London Labour and the London Poor, volume 3

Mayhew, Henry


Ballet Performers.


THE Ballet," said a street-dancer to me, "is a very favourite amusement with the people who go to cheap penny theatres. They are all comic, like pantomimes; indeed, they come under that term, only there"s no comic scenes or transformations. They"re like the story of a pantomime, and nothing else. Nearly all the popular clowns are famous for their ballet performances; they take the comic parts mostly, and the pantaloons take the old men"s parts. Ballets have been favourites in this country for forty or fifty year. There is always a comic part in every ballet. I have known ballets to be very popular for ever since I can remember,—and that"s thirty years. At all the gaffs, where they are afraid to speak their parts, they always have a ballet. Every one in London, and there are plenty of them, have one every night, for it"s very seldom they venture upon a talking play.

In all ballets the costume is fanciful. The young ladies come on in short petticoats, like them at the opera. Some of the girls we have are the same as have been in the opera corps-de-ballet. Mr. Flexmore, the celebrated clown, is a ballet performer, and there"s not a greater man going for the ballet that he appears in, called "The Dancing Scotchman." There"s Paul Herring, too; he"s very famous. He"s the only man I know of that can play Punch, for he works the speaker in his mouth; and he"s been a great Punch-and- Judy man in his time. He"s very clever in "The Sprite of the Vineyard, or the Merry Devil of Como." They"ve been playing it at Cremorne lately, and a very successful affair it was.

When a professional goes to a gaff to get an engagement, they in general inquires whether he is a good ballet performer. Everything depends upon that. They also acts ballets at some of the concert-rooms. At the Rising Sun, Knightsbridge, as well as the Brown Bear, Knightsbridge, they play them for a week at a time, and then drop them for a fortnight for a change, and perhaps have tumblers instead; then they have them again for a week, and so on. In Ratcliffe Highway, at Ward"s Hoop and Grapes, and also the Albion, and the Prince Regent, they always play ballets at stated intervals. Also the Effingham Saloon, Whitechapel, is a celebrated ballet-house. The admission to all these houses is 2d. I believe. At the Highway, when the ships are up and the sailors ashore, business is very brisk, and they are admitted to the rooms gratuitously; and a fine thing they make of them, for they are good-hearted fellows and don"t mind what money they spend. I"ve known one who was a little way gone to chuck halfa- crown on the stage to some actor, and I"ve known others to spend a pound at one bit,— standing to all round! One night, when I was performing ballets at the Rising Sun, Knightsbridge, Mr. Hill, the Queen"s coachman, threw me two half-crowns on to the stage. We had been supposed to be fighting,—I and my mate,—and to have got so exhausted we fell down, and Mr. Hill came and poured three glasses of port-wine negus down our throats as we laid. I"ve repeatedly had 1s. and 6s. thrown to me by the grooms of the different people of nobility, such as the Russells and various other families.

A good ballet performer will get averaging from a pound to 35s. a-week. They call Paul Herring a star, and he is one, for he always draws wherever he goes. I generally get my 25s., that"s my running price, though I try for my 30s.; but 25s. is about my mark. I have always made Paul Herring my study, and I try to get to perform with him, for he"s the best clown of the day, and a credit to work with.

It"s impossible to say how many ballet performers there are. There are such a host of them it"s impossible to state that, for they change so. Then a great many are out of employment until Christmas, for that generally fills the vacancies up. My wife does a little in ballets, though she is principally a poses plastique girl. I married my wife off the table.

One of the most successful ballets is the Statue Blanche. It has been performed at every theatre in London, both the cheap and the regular. The Surrey is an enormous place for it. It came out, I believe, in Grimaldi"s time. It was played a fortnight ago at the Bower, and I took the part of the old man, and I was very successful; so far so, that I got a situation for Christmas. It"s an excellent plot, and runs an hour and a quarter to play.

It begins with a romantic view, with a cottage on the right hand, and white palings round it, and a quantity of straw laying on the stage. The villagers and the lover come on. Lover goes to cottage door and knocks three times, when lady appears at window. He ballets to her, "Will you come down here and dance?" She comes, and they all do a country dance. At the end of the dance the old man is heard to cough inside cottage. He opens the window and sees the girl outside, and shakes his fist at her. The lover hides behind the lady. He comes out and sends his daughter into cottage, and sends the lover off about his business. He refuses to do so. The old man makes a blow at him with his stick; he makes another, when lover bobs down and stick strikes Pierrot in the face, and knocks him down. This Pierrot is the Simpkin of the ballet, and he"s dressed in white, with long sleeves, and a white face, and white scalp on his head. The ballet is from the French, and its real title is "La Statue Blanche," though we call it "The Statue Blanche."

Lover is driven off stage, and old man picks up Simpkin, and ballets to him that he"s very sorry but he thought it was the lover, and tells him to hide under the straw which is on the stage, and that if the lover comes again to lay hold of him, to call assistance. He hides, and old man goes into cottage.

Lover comes again with villagers carrying flails, and they begin to thresh this straw with Simpkin under it. They thresh him round stage. He knocks at door three times, and the third blow knocks old man in the face. Out he comes staggering. The old man threatens to sack lover. He goes into cottage and brings out lover"s bundle, and throws it to lover, and sends him away. The lover appeals to old man, but all to no use. The lover then ballets to him that he has got no money, so the old man hands his purse, which Simpkin takes and carries up stage. The lover still asks for money, and the old man is astonished, and then turns round and sees Simpkin, and makes him return it. Exit old man and Simpkin into cottage, leaving lover on stage. He leans against wing very disconsolate, when an artist comes on with a scrap-book to sketch the scene. He asks the lover what is the matter, and then he tells him he has a plan if lover will become a sketcher; and if he likes to do so, he will make a statue of him and sell him to the old man, as he deals in antiquities, and by that plan he will be able to gain the girl. They go off, and another old man comes on and knocks at door, which old father opens, and thinking it is lover tumbles him over. He then says he"s very sorry for mistaking him for the lover. They make it up, and the old man says he has plenty of money, and has come to marry the daughter. They embrace, and old father invites old man to step inside and have something to drink. As the second old man is going in, the Simpkin jumps over his head and hides; and old man swears it is the lover, and hunts for him, but can"t find him, and enters cottage. The second scene has got the tea business in it, and the blacking of the old lover"s face. The comic business here is, they are having tea, and Simpkin is waiting on them, and does every thing very clumsy. He carries on the old business of stirring the tea up with a candle, and then he puts the dirty kettle on the cloth and makes a mark; so he thinks for a minute, and then wipes the bottom of the kettle with the old lover"s handkerchief when he is not looking. Then Simpkin steals the milk-jug, and as he is drinking the old father hits him on the stomach, and makes him sputter in old lover"s face, who instantly snatches up the dirty handkerchief to wipe his face, and blacks it all over with the soot from the bottom of the kettle. Then there is some comic business about Simpkin breaking the tea-things, and bursting a coat in two; and then scene changes to a romantic view, with a pedestal in the centre, and statue on it. The old father comes on with the girl and Simpkin, and the villagers, who have all come to view the statue. The old man then calls the artist, and tells him to wind up the statue that he may see how it works. The statue does several positions, and the old man buys it. They all go off but Simpkin, the lady, and the old man. (The statue is still on the pedestal, you know.) The old man cautions Simpkin not to touch the statue, for he"s going away. As soon as he is gone, Simpkin goes and winds it up until he breaks the spring. Then in comes the old man again, and the fool goes to a corner and pretends to be asleep. He is pulled up by the ear and shown what he has done, and is about to be beaten, when girl intercedes and puts the statue to rights. They go off, leaving Simpkin with the statue. Lady returns, and statue jumps down and embraces her. The statue then takes off his helmet and wig, and chucks it at Simpkin, and rushes off with girl, and the clown mounts the pedestal. Enter old man, who ballets that he"ll have a turn as nobody is there. He goes and looks at statue, and perceives that he is in a different position. He turns the handle and Simpkin jumps about, burlesquing what the lover has done. Then Simpkin jumps down, and pushes the old man round stage with a club in his hand. Old man sings out "Murder!" when lover returns with girl and stops Simpkin from knocking him down. They tell the old man they are married, and he joins their hands, and a general dance winds up the performance.

That"s one of the most successful ballets ever imagined, and in its time has drawn thousands and thousands to see it. I don"t know who wrote the ballet, but I should imagine it was the property of Grimaldi"s father, who was a great pantomimist.

There"s a new ballet, called "The Dream before the Wedding, or the Ploughboy turned Sailor." That one depends more upon the lover than the comic man. There"s another, called "The Boatman of the Ohio." That"s a comic nigger ballet, in which the banjo and bones are introduced; and there"s a very funny duet song, to the tune of "Roley poley." They both hide in a clock-case to hide from the old man, and they frighten each other, for they put their ugly black faces out and take each other for the devil. Then there"s "The Barber and the Beadle." The barber is one of Paul Herring"s favourite characters. I"ve done the beadle to his barber. There"s a very firstrate scene in it with the fop,—Jemmy Green he"s called, a cockney sort of a fellow,—and this barber has to shave him, and cuts his nose, and ties him in a chair, and shoves the soap-suds in his mouth. This fop is arranging with the father about the daughter, and the barber ties a line to a pole and fishes off the old man"s wig. The beadle is the father of the girl. It goes immense. I"ve played in it during my time more than 400 times.

Another famous ballet is "The Cobbler and the Tailor." There"s a celebrated fight in that, between the tailor with his sleeve-board and goose, and the cobbler with his clam and his awl. The tailor tries to burn me with the goose, and he hunts me all about. We are about twenty minutes fighting. It"s a neverfailing fight, that is. The sleeve-boards are split to make a noise at each knock, and so is the clam. There"s one, two, three, four, and a crack on the nob. We keep it up till both are supposed to fall down exhausted. Then there"s crowing "Cock-a-doodle-doo" at each other. We enjoy it just as much as the audience do, for it"s very funny. Although the shirt is sticking to our backs with perspiration, we enter into the sport quite like them in front. We generally prefer winter for this ballet, for it"s hot work; or if it"s in the open air, like in gardens, then it"s very delightful.

One of the principal things in ballet performing is to be able to do the raps, or slaps, well and quickly. A fellow gives me a clap on the face in the piece, then I have to slap my hands together, and make a noise as if he had given me a tremendous knock down. Of course, the closer the sound is to the blow, the better is the effect; and the art is to do it close. That"s what we call good working. The people, of course, follow with their eye the fist of the striker, and the one struck has his arms down in front, and claps them together. It is the same work as they do in the pantomimes. Another trick is hitting the knuckles when fighting, also striking on the head. That"s done by holding the stick close to the pate, and that takes the blow. On the knuckles the striker aims just above the fingers. It wants a quick eye. A fellow caught me on the nose, at the Bower, the other night, and took the skin off the tip; and there"s the mark now, you see. The principal distinction between pantomimes and ballets is that there are more cascades, and trips, and valleys in pantomimes, and none in ballets.

A trip is a dance between Harlequin and the Columbine; and cascades and valleys are trundling and gymnastic performances, such as tumbling across the stage on wheels, and catching hold of hands and twirling round.

We have done a kind of speaking ballet, where there is a little singing and talking just to help out the plot. It is a kind of pantomime sketch. It is entitled, "The Magic Mirror, or how to reclaim a drunken Servant." I was the author of it, for I"m generally engaged expressly to get up ballets, and occasionally they expect me to do a new one for them. I get from 25s. to 30s. a-week for such an engagement. The scene opens with a chamber in the front of the stage, with a candle on the table nearly burnt out. The clock strikes four. A servant in livery is waiting up for his other servant. He yawns and does the sleepy business. Then he says, "Whenever it is Thomas"s day out he stops so very late; master has threatened to discharge him, and he will get the sack. Would that I could reclaim him! I will endeavour to do so. I wish he would return." And that"s the cue for the other one off the stage to begin singing "I"ve been roving, I"ve been roving," &c. Then the honest servant says, "He comes! Now then to form a magic looking-glass, wherein he can see his errors. Now to procure four pieces of timber." He does so, and makes a square frame or strainer. "Now for a few tacks." He gets them, and then takes a gauze curtain down from the window, and places it on the back of the frame, which forms a looking-glass. Then lights is turned down on stage, and he puts a candle behind the mirror, which illuminates this gauze, you see. He then hides behind the glass.

Thomas comes in very tipsy. He does the drunken business, and then says, "I"ve had the best of cheer. I"ve been down to farmer Cheer"s, and had the best of ale, and some good gin, and better brandy;" at which the man behind the frame echoes, "Better brandy." Thomas is alarmed. He looks around and says, "That was the echo." To which the voice replies, "That was the echo." Then they repeat this business; Thomas getting still more nervous. He says, "Well, I declare, I"m getting quite melancholy. I"ll see what singing can do to rouse me a little." He then begins,— "Tis love that rules the courts and the city, It rules both the high and the low; But sometimes—the more is the pity— Young Cupid won"t rosin his bow. Won"t rosin his bow.

The glass takes up "Rosin his bo-o-o-o-w." The time this is going on, the other servant is dressing himself to represent the other; combing his hair, and painting his face, and everything. Thomas gets quite I don"t know how; and he says, "I wonder if I look frightened?" And he goes to the glass, and the other appears at the same time, and it looks like the reflection in the glass. I"ve had some fools imagine it was the reflection. Thomas says "Oh, I look very nice!" and as he speaks the other opens his mouth too. Then Thomas says, "Why I"ve got some black on my nose!" and he goes to wipe it, and the form behind imitates him.

He then goes down the stage and returns to glass again. There"s a deal of business carried on. At last Thomas sees the figure turn round whilst he"s looking in front, and then he exclaims, "That"s not me! My waistcoat ain"t split up the back! I"ll smash the glass." He knocks down the gauze, and out pops the figure, yelling "Ah! I"m the glass imp!" Thomas falls down on the stage, and as the imp walks about, one off the side at the wing thumps the ground at each step with a piece of wood, to mark the steps. Then the servant says, "Fe fi fo fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman;" and Thomas answers, "Oh no, Mr. Ghost, I ain"t an Englishman; I"m a Irish woman;" and there"s a shout at that, of course. The servant continues,— "Let him be alive, let him be dead,"—and Thomas says "I"m as dead as a red herring!" and there"s another shout. The fellow-servant then catches hold of Thomas by the hair of the head, and tells him to follow him below. Thomas replies "Oh don"t! please, don"t, Mr. Ghost! I"ll do anything but follow you below, though you are so good-looking." "Will you promise to come home early for the future?" "I will." "And never drink no more brandy nor stout?" "I will." The fellow-servant shouts in a hoarse voice, "Nay, Slave! not I will, but I will not." "Not." "Enough! rise and look at me." "Oh, I wouldn"t for the world." "Don"t you know me?" "Oh no! no! no! I never saw you before." "It"s all right, I"m your friend James: your fellow-servant!" Then Thomas gets up and sees him, and begins laughing. "Oh, I wasn"t frightened: I knew you all the time." The other cove then shouts, "Fe fi fo fum;" and down goes Thomas on his face and screams "Murder! murder!" Then James says, "Oh, it"s only me; look!" Then Thomas looks and says, "Well, I declare I thought you was the glass imp." "No, I only played this prank to reclaim you. Has it had its effect?" "It has." "Then I have gained my end, since you are reformed; and I hope you are reformed." "I am; and I hope it will be a lesson to my friends in front, and that they will never take a drop too much." Then they sing together— Troubles all, great and small, You must think not of the past; For life is short, and mirth and sport Cannot ever last. Cannot ever last. Cannot ever last.

That pantomimic farce always goes down with wonderful success. It has a regular round of applause, which is everybody clapping as hard as they can. Some of the tavernkeepers, in whose concert-rooms we done this ballet pantomime, don"t much like the wind-up to this piece,—about hoping our friends will take a lesson, and not drink too much. At one place the landlord happened to come just as that line was spoke, and he told me he"d fine me sixpence if I done it again. "Why, I ain"t sold a dozen pots of beer through it," he says. So I agreed with him to alter the tag to this,— "and not drink no more than you can carry, for that never did any one any harm, but more is injurious." At some of these rooms, if a song is going too long and no drinking, the landlord will come in, and hold his hand up, as a cue for us to leave off and let the drinking begin again. Then the waiters looks the audience up again with their "Give your orders, gentlemen; give your orders."

This ballet pantomime was quite an innovation, and isn"t strictly ballet, but in the same line.

Of all ballets, the one that has found the longest run is the "Statue Blanche." I"ve known it to go a month. All the young ladies in these pieces are regular ballet-girls, and all "turned out;" that is, taught to stand with their dancing position. You know all of them is supposed to be able to kick their nose with their knees. You know they crick them when young, the same as a contortionist or acrobat. They are always practising. You see them in the green-room kicking their legs about. The men have to do the same, except the comic characters that don"t dance. Paul Herring is very clever at these things, and don"t want no practising. He can scratch his head with his foot. He"s the finest clown that ever trod in shoe-leather.

The green-rooms at the concert-rooms are very tidy. Even at the penny gaffs the men and women have separate rooms. The women there have got their decency the same as at a theatre, and they wouldn"t go there if there wasn"t separate dressing-rooms. In fact, they keep themselves more from the men than the men from them, for they are all madames; and though they only keep a wheelbarrow, they carry themselves as if they had a coach.

At the concert-rooms they have always a useful set of scenery, about similar to that at the penny gaffs. At some of them you don"t get so good scenery as at the gaffs. There"s in general a romantic scene, and a cottage, and so forth, and that"s all that"s wanted. There"s a regular proscenium to the theatres, with lights in front and all. The most usual manner is to have a couple of figures at the sides holding lights, and curtains behind them, because it answers for the ballets and also for the singing. At some of the concert-rooms there"s no side-entrance to the stage, and then you have to go across the audience dressed in your costume, before you can get on to the stage. It"s horrid, that is. I"ve done it many and many a time at Knightsbridge. It"s very bad, for everything depends upon being discovered when the curtain draws up. Some of the people will say, "Oh, that"s nothing; I"ve seen him before."

I have repeatedly seen people in front go to the stage and offer their glass to the actor to drink. We are forbid to receive them, because it interferes with business; but we do take it. I"ve seen drink handed on to the stage from three to four times a-night.

Sometimes, when a dance has pleased the audience, or an acrobat, or a bottle equilibrist, they"ll throw halfpence on to the stage, to reward the performer. We sometimes do this for one another, so as to give the collection a start. We are forbidden to take money when it is thrown on to us, but we do. If a sixpence comes, we in general clap our foot on to it, and then your mate gives you a rap on the face, and we tumble down and put it in our mouth, so that the proprietor shan"t see us. If he saw it done, and he could find it, he"d take it away if he could. I have known a man pick up as much as 3s. after a dance. Then there are generally some one who is not en- gaged on the establishment, and he comes for what we term "the nobbings," that"s what is throw"d to him. I"ve known a clog-dancer, of the name of Thompson, to earn as much as 10s. of a night at the various concert-rooms. He"s very clever, and may be seen any night at the Hoop and Grapes, Ratcliffe-highway. He does 108 different steps, and 51 of them are on his toes.

There"s in general from five to six people engaged in a concert-room performances, and for professionals alone that"ll come to from 30s. to 2l. a-night for expenses for actors and singers. That"s putting down nothing for the conductor, or musicians, or gas. Some of them charge 2d. or 1d. admission, but then there"s something extra put on to the drink. Porter is 5d. a pot, and fourpenny ale is charged 6d.; besides, you can"t have less than 6d. worth of gin-and-water. At such a room as the Nag"s Head in Oxford-street, I"ve known as many as from 200 to 300 go there in the evening; and the Standard, Pimlico, will hold from 400 to 450 people, and I"ve seen that full for nights together. There they only have merely a platform, and seldom do ballets, or Grecian statues, dancing, gymnastics, and various other entertainments, such as ventriloquism. There the admission is 4d., and on benefit occasions 6d.

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 Title Page
Chapter I: The Destroyers of Vermin
Our Street Folk - Street Exhibitors
Chapter III: - Street Musicians
Chapter IV: - Street Vocalists
Chapter V: - Street Artists
Chapter VI: - Exhibitors of Trained Animals
Chapter VII: Skilled and Unskilled Labour - Garret-Masters
Chapter VIII: - The Coal-Heavers
Chapter IX: - Ballast-Men
Chapter X: - Lumpers
Chapter XI: Account of the Casual Labourers
 Chapter XII: Cheap Lodging-Houses
Chapter XIII: On the Transit of Great Britain and the Metropolis
Chapter XIV: London Watermen, Lightermen, and Steamboat-Men
Chapter XV: London Omnibus Drivers and Conductors
Chapter XVI: Character of Cabdrivers
Chapter XVII: Carmen and Porters
Chapter XVIII: London Vagrants
 Chapter XIX: Meeting of Ticket-of-Leave Men