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London as Theatre

“Punch and Judy” arrived early in London and could be seen on the streets until recent times. Street entertainers have haunted the city since the thirteenth century, and perhaps before.


Show! Show! Show! Show! Show!

Show! Show! Show! Show! Show! This was the cry of a seventeenth-century city crowd, as recorded in Ned Ward’s London Spy. There were indeed many shows to be seen on the London streets, but the greatest fair of all was held at Smithfield. It was known as Bartholomew’s Fair.

Smithfield itself began as a simple trading area, for cloth in one place and cattle in another, but its history has always been one of turbulence and spectacle. Great jousts and tournaments were held there in the fourteenth century; it was the ritual place for duels and ordeal by battle; it was the home of the gallows and the stake. That festive nature was also evident in less forbidding ways. Football matches and wrestling contests were commonly staged and the appropriately named Cock Lane, just beyond the open ground, was the haunt of prostitutes. Miracle plays were also part of its entertainment.

The trading market for cloth had become outmoded by the middle of the sixteenth century but “the privileges of the fair” were still retained by the city corporation. So, instead of a three-day market, it was transformed into a fourteen-day festival which resounds through the plays and novels of succeeding centuries with the cry of “What do you lack? What is it you buy?” From the beginning of its fame there were puppet-shows and street performers, human freaks and games of dice and thimble, canvas tents for dancing or for drinking, eating-houses which specialised in roast pork.

This was the fair which Jonson celebrated in his play of the same name. He notes the sound of rattles, drums and fiddles. Here on the wooden stalls were laid out mousetraps and gingerbread, purses and pouches. There were booths and toyshops. Displayed “at the sign of the Shoe and Slap” was “THE WONDER OF NATURE, a girl about sixteen years of age, born in Cheshire, and not above eighteen inches long … Reads very well, whistles, and all very pleasant to hear.” Close by was exhibited “a Man with one Head and two distinct Bodies,” as well as a “Giant Man” and “Little Fairy Woman” performing among the other freak shows and theatrical booths. There were puppies, whistling birds and horses for sale; there were ballads cried out, with bottled ale and tobacco being constantly consumed. Cunning men cast nativities, and prostitutes plied their trade. Jonson himself noted small details, too, and watched as the cores of apples were gathered up for the bears. As one of his characters puts it, “Bless me! deliver me, help, hold me! the Fair!”

It continued, curiously enough, during the Puritan Commonwealth, no doubt with the primary motive of venting the steam of the more unruly citizens, but flourished after the Restoration of 1660 when liberty and licence came back into fashion. One versifier of the period notes masquerades dramatising “The Woman of Babylon, The Devil and The Pope,” as well as shows of dancing bears and acrobats. Some acts came year after year: there was the “Tall Dutchwoman” who made annual appearances for at least seventeen years, together with the “Horse and no Horse, whose tail stands where his head should do.” And there were always rope-walkers, among them the famous Scaramouch “dancing on the rope, with a wheelbarrow before him with two children and a dog in it, and with a duck on his head,” and the notable rope-dancer Jacob Hall “that can jump it, jump it.” Perhaps the most celebrated of all the acts, however, was that of Joseph Clark, “the English Posture Master” or “Posture Clark” as he was known. It seems that he could “put out of joynt almost any Bone or Vertebra of his Body, and to replace it again”; he could so contort himself that he became unrecognisable even to his closest friends.

And so the fair went on, as all fairs do. There was even a Ferris wheel, known then as a “Whirligig” (later an “Up and Down”) where, according to Ned Ward in The London Spy (1709), “Children lock’d up in Flying Coaches who insensibly climb’d upwards … being once Elevated to a certain height come down again according to the Circular Motion of the Sphere they move in.”

The general noise and clamour, together with the inevitable crowd of pickpockets, finally proved too much for the city authorities. In 1708 the fortnight of the fair was reduced to three days at the end of August. But if it became less riotous, it was no less festive. Contemporary accounts dwell upon the drollery of “merry Andrews,” otherwise known as Jack Puddings or Pickled Herrings; they wore a costume with donkey’s ears, and accompanied other performers with their fiddles. One of the more famous fools was a seller of gingerbread nuts in Covent Garden; since he was paid one guinea a day for his work at Bartholomew Fair, “he was at pains never to cheapen himself by laughing, or by noticing a joke, during the other 362 days of the year.”

Alongside the merry Andrews leapt the mountebanks who sold miracle cures and patent medicines to those credulous enough to purchase them. In an illustration by Marcellus Laroon one such is dressed as a harlequin from commedia dell’arte with a monkey tied to a rope beside him. His voice, too, might be heard among the general noise and tumult—“a rare cordial to strengthen and cheer the Heart under any Misfortune … a most rare dentifrice … good to fortifie the stomach against all Infections, Unwholesome damps, malignant effluvias.” And so the fair rolled on. It is perhaps appropriate, amid the noise and excitement, that in 1688 John Bunyan collapsed and died at the corner of Snow Hill and Cock Lane.

If there was one central character, however, it was that of Punch, the uncrowned monarch of “puppet-plays, hobby-horses, tabors, crowds, and bagpipes.” He had emerged upon the little stage by the end of the seventeenth century, announced by a jester and accompanied by fiddle, trumpet or drum. He is not a uniquely London phenomenon, but he became a permanent entertainer at the fairs and streets of the city; with his violence, his vulgarity and his sexual innuendo he was a recognisable urban character. “Often turning towards a tightly packed bend of girls, he sits himself down near to them: My beautiful ones, he says, winking roguishly, here’s a girl friend come to join you!” With his great belly, big nose and long stick he is the very essence of a gross sexual joke which, unfortunately, in later centuries became smaller, squeakier, and somehow transformed into entertainment for children. There is a watercolour by Rowlandson, dated 1785, which shows a puppet-play with Punch in action. George III and Queen Charlotte are driving to Deptford, but the attention of the citizens is drawn more towards the wooden booth where Punch is beating the bare buttocks of his wife. He was often conceived as a “hen-pecked” husband but, here, the worm has turned. Rowlandson’s work is of course partly conceived as a satire against the royal family, but it is filled with a greater and all-encompassing urban energy.

Within Bartholomew Fair itself there was a complete erasure of ordinary social distinctions. One of the complaints against it lay in the fact that apprentice and lord might be enjoying the same entertainments, or betting at the same gaming tables. This is entirely characteristic of London itself, heterogeneous and instinctively egalitarian. It is no coincidence, for example, that at the time of the Fair an annual supper was held in Smithfield for young chimney-sweeps. Charles Lamb has immortalised the occasion in one of his essays, “The Praise of Chimney Sweepers,” where he reports that “hundreds of grinning teeth startled the night with their brightness” while in the background could be heard the “agreeable hubbub” of the Fair itself. It might be argued that there is no true egalitarianism in the gesture, and that such solemn festivities merely accustom the little “’weeps” to their dismal fate. This might then be considered one of the paradoxes of London, which consoles those whom it is about to consume.

Punch is also advertised in Hogarth’s print of Southwark Fair. Known as “the Lady Fair,” it was held in the streets around the Borough in the month after Bartholomew Fair. But since Hogarth announced his engraving as “The Fair” and “the Humours of a Fair” we may safely assume that he is portraying a characteristic and familiar London entertainment. Here Punch is mounted upon a stage horse which picks the pocket of a clown; above him, there is a poster announcing “Punches Opera” which depicts the large-nosed figure wheeling his wife in a barrow towards the open mouth of a dragon.

Elsewhere in this fair a motley group of performers stands upon a wooden balcony where a painted cloth announces “The Siege of Troy is here”; the entertainers have been identified as part of Hannah Lee’s theatrical company, and one of their advertisements has in fact survived. “To which will be added, a New Pantomime Opera … intermixed with Comic scenes between Punch, Harlequin, Scaramouch, Pierrot and Columbine. N.B. We shall begin at Ten in the Morning, and continue Playing till Ten at Night.” It was a long day at the fair.

On each side of the players there are various feats of acrobatics; a tightrope-walker spans two wooden buildings, while a rope-flyer descends precipitously from the tower of St. George the Martyr. In another corner of the fair a wooden stage has collapsed, and the actors fall upon stalls selling china and upset a table where two gamblers are playing at dice. There are dwarves, conjurors and waxworks, performing dogs and monkeys; a girl beats a drum while a mountebank sells his medicine; a pickpocket plies his trade while another kind of performer swallows fire. One customer can be seen gazing into the aperture of a wooden peep-show and does not notice that, by his side, a man is being arrested by a bailiff.

Bartholomew Fair itself became the arena for fictional characters whose authors used it as the setting of their adventures, but perhaps the most famous account is autobiographical in nature. In the seventh book of his Prelude Wordsworth memorialised his youthful residence in London in the 1790s, and chose Bartholomew Fair as one of its emblems with its “anarchy and din Barbarian and informal”—a word which we might better translate as formless. It was

Monstrous in colour, motion, shape, sight, sound

filled with

chattering monkeys dangling from their poles,

… And children whirling in their roundabouts …

The Stone-eater, the Man that swallows fire

It is clear that the entertainments had not changed throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but Wordsworth’s particular response to its barbaric “din” and shapelessness is an example of his general attitude towards the city itself. The fair becomes, in fact, a simulacrum of London. The first lines of Pope’s Dunciad make a similar point by extolling:

The Mighty Mother, and her Son who brings

The Smithfield Muses to the ear of Kings

It is a symbol of disorder and anarchy, threatening to overwhelm the values of a humanised and civilised London with all its vulgar paraphernalia of “shews, machines, and dramatical entertainments, formerly agreeable only to the taste of the Rabble.” The egalitarian energies of the city, therefore, are treated with the gravest mistrust by those who wrote for smaller London circles.

At the time of Wordsworth’s visit the Fair was gradually being extended until, by 1815, it had spread up along one side of St. John’s Street and, in the other direction, had almost reached the Old Bailey. It had also become a place of danger and lawlessness with gangs of thieves, known as “Lady Holland’s mob,” who “robbed visitors, beat inoffensive passers-by with bludgeons, and pelted harmless persons.” These were no longer the festivities of the eighteenth century, and were certainly not to be endured in the more respectable climate of the mid-nineteenth. Bartholomew Fair could never have lasted long into the Victorian era, and in 1855 it passed away without much sign of public mourning.

Yet Wordsworth had divined, in the spectacle of the Fair, a permanent aspect of London life. He recognised and recoiled from an innate and exuberant theatricality, which was content to manifest sheer contrast and display with no interior or residual meaning. In this book of The Prelude, “Residence in London,” he remarks:

On Strangers of all ages, the quick dance

Of colours, lights and forms, the Babel din

It is the play of difference, characterised by mobility and indeterminacy, which disturbs him. Within a few lines he notes “Shop after Shop, with Symbols, blazon’d Names … fronts of houses, like a title page” as if the city harboured endless forms of representation, not one of which is superior to any other. He records the ballads hanging upon the walls, the huge advertisements, the “London Cries” and the stock urban characters of the “Cripple … the Bachelor … the military Idler,” as if they were all part of some great and endless theatre.

Yet it is at least possible that he did not fully understand the very reality which he so vividly describes—these “shifting pantomimic scenes,” these “dramas of living Men,” this “great Stage” and “public Shows,” the spectacles and the showmen, may indeed represent the true nature of London. Its theatricality therefore leads to “Extravagance in gesture, mien, and dress,” just as in all the streets and lanes the citizens were “living shapes”; even the roadside beggar wears “a written paper” announcing his story. Thus all may be, or seem, unreal. Wordsworth believed that he saw only “parts,” in every sense, and could derive no “feeling of the whole.” He may have been mistaken.

Wordsworth was correct about the essential theatricality of the city, but it may also be considered from another vantage. It may become a cause for celebration. Charles Lamb, that great Londoner, extolled his city as “a pantomime and masquerade … The wonder of these sights, impels me into night-walks about her crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fulness of joy at so much life.” Macaulay wondered at the “dazzling brilliancy of London spectacles,” while James Boswell believed it to comprise “the whole of human life in all its variety”; for Dickens it was the “magic lantern” which filled his imagination with the glimpse of strange dramas and sudden spectacles. For each of these Londoners, whether by birth or adoption, the theatricality of London is its single most important characteristic.

The crowd that gathered to see the inauguration of the first underground railway, in 1863, was compared in newspaper accounts “to the crush at the doors of a theatre on the night of a pantomime,” and Donald J. Olsen, the author of The Growth of Victorian London, has compared the speed and scale of city transport in that period to the “magical transformation of the pantomime continually being translated into life.” That is why London has always been considered to be the home of stock theatrical characters—the “shabby genteel,” the “city slicker,” the “wide boy.” In print-shop windows of the mid-eighteenth century there were caricatures of London “types,” while the more fashionable citizens of the same period dressed up in costume for masques and disguisings.

The most famous pictorial series displaying London characters, Marcellus Laroon’s The Cryes of the City of London Drawne after the Life, published in 1687, reveals many professions and trades where the actual principle was that of acting. Many beggars put on a masquerade for the benefit of their passing audience, but Laroon himself chose a particular female vagrant to exemplify what he called “The London Beggar.” He did not give her name, but in fact she was known as Nan Mills who, according to the most recent editors of his work, was “not only a good physiognomist but an excellent mimic … and could adapt her countenance to every circumstance of distress.” There is no reason to doubt that she was also poor, and conscious of her degradation. Here, too, is part of the mystery of London where suffering and mimicry, penury and drama, are aligned with each other to a degree where they become indistinguishable.

The rituals of crime have, in London, also taken on a theatrical guise. Jonathan Wild, the master criminal of mid-eighteenth-century London, declared that “The mask is the summum bonum of our age” while the marshalmen, or city police of a slightly later date, were costumed in cocked hats and spangled buttons. There were more subtle disguises available to the detective of the city. One is reminded of Sherlock Holmes, a character who could have existed only in the heart of London. According to his amanuensis, Holmes “had at least five small refuges in different parts of London, in which he was able to change his personality.” The mysteries of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, too, could be conducted only through “the swirling wreaths” of London fog where character and identity may suddenly and dramatically be obscured.

If crime and detection rely upon disguise, so London punishment had its own theatre of judgement and of pain. The Old Bailey itself was designed as a dramatic spectacle, and was indeed compared with “a giant Punch and Judy show” where the judges sat within the open portico of a Sessions House which resembled a theatrical backdrop.

Yet since Punch, who in the end manages to hang the hangman Jack Ketch, is the epitome of disorder it is likely that his spirit would also be found in noisome circumstances. The cellar floor of the Fleet Prison was known as “Bartholomew Fair,” while in the chapel of Newgate there were galleries where spectators were invited to watch the antics of those condemned to die who deliberately entertained their audience with acts of outrageousness or defiance. We read, for example, of one John Riggleton who “made a practice of sneaking up to the Ordinary [prison clergyman] when his eyes were fast shut in prayer and shouting out loud in his ear.” This of course is the role of the pantaloon in pantomime.

The theatre did not end in the prison chapel, but continued upon the little stage where the execution took place. “The upturned faces of the eager spectators,” wrote one contributor to The Chronicles of Newgate, “resembled those of the ‘gods’ at Drury Lane on Boxing Night.” Another witness remarked upon the fact that, just before the execution, there was a roar of “‘Hats off!’ and ‘Down in front!’ as at a theatre.” There was one peculiarly theatrical episode at the execution in 1820 of Thistlewood and his “Cato Street” companions for treason; according to the traditional sentence, they were to be hanged and then beheaded. “When the executioner had come to the last of the heads, he lifted it up, but, by some clumsiness, allowed it to drop. At this the crowd yelled out, ‘Ah, Butter-fingers!’” This small episode manifests the peculiar temperament of the London crowd, combining humour and savagery in equal measure.

The witnesses at executions were not the only inhabitants of London to appreciate the virtues of urban theatre. Inigo Jones’s construction of the Banqueting House in 1622 was, in the words of John Summerson’s Georgian London, “really an extension of his stage work”; the same might be said of his other great urban projects. In a similar spirit, two hundred years later, John Nash disguised a concerted effort at town planning, dividing the poor of the east from the wealthy of the west, by creating streets and squares which represented the principles of “picturesque beauty” by means of scenic effects. George Moore commented that the “circular line” of Regent Street was very much like that of an amphitheatre, and it has been noted that the time of Nash’s “Improvements” was also the period of the great panoramas and dioramas of London. Buckingham Palace, as viewed from the end of the Mall, seems nothing more than an elaborate stage-set while the House of Commons is an exercise in wistful neo-Gothic not unlike the elaborate dramas to be seen in the patent theatres of the period. The latest Pevsner guide notes that the clearing banks of the City of London “were built to impress inside and out,” while much of the architecture of the 1960s “took the expressive potential of concrete to a theatrical extreme.”

That central spirit of London has been divined by artists as well as architects. In the work of Hogarth the streets are delineated in terms of scenic perspective. In many of his prints, perhaps most notably in his delineation of the Fair, the division between performers and spectators is for all practical purposes invisible; the citizens fulfil their roles with even more animation than the stage actors, and there are more genuinely dramatic episodes among the crowd than upon the boards.

Some of the more famous portraits of London also borrow their effects from the theatre of the period. It has been remarked, for example, how Edward Penny’s painting of A City Shower is taken from a scene from David Garrick’s The Suspicious Husband. One of the greatest painters of mid-nineteenth-century cityscapes, John O’Connor, was also an accomplished painter of theatrical scenery. The editors of the most comprehensive volume upon the subject, London in Paint, go so far as to suggest that “further research will be carried out into this vital link between the two professions” of urban painter and theatrical designer. They may not be two professions, however, but one.

·  ·  ·

It would seem that everyone in London wore a costume. From the earliest period the city records reveal the vivid displays of rank and hierarchy, noting garments of coloured stripes and gowns of rainbow hues. When the dignitaries of the city attended the first day of Bartholomew Fair, for example, they were expected to wear “violet gowns, lined,” but the emphasis on colour and effect was shared by all manner of London citizens. In fact in such a crowded city people could be recognised only by their costume, the butcher by his “Blue-Sleeves and Woollen Apron” or the prostitute by “Hood, Scarf and Top-Knot.” That is why at the Fair, when costumes change, all social hierarchy is undermined.

A shopkeeper of the mid-eighteenth century would advertise the traditional worth of his wares “with his hair full-powdered, his silver knee and shoe buckles, and his hands surrounded with the nicely-plaited ruffle.” In the early twentieth century it was noted that the bank messengers and fishboys, waiters and city policemen, still wore mid-Victorian costume as if to display their antique deference or respectability. In any one period of London’s history, in fact, it is possible to detect the presence of several decades in the dress and deportment of those in the streets.

Yet disguise can also be a form of deception; one notorious highwayman escaped Newgate “dressed up as an oyster-girl,” while a character in Humphry Clinker, Matthew Bramble, noticed how mere journeymen in London went around “disguised like their betters.” In turn Boswell delighted in “low” impersonation, dressing up and taking on the role of a “blackguard” or soldier in order to pick up prostitutes and generally to entertain himself in the streets and taverns of the city. Boswell was entranced by London precisely because it allowed him to assume a number of disguises and thus escape from his own identity. There was, as Matthew Bramble had written, “no distinction or subordination left,” which accounts precisely for the combination of egalitarianism and theatricality that is so characteristic of London.

London is truly the home of the spectacle, whether of the living or of the dead. When in 1509 the cadaver of Henry VII was carried along Cheapside, a wax effigy of his royal person, dressed in the robes of state, was placed upon the hearse. The wagon was surrounded by priests and bishops, weeping, while the king’s household of six hundred persons followed in procession with lighted candles. It was the kind of funeral parade at which London has always excelled. The funeral of the Duke of Wellington in 1852 was no less ornate and sumptuous, and a contemporary account describes the event in highly theatrical terms—“the effect is novel and striking” with the mass of shade relieved by colour, particularly that of “a Grenadier Guardsman, his scarlet uniform strongly contrasting with the sable decorations around him.”

On the arrival of foreign monarchs, or upon the birth of princes, or after news of success in wars, the city decked itself out in colourful pageants. When Catherine of Aragon entered London in 1501 she was greeted by painted wooden castles built upon stone foundations, columns and statues, fountains and artificial mountains, mechanical zodiacs and battlements. It is impossible to overestimate the thirst for spectacle among Londoners through many centuries. When Henry V returned from Agincourt in 1415 he saw two gigantic figures placed upon the entrance to London Bridge; on the bridge itself “were innumerable boys representing the angelic host, arrayed in white, with glittering wings, and their hair set with sprigs of laurel”; the conduit on Cornhill was covered by a pavilion of crimson cloth and, on the king’s approach, “a great quantity of sparrows and other small birds” were set free. At the conduit in Cheapside there were virgins, dressed entirely in white, “who from cups in their hands blew forth golden leaves on the king.” An image of the sun, “which glittered above all things,” was placed upon a throne and “round it were angels singing and playing all kinds of musical instruments.” In succeeding reigns the conduits of Cornhill and Cheapside were arrayed with trees and caves, artificial hills and elaborate streams of wine or milk; the streets themselves were draped with tapestries and cloth of gold. As Agnes Strickland, an early biographer of Elizabeth I, remarked upon these manifestations, “The city of London might, at that time, have been termed a stage.” A German traveller similarly observed that, at the coronation of George IV, the king “was obliged to present himself, as chief actor in a pantomime” while the royal costume “reminded me strikingly of one of those historical plays which are here got up so well.”

There is another kind of drama which seems close to the life of the city. The streets provided a permanent arena, for example, in which any “patterer” or chanting trader could attract an inquisitive audience. The stages of sixteenth-century theatres were built to face the south, so that more light might fall upon the players, but we may imagine the actions and deportment of less professional actors to be similarly lit upon the crowded thoroughfares of London. Historical scenes were dramatised by street performers. There are extant photographs of actors in nineteenth-century street theatre; they seem poor, and perhaps grimy, but they wear spangling tights and elaborate costumes against garishly painted backdrops. In the early twentieth century, too, scenes from the novels of Dickens were played out on open carts on the very sites where those scenes were set.

Dickens may have appreciated such a gesture, since he turned London itself into a vast symbolic theatre; much of his dramatic imagination was formed by visiting the playhouses which abounded in his youth, particularly the penny gaffs and the small theatrical “houses” around the Drury Lane Theatre. In one of them he saw a pantomime and “noticed that the people who kept the shops, and who represented the passengers in the thoroughfares, and so forth, had no conventionality in them, but were unusually like the real thing.” He is adverting to the fact that ordinary Londoners, mainly of the younger generation, paid to be allowed to act in that season’s latest urban drama or pantomime. In Vanity Fair his contemporary, Thackeray, noted two London boys as having “a taste for painting theatrical characters.” In a similar spirit almost every street of London was once the object of dramatic curiosity, from A Chaste Maid of Cheapside to The Cripple of Fenchurch Street, from the Boss of Billingsgate to The Lovers of Ludgate, from The Devil of Dowgate to The Black Boy of Newgate. The audience found in them what they also found in Bartholomew Fair, a theatre which reflected the nature of their lives as well as the nature of the city itself. These plays were generally violent and melodramatic in theme, but that is precisely why they offered a true image of teeming city life.

London life itself could in turn become street theatre, even if it were sometimes of a tragic and inadvertent kind. The poor, and the outcast in particular, can claim no privacy and, as Gissing noted in his novel The Nether World (1889), “their scenes alike of tenderness and of anger must for the more part be enacted on peopled ways” where their shouts and muttered words could plainly be heard.

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