I WONDER if any notable person who has ventured on the task of setting forth in print reminiscences extending over many years, without the assistance of any notes or diaries, has approached the task with the same nervous dread and ignorance of the magnitude of the undertaking as I felt when embarking on my voyage of discovery — for such it will truly have been. Hours have been devoted to unearthing the treasures of memory, many of which have, on inspection, been rejected as paste. The kindly criticism of the Press, even on those rare occasions when it was adverse (for having kept all my "notices" I am able to administer an occasional cold douche to my vanity), has to a certain extent encouraged me to write this book, while at the same time inspiring a kind of fear that I may fail to reach the literary standard demanded of bookmakers, even when they only wish to amuse. Of course, the sordid or commercial point of view is also alluring. I find it very difficult to avoid the constant use of the personal pronoun in writing what is, I suppose, an autobiography, and yet there are a number of people who seem to expect it of you. I have already experienced this, as when writing a few reminiscences some years ago, in the shape of weekly articles, I received one day at my club an anonymous letter to the effect that "if you said a good deal less about yourself and more about other people it would be more amusing and show less conceit."
My first appearance as an actor took place, as with very many others doubtless, in the T. R. Backdrawing-room, when I gave an early demonstration of future ability by playing two parts in the one piece, this being a musical and dramatic version of a then popular song called "Home they brought her Warrior dead." I first played the warrior, covered with white antimacassars, which served later as gown and apron for my second part, a nurse of ninety years. Among our audience in those days (circa 1862) were two ladies who were then making name and fame for themselves: the one, my dear aunt Emily Faithful being the pioneer of the movement for the employment of women, a cause to which she devoted her whole life and energy with such pronounced success and the other, Florence Marryat, the novelist, one of the most genial and delightful women I ever met though I naturally did not discover this until I somewhat older.
This delay in appreciation did not arise entirely from a failure to understand the charm of the sex at so early an age, as I well remember being engaged at thirteen and painfully surprised at the attitude of the lady's father in absolutely refusing to look upon the affair as serious. This early portrait of me was taken at about the period of the warrior aforesaid, and many of my friends profess to discover in it traces of that calm demeanour without which Pooh Bah and the Rajah of Bhong would have been no more than ordinary mortals. This may well be so, but that calm was rudely shaken on the occasion of my next essay at acting, in the dear old Amateur Dramatic Club. I was cast for a non-speaking part. Did I refuse it? No; I played it and resigned. The club is defunct. Let this be a warning to other clubs.
After this my histrionic tendencies and abilities remained in abeyance until I came of age. They were also perhaps somewhat damped by a short career in the City, which finished with a period I can never recall without a shudder, namely, the infliction of eighteen months in a bank which was connected in some mysterious way with tea and India, but not, as far as I could discover, in any way with money. I know I got very little, and I am sure deserved less.
But now was to come the change that shaped my career in the way I had longed for. Through the kind offices of my dearly loved aunt, Emily Faithfull, I obtained an opening at the Olympic Theatre, then under the management of my good guide, philosopher, and friend, Henry Neville, and my first task was to understudy Luigi Lablache in Lady Clancarty; and at length, owing to some cause which at this lapse of time I forget, and which I was probably too excited to care about, I was told that I had to appear. When my cue came I had to speak "off" before making my entrance, and speak loudly, moreover. Could I do it? Not if my life had depended on it. I just whispered the line with a dry throat, walked on, and forgot all the rest!
Neville's kindly hand on my shoulder and a whispered word of encouragement brought me to myself, and all was well; but I have often wondered whether the audience noticed anything. Many strange things have happened to me on the stage since then, and I know now that audiences do not notice as much as you might suppose they would, though they almost invariably see what you would rather they did not.
My colleagues in this play were, in addition to Neville, Harcourt, Anson, Crichton (the father of Madge of comic opera fame), Walter Fisher, Ada Cavendish, and Emily Fowler, one of the most delightful soubrettes that ever graced the stage; and I had only one regret during the run, which was that I was executed after about two acts, and so had no excuse for staying longer in the society of people I admired so much. My next part was that of a waiter in the Ticket of Leave Man, and he was very important, though wordless, having to serve all the prominent characters with drinks, at a given cue, in the Cremorne Gardens scene.
Charles Harcourt and G. W. Anson played Hawkshaw and Jem Dalton respectively in this production, and having a wait during the evening of about an hour and a half, would frequently occupy it in rushing round to the Savage Club for a rubber or two. One night the rubber took longer to play than they thought, with the result that there was a dread-ful hiatus in the play, presently filled by two breath-less artists with no make-up and the wrong clothes on, who tumbled on to the stage and very nearly played the wrong scene. After this Neville prohibited going out during working hours, and presented the green-room with a box of dominoes. We enjoyed this game for some time, but Charles Sugden eventually became too clever for us all, and dominoes were "off."
I had a lesson in manners from one of the ladies of the company, in the green-room, for which I laid myself out in all innocence. Not being wanted till late, I used to come there first for a chat, and noticing the actors present wearing their hats, omitted to remove mine, which was done for me rather forcibly by the lady in question. It appeared, on my remonstrating, that costume hats may always be worn, outdoor ones not. It appeared to me at the time a foolish distinction, but of course is not so.
The next production was The Two Orphans, an adaptation from the French — a most stirring melodrama, containing one of the finest fights I ever saw on the stage. Henry Neville and William Rignold were the combatants, and the latter being a very big framed man and Neville slight, and also playing the part of a lame younger brother (the hero to the elder one's brute), it was very thrilling and most satisfactory to find the bully get his deserts. One night during the progress of this duel to the death there was a great commotion in the pit, caused, as we learned afterwards, by a poor woman who had been seriously ill for some time from melancholia. Her doctor had advised a visit to the theatre by way of cheering her up, but neglected to prescribe any particular one. She therefore chose for herself the play she would go to, and it finished her, for the poor soul never spoke after they carried her out. It is really never wise to go to a theatre when feeling de- pressed, there being quite enough risks in ordinary life.
Emily Fowler, who played the blind heroine, was extremely kind to me during my stay at the Olympic, and we remained good friends long after she retired from the stage, though we only met once a year on the roof-stalls of the grand stand on Derby Day.
For some three months of my engagement at the Olympic I was not particularly popular with my colleagues, in spite of all efforts to conciliate and please, and I could not under-stand why. However, after the aforesaid apprenticeship I was told I was to receive a salary, and my first appearance at "treasury " was the signal for the removal of all hostile feeling. I had been regarded, so it appeared, as a gilded interloper. Never shall I forget my feeling of pride when I drew my first week's salary — twelve shillings — at which figure it remained for about another three months, and I honestly believe I was worth it.
In The Two Orphans it was again my fate to be killed very early in the evening, but this time I did not regret it, as owing to the kindness of Henry Irving and Bateman I had the run of the Lyceum theatre, and after I had perished by the sword of Charles Sugden I would rush off to see Irving in his wonderful performance of The Bells.
Apropos Irving, I shall not easily forget my surprise when I was first introduced to him at a soirée given by Emily Faithfull at Norfolk Square, and found him to be a man of by no means great stature. I could not help wondering by what means he dominated the stage on which he appeared, and absolutely dwarfed men taller than himself. I was still young enough not to be aware that the art of the individual can add cubits to the stature.
Within a month or two of my first appearance on the stage I had an experience which I met with an aplomb which I should doubt my capacity to display now, for the reason that it sprang from the courage of ignorance. I had a scene in The Two Orphans in which my employer, the wicked Marquis, had to describe to me the appearance of a girl he wished carried off, give instructions where she was to be taken to, and finally point her out as she made her entrance. One night he failed to answer to his cue to come on to me. I walked to the wings and said, " Where is Mr. Roland? He ought to be on." Some one rushed up to his dressing-room, to return immediately with the news that he could not possibly come, having taken off all his costume to get ready for the second act (it seems he had completely forgotten this short scene). Next I saw Neville's anxious face at the side. I considered the situation for a moment, then walked to the centre and made a long speech combining his lines and my replies, and then calmly walked off, to be received as little less than a hero by Neville, who said he himself could not have done it! I rather wondered at this at the time, but I understand it better now.
There were one or two more plays in which I appeared at the Olympic, notably one by James Albery, of which I forget the title, full of fancy and quaint conceit; but I did not remain there very long before joining a preparatory school for the Savoy. Of course, I was not aware that it was so at the time, but I recognized it as such later on. I allude to my lengthy experience of "Entertainment" under the banner of Mrs. Howard Paul.
What an experience it was, and what an invaluable schooling — seven changes of costume a night, seven changes of make-up, seven changes of character to portray, and only six changes of town to play them in! This sounds as if you could not get them all in, but we did, and life was composed of hurried meals, railway journeys, acting, and a little sleep.
Some of the journeys were truly awful, for in those days there was no railway company that possessed rolling-stock half as good as the now discarded Metropolitan trains. Mrs. Paul used to give a marvellously lifelike imitation of Sims Reeves, being the possessor of a voice with a quite abnormal range; indeed, it more nearly resembled two voices a mezzo-soprano and pure tenor. She told me herself that on one occasion when engaged for the contralto music in an oratorio she sang that and also deputized for Sims Reeves, who was ill.
Of course, in our entertainment she assumed male evening dress, and wore a wig and moustache, the resemblance to the great tenor being so close as to be almost uncanny. We used to conclude the evening with a duet, I being made up as Santley (more or less of a libel, and quite so as regarded the voice), and it speaks well for the friendship between Santley and myself that he has never referred to this imitation. I have my suspicion that he saw it, which makes his silence the more noble. We carried what was known as a " fit-up " in those days, which in our case consisted of a kind of screen of heavy claret-coloured velvet curtains arranged on iron supports, which could be accommodated to any size of stage, and very funny were some of the stages in the town halls of the provinces in those bygone days. I remember that at Barmouth we struck something unusually small, and for dressing-rooms had to steal a small section from either side. Mrs. Paul, in her character in the first sketch we were playing, had to bewail my delay in arriving to help her, inter-spersed with a few complimentary remarks referring to my talent. Of course I could hear every word, and the audience knew I could hear, so I could not resist the temptation to say loudly, " Be careful, I can hear all you say." I believe it secured the biggest laugh of the evening. I also appeared, among other characters, as a member of the gentler sex, and discussed the affairs of the nation with Mrs. Paul, as two old maids; but for some reason or other, possibly the unaccustomed draperies, I felt oppressed and unhappy in the part, and very shortly ceased to be womanly in appearance. What strange little places we used to visit, and, I rather fancy, coin money in too. Even to this day, when an important Sunday special stops at some wayside station either to let something pass or give the engine a drink, it seems to me that I know the place, have been there, and perhaps helped to give one bright evening to the local rustics, some of whom are now leaning on a gate and looking at us in the superior way these people usually affect. I feel quite friendly towards them, perhaps venture on some kind of pleasant greeting, and as often as not am met with a stony stare, or worse; then I think I really must have played there. During my engagement with Mrs. Paul came the incident which was to determine my future. She had been for some time in communication with D'Oyly Carte, who was very anxious to secure her for the part of Lady Sangazure in The Sorcerer, which was the first of the notable series of Gilbert and Sullivan operas produced under his management. She was quite willing to play the part, but my contract with her had still some time to run, and as she also wished to do me a service she informed Carte that I also must be provided with a part if she joined him. Carte agreed, subject of course to the approval of Gilbert, and on a momentous never-to-be-forgotten day Gilbert held a personal inspection of my charms and qualifications.
The vacant part was the important one of Doctor Daly, better known after the production as The Vicar, and a fact that seemed to have a certain amount of weight with Gilbert was that my father was very nearly a clergyman; he was, in fact, brought up for the Church, but through unforeseen circumstances was compelled to adopt the City as a career. I have no doubt that Gilbert reasoned that my inherited manner might be a valuable asset in the part of Doctor Daly; his judgment has always been extremely sound, and even my natural modesty confesses that the sequel once again proved it to be correct. To the best of my recollection, I was not called upon to display my vocal acquirements to Sullivan, which perhaps was as well.
I left town with the well-described feeling of treading on air, and full of a natural impatience for the entertainment tour to end and for the opportunity of turning my attention to what I considered serious acting.
Mrs. Paul was also, I fancy, rather pleased at the prospect of settling down for a time after so many weeks of wandering, more especially as she quite anticipated great pleasure as well as great success in her part. It was originally intended that she should also appear (in the same piece) as Ahrimanes in the second act, conjured up unwittingly by the Sorcerer, but for some reason this idea was abandoned and the part cut out, much to her disappointment at the time and relief later on.
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