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Stage-Children
by [?]

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.