London’s Gaiety Girls

In the “seventies” [1870s] there was a wonderful galaxy of talent at the old Gaiety Theatre, Nellie Farren, Kate Vaughan, Edward Terry, and Royce forming a matchless quartette.

Kate Vaughn

Kate Vaughan

Young men, of course, will always be foolish, up to the end of time. Nellie Farren, Kate Vaughan, and Emily Duncan all had their “colours.” Nellie Farren’s were dark blue, light blue, and white; Kate Vaughan’s were pink and grey; Emily Duncan’s black and white; the leading hosiers “stocked” silk scarves of these colours, and we foolish young men bought the colours of the lady we especially admired, and sat in the stalls of the Gaiety flaunting the scarves of our favourite round our necks.

As I then thought, and still think, that Nellie Farren was one of the daintiest and most graceful little creatures ever seen on the stage, with a gaminerie all her own, I, in common with many other youths, sat in the stalls of the Gaiety wrapped in a blue-and-white scarf. Each lady showered smiles over the footlights at her avowed admirers, whilst contemptuously ignoring those who sported her rival’s colours. One silly youth, to testify to his admiration for Emily Duncan, actually had white kid gloves with black fingers, specially manufactured for him. He was, we hope, repaid for his outlay by extra smiles from his enchantress.
‘The Days Before Yesterday’, Lord Frederic Hamilton. Hodder and Stoughton, London.

Aldwych

Nellie Farren

Nellie Farren

For a popular burlesque, in the days of Nellie Farren and Connie Gilchrist, of Fred Leslie and Arthur Roberts, the same stalls were filled night after night by the rich unemployed, who afterwards followed their fancies hither and thither and spent quite considerable sums upon them. There was no great stir when marriages followed such aquaintance, and most of them turned out a great success.
‘Gilded Youth’ (essay) ‘Fifty Years, Memories and Contrasts’, Sir Ian Malcolm. Thornton Butterworth, Ltd; London, 1932.

I have to admit, in the interest of accuracy, that the Gaiety shown above in 1913 is not the “old Gaiety Theatre” these two men remembered. That stood across the road on the site of the Morning Post newspaper office at left. It had its last performance in 1903 and was demolished soon afterwards. The new theatre (on the right) had been under construction since 1901 and opened four months after the original closed.

Some of the Gaiety Girls held a reunion in 1950 and what remained of the theatre, just a shell since 1939, was demolished in 1957. The Morning Post building, completed in 1907, is now the One Aldwych hotel.

The Business of the Actor

English playwright and actor, Sir Arthur Pinero, writes about ‘The Theatre in Transition’ in 1932.

Marie Bancroft. PRG-280-1-5-179

Marie Bancroft.

As a youth I climbed one night up to the sixpenny gallery of the Standard Theatre in Shoreditch. The Bancrofts and their company were “starring” for a week in that huge house….. From my remote seat I listened to Marie Bancroft as Polly Eccles in Caste. Her lightest whisper was as audible as her loudest tones. She might, so it seemed, have been holding me by the button-hole and imparting something to me that nobody else was expected to hear. Far off as was the stage, I felt that if I had held out my hand I could have grasped hers. And I am sure that every member of the audience had exactly the same sensation.

Her method, acquired after years of training, was the method of Mrs. John Wood, now almost forgotten, of

Vintage postcard of Mrs. (Madge) Kendal, Victorian/Edwardian actress.

Mrs. (Madge) Kendal

Ellen Terry and (both happily still with us) Dame Madge Kendal and Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, and of many others I could cite. It was the method of the old actors and actresses generally – the ABC of their equipment. They knew that acting is an enlargement of life to be viewed from a distance, not a reproduction of nature confined to the limits of the small space of the stage. In the delivery of their dialogue they appeared to be talking as people talk in a room. But they did not make the mistake of pitching their voices as though the walls of the room were the extreme range within which their voices had to travel. In short, they had learnt, in their rough school, that the business of the actor is to act. …..

The theatre is now engaged in a struggle for existence with the films. To all appearance, the fight will be long and bitter. Nobody can say how it will end, what conventions may be sacrificed, what new features may be encountered, what new forms evolved. Those of us who love the play as we have known it must be a little fearful lest it should cease to be a medium for the serious exposition of life and character, or should be allotted only the task of dealing with subjects which may uplift the soul but certainly do not cheer it. Whether eventually the silent films conquer the talking, or the talking the silent, is not, to my mind, of great importance. What is of importance is the fact that the “pictures,” for the moment at any rate, have captured the masses who formerly were the faithful supporters of the regular theatre, and who are now content with the thrills and humour furnished by mechanical process.

Image sources:
Marie Bancroft, State Library of South Australia
Mrs. Kendal, a postcard in my collection.