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An essay by James Runciman


Title:     Stage-Children
Author: James Runciman [More Titles by Runciman]

The Modern Legislator is a most terrible creature. When he is not engaged in obstructing public business, he must needs be meddling with other people's private affairs--and some of us want to know where he is going to stop. The Legislator has decreed that no children who are less than ten years of age shall henceforth be allowed to perform on the stage. Much of the talk which came from those who carried the measure was kindly and sensible; but some of the acrid party foisted mere misleading rubbish on the public. Henceforth the infantile player will be seen no more. Mr. Crummles will wave a stern hand from the shades where the children of dreams dwell, and the Phenomenon will be glad that she has passed from a prosaic earth. Had the stern law-makers had their way thirty years ago, how many pretty sights should we have missed! Little Marie Wilton would not have romped about the stage in her childish glee (she enjoyed the work from the first, and even liked playing in a draughty booth when the company of roaming "artists" could get no better accommodation). Little Ellen Terry, too, would not have played in the Castle scene in "King John," and crowds of worthy matrons would have missed having that "good cry" which they enjoy so keenly. We are happy who saw all the Terrys, and Marie the witty who charmed Charles Dickens, and all the pretty mites who did so delight us when Mme. Katti Lanner marshalled them. Does any reader wish to have a perfectly pleasant half-hour? Let that reader get the number of "Fors Clavigera" which contains Mr. Ruskin's description of the children who performed in the Drury Lane pantomime. The kind critic was in ecstasies--as well he might be--and he talked with enthusiasm about the cleanliness, the grace, the perfectly happy discipline of the tiny folk. Then, again, in "Time and Tide," the great writer gives us the following exquisite passage about a little dancer who especially pleased him--"She did it beautifully and simply, as a child ought to dance. She was not an infant prodigy; there was no evidence in the finish and strength of her motion that she had been put to continual torture during half of her eight or nine years. She did nothing more than any child--well taught, but painlessly--might do; she caricatured no older person, attempted no curious or fantastic skill; she was dressed decently, she moved decently, she looked and behaved innocently, and she danced her joyful dance with perfect grace, spirit, sweetness, and self-forgetfulness." How perfect! There is not much suggestion of torture or premature wickedness in all this; and I wish that the wise and good man's opinion might have been considered for a little while by some of the reformers. For my part, I venture to offer a few remarks about the whole matter; for there are several considerations which were neglected by the debaters on both sides during the discussion.

First, then, I must solemnly say that I cannot advise any grown girl or young man to go upon the stage; and yet I see no harm in teaching little children to perform concerted movements in graceful ways. This sounds like a paradox; but it is not paradoxical at all to those who have studied the question from the inside. If a girl waits until she is eighteen before going on the stage, she has a good chance of being thrown into the company of women who do not dream of respecting her. If she enters a provincial travelling company, she has constant discomfort and constant danger; some of her companions are certain to be coarse--and a brutal actor whose professional vanity prevents him from understanding his own brutality is among the most horrible of living creatures. After a lady has made her mark as an actress, she can secure admirable lodging at good hotels; but a poor girl with a pound per week must put up with such squalor as only actors can fittingly describe. Amid all this the girl is left to take care of herself--observe that point. A little child is taken care of; whereas the adolescent or adult must fight her way through a grimy and repulsive environment as best she can. There is not a man in the world who would dare to introduce himself informally to any lady who is employed under Mr. W.S. Gilbert's superintendence; but what can we say about the thousands who travel from town to town unguided save by the curt directions of the stage manager? Let it be understood that when I speak of the theatre I have not in mind the beautiful refined places in central London where cultured people in the audience are entertained by cultured people on the stage; I am thinking grimly of the squalor, the degradation, the wretched hand-to-mouth existence of poor souls who work in the casual companies that spend the better part of their existence in railway carriages. Not long ago a young actress who can now command two thousand pounds per year was obliged to remain dinnerless on Christmas Day because she could not afford to pay a shilling for a hamper which was sent her from home. Her success in the lottery arrived by a strange chance; but how many bear all the poverty and trouble without even having one gleam of success in their miserable dangerous lives? There are theatres and theatres--there are managers and managers; but in some places the common conversation of the women is not edifying--and a good girl must insensibly lose her finer nature if she has to associate with such persons.

In the case of the little children there are none, or few, at any rate, of the drawbacks. Not one in fifty goes on the stage; the mites are engaged only at certain seasons; and their harvest-time enables poor people to obtain many little comforts and necessaries. Further, there is one curious thing which may not be known to the highly particular sect--no manager, actor, or actress would use a profane or coarse word among the children; such an offender would be scouted by the roughest member of any company and condemned by the very stage-carpenters. I own that I have sometimes wished that a child here and there could be warm asleep on a chilly night, especially when the young creature was perilously suspended from a wire; but that is very nearly the furthest extent of my pity. So long as the youngsters are not required to perform dangerous or unnatural feats, they need no pity. Instead of being inured to brutalities, they are actually taken away from brutality--for no man or woman would sully their minds. We have heard it said that the stage-children who return to school after their spell of pantomime corrupt the others. This is a gross and stupid falsehood which is calculated to injure a cause that has many good points. I earnestly sympathise with the well-meaning people who desire to succour the little ones; but I beseech them not to be led away by misstatements which are concocted for sensational purposes. So far from corrupting other children, the young actors invariably act as a good influence in a school. The experienced observer can almost make certain of picking out the boys and girls who have had a stage-training. They like to be smart and cleanly, their deportment and general manners are improved, and they are almost invariably superior in intelligence to the ordinary school-trained child. Imagine Mme. Katti Lanner having a corrupt influence! Imagine those delightful beings who play "Alice in Wonderland" corrupting anybody or anything! I have always been struck by the pretty manners of the trained children--and the advance in refinement is especially noticeable among those who have been speaking or singing parts. The most pleasing set of youths that I ever met were the members of a comic-opera troupe. Some of them, without an approach to freedom of manner, would converse with good sense on many topics, and their drill had been so extended as to include a knowledge of polite salutes. Not one of the boys or girls would have been ill at ease in a drawing-room; and I found their educational standard quite up to that of any Board school known to me. These nice little folk were certainly in no wise pallid or distraught; and, when they danced on the stage, the performance was a beautiful and delightful romp which suggested no idea of pain. To see the "prima donna" of the company trundling her hoop on a bright morning was as pretty a sight as one would care to see. The little lady was neither forward nor unhealthy, nor anything else that is objectionable--and it was plain that she enjoyed her life. Is it in the least likely that any sane manager would ill-treat a little child that was required to be pleasing? One or two acrobats have been known to be stern with their apprentices; but the rudest circus-man would not venture to exhibit a pupil who looked unhappy. The rascally "Arabs" who entrapped so many boys in years gone by were fiends who met with very appropriate retribution; but such villains are not common.

I am always haunted by the argument about late hours--and give it every weight. As aforesaid, I used sometimes to wish that some wee creature could only be wrapped in a night-gown and sent to rest. But, for the benefit of those who cannot well imagine what the horrors of a city slum are like, let me describe the nightly scene in a typical city alley. It is cold in the pantomime season; but the folk in that alley have not much fire. Joe, the costermonger, Bill, the market-labourer, Tom, the fish-porter, and the rest come home in a straggling way; and, if they can buy a pennyworth of coal, they boil the little kettle. Then one of the children runs to the chandler's and gets a halfpennyworth of tea, a scrap of bread, and perhaps a penny slice of sausage. The men stint themselves in food and firing; but they always have a little to spare for gin and beer and tobacco. There is no light in the evil-smelling room; but there is a place at the corner of the alley where the gas is burning as cheerily as the foul wreaths of smoke will permit. The men go out and squat on barrels in the hideous bar; then they call for some liquor which may be warranted to take speedy effect; then they smoke, and try to forget.

What is the little child to do? Go to bed? Why, it has no bed! If it were earning a little money, its parents might be able to provide a flock or straw bed with some sort of covering; but the poverty of these people is so gnawing and dire that very few lodgings contain anything which could possibly be pawned for twopence. Usually the child seeks the streets; and in the dim and filthy haze he or she sports at large with other ragged companions. Then the women--the match-box makers, trouser-makers, and such like--begin to troop in--and they gravitate towards the gin-shop. The darkness deepens; the bleared lamps blare in the dirty mist; the hoarse roar from the public-house comes forth accompanied by choking wafts of reek; the abominable tramps move towards the lodging-house and pollute the polluted air further with the foulness of their language; the drink mounts into unstable heads; and presently--especially on Saturday nights--there are hoarse growls as from rough-throated beasts, shrill shrieks, and a running chorus of indescribable grossness. Drunken men are quarrelling in the street, drunken women yell and stagger, and the hideous discord fills the night on all sides. No item of corruption is spared the children; and the vile hurly-burly ceases only at midnight. The children will always try to sneak through the swinging doors of the gin _inferno_ when the cold becomes too severe; and they will remain crouched like rats until some capricious guest sends them out with an oath and a kick. There is not one imaginable horror that does not become familiar to these children of despair--and they sometimes have a very good chance of seeing murder. When the last hour comes, and the father and mother return to their dusky den, the child crouches anywhere on the floor; undressing is not practised; and, if any sentimental person will first of all go into a common Board school in a non-theatrical quarter on a wet afternoon, and if he will then drive on and pass through a few hundreds of the theatrical children, his "olfactories" will teach him a lesson which may make him think a good deal.

Now let me put a question or two in the name of common sense. We must balance good and evil; and, granting that the theatre has a tendency to make children light-minded, is it worse than the horror of the slums and the stench and darkness of the single room where a family herd together? The youngster who is engaged at the theatre can set off home at the very latest as soon as the harlequinade is over. Very well; suppose it is late. Would he or she be early if the night were spent in the alley? Not at all! Then the child from the theatre is bathed, fed, taught, clothed nicely, and it gives its parents a little money which procures food. Some say the extra money goes for extra gin--and that may happen in some cases; but, at any rate, the child's earnings usually purchase a share of food as well as of drink; for the worst blackguard in the world dares not send a starveling to meet the stage-manager. In sum, then, making every possible allowance for the good intentions of those who wish to rescue children from the theatre, I am inclined to fear that they have been hasty. I am not without some knowledge of the various details of the subject; and I have tried to give my judgment as fairly as I could--for I also pity and love the children.

[The end]
James Runciman's essay: Stage-Children