Ever since I was 'grown-up' I had a great love of the theatre, and happily my mother was very fond of it too, and as my father did not really care about it she always took me with her. We went very often, especially during those many months when there was no opera either at Covent Garden or Her Majesty's. We went to many first nights, and never missed a production at the Lyceum or the old Princess' Theatre in Oxford Street. Those were my two favourites. For these pleasures we were chiefly indebted to our kind old friend, George Critchett. His younger son was a well-known member of the theatrical profession, and he himself had many patients among the theatrical folk whom he always attended without there being any question of fees.
Thus he had the entrée to every theatre in London. A box was always placed at his disposal for first nights, or whenever he wished to go, and as neither his wife who was an invalid, nor his daughter whose tastes ran entirely on serious music cared for the theatre, my mother and I benefited by his kindness.
Looking back on those pleasant evenings one realizes, however, that there was not much on the English stage during the last quarter of the nineteenth century to stimulate, let alone to improve, one's tast in the art of the theatre. With the exception of the Lyceum, where under the management of Mrs. Bateman and subsequently that of Henry Irving, Shakespeare and a few poetic dramas were presented, one had very little wherewith to satisfy one's craving for intellectual pleasure, for something that would make one think.
The era of the great Samuel Phelps and of Fechter was past and all one had, with the above exception, was either blatant melodrama or else French farce adapted to the demands of a nicely-behaved modest English audience. I didn't care. I liked it all. I liked the evenings at the theatre far more than the gorgeous parties and recptions I didn't have to talk and make myself agreeable. I could just sit quietly gaze and think.
The poetic dramas of W. G. Wills appealed to me. Charles I (oh! how I cried over the final 'Remember', spoken in Irving's beautifully modulated voice); his adaptation of Faust with Irving as an unapproachable Mefisto (who else could have looked the part as he did? tall, lean, sinister); and Vanderdecken, with Irving looking handsome and romantic in a large picture hat; and then giving us, by way of a contrast, Digby Grant in the Two Roses. All these plays which would be thought so very vieux jeu now will always dwell in one's memory. I know they do so in mine.
And presently lovely Ellen Terry came along to charm us as Irving's leading lady and brought to us, along with her adorable self, those beautiful performances of The Merchant of Venice, of Much Ado about Nothing, of Macbeth (to name only a few of those unforgettable evenings). Not much to complain of you will say in the matter of dramatic art. But man cannot feed on caviar alone, nor his intellectual aspirations on Shakespeare and W. G. Wills. Not that my aspirations were very intellectual. The theatre was a pleasure for me, not an education. Being still very young I liked to think of myself as a dramatic critic, just for my own edification.
Not even to my indulgent mother would I have imparted my criticisms on any play we had seen together or those we had wept over and laughed at in the right places. But when I saw a play which did not altogether please me, I used to turn the main situation (usually the third act) over and over in my mind and think out how it should have been dealt with in the last act. What cheek!!! Fortunately I had the good sense to keep these incursions into dramatic criticism to myself.
On the whole I must admit that I was not passionately in love with the theatre. Not then. Not ever. Not even when . . . but that is another story which I will tell at full length later on. For the time being I had no idea that our friendship with Mr. And Mrs. George Critchett and their connection with the theatrical world was yet another link in that long chain which drew me originally out of the country of my birth, then through my musical life in London, through my short artistic career to the conception of The Scarlet Pimpernel.
Almost as great a joy for me as the theatre were the evening receptions given by Mr. And Mrs. Critchett in their delightful house in Harley Street. Here one met and rubbed shoulders with most of the stars that shone in the dramatic and musical firmament. Some of these only twinkled then, their brilliance came later on. I was never quite so shy here as I was in the big official soirées in Belgravia and Mayfair. The atmosphere was more to my liking and I had many a quiet talk with some of the clever men and women who were kind enough to take notice of the insignificant flapper. My snobbishness (aren't we all?) took the form of admiration not for beauty or wealth or great historic names, but for the men and women whom I met here who had attained recognition by their talent, and I was quite happy to be standing by, lost in amazement at seeing people of such outstanding merit in every walk of life gathered together and conversing and joking one with the other as if they were mere ordinary mortals.
To my mind they were anything but that. Indeed it seemed to me that these celebrities had about them an air that lifted them high above all men and women I had ever seen. I simply worshipped merit that had attained renown. I am not sure that this snobbishness was not based on envy, a vague longing to attain fame somehow or other. The question that agitated my mind was: how was this to be done? I had no idea then, only vague senseless dreams. All I knew for certain was that it was not going to be musical.
So much has been written and such delightful memoirs published on and about the dramatic world and its outstanding personalities that there is nothing new that I can relate on that interesting subject. Nor did I know those distinguished people intimately enough to throw fresh light on their private or professional lives--anecdotes, stories, witticisms--that have not already been told and retold by such charming writers as 'Carados' (Mr. Chance Newton of the Referee), George R. Sims, and many others, but I did enjoy seeing them all, laughing and joking together, away from 'make-up' and far from the footlights.
And just as through the mists of bygone years I see floating before my mind faces young and beautiful, personalities which were world-renowned, shoulders that bore the burden of historic names--all spirit now for the most part--so I often see when I gaze into the dying embers of the fire, forms and faces that enchanted my unsophisticated inner self.
I remember seeing William Terriss as Romeo at the Lyceum with lovely Adelaide Nielson as Juliet. The scenery was as it always had been at the Lyceum, most beautiful and quite accurate in its representation of an old Italian garden in the balcony scene. Indeed, one might have fancied oneself in Verona, with the lovely Italian midnight sky as a background to trees and shrubs and the prettiest clipped bay trees in small round tubs all over the place. And both Juliet and Romeo held us spell-bound. We all loved a 'love-scene' in those days, even when it was Shakespeare's, and here was that beautiful Juliet up on her balcony and William Terriss' mellifluous voice delighting our ears, telling us to "See how she leans her cheek upon her hand" which Miss Nielson did most gracefully. And he went on more mellifluously (such a good word and so expressive) than before:
"Oh that I were a glove upon her hand That I might touch that cheek!"
When a voice from one of the 'gods' up in the gallery, overcome by emotion, put in encouragingly (and not mellifluously):
"Try one o' them tubs, Bill."
I would not have missed that moment for anything in the world. Nothing happened. Dead silence. No one laughed. We all of us a prey to emotion so great that we did not heed what went on around us. I was one of the few Philistines who came down to earth with sufficient speed to utter an agitated "Hush-sh-sh."
The same sort of incident did occur often enough in those days when 'the gods' were the good old 'gods' who, unlike the intelligentsia (?) who patronize the gallery to-day, went to the theatre to have a bit of fun and somehow managed to find it even in classical tragedies. Nor were they backward in expressing their own pleasure or disappointment. They were not banded together 'to boo or not to boo' at the dictate of an addle-pated and malevolent clique. If they enjoyed a play they cheered it, if they did not they 'boo-ed' and that was all there was to it. Their comments, often expressed at the wrong moment, were always to the point, but they were invariably addressed to a favourite, a popular favourite among whom William Terriss was an easy first. And these comments were a kind of freemasonic slogan between them.
There was, for instance, a memorable evening when my beloved Wilson Barrett gave what I (alas! not the critics) considered a sublime presentment of Hamlet at the Princess' with all the effects of lighting, scenery, and appurtenances which he understood so well. The first scene was, as usual, enacted in breathless silence while the ghost glided, mysterious and spirit-like across the stage and Bernardo whispered in awe-struck tone: "Looks it not like the King? Mark it, Horatio," a voice from the gallery suddenly struck a blow at our pent-up emotions with a deep-toned and reverberating challenge: "Oo's the bloke?" W. B. was admittedly the kindest and most patient of men, with a keen sense of humour. It seems he did not utter as much as a small d--, through his forbearance must have been sorely tried by the titters not only in the audience but among the company waiting in the wings. All that he said, with a quiet smile was: "One of the penalties of popularity. Mark it, Horatio."
Such tributes to popularity could easily be dispensed with by such artistes as Irving or Wilson Barrett, not to mention other great ones (in their own estimation) like Edwin Booth or Richard Mansfield but to such favourites as William Terriss and Charles Warner they were a source of ever recurring delight. In such thrilling dramas as Green Bushes, The Streets of London, and so many others, the persecuted and virtuous heroine was always deprived of her 'marriage lines' by the villain.
She invariably had a baby whom for reasons best known to the producer she always took out with her when she wandered out in the snow. Never did she take it out when the weather was fine. And it was invariably in the snow that the hero came face to face with the villain and very foolishly demanded of him the return of her 'marriage lines' which, if produced, would then and there have brought felicity and peace to the heroine and with it the happy, if premature, ending of the play. But the villain defiantly refused to part with that important document--which, by the way, we all knew was in his pocket--and the wordy warfare between him and the hero took on excited proportions when good advice to the latter came from 'the gods' above: "Search 'im Bill." (The very last thing any hero of melodrama would have thought of doing.)
Good advice from above was also given to Charles Warner in that more up-to-date and less blatant form of melodrama: Drink, adapted from Emile Zola's great book L'Assommoir. When Coupeau first feels the pangs of D.T.'s (which was really a fine piece of acting by Warner), and he duly writhed in the agony that preceded his death scene, the kind adviser in the gallery called cheerfully down to him, " 'Ave one more, Charlie; it'll do ye good."
Once again I am tempted to refer to my special hero, Wilson Barnett, in terms of genuine appreciation, for it was he who brought good sound melodrama to the Princess' with such plays as The Silver King, The Lights o' London, and The Romany Rye. Though these were still somewhat of the childishly thrilling kind, they were nevertheless sound in construction, and coincidences bore a less irrational part in the not too unbelievable plot. I, as a self-appointed dramatic critic had very little fault to find with the big situation in the third act or with the unravelling of the dramatic knot in the fourth.
By the time I had met my erstwhile idol at the Critchetts and had fallen somewhat to earth from my idealism of W. B. owing to his décolleté shirt and various natural deficiencies, he had produced Claudian and Junius, had fallen from the heights of fortune down to the financial collapse and bitter disappointment, then soared up again to prosperity and palmy days through the outstanding success of a play written by himself, The Sign of the Cross. And now I saw him at the Critchetts, chatting with Miss Eastlake and cracking jokes with R. C. Carton, or W. G. Pinero, a sight which left me dreaming (as I certainly did sleeping and waking) about some intangible future when I too would be gazed on as a celebrity with awe by some, with admiration by all. But alas! these dreams seemed so foolish and so very, very idle.
As a matter of fact we never had any actual friends among the theatrical folk. I think my dear father's experience of that world in Budapest made him restive whenever my mother threw out vague hints of wishing to know some of that interesting fraternity at closer quarters. George Critchett was often wanting to bring some of his favoured friends to our receptions in Wimpole Street; his son, who had offended against family traditions by adopting the stage as his career (a thing which was simply 'not done' in those days in the higher ranks of the professional classes), was of course an exception.
Funnily enough he was a very poor actor then but soon blossomed into one of the most distinguished dramatists of that period, side by side with his friend, A. W. Pinero, who also after starting in life as a very poor actor, gave the English world of dramatic art such masterpieces as The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, Letty, The Gay Lord Quex, and so many others.
When I said that we had no actual friends among the theatrical world, I was decidedly wrong, for we did have a delightful and charming friend Henry Irving (not Sir Henry then). As a matter of fact I rate--as indeed we all do--the term 'friend' very highly as an attribute seldom met with, but one that must be fully appreciated when we find it in those whom we have the privilege to know. Henry Irving, that great and kindest of men, was introduced to my parents on a memorable occasion at the musical 'at home' given by Lady Burdett-Coutts.
Somehow or other he and my father took a fancy to one another. I think each felt in the other the soul of an artist, and the glamour which at this time hung around everything Hungarian may also have been a contributory factor that brought two such original personalities together. Be that as it may, we soon had the pleasure of entertaining Henry Irving in our house at luncheon one day and after that he came again and again and often invited my parents to supper in his rooms in Stratton Street. He always referred facetiously to them as the 'B. B's', i.e. 'the bold Baron and the beautiful Baroness."
He and my father had many an interesting argument on the subject of theatrical management and the eccentricities of public taste; which of course was a debatable point between them, seeing that an English theatre run just as much on commercial as artistic lines by the most popular actor-manager of the day was a very different proposition to a Hungarian National Institution of drama and music under State control and smothered in red tape, such as my father directed.
One, for me, very happy incident occurred at this time. I had begun my artistic career (of which more anon) and I received a request from the Director of the National Museum of Dramatic Art of Budapest to paint a portrait of 'the great English actor, Henry Irving'. And 'the great English actor' who was the kindest of men actually gave up some of his valuable time to me, and gave me several sittings for a portrait of him as the Vicar of Wakefield. I saw it fairly recently in Budapest. It is jolly bad as a work of art, but is a good likeness. Irving's face was so wonderfully full of character that any moderately intelligent art student could not fail to get a likeness; nor once seen could it ever be forgotten. His whole personality was arresting. A man who could so rise above every physical disability such as Nature in one of her incomprehensible moods had put upon him, wore on him the very stamp of genius.