Entertaining Mr Pooter - The late Victorian stage and its audiences.

GEORGE GROSSMITH’S MR Pooter, in The Diary of a Nobody (1892), enjoys a pipe, a trip to a guildhall ball and the occasional séance; his world of entertainment is based on a culture of aspiration and this is created by a range of acceptable leisure activities. These have their limits, and one of the unacceptable activities is having the kind of fun his son, Lupin, enjoys:
Lupin informs me, to my disgust, that he has been persuaded to take part in the forthcoming performance of the “Holloway Comedians.” He says he is to play Bob Britches in the farce, Gone to My Uncle’s; Frank Mutlar is going to play Old Musty. I told Lupin pretty plainly that I was not in the least Degree interested in the matter…’1
Pooter just wants to be an acceptable member of the new middle class – those who were at the time living in the London suburbs and travelling into the city to work, generally pushing pens. This new class hungered for self-improvement. Pooter is anxious to do the right thing, and desperate not to make a faux pas in the ‘best’ company. His reading, his entertainment and his recreational activities are carefully considered. His tastes are middlebrow, and that is exactly what the accelerating new media set out to satisfy. Yet, he has no time for a farce; he would attend a Shakespeare performance or the latest serious play in town, but low comedy was beyond his cultural boundary.

In contrast, we have Mr Leonard Bast, in E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End. Here is a man of that same class of clerks – descendants of Bob Cratchit but with an enriched lifestyle and some leisure time. Bast is inspired by Ruskin and wants to improve through study. His disposition is to analyse and discuss, to read widely and absorb anything considered to be ‘high’ culture. The crusade to educate the working class, from the 1870 Forster Education Act and later legislation on elementary education, had given the writers and performers of the page and stage a new and enthusiastic audience, eager for the kind of enlightenment their ‘betters’ had always had by birthright. In chapter XIV of Howard’s End, Bast is eager to express his thoughts about books and ideas, and his gushing enthusiasm fails to impress the Schlegel sisters. After Bast’s talk about three different books in half a minute, Forster adds this:
Tibby, who preferred his comedy undiluted, slipped from the room. He knew that this fellow would never attain to poetry…2
The Basts of the new world of the class of clerks and commuters wanted their entertainment, but with more than a dash of high culture. The dichotomy of popular and highbrow entertainment was to persist through this period. In Max Wall’s autobiography, Fool on the Hill, he describes the musical entertainment in which his parents (music hall acts) worked around 1900: ‘ The music hall was then predominant in the world of entertainment. There were plenty of “legit” theatres where the great star actors like Irving, Harvey and Tree could parade their talents, but for the common run of humanity the music hall was the thing.’3

THE CONTRAST BETWEEN the two literary characters of Pooter and Bast presents an interesting dichotomy: Pooter cultivates a social self, making friendships and sharing experience; there is a place for popular entertainment in his life, despite his choosiness. On the other hand, Bast turns in on himself, yearning for scholarship and depth of knowledge, longing for the acquisition of cultural knowledge and accomplishments which are in categories very much in contradistinction to anything for the crowd, for the masses. Each wants a certain sensibility, but Pooter’s is sufficient merely as a thin patina, something which is part of his appearance, whereas Bast wants to be the peer of Oxbridge men, to read and discuss philosophy and literature with a proper acquisition of the bedrock of learning such involvement requires.

In the two we have glimpses of the extremes of the vast spectrum of entertainment available to people in the late Victorian and Georgian years. Yet of course, the performers and writers who worked hard to meet these new needs and pleasures of the expanding audience were from very mixed backgrounds; many of them could pass from one very low level to more respectable ones, as was the case with the noted actress Adelaide Nielson, who was commented on by Colonel Frederick Wellesley (nephew of the Duke of Wellington) when he ‘slummed it’ in a drinking house in 1860, a place known then as a ‘night house’ as he explains:
… they were most of them situated in streets near the Haymarket. One that I remember was called Kate Hamilton’s and another Coney’s. The first was a very large room studded with small round tables… It is said that it was serving here as a barmaid that Miss Adelaide Nielson, who subsequently became a great actress, was first seen in London.4
There was always going to be a struggle to try to add a little ‘culture’ and refinement to the popular entertainments of London. The challenge may be seen in the early history of the Old Vic. The Victoria Hall, as it was in the nineteenth century, reopened in 1880 after having a first life as a place for rough entertainment and drunken brawls. Lilian Baylis’s aunt, Emma Cons, took over, and as Richard Findlater explains, Cons had to work with the London County Council in order to broaden her entertainment offerings, catering for more ‘civilised’ customers:
Emma Cons and the Council did not want to deter, by too much uplift and Education, the possible family audience in search of good, clean music hall fun. So they presented variety ‘purged of innuendo in words and action’ (as far, that Is, as Miss Cons could tell). The clearest indications of her intentions were Signalled by the programme, which carried in the first two years improving Quotations from Shakespeare…’5
IN THE YEARS between c. 1870 and 1900 there was a stunning amount of variety available, and the different audiences, with very varied needs in terms of the social use of their experience ad of reader reception, had a multiplicity of choices for a night out. An illustration in The Daily Graphic newspaper in 1890 supports this view, and depicts the sheer diversity involved: there is the Ballet Cecile offering The Dancing Lesson; Dan Leno as The Railway Guard; the Selbini Troupe of Bicyclists; negro minstrel Chirgwin, and comic sketches by the Brothers Poluski. We may add to this dozens of advertisements for classical recitals, so say nothing of amateur productions such as an entertainment given at the Kensington Town Hall in aid of the Metropolitan Police Orphanage and Relief Fund.6

More here.


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