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The Romance of the Stage Door - December 1877

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The following article is both a fascinating read, and an interesting insight, into the goings on, in and around, the stage doors of countless Theatres in the 19th century. Although the article turns into a bit of a rant towards the end it is none the less sometimes surprisingly on the mark, even for today. When I first started working in Theatre in the 1970s, a hundred years after this article was printed, most of the stage door keepers I encountered were pretty grumpy chaps with what seemed to be a very large chip on their shoulders, and getting past them could be classed as an art in itself. Nowadays, thankfully, the men and women I meet who 'man' the stage doors of London's West End Theatres for instance are generally very pleasant and not at all like they were a few decades ago, but they still have to work in the same cramped conditions, and deal with the same kinds of issues, as those described in the article. The article then goes on to take a swipe at the vanity of some actresses, and the men who adored them. A harsh assessment maybe, but is today's 'celebrity' culture really that different? Either way, it's well worth a read. M.L.

Inside the now disused stage door of the London Hiippodrome. Theatrical architects, whenever it is possible so to do, use a wise discretion in hiding the stage door from public gaze. Indeed, they show considerable ingenuity in their successful efforts to baffle the curiosity and check the energy of an inquisitive and impertinent public. Stage doors are discovered up dingy courts, they are planted in the recesses of mysterious cul de sac, they are surrounded by squalid shops and discordant neighbours. The Uninitiated who seek them find themselves perplexed in a labyrinth of hovels. Their approach is deplorable, unclean, muddy, and unwholesome. The actors as they stride along to their work have before seeking an asylum of safety within the Theatre to run a gauntlet of shuttlecocks, iron hoops, and wooden wheels, The actresses these wintry nights must pick their way through mud heaps and cabbage stalks. The first difficulty is to discover the direction, the second, to hit upon the door.

Right - Inside the now disused stage door of the London Hippodrome.

All this is no doubt intentional on the part of the architect, part of a well-considered plan to hide as far as possible from the public the mysteries of the seen and the secrets of the prison-house. Condemned scenery, battered canvas, and sham properties do not look well in the daylight, and are wisely reserved for the unimaginative inspection of "Sally in our Alley."

Carpenters in white jackets, who are partial to clay pipes and pint pots of porter, jar against fancy and fun. As it is impossible to perform all these mysteries in secret underground, the next best thing is to hide and throw a veil over their elaboration. The architect having done thus much to hide the secrets of the prison house, the Manager follows suit by engaging for his door-keeper a very Cerberus, a paragon of propriety, a martinet of the severest order, a rigid disciplinarian, and a man who would be invaluable in the detective force of the police, since he it incapable of taking a bribe.

The stage door of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.Doubtless, the stage door-keeper, like the hundreds who pass his wicket, is an artist. He plays a part. Remove his outer coat of surliness and will be found a kind man, a tender man, a humorist, a lover of children, and an adorer of the fair sex.

The Stage Door of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in February 2011 - Courtesy Jennie Bisset.Left and Right - The stage door of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

Off duty no doubt the stage door-keeper can laugh; sing, be genial and merry. Maybe the little ones watch for his approach on the threshold, and cover his rough but honest face with kisses. But on duty sentiment is the very last thing that he indulges in. He teaches himself to believe that every one who approaches him is his natural enemy. He sits in his chair by the fire and hates the world at large. He schools himself to believe that every individual is trying to defy his authority, to hoodwink him, to slip out of his clutches, and to sneak by the door unnoticed.

In the ordinary affairs of life we believe a man until we suspect him. But in the stage door affairs of life every one is under suspicion and no one is believed. The young ladies of the Theatre are hateful to him because they bother about their letters and expect him to be as punctual and as mechanical as the penny postman; the mothers of the young ladies are his abomination, for they crowd the Theatre, and when they don't interfere they gossip; the authors are his natural enemies, because they perpetually create disturbances about their manuscripts, and he has to bear the brunt of the Manager's wrath; the friends of the Manager are obnoxious to him because they never know the way to the managerial sanctum; he has always to leave his seat to show them upstairs, making the coast clear for vagabonds who would slip into the Theatre on the slightest provocation.

The charming, and ancient, stage door of the Theatre Royal, Brighton - Photo Courtesy Stephen Ashby January 2007.Although the stage doorkeeper is obviously engaged for the express purpose of affording information, our friend in the little cupboard invariably considers that he is insulted if he is asked any questions. In every word that he utters there is always the distinct implication that the questioner must be a fool for talking such nonsense. No doubt the temper of the stage door-keeper is sorely tried, but no effort is ever made to sweeten the acerbity of a naturally irritable disposition. Apart from those engaged in the Theatre he divides the world roughly into two divisions - one of fools and the other of knaves - and he is the institution that keeps them both in check.

Right - The charming, and ancient, stage door of the Theatre Royal, Brighton.

On the whole, then, it must be conceded that the doorkeeper and the architect are integral parts of the managerial plan to hide as far as possible front the eyes of the public the inner mysteries and secrets of a well-ordered theatrical establishment.

But unfortunately it is not always possible to carry out this system to perfection. When architects cannot find convenient courts, alleys, or back slums they are forced to place their stage doors in open public thoroughfares, and when this happens the romance of the stage door is brought plainly before the public gaze, and it is open to thoughtless and idle interpretation. There are Theatres which shall be nameless, where stage-door scenes present themselves openly and unblushingly, and give rise to unfortunate comment. Carelessness for the most part, and very often egregious vanity, causes serious misrepresentation. When round a stage-door hang the well-dressed men who ought when leaving the Theatre to be driving off to their clubs or to bed; when men of taste and gentlemen condescend to the indignity of being hustled from the door by our old friend Cerberus; when, whether the night he fine or wet, officers in the army, men of family, cadets, and gentlemen of birth and breeding so lose sight of proper pride that they consent to stand in a crowd of carpenters, scene shifters, cabmen, and loafers in general, then of course, the public, ever ready to pick holes in everything connected with theatrical administration, assumes the worst, and draws the most terrible conclusions.

Inside the stage door of the Leicester Square Theatre in July 2009 - Last used in 1933 when the Theatre was still in use as a live Theatre.This scene once having caught the active eye of Mrs Grundy, away she rides on the high horse. "Theatres are immoral; they are sinks of iniquity; every-girl on the stage, no matter in what capacity employed, leads an unfortunate life; temptation is abroad in its most insinuating form; the Theatre is a place of assignation; the whole atmosphere is corrupt and vicious;" and so on ad nauseam.

Now, no one will pretend to say that Mrs Grundy has no grounds for drawing her conclusions, but this good lady would be surprised to find how often her suspicions are groundless. Of course, there is no smoke without fire, but the tiniest spark of flame often sends volumes of black cloud up the chimney.

Left - Inside the stage door of the Leicester Square Theatre in July 2009 - Last used in 1933 when the Theatre was still in use as a live Theatre.

Vanity is far more answerable for these silly scenes than vice. The women and the men are both to blame; but, perhaps unconsciously, the women are the worst offenders, for it is in their power to stamp it out immediately. There are some young ladies in a very subordinate position on the stage who, without being vicious, look upon their personal attractions as the passport to certain perquisites. They do not dream of any harm. They would be indignant if they were "insulted," as they call it; but their vanity is so great that they cannot resist the charm of being liked or talked about. They receive letters from men they don't know, and presents from men they don't care about, not dreaming that they are doing any harm, but knowing that they get talked about, and can thus crow over their envious sisters who are hungry for admiration. They look upon these gifts, not as bribes or temptations, but as perquisites for the possession of a pretty face. They, doubtless, reflect that there always will be fools in the world, and they are worldly enough to benefit by all this folly. It is part of silly girls' idiosyncrasy to be petted, flattered, and liked. The persistent attention of a revoltingly ugly man is flattering to their vanity; it is, at any rate, better than nothing. And so the bouquets, the notes, the jewels, the bonbons come round and are received, not in the spirit intended by the donor, but merely as so much homage to personal beauty.

It is the unwritten law of the trade that such presents should be received with no arrier pensee just as boxkeepers claim sixpence for doing their obvious duty and urchins demand twopence for opening a cab door. The sight of a well-dressed gentleman to a certain class of loafers means money. They must be taxed for their respectability. The mere fact of appearing on the stage means presents - and no harm. If any harm were meant the silly child who has put herself in a vicious man's power would be insulted. She has received his notes, his flowers, his bouquets. She has done in the Theatre what she would never dream of doing at home. She meant no harm; but if he dirt she is insulted. How dare he injure an innocent girl? The vain girl who assumes this position is like the frivolous creature who smiles at men in the streets, looks behind, and encourages, but when once addressed by a stranger bursts into a flood of indignant tears. She has been, insulted!

Charlie Gracie signing autographs at the Stage Door of the London Hippodrome in 1957

Above - Charlie Gracie signing autographs at the Stage Door of the London Hippodrome in 1957

The subtlety with which a woman who continually compromises herself in this fashion will still argue that she is blameless and incorruptible is a remarkable illustration of the ingenuity of woman. She is never at a loss for an excuse, and philosophers who have studied this question really and truly must believe that, in nine cases out of ten, the girl who enjoys the attention, the flattery, and presents has not an idea that she is seriously-compromising herself, and is laying herself open to what she is pleased to insult!

As for the men - they are men; and they presume upon the very weakness and vanity of those they idly suppose are corruptible. When they find it is the fashion for girls to receive notes from those to whom they have not been introduced - when they discover that the freemasonry of the stage- door permits them to take liberties of which otherwise they would not dream, they continue their course unchecked. They are not always encouraged; but the worst of it is they are never discouraged. Instead of assuming that women on the stage are virtuous, honest, and respectable, they presume that they are all vain, silly creatures. Few ladies on the stage are altogether free from the insolent vanity of idle coxcombs. Some of them are so successful with the ballet that they think they may go higher. Respectable actresses of the first rank - virtuous wives, mothers of families - could tell strange stories which would astonish the world at large. Insults such as these may and must call up a blush to the cheek of the good woman who loves her art too much to leave it, but the insults are crushed in the hand and condemned to the flames without a word, but not without a sigh. The elders must suffer for the vanity, of the younger ones, and as yet no public example has been made of an offender.

But the public nuisance of having crowds of beardless boys dressed up to the tooth blocking up the pavement, hanging and loafing about stage doors, waiting for a look from Lily or a sigh from Sophanisha has nothing whatever to do with the romance of the Stage at all. The Manager has done all he can do when he has kept his Theatre free from these young idiots. The stage door-keeper has done his duty when he has swept them out of his doorway like rubbish with a broom. The rest is with the police. Crowds are not permitted to congregate in public thoroughfares, and if Policeman X cannot after fair words induce these saunterers to move on they ought to be hustled into the gutter along with the rest of the riff-raff!

Above text from the ERA December 1877.

Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.