A BREACH OF BRITISH PRIVILEGE
SIR,—I occasionally see your journal at the houses of my friends, and I am told that it occupies a highly influential and prominent position among the periodicals of the present time. For my own part, I carefully abstained from subscribing to you, when you started. I didn’t like the look of you, then; and I don’t like the look of you, now. You are not English to the back-bone. You have more than once set up the foreigners—the jabbering, unwashed, unshaved foreigners, who live on kickshaws and sour wine—as examples to US. I doubt whether you really believe that one Englishman is equal to two Frenchmen, and six of any other nation. I doubt whether you know your Rule Britannia as you ought, and whether you sincerely feel that we are the "dread and envy" of every foreign community on the face of the earth. No, sir, you won’t do for me—it may be disagreeable to you to know it—but you won’t.
Why do I write to you, then? For three reasons. First, and foremost, to see whether you can be fair enough to both sides to print something which is not written by one of your own set. Secondly, to perform an entirely new literary feat, in the character of correspondent to a journal, by writing a letter to an Editor which doesn’t begin by flattering him. Thirdly, and lastly, to show you the results to which your precious modern principles have led, and will continue to lead, by quoting the last new example of the invasion of the execrable foreign element, as now exhibited every night, not far from you, at the West End of the Strand. There are my reasons; and here is my letter. Listen to the first, if you can. Print the last, if you dare.
I have been, for some time, prepared for a great deal in the way of desertion of national principle. When beards (which you recommended) began to grow on British faces—when shoeblacks (whom you encouraged) began to ply in British streets—when the word "entrée" appeared among the chops and steaks of British taverns; and when foreign opera companies could sing at playhouse prices on the British stage, and not be hooted off it—I was proof, as I fondly imagined, against any additional feeling of surprise at any additional foreign innovation. But, I was mistaken; and I don’t mind acknowledging it. Much as I was prepared for, I was not prepared, sir, for MR. BENJAMIN WEBSTER’S NEW ADELPHI THEATRE.
I shall probably be very severe in the course of this letter; but I will endeavour to be reasonable and just at the same time. In writing of Mr. Webster’s Innovation (for in the good old English sense of the word it is not a Theatre at all), I will bear lightly on the architect, Mr. T. H. Wyatt. I will assume that when he received his commission, it was saddled with certain conditions, which he was bound to fulfil, and did fulfil, as an honest man. I will even endeavour to write of Mr. Webster himself more in sorrow than in anger, when I come to the personal part of the subject, so far as he is concerned. First of all, however, I must take care to be general, before I become particular (there are people out of your literary set, sir, who understand the art of writing, though they seldom care to practise it)—I must establish my principle and state my case; using a new paragraph for the purpose, and making it a short one. You see I know all about it, although, I thank Heaven, I am not a literary man.
My principle is, That the English public does not want to be made comfortable when it goes to the Theatre; That this peculiarity marks the great distinction between a British audience and a French audience; And that a manager who gives to the modest Englishman, who has not asked for it, the comfortable seat which the arrogant Frenchman has insisted on having long since, is a manager who gratuitously breaks down a grand social distinction between France and Great Britain.
My case is, That Mr. Benjamin Webster has committed this grave patriotic offence at The New Adelphi Theatre.
Now let us be moderate—let us be philosophic—let us have this out logically by all manner of means. The English public does not want to be made comfortable when it goes to the Theatre. Is there any man in his senses who doubts this? Let him, in that case, remember the Old—yes, the fine, old, genuine, British Adelphi Theatre, now pulled down—and let him put his hand on his heart (as they did in the good old sterling comedies), and say whether he remembers a single comfortable place in the whole of that eminently national edifice, ranging all over it from the floor to the ceiling? Let him say whether he remembers that Theatre as a scene of public protests and riots in consequence of the exquisite uneasiness of every seat in it, or as a scene of happy, crowded, cramped, perspiring placidity, in which a British pit perched itself upon its native knife-boards, with its sides squeezed, its knees jammed, and its back unsupported, a spectacle of national discomfort and national contentment, such as no other civilised city could show in any part of Europe? No! no! If an English audience wanted to be made comfortable, the old Adelphi Theatre could never have kept its doors open through a single season; and certain other national—that is to say, universally uncomfortable—theatres still in existence, would be shut up. Are they shut up? Are they not, on the contrary, crowded every night? Is a murmur ever heard from the contentedly-cramped audience? I promised you logic, just now; and here you have it, I think, with a vengeance!
Having established my principle, and proved it by facts which no man can deny, I may now come down to details, and have it out personally with Mr. Webster.
My first complaint is, that I am bewildered by this innovating management, in two ways even before I take my seat inside the New Adelphi at all. In the first place, I am not fined a shilling at the Box Office, for the offence of wanting to engage a seat at the Theatre. Why not, when other theatres continue to fine me with perfect impunity? If I really resented such treatment, I should bring those other theatres to their senses by not going near them till they had removed their shilling tax. But I do nothing of the sort; I pay it uncomplainingly when I am asked for it. And here is Mr. Webster losing money in the vain attempt to teach me, as a true-born Englishman, not to let myself be taken in. And there are the other managers who know the public better, laughing at him in their sleeves, and profiting daily by the good old system. Speaking as a man of business I don’t mind acknowledging that this bewilders me to begin with.
Then again, when I go into the theatre, and pass the money-takers, and enter the lobbies, what do I see? Women—on my word of honour—quiet, civil, quick, neatly-dressed, attentive women, who give me my playbill gratuitously, and show me to my place, and expect nothing for it. Here is a pretty innovation! Women made useful in England, in an occupation which they are especially well fitted to follow! Women removed from those famous hearths and homes of ours, which I always score with an approving line in pencil, when my favourite authors present them to me in my favourite capital letters! What next, I should like to know? An inoffensive Englishman, well acquainted with the national customs, enters a theatre, after paying to go in, keeping an extra shilling between his finger and thumb, to pay again as usual—expects to meet a scowling male extortioner in frowsy black who takes his bribe, as a matter of course, before he opens the door—and confronts instead a pleasant little woman, who never so much as looks in the direction of the visitor’s waistcoat-pocket, and waits on him as civilly as if she were his own servant. Upon my life, you might have knocked me into my seat with a feather, when I first took it at the New Adelphi Theatre.
Wait, though—I retract the word seat, as applied to Mr. Webster’s Orchestra Stalls. My idea—my national English idea of a stall-seat at a London theatre, implies something which is too narrow and too high—something which slopes the wrong way, and lets me slide down till my knees fit nicely into the edge of the bench before me—something entirely unconnected with carpets below and footstools in front—something, in short, which, in respect of its intense discomfort and wretchedness, is the exact reverse of my seat at home. Do I meet with this at the New Adelphi? I can hardly write it for laughing; but I actually sit, in this deplorably un-English building, in a real arm-chair, a luxurious private arm-chair—I can see the stage without craning my head till I get a stiff neck—my neighbours have room to pass, without squeezing me against my seat; and, to crown all, instead of paying more for these foreign luxuries than I pay for my national discomforts at my favourite national theatre, not a hundred miles off, I am actually charged a shilling less! Most ridiculous, is it not?
I stand up, and look about me. Why, here is an English Theatre, from every part of which everybody can see the stage. I remark a dress-circle with as much room in it as there is in the stalls; with seats which can be raised for the convenience of passing and repassing; with special arrangements for hats, cloaks, and opera-glasses; with an open balcony in front, to show the bright colours of the ladies’ dresses—and, as I live, with a row of private boxes rising behind it. Private boxes in England, with a front view of the stage—private boxes from which four people can see without two of them standing up—private boxes, price one pound—private boxes price ten shillings, even, if there are only two of us who want to go into them! I think of my one-eleven-six, or my two pound two, and my angular peep behind the scenes, and my bird’s-eye view of the actors’ heads, at my favourite national establishment; and look down at my play-bill to collect my thoughts and to try and remember that I am still in a place of public amusement. What do I see on the bill? Odds frogs and capers! (as my favourite Acres would say) here is a Frenchified notion of attending to the comforts of the common people! Here are stalls again, with elbows and cushions, in the Gallery—yes! Stalls, in the gallery of a British Theatre! Fancy the gods, the common people who can only pay a shilling a-piece, sitting in their stalls! Once show the lower orders as much attention as you show their betters, and they will be behaving like their betters, and there will be no hootings nor howlings, nor stampings, nor cat-calls, and the character of the gallery will be lost for ever. What next, Mr. Webster—I wonder what next?
I ask this question, but there is no need to do so. My eyes are hardly withdrawn from a transmogrified gallery, before they fall on a transmogrified pit. Where are the benches, the good old dingy greasy rows of knife-boards? Gone—and in their places more stalls with elbows and cushions. Any increase in the price? Not a halfpenny. Two shillings, in the old times, for sitting on a pit-plank, with your neighbour’s elbow in your stomach. Two shillings, in the new times, for sitting in a pit-stall, with your neighbour’s elbow where it ought to be. My clerk—my overpaid clerk, who has only nine children and gets a hundred and twenty pounds a-year—can take his wife and daughters to this anti-national theatre, without making their backs ache: can put them in their places without any preliminary rushing and pushing; can seat them next to the fattest man in England, and can make sure that they won’t be squeezed. Squeezed, did I say? What has become of a certain time-honoured female figure, peculiar to an English pit? Where is our unparalleled insular female nuisance, the fruit-woman, whom I saw the other night, at my favourite old-fashioned theatre, charging longitudinally through the happy occupants of the pit-planks, using her basket as a battering-ram, and opening her ginger-pop over the shoulders of the public? Gone, sir! No such person known at the New Adelphi. No such person inquired after, by the audience; no, not even in the driest part of the evening. There the English public sat, sir, in their Frenchified pit, with their refreshment-room to go to if they pleased, as calmly, as comfortably, and as uncomplainingly as if they had been used to it all their lives.
I felt my temper going. Mine is a very fair temper under ordinary circumstances; but it is not quite proof against the provocation of the New Adelphi. I say, I lost my temper, and I half rose to leave my unendurably easy seat—when a new line in the play-bill caught my eye. "No Second Price!" I sat down again, incapable, even after all that I had seen, of realising this climax of innovation. If there is an English institution left in this country (which I sometimes doubt), it is, Half Price, Don’t we all know what a blessing it is for the audience who have been fools enough to pay whole price, to be invaded at nine o’clock by another audience, who have been wise enough to pay half price? Don’t we all know how it improves the closing scenes of an interesting play, and how it encourages the actors who happen to be on the stage at the time, to hear the silence in the theatre suddenly interrupted by a rushing and scraping of feet and a rapid opening and shutting of box-doors? No Second Price! I protest I could not believe it—I thought it was a hoax—and I waited, to make sure, till nine o’clock came. Dead silence; the play and the actors entirely uninterrupted; not a footfall in the pit, not a bang at the box-doors. That was quite enough for me—I felt my own individuality slipping from under me, as it were—and I left the theatre, on patriotic grounds, never—no, never—to enter it again.
You may call this prejudice, and you may ask what it all means besides grumbling. It means, sir, that Mr. Webster’s foreign freak is likely to alter other places of public amusement besides his own. Before long, this gentleman’s mischievous experiment in building will be teaching the once contented English public to exact comfortable seats, sensible arrangements, and architectural fitness and beauty from managers generally, as well as stage entertainments; and the necessary consequence will be, the transmogrification of most of our other theatres, as well as of the new theatre in the Strand. We have risen to be a great people under our existing theatrical system; we were going on remarkably well on our characteristic bare benches—and, on pure conservative grounds, I protest against Mr. Webster’s conspiracy to slip cushions under us, to support our backs, to give room for our legs, to please our eyes, to coddle our hardy lower orders, and to save all our pockets. Let this rashest of existing managers beware. He has entered on a career of which no man can see the end. He has spoilt the public with good accommodation already—the next outrageous luxuries they will learn to clamour for will be good plays.
I remain, sir (in an epistolary sense, but in no other),
P.S.— I forgot to mention, as a last instance of the absurd manner in which the public is petted at the New Adelphi, that the management looks carefully after anything they may leave behind them in their seats—publishes a register of the articles so found, in the play-bill—and keeps them to be applied for at the stage-door. Here is a premium on carelessness, and a mischievous discouragement of trade. A lady who leaves her fan behind her, gets it back again now. In the good old times she would have had to buy another.
First published Household Words 19 March 1859 XIX No.469 pp361-364
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