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FIRST VISIT TO A LONDON THEATRE.
American and Foreign Theatres Contrasted.-Scenic Superiority in this Country. Full Dress in London Theatres.-Curiosities of Accent.— The Pit and the Pea Nut.-The Dress of English and American Actresses. Behind the Scenes.-Stage Banquets. - The Vanishing Green-room. The New York Stage as seen by English Eyes.Decorous Audiences. — Persistent Play-goers. -The Star System.Poor Encouragement to Dramatists.-The English and French Stage Compared.—“The Cross of my Mother."-Decline of the British Stage. The Dramatist's Power.-London Theatres.-The Most Celebrated Playhouses of Europe.-Theatres in Germany.
Until late years, the stage decorations of American theatres have been of so poor a description that my first entrance into a prominent London theatre, about ten years ago, struck me with speechless astonishment at the beauty of the mise en scene, which was far above anything I had ever seen in America-of whose theatres I had been a habitue, both "in front" and "behind the scenes," since my earliest childhood.
The play, I remember, was one in which Miss Amy Sedgwick appeared, and the whole performance was so good that it was to me like a revelation in histrionic art.
Passing my time about equally between Paris and London for the six years following this event, I was able to form a pretty correct idea of theatrical matters in these two centres of civilization, and to compare their theatres with those of America when I returned to my native country in '62.
Then I found that American managers had discovered the great fact that comfortable seats in the auditorium, plenty of chandeliers, and the tabooing of babies in arms, were not all that was required to make a play attractive,
and had consequently begun to adopt the European plan of “mounting" every piece which they thought destined for a “run."
This needed reform soon bore its fruits; and now it is not too much to say that New York can safely compete in almost every respect with any London theatre, whatever its grade.
I dare not extend the boastful comparison to the theatres of Paris, for the trail of the Gymnase is over me still, and the halo of the Comedie Francaise is as bright a nimbus in memory's heaven as though half a dozen years, headed by a rebellion, punctured with a war, closed with a peace, had not passed since I sat in that classic temple and listened to “Britannicus.”
Many pieces which have been brought out in London and considered well mounted there, have been transferred to New York and placed upon the stage in such a way as quite to throw their original decking into the shade. As an instance, I may cite the comedy of “Ours," which an English officer who had seen the piece in London and had taken a great interest in it on account of having served in the Crimean war, told me was placed on the stage at Wallack's Theatre so much better than in London as almost to be unrecognizable. This was not due, however, to the superiority of the scenic artists—for in this direction the Americans were not to be compared to the English -but to the extreme care bestowed upon other details by the management: the reckless extravagance in furniture, pianos, paintings, etc., of whose richness I can give no better idea than by saying they looked as though transplanted from a Fifth avenue drawing-room.
It seemed to me during my different visits to London, and in course of conversation about theatres with English people, that an idea prəvailed that, in American theatres, were invariably presented entertainments of a low order,
SHABBY FULL DRESS.
and that American audiences were composed in great part of Pike's Peak miners sitting in the best boxes in their shirt-sleeves, and with their legs up.
To visit one of those American theatres, and to observe the elegance of the ladies' toilets, the “stunning” getup of the jeunesse greenbacked of New York, the wild extravagance of outlay in both sexes, is to correct this idea at once.
As for the entertainment itself, it is usually as near the European model as three times the money expended on it there can make it.
In England, I found prevailing a rather stupid rule, that a lady must be in “full dress” to go to the best seats in any theatre; and I well remember with what annoy
; ance I removed my bonnet, in obedience to a peremptory command to that effect from the ticket-seller at Astley's. To enter that sacred abode of horsey art, I was told, I must be in full dress. To go in full dress to a circus seemed a very stupid thing to do.
Besides, did the mere removal of the obnoxious bonnet constitute “full dress” in England ? My own American idea of full dress meant a diamond necklace and as little else as possible. Then, again, the gentlemen of our party had thick shoes on, and, if I am not mistaken, these were rather muddy from walking about London streets all day engaged in sight-seeing. Their dress, however, was not objected to; and, my bonnet removed, the whole party was immediately in that “full dress" which the high-toned entertainment presented at Astley’s rendered indispensable!
This same full dress so generally prevailing in England is frequently so shabby that the appearance of an English theatre compares most unfavorably with that of the same species of entertainment in America. I do not now speak of the toilets of those English ladies who can afford
any Parisian luxuries their taste may dictate, but rather of that middle class of gentlewomen who, compelled to be in full dress, compromise the matter by appearing in oldfashioned and unbecoming opera cloaks, with faded artifi. cial roses in their hair, and not infrequently soiled gloves. Perhaps these same ladies have bonnets or round hats and neatly fitting velvet or silk jackets at home, in which -if they were allowed to wear them at theatres—they would look as well dressed as the American ladies.
That the American custom is an agreeable and convenient one is very evident from the fact that English ladies visiting Paris theatres, where it is also in vogue, quickly and gladly adopt it. Nor can it be urged that there is anything inelegant about it; for bonnets and streetjackets, as all continental travelers know, are not pronounced mauvais ton even at the Italiens in Paris.
In regard to the comparative excellence of the acting at American and foreign theatres, I may quote Mr. Boucicault, who says it is better here than in England; and in the better class of our theatres I think it is. The only branch in which we are distanced is in the field of burlesque, which American actors and actresses as a class are incapable of portraying.
Where American histrionic talent shines most brightly is in fine sentiment or tragedy, and were it not that the American accent is so distasteful to English ears, I think such an actress as Mrs. Chanfrau, and one or two other beautiful and sympathetic young women now charming American audiences, would scarcely have the meed of praise withheld from them by that London public which every player holds in such high esteem.
It is rather curious that the American accent should be so unpleasant to English audiences, while the English accent is received without comment by the American public. “It is as far from your house to my house, as it is
from my house to your house." If the Yankee twang is objected to by London audiences, I see no reason why dropped and inserted “h’s” and the like should not be rebelled against by Americans.
For it must be remembered that while a few bright particular stars of England consent to shine in the American horizon, that same horizon is densely clouded with the very refuse of the British stage; the tramps of circuit actors; such “barn-door" mouthers as lived and traveled even in Hamlet's time. These are the people who, in receipt of salaries such as the leading professionals in England do not obtain, are constantly grumbling at and abusing this country, and threatening to return to H’England -a menace they always fail to carry out.
The French accent appears to be rather an advantage than otherwise in London, when we remember the success of Mr. Fechter and Mlle. Stella Colas. In New York, however, we carry the cosmopolitan spirit still further, as was shown one winter by our supporting a French theatre, two German theatres, two Italian troupes, one lyric and one dramatic, and a French opera—to say nothing of wandering Japanese, Chinese and Arabs! Their polyglot performances were not, as one might suppose, sustained solely by the foreign-born citizens who speak the foreign tongue in which they were given; but, with an absurdity which words fail to express, they were listened to by vast crowds of Americans, who would sit for from three to six mortal hours listening to a play whose language they did not understand.
I am very certain in no other country in the world would Madame Ristori have been able to make in one short season the great sum of one hundred and fifty thousand dollars for her own share."
" . The "pit,” which is so common in London, has for years had in American theatres no existence, except in the sole