Secrets of a Savoyard
VAGABONDAGE OF THE COMMONWEALTH.
£. s. d. on Tour - The Search for Independence - The Old Showman of Shepherd's Bush - Not the "Carte" I Wanted - The Commonwealth - Our Repertory and Our Creditors - "Well, Mr. Bundle" - A Thirsty Situation and a Melodramatic Finale - A Stammerer's Story - Comradeship in Adversity - Roaming the Country - Back in London and the Search for Work - Diverse Occupations and Little Pay - A Savoy Engagement at Last - Understudy to Grossmith - A Real Opportunity.
THE "Princess Ida" tour, as I have said, opened at Glasgow. It ran for about a year, with enthusiasm and success wherever the company played, though unluckily for me, my services as understudy were never required. The D'Oyly Carte companies then, as now, were always a happy family, the members of which were always helpful to one another and always remarkably free from those petty jealousies that distinguish some ranks of the profession.
Looking back on those romantic times, my wife and I often marvel how, with all our inexperience in house-keeping, our slender finances withstood the strain of our extravagance. Whenever we moved on to a new town we had the usual fears as to what sort of a landlady we were to get. In these times landladies do not always look on actors as their legitimate "prey." But then they were extortioners, though there were, of course, some pleasant exceptions. I remember, for instance, that in some places we were charged 5s. a week for potatoes, and in others only 6d. On the whole, on that tour, we must have been in luck. Notwithstanding that we had lived fairly well - and we did indulge odd tastes for luxuries - we found that at the end of the 52 weeks' engagement we had saved £52.
Following the "Princess Ida" tour, we were sent out into the provinces again with other productions, and in this way we served under the Gilbert and Sullivan banner for the best part of two years. But they were not continuous engagements. From time to time we would find ourselves idle and our tiny resources steadily dwindling. Luckily, during this period we always managed to secure a fresh engagement before we had spent our last sovereign, though we were hardly as fortunate in the dark days that were coming.
I remember receiving at this time the advice of a dear old friend, a Mr. Chevasse, of Wolverhampton. "The turning-point in your career," he said to me, will come when you have got 'independence.' " "What," I asked him, "do you mean by that?" "Get £100 in the bank," was his answer, "and in your case that will bring the sense of independence. It will put you on a different footing with everyone you meet, and you will know that at last you are beginning to shape your career yourself. Save everything you can. Save a shilling a week, or two shillings a week, but save whatever happens." And he was right. Later, when I had that £100 stored away, I found myself in a position that enabled me to assert my claim for principal parts, and I was sent out into the provinces to take three leading rôles - Ko-Ko, Jack Point, and Sir Joseph Porter.
But this is anticipating my story. Before that time came there were dark days to pass through, days when we did not know where the next meal would come from, and days when we tramped the country as strolling players, footsore and weary. When our modest savings had been exhausted during one prolonged period of "resting," I remember being driven by sheer necessity to apply for an engagement at the booth of an old showman at Shepherd's Bush. I had to do something. So I walked up to the showman, who was standing outside the tent in a prosperous-looking coat with an astrakhan collar, and asked him for a job. What did I want to be? I wanted, I told him, to be an actor, and would play anything from melodrama to low comedy.
"All right," said the showman. "Go over there and wash that cart!"
I went "over there" and started the washing. But it was no use. Sorry as things were with us, I just could not come down to that, and off I bolted. That was not the sort of Carte I wanted.
Our next venture was very interesting. It brought us no fame, precious little money, a great deal of hardship, and yet a host of pleasant remembrances to look back upon in the brighter days. "We were seven" and one and all down on our luck. Failing to obtain any engagements in town, we decided to band ourselves together as fellow-unfortunates, and to seek what fortune there was as entertainers in the villages and small towns of Surrey. It was to be a Commonwealth. Whatever profits were made were to be divided equally. One week this division enabled us to take 7s. 10d. each! That was the record. What ill-success our efforts had was certainly not due to any want of "booming." The services of a bill-poster were obviously prohibitive. So at the dead of night we used to put our night-shirts over our clothes to save these from damage, creep out into the streets with our paste-bucket and brush, and fix our playbills to any convenient hoarding or building. It had to be done in double-quick time, but we had spied out the land beforehand, and generally we made sure that our notices were pasted where they would prominently catch the public eye.
Our repertory consisted of a striking drama entitled "All for Her," a touching comedy called "Masters and Servants," and an operetta known as "Tom Tug the Waterman." In addition, we did songs and dances, and as it happened these were the best feature of the programme. We had no capital available to spend on dresses and scenery. What we did was to take some ramshackle hall or barn, and then to make a brave show with our posters, though the printer was often lucky if he got more than free tickets for all his family to see our performance. Generally our creditors considered that, as there was small chance of getting any money from us, they might as well have an evening out for nothing. Our costumes were improvised from our ordinary attire. The men figured as society swells by using white paper to represent spats or by tucking in their waistcoats and using more white paper to indicate that they were in immaculate "evening dress." As for scenery all we had was our own crude drawings in crayons and pencil.
We presented our plays by what is known, as "winging." By that I mean that only one manuscript copy of the play was usually available, and each player had to get an idea of the lines which he or she had to speak after each entrance, though the actual words used on the stage were mainly extemporised. "Winging," even when one has theatrical experience behind one, is not at all easy. I know that in "Tom Tug" I dreaded the very thought of having to go on and make what should have been a long speech designed to give the audience a more or less intelligent idea of the plot. I was so uncertain about it that I took the book on with me in the hope of getting furtive glimpses at it as we went along.
"Well, Mr. Bundle," I began.
"Well?" Mr. Bundle responded.
"Well," I stammered again.
The next "Well" did not come from the stage; it came from the audience. "Well?" it yelled, accompanied, so to speak, by a tremendous note of interrogation. "Well?" it echoed again. "Say something, can't you?"
This was too much. In confusion I rushed off the stage. Even that was not all. I should, as I have said, have outlined the course of the story, but not only did I not do this but in my confusion I left behind me the book of words on which we were all depending. From the others in the wings there came anguished whispers. "Where's the book?" "You've left the book on the table!" So I had to put the best face on things and walk on to get it. But the audience had had enough of me that night. "Get off " they shouted - and I did.
"Tom Tug" was also once the occasion of a painful fiasco. Instead of dashing on to the stage where my wife was playing the part of a simple fisher-girl, and greeting her like the jolly sailor-man I was with a boisterous "Here I am my darling," I found myself, standing behind her in such a state of stage-fright that I was absolutely "dried up." I could not utter a word. I simply stood behind her limp, speechless and motionless, and no amount of prompting would induce me to go on with the wooing. So there was nothing for it but to ring down the curtain, and for the rest of the evening we had songs and dances, with which we made amends.
"All for Her" was a drama of a desert island that should have melted hearts of stone. We were all dying of thirst (at least, according to the plot). Nowhere on that desert island was water to be found. They sent me out to explore for it while they rolled about the stage moaning and groaning in agony. During my absence from the stage I sat near a fire-bucket in the wings. Then came my cue to reappear.
I staggered on famished and weary. The quest had been in vain. "Not a drop," I croaked in a parched, dry voice, not a drop of water anywhere." "Liar!" screamed the audience in unison. Our audiences, as you will have gathered, were often critical folk who could sit with dry eyes through our most anguishing scenes. It transpired that while I was sitting near that fire-bucket the bottom of my Arab cloak had dipped into the water and there it was dripping, dripping, dripping right across the stage! The dramatic situation was absolutely spoilt.
The company included, besides my, wife and myself, a young actress named Emmeline Huxley, who after these hard times with us went to America and there undoubtedly "made good." Then there was a "character" whom we called " 'Oppy." He was the general utility man who acted as conductor and orchestra rolled into one, and then went behind the scenes to play the cornet, to act as stage adviser, or at a pinch to take a small part. He was an enthusiast who was here, there and everywhere. " 'Oppy," in addition to having a wall eye and a club foot, had a decided impediment in his speech, but, strangely enough, he was entirely unconscious of this disability. For that reason we often used to induce him to tell his story of the lady who sang "Home, Sweet Home."
This story is bound to lose some of its effect when put into cold print. As " 'Oppy" told it the humour was irresistible. "Sh-sh-she wan-wan-ted to go on the sta-sta-sta-stage," he used to say, "and the man-an-an-ager he sa-a-a-aid to her, 'Wh-wh-wh-what can you sing?' And she said, 'Ho-ho-ho-home, Sw-we-we-we-weet Ho-ho-home.' And he told her to sing-sing-sing it. And (here he could not keep a straight face over the poor lady's misfortunes) she-she-she couldn't sing- sing-sing it for-for-for stam-stam-stam-stam-stam-mer-ing."
Never did " 'Oppy" tell this story, of the ridiculousness of the telling of which he seemed entirely unconscious, without his hearers exploding with laughter. "Wh-what makes you all lau-lau-laugh so?" he used to ask, incredulously. "You lau-lau-lau-lau-laugh altogether to-to-to-too hearty. It's a good-good-good yarn, but I'm dam-dam-dam-damned if it's as fun-fun-fun-funny as that."
Once he received an unexpected windfall in the shape of a postal order from a relative for two or three shillings. "Come and have a little dinner with me to-morrow," he said to me and my wife. "I know you're hungry." When we arrived we found his plate was already on the table and empty. He apologised profoundly. He had been too hungry to wait for us and had already eaten his dinner. So while my wife and I each enjoyed a chop - the first square meal we had had for many a day - he sat by and kept us entertained. Splendid fellow! Little did we guess that as he did so he was suffering the pangs of hunger accentuated by the sight of our satisfaction. Next day the landlady confided to us the fact that as our friend's windfall had been insufficient to provide chops and vegetables for three, he had smeared his plate with the gravy from the chops we were to have, and then made us believe that he had satisfied his hunger already.
What became of him later on I have never discovered. I only know that I have tried hard to find him in order that that noble act of self-denial might be in some generous manner repaid. Neither inquiries nor advertisements, however, have ever revealed his whereabouts to me, and it may be that already this honest fellow has gone to receive his reward. God rest his soul!
Then there was Arthur Hendon. If ever a Christian lived it was that sterling fellow. Time after time in those heart-aching days we were on the verge of despair. Luck was dead out. Life was a misery. But Hendon, though he was as sore of heart and as hungry as the rest of us, was always ready with some cheery word, some act of kindness, some "goodness done by stealth." Louie and I were rather small in size, and often as we tramped from one place to another he carried one of us in turn in his arms. For we had little food, and were tired, footsore and "beat." And he, too, was "done." Only his great heart sustained him in those terrible times as our "captain courageous."
The Commonwealth venture lasted for about three months altogether. As I have shown it was one continual struggle against adversity and poverty. For some time we were located at Aldershot. Our show ran as a rule from six to eleven o'clock, and for want of better amusement the soldiers gave us a fair amount of patronage at threepence a head. If we did not please them they did not hesitate to fling the dregs of their pint pots on to the stage. One night we felt ourselves highly honoured by the presence of a number of military officers at our performance. "All for Her," I am glad to say, went without a hitch on that gala occasion. Our "theatre" was an outhouse owned by a publican, who was very considerate towards us in the matter of rent, because he found that our presence meant good business for his bar-parlour receipts.
From Aldershot we went on to Farnham, and from there to other hamlets where we believed there was an audience, however uncouth and untutored, to be gathered together. Eventually we reached Guildford. By then matters were getting desperate. The Mayor or some other local public man heard of our plight. He drove out to where we were playing, witnessed part of our performance, and engaged us to sing at a garden-party. I remember that, exhausted as we were, gratitude enabled us to give of our very best as the only return we could make for his kindness. He told us it was a great pity that such clever people should be eking out such a precarious existence in the villages, and offered to pay our train fares to London in addition to the fee for the engagement we had fulfilled. This generosity we accepted with alacrity. The next morning we were back in town again - each to follow his or her different way. So ended the vagabondage of the Commonwealth. It was an experience which none of us was ever likely to forget.
Once more in London it would be idle to say that our troubles had disappeared. It meant the dreary search again for employment. Mr. D'Oyly Carte had no immediate vacancies. Other managers had nothing more to offer than promises. Lucky is the actor - if he exists - who throughout his career has been free from this compulsory idleness. During this period I had to turn my hand to all sorts of things. Once I called at a draper's shop and secured casual work as a bill distributor. I had to go from door to door in a certain select part of Kensington. I remember I looked at those gilded walls and those red-carpeted stairs with a good deal of envy. Later on I was destined to visit some of those very houses and walk up those same red-carpeted stairs as a guest - those very houses at which to earn an odd shilling or so to buy bread I had delivered those bills! Yes; and there was one house at which I called in those humble days where they abruptly opened the door, showed me a ferocious-looking dog with the most business-like teeth, and significantly commanded me to "get off - and quick!" I had done nothing wrong, and my body and my heart were aching. Years afterwards I became a breeder of bull-dogs - about that you shall hear later on - and sold one of them to those very people. And, as if in poetic justice, that bull-dog bit them!
My training under Trood was turned to advantage during these empty days. A fashion had just set in for plaques. I painted some scores of these terra-cotta miniatures, and although it was not remunerative work, it served to put bare necessities into the pantry. We were living about that time in Stamford Street, off the Waterloo Road, and in those days it was a terrible neighbourhood where one's sleep was often disturbed by cries of "murder" and "police." Our baby's cradle was a travelling basket - we could not afford anything better. I remember, in connection with those plaques, that in after years I was dining at the house of a well-known writer and critic, and he showed me with keen admiration two beautiful plaques which, he said, had been won by Miss Jessie Bond in a raffle at the Savoy. She had made a present of them to him. "Yes," I commented, " and I painted them." He was kind enough to say that that enhanced their value to him considerably.
For a time I went into a works where they made dies for armorial bearings. Here I had to do a good deal of tracing, and the work was fairly interesting. I drew five shillings the first week - hardly an imposing stipend for a family man - but the second week it was ten shillings and the third twenty shillings. Singing at occasional smoking concerts and running errands supplemented this money very acceptably. The job at the die-sinkers might have continued, but the foreman wanted me to clean the floors in addition to doing my artistic work, and at that my dignity revolted. I left.
Some months went by in this flitting from one job into another, but it is useless to attempt a full catalogue of my versatility, for it is neither impressive nor very inspiring. During all this hand-to-mouth existence I was calling on theatrical managers. Slender as the rewards which the stage had thus far given me were - just a meagre livelihood and precious little encouragement - the call to return to it remained insistent and strong. Sooner or later I was bound to return, and whether it were to be to good fortune or ill, the very hope buoyed me up. I had worried Mr. Carte with ceaseless importunity. Every week at least I went round to try and see him on the off-chance of an engagement. And at last there came the turn of the tide.
It happened on the eve of the first London production of "Ruddigore." Concerning this new opera, the producers had for good reasons maintained an air of secrecy, and the unfolding of the mystery was thus awaited with more than usual public curiosity. It was the talk of the town and the subject of many skittish references in the newspapers. Calling once again at Mr. Carte's office, I caught him, after a long wait, just leaving his room and hurrying along a corridor. Without more ado I button-holed him and asked him once again for an engagement. Mr. Carte was not a man who liked that sort of conduct. "You should not interrupt me like this," he said, in a tone that betrayed his annoyance. "You ought to send up your name." Explaining that I had done so and had been told he was out of town, I repeated my plea for an engagement. Hurrying on his way Mr. Carte told me to go down to the stage. Success had come at last! When Mr. Carte sent a man to the stage that man became ipso facto a member of the company. Later the news came through that Mr. Carte had chosen me as understudy to Mr. George Grossmith as Robin Oakapple. This was indeed a slice of good fortune. Understudy to Mr. George Grossmith!
"Ruddigore" was produced for the first time on Tuesday, the 22nd January, 1887, at the Savoy. Towards the end of that week Grossmith was taken seriously ill with peritonitis. By an effort he was able to continue playing until the Saturday. Then he collapsed and was taken home for a serious operation. Upon the Monday morning I was told I was to play his part - and play it that very night.
Chosen to step into the shoes of the great George Grossmith! Faced with such an ordeal to-day I verily believe I should shirk it. But then, the audacity of youth was to carry me through. The supreme chance had come. At all costs it had to be grasped.
Page created 18 July 2004