The late Victorian stage and its audiences.
By Stephen Wade.
GEORGE GROSSMITH’S MR Pooter, in The Diary of a Nobody (1892), enjoys a pipe, a trip to a guildhall ball and the occasional séance; his world of entertainment is based on a culture of aspiration and this is created by a range of acceptable leisure activities. These have their limits, and one of the unacceptable activities is having the kind of fun his son, Lupin, enjoys:
Lupin informs me, to my disgust, that he has been persuaded to take part in the forthcoming performance of the “Holloway Comedians.” He says he is to play Bob Britches in the farce, Gone to My Uncle’s; Frank Mutlar is going to play Old Musty. I told Lupin pretty plainly that I was not in the least Degree interested in the matter…’1
Pooter just wants to be an acceptable member of the new middle class – those who were at the time living in the London suburbs and travelling into the city to work, generally pushing pens. This new class hungered for self-improvement. Pooter is anxious to do the right thing, and desperate not to make a faux pas in the ‘best’ company. His reading, his entertainment and his recreational activities are carefully considered. His tastes are middlebrow, and that is exactly what the accelerating new media set out to satisfy. Yet, he has no time for a farce; he would attend a Shakespeare performance or the latest serious play in town, but low comedy was beyond his cultural boundary.
In contrast, we have Mr Leonard Bast, in E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End. Here is a man of that same class of clerks – descendants of Bob Cratchit but with an enriched lifestyle and some leisure time. Bast is inspired by Ruskin and wants to improve through study. His disposition is to analyse and discuss, to read widely and absorb anything considered to be ‘high’ culture. The crusade to educate the working class, from the 1870 Forster Education Act and later legislation on elementary education, had given the writers and performers of the page and stage a new and enthusiastic audience, eager for the kind of enlightenment their ‘betters’ had always had by birthright. In chapter XIV of Howard’s End, Bast is eager to express his thoughts about books and ideas, and his gushing enthusiasm fails to impress the Schlegel sisters. After Bast’s talk about three different books in half a minute, Forster adds this:
Tibby, who preferred his comedy undiluted, slipped from the room. He knew that this fellow would never attain to poetry…2
The Basts of the new world of the class of clerks and commuters wanted their entertainment, but with more than a dash of high culture. The dichotomy of popular and highbrow entertainment was to persist through this period. In Max Wall’s autobiography, Fool on the Hill, he describes the musical entertainment in which his parents (music hall acts) worked around 1900: ‘ The music hall was then predominant in the world of entertainment. There were plenty of “legit” theatres where the great star actors like Irving, Harvey and Tree could parade their talents, but for the common run of humanity the music hall was the thing.’3
THE CONTRAST BETWEEN the two literary characters of Pooter and Bast presents an interesting dichotomy: Pooter cultivates a social self, making friendships and sharing experience; there is a place for popular entertainment in his life, despite his choosiness. On the other hand, Bast turns in on himself, yearning for scholarship and depth of knowledge, longing for the acquisition of cultural knowledge and accomplishments which are in categories very much in contradistinction to anything for the crowd, for the masses. Each wants a certain sensibility, but Pooter’s is sufficient merely as a thin patina, something which is part of his appearance, whereas Bast wants to be the peer of Oxbridge men, to read and discuss philosophy and literature with a proper acquisition of the bedrock of learning such involvement requires.
In the two we have glimpses of the extremes of the vast spectrum of entertainment available to people in the late Victorian and Georgian years. Yet of course, the performers and writers who worked hard to meet these new needs and pleasures of the expanding audience were from very mixed backgrounds; many of them could pass from one very low level to more respectable ones, as was the case with the noted actress Adelaide Nielson, who was commented on by Colonel Frederick Wellesley (nephew of the Duke of Wellington) when he ‘slummed it’ in a drinking house in 1860, a place known then as a ‘night house’ as he explains:
… they were most of them situated in streets near the Haymarket. One that I remember was called Kate Hamilton’s and another Coney’s. The first was a very large room studded with small round tables… It is said that it was serving here as a barmaid that Miss Adelaide Nielson, who subsequently became a great actress, was first seen in London.4
There was always going to be a struggle to try to add a little ‘culture’ and refinement to the popular entertainments of London. The challenge may be seen in the early history of the Old Vic. The Victoria Hall, as it was in the nineteenth century, reopened in 1880 after having a first life as a place for rough entertainment and drunken brawls. Lilian Baylis’s aunt, Emma Cons, took over, and as Richard Findlater explains, Cons had to work with the London County Council in order to broaden her entertainment offerings, catering for more ‘civilised’ customers:
Emma Cons and the Council did not want to deter, by too much uplift and
Education, the possible family audience in search of good, clean music hall fun.
So they presented variety ‘purged of innuendo in words and action’ (as far, that
Is, as Miss Cons could tell). The clearest indications of her intentions were
Signalled by the programme, which carried in the first two years improving
Quotations from Shakespeare…’5
IN THE YEARS between c. 1870 and 1900 there was a stunning amount of variety available, and the different audiences, with very varied needs in terms of the social use of their experience ad of reader reception, had a multiplicity of choices for a night out. An illustration in The Daily Graphic newspaper in 1890 supports this view, and depicts the sheer diversity involved: there is the Ballet Cecile offering The Dancing Lesson; Dan Leno as The Railway Guard; the Selbini Troupe of Bicyclists; negro minstrel Chirgwin, and comic sketches by the Brothers Poluski. We may add to this dozens of advertisements for classical recitals, so say nothing of amateur productions such as an entertainment given at the Kensington Town Hall in aid of the Metropolitan Police Orphanage and Relief Fund.6
In the last twenty years of the century, the immense diversity of popular entertainment reflected a massive audience, all wanting social entertainment. The 1890s were arguably one of the most gregarious decades in British history. A scan of the pages of popular journals indicates a society clamouring for collective work and play; the society was very militaristic also, and people loved to wear uniforms and to march in the streets; they entertained themselves, but also relished being entertained – being there when there was ‘a good turn’ in front of them. The recently discovered set of films made by Mitchell and Kenyon has an episode devoted entirely to street marches and brass bands, showing a procession in a northern town, consisting of teetotal groups, the Band of Hope, the bands of apprentices, the Primrose League and dumb shows put on by colleges and schools. At the same time, the working men’s clubs were beginning to have ‘clean’ turns rather than bawdy songs and toilet humour, and at the turn of the century there was a boom in popularity of popular recitation.
Drama and narratives of all kinds were gathering in popularity at the same time. There were song and ballad clubs; the folk song revival was gathering pace, and every conceivable kind of performer was in demand. An insight into this world is seen in the publications of musical agents showing their lists of artistes. For instance, in 1904, The Premier Provincial Entertainment and Concert Bureau, run by Mr W H Elston of Birkenhead, produced a catalogue with pictures and PR statements of the artists on their books. Elston offered performers for every conceivable occasion, from oratorios and banquets to dances and garden parties. At the classier end of the spectrum there was Miss Evangeline Florence, with this description and CV:
Miss Evangeline Florence, soprano, is a native of the United States,
Having been born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, close by Harvard
University… She had the good fortune, early in life, to fall into
The hands of Madame Edna Hall, one of the most skilful voice
Producers of her time. Miss Florence made her first appearance at
Boston, in the opera of Marta at the age of eighteen. Something of a
Sensation was caused on that occasion…’7
Elston also catered for variety: he had Mr Will Horabin, entertainer, Professor Weber, the ‘refined illusionist and ventriloquist’ and Mr Edwin Davies, described as ‘Of Mr Arthur Roberts’ Vaudeville Company’ specialising in ‘humorous songs, musical sketches and recitals at the piano.’8
We need to look deeper into the world of stars and celebrities, but also with the writers, agents and managers who made things happen. The years covered were the time in which working conditions, contracts, copyright and organisational matters also experienced a revolution, as professionalism became more widespread and brought with it a need for regulation, accountants and solicitors. There had always been celebrities, but from the first newspapers in the early eighteenth century, there was a gradual rise in the level to which awareness of both performers and the ‘backroom’ workers such as the writers and impresarios increased. The Regency period saw a proliferation of actors in the limelight, and also the arrival of the celebrity actress. Part of my area of enquiry here is the nature of the celebrity performer and the degree to which he or she became known to the audience.
From the 1880s onwards, as periodicals became more and more interested in mediating the personalities of performers, profiles and interviews of artists became more common, as in a feature on Grossmith in The Daily Graphic in 1890, by which time Grossmith was already known to most readers as a star of Gilbert and Sullivan productions: ‘Very solid and eminently respectable in aspect is Mr George Grossmith’s habitation in Dorset Square, Marylebone Road. The decay of stage bohemianism notwithstanding, one would have thought of it as the residence of a fashionable physician or of a Chancery Q.C. rather than of the “Society Clown”…’9
The name attached to Grossmith hints at the gradual process of egalitarian status here, of artists of all hues; the last years of the Victorian age and the next few decades saw this development, although of course there was still high culture; but the point is that artists of all kinds and backgrounds found themselves working before mixed audiences; the age of variety was just that – but in many different ways, not simply in terms of music hall.
ANY ACCOUNT OF people and events involved in this exciting time for theatre and for writers have to include the centrally important periodicals: it was the age of the literary and artistic monthly or quarterly, and in The Idler for instance, edited in the 1890s by Jerome K Jerome and Robert Barr, may be seen an approach to this reader awareness to such an extent that production values and content are aimed at creating a cosy sharing of light-hearted entertainment, with artists and writers having a special kind of attention. For example, the editors had a rolling programme of features called ‘The Idler’ Club’ in which both writers and performers joined in to contribute to discussions of set topics such as ‘Is love a practical reality or a pleasing fiction?’ Then there was the feature called ‘Lions in their Dens’ which cultivated the apparent homely familiarity fl readers with celebrities. In the first issue of 1893, the great man himself, George Newnes, was featured. Here was the famous entrepreneur who had started Tit Bits in 1881 and who later established The Strand magazine in 1891. He became a book publisher in 1897 and later was M.P. for Swansea. In some ways, these features were the forerunners of OK magazine – profiles of celebrities at home.
Finally, there are the genres themselves in this period. Love and crime were prominent, as always, but the genre we now think of as true crime was emerging in various guises, and when we recall that the impact of macabre crimes such as those of Jack the Ripper in 1888 and anarchist killings in the street were happening in these years, it is not difficult to explain why crime stories were popular on the stage as well as on the page. The writers and dramatists were often profoundly aware of the new criminological interests of the public, and representative of this was undoubtedly George R Sims (1847-1922), who had been hugely successful in the 1870s with satirical works, but who, in later life, took a deep interest in matters criminal and in social investigative documentary. His success as a popular dramatist was phenomenal; his melodramas, written with Robert Buchanan and staged at the Adelphi, were very popular and exploited criminal themes such as the evil gypsy at the heart of his play, The Trumpet Call.
If one brings all these elements of the scene together, questions about how the new audiences were accommodated and how the entertainment industry changed tend to be raised. Parallel to that is the story of the amateurs also. Lupin Pooter’s acting with his pals was just as much a part of the scene as the ‘Society Clown’ comedy of George Grossmith.
One strand in the complex web of people, events and influences in this history is that of the reinvention of the artist; biographies and memoirs of the period by those involved in theatre repeatedly note that potentially any individual could become successful in the arts, at whatever level, and those who really aspired to be ‘somebody’ revelled in putting on the façade of being a personality. George Edwardes, the producer associated with the Gaiety and earlier the Savoy operas as Gilbert and Sullivan’s box-office manager, added the second ‘e’ to his name as he was transforming himself from the Grimsby boy who had come to ‘the smoke’ to pass exams for military service and failed, drifting into theatre work through desperation but finding that he had found his metier by accident. Within a year of returning from factotum work with a touring company, he was a close friend of Mr D’Oyly Carte himself.10
In looking at the establishments, management and media promotion of performers in this period, one finds the entertainment business in all its rich diversity, and this adds to our knowledge of that bland, self-conscious and influential sub-culture of the Pooters in their recreational time. The world of entertainment c.1900 was multi-layered and performers worked at every level, from readings and recitals to grand opera and serious drama. The writers who provided the material were working in an increasingly complex world in which professionalism was being created and defined, partly through the growth of intellectual property legislation. The performers existed, for the most part, in a designated slot within the very wide spectrum in the performing arts, both amateur and professional. As for the audience and readership: they were an identity in flux, eager for things to do after their long working hours and economic pressures.
Looking at the entertainment world and its contexts immediately opens up an understanding of the significance of the 1890s in terms of how we may understand the emerging literary culture based around a revolution in reading for the new commuter class, as placed alongside the milieu of the bookman and the ‘new’ author with his or her openings across the spectrum of outlets, from sketches to short stories in newspapers and magazines, and from the popular essay to the narrative poem. Through an understanding of the people in the stalls and the circle, we may look deeper into what is arguably a period of quiet revolution in English letters.
Stephen Wade is currently writing a new biography of George Grossmith for Victorian Secrets publishing. His work has appeared in the TLS and elsewhere. His latest book is Conan Doyle and the Crimes Club (Fonthill Media), an account of the lives of the first members of this celebrated body of criminologists.
- George and Weedon Grossmith, The Diary of a Nobody. p. 125. ↩
- E M Forster, Howard’s End, p. 101. ↩
- Max Wall, The Fool on the Hill: An Autobiography, p. 17. ↩
- Col. Frederick Wellesley, Recollections of a Soldier-Diplomat, p. 73. ↩
- Richard Findlater, Lilian Baylis: The Lady of the Old Vic, p.48. ↩
- The Daily Graphic 12 June 1890, p. 5. ↩
- List of Artistes: Premier Provincial Entertainment and Concert Bureau, Birkenhead, p. 9. ↩
- Ibid., p. 87. ↩
- ‘The Society Clown at Home’, The Daily Graphic, 26 June 1890, p. 10. ↩
- Ursula Bloom, Curtain Call for the Guv’nor, pp. 51-54. ↩