The Assault on The Opera Comique

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The Opera Comique Theatre was rapidly constructed in 1870 and opened in October of that year with a French company led by the veteran French actress Pauline Virginie Dejazet. It occupied a site in the East Strand, standing back to back with the old Globe theatre (not to be confused with either Shakespeare's or Seymour Hicks Globe). These two buildings were so notoriously poorly built that they were known colloquially as "The Rickety Twins", both being hastily erected with the probable intent of staking a compensation claim from the expected forthcoming redevelopment of the surrounding area. Both were indeed demolished in 1899. The theatre was reached by long, narrow tunnels leading from three thoroughfares, which earned it the nickname of "Theatre Royal, Tunnels", and which could have posed a considerable danger in the event of an emergency evacuation.

For a time it became the temporary home to the reknowned Comedie-Francaise theatre company which had fled Paris to escape the Franco-Prussian war, and was taken over in 1877 by Richard D'Oyly Carte, who secured a lease from it's then owner, the Earl of Dunraven, intending to use it principally as a base for his company performing Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and a number of their masterpeices were first performed there.

The following is a period account of these events as published in "The Theatre" on September 1st, 1879.


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Many people who have read the police-court proceedings of the recent riot at the Opera Comique, have laughed at the matter as being a good joke. Many people have believed in Mr. Besley's clever observations that the case was a good advertisement, but very few persons, indeed, are really aware of the facts, and to what fearful danger the many hundreds of people who formed the audience at the above theatre on the eve of July 31st were most certainly put.

The Comedy Opera Company, Limited (very limited), consists of Mr. E. Hodgson Bayley, of water-cart -- we mean "patent hydrostatic van" -- fame; Mr. Collard Drake, who makes and plays flutes; George Metzler & Co. (Mr. Frank Chappell being the Co.), and a Mr. Wilson. These five are the directors. The shareholders, if recent report speaks correctly, are Mr. Allen, a musical composer, and two gentlemen, who are "at present abroad."

This company opened the Opera Comique in November, 1877, with The Sorcerer. All went along successfully until the following January, when the houses became rather empty, and up went a fortnight's notice. The houses got better; down went the fortnight's notice. A few more stalls vacant, and up went the fortnight's notice again. It was a very trying and anxious time with many of the artistes, and especially with the employees, who were not deriving special incomes from music, patent hydrostatic vans, and flutes. H.M.S. Pinafore was produced the latter end of the following May (1878), and was a great success. At the latter end of July the weather became insufferably hot, and London empty. The business fell off suddenly. One Saturday evening, a tolerably cool night, the receipts were about £140, while the following Monday, when it was dreadfully hot, they were the forty, minus the hundred. The Comedy Opera Company became alarmed; and, as usual, up went the fortnight's notice again. Matters were becoming ludicrous. One Friday night the artistes were really unaware whether the next night was to be the last.

Eventually the directors agreed to accept the proposal of the artistes, including the choristers, who only earn their 30s. a week, to make a reduction of a third from their salaries. This was accepted, and, singularly enough, the business immediately improved, and Mr. E. H. Bayley, of hydrostatic van fame, never said a truer word than that this was the best move the Opera Comedy Company, Limited, had hitherto made, because, be it remembered, that they did not suggest the present style of performauces, viz., English opera, English authors, composers, and actors; that was the idea "a many years ago" of Mr. Carte.

At last the directors began to coin money, the Pinafore being a grand success. The Comedy Opera Company, Limited, made another good move. Mr. Carte was bound under the provisions of his lease to close for repairs at some time or other. Taking into consideration the fact that during the previous Christmas the theatre did very bad business, the directors thought they could not do better than close the theatre for the necessary repairs at the corresponding time. This was done, and at Christmas, 1878, actors, chorus, and employees, were, with one or two exceptions, without an engagement at the very time when it may be presumed a little extra revenue, if anything, would have been more in accordance with the wish of the majority of them. The theatre re-opened in February, 1879, and greater success than ever attended the Pinafore. It is asserted that the directors have made about £16,000.

A quarrel then ensued between them and the author and composer. Mr. Carte, who held the lease, had got tired of the humorous doings of the directors, and so dispensed with their services. Into the question of copyright, &c., which is sub judice, we will not enter. The Comedy Opera Company may be right for aught we know. The last day of the innings of the Comedy Opera Company, Limited, was on July 31st last. One would have imagined that on that night the directors would have come to the theatre to bid the actors "good-bye," and to thank them for having in some small measure contributed to the success of the piece. Not at all. In return for their having kindly reduced their salaries, and as an emolument for their having been thrown out of an engagement at Christmas, Mr. E. H. Bayley came to the theatre with some of his patent hydrostatic van manufacturers and drivers; Mr. Collard Drake, Mr. Frank Chappell, and his brother Mr. Cecil Chappell, a highly intelligent solicitor, forming a species of escort.

Their object was to take away the scenery, which, it appears, according to the wording of the lease, may not be removed, but which they believed was theirs. They came early, with what result has been partially made known. The actors on the stage were startled in the middle of their performance by cries of "Come on!" "Now's the time!" They heard a rush of many persons down the stone steps which led direct to the stage, and immediately afterwards saw a number of roughs at the prompt entrance. Many had heard "a lot of Mr. Bayley's water-cart men were coming down to have a row," but until the moment no importance was attached to the rumour. The ladies on the stage became panic-stricken, and too much praise cannot be given to Miss Everard for her presence of mind and the struggles she made to proceed with her part in the ordinary way. The ladies and gentlemen began to rise hurriedly and leave the stalls. Mr. Alfred Cellier, who was conducting in the orchestra, turned round to the occupants of the stalls and assured them that there was no cause for alarm, and begged of them to remain seated. One of the crew of H.M.S. Pinafore addressed the frightened occupants of a stage-box to the same effect, but to no purpose.

The uproar behind the scenes increased, and scuffling and loud cries were heard. The audience began to rise in all parts of the crowded house, and leave in haste. Mr. Cellier then stopped the band and chorus, and Mr. Grossmith stepped forward and informed the terrified audience that the late directors laid claim to the scenery, that, although there was a great dispute proceeding, there was no danger whatever. After some cheering the audience became more reassured, but the riot behind continued for some time. It is only fair to Mr. Metzler and to Mr. Wilson to say that they were not present once during the evening of this disgraceful scene. The compromise of the police summonses has cost the directors several hundreds of pounds, a small matter to them. If the case had gone to trial, Mr, Barker might have had the poor satisfaction of seeing Messrs. Bayley, Drake, and Chappell fined, and some of them even imprisoned, but it would have cost him several hundreds of pounds instead, a matter of some little importance to him, perhaps. We hope that the defendants, for their own sakes, will not look back upon the evening of the 31st July, 1879, without a deep sense of shame and regret, if only for their want of consideration for the professional ladies and gentlemen who had worked so well on their behalf, and who had nothing to do with this unfortunate dispute, to say nothing of a catastrophe which very nearly occurred.

Carte also drew in a small group of investors to form a new management company, 'The Comedy Opera Company (Limited)', to provide financial backing for his ventures, in return for which the investors would receive a share in the profits. Initially, things went well, but then an extended period of poor attendances almost led to the closure of the theatre, a situation which was only averted by the players, at their own suggestion, taking a cut in salaries. Things began to pick up, and at last the directors were making money. "H.M.S. Pinafore" was produced from the latter end of May, 1878, and was a great success. An insufferably hot summer led to another downturn, but numbers picked up again as the cooler weather arrived. Even so, takings over the christmas period having been very poor the previous year, the directors then decided that that would be an opportune time to close the theatre for repairs. When it opened again in February, business was better than ever, and the directors were at last making copious amounts of money - with the net result that, despite the ups and downs, in the first eighteen months of operation the directors of the Comedy Opera Company did realise considerable profits, some estimations putting the sum as high as £16,000.

But then a rift arose between the Comedy Opera Company directors and Mr. D'Oyly Carte over the profit sharing arrangements for Pinafore. The terms of the agreement allowed D'Oyly Carte a run of seven weeks during which he would become the sole manager of the production and be entitled to retain the whole of the profits. This period was due to begin from August, 1st, 1879, and meant that the directors would be excluded from a share in the profits just when they had reached their highest levels. Consequently, the directors were keen to vary the terms of the arrangement and sought to gain power in this respect by applying to the Chancery division of the High Court for an injunction to restrain Mr. Gunn, who was acting in locum tenens for Mr D'Oyly Carte, from continuing in the receipt of money taken at the doors of the Opera Comique.

When that application was denied, however, D'Oyly Carte's legal rights under the contract being quite clear, the directors next resolved to put on a rival production of the piece, and for that purpose secured the tenure of the nearby Imperial theatre. For this they needed the sets and costumes, for which they themselves had paid, that were currently in use by the company at the Opera Comique (and the securing of which would have provided the additional advantage of preventing D'Oyly Carte, at least temporarily, from continuing his production). Here again, however, D'Oyly Carte had legal precedence on his side - it being generally stipulated in the legal covenants in all theatrical leases at that time that the theatrical properties of all pieces produced at a theatre became the property of the theatre landlord - in this case Mr. D'Oyly Carte!

Not to be put off, the directors resolved to recover what they considered was their property, if necessary by force. On the night of 31st July, 1879, the last night before D'Oyly Carte's sole tenure was to begin, three of the directors, Mr. Collard Augustus Drake, Mr. Edward Hodgson Bayley and Mr. Frank Chappell, together with the company solicitor, Mr. Cecil Chappell, in company with about two dozen hired ruffians, descended upon the theatre during the performance for that very purpose. As they came in through the outer stage door of the theatre they were met by Mr. Richard Barker, the Earl of Dunraven's agent who held the Lord Chamberlain's licence for the theatre. The stage-doorkeeper, who had been unable to block the mob's passage, then asked Barker whether these people were to be permitted on the premises - to which Barker replied "Certainly, the directors; but no one else."

One of the directors then exhorted the crowd of ruffians "Now then, boys; now's your time." Barker, concerned to prevent a disturbance which might have precipitated fatal consequences in the packed theatre, then braced himself in the inner doorway to prevent their further passage but was roughly thrown to the ground, sustaining injuries to his back and left side for which he subsequently required medical treatment. Mr. Chappell then demanded that Barker stand aside and allow the removal of the properties. Barker responded that he would not do so and indeed would protect his employer's property to his utmost ability. He was then struck from behind and almost fell down the stairs as the mob rushed passed intent about their business.

A scuffle then ensued between the stage-hands of the theatre and the gang of roughs, causing a great commotion which almost led to a dangerous panic in the auditorium. Only the timely intervention of Mr. George Grossmith in explaining the situation avoided the panic, and the audience sat listening in fascination as the riot continued behind the scenes for some time until, eventually, the interlopers were driven from the theatre empty handed.

Legal proceedings followed upon these events, and on August 12th, 1879, the instigators of the riot were called to account for their actions before a magistrate at the Bow Street Police Court, charged with creating a riot and assaulting Mr. Richard Barker. Much evidence was heard from both sides before the proceedings were adjourned to be resumed on the following Friday. On that occasion, Mr. Montagu Williams, for the presecution addressed the magistrate, and said that, with permission, he would withdraw the summons, the defendants having given apology and made offer of compensation to Mr. Barker, and an agreement having been reached to end all litigation as to "H.M.S. Pinafore." The learned magistrate accepted the request, stating he was satisfied that the defendants were sorry for their actions and added that the less said about the matter the better.

What made these events so dangerous was the construction of the theatre itself. Not only was the interior claustrophobic with poorly designed stairways, but the only exterior access was via three long narrow tunnels leading in from three thoroughfares. Any panic among the audience in these circumstances would almost certainly have led to significant loss of life in the crush that would inevitably have followed. Moreover, as is made abundantly clear by the author of the article reproduced here, their activities showed scant gratitude or regard for the performers, whose sacrifice of a significant portion of their salaries during a difficult period had enabled the directors to turn a potentially loss-making venture into a highly lucrative one (their suggested earnings of £16,000 was a tremendous sum in those days). Having first repaid this loyalty by causing the performers to be put out of work at Christmas (for which they would not have been paid), their subsequent actions then threatened to put them out of work altogether - not to mention the very real risk that was posed to their physical safety. It is difficult to imagine such an event as this happening today.

A tragedy did strike at the Opera Comique the following year, when six year old Benedict Tacagni was taken ill on March 20th, 1880, the last day of the season of the "Children's Pinafore" in which he had been midshipmite. He was diagnosed with 'acute rheumatism' and died six days later. During his illness he drifted in and out of delirium and it was stated that whilst in that state he constantly sang snatches of songs from 'Pinafore'. Indeed, the last audible sounds from his lips before his passing were the lyrics of "for he is an Englishman".

Primary Sources: Various period newspapers and journals.

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