."
The English stage was then and for many years after on its hands and knees in unqualified admiration of France. The days of the glorification of Russia had not yet dawned and France, of her Corneille, and of her Racine, her Molière and her Beaumarchais, of her Dumas and her de Musset, of France who had proclaimed with trumpet calls the glories of her immortal stage, whilst England remained meek and dumb and accepted the rebuke that but for Shakespeare (who according to his continental admirers was not English at all but a sort of international freak) there was no such thing as English drama, no such person as an English dramatist.
Oh! France does know, none better, how to appreciate her great men, and how to compel the rest of the cultured world to join in her glorification of them, and we honour and admire her for that, but at the time England was all jumble and content to accept adaptations of La Dame de chez Maxime, of Le Contrôleur des Wagons-Lits, or Occupes toi d'Amélie, and of the melodramas of Victorien Sardou or Victor Hugo.
But that time was surely, if slowly, passing away. Tom Robertson and Albery had delighted us with their charming innocuous comedies, H. J. Byron was making us laugh at Our Boys without having recourse too often to that perfectly revolting form of humour, 'puns', and Henry Arthur Jones was showing us in the Middleman and the Silver King what a fine and impressive work of art a good well-constructed melodrama could be.
Irving, of course, in conjunction with lovely Ellen Terry showed us all that could be done in the way of artistic excellence in theatrical production. Not only did he give us Shakespeare at his best as the great Phelps had done it before him, but he introduced to us that delightfully romantic dramatist W. G. Wills. Irving's impersonation of his Charles I, or of The Vicar of Wakefield (how lovely Ellen Terry was as Olivia) stand out as among the finest theatrical events of those barren years.
And presently A. W. Pinero burst upon the theatrical firmament as a newly-discovered star of the first magnitude, as great in thrilling dramas as in side-splitting farces. We loved him when he gave us The Second Mrs. Tanqueray , loved him more than ever when he gave us The Gay Lord Quex (which by the way was severely criticized by a goodly section of the Press), and just adored him when we laughed ourselves silly over The Magistrate, The School Mistress, and so many others. Indeed the theatre was now giving us ardent playgoers all the intellectual enjoyment we could possibly crave for.
We used to have great fun with the plays which we saw, for we had invented a special game of our own, which will sound not only silly but certainly very cheeky to many highbrows. The game was not quite original but was an adaptation of one which the great Victorian Sardou had indulged in in the early days of his brilliant career. Whenever a new play was produced we would go and watch the first two or three acts until the great scene when the plot had become a tangled skein of dramatic surprise. This, in most cases, would take place at the end of the third act, with the fourth act to come. But we did not wait for the fourth act.
We took ourselves and our impressions home and there, in our inexperienced way, attempted to unravel the tangled skein of the drama as we in our ignorance thought it should be unravelled. Or else we would deliberately miss the first act (of a new play), watch the building up of the story, of which we did not know the beginning, and at home reconstruct the plot, introducing the characters whose acquaintance we had made in the subsequent act; and finally, on another occasion, we would sit through the whole play and see how far we had been wrong or right in our ideas of dramatic construction.
It was great fun, and proved most useful in after life, though we did not know that at that time, and my husband was just as keenly interested in these intellectual acrobatics as I was. I know that we both learned a great deal that way, both about the construction and characterization, and as I was able to help in the arrangement and composition of pictures, so he was of immense help to me later on . . . later on when . . . But I am not there yet.
Let me own up at once that our enjoyment of the theatre was not always of an intellectual kind. It was not only at the Lyceum that one could revel in fine productions of Shakespeare and Irving did delight us in presentations of other characters than Hamlet, Shylock, and so on. He was thrilling as Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist, and gave us a marrow-freezing impersonation of that most villainous villain, Louis XI. As for Mephistopheles in Wills' adaptation of Goethe's Faust, it really seemed as if Nature herself in fashioning Irving's exceptional personality had deliberately endowed him with every physical attribute necessary to perfection in the part.
Irving first played Mathias in The Bells (what an exciting play!) the year that I was born. He woke the next morning and found himself famous, thus fulfilling the prediction spoken by Charles Dickens on an earlier occasion: "You may take it from me," the great author had said, "that in a few years young Irving will be the leading actor on the English stage." He certainly was that for close on half a century, until his tragic death at Bradford after his remarkable impersonation of Lord Tennyson's Becket.
The greatest fun of all in the theatrical way we used to get at the outlying theatres: the old Surrey in Blackfriars Road, or the Standard Shoreditch. Here we got real melodrama, hot and strong, especially at the West London theatre just off the Edgware Road--to which we often went when we wanted a good laugh. Melodrama there was what 'Carados' so wittily called 'sanguifulminous', and farce was of the broadest. The stalls cost is. 6d. and the dress (sic) circle 9d. or is. The gallery was 3d. I forget the name of the street where the West London was situated. Huge flats occupy the old site now. But when I was first married the pavements were lined on each side with street-vendors and their stalls lighted up by flares. Shouts of "Buy! Buy!" greeted you to right and left as you tried to make your way through a dense crowd to the theatre door.
Outside the theatre your eyes were gladdened by a magnificent giant clad in what had once been a gold-braided uniform. He controlled the 'queue' with a mixture of chaff and physical energy which would have done credit to Patrick Mulvaney. Having paid is. 6d. for your stall and thus belonging to the élite among the public a 'chef' (sic), dressed in traditional white, cap and all, was there ready to sell you ham sandwiches, while the programme girls offered you lemonade and oranges. There was also a chucker-out of large proportions, gorgeously attired, standing down in the stalls, who, whenever gallery of pit-ites became at all boisterous or started pelting the audience with orange peel--which they often did--would shout up to them in a stentorian voice: "Now then, ladies and gentlemen, up there, horder; horder! Or do you want me to come up to yer?"
Apparently the ladies and gentlemen did not desire such an eventuality for 'horder' was soon restored. Those who had personal acquaintance with this magnificent chucker-out avoided contact with him. I saw him once 'come up' to two young men who had had 'one over the eight' and were shouting out rude remarks at the leading lady, whilst throwing a shower of orange peel at the audience in the stalls. After two stentorian but ineffectual summons of "horder! horder! gentlemen in the pit", he seized the offenders by their coat collars, lifted them over into the back of the stalls, ran them out of the house and pitched them out into the street, the whole operation not taking more than a few minutes. He was worth his salary, whatever it was. It was said of this athletic gentleman that he had been a famous boxer at one time and a great man in the ring.
Oh! we saw some wonderful thrillers there. All the best that men like Paul Merritt, Andrew Melville, Arthur Shirley and so on had given to West End audiences at the Adelphi, marrow-freezing dramas like Susan Hopley or The Vicissitudes of a Servant Girl (what a perfect title for a play!, Lady Audley's Secret, The Lonely Man of the Ocean, and so many others the names of which it would take too long to enumerate. The one thing all these thrillers had in common was their moral tendency. This was always above reproach. Virtue was inevitably triumphant in the end. Vice, as exemplified by the villain, brought about its own chastisement; and comedy was always on the side of virtue.
The low comedy couple got all its laughs against the villain: and the latter never got a laugh save one of derision at his final discomfiture. Yes! the 'trend' of melodrama at the Surrey, the Standard and the West London was essentially moral and 'elevating', and magistrates who nowadays when passing sentence on youthful delinquents so often ascribe their fall from rectitude to the baneful influence of the cinema, had never a word to say against the theatre.
I remember there was a very successful play in which the villain was a Turk. You knew at once that he was a Turk because he wore a scarlet fez and a huge diamond crescent on his breast. He arrived on the scene in a motor-car--a cardboard one but most realistic. It honked in the wings in a most impressive manner. He was dressed in a frock coat and pepper and salt trousers. He was a real sanguinary villain. The moment he appeared you knew at once that he was a villainous villain because of the effect of his black moustache, the points of which stuck up almost to his eyes. The low comedy couple saw through him at once, for they were very rude to him and spoke of him always as 'the black-and-tan beauty in a tea cosy'.
But the most remarkable and successful play we saw here was The Worst Woman in London. It had a long run of thirty performances as against the usual weekly change of programme. There was a villainess this time. She was a 'vamp' and a French governess. In the opening scene the lady of the house said that she was not altogether satisfied with the new French governess whom she had engaged for the children indeed she felt there was something amiss with her. This was scarcely surprising for that lady presently appeared for luncheon in what was described on the playbill as an 'aristocratic English country house' dressed in a very low-necked black satin dress covered all over with sequins; she displayed also a vast expanse of back and a very magnificent pair of arms and wore a huge black hat decorated with long trailing feathers. Moreover, she was smoking a cigarette in a very long holder.
The audience with a sigh of excited anticipation, 'settled down to it', as it were. They had spotted the villainy concealed behind these gorgeous appurtenances of sequins and cigarette smoke even though the dignified lady of the house was no more than slightly puzzled at the governess's appearance. We didn't see the children. Presumably they lunched upstairs.
In Act II as the plot warmed up so did the governess's attire. She wore a gown of the same cut, very low back and front and diminutive about the shoulders, but this time it was green and covered with shimmering green beads. (Fortunately in those days dresses were always long or I shudder to think of the length of leg she would have displayed.) In Act III the lady wore yellow and a multitude of glittering gold sequins; and in the final act, which took place in her bedroom, her dress--what there was of it--consisted exclusively as far as we could see of bright red sequins. On this occasion she forestalled modern fashions by showing a generous leg encased in red silk stocking which she displayed when reclining on a sofa, through a slit in her skirt right up to her waist. She made no attempt at first to go to bed, but she appeared very agitated.
Things were obviously coming to a climax. She became very nervous abort something or other, and finally gave us to understand that she would ring for the maid to help her undress. She rang the bell . . . and immediately through both the windows two policemen appeared and apprehended her whilst the comic couple entered by the door and said rude and funny things to her. The audience applauded frantically and shrieked with delight. There were a number of curtain calls and the villainess was loudly hissed. The audience always hissed the villain of the piece and reserved its applause for the dauntless hero and persecuted heroine. All went away happy and satisfied and filled with good resolutions and orange juice.
In connection with The Worst Woman in London it was rather amusing at the time to note that during its run at the West London Theatre the stalls (still at is. 6d.) were filled with a fashionable audience who drove down in their broughams and landaus--and in full evening dress too--to see this much advertised play. The management, dazzled by this unexpected success thought to transfer the drama to a West End house and opened what he hoped would be a long run of The Worst Woman in London at the Adelphi in the Strand. But, funnily enough, the fashionable playgoer would have none of it there. Hardly any broughams or landaus deposited lovely ladies in Paris gowns and gentlemen with starched shirt fronts at the door, and the drama that had thrilled hundreds at the dirty old playhouse in the Edgware Road played to empty houses for a fortnight in the West End and was then withdrawn.
Whenever we were away in the country--either staying with friends or just on our own---we always made a point of visiting the local theatre if there was one fairly close by and many an amusing incident did we witness at these unsophisticated play-houses. Of course towns like Leeds, or Nottingham, or Bradford, not to mention Liverpool, Manchester or Birmingham do not come under this category. The principal houses in those towns known as the T.R. usually were anything but unsophisticated. The most important London companies with their latest successes and full array of scenery, costumes, and properties paid them annual or bi-annual visits of a week's duration, and the aspect of the houses on what would be called the fashionable nights when the élite of the neighbourhood drove over in full force to see the show rivalled Covent Garden in magnificence in the way of Paris gowns, diamonds, and immaculate shirt fronts.
But in the small provincial cities, travelling companies--reinforced by local aspirants to the stage--afforded great delight to the inhabitants and sometimes intense amusements to us two young Bohemians possessed of an unquenchable sense of humour. Just think how delighted you would have been when witnessing one of Shakespeare's historic dramas to hear local talent announce with imperturbable solemnity: "My Lord, the Dook is wown-ded." And the response: "What? wown-ded sayest thou?" and local talent again responding: "Aye! Mor-tally I fear."
And then there were the witches in Macbeth wherein local talent was very much to the fore. One of these weird characters was enacted by one of the scene-shifters who had been in the Dragoon Guards at one time, and had also been a noted amateur actor in his day and a master of theatrical 'make-up'. It seems that at rehearsal he had greatly worried the producer by slightly misquoting a certain line in Act IV, scene i. The words in the text are: "Cool it with a baboon's blood, etc. etc."
The producer pulled him up once, then again and even a third time when he repeated the offence, but the ex-guardsman wholly unperturbed, invariably gave him the playful advice: "Keep your 'air on, mister," and added reassuringly, "it'll be all right on the night." But 'on the night' it was not all right; reminiscences of the old days were too strong for the ex-guardsman, and out of the mouth of the witch came the sonorous words loud as a clarion call: "Cool it with a dragon's blood . . ." followed immediately by a resounding expletive: "My crumbs! I've said it again."
Tableau, as the witch clutched her hair (which being a wig came off in her hand in its entirety) in an agony of self-deprecation. As a matter of fact I don't think there were more than half a dozen in the audience who noticed this lapse from rectitude.
But by far the most amusing 'lapse from rectitude' I ever witnessed occurred in the T.R. of a small city in an industrial district somewhere in the Midlands. I won't name the town, but I am sure there are many of the local townsfolk of to-day who remember the incident and how thrilling that incident was. It happened like this. The programme consisted of three one-act plays. The first a gentle little comedy of love, the scene of which was laid in an English garden. The second, a real thriller, was set in the wilds of Africa, and the third in a London drawing-room.
Local talent was requisitioned for the African scene, savages in chocolate-coloured tights and head-dresses fashioned of feathers collected from the neighbouring chicken-runs. They were taught how to brandish tomahawks and to emit yells of brutish delight at sight of the English party who had apparently come to the wilds to explore this outlying part of the British Empire, bringing several ladies with them who had their hair beautifully waved and wore the daintiest high-heeled shoes for the purpose of tramping about in the African jungle.
Of course there was one specially lovely lady (the others hadn't much to do) whose hair had recently been 'inecto-ed' and who had been far-seeing enough to bring her best frocks and silk stockings along with her. And there was the gallant hero who was in love with her and who had brought her along with him on this expedition for the express purpose of winning her regard with his dauntless courage when fighting lions and crocodiles on her behalf. We did not see the lions and crocodiles but the lady told us all about her young man's valour in fighting the denizens of the jungle and how safe she would always feel under his protection even if a whole herd of cannibal savages were to attack her and threaten her life.
The cannibal savages in chocolate-coloured tights had been instructed as to the exact moment when with wild "whoops!" they were suddenly to enter with a rush upon the scene and there behold the hero and heroine in the jungle having a heart-rending love scene locked in each other's arms. They were then to bounce with unearthly sounding yells upon the loving couple and tomahawk the hero or rather endeavour to do so, and only failing owing to the latter's superhuman valour in defending his beloved with a revolver, killing every one of the cannibals who fell in a heap all over the floor, raising a cloud of dust from the boards.
It was a most thrilling, marrow-freezing scene which, the theatre posters announced, had drawn crowded audiences for hundreds of nights in one of the most fashionable theatres in London. The pay-going public of the city was agog with expectation. Those who had been privileged to witness the dress rehearsal, friends or relatives of the manager or the producer declared that never in all their experience had they witnessed anything so sensational and so entirely engrossing. The applause on the nights after the final curtain drop would shatter the roof of the house. This was the opinion of the producer, the prompter and the leading lady with the 'inecto-ed' hair. Only the manager felt rather nervous. It is an old tradition in the theatre that if a dress-rehearsal goes without a hitch there is sure to be trouble 'on the night'.
Local talent had been well drilled. The savages knew to within a few seconds the moment when they were to rush with wild yells upon the stage. It was a very hot day in mid-July. Local talent like most other talents was very hot and very excited . . . also thirsty. The dress-rehearsal had lasted till past six and the turn of the cannibals was 'on' at thirty-five minutes past nine. There was plenty of time for supper . . . and drink.
As ill-luck would have it, a slight defect was discovered at the last moment in the African scenery. Nothing serious and could easily be repaired. Seamstresses were at once set to work, but it was going to be a somewhat longer job than had been anticipated; the manager was appealed to and he said, "It's quite simple, we'll change the whole programme. We'll have the drawing-room comedy first, then the pretty little set in the garden, and keep the African play to the last; that will give plenty of time for all the mending that is necessary." The stage manager was ordered to inform all the actors of this change in the programme, including of course the talented local performers who were killing time and enjoying life in the bar of The Running Footman round the corner.
How it all came about and whose fault it was no one ever knew. It was generally attributed by the Company to the potency of the Running Footman's whisky. Certain it is that during the second item in the programme when in the lovely English garden all flowers and moonlight, the hero was clasping the heroine in his arms and their lips met in a lingering kiss, the cannibal savages in chocolate-coloured tights and a multiplicity of feathers came rushing and scrambling on the stage tumbling upon one another, and to the accompaniment of unearthly yells and "Whoopees" effectually 'tomahawked; the hero and heroine who, still clasped in each other's arms, tumbled headlong into the flowing shrubs below. Tableau and quick curtain.
Thus we certainly had plenty of variety to amuse us during our early theatre-going days. As one grew older and more sophisticated one certainly got more intellectual pleasure out of the theatre but not nearly so much fun. We both enjoyed a good laugh, as I think most theatre-goers do; even the high-brows. Pinero gave us the best of laughs in his farces at the Court Theatre, and the wit in Tom Robertson's naïve little comedies and later on in those of R. C. Carton was always pleasant.
There was one side of stage-craft which has completely died down since the early days of this century and which, until then, afforded pleasure to a great many theatre-goers; this was burlesque. Every successful play and every popular actor had to go through the ordeal, not always a pleasant one, of being satirized in a one-act resumé of his success, often very cleverly written and constructed. Some dramas lent themselves more than others to burlesque. The more 'intense' and soul-stirring they were, the more easily did they lend themselves to Francis Burnand's or H. J. Byron's or Chance Newton's caustic pen. One of the most successful burlesques was Paw Claudian. It lent itself so admirably to travesty.
Wilson Barrett, whom we all loved for the sake of the past, had just started a décolleté style of costume which displayed his manly chest, and he rolled out W. G. Wills' verses with his round, sonorous voice and sentimental diction. Claudian in the original drama was a tyrant of ancient Rome who, because of some flagrant crime against morality, was condemned by the gods to live on for ever. Only love could redeem him in the end and this was accomplished by Miss Eastlake as a beautiful slave who called him: "Master! dear Master."
In the burlesque, Johnnie Toole that prince of English comedians, travestied every attitude, every mannerism of our W. B., the bent knee with the pointed toe of one scarlet boot lightly touching the floor and the wide sweep of arm and hand. And the beautiful slave spoke to him in mellifluous tones calling him, "Masher! Dear Masher!" for this was the period when smartly dressed young men subsequently called 'knuts of Piccadilly', 'Johnnies', and other things, were known as 'mashers'.
And that fine actor E. S. Willard, who made such a name for himself as 'the Spider' in The Silver King, played a sanctimonious patriarch called the 'Holy Clement'. In Burnard's travesty he was called the 'Coal holey Clement' and the Tetrarch of the drama became the Tea-Tray in the burlesque. . . . Ah, well! !
Another very good burlesque was The Lady of Lyons Married and Settled, a travesty of Bulwer Lytton's very successful play. The lady's vicissitudes in the humble surroundings of the Melnotte household as well as the unfortunate Claude's grandiloquent lucubrations did certainly lend themselves to satire. But there! All that is as dead as the dodo. Either taste in such matters has undergone an entire volte-face or the pens of our light-hearted dramatists are less caustic than they were, or what is certain modern drama does not lend itself to burlesque. I know not. What could any Burnand or Chance Newton do with Bernard Shaw's plays, with The Walls of Jericho, or The Only Way, or even Monsieur Beaucaire, all highly successful plays with great popular favourites in the principal parts? I think that The Scarlet Pimpernel would have lent itself admirably to burlesque, had not burlesque been sacrificed by then on the funeral pyre of popular taste.
I have been tempted to speak more of our theatre-going days than I had originally intended: but as a matter of fact the theatre did play a very important part in the first days of my married life. We had made the acquaintance of Robert Arthur, proprietor of the Coronet and one or two other suburban theatres of a high order where West End successes were always presented for a week's run each in their turn, and with the original West End companies during the autumn months. The manager of the Coronet in Notting Hill Gate, Mr. Edward Lytton, was always very kind in placing a box at our disposal whenever we wanted to go, which was pretty often. Since then the Coronet has fallen from grace and finally succumbed to the tentacles of the cinema, as did most--if not all--the suburban theatres in London. But at the time it was as smart and as comfortable as any West End House and the audience, from South Kensington and Belgravia mostly, was as fashionable as anyone would have wished to see.
There were no 'amusing incidents' at the Coronet comparable with those at the Surrey or the West London Theatre; no tomahawking at the wrong moment or doubtful speaking of the text of the 'immortal' bard. But I do recall one rather funny incident which amused us very much, but greatly upset the genial manager of the Coronet. It happened during the rehearsals of the Christmas pantomime. There was no suburban theatre in those days without its annual pantomime, fairy queen, principal boy, comic relief, harlequinade, transformation scene and all: and all very decorous and 'vestal virgin-ish' tights and so on, not in the least à la Folies Bergère or what the English public simply called 'French' in those days.
But it seems that on this occasion, the fairies of the ballet complained to the stage manager and to the costumiers that the tights which had been put out ready for them to put on were 'damp': they had just come home from the wash and had not been properly aired. Indignation of the ladies in charge of the costumes and of the stage-manager, for the fairies threatened that they would not come on in damp tights. The stage manager complaining to the manager in the presence of the obstreperous fairies said in his wrath that he supposed these ladies would prefer to 'go on' without tights, i.e. with naked legs.
Whereupon the fairies, a prey to virtuous indignation declared that they had never been so insulted in all their lives and threatened a general strike unless a complete apology were immediately tendered them. Well! if those same fairies could have seen a vision of the fairies and other denizens of the ballets of to-day, what I wonder would have been their thoughts on that vital subject.
It was also about this time that we laid the foundation of very friendly relations with 'old Man Russell', as he was familiarly called and with his family. The old man was the writer of those famous songs: 'Cheer boys, cheer', 'There's a good time coming, boys', 'To the West', and many others which did so much good work in bringing the minds of young people to the thought of starting a new life in the colonies. They were excellent propaganda, those songs, far more stirring than the speeches in Toynbee Hall. The Government thought very highly of them and of their composer--whom it aided financially in their publication and dissemination.
Old Man Russell was the father of that one very popular nautical novelist, W. Clark Russell. At the time that we first knew old man Russell he was already very much an old man but he was full of fun and vitality, and many a jolly evening did we spend in his house while he played and sang (yes, sang, thought I think he was over seventy then) not only his own stirring ballads but the latest music-hall ditties.
It was not till towards the end of the century that ladies ever went to music halls. It was not thought to be 'the thing' for them to be seen there; there was supposed to be a certain atmosphere in the halls which was not pure enough for young or old ladies to breathe. Anyway, the variety shows were taboo to the fashionable world (except of course to the men who never dreamed of bringing their family with them to these abodes of iniquity). One didn't go to music halls and that was that. It was not until Mrs. Ormiston Chaunt carried on her successful campaign against the 'promenades' in the halls and their habitués that the taboo was gradually lifted.
Smart ladies who held liberal views on subjects such as the independence and privileges of women joined in the controversy which raged around Mrs. Chaunt, familiarly known in the Press as 'the prude on the prowl', and her purity campaign. They were classed as New Women, wore divided skirts, smoked cigarettes, and discussed the case of Oscar Wilde in public. What their views were on the subject of 'promenades' is rather difficult to determine. They certainly flooded the daily Press with correspondence, this sharing public favour and self-advertisement with those ladies who had such a lot to say on another engrossing subject: 'Is Marriage a Failure' carried on the Daily Telegraph by a well-known feminine light in contemporary literature.
And suddenly the whole controversy was settled in an unexpected manner, when H.R.H. the Princess of Wales went to the Alhambra to witness a variety show organized for the benefit of some charity or other. This of course settled the matter. Where the Princess of Wales went, there could every Duchess and every Mrs. Ponsonby de Tomkins be also seen to advantage, diamonds, Paris gowns and all. There followed the golden era of music halls and variety talent. Where the smart set went, the respectable masses who had hitherto held aloof naturally followed suit. This golden era, however, did not last very long. It has in its turn been largely ousted by the cinema.
Personally I never cared much for the 'halls'. There were, of course, a few real artistes among the usual variety talent whom one could not fail to appreciate and admire, but there was such a lot of vulgarity and boredom to endure for the sake of a few minutes of real pleasure (such as Vesta Tilley's male impersonations, Marie Lloyd's songs or Albert Chevalier's pathos) that we very seldom wasted an evening that way. The only hall which appealed to we two inveterate Bohemians was a funny little one under the arches of Charing Cross Bridge where aspirants to fame were given a trial with a view to a possible engagement in one or the other of the important halls. Thus they were 'tried on the dog', as the ordeal was called, and many a famous artiste started his or her career under the 'old arches'.
I remember seeing there the début of the Levy sisters, who became such favourites and made such fortunes afterwards. There was no stage at the 'Old Arches', only a platform in the centre of the hall, where sat enthroned the manager at a rostrum when he announced each item of the programme together with the name of the artiste about to perform and tapped the desk before him with a wooden hammer. The audience sat on seats and benches all round the central platform, very much as they do round a prize-ring. A few privileged members in the audience were permitted to sit on the platform with the manager, but this privilege entailed the obligation to pay for that gentleman's drinks.
Yes! those early days of our married life were indeed jolly and happy and, above all, care-free. We had plenty of work to occupy us and plenty of ways to amuse ourselves. Our boy was born the last year of the century.
We were both of us great readers and it was interesting--yes! and stimulating--to witness the gradual infiltration of American light literature into the hitherto rather close borough of English fiction.
Many of us had always loved our Bret Harte. I was a passionate worshipper at his shrine. I still feel, even to this day, that no other author with the exception of Dickens has ever come near him either in pathos or in humour, and I loved his own devotion to Dickens.
Dickens in Camp is such a wonderful tribute from one great writer to another. I hate to think of Bret Harte as being 'out of date', as I was assured by a young highbrow recently that he certainly was: and, talking with young moderns sometimes about books and so on, it has often made my heart ache to hear them quite casually say that though they may have heard of Bret Harte--"Wasn't he U.S. Consul at Glasgow?" they would ask--but they had never read any of his books. Fancy never having read: How Santa Claus came to Simpson's Bar, or The Outcasts of Poker Flat. Well! well! Of course since then Mr. Sinclair Lewis has come along and Mrs. Edith Wharton and Anthony Adverse and Gone with the Wind, and thousands of us subscribers to circulating libraries are profoundly and humbly grateful to them for the many happy hours we have spent with their enthralling works, imbibing knowledge of their wonderful country and their social conditions, getting to know America and casting away our silly prejudices and ignorant imaginings.
Oh yes! we say "Thank you!" to them with a full heart, but don't let us forget in our admiration for them their fine 'old-fashioned' authors: Hawthorne, their poet, Longfellow, and above all their sublime Bret Harte, the man who poetized the Wild West which the cinema has since then done its best to vulgarize. I for one like to think of him in his own beautiful words:
"We'll always think of you
As the thing we could not take away
The balsam that dwells in the wood
The rainbow that lives in a spray."