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Chapter 20

HOW interesting it should be, I have often thought, to make a collection of little items and queer points which stick in the memories of playgoers in connection with all the different plays and players they have seen, and what a bizarre collection it would prove.

By way of a personal contribution to any such would-be collector, I offer this chapter of odd remembrances of things seen and heard which, for reasons which may or may not be clear, have established a permanent lodgment in my memory.

It is a moot point how many playgoers interest themselves in a careful perusal of the programme before the commencement of the play; of course, a large percentage of those who do so would be found among the occupants of the unreserved seats, these having little else to employ the time of waiting; but that many of the other occupants of the house do not do so is frequently evident from the stage in a general and hurried consultation of the document on the appearance of some player, possibly so well made up as to defy recognition, or deputizing for some popular favourite.

Personally, I make a practice of reading all matter connected with the play in the case of musical pieces before the curtain rises, my experience having taught me the possibility of gathering as clear an idea of the plot in this way as any other. But when the play is a comedy, drama, or farce, I much prefer to remain in ignorance, as far as possible, as to who is playing the different characters, finding very often as the result of this plan an increase of enjoyment consequent upon the natural maintenance of the illusion.

A striking example of this was afforded me lately in witnessing The White Man, many of the characters in which were played by Americans whose names I do not even now know, in spite of three visits to the play, which I found perfectly fascinating from the end of the first act to its conclusion.

The contrasted alertness and stolidity of the cowboys and the touching submission and pathos of the little squaw were most delightful, and the intense feeling expressed by her, wordlessly, must live in the memory of many who saw this artistic performance.

The charm of the whole thing impressed me so strongly that one day when in Shipwright’s my tonsorial artist pointed out to me a customer who he said was “Big Bill” the cowboy overseer, I resolutely declined to look at him, though I would have done so with great pleasure had he been dressed for the part.

Another example of “illusion maintained” occurred some years ago when the famous Salvini came to astonish and please London with a fine performance of Othello.

The play was so well acted all round that even the most superficial acquaintance with Italian was hardly necessary to one’s enjoyment, and I have never forgotten the effect of one short speech, by the Emilia of the cast, which rang through the house with its intensity – “Aita! Aita! El moro ha assassinato Desdemona!”

The occasion was a “Professional Matinée” given by Salvini, and it was amusing to listen to the “views” of some of my colleagues in the vestibule between the acts, one fairly celebrated tragedian tempering his praise with the statement, “All the same, it is hardly my idea of Othello”; to which his listener replied, “No, of course not”; but the irony passed unobserved.

From grave to Gaiety is a natural transition, but in considering the type of piece associated with this theatre of late years, one cannot help the feeling that but for a change of title and locale it might be the same play all the time.

In the halcyon days of Nellie Farren and Fred Leslie, Royce and others, there seemed to be more backbone in the pieces, but I would not go so far as to say they were more amusing; and Payne has certainly been a tower of strength for many years, his marked capability in varying his method and his capacity for inventing humorous little details being strong factors in his success.

One such item recurs to me as affording one of the heartiest laughs I remember. The play was The Orchid, and after a long search for the missing bloom, he saw it suddenly on a hand-barrow, stalked it in the manner of a butterfly catcher, using his hat as the net! A small thing perhaps, but only another proof of the fact that one never knows what is going to “get home.”

In this connection who could have imagined that Miss Hook of Holland would achieve such a lengthy run? It was certainly a wholesome if somewhat innocuous evening’s entertainment, and undoubtedly owed most of its fascination to the excellent band of comedians, Huntley, Barrett, and Gracie Leigh, but my most vivid recollection is that of the “sleepy” man, whom I shrewdly suspect of being invented by one of the comedians.

It was in this piece that I first saw and admired Elsie Spain, little dreaming that I should shortly stand in loco parentis to her in Pinafore.

Two pistols are an odd remembrance to have of a play, but so it happens to be in the case of an adaptation of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, which I saw many years ago at the Olympic, with Vining in the part of the scheming scoundrel Fosco, whose only weakness appeared to be a fondness for canaries.

He was chirruping to his cageful with his back to a pair of folding doors, which opened silently to show the faces of two men holding pistols, which they pointed at him. Of course, he turned round in the nick of time, but he was eventually shot “off,” which disappointed me considerably; had he been shot “on” I might never have been haunted with two pistols.

I used to frequent the Royalty as much as possible in the days of those two incomparable comedians, Didier and Schey, seeing, among other plays, Tricoche et Cacolet, La Boule, and Le Réveillon(?).

These two actors were yet another proof of the value of contrast, not only from a physical but also artistic point of view, and I think I never saw two comedians play into each other’s hands better.

My recollection in this instance is of the entire company in the piece seated at supper, for quite a long scene, and the servant bringing round the wine with great regularity, and with equal regularity finding Schey’s glass empty, until on his last round, when murmuring “Chambertin ou Chateau Larose, Monsieur?” he was met with the request, “Tous les deux, mon ami – tous les deux!”

The ease with which this supper party was managed I only remember to have seen once equalled, which was when The Man from Blankney’s was played at the Haymarket, and I had the pleasure of supplying Charlie Hawtrey with one of the little stories out of which he made such capital at the table.

I was greatly interested in both Hawtrey and Titheradge in The Message from Mars, and out of the haze of admiration excited by their performance, stands the startling effect of the sudden disappearance of Hawtrey’s fur overcoat and other spruce garments, leaving him in the rags of a tramp! Of course, I know how it was done, but the fact remains – it stuck – though the clothes did not, fortunately.

Charles Mathews furnished many a delightful evening for me at the old Gaiety Theatre years ago, and I well remember a little bit of “business” which he invariably used when taking a “call” at the conclusion of Cool as a Cucumber; he would stroll on in front of the curtain in his imperturbable manner, bow, place a finger on the pulse of his left hand, and express facially his delight at being at last “greatly moved.”

The palmy days of the Lyceum found me a frequent visitor, especially when drama was the fare provided, and my recollections of Irving are many and various.

By the way, these recollections date further back than that, in fact to his performance of Digby Grand in The Two Roses at the Vaudeville, which I believe I am correct in thinking of as his first great London success.

I admired him greatly in The Lyons Mail and the Corsican Brothers, at the first night of which it was my privilege to be present. Pinero also played in this piece, and, when made up, so nearly resembled Irving that for a moment he captured the reception intended for the great man, who entered later on in the play. The mistake was soon discovered and produced a universal but thoroughly good-natured laugh.

Irving and Terriss, who played Chateau Renaud very finely, being both excellent fencers, gave us in the duel scene the finest fight I have ever seen, ending in a dramatic and almost nerve-destroying manner. The “thrill” of it was enhanced by its being fought in falling snow of so realistic a nature that the combatants brushed it out of their way with their feet before commencing.

Of course, this was burlesqued at the Gaiety by Nellie Farren and Royce, the former stopping the fight because all the snow fell on Royce, and insisting on having her share.

In the final scene where the ghost appears to thank his brother for having revenged him, much hilarity was provoked by the appearance of at least six ghosts of different sizes and shapes!

I believe it is on record that the sedate audiences at the Lyceum were more than once upset by the presence among them of spectators who had unwisely seen the burlesque first.

At the Vaudeville I also saw in those days the finest all-round performance of The School for Scandal that I imagine has ever been “presented,” which is not wonderful when the cast contained William Farren, Henry Neville, John Clayton, Tom Thorne, David James (I think), and a delightful Lady Teazle in Amy Faucet. I cannot imagine a better Charles and Joseph Surface than Henry Neville and poor Clayton, an old schoolfellow of mine, whose career was all too short.

I forget who the Careless of this occasion was, but mention of the play reminds me of a story in connection with the part, told of Sothern in his early days, but for the truth of which I cannot vouch, though it seems to me sufficiently ben trovato to be worth repeating.

Sothern did not sing, and rather than have the song cut it was arranged that he should sit at the top of the table, close to the back cloth of the scene, behind which a singer was concealed, while Sothern acted and mouthed the song.

It was a great success, and Sothern sat down delighted, only to find to his horror that the audience insisted on an encore! He turned his head to the hole cut in the cloth behind him and whispered anxiously, “Are you there?” – No answer! – He then bowed gracefully to the audience, coughed, put his hand on his throat deprecatingly and sat down. Meantime the singer had been hurriedly summoned, and just as Sothern was proceeding with the dialogue the first few strains of “Here’s to the maiden” floated through the orifice!

Still another example of the value of physical and artistic contrast was presented by Wyndham and Hill in the old days of farce at the Criterion, the vivacity of Wyndham in such plays as Where’s the Cat? and Brighton (a vivacity which remains with him when requisite even to this day, as witness his last revival of The Candidate), finding its complement in the stolid figure and humour of Hill, and later on also in his successor Blakeley, whose humour was of the same rich type.

There was a clever adaptation of Bébé also given at the Criterion, in which Lottie Venne scored great success (by no means an unusual accomplishment for her), and I distinctly recollect the angry manner in which she brushed a silk hat, to the distress of its owner and most men in the stalls. This great little artist possesses, in addition to her many charms, a wonderful manner of speaking that kind of doubtful line which is sometimes alluded to by journalists as “skating on thin ice”; and this power was occasionally abused by authors, much to her distress. She once came to me at rehearsal and pointing out a speech said, “B. dear, I can’t say that, now, can I?” My obvious reply was, “Well, Lottie, if you can’t, no one can.” The line was spoken, and as spoken by her did not attract the attention she feared.

At Toole’s Theatre I once saw a most amusing piece of the burlesque order, in which Edouin and Lionel Brough were both playing, the former as a Heathen Chinee (a wonderful performance) and the latter as a kind of freebooter, who carried a large bag, into which he dropped anything portable which he found lying about.

The night I was present there was an Eton boy in the stage box whose laughter was so frequent and so loud as to occasionally distract the attention of the audience. After one unusually hearty outburst Brough set the house in a roar by saying, “If any one will hand me up that young gentleman I will put him in the bag!”

Several times I saw Toole play Caleb Plummer, a part to which he gave a pathetic touch which was wholly delightful. The dominant recollection I have of him is the expression of artistic pride with which he painted round spots of a brilliant red on the little wooden horses in the toy shop.

What an unwise thing it is to correct a mistake one may have made in a speech; it is quite an even chance that few, if any, have noticed the slip, and to correct it is to draw attention. At the Vaudeville I once saw Walter Montgomery play Claude in The Lady of Lyons; he was a charming romantic actor and quite the idol of the softer sex of his day. The Pauline was down in the programme thus, “Pauline – by an Amateur,” although it appeared hardly necessary to emphasize the fact. However, she was doing fairly well until she informed the audience tragically that “my father is on the bank of vergeruptcy,” corrected herself, and upset everybody’s seriousness.

I went to the Lyceum once to see a play in which Irving shot Clayton dead, but on the night of my visit, to the dismay of every one, the gun missed fire! Irving tried it again; no use; and things seemed to be at a deadlock, with John Clayton walking about the stage passively waiting to be killed for what seemed like ten minutes, until Irving solved the difficulty by clubbing the gun and felling him with it, but as of course he could not really touch him, it was hardly as realistic a death as it might have been.

Writing of drama reminds me of one of its finest exponents, in the person of Geneviève Ward, whose performance in Forget-me-not was most impressive. There is a situation in which she sees outside a window a man who is there avowedly for the purpose of killing her; we even see the dagger in his hand; and she unsuccessfully implores her husband (I think it is) not to turn her out of the house. He, not knowing of the fate awaiting her, orders her out, and I shall never forget the force with which she played the scene and the awful expression with which she went to certain death by violence. In striking contrast to this was her expression at our last meeting, when she sat next to me “on the Bench” when I played the Judge in Trial by Jury, with whom she flirted to such an extent as to almost upset the “business” flirtation with the fair plaintiff.

At the Globe in the old days I saw a play called, I believe, The Looking Glass, in which Shine gave an excellent performance of a vulgarian proprietor of the newspaper from which the play took its title.

Tree played a foreign prince of the “adventurer” type, and was much worried by an aristocratic dame (played, I believe, by Rose Leclerc), who carried a toy dog about with her. I have never forgotten Tree’s expression on the frequent occasions when she handed him the little beast, saying, “Prince, would you hold Horace?” A later impression of Tree is in The Beloved Vagabond, where he performed such marvellous feats of beer drinking as fairly astonished the audience. I have not met him since, but am longing for the opportunity to ask if he used a trick glass; if not, the ordeal must have been severe.

There is a type of comedian which, for want of a better word, I might describe as “untiring,” whose vivacity and restlessness appeals very strongly to a huge section of the public, though I am happy to think there is an equally large following for the “reposeful” style, amongst which I must number a friend of my own who took me to see a play in which a well-known and popular exponent of the untiring method was appearing. While I devoted my best attention to the strenuosities of the entertainment he slept peacefully throughout the evening. Of one of the reposeful denomination, Weedon Grossmith, I have a recollection in connection with Pinero’s play The Amazons, at the Court Theatre. Weedon played a dyspeptic nobleman, and I well remember the hectic flush he assumed, combined with the highly depressed expression of face, with which he delivered the line, “We ought never to take tea!”

Some years ago there occurred the periodical outcry of pessimism concerning the work of the modern play-writer as compared with the “grand old dramas” of our forefathers’ time, and Hollingshead, who then presided over the fortunes of the Gaiety Theatre, decided, by way of proving the case in favour of the moderns, to produce one or two of the much-vaunted antique successes.

I saw the first, and, if I remember aright, the series stopped at that, which was not wonderful, as the most thrilling and blood-curdling situations excited uproarious laughter, culminating in the escape of the hero from prison, guarded by some dozen or so sentries, who carefully went to sleep en masse while he climbed the wall by means of iron clamps which were evidently a permanent part of the structure The gentleman in question announced at the commencement of the scene that he had been some five years in the dungeon “without food”! so that his original strength must have been abnormal.

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