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The Assault on The Opera Comique

The Opera Comique Theatre stood in the East Strand, back to back with the old Globe theatre (not to be confused with either Shakespeare's or Seymour Hicks Globe). The two building 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 Opera Comique Theatre opened in October 1870 with a French company led by the veteran French actress Pauline Virginie Dejazet. The following year it became temporary home to the reknowned Comedie-Francaise which had fled Paris to escape the Franco-Prussian war. In 1877, Richard D'Oyly Carte took over the lease of the theatre, principally to use as a base for his company performing Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and a number of their masterpeices were first performed there.

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. Although this arrangement worked reasonably well initially, when an argument arose between the creative team of Gilbert and Sullivan and the management company over an issue of copyright, Carte sided with the former and severed ties with the management company. This led to a disgraceful scene which could only be described as members of the backing company raising a mob to assault the theatre in the middle of a performance of 'HMS Pinafore' on July 31st 1879, with near dire consequences.

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


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 canse 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.

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, 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 putting the performers 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 any 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".

Author: Don Gillan,
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