Between 1833 and 1836, the nineteenth-century writer Charles Dickens wrote a number of sketches which were originally published in various newspapers and other periodicals including The Morning Chronicle, The Evening Chronicle, The Monthly Magazine, The Carlton Chronicle and Bell’s Weekly Messenger. Many were published under the pen name of Boz, which Dickens adopted early on in his career as a writer and journalist. The popular sketches were reproduced in 1836 in a collected work (along with some new material), Sketches by Boz, which contained 56 sketches divided into four sections: Our Parish (7 sketches) Scenes (25 sketches), Characters (12 sketches) and Tales (12 sketches). The material in the first three sections consists of portraits of London life and the last section comprised fictional stories.
The following sketch, Private Theatres, first appeared in The Evening Chronicle on Tuesday, 11 August 1835.
Sketches by Boz. Scenes, Chapter 13.
‘Richard the Third.—Duke of Glo’ster 2l.; Earl of Richmond, 1l; Duke of Buckingham, 15s.; Catesby, 12s.; Tressel, 10s. 6d.; Lord Stanley, 5s.; Lord Mayor of London, 2s. 6d.’
Such are the written placards wafered up in the gentlemen’s dressing-room, or the green-room (where there is any), at a private theatre; and such are the sums extracted from the shop-till, or overcharged in the office expenditure, by the donkeys who are prevailed upon to pay for permission to exhibit their lamentable ignorance and boobyism on the stage of a private theatre. This they do, in proportion to the scope afforded by the character for the display of their imbecility. For instance, the Duke of Glo’ster is well worth two pounds, because he has it all to himself; he must wear a real sword, and what is better still, he must draw it, several times in the course of the piece. The soliloquies alone are well worth fifteen shillings; then there is the stabbing King Henry—decidedly cheap at three-and-sixpence, that’s eighteen-and-sixpence; bullying the coffin-bearers—say eighteen-pence, though it’s worth much more—that’s a pound. Then the love scene with Lady Ann, and the bustle of the fourth act can’t be dear at ten shillings more—that’s only one pound ten, including the ‘off with his head!’—which is sure to bring down the applause, and it is very easy to do—‘Orf with his ed’ (very quick and loud;—then slow and sneeringly)—‘So much for Bu-u-u-uckingham!’ Lay the emphasis on the ’uck;’ get yourself gradually into a corner, and work with your right hand, while you’re saying it, as if you were feeling your way, and it’s sure to do. The tent scene is confessedly worth half-a-sovereign, and so you have the fight in, gratis, and everybody knows what an effect may be produced by a good combat. One—two—three—four—over; then, one—two—three—four—under; then thrust; then dodge and slide about; then fall down on one knee; then fight upon it, and then get up again and stagger. You may keep on doing this, as long as it seems to take—say ten minutes—and then fall down (backwards, if you can manage it without hurting yourself), and die game: nothing like it for producing an effect. They always do it at Astley’s and Sadler’s Wells, and if they don’t know how to do this sort of thing, who in the world does? A small child, or a female in white, increases the interest of a combat materially—indeed, we are not aware that a regular legitimate terrific broadsword combat could be done without; but it would be rather difficult, and somewhat unusual, to introduce this effect in the last scene of Richard the Third, so the only thing to be done, is, just to make the best of a bad bargain, and be as long as possible fighting it out.
The principal patrons of private theatres are dirty boys, low copying-clerks, in attorneys’ offices, capacious-headed youths from city counting-houses, Jews whose business, as lenders of fancy dresses, is a sure passport to the amateur stage, shop-boys who now and then mistake their masters’ money for their own; and a choice miscellany of idle vagabonds. The proprietor of a private theatre may be an ex-scene-painter, a low coffee-house-keeper, a disappointed eighth-rate actor, a retired smuggler, or uncertificated bankrupt. The theatre itself may be in Catherine-street, Strand, the purlieus of the city, the neighbourhood of Gray’s-inn-lane, or the vicinity of Sadler’s Wells; or it may, perhaps, form the chief nuisance of some shabby street, on the Surrey side of Waterloo-bridge.
The lady performers pay nothing for their characters, and it is needless to add, are usually selected from one class of society; the audiences are necessarily of much the same character as the performers, who receive, in return for their contributions to the management, tickets to the amount of the money they pay.
All the minor theatres in London, especially the lowest, constitute the centre of a little stage-struck neighbourhood. Each of them has an audience exclusively its own; and at any you will see dropping into the pit at half-price, or swaggering into the back of a box, if the price of admission be a reduced one, divers boys of from fifteen to twenty-one years of age, who throw back their coat and turn up their wristbands, after the portraits of Count D’Orsay, hum tunes and whistle when the curtain is down, by way of persuading the people near them, that they are not at all anxious to have it up again, and speak familiarly of the inferior performers as Bill Such-a-one, and Ned So-and-so, or tell each other how a new piece called The Unknown Bandit of the Invisible Cavern, is in rehearsal; how Mister Palmer is to play The Unknown Bandit; how Charley Scarton is to take the part of an English sailor, and fight a broadsword combat with six unknown bandits, at one and the same time (one theatrical sailor is always equal to half a dozen men at least); how Mister Palmer and Charley Scarton are to go through a double hornpipe in fetters in the second act; how the interior of the invisible cavern is to occupy the whole extent of the stage; and other town-surprising theatrical announcements. These gentlemen are the amateurs—the Richards, Shylocks, Beverleys, and Othellos—the Young Dorntons, Rovers, Captain Absolutes, and Charles Surfaces—a private theatre.
See them at the neighbouring public-house or the theatrical coffee-shop! They are the kings of the place, supposing no real performers to be present; and roll about, hats on one side, and arms a-kimbo, as if they had actually come into possession of eighteen shillings a-week, and a share of a ticket night. If one of them does but know an Astley’s supernumerary he is a happy fellow. The mingled air of envy and admiration with which his companions will regard him, as he converses familiarly with some mouldy-looking man in a fancy neckerchief, whose partially corked eyebrows, and half-rouged face, testify to the fact of his having just left the stage or the circle, sufficiently shows in what high admiration these public characters are held.
With the double view of guarding against the discovery of friends or employers, and enhancing the interest of an assumed character, by attaching a high-sounding name to its representative, these geniuses assume fictitious names, which are not the least amusing part of the play-bill of a private theatre. Belville, Melville, Treville, Berkeley, Randolph, Byron, St. Clair, and so forth, are among the humblest; and the less imposing titles of Jenkins, Walker, Thomson, Barker, Solomons, &c., are completely laid aside. There is something imposing in this, and it is an excellent apology for shabbiness into the bargain. A shrunken, faded coat, a decayed hat, a patched and soiled pair of trousers—nay, even a very dirty shirt (and none of these appearances are very uncommon among the members of the corps dramatique), may be worn for the purpose of disguise, and to prevent the remotest chance of recognition. Then it prevents any troublesome inquiries or explanations about employment and pursuits; everybody is a gentleman at large, for the occasion, and there are none of those unpleasant and unnecessary distinctions to which even genius must occasionally succumb elsewhere. As to the ladies (God bless them), they are quite above any formal absurdities; the mere circumstance of your being behind the scenes is a sufficient introduction to their society—for of course they know that none but strictly respectable persons would be admitted into that close fellowship with them, which acting engenders. They place implicit reliance on the manager, no doubt; and as to the manager, he is all affability when he knows you well,—or, in other words, when he has pocketed your money once, and entertains confident hopes of doing so again.
A quarter before eight—there will be a full house to-night—six parties in the boxes, already; four little boys and a woman in the pit; and two fiddles and a flute in the orchestra, who have got through five overtures since seven o’clock (the hour fixed for the commencement of the performances), and have just begun the sixth. There will be plenty of it, though, when it does begin, for there is enough in the bill to last six hours at least.
That gentleman in the white hat and checked shirt, brown coat and brass buttons, lounging behind the stage-box on the O. P. side, is Mr. Horatio St. Julien, alias Jem Larkins. His line is genteel comedy—his father’s, coal and potato. He does Alfred Highflier in the last piece, and very well he’ll do it—at the price. The party of gentlemen in the opposite box, to whom he has just nodded, are friends and supporters of Mr. Beverley (otherwise Loggins), the Macbeth of the night. You observe their attempts to appear easy and gentlemanly, each member of the party, with his feet cocked upon the cushion in front of the box! They let them do these things here, upon the same humane principle which permits poor people’s children to knock double knocks at the door of an empty house—because they can’t do it anywhere else. The two stout men in the centre box, with an opera-glass ostentatiously placed before them, are friends of the proprietor—opulent country managers, as he confidentially informs every individual among the crew behind the curtain—opulent country managers looking out for recruits; a representation which Mr. Nathan, the dresser, who is in the manager’s interest, and has just arrived with the costumes, offers to confirm upon oath if required—corroborative evidence, however, is quite unnecessary, for the gulls believe it at once.
The stout Jewess who has just entered, is the mother of the pale, bony little girl, with the necklace of blue glass beads, sitting by her; she is being brought up to ‘the profession.’ Pantomime is to be her line, and she is coming out to-night, in a hornpipe after the tragedy. The short thin man beside Mr. St. Julien, whose white face is so deeply seared with the small-pox, and whose dirty shirt-front is inlaid with open-work, and embossed with coral studs like ladybirds, is the low comedian and comic singer of the establishment. The remainder of the audience—a tolerably numerous one by this time—are a motley group of dupes and blackguards.
The foot-lights have just made their appearance: the wicks of the six little oil lamps round the only tier of boxes, are being turned up, and the additional light thus afforded serves to show the presence of dirt, and absence of paint, which forms a prominent feature in the audience part of the house. As these preparations, however, announce the speedy commencement of the play, let us take a peep ‘behind,’ previous to the ringing-up.
The little narrow passages beneath the stage are neither especially clean nor too brilliantly lighted; and the absence of any flooring, together with the damp mildewy smell which pervades the place, does not conduce in any great degree to their comfortable appearance. Don’t fall over this plate basket—it’s one of the ‘properties’—the caldron for the witches’ cave; and the three uncouth-looking figures, with broken clothes-props in their hands, who are drinking gin-and-water out of a pint pot, are the weird sisters. This miserable room, lighted by candles in sconces placed at lengthened intervals round the wall, is the dressing-room, common to the gentlemen performers, and the square hole in the ceiling is the trap-door of the stage above. You will observe that the ceiling is ornamented with the beams that support the boards, and tastefully hung with cobwebs.
The characters in the tragedy are all dressed, and their own clothes are scattered in hurried confusion over the wooden dresser which surrounds the room. That snuff-shop-looking figure, in front of the glass, is Banquo: and the young lady with the liberal display of legs, who is kindly painting his face with a hare’s foot, is dressed for Fleance. The large woman, who is consulting the stage directions in Cumberland’s edition of Macbeth, is the Lady Macbeth of the night; she is always selected to play the part, because she is tall and stout, and looks a little like Mrs. Siddons—at a considerable distance. That stupid-looking milksop, with light hair and bow legs—a kind of man whom you can warrant town-made—is fresh caught; he plays Malcolm to-night, just to accustom himself to an audience. He will get on better by degrees; he will play Othello in a month, and in a month more, will very probably be apprehended on a charge of embezzlement. The black-eyed female with whom he is talking so earnestly, is dressed for the ‘gentlewoman.’ It is her first appearance, too—in that character. The boy of fourteen who is having his eyebrows smeared with soap and whitening, is Duncan, King of Scotland; and the two dirty men with the corked countenances, in very old green tunics, and dirty drab boots, are the ‘army.’
‘Look sharp below there, gents,’ exclaims the dresser, a red-headed and red-whiskered Jew, calling through the trap, ‘they’re a-going to ring up. The flute says he’ll be blowed if he plays any more, and they’re getting precious noisy in front.’ A general rush immediately takes place to the half-dozen little steep steps leading to the stage, and the heterogeneous group are soon assembled at the side scenes, in breathless anxiety and motley confusion.
‘Now,’ cries the manager, consulting the written list which hangs behind the first P. S. wing, ‘Scene 1, open country—lamps down—thunder and lightning—all ready, White?’ [This is addressed to one of the army.] ‘All ready.’—‘Very well. Scene 2, front chamber. Is the front chamber down?’—‘Yes.’—‘Very well.’—‘Jones’ [to the other army who is up in the flies]. ‘Hallo!’—‘Wind up the open country when we ring up.’—‘I’ll take care.’—‘Scene 3, back perspective with practical bridge. Bridge ready, White? Got the tressels there?’—‘All right.’
‘Very well. Clear the stage,’ cries the manager, hastily packing every member of the company into the little space there is between the wings and the wall, and one wing and another. ‘Places, places. Now then, Witches—Duncan—Malcolm—bleeding officer—where’s the bleeding officer?’—‘Here!’ replies the officer, who has been rose-pinking for the character. ‘Get ready, then; now, White, ring the second music-bell.’ The actors who are to be discovered, are hastily arranged, and the actors who are not to be discovered place themselves, in their anxiety to peep at the house, just where the audience can see them. The bell rings, and the orchestra, in acknowledgment of the call, play three distinct chords. The bell rings—the tragedy (!) opens—and our description closes.
Discover more Sketches by Boz.
Private Theatres appeared in The Evening Chronicle as number 19 in a series of 20 Sketches of London which the editor George Hogarth commissioned Charles Dickens to write. The series, which followed the success of Dickens’s work with The Morning Chronicle, appeared between January and August 1835. They were later republished under a collected work, Sketches by Boz. Charles Dickens became engaged to George Hogarth’s daughter, Catherine also around the time of Spring, 1835.
the O. P. side (parag. 9) is the opposite prompt side of a theatre stage, i.e. stage right (P. S. being used to denote the prompt side).
looks a little like Mrs. Siddons (parag. 13) refers to Sarah Siddons (1755-1831). Siddons was the most renowned actress of 18th century Britain, famous for her portrayal of tragic characters, most notably Lady Macbeth.
behind the first P. S. wing (parag. 15) is the front wing on the prompt side (stage left) of the stage.