One of the most vexed questions of the Edwardian era was "should girls go on the stage?" To many it seemed an easy road promising a rich and glamourous lifestyle, but the reality, as those who had trod that road well full knew, was startlingly different. To answer this question, therefore, one must look at the reasons that led impressionable young girls to such an aspiration, and the very real perils they faced having once embarked along that path.
In earlier times women had been banned from appearing on the stage. Even after that restriction was lifted it took many years for the social stigma of being a woman associated with the stage to begin to wane. But by the beginning of the Edwardian era many years had indeed passed so that acting had, by that time, largely won acceptance as an honourable profession in which a woman could participate and still maintain her dignity and virtue. Only in the very highest social circles did the old prejudices still persist to any significant degree. Thus, one of the impediments that might formerly have prevented a 'decent' girl from considering a career on the stage had essentially been removed.
Then we must consider what other opportunities might have lain open to her in a time when women had not yet gained emancipation. That is to say that not only did they not yet possess the right to vote, but that society generally still expected that any woman would (or should) have a man to provide for her. But this could not always be the case. Even if a woman wanted to marry she might not find a suitable husband, or if she did he might subsequently be lost to her through illness or injury, or might work in a poorly paid profession so that she needed to work too to supplement their income.
And what work was there? Although by that time few professions remained legally closed to women - the main exceptions in England being soldiers, sailors, barristers, judges, firemen, policemen and clergymen - the reality was that the obstacles to entry to most of the higher professions (doctors, solicitors, accountants etc.) and even the skilled trades were such that only special advantages of social standing and/or financial backing were sufficient to overcome them.
For girls from lower or middle class families without any special advantages the genuine options were, therefore, still rather limited. If she were sufficiently well educated she might secure a position as a governess, a nurse or a teacher. A little less well educated and she might still find a relatively comfortable position as a shop or an office girl. But for most the only prospects open to them were generally ones that promised lives of boring drudgery; as a domestic, seamstress, factory girl, or mill-worker.
Only one thing was certain. Whatever work she found would be poorly paid, for even when a woman did exactly the same work as a man she would, in those days, be paid significantly less for it* - thereby making it much harder for a lone woman to support herself than a lone man.
Little wonder then, given these stark realities, that a young girl, or for that matter a woman, faced with the prospect of having to support herself, might look for an easier alternative and settle upon a profession that, to the outside eye at least, seemed to offer a life of relative ease and glamour. Added to that, the high profile of the top actresses made them natural role models for other young women to aspire to imitate. Young girls in particular, even without any testament as to their histrionic ability, might easily be persuaded that if they could get but one chance they might blossom into the next Sarah Bernhardt or Ellen Terry. If she had a reasonable voice she might see herself as the next Emma Calve or Clara Butt, or if she could dance the next Adeline Genee or Maud Allan.
Unfortunately the reality of the situation was very different. By the turn of the twentieth century the theatrical profession was already overcrowded with little room and few opportunities for new aspirants to break in. Worse, there was no shortage of fake agencies run by unscrupulous men who were only too aware of this feminine predeliction and eager to exploit it to defraud the unwary of their money and, in some cases, even their virtue. Take, for example, the case of one Albert Charles McCarthy (reported in the Daily Mail), who posed as the well-known genuine theatrical agent John Lawson to place adverts in several newspapers in order to ensnare young girls with false promises of work in the music halls. McCarthy was arrested after one of his victims complained to the real John Lawson, but not before she and many others had lost money to him and/or been importuned with improper proposals.
Even if the aspiring newcomer avoided these tricksters and did find work, the reality was still very different from what she might have imagined. The tales of instant success she may have read about, and which made Miss Phyllis Dare, for example, a major star at the age of fifteen, happened only to a very tiny (and very lucky or very talented) minority - most of whom, like Miss Dare, had been prepared for the stage years in advance. For most newcomers, their starting point would be in the chorus, where they would be made to put in many hours of hard work for relatively little pay as the years went by waiting for their 'big chance.' Some would indeed be rewarded, an example here being Miss Mabel Green, whose rise to prominence came when she caught her manager's eye and was plucked from the anonymity of the chorus for a starring role in "The Little Michus" - but for most the wait would be in vain.
In the meantime, work would be irregular. When the run of one show ended they would find themselves unemployed through no fault of their own until they could secure a fresh engagement - which might not be immediately forthcoming. Worse, by and large, the majority earned barely enough when in work to pay for their food and lodgings with little left over to be able to put anything aside for the hard times.
And those hard times, the intervals between paid employment, could be particularly harsh. Falling quickly into debt, the imperative to find new work would grow stronger with every passing day, and the longer the wait continued the more deperate their plight would become. If more work did not come in time they would go hungry without the money to buy food, and perhaps even be thrown out onto the street when they could no longer pay for their lodgings. If they had no family able to assist them this could quickly lead them to despondency, despair, and, in not a few cases, even suicide.
Knowing the perils and pitfalls that awaited the naive aspirant to a stage career, some of those already involved in the profession felt the need to speak out a warning to caution them. Some of those warnings, published in the period press, are reproduced here.
(The Times [London, UK] - 30th May, 1908)
GIRLS AND THE STAGE - ADA REEVE'S WARNING
Since I produced 'Butterflies' at the Apollo Theatre I have received many letters from aspirants to dramatic fame asking for my advice as to the best way of getting on the stage.
Now, this is a subject on which I feel strongly, and when I look round and see so many competent actresses out of employment I consider it my duty to discourage amateurs from entering a profession already much overcrowded. Judging from my correspondents, an idea prevails that, if a girl possesses average good looks and a fair voice, she is fully equipped to secure fame and fortune on the stage. Generally speaking, this is not so, and it is a fact that most of our great actors and actresses have served a long and arduous apprenticeship from childhood in the minor theatres before being even heard of in London. The road to success on the stage is long and difficult to travel; it runs through the vale of tears and disappointments. Only those who are strong of will and tenacious of purpose can hope to surmount the difficulties of the path. Many fall forgotten by the wayside and the few that eventually succeed have to be continually urged on by stern necessity before the end is in sight.
The story of my early struggles may deter some from rashly entering our precarious profession in the hope, so often vain, that it is a short-cut to fame and fortune. I commenced my stage career when six years old as Little Willie in "East Lynne," at Dewsbury, under the management of the veteran old actor, Fred Wright, whose children, Huntley Wright, Fred Wright, jun., Bertie Wright and Haidee Wright all show the advantages to be derived from early training. From that time until I was fourteen I played all kinds of children's parts suitable to my age. My father and mother were in the profession, but, although excellent actors, never rose beyond touring companies. When business was bad, as often happened, and no salaries were forthcoming, we were frequently in very bad financial straits. On one occasion, when I was ten, the company with which my father and I were playing, after struggling for months, collapsed, owing us a considerable amount in arrears of salary. Having no engagement to follow - it being the dead season - we were in a terrible plight. My father, who was a brave man, but handicapped with a large family, rather than run into debt, decided that we should sing on the beach of the southern watering-place at which we were stranded. By this means the wolf was kept from the door until another engagement was secured.
A great crisis occurred in the family fortunes when I was fourteen, which entirely altered my life and led to my becoming a 'star' at a West End music hall. My father's gentle nature was unequal to coping with the soul-grinding poverty that clouded our lives, and his health gave way. My mother was fully occupied in looking after the children, and I, the only bread-winner, was not re-engaged for the next tour, as I had grown too big for children's parts, and was too little for 'grownups'. It was decided that I should call on a music-hall manager who was acquainted with my father. I pleaded so hard for a hearing that the good-hearted man patted me on the head and said, 'You can open on Monday.' Although my success was immediate, and I have been fortunate enough to progress steadily over since, I often wonder whether the utter sacrifice of the sunny innocent pleasures of a happy childhood was not a very heavy price to pay for whatever eminence I have obtained in my profession."
(The Tuapeka Times [NZ] reprinted from The Sketch [UK] - 10th February, 1894)
SHOULD GIRLS GO ON THE STAGE - A CHAT WITH MRS. KENDAL
Everymoment that Mr. and Mrs. Kendal can spare from their theatrical, social, and home duties is at present given up to the arrangement of the beautiful house which they have bought in Portland Place. Just now Mrs.Kendal is far more absorbed in the important questions of carpets, wall papers, and overmantels than in any matter affecting "the profession," and even her household gods are in a state of transition between her old home in Harley Street and the House Beautiful which the popular actor and actress are making for themselves in a very literal sense, for Mr. Kendal has designed the doors, ceilings, and carved woodwork with which No.- , Portland Place is to be lavishly ornamented.
Mrs. Kendal received me, writes our representative, in the pretty little room which used to be her boudoir, but which has of late been given over to her eldest daughter; quaint mezzo tints of the Theatre Franca is line the walls, and as your sunny faced, bright-haired hostess comes in she seems less the "matron of the British drama" than a reincarnation of one of the brilliant comediennes whose personalities have been successively connected with the Comedie Francaise.
"What do I think of the stage as a career tor women?" she repeats, in answer to a query. "That is of all questions the most difficult to answer, and especially difficult to an actress who is supposed to have been exceptionally successful. I love my work with all my heart, and it would seem ungracious in me to speak disparagingly of the plank which has buoyed me up. Still, there is not an actor or actress in the world who will not bear me out when I say that only members of the profession can form any estimate of the difficulties, tangible and intangible, which surround those who wish to make their career on the utage."
"Then, on the whole, you would not advise a girl to become an actress?"
"That, of course, entirely depends on her special aptitudes. To some people the dramatic faculty is natural, and do what they will they cannot keep it down. Still, take an ordinary young woman, who has her living to earn, and compare what her life will be if she takes to tuition as an alternative to the boards. A good governess who obtains a decent situation is treated as an equal by the lady whose children she has to teach, for surely no woman would be so foolish as to put her own little ones with a governess whom she did not thoroughly respect and trust; if she is ill every care is taken of the governess, and, as a matter of course, lessons are suspended. Should she get thoroughly run down, she will go away for a holiday. Of course, I know that this sort of place is rather the exception than the rule, and requires a very thorough education; but still, even when a governess does not lead a very happy life, she is secure from uncertainties, and is rarely overworked. Contrast her lot with that, of the unknown actress, who is constantly thrown out of employment for months, and, once she does get an engagement, however ill she may feel, must turn up at the appointed moment at her theatre, unless, of course, she is absolutely laid up and cannot stir."
"You must admit, however, Mrs. Kendal, that most women find the very uncertainty delightful, and have a horror of the long drudgery which must be the lot of every governess."
"Yes," she answered thoughtfully, "and of course, the temporary salary is far higher. For instance, a young girl who has only to say four words during the evening receives £3 a week, and the little gown she wears as soubrette is provided for by the management, and even her understudy is given £1 per week. But remember, if the girl falls ill, or cannot turn up for three or four nights in succession, in many theatres she would lose her place altogether or, again, the understudy, if she were possessed of a smarter appearance, and of a somewhat better delivery, would very probably oust her predecessor."
"But supposing a girl insists on going on the stage, what do you think she ought to do?"
"Well, in England she has little choice, for there is no Conservatoire where she can go and study. The would-be actress had better get into as good a theatre as possible, and be content, if she can get nothing better, to just walk off and on as a super. I know of at least two young ladies who began in this way some three years ago, and who have now speaking parts in London theatres."
"Then are you an advocate of the Conservatoire system?"
"Certainly," replied Mrs. Kendal, energetically. "If I had to begin life over again I would study in Paris. Why, when there was an attempt to organise something of the kind over here, I gave my services for nothing, so deeply did I feel the importance of such an institution. The Conservatoire has practically educated the French public where theatrical matters are concerned. After all, acting is an art, and people should not try to act before they have been taught to do so, any more than they would think of singing in a grand opera before they had studied singing with a good master."
"But as no Conservatoire exists in England, what do you think are the qualifications essential to success on our stage?"
"I should say a certain amount of dramatic instinct is essential, good looks are important, and health is everything. People seem to think," added Mrs. Kendal, smiling, "that an actress is necessarily an affected individual, with shaky nerves and uncertain health. The truth is that all of us who have made our mark in the world have been remarkably well balanced, healthy women. No one who is not really strong can bear the terrible strain which is put upon an actress day after day and year after year. That portion of the day, or, rather, night, during which the public see us act represents but a small percentage of our fatigue. Think of the rehearsals, the learning of new parts, interviews with costumiers, boot-makers, wig-makers, &c. We literally never have a moment's peace, and when we are successful holidays come few and far between."
"But in spite of all this you are an advocate, I believe, Mrs. Kendal, of actors and actresses marrying, not only those who can take them out of the profession, and thus relieve them from all its cares and worries, but one another?"
"All my experience of life teaches me," the famous actress answered promptly, "that two of a trade always agree in the married state. I would have a tailor marry a dressmaker, a painter marry a sculptress, and so on. People are never so happy as when talking shop, and I think it is a disastrous thing when an actress marries a man who takes no interest in her work, or when an actor has to go home to a woman who prefers not to hear the theatre mentioned. On the whole, the most united married couples I have known belong to my own profession. I am sure that an actress can be quite as good a wife and house-mother as any other woman; in fact," she added stoutly,"rather better than many of her more homely sisters, for she always has to have her wits about her, and this helps her in daily life. For instance, my being an actress rather helps me to see that that coal scuttle is shabby." Mrs. Kendal continued, pointing suddenly to a somewhat dim specimen of that useful household object. "Members of the profession must have a hundred eyes, and both at home and abroad must be as fin de siecle and up-to-date as possible."
"One word more. What tragedy and comedy parts do you think the would-be actress ought to study in order to give herself and her critics a fair idea of her dramatic capabilities?"
"I should say Hero in Much Ado About Nothing, and Olivia in Twelfth Night or What You Will. I do not believe in beginners attempting leading roles; a smaller part gives a better idea of their general power."
"In what did you make your first appearance, Mrs. Kendfal?"
"I? Oh! I made my debut when I was three years old, so you see I can't tell you so much about it!" and with a bright laugh she put an end to our chat by observing that she must go off to Portland Place to see how the workmen were carrying out the orders they had been given the previous day anent some rather elaborate Louis XV. fenders, which will make Mrs. Kendal's future drawing-room a thing of beauty and a joy for ever.