By a Novice - I.
The saying that the man who writes the ballads of the nation is a greater power than he who makes it laws may be applied with equal truth to the men who provide its amusements. The power of the individuals mostly unknown who cater for the entertainment of the public is indeed immeasurably greater than that of the legislators enthroned in Westminster. A very large proportion of the electors of the country frequent at some time or other place of amusement, there they receive the food in the shape of the pleasurable excitement which they go for, in so far does it go to form part of their characters, whether they forget all about it in the next hour or not, just as surely as the dinner they ate last year went to build them up physically. The amusement managers therefore have direct influence in the formation of the characters in the individuals constituting the nation, whilst the legislators merely formulate and organize the collective opinions which are the result expressed in votes of these characters.
It was perhaps with some such thoughts in our minds that my friend and I started off down Regent Street one evening this Spring for a well-known place of amusement. Being mere novices, we somehow at 8.30 found ourselves somewhere else, but fortunately at the doors of another notorious music hall, which would do equally well for the purpose of our researches. We entered, not it must be confessed without some inward trepidation, my friend emphasising the request that I should take the tickets by the doubtful compliment that I looked "the most like it". Having invested in shilling places, we passed into a large luxuriously fitted building, like a theatre built square; the space in which we found ourselves, beneath the dress circle, formed a promenade, and was fitted like a restaurant. We were informed by an old official in French uniform at the door, that if we wanted seat we must apply to the waiter who was at that moment engaged in paying conspicuous attention to almost the only young girl to be seen in this part of the hall. having received the expected tip, this amiable personage was enabled to discover the needful chairs at a table already overcrowded with smoking youths.
The whole of the parterre (the stalls and a pit at an ordinary theatre) was fitted with luxurious plush setées, running at right angles with the stage and facing marble tables. They were occupied as the evening advanced by a great number of society young gentlemen, accompanied in numerous instances by ladies not in society, though we remarked one or two women amongst the company who were apparently quite respectable. The dress circle consisted entirely of small private boxes, a deux, price £1 1s. to £3 3s., which were filled in every instance by a gentleman with a cigar and a lady, generally young and pretty, in extremely decoletée costume. A strange feature to unaccustomed eyes was a gentleman, got up regardless of expense, in evening dress, seated throughout the performance in the stalls, in a prominent position, with his back to the stage. His duties consisted in announcing the name of the performer about to appear, whilst rigidly retaining his uncompromising attitude, as they he at any rate washed his hands of the whole concern.
The entertainment began well enough: that is to say, although intensely vulgar, there was nothing morally objectionable in the first few songs, until we were treated to one sung by a man, describing supposed feminine indiscretions with the following chorus:
"The poor little darlings they're not to blame,
"They know that their mothers have done the same,
"So why should we blame the girls."
But even this was quite thrown into the shade by a song entitled, "A very different place," sung by Mr. M- , the last verses of which described how he had been invited by a cousin to visit her girls' school in St. John's Wood, and how on his arrival he found it "a very different place," the chorus being,
"If in you chance to pop, I'll bet a crown you stop," &c. &c.
Both these choruses were enthusiastically shouted by the audience.
We read in The Indian Purity Trumpet "that several Hindoos were recently arrested and fined for singing indecent songs in Bombay theatres, the magistrate in passing sentence expressed his strong determination to put a stop to such conduct." British hypocrisy has indeed reached a climax when we exact from subject heathen races a morality to which we ourselves make no attempt to conform.
The songs were followed by a coarse burlesque scene of a man who was the bone of contention between two girls; the man was finally chased up the stage by a dog, amidst delighted yells from the audience.
A delightfully clever Japanese juggler, now formed a pleasing interlude with his marvellous dexterity. Then a pretty child who, we were told, was twelve, although her voice that of a child of eight, danced six or seven dances in succession, changing her dress, if her very slight attire may be dignified by that name, between each, with lightening swiftness.
There was besides this an immense deal of solo-burlesque dancing of a very objectionable kind, which culminated in the appearance of a man, about 6ft 6in. high, attired as a ballet girl. This person was accompanied by a burlesque woman dancer, almost as objectionable as himself; they were both French, in which tongue they sang several comic songs. A shadow performance, also by a Frenchman, was very clever and interesting at first; but was spoilt by the vulgarity and indecency introduced into it towards the end.
The whole entertainment concluded with some beautiful jumping by wonderful dogs; but the audience rose en masse and left as the dogs made their appearance. The simple grace and beauty of the faithful animals had no attraction for an audience whose tastes lay in a "very different" direction.
The French say that John Bull takes his pleasures "sadly"; it would be more to the point if they said he takes it respectably, however questionable or unquestionable it may be in kind; his outward demeanour is irreproachable, whether he be assisting at a Church Service or a Music Hall entertainment. The present occasion was no exception to the rule; for, if homage was done to the goddess Lubricity, due respect was also paid to the great god Conventionality. About one-fourth of the audience consisted of women of light character; the remaining three-fourths of young men of every conceivable rank and condition in life, from those who could barely afford a shilling to those to whom a hundred would be of no moment; and one and all behaved with the greatest decorum and propriety throughout.
As we followed the multitude out into the crowded thoroughfare, we overheard one young fellow say to another, "This is no place for you and me." Perhaps the calm peace of the midnight sky, looking reproachfully down with its clear shining eyes, may have brought to him the vision of a refined and simple home, sleeping far away amidst flowers and trees in the stillness of the starlight, the abode of pure-minded mother and sisters, whose hopes, and joys, and sacrifices, had centred for years round a beloved brother, now gone forth into the great world of which they know so little, and whose tender faith in him has been desecrated this night for the first time. Is it the beginning of the end? Or will the true manliness which uttered those words conquer? Who can tell?
Vigilance Record, June 1888