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Love on the workhouse stage


Post by Jenny Hughes

The Pall Mall Gazette on 6 June 1900 included a slightly ‘arched’ report on the extraordinary care for the ‘aged poor’ in a workhouse in Copenhagen, who are provided with ‘a theatre of their own to which they may go in the evening’. To ensure readers appreciate the strangeness of the story, we are told that the aged poor in the workhouse are hardly the ‘respectable and hard-working’ poor, rather, they are ‘of the pauper class’ – ‘characters of the shady order, and whose lives have been spent on the broad path rather than the narrow’.

The workhouse loft had been converted into a theatre by staff and inmates (and so didn’t cost the ratepayers a farthing), and professional and amateur acting troupes invited to play at the workhouse for free – ‘the appeal met with a generous response; the best theatres in Copenhagen send companies to play from time to time; while amateurs always give there, sooner or later, every piece in their repertoire’. The Pall Mall Gazette reporter gives an account of a performance in the theatre, with paupers attending in their best outfits (paupers in Denmark not having to wear uniforms) and enjoying casting ‘critical glances at each others’ toilets’ as well as the performance itself. The play, performed by an amateur company, told a story of love between a penniless and handsome hero and a young woman with a disapproving father – with the father trying to undermine the lovers by matching his daughter with a more lucrative proposition. Apparently, the love-making on stage appealed to the aged audience more than any other aspect of the play – ‘they simply reveled in the stolen kisses. Old though they were, they were all on the side of true love; on that point there could be no mistake. For such virtues as prudence they cared not one whit; nor yet, oddly, for settled incomes.’

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