A Cheap Theatre, Sunday Night (p. 17) by Edward G. Dalziel. Wood engraving. From Dickens's "Two Views of a Cheap Theatre," chapter four in The Uncommercial Traveller. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Passage Realized:

And now, I am brought to the fact, that the lowest part of the audience of the previous night was not there. There is no doubt about it. There was no such thing in that building, that Sunday evening. I have been told since, that the lowest part of the audience of the Victoria Theatre has been attracted to its Sunday services. I have been very glad to hear it, but on this occasion of which I write, the lowest part of the usual audience of the Britannia Theatre, decidedly and unquestionably stayed away. When I first took my seat and looked at the house, my surprise at the change in its occupants was as great as my disappointment. To the most respectable class of the previous evening, was added a great number of respectable strangers attracted by curiosity, and drafts from the regular congregations of various chapels. It was impossible to fail in identifying the character of these last, and they were very numerous. I came out in a strong, slow tide of them setting from the boxes. Indeed, while the discourse was in progress, the respectable character of the auditory was so manifest in their appearance, that when the minister addressed a supposititious "outcast," one really felt a little impatient of it, as a figure of speech not justified by anything the eye could discover.

The time appointed for the conclusion of the proceedings was eight o'clock. The address having lasted until full that time, and it being the custom to conclude with a hymn, the preacher intimated in a few sensible words that the clock had struck the hour, and that those who desired to go before the hymn was sung, could go now, without giving offence. No one stirred. The hymn was then sung, in good time and tune and unison, and its effect was very striking. A comprehensive benevolent prayer dismissed the throng, and in seven or eight minutes there was nothing left in the Theatre but a light cloud of dust.

That these Sunday meetings in Theatres are good things, I do not doubt. Nor do I doubt that they will work lower and lower down in the social scale, if those who preside over them will be very careful on two heads: firstly, not to disparage the places in which they speak, or the intelligence of their hearers; secondly, not to set themselves in antagonism to the natural inborn desire of the mass of mankind to recreate themselves and to be amused. [19]

Commentary

"Two Views of a Cheap Theatre," the fourth chapter of The Uncommercial Traveller, contrasts the Saturday night in the lower or upper gallery of the working-class Britannia Theatre, a full evening of pantomime and melodrama at three or four pence, with the abbreviated and much muted church service in the same auditorium on a wet and muddy Sunday evening. Gone are the sandwiches and ginger-beer of the night before and the delighted engagement of "mechanics, dock labourers, coster-mongers, petty tradesmen, small clerks, milliners, staymakers, shoe-binders, slop-workers, poor workers in a hundred highways and by-ways" (16). The bare, curtained stage, unlit, is occupied by a solitary presiding minister, reading the scripture at a rostrum, backed by a phalanx of "some thirty gentlemen, and two or three ladies" (17-18). The observant Uncommercial Traveller, mindful of the spectacular and moving entertainments of the previous evening, finds it amusing that the preacher continually addresses his audience as "fellow sinners" (18).

Dickens's persona is presumably a member of this highly varied audience, and is therefore in one of the galleries, looking down on the stage. In the illustration, however, Edward Dalziel's interest lies not in Dickens's observer sees, namely the party on stage, but on the thousands of ordinary men, women, and children packed into the galleries. Hence, in the Dalziel woods engraving we do not receive the perspective of the Uncommercial Traveller. The bearded gentleman in the front row, left, vaguely resembles Dickens in 1860, and may therefore represent the Dickensian observer himself. The audience's singularly serious expressions the illustrator contrasts with the contortions of the cherubs in low-relief plaster on the outer facade of the balcony, a visual reminder of the regular function of the place — entertainment and escape, as opposed to moral and spiritual renewal.

Dalziel's Sunday congregation are far more self-disciplined and staid (indeed, one is tempted to describe them as "Victorian") than the theatre patrons in "The Balcony Audience at Astley's Ampitheatre" by George Cattermole, complementing Chapter 38, in The Old Curiosity Shop, 25 April 1840.

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References

Dickens, Charles. The Uncommercial Traveller. Il. Edward Dalziel. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1877.

Scenes and Characters from the Works of Charles Dickens; being eight hundred and sixty-six drawings, by Fred Barnard, Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz); J. Mahoney; Charles Green; A. B. Frost; Gordon Thomson; J. McL. Ralston; H. French; E. G. Dalziel; F. A. Fraser, and Sir Luke Fildes; printed from the original woodblocks engraved for "The Household Edition." New York: Chapman and Hall, 1908. Copy in the Robarts Library, University of Toronto.


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Last modified 10 February 2013