1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Music Halls

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MUSIC HALLS. The “' variety theatre ” or “ music-hall " of to-day developed out of the “ saloon 'theatres"' which existed in London about=1830-1840; they owed theiriform and existence to the restrictive action of the “ patent ” theatres at that time; These theatres had the exclusive right of representing what was broadly called the “legitimate drama, ” which 'ranged from Shakespeare to Monk Lewis, and from Sheridan and Goldsmith to Kotzebue and Alderman Birch of Cornhill, citizen and poet; and the founder of the turtle-soup trade. The»patent houses defended their rights when they were attacked by the “ minor” and “ saloon ” theatres, but they often acted in the spirit of the dog in the manger. While they pursued up to ine and even imprisonment the poachers on their dramatic preserves, they too often neglected the “legitimate ~drama ” for the supposed meretricious attractions offered by their illegitimate competitors. The British theatre gravitated naturally to the inn or tavern. The tavern was the source of life andfheat, and warmed all social gatherings. The inn galleries offered rather rough stages, before the Shakespeare and Alleyn playhouses were built. The inn yards were often made as comfortable as possible for the “ ground lings ” by layers of straw, but' the tavern character of the auditorium was never concealed. Excisable liquor was always obtainable, and the superiorrnernbers Of the audience, who chose to pay for seats at the side of the stage or platform (like the “ avant-scene ” boxes at a Parisian theatre); were allowed to smoke Raleigh's Virginian weed, then a novel luxury. This was, of course, the first germ of a "' smoking theatre.” t 1 -

~ While the drama progressed as a recognized publicentertainiment in England, and was provided with its own buildings, in the town, or certain booths at the fairs, the Crown exercised Eits patronage in favour of certain individuals, giving them power to set up playhouses atany time in any parts of London and Westminster. The first and most important grant was made by Charles II. to his “ trusty and well-beloved ” Thomas Killigrew “ and Sir William Davenant.” i This was a personal grant, not connected with any particular sites or buildings, and is known in theatrical history as the “ Killigrew and Davenant patent.” Killigrew was the author of several unsuccessful plays, and Sir William Davenant, said to be an illegitimate child of William Shakespeare, was a stage manager of great daring and genius. Charles II. had-strong theatrical leanings, and had helped to arrange the court ballets at Versailles for Louis XIV. 'The Killigrew and Davenant patent in course of time descended, after a fashion, to the Theatres Royal, Covent Garden and Drury Lane, and was and still is the chief legal authority governing these theatres. The “ minor ” and outlying playhouses were carried on under the Music and Dancing Actof George II., and the annual licences were granted by the local magistrates. ~ 1 The theatre proper having emancipated itself from the inn or tavern, it was now the turn of the inn or tavern to develop into an independent place of amusement, and to lay the foundation of that enormous middle-class and lower middle-class institution of interest which we agree to termthe music hall. It rose from the most modest, humble and obscure beginning-from the public-house bar-parlour, and its weekly “ sing-songs, ” chiefly supported by voluntary talent from the “harmonic meetings" of the “ long—room '>' upstairs, generally used as a Foresters' Or Masonicclub-room, where one or two professional singers, were engaged- and a regular chairman was appointed, to the “ assembly-room ” entertainments at certain hotels, where private balls and school festivals formed part of an irregular series., The district. “ tea-garden, ” which was then an agreeable featurfxof suburban lifeethe suburbs being next door to the city' and the country next door to the suburbs-was the first to show»dramati£ ambition, and to erect in some portion of its limited but leafy grounds a lath-and-plaster stage large enough for about eight people to move upon without incurring the danger of falling 05 into the adjoining fish pond and fountain. A few classical statues in plaster, always slightly mutilated, gave an educational tone to the place, and with a few coloured oil-lamps hung amongst the bushes the proprietor felt he had gone as near the “Royal Vauxhall Gardens " as possible for the small charge of a sixpenny refreshment ticket. There were degrees of quality, of course, amongst these places, which answered to the German beer gardens, though with inferior music. The Beulah Spa at Norwood, the White Conduit House at Pentonville, the Yorkshire Stingo in the Marylebone Road, the Monster at Pimlico, the St Helena at Rotherhithe, the Globe at Mile End, the Red Cow at Dalston, the Highbury Barn at Highbury, the Manor House at Mare Street, Hackney, the Rosemary Branch at Hoxton, and other rus-in-urbe retreats, were up to the level of their time, if rarely beyond it.

The suspended animation of the law-the one Georgian act, which was mainly passed to check the singing of lacobite songs in the tap-rooms and tea-gardens of the little London of 1730, when the whole population of the United Kingdom was only about six millions-encouraged the growth eventually of a number of “saloon theatres ” in various London districts, which were allowed under the head of “Music and Dancing” to go as far on the light dramatic road as the patent theatres thought proper to permit. The 2 5 Geo. II. c. 36, which in later days was still the only act under which the music halls of forty millions and more of people were licensed, was always liberally interpreted, as long as it kept clear of politics. The “ saloon theatres, ” always being taverns or attached to taverns, created a public who liked to mix its dramatic amusernents with smoking and light refreshments. The principal “ saloons ” were the Effingham in the Whitechapel Road, the Bower in the Lower Marsh, Lambeth, the Albert at Islington, the Britarmia at Hoxton, the Grecian in the City Road, the Union in Shoreditch, the Stingo at Paddington and several others of less importance. All these places had good companies, especially in the winter, and many of them nourished leading actors of exceptional merit. The dramas were chiefly rough adaptations from the contemporary French stage, occasionally fiying as high as Alexandre Dumas the elder and Victor Hugo. Actors of real tragic power lived, worked and died in this confined area. Some went to America, and acquired fame and fortune; and among others, Frederick Robson, who was trained at the Grecian, first when it was the leading saloon theatre and afterwards when it became the leading music hall (a distinction with little difference), fought his way to the front after the abolition of the “ patent rights ” and was accepted as the greatest tragi-comic actor of his time. The Grecian saloon theatre, better known perhaps, with its pleasure garden or yard, as the Eagle Tavem, City Road, which formed the material of one of Charles Dickens's Sketches by Baz, was a place managed with much taste, enterprise and discretion by its proprietor, Mr Rouse. It was the “ saloon ” where the one and only attempt, with limited means, was ever made to import almost all the original repertory of the Opéra Comique in Paris, with the result that many musical works were presented to a sixpenny audience that had never been heard before nor since in England. Auber, Hérold, Adolphe Adam, Boieldieu, Grétry, Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini and a host of others gave some sort of advanced musical education, through the Grecian, to a rather depressing part of London, long before board schools were established. The saloon theatres rarely offended the patent houses, and when they did the law was soon put in motion to show that Shakespeare could not be represented with impunity. The Union Saloon in Shoreditch, then under the direction of Mr Samuel Lane, who afterwards, with his wife, Mrs Sara Lane, at the Britannia Saloon, became the leading local theatrical manager of his day, was tempted in 1834 to give a performance of Othello. It was “ raided ” by the then rather “ new police, ” and all the actors, servants, audience, directors and musicians were taken into custody and marched off to Worship Street police station, confined for the remainder of the night, andtfined and warned in the morning. The same and only law still exists for those who are helping to keep a “ disorderly house, ” but there are no holders of exclusive dramatic patent rights to set it in motion. The abolition of this privileged monopoly was effected about this time by a combination of distinguished literary men and dramatists, who were convinced, from observation and experience, that the patent theatres had failed to nurse the higher drama, while interfering with the beneficial freedom of public amusements. The effect of Covent Garden and Drury Lane on the art of acting had resulted chiefly in limiting the market for theatrical employment, with a consequent all-round reduction of salaries. They kept the Lyceum Theatre (or English Opera House) for years in the position of a music hall, giving sometimes two performances a night, like a “ gaff ” in the New Cut or Whitechapel. They had not destroyed the “star ” system, and Edmund Kean and the boy Betty-the “Infant Roscius”were able to command sensational rewards. In the end Charles Dickens, Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Sir Thomas Noon Talfourd and others got the patents abolished, and the first step towards free trade in the drama was secured.

The effect of this change was to draw attention to the “ saloon theatres, ” where during the performances smoking, drinking, and even eating were allowed in the auditorium. An act was soon passed, known as the Theatres Act (1843), appointing a censor of stage-plays, and placing the London theatres under the control of a Crown officer, changing with ministries. This was the lord chamberlain for the time being. The lord chamberlain of this period drew a hard-and-fast line between theatres under his control, where no smoking and drinking were allowed “ in front, ” and theatres or halls where the old habits and customs of the audience were not to be interfered with. These latter were to go under the jurisdiction of the local magistrates, or other licensing authorities, under the 25 Geo. II. c. 36-the Music and Dancing Act-and so far a divorce was decreed between the taverns and the playhouses. The lord chamberlain eventually made certain concessions. Refreshment bars were allowed at the lord chamberlain's theatres in unobtrusive positions, victualled under a special act of William IV., and private smoking-rooms were allowed at most theatres on application. All this implied that stage plays were to be kept free from open smoking and drinking, and miscellaneous entertainments were to enjoy their old social freedom. The position was accepted by those “saloon theatres” which were not tempted to become lord chamberlain houses, and the others, with many additions, started the first music halls.

Amongst the first of these halls, and certainly the very first as far as intelligent management was concerned, was the Canterbury in the Lower Marsh, Lambeth, which was next door to the old Bower Saloon, then transformed into a “minor theatre.” The Canterbury sprang from the usual t avern germ, its creator being Mr Charles Morton, who honourably earned the name of the “ doyen of the music halls.” It justified its title by cultivating the best class of music, and exposed the prejudice and unfairness of Planché's sarcasm in a Haymarket burlesque-“ most music hall-most melancholy.” Mr Charles Morton added pictorial art to his other attractions, and obtained the support of Punch, which stamped the Canterbury as the “Royal Academy over the water.” At this time by a mere accident Gounod's great opera of Faust, through defective international registration, fell into the public domain in England and became common property. The Canterbury, not daring to present it with scenery, costumes and action, for fear of the Stage-play Act, gave what was called “ An Operatic Selection, ” the singers standing in plain dresses in a row, like pupils at a school examination or a chorus in an oratorio at Exeter Hall. The music was well rendered by a thoroughly competent company, night after night, for a long period, so that by the time the opera attracted the tardy attention of the two principal opera managers at Her Majesty's Theatre in the Haymarket and Covent Garden Theatre, the tunes most popular were being whistled by the “ man in the street, ” the “ boy in the gutter ” and the tradesman waiting at the door for orders. With the Canterbury Hall, and its brother the Oxford in Oxford Street-a converted inn and coaching- yard-built and managed on the same lines by Mr Charles Morton, the music halls were well started. They had imitators in every direction-some large, some small, and some with architectural pretensions, but all anxious to attract the public by cheap prices and physical comforts not attainable at any of the regular theatres.

With the growth and improvement of these “ Halls, ” the few old cellar “ singing-rooms ” gradually disappeared. Evans's in Covent Garden was the last to go. Rhodes's, or the Cyder Cellars in Maiden Lane, at the back of the Adelphi Theatre; the Coal Hole, in the Strand, which now forms the site of Terry's Theatre; the Doctor Johnson, in Fleet Street (oddly enough, within the precincts of the City of London) disappeared one by one, and with them the compound material for Thackeray's picture of “The Cave of Harmony.” This "Cave, " like Dickens's “Old Curiosity Shop, ” was drawn from the features of many places. To do the “ cellars ” a little justice, they represented the manners of a past time—heavy suppers and heavy drinks, and the freedom of their songs and recitations was partly due to the fact that the audience and the actors were always composed of men. Thackeray clung to Evans's to the last. It was his nightly “ chapel of ease ” to the adjoining Garrick Club. In its old age it became decent, and ladies were admitted to a private gallery, behind screens and a convent grille. Before its death, and its revival in another form as a sporting club, it admitted ladies both on and off the stage, and became an ordinary music hall. The rise and progress of the London music halls naturally excited a good deal of attention and jealousy on the part of the regular theatres, and this was increased when the first Great Variety Theatre was opened in Leicester Square. The building was the finest example of Moorish architecture on a large scale ever erected in England. It was burnt down in the 'eighties, and the present theatre was built in its place. Originally it was “ The Panopticon, " a palace of “re creative science, ” started under the most distinguished direction on the old polytechnic institution lines, and with ample capital. It was a commercial failure, and after being tried as an “American Circus, ” it was turned into a great variety theatre, the greatest of its kind in Europe, under the name of the Alhambra Palace. Its founder was Mr E.T. Smith, the energetic theatrical manager, and its developer was Mr Frederick Strange, who came full of spirit and money from the Crystal Palace. He produced in 1865 an ambitious ballet the Dagger Ballet from Auber's Enfant prodigue, which had been seen at Drury Lane Theatre in 18 51, translated as “ Azaél.” The Alhambra was prosecuted in the superior courts'for infringing the Stage-play Act-the 6 & 7 Vict. c. 68. The case is in the 'law reports-Wigan v. Strange; the ostensible plaintiffs being the well-known actors and managers Horace Wigan and Benjamin Webster, supported by ]. B. Buckstone, and many other theatrical managers. A long trial before eminent judges, with eminent counsel on both sides, produced a decision which was not very satisfactory, and far from final. It held that, as far as the entertainment went, according to the evidence tendered, it was not a ballet representing any distinct story or coherent action, but it might have been a “divertissement ”-a term suggested in the course of the trial. A short time after this a pantomime scene was produced at the same theatre, called Where's the Police? which had a clown, a Pantaloon, a columbine and a harlequin, with other familiar characters, a mob, a street and even the traditional red-hot poker. This inspired proceedings by the same plaintiffs before a police magistrate at Marlborough Street, who inflicted the full penalties-£20 a performance for I2 performances, and costs. An appeal was made to the Westminster quarter sessions, supported by Serjeant Ballantine and opposed by Mr Hardinge Giffard (afterwards Lord Chancellor Halsbury), and the conviction was confirmed. Being heard at quarter sessions, there is no record in the law reports. These and other prosecutions suggested the institution of a parliamentary inquiry, and a House of Commons select committee was appointed in 1866, at the instigation of the music halls and variety theatres. The committee devoted much time to the inquiry, and examined many witnesses#amongst the rest Lord Sydney, the lord chamberlain, who had no personal objection to undertake the control of these comparatively young places of amusement and recreation. Much of the evidence was directed against the Stage-play Act, as the difficulty appeared to be to define what was nota stage play. Lord Denman, Mr Justice Byles, and other eminent judges seemed to think that any song, action or recitation that excited the emotions might be pinned as a stage-play, and that the old'definition-“ the representation of any action by a person (or persons) acting, and not in the form of narration ” -could be supported in the then state of the law in any of the higher courts. The variety theatres on this occasion were encouraged by what had just occurred at the time in France. Napoleon III., acting under the advice of M. Michel Chevalier, passed a decree known as La Liberlé des thédtres, which fixed the status of the Parisian and other music halls. Operettas, ballets of action, ballets, vaudeville's, pantomimes and all light pieces were allowed, and the managers were no longer legally confined to songs and acrobatic performances. The report of the select committee of 1866, signed by the chairman, Mr (afterwards Viscount) Goschen, was in favour of granting the variety theatres and music halls the privileges they asked for, which were those enjoyed in France and other countries. Parliamentary interference and the introduction of several private bills in the House of Commons, which came to nothing, checked, if they did not altogether stop, the prosecutions. The variety theatres advanced in every direction in number and importance. Ballets grew in splendour and coherency The lighting and ventilation, the comfort and decoration of the various “palaces” (as many of them were now called) improved, and the public, as usual, were the gainers. Population increased, and the six millions of 1730 became forty millions and more. The same and only act (25 Geo. II. c. 36), adequate or inadequate, still remained. London is denned as the “administrative county of London, ” and its area-the ao-miles radius-is mapped out. The Metropolitan Board of Works retired or was discharged, and the London County Council was created and has taken its place. The London County Council, with extended power over structures and structural alterations, acquired the licensing of variety theatres and music halls from the local magistrates (the Middlesex, Surrey, Tower Hamlets and other magistrates) within the administrative county of London. The L. C. C. examine and enforce their powers. They have been advised that they can separate a music from a dancing licence if they like, and that when they grant the united licence the dancing means the dancing of paid performers on a stage, and not the dancing of the audience on a platform or floor, as at the short lived but elegant Cremorne Gardens, or an old-time “ Casino.” They are also advised that they can withhold licences, unless the applicants agree not to apply for a drink licence to the local magistrates sitting in brewster sessions, who still retain their control over the liquor trade. Theatre licences are often withheld unless a similar promise is made-the drink authority in this case being the Excise, empowered by the Act of William IV. (5 & 6 Will. IV. c. 39, s. 7).

The spread of so-called “ sketches ”-a kind of condensed drama or farce-in the variety theatres, and the action of the London County Council in trying to check the extension of refreshment licences to these establishments, with other grounds of discontent on the part of managers (individuals or “limited companies ”), led to the appointment of a second select committee of the House of Commons in 1892 and the production of another blue-book. The same ground was gone over, and the same objections were raised against a licensing authority which is elected by public votes, only exists for three years before another election is due, and can give no guarantee for the continuity of its judgments. The consensus of opinion (as in 1866) was in favour of a state official, responsible to parliament—like the Home Office or the Board of Trade—the preference being given to the lord chamberlain and his staff, who know much about theatres and theatrical business. The chairman of the committee was the Hon. David Plunkett (afterwards Lord Rathmore), and the report in spirit was the same as the one of 1866. Three forms of licence were suggested: one for theatres proper, one for music halls, and one for concert rooms.

Though the rise and progress of the music hall and variety theatre interest is one of the most extraordinary facts of the last half of the 19th century, the business has little or no corporate organization, and there is nothing like a complete registration of the various properties throughout the United Kingdom. In London the “ London Entertainments Protection Association," which has the command of a weekly paper called the Music Hall and Theatre Review, looks after its interests. In London alone over five millions sterling of capital is said to be invested in these enterprises, employing 80,000 persons of all grades, and entertaining during the year about 25,000,000 people. The annual applications for music licences in London alone are over 300.  (J. Hd.)