The pay of the individual actress was, quite naturally, graded according to the demand for her services, that demand in turn being determined by the public's apparent desire to see that actress in action. As an actress's reputation grew, so would that public desire. A popular actress, or actor for that matter, therefore could significantly increase the public's desire to see a play and so increase its box office takings through both larger audiences and a longer run. Theatrical managers were, of course, fully aware of this and would compete for the services of those artistes who they beleived would be the biggest 'draw' to pack in the audiences at their productions. Naturally, the individual actress would strive to secure the highest possible remuneration for her services, whilst the manager, on the other hand, would be keen to employ the biggest stars he could entice as cheaply as possible. The arrival in England of the big American impressarios did much to drive up performers salaries in the British capital, as they were generally more ready than their English counterparts to resort to the cheque book to poach or keep the biggest stars.
Sometimes actresses would be contracted only for the run of a particular show, but often, to ensure continuity of their services, they would be contracted for a number of years at a stated salary. Of course the fickleness of public tastes meant that this type of contract could be a boon or a curse for either party. It was not unusual for an actress of moderate standing, through success in a particular production, to burst into the limelight practically overnight, thereby greatly increasing her worth. In that case, whilst the actress might regret having signed herself into a long term contract so cheaply, the manager on the other hand would be most happy with the outcome of his foresight. Conversely, an actress could fall from, or be supplanted in, the public favour almost as quickly. In that case, to her the long term contract was a safety net, maintaining her whilst she sought to recover the public's esteem, but to the manager it became a millstone, having to pay a 'star's wages to an actress who was no longer packing in the audiences. Of course, if either party felt particularly aggrieved, an attempt might be made to break the contract, but with numerous safeguards in place such attempts rarely succeeded.
For those actresses at the very top of the profession, and able to demand the most remuniterative contracts, their pay for performing in a particular show would often be split between regular 'wages' and a share of the profits. This again had advantages to both sides. Because the fixed element of the actress' pay was considerably lower than it would have to have been without the profit-sharing element, the manager was, to some extent, protected against paying her more than the takings of the show warranted. She, on the other hand, had a vested interest in giving her all to ensure the show was a success since this would considerably increase her income. Great singers and dancers, meanwhile, could command fees that made even those those of the top actresses seem paltry by comparison, often commanding vast fees for one night appearances.
Of course all of the above in reality applied only to a very small minority at the very top of the profession, and since it was these individuals that drew the greatest public attention and were frequently reported upon in the press there was a common misconception among the public that actors had it easy. For the vast majority of the rank and file, however, the situation was very different with a considerable gap in earnings between those at the top of the profession and those just starting out or ekeing a living at the bottom. Many hundreds of actors and actresses working in London in the opening decade of the twentieth century (ie. 1900-1910) earned about the same as a common labour, that is less than 30s. [shillings] a week - barely a living wage in England's capital in those days. For example, a room at a boarding house around that time was likely to cost around 6-8s. a week and food a further 12s-14s. a week. Allowing another 2 or 3s. for omnibus fares and other minor incidental expenses that left very little to contribute toward longer term expenses, like clothing etc., or to put aside to tide them through the lean times (which were frequent). For actors on tour, the cost of living in the provinces would be lower but since they would be required to travel frequently and expected to do so at their own expense, their overall living expenses would likely be no less. Earnings in musical comedy were generally the highest, and the cleverest and prettiest chorus girls in London around that time could earn as much as £2 a week.
Since the pay of the top stars was highly publicised in the press, as well as being hinted at by their often extravangant lifestyles, there was no shortage of aspirants to the profession. Some of those hopefuls would turn away from it when they failed to quickly establish themselves and the harsh reality of life as a jobbing actor struck home. Others would persevere hoping for their big break, because acting was in their blood or simply because they knew no alternative.
Even for those who did make 'the big time', it might not last, and since their expenditure would grow commensurate with their income even they could quickly find themselves in financial difficulties if and when their fortunes turned. Top actresses would not balk at paying as much as £100 (more than some of their less fortunate sisters annual incomes), and sometimes considerably more, for a single gown - of which they had many. And having become accustomed to an expensive lifestyle it could be difficult to adjust down if their popularity waned and earning power diminished. More than a few highly paid stars would face bankruptcy at some point in their careers, and more than a few who had once been celebrated and wealthy would grow old and die in poverty and obscurity once their stage careers were over.
Reproduced on this page are a selection of articles discussing the pay earned by some stage stars in the Edwardian era. It should be remembered, as intimated above, that these articles generally relate to a relatively small group of popular performers at the top of the pay scale and are in no way indicative of average earnings in the profession. To put these articles into perspective, below are some average weekly pay rates for workers in the London area in 1910, and inflation adjusted 2010 comparison currency values:
Thus, Maud Allan's reputed offer of £2000 for one week in Manchester, mentioned in one of the articles below, would have been equivalent to approximately £175,000 at 2010 values and sufficient, at the time, to pay the weekly wage bill for 1000 skilled craftsmen or around 1500 labourers.
(Local Government Gazette [London, Uk] - 16th January, 1890)
Theatrical and Musical (extract)
Mdme. Jane Hading, the distinguished French actress, sends to Galignani's Messenger some jottings upon the salaries of singers and actors in the past and the present. The race for big salaries began in France under the First Empire. Napoleon sought to bind Mdme. Catalini to the Grand Opera by a contract assuring her £4,000 a year and two months leave; but in spite of wishes, which were usually looked upon as orders, the celebrated cantatrice privately left Paris for London, where she received double. To play at Erfurt before the famous "parterre of kings," Talma, the tragedian, was paid £10 a night and £2 for extras, which was accounted a large sum in those days. Rachel first entered the Theatre-Francais at a fixed salary of £160 a year; but, with conges and extras and benefits, she was making £3,000 a year before she left the stage of that house.
A magnificent engagement was that of Jenny Lind with Mr. Barnum. It stipulated for 150 performances during the space of eighteen months the Swedish Nightingale was to receive £200 a a night and to have all her travelling and hotel expenses paid, including those of five persons who accompanied her. In guarantee Mr. Barnum deposited with Messrs. Baring Brothers, the London bankers, a sum of £80,000, covering the whole engagement. In her tour throughout the United States, which lasted eighteen months, the famous ballet dancer, Fanny Elssler, cleared £28,000. Others, however, have since then made much larger sums in far less time. The times have changed, indeed, since the royal comedians of The Little Bourbon Theatre, under the management of Moliere, drew only a pitiful salary of 300 livres whenever there was enough money in the cash box for them to do so. Paulus, the music hall singer makes as much in a few hours. Faure, with three bars of music, Madame Theo with a couplet, and Patti with a note.
The famous tenor Tamberlik, who died in March 1889, at the age of sixty-nine, was offered £5,650 annually to sing at the Grand Opera in Paris which offer he declined. Madame Malibran used to receive £150 in London every evening; Grisi and Persiani would not sing there under £200 a night; while in Paris divas like Falcon, Damoreau, Cabel, Basse, Carvalho, who were unquestionably, as highly gifted, never came within measurable distance of such juices. When it became known that Duprez, the marvellous tenor, had asked £4,000 from M. Duponchel, the director of the Paris Opera, the news almost caused a revolution. The whole Press was in arms, the Bourse grew alarmed, and lively questions were addressed to the Minister of Fine Arts. Duprez held out and won the day. In the provinces he never sang under £40 a night. Patti was the first cantatrice who demanded and obtained in Paris a nightly salary of £400. Her example was at once followed by several of her rivals; so that, to sustain her supremacy in the operatic market, she gradually raised her price to £600, which sum she received for each of the three concerts she gave in one week last year at the Eden Theatre in Paris. "These are not notes, but bank notes, that come from her lips!" said a wag. Quite recently the tenor Tamagno was engaged at Rio Janeiro for £400 a night, at the rate of ten performances a month during the operatic season.
When Gabrielli, the celebrated singer, went to Russia in 1768, she astonished Catherine II. by demanding 5,000 ducats as salary for a two months engagement. The empress demurred, saying that the sum was even higher than the pay of any of her field-marshals. To which Gabrielli simply replied: "In that case, let your majesty's field-marshals sing for you!" The empress paid the 5,000 ducats.
As regards actors, there is also an upward movement in the salaries of the dramatic profession - I mean the salaries of men and women who have made a recognised position. Quite recently, I heard of a young actor who had signed a fresh engagement with his manager for £45 a week, and he is by no means the most important personage in the theatre, which owes much, I must admit, to his intelligence and industry. He is jeune premier, or "leading man," who is, of course, a very conspicuous member of a good company. At least £40 a week must be paid at any respectable house for a leading man, and a good second is worth £30 a week.
There is too much competition in management, say the directors, and it is this competition that raises the price of salaries. But a great singer, as well as an actor or actress, is worth just what she or he will bring. If she commands public attention, and brings £1,500 or £1,600 a night, she is always worth £1,000; while, if she is only the side-light to a big play, she may not be worth £10. It would, no doubt, have startled the old-time actors if they had been offered the salaries that to-day are paid to members of their profession. The "stars" have always enjoyed big returns, but the people who had failed to reach the stellar heights never dreamed of the weekly stipends that to-day rule the pay-roll. Of course the actor far down in the list has little more than suffices to reward him for his physical exertion in walking through a part, his talents remaining unremunerated until they make their way from under the bushel. It is hard to strike an average when talent varies so much, and rewards accordingly differ; but a general idea may be given, leaving out the exceptions. A heavy man in Paris may be contented with £8 to £10 a week; while his opposite, the low comedian, gets £10 to £12. Soubrettes, if bright and pretty, obtain £7 to £10; and polished villains a little more for their crimes. Old men and old women are content on £6 to £10, while the minor lights shine for from £3 to £6 each.
(The Express [London, Uk] - September, 1903)
Rich Rewards of the Stage and the Big Incomes of Dramatists
In few, if any, walks of life have the earnings Increased, so strikingly during one generation as have those of the dramatist and the actors.
Admitting, of course, that the stage as a profession is very much overcrowded, and that tne Incomes of by far the greater number of players are extremely attenuated, there remains the fact that the prizes are decidedly rich. It is perfectly certain, too, that the incomes earned nowadays by famous actors and actresses exceed many times over those of the famous players at the beginning of last century.
To come for a moment to absolute figures, and putting out of consideration the extraneous profits of actor management, there are at least a dozen names that will at once, occur of actors and actresses who can command a weekly salary of at least £100. This sum Has been considerably exceeded in recent times, notably by Mr. Tree's engagement of Mrs. Kendal and Miss Ellen Terry In 'The Merry Wives o£ Windsor,' and by Miss Olga Nethersole in 'The Gordian Knot,' by Mr. Arthur Colling's engagement of Mrs. John Wood at Drury Lane, and in many other instances.
Miss Ada Reeve has received as much as £125 a week and a share of the profits in a musical comedy. This is perhaps almost the highest figure ever paid regularly for long engagements in an ordinary theatre production.
In pantomime the salaries earned by popular favorites are far beyond the dreams of avarice. One hundred pounds a week for the principal comedian is quite an ordinary sum; £60 is a common one, and the highwater mark was reached by Mr. Dan Leno's £250 at Drury Lane.
Taking these figures as a basis, it is safe to say that an income of £4,000 a year is not beyond the possible ambition of a clever player, and it is also safe to say that with very few and rare exceptions no such income is possible to the painter, the novelist, and the musician, except, of course, the great operatic singer, and is a wild impossibility to even the most sanguine of journalists.
When an actor is also a manager and shares the profits of the theatre in addition to his salary, £300, or even £500 a week is a by no means unusual addition to his banking account.
Most West End theatres of the first importance will for a great success take as much as £2,000 to £3000 a week, and even allowing for the heavy expenses of management, this obviously allows a very considerable margin for profit.
But great as are the financial possibilities before the player, they fade into insignificance before the golden guerdon that lies before the dramatist.
Until the middle of the Victorian era the dramatist used as a rule to sell his play outright to the manager, and the price might be anything from, a five-pound note to £500. Charles Reade and Tom Taylor, for example, sold 'Masks and Faces' to Ben Webster in 1852 for £130.
In 1873 Reade bought it back again for £200, and in 1875, when the Bancrofts revived the famous comedy at the old Prince of Wales's Theatre, in Tottenham Street, they paid Reade a royalty of £3 a night.
'The Lady of Lyons' was sold by Bulwer Lytton to Macready for £10. Tom Taylor had £150 for 'The Ticket of Leave Man.' while on the other hand Goldsmith had £300 for 'She Stoops to Conquer.' It Is peculiarly Interesting to learn, on the authority of the veteran actor Mr. John Coleman that the value of dramatic work very much deteriorated between the times of Garrick and Macready. For example. Dr. Johnson sold a play which (like all his plays) was unsuccessful, for £1,000, which figure makes an amazing contrast with the £150 received for the perennially successful 'Ticket of Leave Man.'
The fifties, therefore, may be said to have marked the absolute low-water mark of the craft of the dramatist as a moneymaking concern. The modern playwright owes his exceedingly comfortable income to Dion Boucicault. The modern system is for the dramatist to receive a certain percentage of the gross receipts of the theatre at which his play is acted, the percentage, of course, varying with the fame of the writer.
This system was inaugurated by Boucicault in America, and was, as a matter of fact, the result of an accident. A certain American manager was unable to pay Boucicault $1,000 for the rights of one of his pieces, and it was agreed that, as an alternative, the playwright should accept a proportion of the receipts.
This lucky accident led Boucicault to realize the possibilities that there were in this form of payment, and as a result caused him to make more out of one play than the industrious Tom Taylor made out of a hundred.
Consider exactly what this system means. A successful play in a London theatre will very frequently run without a break for, say, eight months, to a gross taking of £60,000. These figures, I may say, are by no means exaggerated, and one could easily give many instances of plays that had earned considerably more in their first run.
Suppose, then, that the author's royalty is 10 per cent, on the gross receipts, and you arrive at the fact that he will receive from London alone some £6,000. Add to this the royalties from the English provinces, from America, from Australia, from South Africa, and from the Continent, and it would certainly be no exaggeration to say that very many plays produce for their writers £10,000, and not a few half as much again.
A dramatist like Mr. J.M. Barrie, whose plays have firmly caught the public on both sides of the Atlantic, who has had for some time two comedies running in London and America, to say nothing of the provinces, at the same time, must have been taking as toll from the theatregoing public quite £500 a week for a considerable time, or allowing for certain months in the year when the theatre is practically dead, the income of the playwright who attains to the eminence of Mr. Barrie may, without exaggeration, be put at the comfortable sum of £25,000.
It must be remembered, too, that though a play often disappears from the ken of the London playgoer after its first run, it will in many cases, be toured in the provinces year after year every week making some addition to the royalties it has earned.
A successful play, therefore, may be stated to be worth £10,000. A very fairly successful novel is certainly not worth more than £1,000, and very few novels reach that figure. It is, therefore, easy to see that of all men who earn their livings with their pen the dramatist is most to be envied, particularly as the actual number of words in a play rarely exceeds 8,000 - that is rather less than seven columns of 'The Express' - while few modern novels are less than 80,000 words, and many of them reach as much as 120,000.
Author: Don Gillan, www.stagebeauty.net.
Primary Sources: As indicated.
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