« PreviousContinue »
The Present Aspect of the London Stage.
If a veteran play-goer of fifty years ago were to rise from his grave and glance over the advertising columns of a London newspaper, the first thing that would strike him would be the enormous increase in the number of theatres. In his day, he would recollect, there were two “large houses” with patents, Drury Lane and Covent Garden; there was also a "little Haymarket,” and there was an English Opera House, but these were open in the summer only. A small obscure house, called the Sans-Pareil, had just started into celebrity, on the strength of the once famous Tom and Jerry, with the new name of the Adelphi, and in dingy Wych Street there was a dismal nook called the Olympic. Then, as now, there were theatres on the other side of the Thames, and Sadlers Wells was much more famous than it is now, though less so than it was towards the close of the latter half of this century. At present, however, we confine our regards to what some writers call “central London," viz., the district that is bounded on the north by Oxford Street and Holborn, on the south by the Strand, on the east by Temple Bar, and on the west by St. James's Street. If to the theatres within this limit are added the Prince of Wales's in Tottenham Court Road, and the Court in Sloane Street, we have all the data requisite for ascertaining the theatrical tastes and proclivities of the London public. The fortunes of the more remote houses over the water or in the suburbs, represent local predilections, but they have no influence whatever on the inhabitants of what may be called the theatrical capital.
It is, then, to the increase within the limits here defined that the resuscitated play-goer would direct his astonished glances. Covent Garden being, save at Christmas time, appropriated to Italian Opera, may be, of course, omitted from the list of English theatres, properly so called. Old Drury stands where it did, so does the Haymarket, no longer considered "little," so does the Lyceum (representing the old English Opera House), so do the Adelphi and the Olympic, in far more imposing form than belonged to them in, say, 1824. In addition to these, we have the Strand, the Princess's, the Queen's, the Gaiety, the Globe, the Vaudeville, the Opéra Comique, the Prince of Wales's, the Royalty, the Holborn, the Court, the Alhambra; and the Charing Cross—in all thirteen; some opened within the last few years, the oldest not counting more than five and forty. It may be objected that the Prince of Wales's existed prior to that date, but we are certain that an old typical play-goer did not take within the sphere of his consciousness the obscure premises sometimes called the Queen's, sometimes the West London. Within the period we have stated, that theatre has indeed been favoured with some permanent flushes of celebrity, and a very advanced age is not requisite to recollect the bright days of the Queen's, under Mrs. Nesbitt, and of the Fitzroy, under the guidance of the wits who published the precursor of Punch. But the present prominent position of the Prince of Wales's and the high celebrity it has now acquired are entirely due to the tact and energy of Mrs. Bancroft.
We have then (Covent Garden being deducted) twelve additional theatres since the days of our old play-goer. But this mere addition of twelve by no means adequately expresses the augmented theatrical capabilities of modern London. In the old times the legitimate drama could only be legally produced at Drury Lane, Covent Garden and the Haymarket, and even at the last of these only during the summer season, when the two others were supposed to be closed. The English Opera House was licensed for the performance exclusively of operas and “ burlettas”—a word once in vogue to denote a light piece the dialogue of which was interspersed with Songs. Even at the Adelphi, during the brilliant management of Mr. Yates and his successive partners, the performance of those melodramas to which the house owed its fame was rather tolerated than sanctioned by the authorities. Every one of those pieces, however long or however serious, was to be looked upon as a burlotta, and to obtain the requisite licence for its performance it was imperatively necessary to introduce a certain number of songs into each act. These were, indeed, frequently omitted on representation, and the omission was unnoticed, but the very regulation was enough to make palpable the existence of legal fetters, and the regulations which applied to the Adelphi applied to every other theatre in London, with the exception of the favoured three.
Now, under the present system, which has prevailed for about thirty years, all theatres are, in the eyes of the law, absolutely equal, as far as concerns the right of producing pieces. To the patent theatres, whose patent is virtually abolished, some privileges are still attached, but these are not of the slightest importance to the public. Any manager, duly licensed by the chamberlain, may play any piece, duly licensed by the chamberlain, without regard to the class of drama to which it belongs. The manager who to-day thrives upon burlesque and ballet, may, if he pleases, become rigidly Shakespearian to-morrow. The increase, therefore, of the theatrical capabilities of London is represented, not by the mere addition of a large number of minor theatres to a small number of houses, with exclusive privileges, but by the substitution of the large number for the small one, without any distinction of caste.
The present state of the law was chiefly brought about by a party of literary enthusiasts, who thought that if the fetters imposed by the patent system were abolished there would probably be a Victorian age of the English drama, rivalling the Elizabethan. And the reformers had a strong case before them. The principal managers refused to play the legitimate drama, deciding that it was un profitable, but nevertheless, in a dog-in-the-manger spirit, brought down the arm of the law on the unprivileged managers who dared make a "legitimate” venture. Thirty years ago the inference seemed very logical that legal restrictions had alone kept the legitimate drama in the background.
Neverthelesss, the expectations of the reformers were disappointed, and of those who are now living, many may be heard regretting that the reform ever took place. The poetical drama, to which they hoped to give new vitality, has become nearly extinct, though there is no legal impediment to prevent its flourishing, and the theatrical popularity of Shakespeare, firmly believed in thirty years ago, would scarcely have survived the abolition of the patents elsewhere than at Sadler's Wells, had it not been for the energy and enterprising spirit of Mr. Charles Kean, whose Shakspearian "revivals” during his management of the Princess's Theatre forced the bard in favour by a liberal use of gorgeous and archeological appliances. When Mr. Charles Kean was living it was the fashion, even among the worshippers of the poetical drama, to sneer at him both as an actor and as a manager; but it will be long before we look upon his like again. The Shakspearian "revivals” of Drury Lane do not belong to the same category as those at the Princess's between 1851 and 1859.
Tragedy, so popular at the commencement of this century, is not attractive now in the capital, though it is still potent in the large provincial towns. This is not because it is too serious, but because it is too ideal. Playgoing Londoners are well content to cry for three successive hours, but it must be at the sufferings of persons who are on the same level as themselves. The great effect recently produced by Mr. Willis's Charles I.' at the Lyceum must be attributed to the fact that the feelings of the unfortunate king as a husband and as a father were constantly brought to the foreground.
To use a common word of doubtful etymology, the present playgoing world is pre-eminently “realistic.” Plays of domestic interest are liked, so are pictures of modern society, so are works of the most fantastic and extravagant kind, provided—and the provision is indispensable—that they appeal strongly to the senses. If we leave the reality of frock-coats it is for the reality of gorgeous and suggestive costumes. Strange to say, “realism ” has taken us back into the love of the old comedies. The performance at the Vaudeville of the 'School for Scandal' (now followed by the Road to Ruin'), for four hundred nights, and of the 'Bello's Stratagem' for upwards of sixty nights, to be increased to an indefinite extent, are phenomena to which the past can supply no equivalent.
The lamentation frequently heard about the decline of the drama is utterly unjustifiable, save by reference to a time when the only light literature was dramatic, and the theatres did the work of the magazines and the circulating library. The present year of grace, 1874, is much better represented on the stage than was its predecessor, 1850. Twenty years ago, when a new piece was brought out in London, the first question among the critics was, to what French source it could be traced. Originality, where the stage was concerned, was invariably deemed to be something beyond the reach of English capability, and a Parisian drama, in which M. Dubois had been converted into Mr. Smith, was readily accepted as a portraiture of the subjects of Queen Victoria. In those days there was no Robertson, no Gilbert, no Albery, no Byron. Whatever may be thought of the merits of these gentlemen, this much is certain, that they have not been mere "adapters."
The theatrical categories now most conspicuous in London are the comedy, the dramatised novel, and the burlesque. The comedy, when new, is not that of Sheridan, but that of Robertson, who was particularly fortunate in becoming associated with the tasteful directress of the Prince of Wales's Theatre, who, on the other hand, is to be congratulated for her association with Mr. Robertson. In the theatrical chronicles of the nineteenth century, the author and the directress will have to be set down as eminently representative persons. The former could do just the sort of article that was suited to a certain highly respectable section of modern London society, and the latter presented it to the public with most adequate appliances. Away from Tottenham Street, Mr. Robertson achieved no very brilliant success; producing a new play, not by Mr. Robertson, Mrs. Bancroft rarely gained fresh laurels. The creative and executive parties seem to have been expressly born for each other, and while we are now writing * School' has passed its five hundredth representation.
The Robertsonian comedy, which is the comedy of this period par excellence, is unexceptionably moral and decorous, indubitably modern, and distinguished by pointed dialogue. It does not make people shed too many tears or laugh too loudly, nor does it startle anybody by thrilling “situations." We should say that it especially appealed to the Upper Ten of the middle class, to the good family men, who despise melodrama, and are anxious, above all, that their wives and daughters shall neither seo nor hear anything improper. We have known puritanical fathers who, abominating theatres as a rule, have taken their sons to see 'Hamlet,' as a proper testimony to the worth of the national poet, and we have not the slightest doubt that there are numerous persons who patronize the Prince of Wales's and no other similar place of public amusement.
Mr. Albery may be regarded as the immediate disciple of Mr. Robertson, but he writes with a less delicate hand. With his dialogue he takes great pains, but he is careless with his plots, whereas this was never the case with his predecessor. The play. Married,' produced several weeks ago, was a signal failure, not because it was worse written than more successful pieces, but because the plot appealed to no human sympathy.
Within the last three years or so Mr. Gilbert has struck out a path of his own, and there is reason to regret that he has apparently abandoned it. In an age which, as we have said, is repugnant to tragedy on account of its ideal character, he has invented a sort of ideal comedy, totally distinct from any class of drama belonging to a former period. "The Palace of Truth,' “Pygmalion and Galatea and the Wicked World,' are alone of their kind, nor has any one attempted to imitate them, except Mr. Albrey, whose 'Oriana,' brought out at the beginning of last year, was a comparative failure. The pieces are, in fact, results of the rage for burlesque, which was more generally prevalent a few years ago than it is just now. Antique and fanciful costumes had long grown distasteful to the public, when applied to serious purposes, but they were liked when accompanied by the song and dance of the extravaganza. Mr. Gilbert, before he wrote his peculiar comedies, was the author of several burlesques, but even these showed a tendency to depart from the coarser drolleries which had once been deemed essential, and to heighten the fanciful element at the expense of the grotesque. The transition from his earlier to his later period was marked by the Princess,' a piece in blank verse, founded on the Laureate's poem, and produced at the Olympic Theatre.
Whether he was disheartened by the severe censures passed in some quarters on the Wicked World,' or whether he has grown tired of Dreamland, the present season has not yet been enlivened by Mr. Gilbert's sportive fancy, but he has preferred to give us a comedy of real life, which is now performed at the Haymarket with the title
Charity. Mr. Gilbert has long been known as a writer of prose comedies, and his pieces are distinguished from those of Mr. Robertson by a vigorous tone and a vein of sarcasm, which are peculiarly his own. Charity' has not, however, proved a very fortunate work Although its origin is entirely independent of Mr. Wilkie Collins's 'New Magdalen,' and although the erring lady in the one piece is a personage totally different from the thievish outcast in the other, the two tales of female “ rebabilitation " came uncommonly close together, and a comparison between them could only lead to the conclusion that the New Magdalen,' in spite of its dubious moral, was a much more interesting play. There is a character in
There is a character in Charity' which would do credit to any author, namely, a female tramp, who has been brought up amid the scum of society, and presents & strange