Cultural snobbery is nothing new as this extract from Thomas W. Erle’s 1862 Letters From a Theatrical Scene Painter amply makes clear.
Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber
(at the Royal Britannia Theatre, Hoxton)
An evening at the Britannia during the run of The String of Pearls; or, The Barber Fiend of Fleet Street, was to sup full of horror. In the vulgar tongue of Hoxton and elsewhere, a full supper is called a “tightener”. The expression is coarse, no doubt, yet suggestive. Abominably so. Going to see The Barber Fiend was a tightener of horrors, like a visit to the small room at Madame Tussaud’s.
The proceedings on the stage, of a midnight assassin who finds his victim asleep, are inscrutable. he looks at him-starts-recolis-then turns to the audience, and in a whisper fraught with tremendous significance pits them in possessionof a circumstance which they have already had abundant opportunity of observing for themselves, namely, that “he sleeps!” he then proceeds to execute a series of brisk, but elaborate, manoeuvres about the stage, comprising a body of tactics sufficient to carry a small army through an ordinary campaign. I have never enjoyed the advantage of witnessing the perpetration of a murder off the stage, but it would seem to be unlikely that when such transcations take place ion real life they are attended by the complicated evolutions above described. They correspond in point of eccentricity to the funny things which some people do on receiving a letter whose contents they are dying to know. They contemplate it externally in every possible oint of view, and the aspect which it presents when held topsy turvy would appear to be a source to them of the most animated interest. It is subjected to a protracted course of manipulation, and in the process is done everything in the world to but read.
The consummation of a tragical situation at the R B is usually intensified by the tune of “I loves a drop of good beer”, played pensively. Objections might of course be made by tiresome rigorists to the adoption of so genial and festive an air as an accompaniment to proceedings partaking in no degree of a convivial spirit. But those who resort to a theatre in a mean and nasty spirit of petty captiousness are in no proper frame of mind for appreciating the pathetic and touching effects which the management has had an eye to. For my own part, I can concientiously affirm, in the beautiful kind of language used by speakers at public dinners, that on all these occasions “my emotions are of such a character as to be unlike anything which they do not resemble”.
It is desirable that the practice adopted by the Hoxton mothers of taking their babies to the theatre should be discontinued. The small miserables are brought out at the end of the evening with their feathers all rumpled, and their poor eyes all glazed and fishy like those of old debauchees. Their general effect, too, conveys the impression of their having been sat upon, and otherwise exposed to gross personal contumely.
In the Bigelow papers, some slaveholder or other talks of wishing to purchase “a low priced baby” to bring up. Some of these embryo members of the R B public could only, if offered for sale, be got off at a wretchedly low figure, as damaged articles. Besides, too, their own personal sufferings, they are very undesirable neighbours to sit by. For, in the first place, they are apt to be-well-I will forbear to press the details with unpleasant explicitness, and will therefore only say, in general terms-damp.
Very different from the condition of the poor babies is that of the youths in the gallery, who are gifted with a flow of exuberant animal spirits which find a safety-valve in shrill whistlings. . . .
Since the temperature up in their sixpenny heaven is so high (there was a fat little boy up there who I thought would have been melted and had to be taken home in a gallipot), they find it “cool and convanient” to sit without their coats. They envince, too, a noble independence of bearing and sentiment towards the swells in the body of the house (who are in this case the counter-skippers of Kingsland and Dalston) by turning their backs to the chandelier, and sitting along the gallery rail like a row of sparrows on a telegraph wire. In all this position they confront their friends in the back settlements, and exchange with them a light fussillade of badinage, principally couched in idiomatic expressions of remarkable vigour and terseness, which is sustained with much animation during the time that the curtain is down between the pieces.