Arthur William À Beckett.

The à Becketts of Punch; memories of father and sons online

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more fortunate."

My brother of Gray's Inn hesitated and was
lost.

" Can you dance ? " I asked Number Two.

" A little."

" A little I am afraid won't do. I can dance a
little, but in the pavanne you ought to be able to
walk on your toes. I have tried, but I can't
manage it. It hurts. But D'Auban will see what

233



THE a BECKETTS OF "PUNCH"

you can do. He's in there attending to about
forty first-rate fellows. He will stop them in a
moment to try your toes," and I opened a second
door.

But my second brother member of Gray's Inn
hesitated and was lost. Ultimately I appeased
them by constituting them a sort of guard of
honour of beefeaters under the charge of an en-
thusiastic artist volunteer (Mr. Martin, the bar-
rister), who was not only an excellent advocate,
but also knew the pike drill. For weeks after-
wards I used to come across my fellow members
of Gray's Inn doing all sorts of wonderful gym-
nastics with their sticks and umbrellas, to the
cry of ** one, two," " one, two, three." " Try
again." " One two," " one, two, three." " Try
again." Later on, during the performance, they
were of immense service in keeping the orchestra
within bounds, and a gentleman with a double
bass invading a gold chair reserved for one of our
Royal Guests. To make a long story short, the
Maske was a great success, thanks to the whole
strength of the company (inclusive of Messrs. Philip
Agnew and Lawrence Bradbury) working with a
will that was simply delightful. I really believe
the Maske made the Inn. It cost a good deal of
money, but since that moment to this our numbers
have been steadily increasing, and from being an
Inn with an average of two or three barristers
to be called a term we have before now headed the
list of the four Inns in our numbers of those
waiting to be called. The Press was unanimous

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TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AT THE TABLE

in our praises. Mr. Punch, perhaps, was inclined
to be a little chaffing about the harpsichords — he
called them cracked pianos — and other details,
but then Mr. Punch (as he should be) is always
hypercritical about the productions of his own
staff. However, in spite of Mr. Punch's genial
banter, as I have said, the Maske did a great deal
of good to the Inn, and I have always been proud
of my title of the Master of Revels. Years ago
it used to be held by worthy gentlemen who some-
times had to assume the authorship for others.
Bacon himself is said to have had a pen in the
composition of the \' Maske of Flowers." He may
have desired to preserve his incognito, as some of it
was not quite palatable to the Court. My editing,
however, put things to rights from that point of
view. I may add that Her Majesty the late
Queen Victoria was graciously pleased to accept
a copy of my Maske, which now forms a part of the
Royal Library at Windsor. It was shown to
me the last time I was in that part of the Castle.
Amongst the many bonds of union that bound
Punch men together perhaps there were no stronger
than the ties of the Dramatic Authors Society.
As Gilbert a Beckett was one of its founders it may
not be amiss to devote a few pages to its history.
It will have been seen from the date of the produc-
tion of my father's farce ''The King Incog," that
he was one of its earliest members. The Society
did not then boast a secretary, but only an agent.
Later on, as I have shown, Sterling Coyne took
up the position. In 187 1 I was enrolled a member

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THE a BECKETTS OF "PUNCH"

and remained one until the hour of its dissolution.
Of the members of the staff of Punch, Mark
Lemon, Douglas Jerrold, Henry Mayhew, Albert
Smith, Shirley Brooks, Tom Taylor, F. C. Bur-
nand and my brother Gilbert were members.
The original idea was to guard against piracy,
and no doubt Charles Dickens had something
to do with the proposal. I have referred in
another page to the dislike that Dickens had
for a premature disclosure of his plots, and
the pains he took to circumvent the schemes of
the buccaneer dramatist. The circuit system of
Mr. Crummies was the order of the day when the
Dramatic Authors Society was organized. Every
theatre in the country belonged to it and was
assisted according to its means of payment.
It was the duty of each subscriber to pay so much
a night and then send up the bill of the evening's
performance to the Secretary of the Dramatic
Authors Society, who entered in the amount to
the credit of the Member. Thus, say Smith had
written a one-act farce. Snooks a two-act comedy,
and Larkins a one-act burlesque, the amount
would be divided into fourths, of which Snooks
would take one half to the quarters apportioned
to Smith and Larkins. Say the assessment for
the night was four pounds, then Smith and Larkins
would get a pound apiece and Snooks two pounds.
This system worked very well while the re-
muneration of the dramatist remained at one
hundred pounds an Act, which was the regulation
sum in the mid- Victorian era. But all this was

236



TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AT THE TABLE

changed when Dion Boucicault introduced the
system of percentages. The moment that a
dramatist's remuneration depended upon the
takings of the house his fortune was made. It
was very much the royalty system appUed to plays
instead of to books. There was an immediate
revolution. Tom Robertson, W. S. Gilbert and
the present editor of Punch naturally wished to
get something better than a few shilhngs a night
for their newest plays in the provinces, and a
resolution was passed giving them the necessary
powers of reservation. The provincial managers
complained that all the newest London pieces
were out of the provincial market and asked what
was the use of being assessed for old and unattrac-
tive plays. So by degrees the Society disappeared,
having for an agent, I believe, Mr. Douglas Cox,
who had once been the assistant of Mr. Palgrave
Simpson. I have a very vague recollection of
how it all ended, but I am under the impression
that we knew that somehow we had been using
a Provident Fund, or something of that kind, to
defray the expenses of an annual dinner at the
Star and Garter at Richmond. All this happened
many years ago, so that the blessing of the Statute
of Limitations may be considered to have buried
the past in the past. The effect, however, of the
collapse of the assessment system for years
threw the provincial theatres out of gear. There
was no one to look after them, so the pirates
became reckless and played what they listed. I
remember seeing ''Our Boys" on one occasion

237



THE a BECKETTS OF "PUNCH"

labelled "Children/' and on another "The Two
Roses " appearing as "A Couple of Flowers." And
the reference to "Our Boys" recalls to mind the
adventures of a piece of my own that I wrote over
thirty years ago and which still cumbers my book
shelves. As its history is instructive to aspiring dra-
matists I give briefly an account of its adventures.

I had written a play in 1870, or thereabouts, for
Miss Litton at the Royal Court Theatre, called
"About Town/' which had a very good success — ran
for 150 nights or so, which in those days was a very
long career. Miss Litton was so pleased with it
that she commissioned me to write another piece.
I was to work for the same company. I had a
leading man in Mr. George Rignold (who, I believe,
is now known at the Antipodes as " the Henry
Irving of Australia "), Miss Kate Bishop (still a
delightful actress), Mr. Edgar Bruce, Mr. Edward
Righton, Mr. H. J. Hill, Mrs. Stephens and herself.
I am sorry to say that out of the seven characters
only two survive. I set to work and made Mr.
Edgar Bruce a young swain, the protege of a
middle-aged doctor, Mr. George Rignold, in love
with the charming daughter of a self-made million-
aire of an offensive type. The daughter was to
have been Miss Kate Bishop, and the millionaire
Mr. Righton. Then there was a charming ingenue
intended for Miss Litton, and a cynical swell
sketched for Mr. H. J. Hill, if he would consent to
accept the character. I forget what it was all
about, but I know that there was one situation

238



TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AT THE TABLE

with which I was very pleased. Harold (the
young protege of the middle-aged doctor) was in
love with " Violet " (I think I was going to call Miss
Kate Bishop '' Violet)" ; so was the doctor. But
Harold, being a noble sort of fellow, suppressed his
affection not to interfere with the happiness of his
guardian and benefactor. Violet, who had been
wearied to death because she loved Harold better
than the doctor, was reposing, in fact, fast asleep.
The two men regard her, when she begins mur-
muring. " Hush ! " cries the doctor in a stage
whisper,*' she is talking in her sleep." " Come
away," suggests Harold. " No ! " cries the doc-
tor, suddenly becoming suspicious, '' I will know
the truth ! " *' Harold," says Violet, in a voice
which though low and sweet should have reached
the back of the gallery. " Harold ! I love you ! "
" Ah ! " exclaims the doctor, ** you have deceived
me ! " He buries his head in his hands and cur-
tain. I forget much about the rest, but it ended
happily, of course, somehow.

Well, I wrote as hurriedly as possible, sitting
up all night to complete the acts, and carried it
to the Court. But alas ! Miss Litton had deter-
mined to give up management and the company
were to be scattered. I did not much care. I
saw Mr. George Rignold as the doctor, and Miss
Kate Bishop would have been charming as
Violet. But it really did not much matter. I
knew everybody more or less behind the scenes
and would soon get rid of it. By the way I had
christened it ** The Old Love" — struck me as pretty

239



THE a BECKETTS OF "PUNCH"

and not used — " The Old Love." Violet had been in
love with Harold before she met the doctor. Hence
''The Old Love" — very pretty and appropriate.
I looked through the papers and it struck me that
it was just the piece for James and Thorn e.
Lucky omen, they were at the Vaudeville, built
on the site of the newspaper ofhce of my old
journal the Glowworm. I obtained an appoint-
ment with James and Thorne and read them my
piece. They were both delighted with it. James
would like to play the self-made man, but he must
be written up a bit — but I could easily do that.
I acquiesced. Thorne thought he would make
something out of the doctor — but he would have
to be written up, but I could easily do that ? I
acquiesced. The other people did not much
matter, but if there had to be any writing I could
easily manage that ? I acquiesced. They con-
sulted. Then they turned to me. They thought
my piece very good indeed — emphatically, they
liked it. But there was this difficulty — H. J.
Byron had promised them a piece which ought to
have been in the theatre long ago. Now if Byron
didn't send in his play by Monday they would put
up my piece on rehearsal at once. What was it
called? "The Old Love." Ah, first rate title,
but wasn't there an " Old Love " at the Surrey some
twenty years ago ? I didn't think so, but if
there were I had a second title, " Autumn Leaves."
H'm, they didn't like "Autumn Leaves " so much as
"The Old Love" — no more did L But they would
settle all that when we knew what Byron was

240



TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AT THE TABLE

about. We parted. Byron's piece was finished,
and turned out to be " Our Boys," and ran, I think,
for fourteen hundred nights !

But it did not matter much. I would soon get
rid of my piece. It was encouraging that both
James and Thorne were pleased with it. Now it
so happened that in the composition of this volume
I have had to consult a number of my diaries,
and so I have been able to follow ''The Old Love"
from time to time. For the last thirty years I
have been a fairly busy man, as besides my Punch
work, which unavoidably was really hard — owing
to jorce majeure I was frequently locum tenens —
I have often had other editorial duties — now a
weekly paper, now a monthly magazine, and so on.
But leaving this continuous work out of the ques-
tion, I made up my mind I would not think of
commencing another three act piece until I had got
rid of " The Old Love." I was quite prepared to alter
it, but not to write anything new. Stay, I for-
got. I wrote a play called " Long Ago " in one act,
and then somebody wanted me to write three
acts in front of it. I did the work, as Mr. Sydney
Grundy did his when he extended his "Affair of
Honour" into three or four acts. But I was firm
about "The Old Love." Looking through my
diaries, in the course of years I found "The Old
Love " changed its title to " Autumn Leaves." Mr.
William Terris liked it but wanted it in two acts.
Apparently it was changed into two and rechristened
" The Old Love." Then somebody produced a play
called " The Old Love and the New." It had by this

241 Q



THE a BECKETTS OF ''PUNCH'*

time got into the hands of MdUe. Beatrice, who
had absolutely put it in rehearsal and announced
it for production somewhere in the provinces as
" Far Above Rubies." I recollect that I wrote up
Violet and gave her an education in a French
convent to account for Mdlle. Beatrice's accent.
Then I got it back again— I don't know why — and
took it to Mr. Herman Vezin, who wanted to play
in it. Then my old friend Arthur Cecil, otherwise
Arthur Blunt, listened to me while I read it
and said he saw himself as the doctor. Then
by this time the popularity of "Our Boys" being on
the wane, it went back to James and Thorne.
But Thorne saw himself more in the millionaire
and James wanted the doctor. But of course
both had to be written up a bit. Then Sir Augustus
Harris had a look at it to see whether he could
place it at Newcastle, where he had a theatre.
But apparently he could not, because I found it
turning up in my diaries, now called " The Better
Man." But one thing I remember about it is that
every time I read it I made my middle-aged doctor
older. Originally he was in the prime of life, just
five and thirty. Next he was still in the prime of
life, but was now between forty and fifty. Once
more, still in the prime of life, had just turned
sixty. But other work kept me from haunting
the theatres, and I gradually forgot all about
" The Better Man," or " Autumn Leaves," or what-
ever the blessed thing was called.

Not very long ago a son of mine, who wanted
a play for amateur theatricals, began reading some

242



TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AT THE TABLE

brown-papered play books. " Hallo," he cried,
" this isn't so very bad, but it seems a bit old-
fashioned. " He read a dozen lines or so. I lis-
tened lazily and fancied I had heard something
like it, somewhere. After a while I gave my
candid opinion anent its value. " Wliat rot ! "
I exclaimed, " Who is it by and what is it called ? "

" I don't know who it's by — there is no name
to the authorship. But it is called "The Old
Love ! " Oh dear, and I used to think that play of
mine excellent — thirty years ago !

There is a fashion in plays as there is a fashion
in everything else. What is popular one season
fails to please the next. ''The Old Love" was
and is distinctly out of date. And this considera-
tion conjures up a memory.

A round table at Evans'. A glee being sung in
the far distance. The habitues never think of
entering the hall, which was built by the pro-
prietors when the cafe became highly successful.
A steak or a chop, with magnificent potatoes in
their jackets. Paddy Green going from group
to group, offering his snuff-box, and asking after
all " who sit round the hearth at home." There
have been special tables for certain comic papers.
To one of them came Thackeray, to another the
earliest staff of that once popular periodical. Fun.
But the little table I have in my mind has three
occupants — Lord Henry Lennox, Sergeant Bal-
lantyne, and Lionel Lawson. The last specially
attracts me, as the uncle of the Right Hon. Baron
Bernham (past president of the Institute of Journal-

243



THE a BECKETTS OF "PUNCH"

ists, the most popular recipient of this j^ear's
Birthday peerages), and the originator of the old —
as it now will be called — Gaiety Theatre. The
three held their own — Ballantyne intensely witty,
Henry Lennox, in spite of his die-away manner,
shrewd, and a good listener, and Lionel Lawson,
the best of friends to his friends, and the bravest
of enemies to his enemies. Not that he had many
of the latter, as he was good-natured, debonnaire,
the best type of the now old-fashioned man about
town. I see that Mr. John — '* Practical John "
— Hollingshead has written a book about the
Gaiety Theatre. I have not yet had the advantage
of reading it, but no doubt the author has done
justice to the level-headedness of Lionel Lawson
at a time when the fortunes of the theatre were
still undecided. In the days when the directors
were inclined to patronize Tom Robertson and
H. J. B^-ron as sensational dramatists, and had
neglected to light '* the sacred lamp of burlesque "
— that " sacred lamp " that Alfred Thompson did
so much to popularize by his shades of blue and
green silks — then a revelation.

As the Gaiety vanishes, to appear phoenix-like
within a hundred yards of its old site, it may not
be out of place to consider the secret of a play-
house's success. It certainly appears to have been
discovered by Messrs. John Hollingshead and
George Edwardes. In their case their golden rule
has been to keep the same class of entertainment
for more than thirty years. Fortunately the
character of the neighbourhood did not change.

244



TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AT THE TABLE

" See to your pit and gallery, and the stalls,
private boxes and circles will look after themselves.
Drury Lane fed the galleries of the Gaiety, Drury
Lane and the Lyceum. The Adelphi and the
Vaudeville used to rely for a part of their audience
upon the lodging-houses in the streets running at
right angles with the Strand. If you look into
the history of any London play-house you will
find that to change the species of entertainment
was to change the luck. Mr. J. L. Toole used to
say, " Keep your eye upon your father and he
will pull you through." By altering the word
" father " to " programme," with the caution
added : " and do not let it be changed," and the
same sentence would become applicable to a play-
house : " Keep your eye upon the programme, and
do not let it be altered, and it will pull you
through."

Take, for instance, the Princess's, now closed,
and, so far as I know, not likely to re-open for some
time. It made its reputation as a Shakespearian
and melodramatic house in the days of Charles
Kean and Dion Boucicault half a century ago.
In 1859 ^^^- Augustus Harris — father of the
Knight of that ilk — became lessee. The new
manager, fresh from the control of the opera at
Covent Garden, tried to make his new theatre a
kind of Opera Comique of the Parisian type.
He got Planche to write a delightful play, called
" Love's Telegraph," with charming music. But it
would not do. Then he brought over some French
Zouaves who had started the Theatre d'lnkerman

245



THE a BECKETTS OE " PUNCH "

in the Crimea. They played a piece of a musical
character during the war which was supposed
to be raging, in Oxford Street. Then when the
last scene was reached they were called to their
rifles by a night attack of the Russians. There
was a good deal of firing, and the curtain fell upon
a final tableau of the chief of the company waving
the Tricolor to the strains of " Partant pour la
Syrie," the Erench National Anthem of the period.
But it was not successful, so Augustus Harris the
Eirst reverted to romantic drama and Shake-
speare. He engaged Mr. Eechter, and produced
** Ruy Bias," and later on "Hamlet," and all went
well. I venture to say that if Sir Henry Irving were
to open the old Princess's with any of his reper-
toire the fortunes of the house would revive
immediately. Sir Henry suggested at the Boz
Club in the present summer that he would like to
play ''Pecksniff." \\niy not try it at the Princess's ?
The house has one Dickens tradition. In it was
produced a version of "Barnaby Rudge," with a cast
inclusive of Mrs. John Wood. But the good knight
would do even better were he to play "Hamlet"
or "Macbeth." Eechter was excellent in the
first, and Charles Kean introduced modern atten-
tion to detail in the second. The Royal Princess's
Theatre is still to be rejuvenated by Sir Henry
Irving.

Strange to say, all the legitimate theatres — as
they used to be called — had a trump card at
Christmas in the pantomime. Only one has
followed the tradition — Drury Lane. At the

246



TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AT THE TABLE

Princess's the pantomime was a gorgeous affair.
As a very small boy I remember seeing danced by
a number of good-looking ballet girls (Covent
Garden and the Princess's were famous for their
ballet troupes), a rifle dance in celebration of the
Volunteer movement. I came across a faded
photo of three of these agile females only the other
day. After a forty years' absence from the boards
of the old Princess's, I wonder what they are
doing. Augustus (the First) Harris gave up the
Princess's, and took his pantomime to Covent
Garden. A story is told of a young dramatist
taking a scenario to Harris for his opinion anent
its merits. " Not bad," he said. " Well, if I
were you, I would turn it into a blank verse
play, and try it at the Lyceum." " I have,"
replied the author, " but they won't take it."
" No ? " returned Harris. " Then why not make
it into a five-act comedy, and carry it to the Hay-
market ? " "I have, but they say they don't
want it." " Well then," continued Harris cheerily,
"just you follow the lead of H. J. Byron, knock
it into a burlesque and show it at the Strand."
" I have," replied the author mournfully, " but
they say they can do nothing for me." " Well,
my dear fellow," said Augustus the First, clap-
ping his visitor on the shoulder, " you cut the
burlesque down a bit and I will see if I can't bring
out your piece as a pantomime." lam afraid the
scheme did not come off, as H. J. Byron was the
stock author at the Princess's, and the story is
not told of him.

247



THE a BECKETTS OF " PUNCH "

The reference to Sir Henry Irving reminds me
that at a dinner of the members of the Boz Club,
Mr. Oscar Browning referred to the chairman of
the evening (Sir Henry himself) as once having
been connected with some theatre near the
Tottenham Court Road. He had been introduced
to Sir Henry Irving there.

My thoughts flew to the Dust Hole, as the old
Queen's Theatre used to be called a quarter of a
century before the Bancrofts acquired a lease
and turned, so to speak, a coal cellar into a boudoir.
But I soon found I was on the wrong tack. " I
was introduced," said the speaker, *' to Sir Henry
by my old friend John Clayton. He and our
chairman were playing in a Dickens drama."
" Yes," promptly replied our chairman, " it was
* Oliver Twist.' " Then it occurred to me' that the
genial Cambridge don was referring to that very
respectable and commodious temple of the drama
the Queen's Theatre, Long Acre, which at an
earlier period had been known as St. Martin's
Hall. The proprietor in the days of Sir Henry
Irving's engagement was Mr. Henry Labouchere.

I was put on the right road by the reference to
" John Clayton." He was one of the first of that
class, which certainly cannot be accurately de-
scribed as " rogues and vagabonds," to give up
a career in another direction to *' go upon the
stage." How things have changed since that
date ! The Queen's of Long Acre flourished in
the sixties. " Jack Clayton " (his real name
was Calthorpe, and he was tlic brother of an

248



TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AT THE TABLE

eminent artist, and the son of a physician) told
me that his Hfe was made miserable by the half-
concealed animosity of his green-room com-
panions. He did not belong to " the profession,"
and was regarded as "an amateur." He was
" taking the bread out of the mouths " of a deserv-
ing class of the community. And this being so
they jeered at his friends, and even objected to his
costume. '' I give you my word," he said to me,
" I am perfectly afraid to put on my evening
clothes after the performance is over, when I have
to go on anywhere, because they all sneer. It
isn't the clean shirt they object to, but my giving
myself the airs of a swell." His companions were
not snobs, but they loved the liberty of Bohemia.
Nowadays, the men who have taken to the theatre
without being brought up at the wings can be
counted by the score. Other times other manners.


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Online LibraryArthur William À BeckettThe à Becketts of Punch; memories of father and sons → online text (page 15 of 21)