During the 1890s and 1900s the Strand’s Gaiety theatre played host to a string of dazzlingly successful shows featuring the ‘Gaiety Girls.’ For the project Moving Past Present I invited artist Janina Lange to ‘reanimate’ two of the Gaiety’s best-known stars, Constance Collier and Ellaline Terriss, as digital avatars. The process of researching their lives and careers took us from the Westminster archives to the V&A theatre collection, from the BFI’s vaults to eBay. Having written a bit about the performance that Janina created, I wanted to share some of the stories and materials we came across in the course of developing the project. In future posts I’ll be talking about Collier and Terriss themselves. In this post, though, I want to say a bit about the Gaiety Girls’ role in the Strand’s history, and about the theatre’s famous manager ‘Gaiety George’ Edwardes.
Initially known as the Strand Musick Hall, the first Gaiety Theatre was located on the south side of the Strand. The Gaiety relocated to the Waterloo Bridge corner of the Aldwych semicircle in 1903. Having suffered bomb damage during the blitz, it was demolished in 1957 to make way for English Electric House – a building that one architecture critic memorably described as ‘an incurable farrago of shapes and styles… which reflect man adrift in the mid-20th century’ and for which ‘absolutely nothing can be said.’[i] Today the site is occupied by the ME London hotel, which bears two plaques identifying it as the former home of the Gaiety Girls. While the Gaiety had played host to burlesques and comic operas since the 1860s, the arrival of Irish impresario George Edwardes in 1885 initiated a new phase in its history – and in popular theatre. Shows like A Gaiety Girl (1893), The Shop Girl (1894), The Circus Girl (1896) and A Runaway Girl (1898) saw Edwardes and his team of collaborators forging a new hybrid genre – ‘Edwardian musical comedy’ – while laying the groundwork for modern celebrity culture.
With their frothy plotlines and risqué songs, the shows themselves were hardly avant-garde. They were, however, innovative on their own terms. For one thing, they eschewed the historical settings and exotic, far-flung locations typical of the genre in favour of everyday locations and topical scenarios (albeit highly romanticized ones). In an 1894 interview with The Sketch, H.J.W. Dam, author of The Shop Girl, argued that theatre audiences were developing a taste for ‘the local and real’, noting that playwrights can ‘find dramas, ranging from farce to tragedy, in the streets of London today.’[ii] Dam himself drew inspiration from newspapers, borrowing the idea of a department store salesgirl who inherits a fortune from a story he read in the press. If Emile Zola and the impressionists had made claims for everyday urban reality as fit subject matter for serious literature and art, the Gaiety’s musical comedies proved it could also furnish material for saucily romantic light entertainment. Working songs, jokes and fashion show-style spectacle into dramatic plots, Edwardes’ team borrowed from burlesque and music hall while framing their shows as something closer to ‘legitimate’ theatre.
Equally innovative – though not always in a good way – was Edwardes’ handling of his stars. Described by Stephen Gundle as ‘the world’s first branded showgirl,’[iii] the Gaiety Girls were obliged to maintain their personae both onstage and ‘outside the theatre.’[iv] Edwardes ensured that his performers were ‘always polite and very well-behaved,’ upholding middle-class mores. Girls were ‘carefully selected, groomed and glorified’ and given ‘lessons in elocution, singing, dancing and fencing.’ Suntans were banned ‘in order to preserve an aristocratic whiteness of complexion and make-up was never worn off stage.’[v] And it wasn’t just the girl’s complexions that were aristocratic: landed gentry could often be found among the lovelorn ‘stage door Johnnies’ who waited outside the theatre to pay court to the Girls. Connie Gilchrist married the 7th earl of Orkney; Rosie Boote became the 4th Marchioness of Headfort.
Privileging beauty and ‘personality’ over theatrical skill (while they did dance and sing, the main purpose of the Gaiety’s chorus was to ‘decorate the stage and respond with individual mannerisms to what was going on around them’[vi]) and auditioning hundreds of aspirant stars a week, Edwardes’ methods represented a step towards Hollywood’s industrialized star system. He also had a keen eye for promotion and co-branding opportunities, contracting Girls to photographic studios (many of them located on the Strand), hosting advertising in show programmes, working endorsements for the likes of Harrods and Thomas Cook into productions, licensing sheet music and arranging discounts for his stars at Romano’s, a restaurant on the Strand only too keen to have the cover star of this week’s Sketch magazine dining with them. As this suggests, work for Edwardes’ performers didn’t stop once the curtain fell; as Collier writes in her autobiography Harlequinade, ‘I was photographed three times a week by Downey, for which I received a settled income… Two famous dressmakers, one in London and one in Paris, dressed me for nothing, and a famous English designer called her models after me and made my clothes at a very nominal fee… My picture advertised all sorts of wares, and face creams and soaps, and I gave advice in all the papers on how to keep healthy and beautiful and young. If I had followed the regime I laid down, I could never have finished in the twenty-four hours.’[vii] Technological breakthroughs (like the development of half-tone plates, which allowed for the cheap reproduction of high quality monochrome images) turned these ‘girls’ into recognisable faces even for those who had never set foot in the theatre, disseminating their signature attitudes, expressions and poses.
At a time when women were agitating for equality and political representation, the Gaiety Girls offered male audiences a less threatening, more seductive vision of modern femininity – ‘end of the century girls’ less interested in the vote than bicycle rides, bathing suits and crafty cigarettes. Where politically-minded ‘new women’ were portrayed in many novels and plays of the time as shrewish, sexless and pretentious, Edwardes’ ‘naughty but nice’ heroines[viii] rejected Victorian stuffiness without posing a real challenge to the established order of things. Peter Bailey emphasises the role of ‘knowingness ‘, innuendo and implication in musical comedy[ix] – the same knowingness demonstrated by the Sketch journalist who confides that the dialogue of A Gaiety Girl ‘is said to be full of shocking second meanings, but of course, a virtuous journalist cannot give his character away by admitting that he understood or even noticed them.’[x] If the Gaiety Girl seems scandalously forward, it’s only because she’s too guileless to realise that she’s doing something shocking (Terriss: ‘I used to sing quite innocently lines on the most controversial subjects and generally, I believe, looked most surprised’[xi]). But while in many ways performers like Terriss and Collier were pandering to male fantasies, it’s important to note that they also had many female fans, for whom the Gaiety’s glamourous, venturesome, up-to-date heroines represented independence from the strictures of nineteenth century gender norms and codes of etiquette.
As Joel H. Kaplan and Sheila Stowell argue, shows like The Shop Girl, The Girl from Kays and Our Miss Gibbs would have been particularly resonant at a time when real servants and shopgirls were increasingly expected to present themselves like performers – presentable, ‘personable’ and sexually appealing.[xii] Some saw such jobs as more glamourous and dignified than manual labour; others felt it was demeaning to be forced not just to work but to act like you were enjoying it. In other words, if the Gaiety Girls can be seen as anticipating the Hollywood era (and, latterly, the age of Instagram influencers, personal branding and online ‘micro-celebrity’), the way that their on- and off-stage activities blurred the lines between work, play and performance also begs to read as part of the pre-history of the forms of ‘emotional labour’ and ‘passionate work’ analysed by scholars like Arlie Hochschild and Angela McRobbie.[xiii] Of course, not all the ‘girls’ forged successful careers: Collier writes of running into an out-of-work former Gaiety Girl on the Strand one day: beneath her fur coat she’s wearing a ‘threadbare little dress’ having pawned all her other clothes. Eliciting pity for the ‘girls’ who don’t make it and contempt for the ‘shifty gentlemen’ poised to capitalize on their misfortune, the episode is a reminder that if Collier and Terriss incarnated the rags-to-riches promise of the stage, their success was the exception rather than the rule.[xiv]
While it was the Gaiety’s female stars who received the most media attention, Edwardes and his collaborators were also prominent public figures. Terriss and Collier both credit ‘Gaiety George’ with almost supernatural charisma, with Terriss writing that ‘if anyone ever really cornered him he used to open his eyes with the bland innocence of a newborn baby and was apparently so surprised about everything he was told that it almost seemed a shame to believe he ought ever to have been blamed for anything.’[xv] Others were less flattering, however: as Bailey notes, Arthur Wing Pinero’s lampooning of Edwardes in his 1912 satire The ‘Mind the Paint’ Girl hints at a more sinister side to ‘the Guv’nor,’ painting him as ‘something of a pimp and a pander.’[xvi] Media interest in Edwardes was part of a wider fascination with stories of men moulding lower-class women into models of feminine grace and glamour. There are shades of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion about the way Edwardes drilled, coaxed, bullied, surveilled and bribed his ‘girls’ into line with his ideal; indeed, A Gaiety Girl’s playful portrayal of peers of the realm shunning debutantes in favour of Gaiety chorus girls poses some of the same awkward questions about education, social mobility and class that Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle raises – if women who weren’t ladies by birth could be made to seem so ladylike what did that say about the basis of aristocratic privilege? The Edwardes described by Terriss, with his blandly pacifying gaze, also reads as a more benign version of the sinister hypnotist Svengali in George du Maurier’s phenomenally successful 1894 novel Trilby. Turning Irish wastrel Trilby O’Ferrall (who Collier would play in 1905 alongside legendary actor and manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree) into a world-renowned singer, Svengali’s name has survived as tabloid shorthand for pop puppet masters from Malcolm McLaren to Simon Cowell – all successors of a sort to Gaiety George.
[i] Telegraph and Morning Post, August 24th 1960, p.1
[ii] The Sketch, November 28th 1894, p.216
[iii] Stephen Gundle (2009). Glamour: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.130
[iv] Brian Singleton (2004). Oscar Asche, Orientalism, and British Musical Comedy. London: Praeger, p.20
[v] Gundle, Glamour, p.130
[vii] Constance Collier (1929). Harlequinade: The Story of My Life. London: John Lane, p.61
[viii] Thomas Postlewait (2007). ‘George Edwardes and Musical Comedy: The Transformation of London Theatre and society, 1878-1914’ in Tracy C. Davis and Peter Holland (eds.), The Performing Century: Nineteenth-Century Theatre’s History. London: Palgrave Macmillan, p.93
[ix] Peter Bailey (1998). Popular Culture and Performance in the Victorian City. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
[x] The Sketch, October 18th 1893, p.597
[xi] Ellaline Terriss (1955). Just a Little Bit of String. London: Hutchinson, p.73.
[xii] Joel H. Kaplan and Sheila Stowell (1994). Theatre and Fashion: Oscar Wilde to the Suffragettes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.102-3.
[xiii] Arlie Russel Hochschild (1983). Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Feeling. Berkley: California University Press; Angela McRobbie (2015). Be Creative: Making a Living in the New Culture Industries. Cambridge: Polity.
[xiv] Collier, Harlequinade, p.66
[xv] Terriss, Little bit of String, p.74
[xvi] Bailey, Popular Culture and Performance, p.189
Rob is a postdoctoral researcher with King’s College London’s Ego Media project. He writes about gaming culture, digital identities and online communities