A Strange Passage in my Life (part 2), 1835

The following occurred in 1835 and comes from a collection of stories about life on the stage (I previously published the first part). It’s a bit long, but the description of props from generations past is absolutely fascinating:

A Strange Passage in my Life (part 2)

by E. L. Blanchard

On a certain unlucky Friday in the month of November, 1835, there was a consultation in Bradwell’s room about calling into requisition for the forthcoming pantomime of “Guy Fawkes” some old mechanical contrivances which were known to be in existence, but being quite unknown to a later generation, were considered likely to increase the attraction of the Christmas novelty, without involving any extra expenditure. The task of selecting what was likely to be most suitable was assigned to me, and I received special instructions to look out for a certain “animated peacock,” originally made for a pantomime produced early in the century, under the title of “Harlequin and the Swans, or the Bath of Beauty.”

Delighted with the confidence reposed in my judgement, and illustrating the necessity of cautioning all ardent youths against excessive zeal, I resolved, without being asked, to begin my exploration at once. Familiar with the usages and the greater part of the subterranean region of the theatre, I procured from Sutherland, the stage-door keeper, a fireman’s lantern, which consisted simply of a candle-lamp with a protecting covering of wire gauze, and descended below the mezzanine floor into the cellars, to begin my investigations, hoping to emerge from the vaults with the “animated peacock” long before the afterpiece, which was the operatic drama of “Paul Clifford,” had come to its termination.

These vaulted passages,  running under the substantial arches on which the theatre was built, were much longer and infinitely more intricate than I had expected. Stored with a heap of theatrical lumber which had evidently been left undisturbed for years, clouds of thick pungent dust accompanied every movement of the crumbling canvas, and in the strange solitude of the place, the echo of an unwonted footfall had a peculiarly appalling sound. I had heard, as I came down the old stone staircase, the stirring melody of the Highwayman’s song, “Hurrah for the Road!” and familiar with the tune, I now tried to repeat a verse, as an appropriately cheering ditty under the circumstances. I had hardly got as far as the second line, “Hurrah for the midnight hour!” when I found the reverberation of the words too terrible to endure. A hundred mocking ghosts with powerful voices seemed at that moment to be joining, out of tune, in a fiendish chorus. Those who have ever heard the resonant echoes under the brick arch of the railway bridge spanning the Thames near Maidenhead will have some idea of the remarkably weird effect produced. Decidedly it was not advisable to repeat the experiment. Vault opened into vault in such a mysterious manner, and with such persistent similarity of height and form, that if the echoes could have been rapidly formed into substance, one might have imagined these repetitions of stony corridors the result of the loud reverberations just evoked. With the increasing difficulty of discovering the exact direction in which I was proceeding, came the unpleasant reflection that the two inches of candle brought with me in the lantern had very materially diminished.

At last, more by accident than design, another quarter of an hour brought me into the very vault where the accumulated properties of past pantomimes were evidently stored. Here were the basket-figures of the giants used for the inhabitants of Brobdingnag in “Harlequin Gulliver;” there rows of grotesque vegetable monstrosities, used by Grimaldi in “Harlequin Asmodeus.” Dragon chariots were piled up, with grinning heads and tinselled frippery; while over a cluster of property sheaves of wheat, evidently representing many Christmases ago a pantomimical “Harvest home,” peered forth some of the most terrifying masks, with strips of green foil still underlying their flaming eyes, that the wildest imagination could conceive. Behind an old Roman chariot, with its heavy Dutch-metalled wheels in a state of ruinous decay, was to be detected the proud, stiff neck of the “animated peacock” I was especially called upon to examine; and, on extricating the ingeniously constructed body of the bird, and working out the gigantic fan forming the expanding tail, it was a reward for much trouble to find the mechanical appliances were not so much out of repair as had been expected. Putting the lantern carefully down, and strutting about inside the body of the bird, to ascertain the weight of the basketwork, and learn the exact position of the levers working the neck and tail, I was not immediately conscious of a sudden diminution of the light; but, all at once, the horrors of the position I was in forced themselves upon me; for darkness rapidly increased in intensity; and having dislodged some of the supports of the pyramids of properties around, huge masks tumbled down in every direction; and when I ineffectually attempted to grope my way back, every avenue seemed choked up and impassable.

As no one in the theatre knew of this expedition being made, and as this part of the house was never visited by the two firemen employed nightly to watch the stage, all chance of rescue seemed hopeless. The appalling reality was nothing to the terror of imagination. The pasteboard masks I had just seen appeared visible as illuminated faces of a stupendously hideous kind. Every now and then, as a basket-work figure would fall, filling my throat with earthy dust, painfully suggestive of the graveyard, a gigantic gloved hand would rest, in the darkness, on my shoulder, or some heavy arm would throw an unwelcome caress around my neck. Then came worse phantoms. I knew I must be near the spot where the gas accident had taken place seven years before, and with all the ghastly details of which I had become so familiar when a boy. The two men who had lost their lives seemed to be wandering about, like myself, to escape from the tomb. A cold clammy hand appeared to grasp mine every minute I moved to feel my way towards some possible hole through which I might creep. Burning eyes would flame through the gloom, and then vanish. There was a long period of unconsciousness, broken at last by an impression that the church of Sr. Paul’s, Covent Garden, was at that moment striking four.

Following, as best I could, the direction from which the sound proceeded, I managed at length to emerge into an adjacent empty space, which I conjectured, rightly as it afterwards proved, to be the spot formerly occupied by one of the old gasometers. High above was a grating, from which came a current of cool, refreshing air. Much time was occupied in building up from the larger properties a kind of platform on which a firm footing could be gained, and a chance afforded of once more communicating with the outer world. A long stick, with a pointed star at the top of it, which I guessed to be a fairy wand, had fortunately fallen in my way, and after more hours of anxious labour in building my scaffold, now assisted by a faint gleam of daylight, I mounted to the top, and pushing the starry tip of the wand through the iron bars, endeavoured to attract the notice of some passer by. When voices grew distinctly audible, the pasteboard star at the extremity of my stick became more animated than ever; but I believe it was only the lucky accident of a market-woman dropping a penny from her hand on to the pavement, and stooping down to look for it, that caused this feeble signal, only an inch above the kerbstone of the Piazza, to attract attention. It was then nearly six o’clock on the evening of Saturday, and contriving to make my perilous position known, with promises of remuneration, faithfully fulfilled, the old market-woman went round to the stage-door keeper, who, not without some difficulty, at last procured my liberation from an involuntary imprisonment of about nineteen hours.

At all events, one of the most effective comic scenes in the pantomime of “Guy Fawkes,” so remarkable for the admirable acting of Mr. C. J. Smith, in the opening, was a representation of the Zoological Gardens, Regent’s Park; but how the revived “Animated Peacock”came to figure so prominently in it was told in a whisper, that till now has never gone beyond “The Green Room!”

Scott, Clement. Stories of the Stage. London: G. Routledge, 1881. 23-25. Google Books. 25 Oct. 2007. Web. 2 May 2017. <https://books.google.com/books?id=TRgOAAAAQAAJ>.

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