Sunday 20 March 2016

A Visit to a Music Hall (no.3)


By a Novice - III.

It chanced to be the evening of the Derby Day as we took an omnibus eastward, and having arrived at the terminus, and entered a second going in the same direction, we soon became aware, through our olfactory organs, by the blended essence of friend fish and burnt coffee borne to us on the perfume-laden breeze, that we had at least arrived in the Whitechapel Road. A third and final ride on top of a tram through monotonous miles of a long lobe unbroken level of discoloured, depressed looking dwellings, brought us close to our destination. 
    The Palace of Varieties of which we were in search is situated in the far east of London, amidst a vast stretch of low, squalid-looking houses, and stands out conspicuously by its relatively imposing dimensions and glaring lights from the surrounding gloom. Inside it is a small theatre; dress circle seats at a shilling were an allowable extravagance after such a journey, and owing to its being Derby night, and consequently there being an unusually small audience, we were fortunate enough to escape with less than half the customary fumes of drink and tobacco. How any human being contrives to survive asphyxiation on non-Derby nights would be a useful investigation for scientific men who assert that oxygen is necessary for the maintenance of life.
    The entertainment itself was very vulgar, the jokes low, the riddles coarse, and consisted largely of noise and rough horse-play. Some twanging Christies gave an excruciating rendering of the "Old Folks at Home," a new version containing a hit at Emigration, the whole concluding with a free fight between the "Old Folks," and the new folks who wished to make themselves "at home."
    A novel and to us striking feature of the entertainment was the jingoism which pervaded the place and which cheered to the echo such choruses as:

   "We've still got the men, we've still got the cash,
    We've still go the same old British pluck and dash,
    So let our foes beware, or we will make them stare,
    For there's life in the Old Dog yet."

sung with martial ardour by a warlike daughter of the regiment, dressed in crimson satin, in size a female Tichborne. This song and others of similar nature were levelled against - "those sneaking lot of cowards, the Russians" whom the audience vowed in chorus they would - 

    "Teach them to remember
      What British pluck can do," &c &c.

One began to comprehend, as one listened, how and whence the British armaments are recruited.
    The spirited goddess of war, having leisurely exchanged her martial uniform for a pink satin gown, condescended to the trivialities of more domestic sentiments; and we were favoured with the tragic history of a faithful though suspicious lover; chorus:-

    "O! isn't she a pretty little thing!
     I'll buy the wedding ring,
     And I'll take good care she never has a lodger."


    "She's been and gone and bolted with the lodger."

    Lodgers, we find are regarded by a large portion of the community, as persons of naturally depraved characters, by no means to be trusted, and to be scouted on all public occasions, more especially at Music Hall Entertainments.
    There followed one of the most painful exhibitions it has been our lot during our peregrinations to witness. A child, apparently of about nine or ten, got up in comic guise, singing with suggestive gestures coarse songs; concluding with a topical song on the degeneracy of the turf.
    The inevitable gentleman in evening dress, with his back to the stage, now announced the "Grand juvenile nautical spect-acle;" and the central table in the stalls with the announcement on it, "this table for gentlemen only" began to fill up, for was not the ballet about to commence? To the uninitiated the death of Nelson may seem rather an incongruous subject for terpsichorean representation, but they thus display a want of comprehension of which an audience drawn from the neighbourhood of the docks, inheriting the traditions and imbued with the glorious spirit of a warlike and maritime race, would not be guilty. The scene took place on the deck of the Victory, and certainly we must admit that if noise, and vulgarity and confusion, and incoherence, and Bengal lights, and banging of guns, and popping of fireworks could have killed Nelson, he must have died a thousand deaths before the final merciful release, when the charming young ballet-girl, who impersonated the great Admiral, fell mortally wounded but gracefully into the arms of the attendant officers, also ballet girls. Besides these dancers there were upwards of eighty girls and boys under fifteen representing soldiers and sailors and the rest, and four or five very small children. Here again our feelings were jarred by that want of reverence for childhood, characteristic perhaps of a teeming population, made so painfully evident earlier in the evening; the two youngest children, mere babies, were blackened, and kept the audience in a roar by their precocious tricks. Amongst other unpleasant features, causing  great hilarity, were the acrobatic antics of a human deformity, who climbed the ropes of the good ship "Victory" and stood on his head in the rigging. We were told by some of the audience he was a well-known dwarf called Blackwall Jack.
    At the conclusion of the "Nautical Spect-acle" we found our way to the dark badly-lighred street into which the stage door opened. The children steamed out; but were left to find their way home at nearly midnight as beset they could, there was no-one there to meet them. Later, one mother, a German woman, arrived and she confided in us her great anxiety about her girl of sixteen for whom she as waiting. She was not a bad girl, she said, but high-spirited and wild about the stage. She, in common with her other comrades of the ballet, got 3s. a week; it did not keep them in shoes; but they loved the excitement. It is a bad life for girls, she added, as we bade her good-night.

Vigilance Record, August 1888


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