By JOHN HOLLINGSHEAD.
LARGE as the world doubtless is, and easy as it now is to go from place to place, there are few of us who do not live and move and have our being in a very limited circle. We are drawn towards a particular spot, and once there we remain as fixed and immovable as the dog tied to a stake. We dream of the great world outside our narrow limits, but we work with various degrees of contentment and success on our little yard of space. As we have been drawn there at first by some powerful influence, so we proceed to draw others. Our companions often strike root on the same spot, and by degrees we found a special colony in a great city.
My particular spot in the great world —the spot on which I have been more or less settled for years before the Gaiety Theatre was built or thought of — is the spot on which that theatre and its surroundings now stand.
The first periodical that ever excited my literary ambition — the pioneer of all the cheap weekly magazines — was published in the Strand, at a little stationer’s shop which now forms part of the Field office. It was called the Mirror, and its proprietor was a Mr. Limbird. The Mirror died long before its proprietor, and Mr. Limbird appeared to me to look out of his small tradesman’s window with dreamy wonder at the flock of magazines and periodicals which fluttered round him.
At the corner of Wellington Street and the Strand — belonging to the owners of the Field, the Law Times, etc. — was the office of the Critic, a journal of the Athenaeum type, to which I was an occasional contributor.
My first serious step in literature, however, was made in Household Words,under the editorship of the late Charles Dickens, and the office of this journal (now the office of the Army and Navy Gazette stands next to the stage-door of the Gaiety Theatre. If I were to take a few bricks out of the back wall of the room in which I was first introduced to Charles Dickens, and in which I first began my work as an author and a journalist, I could look on to the stage of the Gaiety Theatre, where eleven years ago I first began my work as a theatrical manager.
On the other side of the theatre — in Catherine Street — was the office of the Illustrated Times — a weekly paper, half magazine — to which, in company with Edmund Yates, G. A. Sala, the Broughs, and scores of others, I was a contributor under the editorship of Mr. Henry Vizetelly. When the so-called famine in London occurred in 1861, I was asked by Mr. Algernon Borthwick to write a series of articles in the Morning Post on the condition of the London poor, and these articles were reprinted under the title of “Ragged London,” and published by Messrs. Smith, Elder, and Co. Looking out of my managerial room at the Gaiety Theatre, across a narrow yard, I can almost see into the room at the Morning Post office, where every night for about a fortnight I was engaged in recording my melancholy experiences as “Our Special Commissioner.”
I may pass by the Athenaeum, which is published a few doors above the Gaiety in Wellington Street, and to which I was an occasional contributor, and proceed to my first introduction to Mr. Toole. I was introduced to him at the corner of Wellington Street, in the Strand, by the late Mr. H. Widdicombe, and I found him living in chambers at the Wellington Street entrance of the Exeter Arcade, exactly on the site of the present stage-door of the Gaiety. Here it was that I discussed with him the prospects of my first farce — “The Birthplace of Podgers” — which he ultimately produced at the Lyceum Theatre, opposite. Here it was also that he entertained me and our common friend, Henry Irving, who had just made his first appearance in London at the Princess’s Theatre, in a piece called “Ivy Hall” — an adaptation by the late John Oxenford of Le Roman d’un Jeune Homme Pauvre. As we looked out of the window into the street, Henry Irving hardly expected to become the possessor of the theatre opposite, and I certainly never expected that a theatre would be built for me almost underneath our feet.
My connection with the Lyceum Theatre opposite did not finish with the production of my first farce. I made my first appearance as an amateur burlesque actor, and as an amateur pantomimist on the same boards, in both cases, of course, for a charitable object. My “first appearance on any stage,” however, was not made at the Lyceum, but at the neighbouring Covent Garden Theatre, several years earlier, and under somewhat peculiar circumstances. Wandering one night past the stage door of old Covent Garden, I found it open and unguarded, and with the boldness and curiosity of youth (I am speaking of 1845) I darted in and found myself, in a few seconds, amongst endless machinery and in total darkness.
Groping for some little time, with half the romance of the “Arabian Nights” in my head, and an immense amount of theatrical dust in my hands, I saw a glimmer in the distance, and making towards it, found it to be a gas-jet projecting from the wall. On the ground I saw a piece of brown paper, and lighting this I guided myself still further, until I came to some ladder-steps. I mounted these, and pushed open a door which admitted me to the back of the stage. The whole house was before me, brilliantly lighted, and full of people, but screened from my view by a high wooden barrier which was built across the stage.
Climbing up this barrier, by the aid of a few rough projections and considerable skill in this kind of work, I was soon able to look over the top, and I found that I was an uninvited guest on the platform at one of the great Anti-Corn Law-League Meetings. The speaker, I think, was the late W. J. Fox, a short man with a Beethoven head, and a practised orator. In a semi-circle behind him were Richard Cobden, John Bright, Colonel Perronet Thompson, Milner Gibson, and many others whose faces had been made familiar to me by popular portraits. This was my first appearance on any stage, but not my last, and I think I have said enough to prove that I, at least, have not wandered far from a given centre.