TOWARDS the end of this very enjoyable tour certain inducements in the way of an interest in the profits "which might accrue" were made to me with regard to another excursion in the same part for the autumn, and having in view the business we had done in certain towns which we were to revisit, it presented itself as an opportunity not to be missed.
As the whole of the company had decided to follow the fortunes of Amāsis, it appeared imperative to find some scheme of operations to keep things going during the hiatus of some eight or nine weeks – such a short period being difficult to fill up.
A plan of campaign was thought out and arranged by the stage manager, who, with consummate skill persuaded us that a season of excerpts of well-known comic operas, combined with light one-act pieces would prove highly popular at some two or three of the best-known suburban theatres.
What is perhaps more wonderful still is that he also impressed Mr. Robert Arthur with the same idea, and it was duly arranged that we should play a season of some six weeks at the Kennington and Coronet theatres. This was my first experience of the commonwealth system, the said commonwealth being composed of the business and stage managers, Whitworth Mitton, Richard Green, and myself, the other artists and all the choristers being engaged. It was an experiment that interested me immensely, but at the same time one that I never wish to see repeated with a like result.
The rehearsals for the initial week at Kennington were held chiefly in large rooms attached to local pubs, or odd corners at the theatre, but we eventually got well forward and started our venture with a triple bill composed of a drama-ette called The King’s Hat, a one-act farce by B. C. Stephenson, entitled Faithful James, and a compressed version of La Mascotte, which was played in two scenes. I had not played Faithful James for some years, and was pleased to renew his acquaintance, and I was also cast for the King in Mascotte, so I had quite my share of the work. Madge Temple was excellent as the Princess, but our Bettina was, unfortunately, not equal to the task, and we had a great shuffling of the pack the morning after our production. Madge Temple, having played Bettina, had little trouble in recalling it, and was admirable in the part, while her role of the Princess was undertaken by Winifred Macey with only one rehearsal and without missing a word of the part or note of music, a really wonderful achievement. The Wednesday night performance was a vast improvement on the Monday, but the mischief had been done, and the week ended badly from a financial point of view.
We opened on the following Monday at the Coronet with the same programme, with the intention of making a weekly change of at least two of the items. The scheme had been very largely announced and advertised, and yet a certain critic, in writing a notice of our second week, carefully ignored this and said, "Already the triple bill at the Coronet has been changed, and the dramatic ventures of Mr. Rutland Barrington do not seem to be any more successful now than when he opened and shut up the St. James’s Theatre long ago." As he proceeded to "slate" one of the successful items of the programme, it is charitable to presume that he could not really have been present. In any case I feel sure that he is happily a unique specimen of that highly-intelligent and long-suffering body of men who are so ready to lend a helping hand to enterprise.
I had a rather quick change to make from the old waiter in Faithful James to the King in Mascotte, and one night, my usual valet being ill, I had a very nervous understudy who, for the final powdering of the King’s face, handed me a puff full of neat boll Armenian, with the result that I was in a moment transformed into a Red Indian. It was an awful moment, as I had been called, and yet I had to wash it off, which I did incompletely and made a hasty appearance as a parti-coloured monarch. But this was not so bad a change as I had the following week when we put up the old farce called Chiselling, in which I represented a statue and was smothered in liquid white as to face, neck, and hands. It was an awful mess, but as it is quite one of the best of the old-fashioned kind of farces, it was worth the trouble, and I got some extra fun out of it by threatening my fellow-workers with embraces. Frank Lacy, who was wearing his best Bond Street frock-coat, would run anywhere to escape me, and poor Reggie White, whose escape from my clutches the business of the piece would not permit, was nightly reduced almost to tears at the state of his black suit.
The second week of our season was rendered exceptionally interesting to me by reason of the production of a one-act musical drama of my own writing, originally intended for Madame Esty at the Coliseum. There were two songs for the soprano, a duet and two or three choruses in it, all of which were written by H. M. Higgs. The music obtained far better criticisms than the play, most especially the duet, which was a fine piece of writing, well delivered by Madge Temple and Richard Green.
We (the composer and I) had an exasperating experience, on the occasion of the first performance of this ambitious trifle, at the hands of the orchestra. After a very long and trying rehearsal we succeeded in getting things fairly right, only to find at night that certain members of the orchestra had sent deputies; to my mind an unpardonable proceeding and one which nearly led to disaster.
I was naturally aware of the awful result before hearing the cause, and although I expressed my regret afterwards, I, at the moment, summed up the situation correctly when I told the conductor that I could have made better music with four cats and a tooth-comb. It improved as the week wore on, but the music was always handicapped, and I should like to hear it given a proper chance.
By this time the clouds on the commercial horizon of the enterprise were becoming more and more conspicuous. The first week at Kennington had resulted in a deficit, and the first week at Notting Hill in a larger one, and after holding a council of war it was decided to close down at the end of the third week. We were all, naturally, disappointed at the result of our hard labour, and the commonwealth was met in the kindest spirit by the artists and choristers, who were definitely engaged for a longer term, and had it in their power to make things very much worse had they desired to do so.
This ended my first experience of paying for the privilege of acting, writing, stage-managing, producing, and generally working very hard, and as, of course, my position entitled me to the largest percentage of the profits, it also carried with it the distinction of bearing the largest percentage of loss.
However, it was an experience I do not greatly regret, as it does no actor harm to vary the type of part he is in the habit of playing, in addition to which I had the pleasure of producing a piece of my own for which I charged no fee whatever; and last, but by no means least, the whole thing afforded for three weeks a living wage at least for many who would otherwise have been unemployed.
I am inclined to think that there was mismanagement somewhere, but it was certainly not on the part of Mr. Robert Arthur, who released us from the rest of our contract in a very handsome manner. I myself am disposed to think that "triple bills" are by no means so popular with the playgoing public as many people would have us believe, and my personal feeling is that I would always prefer to see and hear an entire opera or comedy than an abridged edition of one with a couple of one-act pieces as hors-d’oeuvre and relevé.
That there was a time when this form of entertainment was to a certain extent popular is undoubtedly a fact, but with the advent of a more refined programme at music halls the new field has opened up a chance for both play and players which is eagerly seized upon, to the detriment, to a certain extent, of the theatre.
This is hardly a matter for regret, in view of the employment found for so many of the rank-and-file of the profession (as well as stars) who would otherwise find their long periods of "resting" a very undesirable occupation. I use the word "occupation" advisedly, as none but those who have undergone it know the amount of energy and restlessness demanded from the involuntary "rester."
I should like to see some of the enthusiasm devoted to the discussion of the need of a National Theatre applied to the establishment of a National Music Hall, where nothing but a good class of vaudeville and single turn should be introduced, and which, I believe, would be a sound commercial success if left in the hands of some two or three capable men as directors, with perhaps a small nucleus by way of a stock company, which could be relied upon in an emergency besides being the backbone of the entertainment. There is, of course, no need why this should be a "national" enterprise, the term being only suggested to me by the juxtaposition of ideas; in fact, I think on consideration it might turn out a severe handicap to what I believe would prove great success.
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