1955; The Gallery
"Good evening, sir. May I see your ticket please?' asks the rather formal and pompous commissionaire as I ascend the rich, crimson-carpeted steps which lead to the auditorium. I hand him the ticket. "Oh, sorry mate," continues the commissionaire, relapsing into a familiar sort of sluggish, cockney intonation, " I thought for one moment yon was a dress circle. A yeller ticket hindercates yer a gallery."
The brown-garbed custodian of the 'four-and-sixpennies plus,' standing on guard rather like a one-headed Cerberus whose lot it is to prevent unqualified persons from stealing surreptitiously into the stalls, wrinkles up his long, Roman nose in perceptible disgust and jerks his thumb indifferently towards a side door. As he does so a shining row of silver medals bounces up and down on his tunic. These are our reminder of the days when he, the pukka private of Poona. fought off single-handed a whole detachment of bearded hillsmen somewhere near the Khyber Pass. Nowadays his task is a far more arduous one- that of warding off single-handed the invading hordes of bearded galleryites, who, if given the chance, would throng into the stalls with wild whoops of triumph.
I follow the direction of the jerked thumb and pass through the narrow side door over which hangs a noticeboard bearing the gilded letters G-A-L-L-E-R-Y. At the same time, I face the grim, the bitter, nay, the slightly nauseating realisation that, after all, I am not a dress circle, not even a back stalls, but, as is the case if 'yer got a yeller ticket,' only a gallery. The way up to the gallery is long, lugubrious, and tedious. The cold, grey flights of steps wind upwards in almost spiral and seemingly never-ending manner. On either side the icy, stone staircase is flanked by monotonous, cream walls, from which jut a long succession of the most revoltingly-coloured electric lights imaginable, that give you alternately either a slight anaemic or a jaundiced appearance. The monotony of the walls, as you plod your way steadfastly upwards in the direction of the gallery, is occasionally relieved by two .or three etchings of the theatre as it was in its more riotous days.
Those were the days when the theatre was renowned as the roughest, toughest, beeriest, most daring spot of entertainment this side of the English Channel-the days when the strength of the beer was matched only by the force of the criticism coming from the sixpenny seats. The etchings are our reminder of the time when actors and actresses were feted, neither by sweetly cynical comments in the Press the next morning, nor by depreciatory remarks hurled on first nights from the back row of the stalls and accompanied by raucous bursts of laughter. Today we are timid. In former times it was that far more practical form of criticism, the delicately aimed beer bottle (empty of course) accompanied by the over-ripe tomato, that reflected one's opinion of the stuff they were serving up behind the footlights. (Or, if you could afford to occupy a box, then the bottle of champagne-emptv of course--and the plate of caviar sufficed well enough.)
Cry woe for the glorious days of the music hall! Cry woe for the Golden Ages of the stage-door! Then, as the etchings show, the place was famed for its famous gaiety girls of the nineties, whose long, flowing locks hid their blushes as they dared to display shapely ankles in front of bulging-eyed barons. And bulging-eyed barons, seated invariably in the front rows of the stalls, would adjust their monocles and wear through three pairs of opera-glasses in one evening. And clerical gentlemen, scheduled by the local ladies' league to write lengthy protests to their member of parliament, stayed to see the second performance at half-past-eight.
Queues of earls and dukes, all eager to be caught within the grasp of matrimony, were to be seen waiting impatiently at the stage-door. Each had his sickly gaze turned for ever down at bunches of fast-withering floral offerings, while he himself composed poetry with the aid of his "inner eye" and omnibus editions of the works of the Romantics. Stage-doorkeepers earned many a glass of Scotch through carrying hastily-composed sonnets (which, no doubt, ignored all the rules of poesy) to the alluring belles of the footlights on behalf of some poor idiot of a beau. Earls and sons of earls drank champagne from the slipper of their favourite chorus girl and became violently ill the next morning. Distracted lovers hanged themselves in the stage curtains. and younger sons of younger sons married the beautiful objects of their affections and slouched off to tame the untamed parts of the then-existent Empire.
For the more proletarian members of the audience the theatre held no less a fascination. Senile old gentlemen will remember with a twinkle in their eves how Milly Bloggins, the darling of the 'nineties, used to sing a little ditty about taking her "morning promenade" and another one which invited you to "all go down the Strand-have a banana." Senile old ladies will remember with a sigh in their hearts how Ernie Entwhistle, the Huddcrsfield lad with he golden voice, used to sing in the melodious strains of "Boiled beef and carrots" and "Pretty little Polly Perkins of Paddington Green."
Ah, yes ! These were truly the glorious days of the place. But they are now firmly rooted in the dim and distant past. Never again will Milly Bloggins take her curtain-call, never again will Ernie Entwhistle's golden voice thrill sweet young creatures who will one day be senile old ladies, never again (well, probably never again) will bottles of milk stout hurtle their way down from the gallery-these are delights that are lost to the present generation of theatregoers. Nowadays the management has seen fit to restrict its programme almost entirely to presentations of the works of that lesser, Elizabethan dramatist, whose claim to fame is founded on, amongst other things, his ability to spell his name in twenty-four different ways.
I arrive at the top of the stairs. Anybody who has had the temerity to make the perilous ascent to the gallery will well understand why they colloquially refer to that place as' the gods.' The very atmosphere of the surroundings betokens a close affinity to heavenly regions and ethereal scenes. Wisps of cigarette smoke twist their way mysteriously into the body of the theatre as do the thin streams of incense which pour forth from golden censers in classical myths. The inner roof of the theatre bears a strong resemblance to the 'dome of heaven' to which epic writers are continually referring. Naked nymphs, sylphs. cherubs, angels-call them what you will-gaze down impudently out of a celestial sphere done in gilt at refined, elderly ladies. And refined. elderly ladies glance up at naked nymphs, sylphs, cherubs and angels and are shocked at such a shameless exhibition. Ponderous chandeliers hang down from the gilded dome and cast a brilliant glow about them with the aid of their dusters of little, astral lights. A veritable heaven, resplendent in its brilliant lustre, opens itself before my eyes. I am standing on the threshold of "the gods"!
My divine reverie is rudely interrupted.
"Tickets, please," chants the voice of cruel Juno. I hand my 'yeller ticket' to this brusque breaker of day-dreams. With a flick of her nimble wrists she terminates the life of my 'yeller ticket' and thrusts a small, weak, mutilated portion of it back at me. " Middle gangway," she screeches and jerks her thumb indifferently into space--apparently the conventional method of communicating one's message in this theatre.
The gallery resembles very closely part of a Roman amphitheatre which has been cut away in the form of a wide, sweeping semicircle. Tier upon tier of hard, leather-covered benches rise up in rapid succession. I take my place on one of these long, rounded benches and sit down to wait expectantly for the throwing back of the stage curtains. Waiting for the start of a play always seems to be a most tiresome business. I while away the time by perusing my programme. Among the scant number of pages I find an exhortation from the Lord Chamberlain telling me not to park my bath chair in the corridor and another telling me not to trample my fellow theatregoers to death in the event of a fire. A further request comes from the 'National Union of Backstage Operative Assistants,' who express their wish that the safety curtains he lowered once during every performance. This, they say, is a precautionary measure to ensure full employment for safety curtain operators. An elaborately designed advertisement invites me to dine at the ' Confucius Eating House, Shaftesbury Avenue,' where the proprietors profess to serve 'the most delectable Chinese noodles and the tastiest birds' nests-previous experience with chopsticks not essential-this side of the Bamboo Curtain.' Another advertisement tells me that I shall be able to balance half-a-dozen elephants on my head if I drink a glass of Guinness every day. The stage manager's acknowledgements are also very entertaining. From them I learn that the knives used in act three, scene one, of Julius Cesar are a product of the Sheffield Stainless Steel Syndicate,' that Malvolio's yellow hose was made by the ' Scunthorpe Sock Company,' and that the Ghost of Hamlet's father is on loan from the Tower of London.
After a very short time I have completed my excursion through these archives of modern, commercial dramatics, and now pass the time in studying my neighbours. On my right are seated two of the most atrociously-garbed persons I have ever set eves on. The man is wearing orange, corduroy trousers, stiff collar, pink shirt and a massive, red neck-tie. His lady friend is no less vivid in her clown-like attire. She is clothed in a dazzling green jumper, sky-blue trousers and hob-nailed boots, and she too wears a massive, red tie. Both are also wearing camel-hair coats of the type favoured by Communists, Fascists, liberals, radicals, vegetarians, artists, musicians, naturists, and by every other sort of extremist! These people all like to be called individual thinkers; that thousands of other individualists wear camel-hair overcoats does not deter them.
When my eyes have become accustomed to the brilliant blaze of colour shining from their gaudy garments, the element of surprise wears off. After all, am I not seated in the gallery, where such sights are continually inflicted upon the eyes of the more consrvatively-drcssed theatregoer? I am.
The man is poring intently over a battered copy of this morning's Daily Artisan, that turbulent, journalistic effort whose tremendous sales are said to surpass those of' its nearest rivals with convincing and commanding magnitude. I have never yet seen anybody buying a copy.. From time to time his eyes fall upon some obviously exciting piece of news, for he thrusts the journal in front of his lady friend's face and starts communicating to her in an agitated whisper. Inariably she replies with a high-pitched squeak, Don't be a silly, old bean, Cecil," and continues to munch her way nonchalantly through a bag of roasted peanuts.
Dismayed at such indifference, the orange-trousered gentleman turns to me in an attempt to gain sympathy for the fortunes of the Party as expressed through the pages of the Daily Artisan. "When the Revolution comes we'll be the ones sitting in the dress circle," he cries out, pointing down forcefully at the crimson-covered "five-and-sixpennies."
"And they, I suppose. will be sitting up here?" I venture.
He wrinkles up his brow in quiet disgust at such an inane comment, shakes his fist in the air, and continues, "When the Revolution conies there won't be an up here,"
Don't you find Shakespeare a little too bourgeois? " I query, in an attempt to discover why the poor fellow has come to the theatre.
"A very searching question and one that is connected with my own particular branch of activity," he replies. " It is my intention to re-write Shakespeare to suit the changed requirements of a more technologically advanced age. I have just completed a thorough revision of Romeo and JuIiet in which I have made Capulct an assistant chief of the secret police, Juliet a machine operator in a hot water bottle factory, and Romeo a tractor mechanic on a collective farm."
I wince at such shameful suggestions. My mind becomes saturated with horrible visions of Juliet robed in blue overalls and working some sort of clattering machine, while Romeo is on his way to the salt mines for driving over Tybalt with a combined harvester. I ask, I beseech, I plead to hear no more of this mundane talk. My orange-trousered, pink-shirted neighbour is highly indignant at my failure to appreciate his talent and refuses to say another word. He will be a great asset to the Party when the Revolution comes.
By this time, the gallery has become filled with theatregoers, some like my orange-trousered neighbour garbed in the robes of sham-bohemianism, and others dressed like normal human beings. A sudden, penetrating ring from a sort of groaning alarm-clock signifies the commencement of the evening's entertainment. The last, mad rush of the stragglers to their seats begins. The faithful patrons of the bar hastily gulp down the remaining drops of their Cognac. My neighbour takes his last glance at the Daily Artisan. His lady friend chews her way through her last roasted peanut, wipes her ruby lips on her sleeve, and, in a rash, impetuous, daring moment of impulse, hurls the bag high into the air whence it descends speedily to the stalls and lands on the shiny pate of an unsuspecting old gentleman.
The play begins to the accompaniment of some wispy, haunting strains of musical fantasia coming from the orchestra. In an instant the gallery melts and dissolves and is no more. We have been transported back through time to an Anglicised, verse-speaking Padua of about four hundred years ago. It is a Padua where imagery, metaphor, simile and all the arts, crafts and majesty of verse roll and tumble from the tongues of its citizens like crystal cascades from a waterfall: it is a Padua of wealthy merchants and fortune-seeking, young bucks; a Padua of gay Petruchios who startle sober people with their eccentricities; a Padua of shrewish Katharinas with scolding tongues; a Padua of pretty, sweet, charming little Biancas.
At first, however, I am barred from such a veritable paradise by the spacious head-gear of a rather fat lady who has decided to sit in front of me. Apples, grapes, carrots and lettuce leaves, or some such edible collection, reside in the shape of a hat upon her head, and block my view of the players. By contorting my neck into a most ungainly position, I at last succeed in seeing over the top of this miniature Covent Garden.
It is about a quarter-of-an-hour after the commencement of the play that the gallery is visited by Miss Late Arrival. In whatever part of the building you sit it is inevitable that she will disturb you. Her seat is never placed conveniently by the door. It is always placed inconveniently at the end of a very long row. As she pushes her way behind the orange-trousered gentleman on my right she gives him a hearty blow on his head with the aid of her handbag, and mutters 'Sorry' in a whisper sufficiently loud to divert the attention of half of the gallery. I receive no less violent a treatment at her hands, for, as she passes behind me, I also obtain a hefty blow on the head. Miss Late Arrival completes her hat-trick on a Frenchman who is sitting on my left. Her whispered 'Sorry ' meets with a forceful 'Que Diable' on his part. (The French, I am told, are on very intimate terms with the Devil.)
After this rude disturbance the gallery once again becomes quiet and the audience attentive to the colourful performance on the other side of the footlights. An occasional munch coming from the direction of the fat lady ('liberally-spread ' is the more polite phraseology), as she steadily devours the contents of a box of chocolates, is the sole reminder that we arc not really in Padua but in the gallery. After a while, the dainty munchings are joined by a succession of snores coming from the Frenchman. He apparently is unable to understand anything of the finer language of Shakespeare and has decided that the best thing to do is to go to sleep.
By the time the interval arrives, he is fast asleep. The liberally-spread woman still continues to eat her way through the box of chocolates. The orange-trousered fellow returns to his newspaper from the inferior technologies of the sixteenth century. His lady friend, having long since chewed her last roasted peanut, sits with a bored and intelligently expressionless look on her face. I escape to the bar.
At first sight the gallery bar presents a most disorderly spectacle. Some people are pushing and jostling their way to the sanctity of the counter; others are draining their glasses in one gulp for fear of losing the precious contents amidst the general hurly-burly: and others are taking surreptitious sips at glasses which apparently do not belong to them. After closer inspection, however, one is able to discern small groups of people engaged industriously in inflicting their inane prattle upon one another, and even smaller groups making the mental effort necessary to say something sensible. The gallery bar is. in fact, a haven of culture, the home of a venerable Bacchus. This is the place where people like their alcoholic beverage diluted with their Shakespeare, and conversely their Shakespeare diluted with their alcoholic beverage. And, after all, travelling back four hundred years or so is very thirsty work.
I take my place in a queue of Bacchus worshippers moving in slow, reverent file towards the altar. There a priestess, standing in the shape of a barmaid with peroxided locks, is pouring the gifts of the deity into a row of small glasses. Behind me a couple of American women are conversing in the sophisticated accents of Boston about a song-and-dance version of Hamlet running on Broadway. They have evidently enjoyed this, for they frequently burst into expressions of praise such as "I just love that Immoral Bard guy. He sure is cute." Never before has Shakespeare had two such ardent supporters.
In front of me a massive, beefy-faced man, with an uncountable number of chins, is busy reading the Racing Gazette Suddenly he turns to me and asks, "What do you think of it, o' man?"
A very fine production, although Katharina is too charming to be the Shrew," I reply.
"No, not that," he continues, "I mean the St. Leger at Doncaster next week. Those idiots down there on the stage don't know the first thing about acting. Why, the day after I played Othello at the Birkenhead Playhouse, wife-beatings along the Mersey increased by seventy per cent.! And another thing-those actors down there are too stereotyped. I remember once playing Falstaff for the matinée and Puck in the evening." He is certainly a very versatile fellow. " I say, o' man, you couldn't possibly lend me a fiver could you? Thcre's a dashed good filly running at Sandown tomorrow."
A sharp ring from the groaning alarm clock marks the end of the interval. I am saved by the bell and escape back to the seats from the more perilous, financial enterprises of Sandown Park. The Frenchman is still asleep, the liberally-spread woman is still steadily devouring her chocolates, and the orange trousercd gentleman is looking vacantly into space. About a quartcr-of-an-hour before the end of the play, Miss Late Arrival, her role now changed to that of Miss Leave Early, falls over everyone in a frantic attempt to catch the last bus to Putney. As she passes along the row, my two neighbours and I receive our customary blow on the side of our heads, and the Frenchman wakes up with another 'Que Diable.'
The play is over. The actors take their curtain call. Half of the galleryites rush wildly to the bar in order to sample the fruits of Bacchus before the end of licensing hours. And I go home.
P. K. SEN.