Recollections of “a Stage-Struck Hero”

By an Old Stager

Some five-and-twenty years ago, there stood on a portion of that ground now occupied by the Albert Institute, Dundee, a theatrical booth owned by a person of penny-show celebrity, who was well known for hie regular attendance at our annual fairs. Shakespeare and the minor dramatists were here dished up nightly, in a rather questionable manner, to gaping crowds of young boys, at the small charge one penny. Being a boy myself at that time, and having a strong desire to see actors that could “tear a passion to tatters,” I became a not unfrequent visitor to this Shakesperian temple.

The company, though not possessed of brilliant talents, managed generally to give satisfaction to the kind of audiences that patronised them. Among the male members was one who often attracted my attention. He had such a “grim and ghastly look” about him that I was impressed with the idea that he at least looked upon “acting” a rather grave and important occupation. He had likewise such an air of sorrow and melancholy about him that one could not help thinking there was some cankering care or secret sorrow gnawing away his peace of mind. And yet at times, if you watched him narrowly, you could observe that when any of the “leading” members of the company got hissed for not playing their parts well, a Mephistolian gleam of pleasure would flit across his countenance, which would afterwards change into a settled and self-conceited expression, as much as to say, “If I only had the opportunity of playing those parts I would soon show you how they should acted.”

The “parts”given to this gentleman were certainly not such as would enable him to show the audience what acting was, as he was generally engaged in that necessary and indispensable business of removing the chairs and tables from the stage, and also In keeping the candles throughout the establishment properly “snuffed,” for be it known that that penny theatre could not well afford to be lit up with gas. While pursuing this latter part of his avocations he was often assailed with the jeers and scoffs the younger and more thoughtless portion of the audience, who did not scruple to confer upon him the not very euphonious cognomen of “Pootch the doups.” All this, however, he bore with the most calm and stoical indifference.

The “company” having after a time removed to some other town, I had for some years lost sight of and had almost forgotten him. Having during the interval become initiated into the mysteries of the very humble and badly remunerated occupation of handloom weaver, I had occasion to remove from the factory where I had learned that trade and go to another, where to my surprise I found among my new shopmates my old friend of the sock and buskin, and whom for the purpose of our sketch shall designate by the name of “Horatius Wiggeris,” I was not long in making his acquaintance, and soon discovered that had a strong and firm belief in his own histrionic abilities, only requiring an opportunity of making his appearance on the boards of “Drury Lane” to enable him to electrify the theatrical world with the grand display of his genius. Not having as yet got that opportunity, however, he was loth to allow his talents to be hidden under a bushel; and for want of better way of displaying them I found that he was in the habit of going through the principal speeches of some of Shakespeare’s greatest characters for the edification of his fellow-workers. Being anxious, however, to give his auditors a more thorough knowledge of the writings of the great bard, and having learned that I knew something of Shakespeare, he proposed that I should take “second” parts along with him. In this, of course, I readily acquiesced, and soon found that the “talents” of Horatius were brought out in this way a great deal better than they were before.

On one of these occasions I suggested to him that we might call in the assistance of a third party, and we would thus be enabled to play the “pieces” more fully. Wiggins, however, being very particular as to how the thing should be done — the least fault, in his estimation, calling forth his severe condemnation — could not see one among all his shopmates capable of undertaking the job. I ventured, however, to name one to him who, I thought, would suit, whom, after a good deal of persuasion, he consented to allow to join “the company,” on trial — on the condition, however, that I should tutor him well before he commenced. This I undertook to do. We then selected some of the principal parts of “Macbeth,” and got on very well, at least to the satisfaction of Horatius and the evident amusement of the audience, until where Macbeth being on Dunsinane Hill, a messenger arrives to tell him that he saw the wood of Birnam moving. I had the person already alluded to selected for this part, and had told him what to say; when on going “on,” instead of repeating the words I told him, to the unspeakable disgust of our “leading tragedian,” he said — “My Lord, I looked towards Birnam and the wood was all on fire.” This was too much for Wiggins. He stopped short in the middle of what he considered one of the most telling bits, and looking daggers at the unfortunate messenger exclaimed, “You be d—d; I just thought you would make infernal mess of it;” and then in a calmer and more threatening tone, as if he was uttering a sentence of death, “You play no more with me.”

On several occasions I accompanied him to the Theatre Royal to see “professionals” doing the business, and it was often amusing to me to listen to his criticisms on the various actors. I remember one instance of this in particular. A celebrated tragedian, now dead, was playing Richard the Third. The first, second, and third acts were gone through in manner quite the opposite of satisfactory to our friend-the actor’s conception of the “crook’d-back tyrant” being the very reverse of that entertained by him. The coesequence of this was that all within his hearing heard the actor getting a pretty severe handling for his impersonation of the character. Some persons sitting immediately behind us happened to be conversing about the salary he was likely to get while fulfilling his engagement, when one of them said he had heard it was £5 per night This was too much for Horatius. He immediately sprung to bis feet, and in a voice that I am sure must have been quite audible over at least one-half of the house, exclaimed, What! give that man £5 for doing that! By heavens, if they saw me do it they would give me ten.”

On another evening the piece, I think, was “William Tell.” In one of the scenes, “Gesler,” the tyrant, having lost his way while hunting in the forest, makes his appearance on bridge exhausted and fatigued with his exertions in trying to find his way. While on the bridge he should faint and fall over on the stage. On this night, however, the bridge was placed so high that it would have been a rather dangerous feat to have fallen from it. This, however, in the opinion of Horatius, was nothing to the purpose. The directions of the author ought to be carried out, no matter what the consequences. The actor, however, had the good sense not to follow the injunction of the author on this occasion, and by so doing gave to our friend mortal offence; indeed, so much did he take the omission of this part of the performance to heart that all next day he fumed and fretted about it, and even at times lashed himself into rage regarding it. After making several vain attempts to reason the matter with him, I at length said, “You must surely be aware that if the man had fallen from the bridge he would have run a great risk of breaking his neck.” At this he sprang to his feet, and, making his shuttle rebound from his web, exclaimed, “Well, what then? I’m blowed but I’d break my neck any time before I’d spoil a piece.” Of course I looked upon this a clincher. There was evidently no use in defending “Gesler” after that.

It must not be supposed that the “acting” of our friend was confined altogether to the “beaming berth” of a handloom factory or the Temple of Thespis in which I first beheld him; for he has appeared on no less a stage than that of the Dundee Theatre Royal. Previous to this, however, he had also appeared on two separate occasions in the character of Macbeth on the boards of two penny booths that were once located in Dundee. The method adopted by Horatius in getting these opportunities of displaying his talents was this way:— He would call upon the manager, and represent to him that he was desirous of adopting the stage, and that he had a large number of friends who believed him to be possessed of abilities of a high order for the “profession,” and if he would only grant him one night in which to appear “in one of his favourite characters” he would guarantee a crowded house. The gentleman to whom he first applied, although a showman, was also a man of the world. He made enquiries at the work where our friend was employed, and found that the people there would only be too delighted with the treat of seeing Horatius strutting the real boards. As the work was a pretty large one, the manager saw once it would be a good spec. for him, so he consented to grant our friend’s request. The eventful evening having at length arrived which was to place the feet Horatius on the lowest steps of the ladder of fame, his fellow-workers made great efforts to give him a bumper house. There being three performances in one evening each house was crammed, many going in all three, while most went in twice. Our friend, having no stage wardrobe his own, was under the necessity of borrowing an article or two of dress from some members of the company. Whether it was, however, that these gentlemen had not much of wardrobe themselves or were unwilling to lend their best to a new beginner, when Horatius made his appearance he was more like Highland beggar than the “Great Thane.” Nothing daunted, however, and feeling confident that his own inherent abilities would soon overcome these trifling matters, he went at it with might and main, and certainly wrought hard to show the audience how Shakespeare ought to be delineated. It so happened that there was among the audience an old Irishman, who had no knowledge whatever of what acting was, but being employed the work with our friend, he came along with the others just see the fun. The performance having gone on for some time, this gentleman got rather interested in it, and gave vent to his feelings occasionally during its progress in a rather unusual way. He having taken it for granted that the whole thing was reality, when the “fight” came on in the last act, he could contain himself longer, but, jumping his feet, he shouted in vehement tones, “Pitch into him, Wiggins, into him!” But, alas! when he saw the great Horatius fall under the weapon of Macduff, he could not conceal his contempt, but, making for the door, he turned, and with a look at the fallen Wiggins that bespoke how serious and indignant he was on matter, said, “Och, man, I always thought that the dirt was in ye.”

The evening’s entertainment having consisted, as I have already said, in the performance of the tragedy of “Macbeth” three times, our friend’s voice, not being very carefully husbanded by him, soon gave way under the strain, until by the time the third representation commenced he became so hoarse that he could scarcely be heard by those in close proximity the stage. Not having received any refreshment during the whole evening, he at length applied to the manager for some, when a gill of whisky and a bottle of ale were brought to him. Just as they were set down, however, he had to make his appearance on the stage, and on his return, on looking for his refreshments, found that, like the witches in his favourite tragedy, they had vanished. No doubt the members of the company had taken the opportunity of his absence to drink his health.

The “success” which he had met with now emboldened him try higher game. He therefore shortly afterwards made application to the then manager of the Theatre Royal. How he had got over that gentleman is to me a mystery, but he did obtain permission to appear as Macbeth again; this time, however, his performance was restricted to two last acts of the tragedy. On making his appearance here, it was quite evident that before he had got through the first scene the actors of the company had, to use a vulgar phrase, taken his number. Their looks and gestures towards him plainly showed that they had taken the measure of their man; and the consequence was that the two acts of “Macbeth” were gone through in a manner more like a farce than a tragedy. In the “combat scene,” however, Horatius had evidently made up his mind to astonish the “gods” at his performance, for, instead of dying when run through the body by the sword of Macduff, he maintained his feet and flourished his weapon about the ears of his adversary in such a way that there was for some time an apparent probability of the performance ending in real tragedy. The gentleman who was playing the part of Macduff (having repeatedly told him, in tones quite audible, to “go down,” became at length so incensed that he gave him a smart rap over the fingers with the flat of his sword. This, had the effect of making Horatius drop his weapon; but he evidently had no intention of “going down,” for he kept dodging round and round Macduff, as if he had made up his mind to have a wrestle for it. The representative of that character, however, becoming tired of such tomfoolery, flung his sword to side, and seizing hold of Wiggins, brought the sublime tragedy of Macbeth to a close in a rather undignified way, by taking the feet from under the principal character.

This was, so far as I am aware, among the last “public” appearances of Horatius. Having left the occupation of handloom weaver some years ago, I have again lost sight of him. I am informed, however, that he is still in the habit of reciting Shakespeare for the edification of his fellow-workers; and, having unbounded confidence in the superiority of his talents, believes the time will yet come when will have an “opportunity” upon the boards of “Old Drury” of showing to an admiring world how all the Keans and Kembles of the past generation can be entirely eclipsed.

Dundee People’s Journal, 22nd July 1872

Notes

Writing in his biography, Poet McGonagall, Norman Watson confirms that “Horatius Wiggins” is a pseudonym for the Poet and Tragedian (in the days when he was only a tragedian).

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