The year is 1881 in London. A blacksmith and a fish curer are having a conversation in a busy square in District 11, just north of the New Kent Road.
Blacksmith: Alright George, ye go to the theatre last night?
Fish Curer: I did indeed, mate. Me and the missus went to that "String of Pearls or The Barber Friend of Fleet Street."
Blacksmith: Oh right, that was on at the Britannia. Didn't stay for that show, left just after "Idolators"... the ale and steak pies went to me head! So I went to bed!
Fish Curer: Ah you missed a good'un. Well, back to work now, mate. Need to smoke them trout to earn a few bob...
Now, anyone reading this conversation in 2017 would take it to be quite a mundane exchange between two tradesmen. However, this particular dialogue offers the reader clues to discovering about a formative period of 19th century London theatre. First, the topic in conversation is the Britannia theatre in Hoxton, which was arguably one of the most popular buildings around London in the late 1800s. Secondly, theatres in those days offered multiple shows per night, in addition to providing heaps of steak pies and gallons of ale to feed hungry hordes hackling in the audience. Thirdly, a consensus had indeed been recorded in 1881, documenting the origins and professions of all the inhabitants in District 11 near the New Kent Road. According to our guest speaker this week, Dr Janice Norwood from the School of Humanities at the University of Hertfordshire, thousands of spectators from all walks of life would crowd into the theatre halls to feast on the finest food and mull over the moving melodrama in 19th century London.
Dr Norwood, who was awarded her PhD studying the Britannia theatre, shared her knowledge on how the world of 19th century theatre was more complex and fascinating than we could ever imagine. The shows would often showcase a monumental, man-made, mechanical set, which moved with the help of the backstage crew in what was a masterpiece of theatrical engineering. For example, one show at the Britannia had a gigantic wooden ship which moved from side to side, accompanied by oars which rotated into the synthetic blue waves, but splashing the audience with real water! On the other hand, real fires were not an unusual experience in theatrical shows, to the terror of the jam-packed audience in the stalls. Notable performers at the Britannia in the 1800s included the famous Sara Lane (aka the "Queen of Hoxton"), acrobatic cross-dressing men, and a little boy who repeatedly walked in a circle on stage (covering over a mile in distance)! Later in the session, Dr Norwood provided us with A4 posters of theatrical leaflets of Britannia shows from 1869 (evidence that multiple fonts, word sizes and random punctation on posters didn't stop the stampede of theatregoers at that time, but rather encouraged it), which fuelled our imagination further.
Given such rich facts and interesting stories shared in our session, the People's Company re-enacted possible conversations amongst the local theatregoers of 19th century London. Within groups, we devised our own improvisations using local dialects, juxtapositioning of unlikely characters and melodramatic plays within plays. We were proud to introduce three new talented actors to our group, including Adriana from Italy, Tamir from Mongolia and Euan from England. The creative efforts of all performers collectively constructed a solid bridge of understanding and infused inspiration amongst the group.
In conclusion, the session this week combined academic lectures, historical document studies, group discussions and melodramatic improvisations to break new ground for the People's Company. The fact that there were similarities between the Queen of Hoxton and our melodrama muse, Marie Henderson, as well as linking the Britannia theatre with our beloved Coronet Theatre, has only strengthened our historical understanding and biographical interpretation of the period. Thus, we will be able to build truly relevant characters to allow an accurate retelling of this unique history of melodrama.
Blog post by Tiberius, actor of the People's Company Ensemble.
Photography by Janice Norwood.
Members of the Southwark Pensioners Centre recently visited the Coronet and rekindled memories of cinema going. This building used to be an ABC cinema and Coronet cinema from 1932-1999. The conversation ranged from the bulging attractions of cinemascope to the sexiness of Betty Grable, feasting on walnut whips to the comedic value of Chaplin.
Joseph May: "It brought back memories for me. Taken when I was younger, with mum or dad, or one of my many brothers and sisters. And when I was a teenager. I remember the colours, the golds, the reds. The ABC. It was spotless. And you either went upstairs or down here, depending upon what seats you could afford. It might be me, being romantic, but there was adventure and excitement. Your going to see a certain film or person. It might have been the company you were with. To me it was just magical. I could still see the people still sitting there. It was a people's place. It was just people there, to see whatever they want to see. You just went in on a film. You didn't see it from the beginning. This is where I came in. This is the story of my life."
The Coronet is currently a live music and events venue that is scheduled to close its doors for the last time on New Year's Eve. The building will be demolished as part of the regeneration of the Elephant and Castle shopping centre.
The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle is an arts project about the history of the Coronet from 1872-2017. It will be staged at the Coronet on the 8 November with a follow-up art exhibition from 11-23 November 2017.
Pollock's Toy Museum is a deceptive gem of a building, with it's winding narrow staircases that lead into poky room after room crammed with the history of childhood paraphernalia. There is a rich display of the familiar and the less so, from blow football to blow your nose; I couldn't work out how to play the latter. Then there are the modern variations including the dubious morality of making a board game about the Falklands war. Unsurprisingly, that was recalled as soon as it hit the market. But it is the golden age of Victoriana that prevails.
The museum also has a special connection with our arts project about the history of the Coronet and the actress, Marie Henderson. It is directly descended from Benjamin Pollock's shop that opened in the 1850's directly opposite the Britannia theatre on Hoxton Road in East London. As previous readers of our blog will be aware, Marie Henderson was a rising star of the Britannia theatre in the late 1860s before she took over the creative management of the Elephant and Castle theatre (which is now the Coronet music and live event venue, that is sadly closing down at the end of 2017).
I can imagine Marie alighting from a carriage with her two daughters, Lizzie and Amanda. They are about to step foot into the Britannia theatre where the two young un's already perform on the stage. If we listen hard enough, we might hear the following exchange as the horse hoofs off into the distance:
"Mama, mama! Can we go and look at the toys in Pollock's!"
"We don't have time now."
"Maybe later on. Look! We have a real big toy theatre to play with, don't we."
"But you promised!"
"Hurry along now, my pretty little flowers. Maybe later. Maybe later."
Photos kindly reproduced from Pollock's Toy Museum
I wasn't entirely sure what I would find as I roamed through the gallery rooms of Pollock's Toy Museum. For our community engagement at the Walworth street festivals, I made a theatrical model and invited children to make drawings as part of a scenic design that would tell a playful story. I knew the museum would have a collection of models and I was hoping to find some direct connection to the Britannia theatre, and, of course, Marie Henderson.
First, I came across this jigsaw portrait of a child with jolting ruby red lips. Where was that one missing elusive piece from the jigsaw? Lizzie and Amanda might have joined up the fragments of their childhood, its highs and lows, with some such toy. I would like to ask them what it felt like to act with their mother on the stage and how they experienced her "madness."
I seek her here, I seek her there.
We turn a corner in the museum and come across these dolls staring out at us. It is quite spooky. I was reassured to see my image reflected in the glass panel separating me from the display.
Children reach an age where they can no longer play with their toys and they gather dust; in an attic if your lucky. Or they get discarded, recycled, charity shopped. Or end up in a museum.
I had almost given up the ghost of finding Marie Henderson. But in the final room, there are displays directly connected to the Britannia. This includes theatre models from the period showing some of the designs used at the Britannia. An artistic impression of the splendid Britannia theatre, which in its day would have housed nearly 3000 spectators.
Finally, a handbill for the play, The Wolf of The Pyrenees, which was a new drama performed in 1868. Scrutinising more closely, we see Marie Henderson, in the lead female role, as Inez, daughter of Don Alphonso in love with Ferdinand, a poor lieutenant. We have all the trappings of melodrama which the hand bill describes as follows:
In the Britannia Diaries of Frederick Wilton, which was written by the stage manager of the theatre, there is the following poignant reference to the staging of The Wolf of the Pyrenees on April 13th: "Capital house. Performance was not over till 12 midnight. Miss Marie Henderson played - but very ill indeed - not expected to get through - Miss Courtenay detained in the theatre to finish Miss MH’s part in case she should break down."
Marie Geoghegan (Henderson was her stage name) came to London with her family in 1867. Her husband, Frederick Geoghegan, violinist in the orchestra of the Britannia, died in 1868. I have applied for his death certificate so we will shortly discover the cause of his premature death at the age of 28. This would have had a profound impact on Marie and her two children. Death as a statistic in the archive that we can now relate to the play bill on our visit to Pollock's Toy Museum.
As I was leaving Pollock's, I discovered another connection with our arts project. Juno is one of the managers of the museum and funnily enough, she was raised in the Elephant and Castle and visited the Coronet when it was both a cinema and club. She still goes ten pin bowling with her friends in the shopping centre.
I started thinking about these connections between different times and places. There is that expression, history waits for no woman or child. But within our teeming and ever evolving world, there can be these small and wonderfully reassuring connections of art and history, performance and memory.
At our next People's Company workshop on 5th September at Southwark Playhouse we are delighted that Dr Janice Norwood will be attending. She did her PHD on the Britannia and is an expert on the world of Victorian actresses, putting Marie Henderson's tragic life story (acting acclaim, boom of business, theatre burning down, premature death from syphilis) into a wider historical context.
This is all raw material for the play that we will stage at the Coronet on 8 November and the follow-up art exhibition at Artworks Gallery from 11-23 November 2017.
Wedged between bric a brac and gardening, the Melodramatic Elephant stall was once again out on the road; this being the third leg of the Walworth festival taking place at Westmoreland Road on 19th August 2017. Sheer social bliss! The empowerment of closing off a road to traffic for the day and handing it over to the community. Aside from our stall, the Walworth Society were allowing residents a glimpse of the rich history of the area and one of the musical acts was Tom Carradine's cockney sing-a-long on the grand piano. This was neatly segmented with African drumming and a local rap artist.
It was nice to meet Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey who is a scenic artist and researcher Grit Eckert who were campaigning to save a nearby painting studio from being turned into flats. The studio is a unique listed building that was built in 1905 by Joseph Harker to accommodate his 40 feet canvas backdrops for theatres. I must visit this studio soon and make creative connections with our own project which is about the 147 year history of the Coronet (former cinema and theatre) which is earmarked for closure at the end of the year and demolition in the coming years. I am currently making designs for the staging of the play, The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle, that will be staged on the 8 November 2017 at the Coronet.
Our special guest for the day was the charming Mayor of Southwark, Councillor Charlie Smith. He was born in 1948 and had vivid memories of attending the Saturday morning picture club for children at the Odeon. It was the fantasy and adventure of the films that provided a much needed break from real life. He told us about the half-cinema smoking ban in place with the smoke drifting across the zone of the projector beam. The price of tickets was 1 and 9 or 2 and 6, which I believe is shillings and pence in pre-decimal coinage. The Mayor's favourite films of all time are The Godfather, the Bond films and musicals such as West Side Story and South Pacific.
Grisel Tarifa told us about watching films at the ABC Elephant and Castle in the 1990s. "I remember it being quite empty and very cold. It was odd that we were all sat in the balcony with no option to sit in the stalls. I remember a train going past. I could feel it rather than hear it clearly."
"I miss the convenience of having a cinema at the end of the road. I liked the character of a 'flea pit' (said affectionately), rather than the characterless cinemas on offer in the West End. I also liked the thrill of not knowing whether the thing that brushed pass your feet was a mouse or popcorn bag!"
I wonder if Nux, pictured above with Grisel, has a favourite film? Lassie Come Home or 101 Dalmatians, perhaps.
Freda Nixon was passing by and attracted to our cinematic displays. She was born in Guy's Hospital in 1951 and is a true Bow Bell's cockney. She retired last year after working as an admin assistant in the Houses of Parliament. Freda didn't have a connection with our Coronet cinema but recalled being taken to the cinema by her nan. Her favourite film is the Beatles Yellow Submarine. I loved her anecdote about life as a wee nipper, her older sister keeping a beady eye on her, as she had a run around on the Rockingham Estate. One of those mucking around with her was none other than Sir Michael Caine. Not a lot of people know that, until now!
A few stalls up from the Melodramatic Elephant, was Samina Herron who "helps people discover their beauty" with the use of clothing and fabrics. Samina was interested in our theatre-art project and the possibly of helping us customise clothing into theatrical costumes. Perhaps we might see her at a future People's Company workshop, the next scheduled is on 5 Sept at Southwark Playhouse from 7-9pm. Shamina shared a few memories of meeting up with friends on a Saturday morning and going to the pictures. She recalled the Coronet in the 1990s with its purple seats and cheap tickets. Her favourite films of all time are Star Wars, Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings cycle.
We met up with two Chinese students who were on holiday in London. I didn't have much time to speak to them alas or even get their names, as this coincided with the Mayor officially launching the festival. But when I returned to the stall it was wonderful to see they had left a lovely drawing showcasing an elegant oriental costume. Thank you!
Now we move onto the younger generation of talented residents of Southwark. Georgia got off to a flying start with this scenic image of a boat travelling the world's ocean under the most majestic of skies. This is the type of adventure and fantasy that the Mayor had talked about when describing his childhood!
From left to right, we have Lorraine, Rani and Alliayah. While mum was having a massage, these three super-duper sisters worked together on 2 and 3 dimensional images that brought our theatre model to life. Once again the sea and boats evoke a world of exotic travel. Bravo!
We end with our youngest participant on the day. Mae started off making an abstract map of sorts, but then added in a boat (the nautical theme was catching!) and then to dramatise matters, a sea monster! It was lovely to hear her describe using a telescope to spy on the creature, keeping it under observation and then sailing around and over it. So maybe that boat had magical wings to fly!
Our next scheduled Melodramatic Elephant public event is on Saturday 30th September from 11-5pm at Elephant Park.
I look forward to sea monsters and boats that fly!
The Melodramatic Elephant stall was sitting next to the real thing at the launch of the Elephant Park. When I say real, I mean the lovely large sculpture that was being coloured over by children and which I have my eye on as a potential set design feature for The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle; a play that will be staged at the Coronet on the 8 November 2017.
It took a while for people to find their way into the nice new park located in what was formerly the Heygate Estate. But as with all our community engagement, it was a pleasure to meet friendly residents of Southwark and to learn about their experiences of the area and the Coronet in particular.
We were also adjacent to the Superarts Academy and their young artistes put on a great song and dance act later on in the afternoon. I had a chance to chat to Sandra Salmon who shared her memories of the ABC cinema which was the previous manifestation of the Coronet. She vividly recalled seeing the Sound of Music when it first came out in 1965. As a child she was part of the ABC Minors club and recalled the singing and dancing that took place on the stage in conjunction with the screenings. The ABC was the only cinema she went to at this young age because it was reasonably priced. Sandra also mentioned how kids would get into the cinema illicitly, when one of the lads bought a ticket and then let friends in via the fire exit door. Favourite films include those Hollywood classics, Ben Hur and My Fair Lady. Her abiding memory of the cinema was that it was part of a happy childhood with friends and family; when she meets up with friends they still talk about those good old cinematic days. Sandra regretted that there is no cinema in the Elephant and Castle area. However there is talk of a new cinema as part of the redevelopment of the shopping centre and Coronet site which is scheduled to take place in the few years.
Janie Hughes also shared her memories of the cinema. The first film she recalled watching was Grease in 1978. Unlike Sandra, she mainly visited the Odeon which was directly across the road from the ABC on New Kent Road. She's not a fan of horror, but Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ticked all the boxes and are all time favourites. Once again she had such positive memories of going to the cinema especially Saturday morning screenings for children.
Janie's grandkids, Seren and Ruby, were in the meantime making imaginative use of oil pastels. I particularly liked the happy Unicorn in a land of technicolour rainbows. Now that sounds like a character from a science-fiction film that Janie would like to see.
Next up to take the drawing challenge were Edward and Ivy. Edward screened The Emoji movie at the Coronet with three characters, Gene, Hi-5 and Jailbreak going on an adventure to save their kingdom. One was cleverly constructed by drawing around his hand. Ivy did a self-portrait in a scene with an exploding sun. Very dramatic! With a little bit of crafting, both would make great posters for films.
Following hot on their creative heels, were two sisters, Ella and Aria. They both used line strokes to create strong graphic images of love and ? What exactly was that Aria? It was pure abstraction of the best kind!
The final two drawings were made by Emine and Nahome.
Emine told me she came to England in 1967 and promptly made a flag of her motherland, Cyprus. I think she is a gardener. The two flowers must be symbolic of home, old and new.
Nahome made a powerful cinematic image that fizzes with energy. He wrote on the back of his picture: "It was night time and the green lantern was fighting some villan. Winner!!! Hero Green Lantern."
To bring the Coronet's history bang up to clubbing date, we also had these reflections from Emma Darkins and Ricky Lawton.
Emma: "I've lived in the Elephant and Castle for the past six years and the Coronet is one of my favourite clubs in London. The last time I went was a Bowie Tribute night. All people young and old celebrating a beautiful and unique person in a unique venue. The Coronet is such a classic London venue. So sad to see it go!"
Ricky: "Throughout my time at the E&C, the Coronet had been my go-to late night final destination. Many a Saturday night / Sunday morning have I arrived at 3am asking for half price entry. "But you're closing in 3 hours!" "No can do Bruv." Fair enough. It was worth it anyway. Great nights. Reach for the stars. The sky never seemed so high as the enormous rooftops of the Coronet."
Thank you, Emma and Ricky, for sharing those personal memories.
Constantine Gras: "This film is a creative record of a drawing improvisation for Marie Henderson, Victorian actress of melodrama, 1841-1882. She was a theatrical star of the Britannia Theatre in the East End, before becoming actress-manageress of the Elephant and Castle Theatre. When the E&C theatre burnt down in 1878, the press reported that Marie went mad as a result of losing her costumes. She was in reality suffering from the unknown and untreatable effects of syphilis. Marie Henderson died in Bedlam mental hospital in 1882 and is buried in an unmarked grave at Brompton Cemetery.
This is the first time I've attempted to psychically engage with my subject of research akin to method acting. Drawing is a durational and psychological process. I make use of line and colour in the medium of oil pastels to render the invisible visible. I have also used a technique of reverse image making using a mirror to search for a lost soul in the passage of history. The drawing started as a sketch presented to the People's Theatre Company ensemble in which a sheet of paper was placed on the ground between the actors and myself. I attempted to draw everything in reverse for me, but normal for them. This was like stumbling in the dark of a haunted castle. There was a historical precedent to my folly as I was inspired by Pepper's Ghost, a holographic ghost effect involving glass, that was produced in 1863 with Marie Henderson acting in one of the first productions. Drawing myself into that glass darkly, I seek out a dim and distant life force. It may not have any corporeal form. Yet we can still feel the after shock of pain and tragedy in a mind reduced to delusional ramblings. However let us also celebrate the brilliance of a woman who shone out amongst her peers and brought play and joy to the lives of her local working class audiences."
Barton Williams: "Ahhh an English Summer is upon us and hence a small class size tonight of People's Company candidates, a sum of seven people ended the year tonight with a sense of inspiration, motivation and determination. Clearly size doesn't matter when it comes to performing!
Tonight saw the screening of several week's videos captured beautifully by Constantine's camera. The highlight, the final art piece by Constantine where mirror madness captures anyone's imagination whilst morphing us into the historical facts of the Coronet theatre.
Next, the curtains were pulled back dramatically to reveal the original art murals by Constantine completed over the last few months. One can only define the unveiling of Constantine's artwork as simply amazing. A myriad of historical timelines images, a snapshot of surrealism versus Marie Anderson's psychic battles with her illness and the clever use of mirrored images.
Fuelled by a visual smorgasbord of artwork from Constantine and expertly facilitated by John Whelan, the Company then got busy performing some improvisation work around Marie Henderson's theatre, now a cinema, being transformed into a bomb shelter during WW2.
Sheer terror, ghosts and historical facts were all played with tonight, in a collection of dynamic ensemble movements. At the end of the night the People's Company were certainly more empowered on the facts of the Coronet theatre and the reasons why Marie Anderson's legacy needs to be performed and never forgotten!"
The People's Company will be taking a short summer break and returning in full force on Tuesday September 5th starting at 7.00pm 2017 at Southwark Playhouse.
There was a change of programme to the People's Company workshops on Tuesday 1st August as we gave centre stage to Unearthing Elephant, a poignant film made by Eva Sajovic, Sarah Butler and Rebecca Davies. This is one outcome of their Arts Council funded project about the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. The movie salutes the faded glory of the centre which is scheduled for closure and demolition over the coming years. Montage sequences are underscored with a poetic voice-over that both questions and contextualises the past, present and uncertain-future. Stall owners, residents and architects provide a fascinating account of how the space has evolved over the decades and celebrate its uniquely "cheap and cheerful" facilities. Tesco Metro and WHSmith sit cheek by jowl with Latin American, Caribbean and Polish shops and stalls. You can still play bingo or go bowling in a way that you might have when the centre first opened in 1965. It was one of the first covered malls, but built on an intimate scale and had no large department shops. It polarises opinion in the same way as Marmite.
The original concrete structure of the shopping centre is now wrapped under a plastic cladding that has seen better days. This echoes its neighbour, our very own Coronet (and the subject of our own Arts Council funded project) which suffers a similar fate of cladding, apparent unlovability and eventual deconstruction.
Small businesses have taken advantage of very reasonable rents. But with business now drying up and the world outside undergoing rapid social change and gentrification, many are concerned about how they will fit into any new development, if at all. In a world of international property dealing, when corporate image and status means everything and often nothing, the Elephant and Castle shopping centre is decidedly low key and low tech. With councils in thrall to developers, the primary beneficiary of any redevelopment is often not the pre-existing community but the new home-owners or businesses that the new space is being made for. The experience of the Heygate Estate haunts the critical imagination of the Elephant and Castle.
After the screening of the film, the audience talked with Rebecca about their own experiences of the shopping centre. Shelagh recalled how it had gone through previous periods of decline, frequented by just one dog and his man, yet kind of bounced back somehow. Beatrice talked about the necessary, painful, process of change. Charlotte was once a student in the area and had fond memories of lunch breaks in the centre.
We also discussed the dilemma that artists face when they work on art projects that overlap with activism and politics. Artists who occupy a middle ground between residents and authorities, perhaps swaying back and forth, as they struggle to balance the needs of funding and self-expression. How could the community utilise the visionary skills of artists and offer their own development plans to compliment or counter the ones being imposed from top-down? How can artists organise and network to provide mutual support? We mapped out this territory, but didn't have any answers. The screening and discussion was the start of a serious conversation.
At a previous session, the People's Company read some archive documents about the Newington area in the 1860s when it was also undergoing another period of development. Shops and department stores were forming around one of the busiest transport hubs in London. The area became known as the Piccadilly of the South.
As we move back to this time, let's home in on the spaces underneath the Elephant and Castle train station. I'm curious to know if anyone has researched how these railway arches have been used since the 19th century? This is the best I could find on google about their contemporary use. One can imagine they have not changed much in function from their historical counterparts. Industrial services are long gone, but the Latino cottage industry still prevails in the Elephant and Castle.
In 1868 a penny gaff theatre opened in a railway arch near Newington Causeway. The authorities were none too happy about this venue and the type of entertainment it offered to the working class, invariably children, at a mere penny for entry. The wider business community and moral do-gooders put pressure to have it closed down. We have some fascinating newspaper accounts of the type of play put on at the penny gaffs and the fate of those who managed and acted here.
The South London Press of 28th March 1868 described how "an amateur performance took place here on Tuesday. The whole affair was very badly managed - beer cans in the boxes, and curious specimens of composition on the programme - 'A grand Shakespearian Tableaux.' A burlesque called 'Mary Rosebud' was the concluding absurdity. The heroine was played by a stout gentleman, who appeared in short petticoats, and a pair of natural brown whiskers, which with a Turkish bath sheet as toga, and a wreath of emerald-green leaves round a by-no-means Roman head, had previously given the audience an extraordinary idea of Cassius."
An editorial in the same newspaper on the 9th October 1869 commented that: "The illustration of the English art of 'how not to do it' is afforded in the matter of Milton Hall - the penny gaff under the archway near the Elephant and Castle Station. The police know it is night after night filled by gangs of thieves and the lowest characters. The magistrates call it a 'nest for the lowest vagabonds' and a 'centre for all sorts of crime.' And yet it is open and flourishing. One person in the area has had three burglary attempts and the virtue of girls and the honesty of lads suffers. Yet no one can root out this crime, pollution and misery!"
One of the final accounts of Milton Hall comes from the Gloucester Journal, 6th November 1869. "A Metropolitan 'dramatic company' appeared in an unrehearsed part at the Lambeth police court on Saturday. Matilda Holah, lessee of the Milton Hall 'penny gaff', Bertha Hicks, money taker, and eight 'actors' and 'actresses' were charged with being connected with an unlicensed theatre, the real offence being that said 'theatre' had become a nuisance, intolerable and not to be longer endured in the area. A body of fifteen policemen invaded the premises at the climax of the performance. One of the defendants enacting the part of a doctor, had a knife in his hand, and was about to dissect a couple of corpses, represented by two other of the defendants. The audience consisted of about fifty boys and girls of the lowest class. The "lessee" was fined forty shillings, or twenty days' imprisonment, and the rest ten shillings each, or seven days. Only four were able to pay the fine, and their six comrades were locked up in default."
It appears the final performance underneath the railway arch was an exciting bastardised form of melodrama based on the penny dreadfuls that recycled graphic accounts of sensational real life murders like that of Maria Marten. In that description of a doctor with a knife in his hand about to do a Burke and Hare, we can see how this strain of theatre has a resonance with the cinematic horror genre. A violinist was among those arrested and was perhaps providing the emotional charge that underscored the acting. But was the music and acting being played for laughs or chills or a combination of the two?
The legitimate theatre at the Elephant and Castle would later provide another link between melodrama and horror. Tod Slaughter was perhaps one of the last theatrical stars in melodrama and in 1927 put the E&C Theatre on the London map with a realistic and blood chilling production of Maria Marten. Tod later went on to have a career in film and although still hitting those melodramatic notes, one can glimpse both genres in The Face at the Window of 1939. One cinema advert at the time advertised Tod as Europe's first horror star. Jeffrey Richards essay, Tod Slaughter and the Cinema of Excess, looks at his film career and argues that his villains would be at home in the world of Hammer Horror.
Let me mischievously end this article by splattering the shopping centre and the railway arches at the Elephant and Castle with my own fusion of melodrama and horror. My decapitated head also nods in the direction of the late, great George A. Romero. One of his most chillingly effective films was the Dawn of the Dead (1978). If this was screened at a digital penny gaff would the audience hiss at the human survivors who are barricaded inside a shopping centre and cheer for the flesh-eating zombies prowling the roundabout outside? Who are the heroes and villains in the Elephant and Castle? I wonder if there is space for a zombie or two in the Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle?
From a gothic railway arch to a zombified shopping centre
Oil pastels, 59x20 inches, 2017
At the People's Company workshop on the 18th July 2017, the workshop revolved around the life story of the Victorian actress Marie Henderson.
Marie Henderson was born in the 1840s into a theatrical family and came to prominence first in Liverpool before moving to the Britannia theatre in East London. She ended her career as the actress-manageress of the Elephant and Castle Theatre from 1875-1880. She put on a programme of melodramatic plays ranging from adaptions of best-seller novels like Lady Audley's Secret to more rip-roaring plays like Faith, Hope and Charity. The working class audiences of Southwark loved to boo and cheer at heroes and heroines locked in a moral struggle of good versus evil.
The Elephant and Castle theatre burnt down in 1878 and was completely rebuilt. It was the first work of famed theatrical architect, Frank Matcham. Marie Henderson suffered ill health and the press reported that this was due to the shocking effect of the fire and losing her company's costumes which were not insured. She died in 1882 at Bedlam mental hospital and we know from her medical records that Marie was suffering from the unknown and untreatable effects of syphilis. An actress who gained critical acclaim and was adored by theatre audiences, who could recite thousands of line from hundreds of plays, was reduced to only being able to utter these lines in her final days: yes, jolly and oh dear!
During the session the People's Company made a drawing sketch based on one of the reviews of Faith, Hope and Charity. This play was first staged in 1863 at the Britannia Theatre and introduced the first use of Dr Pepper's Ghost, a holographic effect created by mirrors. Marie Henderson starred in the Liverpool version of this play staged in the same year. In the play, the character of the Widow is cheated out of her fortune and dies. She then returns as a ghost (cue mirror effect) and haunts the aristocratic villain. One of the last roles Marie Henderson ever played at the Elephant and Castle theatre was in Faith, Hope and Charity.
The ghostly presence of Marie Henderson is our guiding muse for The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle. This is a performance piece and an art exhibition.
The play will be staged at the Coronet on the 8 November 2017.
The exhibition will take place at Artworks Gallery from 11-23 November 2017
The Mercury, 21 July 1863: review of the Britannia theatre's new drama called The Widow and Orphans - Faith, Hope and Charity:
It is a domestic drama, with three murders, one suicide, two conflagrations, four robberies, one virtuous lawyer, 23 angels, and a ghost. There are three heroines in the piece, Faith, Hope and Charity - the first, an elderly lady, widow of a clergyman, and in straitened circumstances; and the other two, her daughters, pretty and poor, and of course models of perfection. The plot turns upon the possession of the lease of a house which Sir Gilbert Northlaw, a proud and scheming baronet, class representative of the bloated aristocracy, has acquired by fraud from the clerical widow. Before the parchment is restored to the right owner, a number of violent incidents take place, which, although in no perceptible connection with the story, yet seems to charm the audience to an immense degree, as evinced by frequent thundering applause. A burning house, in particular, gives rise to tremendous excitement in the gallery. The scene shows a woman getting out of the window and walking along the outer ledge to a tree where a man takes her in his arms, after which the tree, by some magic means, bows to the ground with its human burthen. Various minor accidents, murders and manslaughter, follow, till at length the lease is stolen by an honest man from the pocket of the wicked baronet. With a fine feeling of virtue, the audience show their appreciation of this act of pickpocketing by three rounds of applause. But the aristocratic villain is not yet defeated, for it turns out that the lease which the honest man has stolen is but a duplicate after all, and that the fiendish nobleman remains in possession of the original. This discovery breaks the heart of Faith and sets Hope and Charity a-crying so loud that all the bystanders get into convulsions. The question of the lease appears still as undecided as ever when the curtain falls over the terrestrial part of the drama, to open again, after a few minutes interval, for the spiritual portion. All the souls of all the people murdered, slain, burned, and bruised in the new and original drama are now carried up to heaven by a regiment of little angels, in flaxen hair and short petticoats. Midway between heaven and earth they make a halt, which allows time for the inspection of the tableau, and the due seasoning of the mind in its contemplation. It is evident that the impression created upon the audience is of the deepest, preparing all eyes and ears for the still greater things to come. There are now no more discharges of ginger-beer artillery from above and behind, the sucking of oranges and cracking of nuts have ceased entirely, and even the numerous babies have left off crying. Presently the vast house sinks into obscurity, only a few flickering gas jets being left here and there to create a faint twilight. Once again Sir Gilbert Northlaw steps on the stage, closely followed by - a skeleton. The apparition is certainly striking. It gradually and almost imperceptibly evolves itself out of the air, and after various movements vanishes with the rapidity of a flash of lightening. A second time, it comes and goes as before, and immediately after appears a female form, the exact counterpart of Faith, the widow. Closely as the eye may watch the operation of the whole proceeding, it is impossible to detect the source of the fine optical delusion. There the figure certainly stands, walks, and talks, but disappears as instantaneously as if fashioned out of the mere vapor of the air. On the second appearance of widow Faith, of rather widow Faith’s ghost, Sir Gilbert Northlaw takes courage, and rising from his seat, attacks her with a sword. But the sharp steel, aimed a a walking and speaking human figure, meets no resistance but the empty air, and the would-be murderer is mocked by a load of sardonic ha, ha, ha! This is the crisis of the spectacle. While the baronet is making desperate efforts to grasp the widow, the spectre vanishes in the twinkling of an eye, leaving the echo of a mocking voice, resounding from afar. Whatever the means by which this curious scene is effected, it is undoubtedly a most clever and wonderfully striking bit of stage effect. Those in want of a new sensation can do nothing better at the present moment that to pay a visit to the Britannia Theatre and to the “Patent Ghost.”
Oil pastel drawing made by The People's Company Ensemble and Constantine Gras
Faith, Hope and Charity illustrates Dr Pepper's ghost effect.
An actress stands in the orchestra pit, unseen by the audience and her ghostly image is projected onto the stage with the use of a mirror.
Although the heavens opened their gates and flooded us with a damp squid, there were mercifully several hours of quality community engagement at the Walworth Festival on 22 July 2017. The Melodramatic Elephant was out on the road. We aimed to connect with older residents who had visited the Coronet when it was a cinema (1932-1999) and also invite children to sketch images that might adorn our theatrical scale model.
First to visit the stall was folksy singer Stephenie Robinson who was performing a set later on. She was born in the 1950s and recalled the ABC cinema watching B movies such as the Lone Ranger. As a young kid she confessed to letting off fire extinguishers in the cinema - naughty Steph! Her abiding memory of the ABC cinema at 28 New Kent Road was that after sneaking in through the side doors and getting a prime seat in a near empty cinema, seated and waiting in anticipation for the main feature - the film reel would break. Drat! Boo! This response harks back to the good old days when the building was a theatre (1872-1928) and where a villain in melodrama would elicit such hissing feedback from the audience. Stephenie's favourite film incidentally is 2001: A Space Odyssey and she also adores the Marx Brothers.
Patrick Clifford was a child of the 50s and used to go to the ABC on the Old Kent Road every Saturday as a kid. Once again The Lone Ranger was a popular attraction. He also mucked about in the cinema throwing food down from the upper stalls. He recalled the gangs and youth culture of the 1950s when his father had the back of his coat slashed with a knife wielded by Teddy boys outside the cinema. He would love to see a new cinema in the area especially as the West End prices are so exorbitant. Patrick's all time favourite film is It's A Wonderful Life. In particular, the finale, where an angel shows the James Stewart character what his community would have been like if he had not been born. Life is precious, perhaps even more so when we are at a low point or not seeing a clear way forward.
One might add that art has this life enhancing quality in spades. Speaking of spades! The charming Hallett family entertained us with some colourful drawings. Eden set to work in drawing an amazingly tranquil beach scene, where sand was shaped into castles with spades and buckets. But who is that we hear? "Help!" Look! There is a person all at sea. Thankfully Eden had drawn a life guard or boat to save the day. Maia, with dad as assistant, designed a snazzy graphic sign for a new Coronet building that appears to be screening films again - Stephanie and Patrick will be over the moon! Parents Jacqueline and Bart told us about the cinemas of their youth when they were going on a birthday treat and then later on when they were dating. Peckhamplex is their favourite cinema as all tickets are £4.99 every day. It's lovely to go to a local that isn't part of a chain.
Next up was Diego and his two lovely children. Emilia designed a diamond of love in all the colours of the rainbow. Fab! Young brother Stefano was playing with Thomas The Tank Engine in our model of the Coronet. He had a lot of fun thinking about how destructive this play action would be in real life. Almost a scene from one of those sensational classic melodramatic plays of the nineteenth century which Professor Jim Davis and Dr Janice Norwood talked about in a previous blog where life size train engines threatened the life and limb of a heroine tied to a railway track. We should note that Diego was saddened to hear about the closure of the Coronet as he had attended several musical events over the years!
Our final art work was made by two smashing lads, Jamal and Abdulah. Jamal is a Manchester United fan and imagined himself scoring a goal in the Champions League Cup Final. His brother did a neat study of the scale model and copied its entrance and main arena. Or was he thinking this was a football arena where his brother scored the winning goallllllll!
Our day ended with two more reflections from senior citizens of Walworth.
Sylvia Kelly was also born in the 1950s and first visited the ABC cinema at the Elephant and Castle when she was 7 or 8. She recalled it being a nice cinema when she first went with her parents. Later on as a teen she was a big David Bowie fan and went to six of his Ziggy concerts. She recalled the good old days of getting half a crown from her parents, going with all her mates to the flicks and then treating themselves to the best pie and mash shop in the area.
Brian Colgan completes the set of veterans who are all born in the 1950s. He had vivid memories of his first cinema experience as a child - the Saturday movies where he was a member of the ABC Minors club. Kids were issued with a badge and a monthly magazine. He recalled the typical film programme starting off with a cartoon like Tom and Jerry, followed by a trailer of what was coming next week and then the main feature or two: this might be a series of films lasting 8-10 weeks and featuring Batman, Superman, Buster Crabbe or Dick Tracy. There was also a Pathe newsreel that was showing what was going on in the world. Not bad for 10 bob (50 pence)! Brian also recalled that celebrities often visited, including Coco The Clown who was the main spokesperson for the ABC and who instructed the children about the Green Cross Code. His favourite film stars are Bob Hope and Roger Moore. Later on as cinema was in decline, Brian was watching films on video and must have been one of the few people in the country to own a laser disc. For him, cinema was always something to look forward on a Saturday when the programme lasted from 10.30 till 1.00. As tickets were cheap, you could also indulge in sweets and ice cream. Cinema was an all round delicious treat!
Just as we were shutting up shop, a young film crew making a documentary about the festival, visited the stall. Charlotte, Shanaz and Dylan interviewed Constantine Gras about The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle. Hopefully they were intrigued and inspired to hear about the 147 year history of the Coronet and it's leading theatrical players like Marie Henderson and Tod Slaughter. Also how black actors performed here from Morgan Smith on the Victorian stage to Sidney Poitier in the movies as these were featured in the posters on display. Perhaps at a cinema of the future, one that is built on the redeveloped site of the Coronet and shopping centre, they will screen their documentary about Walworth and that this will show us how life can be as wonderful as cinematic dreams.
Many thanks to Professor Jim Davis and Dr Janice Norwood for providing a fascinating overview of theatrical melodrama, its rich diversity and defining characteristics. We discover that melodrama was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the 19th century. Although it was often dismissed as a cultural product, there is a growing awareness of its importance in theatrical history and how it influenced both film and TV. Jim persuasively argues that our modern perception of the world, based on a diet of sensational news stories and happy endings, is perhaps a modern spin on the conventions of melodrama. The role of Victorian women actresses in melodrama is a fascinating topic that Janice addresses in her interview.
Professor Jim Davis
Theatre Studies, University of Warwick
I was born and grew up in Bristol. From a very early age I went to the theatre including the Bristol Old Vic. My interest in 19th century theatre really developed when I was an English student at Oxford and I thought it might be an interesting area to pursue especially as there was very little work on it at the time. Nobody did popular theatre or looked at the Victorian period. But now there are a lot of people working in depth and it is a growing area. I was a very bad actor when I was a student and that helped me realise that I certainly wasn’t able to become an actor which I probably wanted to be when I was younger. I really got hooked on theatre more than academia in a sense but somehow I’ve ended up turning my hobby into my day job.
The first use of the word melodrama or mélodrame in French was to signify a dramatic piece of music. So from the start, the melo in melodrama actually implies drama with music.The first time the word melodrama was used in English is to describe a play in 1802 and its Thomas Holcroft’s A Tale of Mystery which was based on a French melodrama.
Melodrama was very much influenced by the French revolution. This was regarded as a peoples revolution and the melodrama which was performed after this in France was seen as a peoples drama. The old order, classical theatre and the church became far less important. It was said by some commentators, including those who wrote melodrama, that melodrama was the new morality. A sort of bible for secular times. That was one way in which ideas of melodrama were being thought about in France and I think that explains the moral notion that melodrama teaches a lesson in some sort of way.
So melodrama becomes a descriptive term for plays that seem to contain certain conventions and features that recur from play to play. So there is quite a broad spectrum: dramas with nautical themes, dramas about industry or fallen women. The generic term melodrama tends to have been applied to a huge range of 19th century plays. Melodrama became the most popular form of play throughout the 19th century and probably is the most performed genre of drama not only in Britain, but also in Europe, in Australasia and in North America. So we are actually talking about a genre that has had an extraordinarily wide impact historically.
The other big background influence is the industrial revolution. It’s very interesting that as people moved to cities, there has to be more entertainment and certainly when people are working long hours, they prefer perhaps to go and see a melodrama rather than something a little heavier. So melodrama becomes popular because there is an urban audience developing for that form of drama. In the agrarian past, people lived in the countryside, perhaps more idyllically or regarded in a more idealised way. So you often find in melodrama, that it’s the villagers who are heroes and they are usually put upon by the wealthy squires or viscous landlords. Good versus evil becomes the country versus town. The town in so many melodramas seems to be the root of all evil.
Constantine working on melodramatic story boards based on improvisations made by the People's Theatre Ensemble. Murder in the Bathroom is a country house who dun the murder in the bath. The butler apparently and the incriminating evidence is the loo paper still attached to the heel of his shoe! Lullaby for Baby Timmy is about a wedding ceremony thrown into disarray when a baby turns up. The art work for the latter story includes smoking chimneys and a grimy urban location.
I have to say that in teaching melodrama, what I’ve realised is that as soon as you define a genre, you find hundreds of examples that don’t fit. So what I have to say has to be very carefully circumscribed. But in principle, you expect a melodrama to feature a hero, a heroine and a villain. The problems the hero and heroine confront have been caused or perpetrated by the villain, who is the key motivator of action. Melodramatic characters often suffer and go through a number of problems that they have to solve or escape from and ideally in melodrama it ends happily and all is put right again. In melodrama you don’t find the moral ambiguities of tragedy. It’s a manichean world in which good and evil are confronting each other. In a sense, melodrama provides a rather simplistic world view.
Later in the century when you get plays like The Bells which was a famous melodrama, in which Henry Irving played Mathias, the protagonist is actually both the villain and hero. The interest is much more on his psychological situation than any straight forward rendition of good versus evil, So if you start looking for exceptions, you can easily find them and some melodramas are quite complex in the way they develop their key or principle characters. It’s not all simple black and white, good versus evil, But certainly in an awful lot of melodramas, the basic plot line is of good versus evil, heroes versus villains. Heroines are sometimes passive and the victim of the villain, but at other times heroines can be quite feisty. I think working class audiences preferred their heroines to be feisty rather than passive.
Sensation scenes were important to melodrama. You would have elaborate effects on stage. For instance Ben Hur’s chariot race which is run on a treadmill. In The Streets of London, there’s a fire and the fire engine comes on stage to put it out. You get train crashes. Before silent cinema, you get the first ever play with someone tied to a railway line and the train coming on towards them. It was all exciting stuff.
Photographic print of Act 3, Scene 6 from The Whip, Drury Lane Theatre, 1909
Gabrielle Enthoven Collection, Museum number: S.211-2016
© Victoria and Albert Museum
Music is also integral to melodrama and does very much the same sort of thing that film music does or even Wagner. Music creates atmosphere and mood. It’s a motif for individual characters. There’s what is called “hurry music” which is when anything exciting is happening and you need some lively music to get people worked up. And of course there’s music to express more sentimental moments as well.
Melodrama was on the whole a drama of everyday life for the people watching it. We talk about realism and we might well say, I’ve seen a soap opera on TV recently that was very realistic. My view is that melodrama was the realism of its own day. It’s not some exaggerated ridiculous form that we now look at rather contemptuously or patronizingly. It’s actually reflecting to the people that went to see it, the world they lived in. Just as soap opera has its cliches and heightened moments, its still got a sense of reality about it and the same is true of melodrama as well. It’s reflecting back, sometimes in a heightened way, the realism of everyday life and it is generating strong emotional reactions from its audiences because of its highly charged scenes.
Melodrama in theatre terms is a really important part of our theatrical past, There is a tendency to say don’t be so melodramatic, that its all exaggeration and excess. But 19th century theaters were large. You don't want to go to the theatre and see a play where the actor isn't making themselves clear through gesture and vocal delivery. It you were in an audience of three to four thousand it’s not like sitting in a black box theatre. So the notion that it’s over the top and exaggerated, only makes sense if you totally ignore the fact that these are huge theater's that need a strong declamatory, visually clear type of performance, So the burlesque notion of melodrama is one that I would question.
There are two distinct ways of seeing melodrama. One is to see melodrama as very much saying the world is not that bad because it all ends happily in the end. And however miserable you are, however poverty stricken you are, things do come all right. So it can be seen as a very coercive form or even an escapist form. But there is another way of looking at melodrama. Certainly some of the plays performed at theaters like Surrey and Coburg in South London, at the Britannia in the East End, and other theaters not in the West End, melodrama often has social commentary built into it. They often illustrate the ways in which people are exploited or unfairly treated and can be quite vociferous about the injustice of industrial conditions or even to the appalling situation that women are in. So within melodrama one can also argue there is quite a subversive strand.
I sometimes think that a working class audience struggling to make a living doesn't necessarily see a happy ending as anything other than ironic, The notion that people are so simple minded that they don’t see the irony and that real life is not like melodrama, is a suspect notion. So on the one hand we have this simplistic notion of good versus evil, but actually built into melodrama can be quite a lot of social critique and a form of theatre that is not just escapist. Not just simple minded, but might actually make one think about or even question the conditions one lives in.
Film and TV have been influenced by melodramatic conventions in the way they entertain us. You could argue that news bulletins on TV are constructed as melodrama. You have something sensational or visually spectacular to hold your attention, like the twin towers for instance. And you often find a news bulletin ends with a happy ever after story, So however awful the news, somebody's cat is saved from the tree. We all live happily ever after. Melodrama is also a way of seeing the world that has becomes so ingrained in the way we react or the way the media sometimes brings us news stories. We are not even aware any more how central the melodramatic conventions and narratives and storylines are to the way we think and perceive the world.
Dr Janice Norwood
School of Humanities, University of Hertfordshire
I was also born and lived in Bristol until I was eight. I went to Warwick University where I had a great time studying English and Theatre Studies. After I left, I went into book publishing. I had three children and worked freelance. Later on I did an M.A. in Victorian studies which lead to my dissertation on the social protest melodrama. I ended up doing my PHD on the Britannia theatre in Hoxton. I already had a link with the East End of London because my family were dockers there.
So the 19th century is my specialist area with a focus on the Britannia and East End theatre in general. More recently, I’ve been working on a project about a number of 19th century actresses, not the big names, like Ellen Terry. I’m talking about the women who just made a living out it and what their experiences were like. How they could combine having a family and working? What happens when you get old? All those sorts of things.
The Britannia theatre is quite unusual because it was run by one family and particularly Sara Lane who virtually for the whole of its time was the actress-manageress. After she died in 1899, it passed to her nephew and then in the early 20th century it was struggling to make money for a variety of reasons. It became a cinema for a short while and then it was bombed out in the war. Now there’s some council flats on the site. Also there’s a block round the corner called Sara Lane flats. So Constantine and John, why don’t you campaign for one of your new blocks of flats on the site of the Coronet to be called Marie Henderson? It’s important that people should know something about their heritage.
Interior View of the Britannia Theatre, Hoxton
Museum number: E.4884-1923
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Melodrama is the standard and most popular form of theatre in the 19th century. This type of theatre had a very bad press in the past. I suppose it’s always been the case of theatre is not what it used to be and it was felt that the national drama was at an all time low. Nevertheless theatre was very popular and places like the Britannia had huge audiences going regularly. What they were going to see was melodrama. Even Drury Lane and Covent Garden, the two big patent theatre’s of the time, were putting on melodramas.
Melodrama developed into sensation melodrama in the 1860s and is linked with fiction like Wilkie Collins’s ‘The Woman in White'. This also attracted very bad press. As opposed to serious drama which is intellectual, sensation drama appeals to the emotions and that has always been sniffed at by the high and mighty. Melodrama typically had at least one scene of sensation in it. So for example in The Colleen Bawn there is a scene where a woman is being thrown into the lake and the hero has to dive in to rescue her. On stage this is very spectacular. Then in other melodramas you get all the sensation scenes like when the train is coming across the stage and someone is tied to the tracks. This happens in theatre long before it happens in silent film.
Another feature of melodrama is the tableau with that frozen moment when the actors stop. Sometimes they are recreating a well known painting, but often it’s a moment where you see an emotional response being encapsulated or perhaps the hierarchical relationships of characters. The audience has a chance to take in that static moment. And of course the music is supporting that as well. It’s not the same as Brecht where he is asking you to reflect on the tableaux. In melodrama it is all aimed at an emotional response.
Self reflection on an artist as performer:
Face, voice and hand gestures in the drawing out of an image
2014, oil pastels.
In melodrama you also find numerous adaptions of novels. If you think of somewhere like the Britannia, the audience is probably not going to have read these lengthy novels and the melodrama is the first time they will encounter those stories. And there are big changes between the novels and what you see on the stage. I’ve written about the Woman in White, the Wilkie Collins novel, in which Collins did his own adaption for the stage. But there would be a different version at the Britannia and another one somewhere else. You get writers like Colin Henry Hazelwood at the Britannia who will write with his local audience in mind and for a particular stock company where he knows who the actors are and will need to write a very good part for Sara Lane. The play that he wrote or adapted might then get sold to Liverpool or Manchester or somewhere in the provinces, depending on how he sold the rights. He is what we would call, in a not very helpful way, a hack writer. People like Hazelwood would only get money if they sell their work. And Hazelwood would be living in the Hoxton area in awful penury. He’s no different from people who are attending the theatre. Also the actors of the Britannia would be living in that local area. So they are going to be aware of the kind of issues that might face ordinary people. Not that I think people necessarily want to see their own experiences on the stage all the time. But you can see in the playbills that quite often scenes are set in a Shoreditch church yard and there are views of Hoxton High Street. So the plays are showing the world that their audience knew. And of course with melodrama, nine times out of ten, the baddie is an aristocrat. Or perhaps if your talking about women’s piece work being featured in the play, artificial flower sellers for example, it would be the middle man whose exploiting them. So it’s always the person higher up the chain who is the baddie.
There is an old idea that by going to see a melodrama in which good always triumphs over evil, that the audience end up feeling better about themselves in some way. That idea is a bit passé now, The bottom line is if it wasn’t going to entertain them, they are not going to pay their money. Especially if you are a working person and you don’t have an awful lot of disposable income. At the Britannia where the majority of the audience comes from the local area, you have got to get them coming back, week after week, or the theatre didn’t make any money. So you can’t preach to the audience.
Remember that during this period all the plays that are put on, go to the Lord Chamberlain’s office for licensing. One of the things that he crosses out is blasphemy or any reference or representation of the royal family. This censorship of theatre goes on until 1968. There was also a particular fear that places like the Britannia because they’ve got a large working class audience, perhaps they were more susceptible to seditious argument. There is evidence that the Lord Chamberlain’s office were looking more closely at the plays at these theatres. You’d also get busy bodies from the general public writing into the Chamberlain's office saying: do you realise they are putting on a play about so and so? There was a limit to what could be expressed in melodrama.
Sheet music for The Belle of Belgrave Square
Or Lady Audley's Kitchen Maid's Secret
Museum number: S.338-2012
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Lady Audley’s Secret was a hugely popular novel written by Mary Elizabeth Braddon in 1862. It also became a big sensation play at the time. Hazelwood did one of the adaptations at the Britannia. It has a very good female part and Marie Henderson when she was at the Britannia or Elephant and Castle would have played this as well as the leading part in Aurora Floyd, which is another of Braddon’s novels. The play must have been of interest to the audience because Lady Audley herself is a woman pretending to be something that she is not. She had a husband and thinking that he’s dead, she marries again. Bigamy! The novel created a stir because of the idea that underneath this nice conventional society there’s a beautiful woman who actually has a dark secret and she’s leading men astray and attempting to kill, not one, but two men. It keys into anxieties about women in the period. The stage adaptions are very truncated and quite formulaic. But that doesn't seem to have stopped them being hugely popular at the time.
From the 18th century there had been an association between actresses and prostitutes and you get lots of accounts of backstage Johnnies or aristocrats hanging around the actresses. If you were a young actress, you would have to negotiate with people who are trying to use you for various ends. It must have been difficult touring as a young woman, especially if you were on your own. This is where if you came from a family of performers you were probably in a safer environment. I imagine actresses were very conscious of their image and whether they might be though of as being associated with prostitutes. There are a lot of writings about the actress Sarah Siddons, of her as a mother and how she became associated with virtuous womanhood. Ellen Terry, on the other hand, is very interesting because she had children born out of wedlock. But that doesn’t seem to have tarred her. But in the 19th century there is a sense of a better reputation for the acting trade. Henry Irving finally gets the first knighthood for an actor.
I think quite a number of performers must have been traumatised by accidents and fires which were common in the theatre. There are accounts of ballet girls who either died or were severely burnt because their costumes caught fire from the gas lamps. What happens to them after this? What if you witness this? It’s got to have a profound effect on you. The thing that has struck me from my research and I noticed when I was reading your blog about Marie Henderson, is that something terrible happens in their own family, say a sister dies, or a husband dies. What happens? The actors and actresses are not being paid unless they go back on stage. Or what if they’ve been ill and they are forced to work very quickly. And when they are touring, you think they might want to be home with their family. But no, they’ve got to go on tour to Bolton this week or Edinburgh next week. I think all these would have some kind of effect on performers. Fire, in particular, is such a terrifying thing. It is very common for theaters to be burning down in the 19th century. People are frightened because they know audiences have died in fires and on occasions been trampled when someone raised a false alarm.
I’ve just been looking at Emily Eliza Sanders who became Lady Don. She married a baronet who had run through all his money and went on the stage. They went out to Australia where he died. She came back and at one point took over the Theatre Royal in Nottingham. She then became ill and couldn’t perform and that was one of the reasons why she went bankrupt. Eliza had to sell all her costumes and there was a court case which raised the issue of how was she going to make a living without the costumes. Those sort of things are important. If you read accounts from autobiographies of actresses when they’ve not got much money, one of the difficulties is because they are responsible for their own costumes. Even in a lowly part, you have to have a couple of changes of costumes, so you can play whatever you are put into. If you rip your costume on stage, you have got to sort that out really quickly. Or become adept at putting different trimmings on to try and make it look different from when you wore it last week.
Actresses like Julia Seaman and Alice Marriott play the heavy woman in Victorian theatre. The heavy woman is a type of acting role and includes tragic parts. These particular ones also play Hamlet. It requires quite a ponderous deep voice and if you think of the size of the Britannia, long before you were miked up, you have got to project to connect to the audience in the gallery. This is another reason why the big gestures in melodrama are important. If someone’s just doing a small gesture, it’s not as easy to read.
Sarah Lane, Julia Seaman and Marie Henderson
Marie Henderson is one of a number of actresses who came to the Britannia for a few years to take a particular type of role and who consolidated her talent there. She had the leading lady role. For this you’ve got to be attractive to look at. Being young is very helpful as ever. Then when you got to this position, you would be able to specialise in certain roles. An awful lot of actresses aspired to this and some made it and some didn’t. I guess it’s partly talent, partly luck such as playing the leading lady role in a hit play.
There’s also a theatrical network you have to negotiate. I’ve been reading a lot of letters from a theatre manager in Newcastle. He would write to someone in Brighton and ask about Miss Smith: I see she has been on your stage and what is she like? The reply back might be: don’t touch her with a barge pole, or, yes I recommend her. These networks here had women at a disadvantage. Especially at the higher level in the West End because the critics and managers are in the gentleman's club and women aren’t allowed in there. So women have to get on in other ways. That’s why I think having a husband in this period might be quite useful. If you arrived with your husband at a meeting, that potential association of you being free and easy is not registered. It’s interesting that a lot of actresses performed as Miss Henderson did, using their maiden name, even if they’ve been married for 40 years. Maybe because they made their name that way and they didn’t want to change it with each new husband.
A women as a manager of a theatre is quite standard. We can regard them as the figure head and the man as the named lessee on the papers. That was the case at the Britannia with Sara Lane. Samuel Lane was the original lessee and Sara came in to the theatre as an actress. When his first wife died, he married Sara. But she was the key figure long before he died in 1871. She was directing everything. So there are quite a lot of female managers, but many managements were short lived. That is why the Britannia is really unusual given Sara Lane’s length of time. Marie Henderson and her husband John Aubrey at the Elephant and Castle Theatre were there for 5 years. Lady Don’s experience was just one season and this is much more common.
Theatre is one of the very rare places in Victorian society where women could earn as much as men and they could have more agency. Also just in terms of being able to move around the country and perform in different places. I’m sure that was one of the attractions for many women.
Reflecting the views of artists, actors, residents
and participants in
The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle.
An art project about the Coronet from 1872-2017.
Past present future
Music and animation
Euan Vincent on Horror
Tiberius Chis on Chaplin
Final Curtain Call
Directing and acting
Jacko at the Coronet?
Ale and steak pies
This Is Where I Came In
Pollock's Toy Museum
Adventure with the Mayor
Reach for the stars
Ghost of Marie Henderson
Shop till the zombie drops
Faith, Hope and Charity
Singing and sketching
History and legacy
Dark Side of Metropolis
Walworth Street Festival
Interview with Sam Porter
Blood and Thunder
Culture and Capital