Thursday 10 March 2016

A Visit to a Music Hall (no.5)


A cowardly sort of sensation, such as one experiences on the road to the dentist's, took possession of my soul, as one night last week, my friend and I turned into the narrow ill-lighted, and disreputable looking street in the neighbourhood of the Strand, which led to the music hall of our destination. "I wonder whether women ever go there?" I ventured to remark, as the courage oozed out of my finger-tips. "At any rate, two are going there to-night," was the scornful and uncompromising retort, and we trudged on in silence through the darkness and damp.
    After an absence from such haunts for nearly six months, it takes an effort to screw one's courage to the sticking point, especially as our last experience, when we visited one of the most celebrated West End Theatres of Variety, had been a peculiarly disgusting and painful one. On that occasion, we witnessed two long ballets, lasting about an hour each, in which clothing was conspicuous by its absence. But the brilliant scenes of the semi-nude corps de ballet on the stage were surpassed in indecency by the conduct of the audience. The whole was nothing but an open market for vice, no attempt whatever being made at concealment of the purposes to which the crowded promenades in the pit and balconies were given up. According to the price of the various parts of the house, was the smartness of the attire of the wretched painted women openly plying their horrible trade, and of the guilty, foul-eyed men, seeking whom they might devour.
    Between the ballets we were treated to some acrobatic performances, and music-hall songs, one of them describing the adventures of two married men "out on the spress" and containing the favourite allusion to the house in St. John's Wood, with the refrain, "We'd both been there before many a time." The entertainment concluded with "God save the Queen." What a religious people we are! And as to the solemn strains of the National Anthem, this palace of vice disgorged its horrid contents, similar streams poured out from the other great theatre of varieties and music halls in the neighbourhood, until all the Haymarket, and up Piccadilly, was a dense mass of humanity, through which we could scarcely make our way, congregated for the vilest purposes. Streams of hansoms mingled with a few broughams - all in the hire, we understand, of different notorious houses - waited at the doors of the great cafés; and night was made hideous by the half-drunken rollicks of the elegantly dressed men - many of them mere beardless boys - and the occasional shout or piercing laugh of a hilarious unfortunate, which sounded more like the yell of a disembodied spirit.
    But to return to last Saturday night;s experiences. Arrived at our music hall we found the prices of admission very moderate - the balcony being only 6d., including intoxicating liquors to the value of 4d. But, seeing the already crowded state of that part of the building, we resisted the temptation, and secured reserved stalls at 1s. each. The object of our visit was to verify information we had received as to the little children said to be performing there. We had not long to wait for the appearance of a troupe of acrobats, which consisted of a young man, two elder boys, and three children -  two pretty little girls, aged apparently about six and nine, and a tiny boy, dressed in a grotesque man-of-the-period costume, with top hat, who played the part of the irrepressible guinea-pig. The little girls, who would hardly have been distinguishable from boy acrobats, but for the ribbon in their hair, went through a clever performance, which, apart from the iniquity of employing children for such purposes, and the cruelty involved in their training contained nothing in the least indecent. On the other hand, the real indecency lay in quite another part of the entertainment, in the dancing of two other little girl children, rather older than the girl acrobats, who were dressed in the ordinary girl's clothes, and who had been taught to kick their feet over their heads in a hideous manner. The children also belong to a troupe, consisting of a hard-voiced woman, with a face to match, a little blackened nigger boy of about five, and an apoplectic-looking nigger-minstrel. There were, of course, the usual number of vulgar, low-toned songs, but none specially immoral. Our curiosity was aroused by remarks on all sides of us apropos of a lady singer. "Now you'll hear something!" said on gentleman to his neighbour; and another exclaimed, "What she don't know ain't worth knowing!" At last this embodiment of wisdom appeared, clad in a short-skirted toilette of grey silk, very décolleté, but not more so than may be seen amongst ladies in society drawing-rooms. She subsequently changed, appearing as a barmaid, in a neat black gown and linen collar and cuffs, and sang a song comparing her "customers of the male persuasion" to the various sorts of dogs - the aristocratic greyhound, the plebeian bull, and the mongrel cur, their various styles of advances to the pretty barmaid being wittily described. The refrain ran thus:-

"I take their pieces, that is all,
But if they try their larks, why they soon feel small;
I am nice to every man, no matter what he spends,
I give him what he asks, and there the matter ends."

    Apparently the audience recognised a faithful portrait, for the men thundered forth the chorus with a vast amount of knowingness and good-humoured jollity.
    A favourite performer was a nice-looking little boy, of about twelve, in a sailor costume, who bawled sentimental songs, of quite unexceptionable morality. Of course, there is a great deal to object to in the continuous consumption of drink, natural thirst being enormously increased by the heated, ill-ventilated and smoke-laden atmosphere. Two girls, who had with them a little boy of about three, had had too much, and had to be ejected; but as far as the actual performance itself went, we came to the conclusion that, with a little alteration and priming, it might be made quite decent; and for the sake of our respectable working population, many of whom frequent the cheaper seats in these places with their daughters and sweethearts, this ought to be done.

The Vigilance Record, April 1889 p.28

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