London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3
The Penny-Gaff Clown.
THE "professional" from whom I elicited my knowledge of penny-gaff clowning is known among his companions as "Funny Billy." He appeared not a little anxious to uphold the dignity of the penny theatre, frequently assuring me that "they brought things out there in a style that would astonish some of the big houses." His whole being seemed wrapped up in these cheap dramatic saloons, and he told me wonderful stories of -class actors at "The Effingham," or of astonishing performers at "The Bower," or "Rotunda." He was surprised, too, that the names of several of the artistes there were not familiar to me, and frequently pressed me to go and see soand-so"s "Beadle," or hear so-and-so sing his "Oh! don"t I like my Father!"
Besides being a clown, my informant was also "an author," and several of the most successful ballets, pantomimes, and dramas, that of late years have been brought out at the City gaffs, have, I was assured, proceeded from "his pen."
In build, even in his every-day clothes, he greatly resembles a clown—perhaps from the broadness of his chest and high-buttoned waistcoat, or from the shortness and crookedness of his legs; but he was the I had seen whose form gave any indication of his calling.
Since the beginning of this year () he has given up clowning, and taken to pantalooning instead, for "on last boxing-day," he informed me, "he met with an accident which dislocated his jaw, and caused a swelling in his cheek as if he had an apple inside his mouth." This he said he could conceal in his make--up as a pantaloon, but it had ruined him for clown.
His statement was as follows:—
"I"m a clown at penny gaffs and the cheap theatres, for some of the gaffs are twopence and threepence—that"s as high as they run. The Rotunda in the Blackfriars"--road is the largest in London, and that will hold comfortably seated, and they give in evening, at penny, twopence, and threepence, and a -class entertainment it is, consisting of a variety of singing and dancing, and ballets, from hour and a-half to hours. There are no penny theatres where speaking is legally allowed, though they do do it to a great extent, and at all of "em at Christmas a pantomime is played, at which Clown and Pantaloon speaks.
The difference between a penny-gaff clown and a fair, or, as we call it, a canvas clown, is this,—at the fairs the principal business is outside on the parade, and there"s very little done (seldom more than scenes) inside. Now at the penny gaffs they go through a regular pantomime, consisting of from to scenes, with jumps and all complete, as at a regular theatre; so that to do clown to of them, you must be equal to those that come out at the regular theatres; and what"s more, you must strain every nerve; and what"s more still, you may often please at a regular theatre when you won"t go down at all at a penny gaff. The circus clown is as different from a penny-gaff clown as a coster is from a tradesman.
What made me turn clown was this. I was singing comic songs at the Albion Saloon, Whitechapel, and playing in ballets, and doing the scene-painting. Business was none of the best. Mr. Paul Herring, the celebrated clown, was introduced into the company as a draw, to play ballets. The ballet which he selected was "The Barber and Beadle;" and me being the only who played the old men on the establishment, he selected me to play the Beadle to his Barber. He complimented me for what I had done, when the performance was over, for I done my uttermost to gain his applause, knowing him to be such a star, and what he said was—I think— deserved. We played together ballets for upwards of months, as well as pantomimes, in which I done the Pantaloon; and we had clear benefits between us, in which we realised each, on both occasions. Then Mr. Paul Herring was engaged by Mr. Jem Douglass, of the Standard, to perform with the great clown, Mr. Tom Matthews, for it was intended to have clowns in the piece. He having to go to the Standard for the Christmas, left about September, and we was without a clown, and it was proposed that I should play the clown. I accepted the offer, at a salary of a-week, under Hector Simpson, the great pantomimist —who was proprietor, This gentleman was well known as the great dog-and-bear man of Covent Garden, and various other theatres, where he played Valentine and Orson with a living bear. He showed me various things that I were deficient in, and with what I knew myself we went on admiringly well; and I continued at it as clown for upwards of a year, and became a great favourite.
I remember clowning last Christmas () particularly, for it was a sad year for me, and
|of the busiest times I have ever known. I met with my accident then. I was worked to death. of all, I had to do my rehearsals; then I had the scene-painting to go on with, which occupied me night and day, and what it brought me in was aday and a-night. The last scene, equal to a pair of flats, was only given to me to do on Christmas-eve, to accomplish by the boxing-day. I got them done by o"clock at Christmas morning, and then I had to go home and complete my dress, likewise my little boy"s, who was engaged to sing and play in ballets at a-night; and he was only years old, but very clever at singing, combating, and ballet performing, as also the illustrations of the Grecian statues, which he done when he was and a half years old.
The pantomime was the original Statue Blanche, as performed by Joe Grimaldi, as Mr. Hector Simpson had produced it — for it was under his superintendence—at Govent Garden Theatre. It"s title was, "The Statue Blanche, or Harlequin and the Magic Cross." I was very successful on the boxing-night, but on the occasion of my acting in it I received an accident, which laid me up for months, and I was not off my bed for weeks.
I had, previous to this, played clown very often, especially on the Saturday evenings, for the Jews, for I was a great favourite with them; so far, that I knew they would go far and near to serve me. I had performed in "Harlequin Blue Beard," and "Harlequin Merry Milliners, or The Pair of Lovers," and several others, from to of them; but that was during the summer season. But I had never had a chance of coming out at Christmas before, and to me it was quite an event, and there"s no doubt I should have prospered in it only for my accident.
This accident was occasioned by this. During the comic scene—the scene of the stripping of the child—they allowed an inexperienced person to play the part of the Beadle, and the doll for the child was stuffed with oak sawdust, and weighed . He took it up by the leg and struck me a blow in the face, which dislocated the jaw-bone, and splintered it all to pieces. I went through the pantomime with the remnants of the broken jaw still in my face, having then hours to perform, for we played houses that boxing-day, to upwards of from to people, and we began at half-past in the day, and terminated at at night. I had met with great approbation the whole of the time, and it was a sad event for me. It was quite accidental was my accident, and of course I bore the man no malice for , but more blamed the manager for letting him come on.
When I had done that night, after my blow, I felt very fatigued, and my face was very sore. I was completely jaw-locked, and I imagined I had caught a cold. It hurt me awfully every time I closed my teeth, but I drowned my feelings in a little brandy, and so forth; and the next night I resumed my clowning. After I had done that evening, I found I was so very bad I could hardly move; and going home with my wife and children, I was obliged to sit down every other yard I took, which occupied me very near hours to do the mile and a quarter. I went to bed, and never got up again for weeks, for it brought on fever again. Ah! what I have suffered, God, and God only, knows! When the doctor came, he said I were under a very severe fever, and he thought I had caught a cold, and that I had the erysiphilas, my face being so swollen that it hung on my shoulders as they propped me up with pillows. He knew nothing about it. He made "em bathe my face with poppy-heads, and wash my mouth out with honey, which drove me out of my mind, for I was a fortnight deranged. My wife told me, that whilst I was mad I had behaved very ill to her—poor thing!—for I wouldn"t let anybody come near me but her; and when she"d come I"d seize her by the hair, and fancy she was the man who had broke my jaw; and once I near strangled her. I was mad, you know. Ah! what I suffered then, nobody knows. Through that accident my wife and children has had many a time to go without victuals. Everything was sold then to keep me from the workhouse—even my poor little children"s frocks. My poor wife saved my life, if anybody did, for doctors gave me up. I don"t believe they knew what I had. The teeth was loose, but the mouth was closed, and I couldn"t open it. They thought I had an abscess there, and they cut me or times in the neck to open the gathering. At last they found out the jaw-bone was smashed. When I got better, the doctor told me he could do nothing for me, but give me a letter to Dr. Fergusson, at the King"s College Hospital. I went to him, and he examined and probed the jaw through the incision under the gland of the neck, and then he said he must take the jaw out. I said I would consult my friends and hear what they said ; and with the idea of such an operation, and being so weak, I actually fainted down in the passage as I was leaving.
Ah! fancy my distress to make such a hit, and everybody to compliment me as they did, and to see a prospect of almost coining money, and then suddenly to be thrown over, and be told it was either life or death for me!
I wouldn"t undergo the operation. So I went home, and here comes fortitude. I pulled out the teeth with a pair of cobbler"s pincers, and cut open my face with a penknife to take out the bits of bone. If I hadn"t been a prudent, sober man, I should have died through it.
There was a friend of mine who was like a brother to me, and he stuck to me every
|inch. There was lots of professionals I had supported in their illness, and they never come near me; only my dear friend, and but for him I should have died, for he saved up his money to get me port wine and such things.
Many a time I"ve gone out when I was better to sing comic songs at concerts, when I could feel the bits of bone jangling in my mouth. But, sir, I had a wife and family, and they wanted food. As it was, my poor wife had to go to the workhouse to be confined. At time I started off to do away with myself. I parted with my wife and children, and went to say good-by to my good friend, and it was he who saved my life. If it hadn"t been for him it would have been a gooser with me, for I was prepared to finish all. He walked about with me and reasoned me out of it, and says he, "What on earth will become of the wife and the children?"
I"m sufficiently well now to enable me to resume my old occupation, not as Clown but as Pantaloon.
Altogether—taking it all in all—I was years as clown, and very successful and a great favourite with the Jews. My standing salary for comic singing and clown was eighteen shillings a-week; but then at Christmas it was always rose to or thirtyfive shillings. Then I did the writing and painting, such as the placards for the outside; such as, "This saloon is open this evening," and such-like; and that, on the average, would bring me in a-week.
There was men and females in my company when we played "Harlequin Blue Beard," for that"s the I shall describe to you, and that we played for a considerable time. I was manager at the time, and I always was liked by the company, for I never fined them or anything like that; for, you see, I knew that to take sixpence from a poor man was to take a loaf of bread from the children.
This pantomime was of my own writing, and I managed the chorus and the dances, and all. I painted the scenery, too, and moulded the masks—about altogether—and then afterwards played clown. All this was included in my salary of eighteen shillings aweek, and that was the top price of the company.
The scene was with a cottage on the left hand and with the surrounding country in the back; rows of waters, with the distant view of Blue Beard"s castle. Enters the lover (he"s the Harlequin) in a disguise dressed as a Turk; he explains in the pantomime that he should like to make the lady in the cottage his bride (which is Fatima, and afterwards Columbine). He goes to the cottage and knocks times, when she appears at the window. She comes out and dances with him. At the end of the dance the old man comes in, to the tune of "Roast Beef of Old England." He wears a big mask, and is the father to Fatima, and afterwards Pantaloon. He drives lover off stage, and is about to take Fatima back to cottage, when castle gates at back opens and discovers Blue Beard in gondola, which crosses the stage in the waters. Blue Beard wears a mask and a tremendous long sword, which takes men to pull out. He"s afterwards Clown, and I played the part.
Several other gondolas cross stage, and when the last goes off the chorus begins in the distance, and increases as it approaches, and is thus:
Then comes Blue Beard"s march, and enter troops, followed by Shackaback in a hurry. He"s Blue Beard"s servant. He bears on his shoulder an immense key, which he places in the middle of stage. He then comes to the front with a scroll, which he exhibits, on which is written:
At which they all become alarmed, and in an immense hurry of music enters Blue Beard majestically. He sings, to the tune of "The Low-back Car:"
"The lover from the side says:
Then Blue Beard looks round fiercely, and his mask is made with eyes to work with strings:
(and he opens a tremendous pair of saucer eyes),
Then the music goes "Ha! ha!" As he draws his sword into the army of men, Shackaback gets it on the nose.
"Then Blue Beard goes direct to the old man and embraces him, and shows him a big purse of money. He then goes to the young lady, but she refuses him, and says she would sooner wed the young trooper. The old man gets in a rage, when enters Demon unseen by all; he waves over their heads; they then catch hold of hands and dance round the key again, to the tune of "The Roast Beef of Old Eng-
land." Then begins a chorus which is thus, to the tune of "Stoney Batter:"
(Fairies from the side:)
"After dancing round key, Blue Beard orders of the troops to seize the girl and carry her to the castle. Then they catch hands and begin singing, to the tune of "Fine Young Bachelors:"
And the scene closes on this. Then the lover just crosses, so as to give time to arrange the back scene. He vows vengeance on Blue Beard. Then scene opens, and discovers a chamber with Fatima on couch, and Demon behind with a large heart, on the scene over which is in illuminated letters:
The large key is placed at the foot of the couch on which she is laying. We don"t introduce the haunted chamber scenes, as it would have been too lengthened; but it was supposed that she had been there and examined it, and terror had overcome her and she had swooned. That"s when the audience sees her. We couldn"t do all the story at a penny gaff, it was too long. To return to the plot.