Boxing Night in the East

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Note: original spelling has been maintained.



NEGLECTING the attractions of the bills put forth by Old Drury and Covent-garden, we wandered eastwards—or rather, went as far as the toll-gate in the Commercial-road in a cab—to the Lyceum: not the aristocratic house in the Strand, but through lanes and alleys to the Lyceum in the East The «Lyshum,» as the people who frequent it familiarly term it, is situate in a narrow street, stuck in the middle of a complete labyrinth of courts, lanes, and alleys, whose smells suggest fried fish, baked potatoes, decaying vegetables, and “ something wrong with the drains.” In such places live the patrons of the most popular penny “gaff” in London: dock labourers, costermongers, coalheavers, and—we must admit it—thieves.

We arrived a few minutes before the doors of the Lyceum were opened, and beheld a crowd, composed chiefly of boys, struggling and fighting madly for the privilege of being squeezed flat against the doors, or of being thrown down and trampled upon when they were suddenly opened from the inside. On the outer skirts of this crowd stood the more prudent and less impatient visitors, whiling their time away at the stalls of the peripatetic vendors of “ baked ’taters,” “ trotters,” or “ stoo-ed eels.” A respectable old party, in a yellow silk neckerchief, and white linen sleeves tied over his jacket, keeps up the liveliness of the game by incessantly iterating, “ 'Ere y’are! ’ere y’are! 'ere y’are! 'Ere's yer floury ware! Baked 'taters, orl 'ot! orl 'ot! orl 'ot!” Occasionally varying the monotony of his song by loudly proclaiming that he has “ Sold agen! sold agen!”

As the time at which we arrived was a few minutes before half-past eight, it may be necessary to explain that one performance was already over by a good half-hour, and that we were awaiting admission to the “ second house.” At the “ Lyshum ” there are two performances every evening: one at half-past six, and the other at half-past eight; and it is not unworthy of note that many of the patrons of the “gaff” see both performances every night. There is a concert, with a slight difference of programme, and a distinct melodrama at each performance. At nine o’clock we were comfortably seated in the boxes, having paid threepence for the ticket. Pit, price twopence; and gallery, one penny. As it was Boxing Night, there was a very crowded house. The bill of the evening, posted up on a pillar near us, promised—“A Grand Concert, supported by a galaxy of talent, comprising Miss Marion De Fitzaylen, the dashing serio-comic (her first appearance here); Mr. De Courcy Bligg, of the Harrow Music Hall, Shoreditch (the original ‘Gin and Water Bill’), the great Prance’s one and only rival. To be followed by Messrs. Rangers and Grones, with their trained dog Nero, in one of their unrivalled broad-sword entertainments.”

Punctually at a few minutes after nine, the curtain rose upon the original “ Gin and Water Bill,” Mr. De Courcy Bligg, who immediately proceeded to inform his audience that—

“ ’E sawr Esaur kissin* Kate —
The fact was, they orl three saw;
For ’E sawr Esaur, *E sawr ’E,
And she sawr ’E sawr Hesaur!”

A loud and prolonged round of applause followed this song, and the obliging Bligg accepted an encore, reappearing with a short stick, to which hung a long green tassel. His second song was partly spoken. He said, after each verse—

“ Still, my deah buoys, in spite hof that,” he told her that (singing)—

“Hi was Gin and Water-a Bill!
And I’ll derink till mesilf I fill;
So sheout, buoys, sheout, and-a run about,
For-a-Gin and-a Water-a Bill!”

“ Chorus!” And the “buoys” did “sheout’ with a vengeance, till, amid thunders of ap¬ plause and ear-piercing whistles, Mr. Bligg, bowing his acknowledgments, retired with becoming grace. A faithful presentment is here given of Mr. Bligg, as he appeared on the evening in question.

Other songs and the dog Nero followed, until the curtain fell; and tarts and ginger- beer were handed round, and freely partaken of—the bottles which had contained the latter beverage being distributed by the “gods” with unsparing hands.

“ Bolahs”—cakes the size of cricket balls, and very sticky—are dropped by friends in the gallery to pals in the pit. “ ’Arree” can’t find out where “ Billee” is, and keeps calling for him at frequent intervals. A few obstreperous individuals having been removed by the brass-buttoned functionary who does duty as beadle, the band, of five musicians and a big drum, strikes up a lively air, and everybody gets ready for the drama of the evening, as the bills describe it—

“ Traupman! the Panting (sic) Assassin!! or, The Murders in the Lonely Field of Paris!!!”

While the band plays the overture, we may find time to look round us. “ ’Arree,” we are delighted to find, has at last succeeded in discovering “Billee,” and they are now seated together, duly impressed and charmed with the enlivening strains from the orchestra.

A Jewish gentleman, seated near us, has at length put his cigar out—probably with the intention of giving his mind up entirely to the play. The little boys in the extreme front of the gallery are comparatively quiet, contenting themselves with a shrill whistling at intervals in time with the band—an accomplishment in which they have evidently achieved a certain proficiency by dint of hard practice. Two ladies in the pit have finished their “ bolahs” and ginger-beer, and are contemplating the curtain and footlights with rapt attention.

The quiet is followed by some signs of impatience on the part of another lady, accompanied by a gentleman, both occupying seats in the front row of the pit.

The latter, whose face is adorned with curls known as "Newgate knockers," is favouring the house with a rapid succession of catcalls, unrivalled in their close imitation of nature. At last the curtain rises on “ the Deck of the Pirate’s Barque.” The pirate and friend of the Assassin appears, and the audience are at once calm and attentive; but as, for a quarter of an hour, this old gentleman—attired in red tights and a garment resembling a pinafore wrong side foremost — only mumbles inarticulately to two or three sailors in a condition more dilapidated than his own, we cannot make much out. Though often admonished to “speak up,” he seems incapable of the effort. At last he shades his eyes and looks to the wings. Somebody is coming—it is the Assassin himself!—who speaks up with considerable vigour. Chord on the big drum (if practicable). Black cloak and buskins, two immense pistols, and red and yellow tights— this is the Panting Assassin. He immediately addresses a long speech to the weak-voiced old gentleman, and an exciting dialogue is evidently going on between them; but, as there is a fight in the pit, it is unfortunately lost upon the house. Apparently, the old gentleman is mildly refusing to do the will of the Black Cloak. A general combat ensues, in which the audience take the greatest interest. The fight in the pit is discontinued.

“ ’Old, base ruffian!” cries the young heroine, who rushes on; “ would you shoot me aged parient?”

“ Stand back, proud gyurl!” exclaims the Assassin, pointing his pistol at her.

“Nevar-r-r-r!” cries the “ proud gyurl.”

“ Stand back-r, I say!”

“ Nevar-r — a-nevar _ r _ r J”

“ Then, curse ye—a-die!”

And she falls, the crew standing round her while the curtain descends.

The next act is in the field before Paris; and here everybody falls, including the trained dog Nero—to all appearance the most intelligent animal on the stage.

Third act:—Miraculous resurrection of most of the characters. Animated, though purposeless, dialogue. Red fire, curtain; and all is over.

At a neighbouring hostelry we made the acquaintance of the Assassin. In his everyday dress he looked quite a different man.

He expressed great contempt for his present engagement, and assured us he had played up to many leading actors. “ Old Jamaica,” in half-quarterns, was his favourite liquor. He was very communicative and affable in private life. His friends spoke of him familiarly by the name of “Jack.”

The whole scene was curious and suggestive. It is not the business of an artist to moralize like a leader writer in the Times; but, before we close this short sketch, we will ask the readers of Once a Week to accept our assurance that every one of the little illustrations to this paper is a likeness, faithfully drawn from life on the spot; and, fur¬ ther, put it to a charitable public whether something cannot yet be done to elevate the tastes and better the condition of the frequenters of our “ penny gaffs.”

English charity is a noble and wide-spreading thing; but perhaps, before we look abroad, we should consider the claims of that great East-end which lies so near us, to help in bringing into it light and truth.