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Life and Reminiscences of Jessie Bond > Chapter 6
AFTER eight months in America we returned to England, and I took my old place in the Opera Comique as Edith in “The Pirates of Penzance.”
To that period belongs the following amusing note from W. F. Best, the famous organist, whose acquaintance I had made in my oratorio singing days in the North:
“The Pirates” ran for four hundred nights, but long before its popularity began to wane Gilbert and Sullivan were preparing to follow it up by another opera, this time based on the æsthetic craze of the day. Already Du Maurier and Burnand had been poking fun at the “greenery-yallery” school in “Punch,” and Burnand wrote a play called “The Colonel,” which was produced in the old Prince of Wales Theatre in Tottenham Court Road.
Gilbert had written the libretto of “Patience” before then; but “The Pirates” were still on the crest of the wave, and Sullivan, ill and tired after composing “The Martyr of Antioch,” was travelling on the Continent. So the work was behindhand; and parts of the opera were actually being rehearsed before the whole was finished, while Sullivan did not begin the orchestral scoring until ten days before the opening night.
A hectic time it was for all concerned! But, although everybody said it couldn’t possibly be ready, it was: and on the night of April 23rd, 1881, the curtain rose on another brilliant success, which ran even longer than “The Pirates.”
The “particularly good part” which Gilbert had promised me in his letter quoted a few pages back was never a part I liked. Love-sick sentimentality had never been in my line, so Angela’s posturing and languishing and casting up of eyes was a bore to me, and I hated it. You see, I knew nothing about the crazes of leisured London. I was a hard-working actress, my time completely taken up with studying, rehearsing, and acting, and any intervals more than filled with the care of my modest little apartment, my clothes and private concerns. I never even saw the play (or any other that I acted in) from start to finish, so to me it was all rather silly and meaningless.
An outsider would hardly credit the strict discipline of our life behind the scenes. No lingering about was allowed, no gossiping with the other actors; the women’s dressing-rooms were on one side of the stage, the men’s on the other, and when we were not actually playing we had to mount at once our respective narrow staircases – sheep rigorously separated from the goats!
Once, when my mother came to see me in London, expecting to find me dwelling in haunts of gilded luxury, and far down the road to perdition, I took her behind the scenes and showed her the arrangements for the actors and actresses, conventual in their austerity. She was astonished, I can assure you, and evidently thought it all very dull and restricted.
I think there never was a theatre run on lines of such strict propriety; no breath of scandal ever touched it in all the twenty years of my experience. Gilbert would suffer no loose word or gesture either behind the stage or on it, and watched over us young women like a dragon. Not that I ever gave him any trouble. Verses and love-letters used to be sent to me, presents and invitations too, all of which I returned or disregarded. The unhappy experiences of my youth had made me quite impervious to that sort of thing. I had no use for love or lovers, and never felt the slightest romantic interest in any man I acted with. I lived only for my work, my last meal was a light one at six o’clock, and never once in all those years did I accept an invitation to supper!
That reminds me of one invitation I received during the run of “Patience.” Gilbert happened to be behind the scenes one night when a note was brought to me.
“What’s that, Jessie – a love-letter?” he said.
“Here it is, you can look for yourself,” I replied indifferently, handing it to him.
It was from a party of four young men in one of the stage boxes, inviting me to supper with them after the performance. Gilbert was furious. He went round to the box, rated the young men for insulting a lady in his Company, and insisted on their leaving the house forthwith. Rather drastic treatment, I think now; and of course it got into the papers, the comic papers particularly. They made very merry over our boarding-school discipline, and pitied me for my nun-like existence. “Poor little dear, she always has to show her love-letters to her daddy!”
Even Gilbert, dragon though he was, could not have objected to a letter in verse which appeared under my portrait in a newspaper as one of a series of “Notes to Theatrical Ladies.”
These verses show that I was beginning to be noticed by theatre-goers, in spite of my still small and unimportant parts, and now in my third opera I felt quite an old hand at the game. The ease of long habit did not save me from occasional slips and disasters, however, and one night when, in “Patience,” we love-sick maidens were lying on our tummies – and very uncomfortable it was – adoring Rutland Barrington as he sang his Silver Churn song, I suddenly spied a black-beetle close to my arm.
Haven’t I told you that a black-beetle is worse to me than a wild beast? I felt I would die if it touched me. There was apiece of fluff lying on the floor; I picked it up, and tried to head the beetle off with that. No good, opposition roused its fighting spirit, it came straight for me. That was too much. Without hesitation I sprang up, gathered my scanty draperies round me, and ran away. The other girls, astonished at my unrehearsed action, jumped up too. They saw no beetles, and probably wouldn’t have cared if they had; but what I did they did too, as a matter of course and stage discipline. So we all scuttled off the stage, leaving Rutland Barrington gaping at us with his mouth wide open. He uttered a reproachful “Oh, Jessie!” then pulled himself together and finished his song to an empty stage.
That escapade cost me half a crown. We were always fined for our mistakes or slips, but I think myself that that one was cheap at the price.
Another of my half-crowns, I remember, went to atone for my lapse – also in “Patience” – when as Angela I had to say “Retribution, like a poisèd hawk, came swooping down upon the Wrong-Doer.” This I rendered as “hoisèd pork,” and retribution swept down on me accordingly.
There was still another occasion on which I was fined, when playing in an afterpiece with Rutland Barrington and Richard Temple. It was an operetta by Alfred Cellier called “After All,” and I took the part of a maidservant who had to rush in and say, “Oh, sir, the missis is having such a row with the cabman!” and one night, when I was standing in the wings talking to George Grossmith, my cue came rather unexpectedly: He said, “Go on, Jessie,” and gave me a vigorous push. I stumbled on to the stage, cap-strings flying, hands outspread, eyes and mouth wide open, in a most realistic state of agitation, and gasped out, “Oh, sir, the missis is having such a cow with the rabman!” The house simply roared at me. Rutland Barrington, convulsed with laughter, put his head down on the table and all but wept, and Dick Temple, helpless and shaking, hid his face in the window curtains – and there I stood like a gaby in the middle of the stage. They couldn’t recover themselves, the curtain had to come down, and I drifted off disconsolately to find George Grossmith, cause of all the trouble, nearly dying of laughter in the wings. But D’Oyly Carte, our stern Mentor, only said callously:
“Half a crown, please, Miss Bond!”
Sometime during the run of “Patience” I met Oscar Wilde, the high-priest of æstheticism and prototype of Bunthorne. It was at a party in some great house; and I was taken up and introduced to him as he stood before the fireplace with an air of owning everything. He deigned to stoop and shake hands with me; and I did not like the feel of his hand, nor did I like him, though I knew no harm of him then.
Another poet, but of less eminence, sent me the following amusing verses about this time, entitled
(Out of) Patience.
It was in October, 1881, when “Patience” had already been running for over six months before audiences that packed every corner of the little old musty Opera Comique, that we moved into our new quarters in the Savoy Theatre. Carte was an astute and enterprising manager. He foresaw years of success for the Gilbert and Sullivan combination, and his theatre was built for the future as well as for the present. All the arrangements were as perfect as he could make them both before and behind the scenes. The decorations were tasteful and harmonious; the refreshment department was managed by a salaried official of the Firm, and everything was of the best quality; programmes and cloakroom accommodation were given free. What a change from all the petty exactions and farming annoyances of the old regime!
But, above all, the lighting arrangements were entirely revolutionized. The old, hot, yellow, evil-smelling and air-exhausting gas-lamps were discarded for ever, and the new light, electricity, took their place. The brilliant row of arc lamps at the entrance were a wonder to London, and the stage lighting gave natural colour-value to dresses and scenery. The die-hards predicted darkness and disaster, and indeed the new system did not work quite smoothly at first. The alternative gas lighting had occasionally to be used, but very soon all was in thorough working order. Another scientific marvel was the provision of hand grenades for extinguishing fires, which had recently been tested with great success.
Without a break in the performances “Patience” was transferred to her new home, and opened on that memorable and brilliant night of October l0th with new dresses, new scenery, and renewed life and sparkle. “Everybody” was there; and the splendour of the new theatre and its appointments was the talk of the town.
That was forty-eight years ago, and the Savoy, then a supreme achievement of theatrical architecture, became by long wear and tear shabby, out of date and unpractical. A new and beautiful theatre, as far above the old in its appointments as the Savoy was above the Opera Comique, has risen on its ruins, and as I write another brilliant opening is arranged, another Gilbert and Sullivan Era is commencing. And I am sure that the time is far, far distant when an ever-changing and developing civilization will cease to delight in and to revive these melodious echoes of the past.
But to return to my story. You may be sure that when the old Savoy was the new Savoy we actresses were glad to have larger and more convenient dressing-rooms, and a green-room where we could sit in comfort. We used to bring our sewing and other little domestic occupations there and work at them in spare moments, for we were all of us more or less struggling to make both ends meet on small salaries.
One evening four or five of us were sitting there, sewing and chatting together – I was turning a sheet, I remember – when the door opened and Carte came in, followed by several other gentlemen. At a glance we recognized one of them for the Prince of Wales, and stood up. Carte did not introduce us, and nobody took the least notice of us; in fact the Prince sat down in a chair, and straddling one leg over the arm of it he took a big cigar from his case and proceeded to light it. No “May I, ladies?” or “By your leave,” you observe. This behaviour annoyed me very much, I looked at my future Sovereign none too meekly, and sat down again.
Carte, who was standing behind the Prince, did not approve of this at all, he grimaced and frowned and shook his head at me, and made frantic signs that I should stand up.
“What do you mean, you little devil? Stand up at once, can’t you?” I could feel him saying it as well as if he had spoken.
The Prince evidently felt thunder in the air, for presently he came and sat down beside me, still taking no notice of the other ladies.
“What are you doing, Miss Bond?” he asked.
“I’m turning a sheet sides to middle, sir,” I replied; and am very sure that he had never before heard of such an operation.
“Can’t I help you?”
“I’m afraid you’d do more harm than good, sir,” was my uncourtier-like response!
He laughed, and in a few minutes he left the green-room.
Carte tried to take me to task for my behaviour, but I would not submit to that.
“You did not present us,” I said, “and in any case you only pay me to act on the stage, my behaviour off it is not your business.”
But there was no resentment in the Royal mind, for almost directly afterwards I was invited by Sir Arthur Sullivan to meet the Prince. The episode of the green-room was mentioned, and I told him of Carte’s attempted scolding.
“You know, sir,” I said, “there are ladies in our profession, and you might give some of us the benefit of the doubt.”
“Miss Bond,” he replied, “you are perfectly right.”
From that time he was to me a most kind and thoughtful friend, causing me to receive many invitations and singing engagements, which not only meant flattering recognition, but most useful and acceptable golden rewards. But I am not, and never was, awed by royalty or rank in itself, and had no hesitation in repelling undue advances.
“May I come to see you, Miss Bond?” he asked me on one occasion.
“What for, sir?” I asked. “My mother would be very surprised if she saw you walking into our house.”
I had no mother and no house – in London – but that did not matter, and my answer had the desired effect.
19 November, 2008