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‘The Beggar’s Theatre’ (1931)


Post by Jenny Hughes

Somebody recently showed me an interesting account of a poor theatre from a book about theatre audiences published in 1931. The book, called Gallery unreserved written by ‘A Galleryite’, offers a series of revelatory anecdotes about the views, feelings and experiences of those who queued for the ‘cheap seats’ in London theatres in the 1920s. Baz Kershaw reports that the ‘Galleryite’ in question here is Fred Bason, and that he is particularly writing about the working and itinerant classes in theatre audiences (in Cambridge History of British Theatre, p153). Fred Bason was an East End bookseller and avid theatre goer who wrote anonymously here because, in his own words, ‘but for that I would not have been able to make many of the revelations strewn through these pages’.

I am in the middle of trying to map out responses on London theatre stages to the controversial Poor Law in the 1830s, from burlesques satirising the Poor Law to adaptations of Dickens’ Oliver and other stories. It’s fairly straightforward to track down what was happening on the licensed stages of London at the time but the city was covered in unlicensed performance spaces which left few records. ‘Penny gaff’ theatres, for example, so-called because you could get in for a penny, offered nights of short sensational dramas, clown acts, musical performances and other kinds of exhibitions. Jacky Bratton and Ann Featherstone refer to penny gaffs in their book on The Victorian Clown, and Ann Featherstone brings one to life in her heart-breaking novel The Newgate Jig. I would love to trace how the controversial Poor Law reverberated across the ‘slum’ areas of London – there must have been responses to the Poor Law at penny gaffs – but at the moment I’m not sure if that’s going to be possible and anyway, that is for a later post.

I want to give a brief overview here of Bason’s account of attending a ‘beggar’s theatre’ in 1931 that seems to evidence the existence of poor, informal and accessible performance in London, akin to the penny gaff, right into the 20th century. In lots of ways this is little other than an Orientalist account from a well-to-do working man visiting the East End netherworld, but it also sparkles with enjoyment for the theatrical encounter and for companionship with those living very differently in the city. Bason starts his account by proudly stating ‘I can claim acquaintanceship with people in all walks of life’ , including actors, the aristocracy and criminals, and ‘I also know three beggars – real beggars’. He describes how these acquaintances include a ‘pavement artist’ and a ‘street musician’ who make lucrative livings from the streets of London, one of whom ‘invited me last October to go with him one night to see something new …. I accepted his invitation; put on, at his request, my shabbiest clothes and went!’ Bason and his companion travelled to a street of ‘dilapidated little hovels – entering the house at the end and finding themselves in a room (two rooms knocked into one) where around 30 people, most of whom appeared ‘grubby, poorly clothed and hard up’, sitting on an assortment of sofas and boxes. Shortly after their entrance, the host for the evening announced the first act as follows ‘Silence, please! Harris will play, er – what you a gonna play, mate? Oh yes, he’ll play on ‘is fiddle Absent and Parted, and Silence, mind you’. Bason spends much of the rest of the account describing his own performances on the piano and fiddle to an appreciative crowd, and we can assume that he performed better than the ‘awfully bad’ and ‘ordinary’ performances that preceded him. His own performances were followed by those of ‘a coloured man’ reciting long passages from Shakespeare – ‘a wonderful brain he must have had, not a word wrong and no hesitation’ – Bason discovered later that this man studied for the stage and the law but ‘without any success owing to his colour’. Other performances included renditions of ‘a dirty ditty’ and ‘Home Sweet Home” (see post below), a sermon from a vicar, a hymn (‘There is a Green Hill’) followed by a pre-arranged fight – ‘the grandest – fairest – most exciting fights I have ever seen, and possibly ever will see’! Bason signs off as follows –

‘Real types of Englishmen down on their luck through no real fault of their own (in many cases) were these folks in ‘The Beggar’s Theatre’ … The Beggar’s Theatre, admission free! The audience provide their own artists, and you get good value and variety. The majority of its patrons are galleryites – the real working class galleryite. I am glad I was allowed the privilege of attending. It was an entirely novel experience … I enjoyed the evening much more than I do among West End galleryites on occasions of disappointing shows, when we have wasted both time and money’.

Gallery unreserved by A Galleryite (1931, John Heritage publisher, High Holborn, London).

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