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Backstage at the Theatre 1859

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Twice Round the Clock, or The Hours of the Day and Night in London, by George Augustus Sala, 1859.


It is seven o'clock in the evening, and we are going to the play. When I state that the subjects of this article are a Theatrical Green-Room, and "Behind the Scenes," I anticipate some amount of intellectual commotion among the younger, and especially the "fast" portion, of my readers. Jaunty young clerks, and incipient men about town, dwelling in decorous country boroughs, will be apt to fancy that I am about to launch into a deliriously exciting account of those charmed regions which lie beyond the stage-door; that my talk will be altogether of spangles, muslin, skirts, and pink tights. Nay, even my young lady readers may deceive themselves with the idea that I shall draw a glowing picture of the dangerous, delightful creatures who flutter every night before theatrical audiences, and of the dear, naughty, wicked, darling marquises, earls, and baronets who lounge behind the scens. Helas! il n'en est rien. I know all about green-rooms, wings, and prompt-boxes. I have been in the artistes' foyer of the Grand Opera, in the flies of Her Majesty's, and in the mezzanine floor of the Princess's. I am not about to be cynical, but I must be prosaic, and mean to tell you, in a matter-of-fact way, what the green-room and behind the scenes of a London theatre are like at seven o'clock.

It is strange, though, what a fascination these forbidden regions exercise over the uninitiated. I never knew any one yet who was actuated by an inordinate desire to visit the vestry-room of a church, or to see the cupboard where the rector and curate's surplices are suspended on pegs, or where the sacramental wine is kept. It is hut seldom that I have seen anybody who evinced a particular curiosity to see a pawnbroker's ware-room, at the top of the spout, or to become acquainted with the arcana of a butcher's slaughter-house (though I must confess, myself, to having once, as a schoolboy, subscribed fourpence, in company with about ten others, to see a bullock killed) - yet everybody wants to go "behind the scenes." Some twenty months since, I had business to settle with a firm of solicitors, haughty, precise, distant, and sternly business-like, who dwelt in Bedford Row. I think that some one who was a client of the firm had a judgment against me, to which was witness one Frederick Pollock, at Westminster; but let that pass. I settled the matter, and thought myself well out of the firm and its clutches, when the penultimate junior partner, a middle-aged, respectable man, with a prematurely-bald head, asked me to dinner at Verrey's. He was good enough to allow me to order the repast, and politely deferred to my preference for Macon vieux over hot sherry; but, towards the cheese, he hinted that a man of the world, such as I seemed to be, ought never to be in difficulties (I have been hopelessly insolvent since the year '27, in which I was born), and that he would esteem it a very great favour if I would take him "behind the scenes" some night. Yes ; this man of tape and quill, of green ferret and pounce, of sheepskins and abominable processes, positively wanted to see the Eleusinian mysteries of the interior of a London theatre. I showed them to him, and he is grateful still. I meet him occasionally at places of public resort. He is next to senior partner now, but he never hints at six-and-eightpence when I ask a legal question; and his most valuable act of friendship is this, that whenever the Sheriff of Middlesex is moved to run up and down in his bailiwick, with a special reference to my disparagement, I receive a mysterious message, generally conveyed by a battered individual, who wipes his face on the sleeve of his coat, and is not averse to taking "something short," that there is "something out" against me, and that I had better look sharp. Whereupon I look out as sharp as I can for the most convenient tenth milestone out of Babylon.

Now, friend and fellow-traveller of mine, do you mind transforming yourself for the nonce into the friendly solicitor, and coming with me "behind the scenes ?" I know that with these continual metamorphoses I am making a very golden ass of Apuleius of you; but it is all, believe me, for your benefit. I don't want you to stand a dinner at Verrey's. I only want you to put on the slippers of patience and the spectacles of observation, and to follow me.

There is, the moralist hath said, a time for all things, and that much libelled institution, a theatre, has among its Bohemian faults of recklessness and improvidence, the somewhat rare virtue of punctuality. Even those events of its daily life which depend for the extent of their duration upon adventitious circumstances, are marked by a remarkably well-kept average. Theatrical rehearsals generally commence at ten o'clock in the morning; and though it will sometimes happen, in the case of new pieces about to be produced - especially pantomimes and spectacles, that the rehearsal is prolonged to within a few minutes of the rising of the curtain for the evening performance, the usual turning of an ordinary rehearsal's, or series of rehearsals' lane, is four o'clock p.m. Then the répétitéur in the orchestra shuts up his fiddle in its case, and goes home to his tea. Then the young ladies of the corps de ballet, who have been indulging in saltatory movements for the last few hours, lay aside their "practising dresses" -generally frocks of ordinary material, cut short in the manner immortalised by that notable pedlar, Mr. Stout, in his felonious transaction with the little old woman who fell asleep by the king's highway - and subside into the long- flounced garments of common life, which are to be again replaced so soon as seven o'clock comes, by the abridged muslin skirts and flesh-coloured continuations of ballet-girlhood. The principal actresses and actors betake themselves to dinner, or to a walk in the park, or give themselves a finishing touch of study in the parts they are not yet quite perfect in, or, it may be, mount the steep theatrical stairs to the mountainous regions where dwell the theatrical tailor and tailoress - I entreat them to excuse me, the costumier and the mistress of the robes - with whom they confer on the weighty subject of the dresses which they are to wear that evening. The carpenters abandon work; the scene-shifters, whose generic name in technical theatrical parlance is "labourers," moon about the back part of the stage, seeing that the stock of scenery for the evening is all provided, the grooves duly blackleaded and the traps greased, and all the "sinks" and "flies," ropes and pulleys, and other theatrical gear and tackle, in due working order. For, you see, if these little matters be not rigidly and minutely attended to, if a rope be out of its place or a screw not rightly home, such trifling accidents as mutilation and loss of life are not unlikely to happen. That the occurrence of such casualties is of so extreme a rarity may be ascribed, I think, to the microscopic care and attention which these maligned theatrical people bestow on every inch of their domain behind the scenes. They have to work in semi-darkness, and under many other circumstances of equal disadvantage; but, next to a fire-engine station and the tween decks of a man-o'-war, I do not think that I can call to mind a more orderly, better-disciplined, better-tended place than that part of a theatre which lies behind the foot-lights.

Now, mouse-like, from undiscovered holes, patter softly mysterious females in tumbled mob-caps and battered bonnets, who, by the way, have been pottering stealthily with brooms and brushes about the pit and boxes in the morning, disappearing towards noon. They proceed to disencumber the front of the house of the winding-sheets of brown holland in which it has been swathed since last midnight. These are the "cleaners," and when they have made the house clean and tidy for the audience of the evening, dusted the fauteuils, and swept the lobbies, they hie them behind the scenes, see that the proper provision of soap and towels exists in the dressing-rooms, perhaps lend a hand to the scene-shifters, who are completing their afternoon's labour by scientifically irrigating the stage with watering-pots; or, if a tragedy is to be performed, spreading the green baize extending to the foot-lights - that incomprehensible green baize - that field vert on which Paris dies combatant, and Hamlet lies rampant, and without whose presence it is considered by many dramatic sages no tragedy could possibly be enacted. (This absurd remnant of a candle-snuffing age, and which is about as consistent with dramatic proprieties as the performance of the character of Macbeth by Garrick in the costume of a Captain in the Guards, was abolished - so far as his admirable Shakspearian revivals were concerned - by Mr. Charles Kean.) Meanwhile, the property-man has brought to the verge of the wings, or laid out in trays and hampers, ready to be conveyed below by his assistants, the necessary paraphernalia and appurtenances for the pieces in that night's bill. Shylock's knife and scales, Ophehia's coffin, Claude Melnott's casel and maulstick, Long Tom Coffin's mob-cap; the sham money, sham words, sham eatables and drinkables of this unreal and fantastic world, are all prepared. Presently the myrmidons of the wardrobe will take the required costumes from their frowning presses, and convey them to the dressing-rooms, ready for the histrionics who are to wear them. High up above all, above ceiling, and flies, and chandelier, in his lofty skylighted studio, the scene-painter throws down his "double-tie" brush, bids his colour-grinder clean his boots, indulges in a mighty wash, and dresses himself for the outward world. He improves marvellously by the change. But ten minutes since he was an almost indescribable scarecrow, in a tattered suit of canvas amid list slippers, and bespattered from head to foot with dabs of colour. And now he turns out a trim gentleman, with a watch-chain, a moustache, an eye-glass, and kid gloves, and he walks off as gingerly to the artistic or literary club to which he may belong, as though he had never heard of size or whitewash in his life.

By five o'clock the little industries that have prevailed since the rehearsal ended are mostly completed; and the theatre becomes quite still. It is a complete, a solemn, almost an awful stillness. All the busy life and cheerful murmur of this human ant-hill are hushed. The rows of seats are as deserted as the degrees of some old ruined amphitheatre in Rome. The stage is a desert. The "flies" and "borders" loom overhead in cobweb indistinctness. Afar off the dusky, feeble chandelier, looks like a moon on which no sun condescends to shine; and were it not for one ray of golden afternoon sunlight, that from a topmost window shines obliquely through the vast dimness, and rescues the kettle-drums in the orchestra from tenebrose oblivion, you might fancy this place, which two hours hence will be brilliantly lighted up, full of gorgeous decorations and blithesome music, and a gay audience shouting applause to mimes and jesters and painted bayadères, chasing the golden hours with frolic feet - you might fancy the deserted theatre to be a Valley of Dry Bones.

Only two functionaries are ever watchful, and do not entertain the slightest thought, either of suspending their vigilance, or of leaving the theatre. At the entrance, in his crabbed little watch-box by the stage-door, the grim man in the fur cap, who acts as Cerberus to the establishment, sits among keys and letters for delivery. Of a multifarious nature is the correspondence at a stage-door. There are County Court summonses, seductive offers from rival managers to the popular tragedian of the day, pressing entreaties for orders, pink three-cornered notes scented and sealed with crests for the premiere danseuse, frequently accompanied by pinned-up cornets of tissue-paper containing choice bouquets from Covent Garden. There are five-act tragedies, and farces, written on official paper for the manager; solicitations for engagements, cards, bills, and applications for benefit tickets. But the grim man at the stage-door takes no heed of them, save to deliver them to their proper addresses. He takes no heed either (apparently) of the crowds of people, male and female, who pass and repass him by night amid by day, from Monday till Saturday. But he knows them all well, be assured; knows them as well as Charon, knows them as well as Cerberus, knows them as well as the turnkey of the "lock" in a debtor's prison. Scene-shifter or popular tragedian, it is all one to him. He has but to obey his consigne to let no one pass his keyed and lettered den who is not connected with the theatre, or who has not the entrée behind the scenes by special managerial permission; and in adhering to that, he is as inflexible as Death. And while he guards the portal, Manager Doldrum sits in his easy-chair in his manuscript-littered private room upstairs. The rehearsal may be over. but still he has work to do. He has always work to do. Perhaps he anticipates a thin house to-night, and is busy scribbling orders which his messenger will take care shall permeate through channels which shall do the house no harm. Or he may be glancing over a new farce which one of the accredited authors of the theatre has just sent in, and with black-lead pencil suggesting excisions, additions, or alterations. Or perhaps he tears his hair and gnashes his teeth in dignified privacy, thinking with despair upon the blank receipts of the foregone week, murmuring to himself, "Shall I close! shall I close?" as a badgered and belated Minister of State might ask himself, "Shall I resign?"

I wonder how many people there are who see the manager airing his white waistcoat in his especial stage-box, or envy him as he drives away from the theatre in his brougham, or joyfully takes his cheque on Ransom's for that last "stunning" and "screaming" new farce that forty pounds were given for, and that ran four nights; I wonder how many of these outsiders of the theatrical areana know what a persecuted, hunted dog, a genteel galley-slave, a well-dressed Russian serf, is the theatrical manager. He may well be coarse and brusque in his manners, captious and pettish in conversation, remiss in answering letters, averse to parting with ready money for manuscripts which are often never acted, and more often never read. Do you know the life he leads? Mr. Pope's existence at Twickenham (or Twitnam), about time period when he instructed "good John," his man, to say that he was sick, or dead, was a combination of halcyon days compared to the life of a theatrical manager. Are there sons "destined their fathers' souls to cross," who "pen a stanza when they should engross ?" are there men with harum-scarum lunatic projects, with tomfool notions that they are tragedians, with tragedies and farces, to estimate whose real value one should make a handsome deduction for the injury done to the paper on which they are written? are there madcap young ladies, newly-whipped at boarding-school, who fancy that they have the vocal powers of Grisi or Bosio, or the tragic acquirements of Ellen Tree or Helen Faucit (excuse the Kean and Martin marital prefixes: the old names are so pleasant)? are there mad mothers who vehemently insist that their skimping daughters can dance like Rosati or Pocchini? are there "guardians," in other words the proprietary slaveholders of dwarfs and contorsionists, precocious pianists, and female violoncellists? are there schemers, knaves, Yankee speculators, foreign farmers of singers with cracked voices, bores or insipid idlers - they all besiege the theatrical manager, supplicate, cajole, annoy, or threaten him. If he doesn't at once accede to their exorbitant terms, they forthwith abuse him scurrilously out of doors. He is a robber, an impostor, a miser, a Jew. He has been transported. He is insolvent. He came out ten years since in the provinces, and in light comedy, and failed. He beats his wife. He was the ruin of Miss Vanderplank, and sent men into the house to hiss and cry out "pickles" when Toobey the tragedian was performing his starring engagements, because, forsooth, Toobey did not draw. He owes ten thousand pounds to Miss Larke, the soprano. He buys his wardrobe in Petticoat Lane. He drinks fearfully. He will be hung. I have been an editor, and know the amenities that are showered on those slaves of the lamp; the people who accuse you of having set the Thames on fire, and murdered Eliza Grimwood, if you won't accept their interminable romances, and darkly insinuate that they will have your heart's blood if you decline to pay for poems copied from the annuals of eighteen hundred and thirty-six; but to find the acme of persecution and badgering commend me to a theatrical manager.

Return we to our muttons. The theatre sleeps a sound, tranquil sleep for some hundred minutes; but about six it begins to wake again to fresh life and activity. At half past six it is wide awake and staring. The "dressers," male and female, have arrived, and are being objurgated by incensed performers in their several cabinets de toilette, because they are slow in finding Mr. Lamplugh's bagwig, or Mademoiselle Follejambe's white satin shoes. The call-boy - that diminutive, weazened specimen of humanity, who has never, so it seems, been a boy, and never will be a man - has entered upon his functions, and already meditates a savage onslaught on the dressing-room doors, accompanied by a shrill intimation that the overture is "on." Let us leave the ladies and gentlemen engaged in the theatre to complete the bedizenment of their apparel, and, pending their entrance into the green-room, see what that apartment itself is made of.

Of course it is on a level with the stage, and within a convenient distance of that prompt-box which forms the head-quarters of the call- boy, and where he receives instructions from his adjutant-general, the prompter. In country theatres, the green-room door is often within a foot or so from the wing; and there is a facetious story told of a whilom great tragedian, who, now retired and enjoying lettered and dignified ease as a country gentleman, was, in his day, somewhat remarkable for violent ebullitions of temper. He was playing Hamlet; and in the closet scene with Gertrude, where he kills the old chamberlain, who lies in ambuscade, and just at the moment he draws his rapier, it occurred to his heated imagination that an inoffensive light comedian, ready dressed for the part of Osric, who was standing at the greenroom door within reasonable sword range, was the veritable Polonius himself. Whereupon the tragedian, shrieking out, "A rat! a rat! dead, for a ducat - dead!" made a furious lunge at the unhappy Osric, who only escaped instant death by a timely hop, skip, and jump, and fled with appalling yells to a sofa, under which he buried himself. Tradition says that the tragedian's rapier went right through the wood-work of the half-opened door; hut I know that tradition is not always to be trusted, and I decline to endorse this particular one now.

Our present green-room is a sufficiently commodious apartment, spacious and lofty, and fitted up in a style of decoration in which the Louis Quinze contends with the Arabesque, and that again with the Cockney Corinthian. The walls are of a pale sea-green, of the famous Almack's pattern; and the floor is covered with a carpet of remarkably curious design and texture, offering some noteworthy specimens of worsted vegetation run to seed, and rents and fissures of extraordinary polygonal form. In one corner there is a pianoforte - a grand pianoforte; at least it may have been at one time deserving of that high-sounding appellation; but it is now a deplorable old music-box, with a long tail that would be much better between its legs, and keys that are yellow and worn down, like the teeth of an old horse. There is a cheval too, in tolerably good repair, for the danseuses to arrange their skirts withal; and over the chimney-piece there is another great glass, with a tarnished frame and longitudinal crack extending over it, in the sides of which - the interstices of the frame, I mean, not the crack - are stuck notices having reference to the rehearsals to be held on the morrow. "All the ladies of the ballet at ten;" "All the company for reading of new piece at twelve." So may run the wafered announcements signed in the fine Roman hand of the prompter or stage-manager. There are varied pilasters, in imitation of scagliola, supporting the ceiling; the doors are handsomely panelled with gilt beadings. There are four tall windows in a row, with cornices wofully dingy, and draped with curtains of shabby moreen. There is good store of settees and ottomans covered with faded chintz. Everything about the place bears that "stagey," unreal, garish, dream-like aspect, that seems inherent to things theatrical, and makes us, directly we pass the stage-door, look upon everything, from the delusive banquet on the imitation marble table, to the paint on the singing chambermaid's cheeks, as a mocker and a delusion-as the baseless fabric of a vision, that will soon fade and leave not a wrack behind. And yet I have said (vide ante et supra) that "behind the scenes is common-place." And so it is; but it is the common-place of dreamland, the every-day life of the realms of Prester John, the work-a-day existence of the kingdom of Cockaigne, or of that shadowy land where dwell the Anthropophagi, and men "whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders."

What shall I assume the first piece that is to be performed this night to be? Will you have the "Flowers of the Forest," the "Poor Strollers," " Sweethearts and Wives," " Pizarro," the "Padlock," or a "Game at Romps ?" What do you say to a fine old English comedy, such as "John Bull," or the " School of Reform," with a dissipated young squire, a gouty, ill-tempered, and over-bearing old lord of the manor, an intensely-virtuous tenant-farmer, a comic ploughman, a milkmaid with a chintz gown tucked through the placket-holes, and a song, and a spotless but a persecuted maiden? No; you will have none of these! Suppose, then, we take our dear old genial friend, the "Green Bushes"-long life and good luck to Mr. Buckstone, and may he write many more pieces as good for our imaginary theatre. See; the green-room clock points to ten minutes to seven - I left that out in my inventory of the furniture. The call-boy has already warned the ladies and gentlemen who are engaged for the first scene, that their immediate presence is required, and the erst-deserted green-room fills rapidly.

See, here they came - the kindly old friends of the "Green Bushes" - Miami and Jack Gong, and Master Grinnidge ; and yet, dear me, what are these strange, wild costumes mingled with them? Oh! there is a burlesque after the drama. It is somewhat early in the evening for those who are to play in the second piece to come down dressed; but then you are to consider this as a special green-room, a specimen green-room, an amalgam of the green-room element generally. This model foyer is to have something of the Haymarket and something of the Adelphi - the old by-gone, defunct Adelphi, I mean - a spice of the Olympic, a tinge of the Lyceum, and a dash of the Princess's, about it. I except the green-room of Drury Lane, which never resembled anything half so much as a family vault, and the green-rooms of the two Operas, which, though splendidly furnished and appointed, are almost deserted during the performances, the great tenori and soprani preferring to retire to their dressing-rooms when any long intervals of rest occur.

"Things" - to use a bit of "Green Bushes" facetiae, invented, I am willing to believe, by that incorrigible humourist, Mr. Wright, and which has grown proverbial - "things isn't as they used to was;" and the attractions of green-rooms have deteriorated, even within my time. When I say "my time," I mean a quarter of a century; for as I happened to be almost born in a prompt-box and weaned in a scene-painter's size-kettle, and have been employed in very nearly every capacity in and about a theatre - save that of an actor, which profession invincible modesty and incurable incompetency prevented me from assuming - I feel myself qualified to speak about the green-rooms with some degree of authority. To have read a three-act melodrama to a (scarcely) admiring audience, and to have called "everybody for the last scene" in a green-room, gives a man, I take it, a right to be heard.

But, to tell the truth, green-rooms now-a-days are sadly dull, slow, humdrum places of resort. In a minor theatre they are somewhat more lively, as there is there no second green-room, and the young sylphides of the corps de ballet are allowed to join the company. The conversation of these young ladies, if not interesting, is amusing, and if not brilliant, is cheerful. They generally bring their needlework with them if they have to wait long between the scenes (frequently to the extent of an entire act) in which they have to dance, and they discourse with much naiveté upon the warmth or coldness of the audience with reference to the applause bestowed, the bad temper of the stage-manager, and their own temporary indisposition from corns, which, with pickled salmon, unripe pears, the proper number of lengths for a silk dress, and the comparative merits of the whiskers and moustaches of the musicians in the band (with some of whose members they are sure to be in love, and whom they very frequently marry, leaving off dancing and having enormous families), form the almost invariable staple of a ballet-girl's conversation. Poor simpleminded, good-natured, hard-working little creatures, theirs is but a rude and stern lot. To cut capers and wear paint, to find one's own shoes and stockings, and be strictly virtuous, on a salary varying from nine to eighteen shillings a week-this is the pabulum of a ballet-girl. And hark in thine ear, my friend. If any man talks to you about the syrens of the ballet, the dangerous enchantresses and cockatrices of the ballet, the pets of the ballet, whose only thoughts are about broughams and diamond aigrettes, dinners at Richmond, and villas at St. John's Wood - if anybody tells you that the majority, or even a large proportion, of our English danseuses are inclined this perilous way, just inform him, with my compliments, that he is a dolt and a teller of untruths. I can't say much of ballet morality abroad; of the poor rats de l'opera in Paris, who are bred to wickedness from their very cradle upwards; of the Neapolitan ballerine, who are obliged to wear green calzoni, and to be civil to the priests, lest they should be put down altogether; or of the poor Russian ballet-girls, who live altogether in barracks, are conveyed to and from the theatre in omnibuses, and are birched if they do not behave themselves, and yet manage somehow to make a bad end of it; but as regards our own sylphides, I say that naughtiness among them is the exception, and cheerful, industrious, self-denying perseverance in a hard, ungrateful life, the honourable rule.

There are yet a few green-rooms where the genus "swell" still finds a rare admittance. See here a couple in full evening costume, talking to the pretty young lady in time low-necked dress on the settee; but the swell is quite a fish out of water in the green-room of these latter days. Managers don't care quite so much for his patronage, preferring to place their chief reliance and dependence on the public. The actors don't care about him, for the swell is not so generous as of yore in taking tickets for the benefits of popular favourites. Actresses mistrust him, for the swell has given up raising actresses to the peerage. The ballet-girls are half afraid of him; and when they don't fear him, they laugh at him. So the swell wanders in and out of the green-room, and stares at people uneasily, and at last escapes to his brougham or his cabriolet at the stage-door. Now and then a wicked old lord of the unrighteous evil-living school of British peers, now happily becoming rarer and rarer every day, will come sniggering and chuckling into a green-room, hanging on the arm of the manager, with whom he is on the most intimate terms, and who "My Lords" him most obsequiously. He rolls his scandalous old eyes in his disreputable, puckered face, seeking some pretty, timid, blushing little flower, whom he may blight with his Upas gaze, and then totters away to his stage-box, where he does duty for the rest of the evening with a huge double-barrelled opera-glass.

Such is the green-room of to-day, quiet, occasionally chatty (for actresses and actors can be pleasant enough among themselves, in a cosy, sensible manner, talking about butcher's meat, and poor's-rates, and Brompton omnibuses) but not by any means the glittering Temple of Radiant Delight that some might feel inclined to imagine it. There have been days - and I remember them - when green-rooms were very different places. There were women on the stage then who were Queens as well as actresses, and had trains of admirers round their flowing robes. There was a slight nervous man in those days - a famous writer of plays and books that yet live, and will live while our English language is spoken - a strange-looking, high cheek-boned man, with long hair carelessly thrown away from his forehead, and a piercing eye, that seemed to laugh to scorn the lorgnon dangling from its ribbon. I have seen him so, his spare form leaning against the mantel, and he showering - yes, showering is the word - arrowy bon mots and corruscating repartees around him. He is dead they all seem to be dead, those brilliant green-room men - Jerrold, Talfourd, Kenney, Haynes Bayley, Hook, A'Beckett. They have left no successors. The modern playwrights skulk in and out of the manager's room, and are mistaken at rehearsal for the property-men. They forsake green-rooms at night for drawing-rooms, where they can hear themselves praised, or smoking-rooms of clubs, where they can abuse one another; and if A. says a good thing, B. books it for his next petite comédie, which does not hurt A. much, seeing that he stole it from C., who translated it hot-and-hot from Monsieur de D., that great plagiarist from Lope de Vega.

Come, let us leave the green-room to its simple devices, and see what they are doing "Behind the Scenes." You and I, we know, are in the receipt of fern-seed, and can walk invisible without incommoding ourself or anybody else, be the pressure ever so great but I should strongly advise all swells and other intruders, if any such remain, either to withdraw into the shadiest recesses of the green-room, or to "get out of that" - to use an Irishism, without the least possible delay. For "Behind the Scenes" is clearly no place for them. If I were the manager of a theatre, I would not admit one single person into the coulisses save those connected with the night's performance, nay, nor allow even the employés of the theatre, till the call-boy summoned them to approach the wing. Madame Vestris established this Spartan rule of discipline, and found it answer in making her theatre the best-managed in Europe; but it will be observed that no such ordre dujour has been promulgated in the theatre behind whose scenes we find ourselves to-night. What a confusion, what a hubbub, what a throng and bustle! The dramatis persona?, you will perceive, no longer contemplate the performance of the "Green Bushes." Hoops, powder, brocade, black-patches, high-heeled shoes, bag-wigs, flapped waistcoats, and laced-hats prevail. This must be some Pompadour or Beau Tibbs piece - Court Favour, or "Love's Telegraph," or some last century dramatic conceit by Mr. Planché or Mr. Dance. How the carpenters scuffle and stamp, entreating the bystanders, not always in the politest terms, to get out of the way! Now and again the prompter rushes from his box, and in a hoarse sotto voce, that would be a shriek if it were not a whisper, commands silence.

Upon my word, there is that unlucky old Flathers, the heavy man, who never knows his part ; there he is again, evidently imperfect, and taking a last desperate gulp of study, sitting in the property arm-chair, on the very brink of the stage. And see there - don't blush, don't stammer, but make as polite a bow as you can - there is Mrs. Woffington Pegley, in full Pompadour costume, and such a hoop! She is only twenty-three years of age; has had two husbands; Count Schrechnysynesky, the Moldo-Wallachian ambassador, is reported to be madly in love with her; she rides in the park, she hunts, she drives, she owns a yacht, she has more diamonds and Mechlin lace than a duchess, and she is the most charming actress of the day. To be sure, she can't read very fluently, and can scarcely write her own name, but que voulez vous?

Don't you know that queer, quaint passage in good old Dr. Johnson's life, where, soon after the production of his tragedy of "Irene," and when the lexicographer had even gone to the extent of appearing behind the scenes of the playhouse in a scarlet coat and laced-hat fiercely cocked, he suddenly told David Garrick that he could visit him behind the scenes no more, assigning his own honest sufficient reason? The pretty actresses were too much for Samuel. He was but mortal man-mortal man. Their rosy cheeks-never mind whether the roses were artificial or not - their white necks, and dainty hands and feet, their rustling brocades and laced tuckers, disturbed the equanimity of our great moralist and scholar. He fled from the temptation wisely. Who can wonder at it? Who, that is not a mysogynist, can sufficiently case himself in brass to withstand the Parthian glances of those pretty dangerous creatures? Surely they dress better, look better, walk better, sit better, stand better, have clearer voices, cheerier laughs, more graceful curtsies, than any other women in the world. But they are not for the likes of you or me, Thomas. See, there is fat, handsome Captain Fitzblazer of the "Heavies," the Duke of Alma's aide-de-camp, pretending to flirt with little Fanny Merrylegs, the coryphée, and the rogue has one eye on Mrs. Woffington Pegley. I wish some robust scene-shifter would tread on his varnished toes. The Pegley is aware of the Fitzblazerian oeillade, I wager, though she makes-believe to be listening to young Martinmas, the walking gentleman's, nonsense. Come away, Thomas, come away, my friend. Let us strive to be as wise in our generation as Sam Johnson was in his, and write to Davy Garrick that we will come "behind the scenes" no more.

The above text is by George Augustus Sala, 1859 and is sourced from The Victorian Dictionary

See also:

Song of the Stage Hands

So you think you want to work as Stage Crew

Behind The Scenes - Carols of Cockayne

About Limelights and Followspots

Limelight by Albert Chevalier

Stage Props and The Property Man

Memories of Show Business by Percy G Court, 1953. - The memoirs of Percy Court, who began his career as a Stage Carpenter in the late 1800s and retired as a well-known manager in the 1950s. A fascinating first hand account of the backstage and touring life of a stage carpenter and theatre manager at the turn of the century.

Backstage Index

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