SITTING AT A PLAY.

[explanations in brackets]

Among the multifarious duties which fall to the lot of the Thumbnail Sketcher (who may be
said to have sold himself for life to a printer's devil [apprentice in a printing office]) that of visiting
theatres on first nights for the purpose of supplying disinterested notices of new pieces for a
certain critical journal, is, perhaps, the least remunerative. He does not confine the practice of
speaking his mind, such as it is, to the readers of these Thumbnail Sketches: he is always in the
habit of indulging in that luxury whenever he is called upon to express a printed opinion on matters
of public interest. But the consequences of recording an unbiassed opinion on any theatrical
question are of a peculiarly unpleasant description, if that unbiassed opinion happens to be of
an unfavourable nature, for they subject the audacious critic to the undisguised sneers of
ponderdous tragedians, dismal comic men, and self-satisfied managers—in addition to the
necessity of paying for his stall whenever he has occasion to visit a theatre for critical purposes.
The sneers amuse him, but he is free to confess that he is annoyed at having to pay for his
admission; and the consequence is that whenever he takes his place in a theatre he does go
under a sense of injury which might possibly have the effect of unintentionally warping his critical
faculties, such as they are, were it not that to speak the bare truth of a theatrical performance, is
to avenge one's six shillings to the uttermost farthing. But although the Thumbnail Sketcher feels
that he meets a manager on even terms, he can with difficulty compose himself to regard an
audience with feelings of anything like equanimity. Their behaviour during the progress of the
representation of a new piece, on its first night, irritates him beyond endurance. In the first place,
there is almost always a party who hiss, without any reference to the merits or demerits of the
piece. It is a somewhat curious fact that in England hisses are seldom heard save on "first
nights;" and of the fifty or sixty new pieces that have been recently produced at West-end
London theatres, hardly a dozen have altogether escaped hissing on the occasion of their first
performance. "Caste" was not hissed, neither was the "Doge of Venice," nor the Haymarket
"Romeo and Juliet," nor "A Wife Well Won;" but these pieces form the principal exceptions to
the rule. But it is not so much of indiscriminate hissing, as of indiscriminate applause, that the
Thumbnail Sketcher complains. A clap-trap sentiment, a burlesque "break-down," a music-hall
parody, a comic man coming down a chimney, an indelicate joke, a black eye, a red nose, a
pair of trousers with a patch behind, a live baby, a real cab, a smash of crockery, a pun in a
"comedy," an allusion, however clumsy, to any topic of the day, a piece of costermonger's
slang, or any strongly-marked tailoring eccentricity, is quite sure of a raturous reception
whenever it is presented to an audience. Then I take objection to people who crack nuts—to
people who go out between all the acts, without reference to the inconvenience they occasion
to their neighbours. I take objection to people who know the plot, and tell it, aloud, to their
friends—to people who don't know the plot but guess at the denouement —to people
who borrow playbills and opera-glasses—to donkeys who talk of actresses by their Christian
names—and, above all, to those unmitigated nuisances who explain all the jokes to friends of
slow understanding. The Thumbnail Sketcher, being about to treat of people he meets in
theatres, thinks it is only fair to admit this prepossession against them, in order that it may be
distinctly understood that as he cannot pledge himself to look at them in an unprejudiced light,
everything that he may have to say of them may be taken cum grano [with a grain (of salt)].

There was a time when to go to a theatre was, in the Thumbnail Sketcher's mind, the very
highest enjoyment to which a mortal could legitimately aspire in this world. There was nothing
in any way comparable to it, and all other forms of amusement resolved themselves into mere
vexatious vanities when placed in juxtaposition with the exquisite embodiment of human
happiness. At that period he was accustomed to regard the signs of weariness exhibited
during the last farce, by relations who had him in charge, as a piece of affection of the most
transparent description, assumed for the purpose of demonstrating that their matured tastes
could have nothing in common with those of a little boy of six or seven years of age, and
further to overwhelm him with a sense of the martyrdom which they were undergoing on his
account. But a long course of enforced theatre-going has modified his views on this point; and
it is some years since he awoke to the fact that the last farce is often a trying thing to sit out—to
say nothing of the five-act legitimate comedy, or the three-act domestic drama that frequently
precedes it. He has learned that human happiness is finite, and that even farces pall after the
fifteenth time of seeing them.

The Mephistophelian gentleman on the next page is a disappointed dramatist, and an
appointed critic to a very small, but very thundering local journal published somewhere in the
wilds of South London. He has a very poor opinion of the modern drama, and is very severe
indeed upon every piece that is produced generally, for no better reason than that the author is
still alive. He has formed certain canons of dramatic faith, derived from a careful study of his
own rejected dramas, and he is in the habit of applying them to all new productions, and if they
stand the test (which they usually do not) they are qualified to take their place as a portion of
the dramatic literature of the country. He has a withering contempt for all adapters, and
particularly for Mr. Tom Taylor, who is, and has been for years, the butt of obscure and illiterate
critics. He is in the habit of alluding to himself in the third person as "the Press;" and when you
hear him say that "the Press don't like this," or "the Press won't stand that," and that you have
only to wait and see what "the Press" have to say about it to-morrow, you are to understand
that he is referring simply to his own opinion, which, no doubt, from a characteristic modesty
and a laudable desire to avoid anything like an appearance of egotism, he veils under that
convenient generality.

The lady who follows is intended as a representative of that extensive element in most
dress-circles [first galleries] which finds its way into theatres by the means of free admissions.
It is a curious feature in theatrical management—and a feature which doesn't seem to exist in
any other form of commercial enterprise—that if you can't get people to pay for admission, you
must admit them for nothing. Nobody ever heard of a butcher scattering steaks broadcast
among the multitude because his customers fall off, neither is there any instance on record of
a banker volunteering to oblige penniless strangers with an agreeable balance. Railway
companies do not send free passes for general distribution to eel-pie shops, nor does a baker
place his friends on his free-list. But it is a standing rule at most theatres that their managers
must get people to pay to come in, if possible, but at all events they must get people to come
in. A poorly-filled house acts not only as a discouragement to the actors, but it depresses the
audience, and sends them away with evil accounts of the unpopularity of the entertainment. The
people who find their way into a theatre under the "admit two to dress-circle" system, hail,
usually, from the suburbs, but not infrequently from the lodging-letting districts about Russell
Square. They usually walk to the theatres, and, consequently, represent an important source
of income to the stout shabby ladies who preside over the bonnet and cloak departments. They
may often be recognized by the persistency with which they devour acidulated drops [sour
candies]
during the performance.

This heavy gentleman with the tawny beard is one of that numerous class of profitable
playgoers who do not venture to exercise any critical faculties of their own, but go about
endorsing popular opinions because they are popular, without any reference to their abstract
title to popularity. A gentleman of this class will yawn through "King John," and come away
delighted: he will sleep through "Mazeppa," and come away enraptured. Nothing pleases
him more than a burlesque "break-down," except, perhaps, the "Hunchback," and if there is
one thing that he prefers to the "Iron Chest" it is a ballet. He is delighted in a sleepy general
way with everything that is applauded. Applause is his test of excellence, and if a piece
doesn't go well, it is "Awful bosh!" He is enraptured with the Parisian stage (although his
knowledge of the language is fractional), because in Paris all pieces go well; and the sight of
a compact mass of enthusiasts in the centre of a Parisian pit is sufficient to justify him in any
amount of solemn eulogy. His presence is much courted by managers, for if he never
applauds, he never hisses, and always pays.

The highly-respectable old gentleman on the right is an unwavering patron of the old school of
dramatic literature. A five-act piece, even by a modern author, will always attract him, and
every Shakespearian revival is sure of his countenance and support. He reads his Shakespeare
as he reads his Bible—with a solemn reverential belief in its infallibility. He won't hear of "new
readings," and even looks upon any departure from the traditional "business" as a dangerous
innovation, smacking of dramatic heresy and literary schism. The "Honeymoon" commands
him—so do the works of the elder and younger Morton; so does "She Stoops to Conquer."
Sheridan is always sure of him, and Lord Lytton may generally reckon on his support. His taste
in dramatic matters is irreproachable, as far as it goes, but it is based upon tradition, and he
pays little attention to pieces that are not old enough to have become traditional.

The young gentleman on the next page is one of those intolerable nuisances, who, having a
reputation for waggery within a select circle of admirers, find, in the production of every piece
in which pathetic interest is an important feature, an opportunity for displaying a knowledge
of the hollowness of the whole thing, and the general absurdity of allowing oneself to be led
away by mere stage clap-trap. He will remind you, as Juliet is weeping over her dead Romeo,
that a petition for a divorce, filed by the Romeo against the Juliet, and in which the comfortable
Friar is included as co-respondent, is high up in the Judge Ordinary's list. He will sometimes
affect to be bathed in tears, when there is no excuse for any demonstration of the kind, and he
will interrupt a scene of deep pathos with a "Ha! ha!" audible all over the house. He is very
angry at anything in the shape of a vigorous denunciation, or a pathetic appeal of any kind;
and he indulges in a musing exclamational commentary of "Oh! I say, you know!" "Come,
come." "So ho! gently there!" "St-st-st," and "really, I say—by Jove!" which meets with much
admiration from his believing friends, and general indignation from others in his immediate
neighbourhood who have not the advantage of his acquaintance.

London Characters