The Amusements of the People was the name of two articles written by Charles Dickens in 1850 exploring popular theatre. The first, published in the first edition of Dickens own weekly magazine Household Words on 30 March, 1850, looked at a visit to what is now the Old Vic theatre near London’s Waterloo Station. The second, reproduced here, looks at a visit to The Britannia, a popular saloon theatre in London’s east-end and the then largest in the capital. It was published in the third edition of Household Words on 13 April, 1850. Dickens had previously wrote about another saloon theatre, the The Eagle, 15 years earlier in the sketch Miss Evans and the Eagle, reproduced in Sketches by Boz (Characters, Chapter 4) and also refers to it in the introduction to this work.
THE AMUSEMENTS OF THE PEOPLE.
MR. WHELKS being much in the habit of recreating himself at a class of theatres called ‘Saloons,’ we repaired to one of these, not long ago, on a Monday evening; Monday being a great holiday-night with MR. WHELKS and his friends.
The Saloon in question is the largest in London (that which is known as The Eagle, in the City Road, should be excepted from the generic term, as not presenting by any means the same class of entertainment), and is situate not far from Shoreditch Church. It announces ‘The People’s Theatre,’ as its second name. The prices of admission are, to the boxes, a shilling; to the pit, sixpence; to the lower gallery, fourpence; to the upper gallery and back seats, threepence. There is no half-price. The opening piece on this occasion was described in the bills as ‘ the greatest hit of the season, the grand new legendary and traditionary drama, combining supernatural agencies with historical facts, and identifying extraordinary superhuman causes with material, terrific, and powerful effects.’ All the queen’s horses and all the queen’s men could not have drawn MR. WHELKS into the place like this description. Strengthened by lithographic representations of the principal super- human causes, combined with the most popular of the material, terrific, and powerful effects, it became irresistible. Consequently, we had already failed, once, in finding six square inches of room within the walls, to stand upon; and when we now paid our money for a little stage box, like a dry shower-bath, we did so in the midst of a stream of people who persisted in paying their’s for other parts of the house in despite of the representations of the Money-taker that it was ‘very full, everywhere.’
The outer avenues and passages of the People’s Theatre bore abundant testimony to the fact of its being frequented by very dirty people. Within, the atmosphere was far from odoriferous. The place was crammed to excess, in all parts. Among the audience were a large number of boys and youths, and a great many very young girls grown into bold women before they had well ceased to be children. These last were the worst features of the whole crowd, and were more prominent there than in any other sort of public assembly that we know of, except at a public execution. There was no drink supplied, beyond the contents of the porter-can (magnified in its dimensions, perhaps), which may be usually seen traversing the galleries of the largest Theatres as well as the least, and which was here seen everywhere. Huge ham-sandwiches, piled on trays like deals in a timber-yard, were handed about for sale to the hungry; and there was no stint of oranges cakes, brandy-balls, or other similar refreshments. The Theatre was capacious, with a very large capable stage, well lighted, well appointed, and managed in a business-like, orderly manner in all respects; the performances had begun so early as a quarter past six, and had been then in progress for three-quarters of an hour.
It was apparent here, as in the theatre we had previously visited, that one of the reasons of its great attraction was its being directly addressed to the common people, in the provision made for their seeing and hearing. Instead of being put away in a dark gap in the roof of an immense building, as in our once National Theatres, they were here in possession of eligible points of view, and thoroughly able to take in the whole performance. Instead of being at a great disadvantage in comparison with the mass of the audience, they were here the audience, for whose accommodation the place was made. We believe this to be one great cause of the success of these speculations. In whatever way the common people are addressed, whether in churches, chapels, schools, lecture-rooms, or theatres, to be successfully addressed they must be directly appealed to. No matter how good the feast, they will not come to it on mere sufferance. If, on looking round us, we find that the only things plainly and personally addressed to them, from quack medicines upwards, be bad or very defective things,—so much the worse for them and for all of us, and so much the more unjust and absurd the system which has haughtily abandoned a strong ground to such occupation.
We will add that we believe these people have a right to be amused. A great deal that we consider to be unreasonable, is written and talked about not licensing these places of entertainment. We have already intimated that we believe a love of dramatic representations to be an inherent principle in human nature. In most conditions of human life of which we have any knowledge, from the Greeks to the Bosjesmen, some form of dramatic representation has always obtained.* We have a vast respect for county magistrates, and for the lord chamberlain; but we render greater deference to such extensive and immutable experience, and think it will outlive the whole existing court and commission. We would assuredly not bear harder on the fourpenny theatre, than on the four shilling theatre, or the four guinea theatre; but we would decidedly interpose to turn to some wholesome account the means of instruction which it has at command, and we would make that office of Dramatic Licenser, which, like many other offices, has become a mere piece of Court favour and dandy conventionality, a real, responsible, educational trust. We would have it exercise a sound supervision over the lower drama, instead of stopping the career of a real work of art, as it did in the case of Mr. Chorley’s play at the Surrey Theatre, but a few weeks since, for a sickly point of form.
To return to Mr. Whelks. The audience, being able to see and hear, were very attentive. They were so closely packed, that they took a little time in settling down after any pause; but otherwise the general disposition was to lose nothing, and to check (in no choice language) any disturber of the business of the scene.
On our arrival, MR. WHELKS had already followed Lady Hatton the Heroine (whom we faintly recognised as a mutilated theme of the late THOMAS INGOLDSBY) to the ‘Gloomy Dell and Suicide’s Tree,’ where Lady H. had encountered the ‘apparition of the dark man of doom,’ and heard the ‘fearful story of the Suicide.’ She had also ‘signed the compact in her own Blood;’ beheld ‘ the Tombs rent asunder;’ seen ‘ skeletons start from their graves, and gibber Mine, mine, for ever! ‘ and undergone all these little experiences, (each set forth in a separate line in the bill) in the compass of one act. It was not yet over, indeed, for we found a remote king of England of the name of ‘Enerry,’ refreshing himself with the spectacle of a dance in a Garden, which was interrupted by the ‘ thrilling appearance of the Demon.’ This ‘superhuman cause’ (with black eyebrows slanting up into his temples, and red-foil cheekbones,) brought the Drop-Curtain down as we took possession of our Shower-Bath.
It seemed, on the curtain’s going up again, that Lady Hatton had sold herself to the Powers of Darkness, on very high terms, and was now overtaken by remorse, and by jealousy too; the latter pas sion being excited by the beautiful Lady Rodolpha, ward to the king. It was to urge Lady Hatton on to the murder of this young female (as well as we could make out, but both we and MR. WHELKS found the incidents complicated) that the Demon appeared ‘once again in all his terrors.’ Lady Hatton had been leading a life of piety, but the Demon was not to have his bargain declared off, in right of any such artifices, and now offered a dagger for the destruction of Rodolpha. Lady Hatton hesitating to accept this trifle from Tartarus, the Demon, for certain subtle reasons of his own, proceeded to entertain her with a view of the ‘gloomy court-yard of a convent,’ and the apparitions of the ‘ Skeleton Monk,’ and the ‘King of Terrors.’ Against these super-human causes, another superhuman cause, to wit, the ghost of Lady H.’s mother came into play, and greatly confounded the Powers of Darkness, by waving the ‘sacred emblem ‘ over the head of the else devoted Rodolpha, and causing her to sink into the earth. Upon this the Demon, losing his temper, fiercely invited Lady Hatton to ‘ Be-old the tortures of the damned! ‘ and straightway conveyed her to a ‘grand and awful view of Pandemonium, and Lake of Transparent Boiling Fire,’ whereof, and also of ‘Prometheus chained, and the Vulture gnawing at his liver,’ MR. WHELKS was exceedingly derisive.
The Demon still failing, even there, and still finding the ghost of the old lady greatly in his way, exclaimed that these vexations had such a remarkable effect upon his spirit as to ‘sear his eyeballs,’ and that he must go ‘deeper down,’ which he accordingly did. Hereupon it appeared that it was all a dream on Lady Hatton’s part, and that she was newly married and uncommonly happy. This put an end to the incongruous heap of nonsense, and set MR. WHELKS applauding mightily; for, except with the lake of transparent rolling fire (which was not half infernal enough for him), MR. WHELKS was infinitely contented with the whole of the proceedings.
Ten thousand people, every week, all the year round, are estimated to attend this place of amusement. If it were closed to-morrow—if there were fifty such, and they were all closed to-morrow—the only result would be to cause that to be privately and evasively done, which is now publicly done; to render the harm of it much greater, and to exhibit the suppressive power of the law in an oppressive and partial light. The people who now resort here, will be amused somewhere. It is of no use to blink that fact, or to make pretences to the contrary. We had far better apply ourselves to improving the character of their amusement. It would not be exacting much, or exacting anything very difficult, to require that the pieces represented in these Theatres should have, at least, a good, plain, healthy purpose in them.
To the end that our experiences might not be supposed to be partial or unfortunate, we went, the very next night, to the Theatre where we saw MAY MORNING, and found MR. WHELKS engaged in the study of an ‘Original old English Domestic and Romantic Drama,’ called ‘EVA THE BETRAYED, OR THE LADYE OF LAMBYTHE.’ We proceed to develope the incidents which gradually unfolded themselves to MR. WHELKS’S understanding.
One Geoffrey Thornley the younger, on a certain fine morning, married his father’s ward, Eva the Betrayed, the Ladye of Lambythe. She had become the betrayed, in right—or in wrong—of designing Geoffrey’s machinations; for that corrupt individual, knowing her to be under promise of marriage to Walter More, a young mariner (of whom he was accustomed to make slighting mention, as ‘a minion’), represented the said More to be no more, and obtained the consent of the too trusting Eva to their immediate union.
Now, it came to pass, by a singular coincidence, that on the identical morning of the marriage, More came home, and was taking a walk about the scenes of his boyhood—a little faded since that time—when he rescued ‘Wilbert the Hunchback’ from some very rough treatment. This misguided person, in return, immediately fell to abusing his preserver in round terms, giving him to understand that he (the preserved) hated ‘manerkind, wither two eckerceptions,’ one of them being the deceiving Geoffrey, whose retainer he was, and for whom he felt an unconquerable attachment; the other, a relative, whom, in a similar redundancy of emphasis, adapted to the requirements of MR. WHELKS, he called his ‘assister.’ This misanthrope also made the cold-blooded declaration, ‘There was a timer when I loved my fellow keretures till they deserpised me. Now, I live only to witness man’s disergherace and woman’s misery! ‘ In furtherance of this amiable purpose of existence, he directed More to where the bridal procession was coming home from church, and Eva recognised More, and More reproached Eva, and there was a great to-do, and a violent struggling, before certain social villagers who were celebrating the event with morris-dances. Eva was borne off in a tearing condition, and the bill very truly observed that the end of that part of the business was ‘despair and madness.’
Geoffrey, Geoffrey, why were you already married to another! Why could you not be true to your lawful wife Katherine, instead of deserting her, and leaving her to come tumbling into public-houses (on account of weakness) in search of you! You might have known what it would end in, Geoffrey Thornley! You might have known that she would come up to your house on your wedding day with her marriage-certificate in her pocket, determined to expose you. You might have known beforehand, as you now very composedly observe, that you would have ‘but one course to pursue.’ That course clearly is to wind your right hand in Katherine’s long hair, wrestle with her, stab her, throw down the body behind the door (Cheers from MR. WHELKS), and tell the devoted Hunchback to get rid of it. On the devoted Hunchback’s finding that it is the body of his ‘ assister,’ and taking her marriage-certificate from her pocket and denouncing you, of course you have still but one course to pursue, and that is to charge the crime upon him, and have him carried off with all speed into the ‘deep and massive dungeons beneath Thornley Hall.’
More having, as he was rather given to boast, ‘a goodly vessel on the lordly Thames,’ had better have gone away with it, weather permitting, than gone after Eva. Naturally, he got carried down to the dungeons too, for lurking about, and got put into the next dungeon to the Hunchback, then expiring from poison. And there they were, hard and fast, like two wild beasts in dens, trying to get glimpses of each other through the bars, to the unutterable interest of MR. WHELKS.
But when the Hunchback made himself known, and when More did the same; and when the Hunchback said he had got the certificate which rendered Eva’s marriage illegal; and when More raved to have it given to him, and when the Hunchback (as having some grains of misanthropy in him to the last) persisted in going into his dying agonies in a remote corner of his cage, and took unheard-of trouble not to die anywhere near the bars that were within More’s reach; MR. WHELKS applauded to the echo. At last the Hunchback was persuaded to stick the certificate on the point of a dagger, and hand it in; and that done, died extremely hard, knocking himself violently about, to the very last gasp, and certainly making the most of all the life that was in him.
Still, More had yet to get out of his den before he could turn this certificate to any account. His first step was to make such a violent uproar as to bring into his presence a certain ‘Norman Free Lance’ who kept watch and ward over him. His second, to inform this warrior, in the style of the Polite Letter-Writer, that ‘ circumstances had occurred ‘ rendering it necessary that he should be immediately let out. The warrior declining to submit himself to the force of these circumstances, Mr. More proposed to him, as a gentleman and a man of honour, to allow him to step out into the gallery, and there adjust an old feud subsisting between them, by single combat. The unwary Free Lance, consenting to this reasonable proposal, was shot from behind by the comic man, whom he bitterly designated as ‘ a snipe ‘ for that action, and then died excedingly game.
All this occurred in one day—the bridal day of the Ladye of Lambythe; and now MR. WHELKS concentrated all his energies into a focus, bent forward, looked straight in front of him, and held his breath. For, the night of the eventful day being come, MR. WHELKS was admitted to the ‘ bridal chamber of the Ladye of Lambythe,’ where he beheld a toilet table, and a particularly large and desolate four-post bedstead. Here the Ladye, having dismissed her bridesmaids, was interrupted in deploring her unhappy fate, by the entrance of her husband; and matters, under these circumstances, were proceeding to very desperate extremities, when the Ladye (by this time aware of the existence of the certificate) found a dagger on the dressing-table, and said, ‘ Attempt to enfold me in thy pernicious embrace, and this poignard—! ‘ &c. He did attempt it, however, for all that, and he and the Ladye were dragging one another about like wrestlers, when Mr. More broke open the door, and entering with the whole domestic establishment and a Middlesex magistrate, took him into custody and claimed his bride.
It is but fair to MR. WHELKS to remark on one curious fact in this entertainment. When the situations were very strong indeed, they were very like what some favourite situations in the Italian Opera would be to a profoundly deaf spectator. The despair and madness at the end of the first act, the business of the long hair, and the struggle in the bridal chamber, were as like the conventional passion of the Italian singers, as the orchestra was unlike the opera band, or its ‘hurries ‘ unlike the music of the great composers. So do extremes meet; and so is there some hopeful congeniality between what will excite MR. WHELKS, and what will rouse a Duchess.
* In the remote interior of Africa, and among the North American Indians, this truth is exemplified in an equally striking manner. Who that saw the four grim, stunted, abject Bush-people at the Egyptian Hall—with two natural actors among them out of that number, one a male and the other a female—can forget how something human and imaginative gradually broke out in the little ugly man, when he was roused from crouching over the charcoal fire, into giving a dramatic representation of the tracking of a beast, the shooting of it with poisoned arrows, and the creature’s death?