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The Un-Commercial Traveler

Two Views of a Cheap Theatre
As I shut the door of my lodging behind me, and came out into the streets at six on a
drizzling Saturday evening in the last past month of January, all that neighbourhood of
Covent-garden looked very desolate. It is so essentially a neighbourhood which has seen
better days, that bad weather affects it sooner than another place which has not come
down in the World. In its present reduced condition it bears a thaw almost worse than any
place I know. It gets so dreadfully low-spirited when damp breaks forth. Those wonderful
houses about Drury-lane Theatre, which in the palmy days of theatres were prosperous
and long-settled places of business, and which now change hands every week, but never
change their character of being divided and sub-divided on the ground floor into mouldy
dens of shops where an orange and half-a-dozen nuts, or a pomatum-pot, one cake of
fancy soap, and a cigar box, are offered for sale and never sold, were most ruefully
contemplated that evening, by the statue of Shakespeare, with the rain-drops coursing one
another down its innocent nose. Those inscrutable pigeon-hole offices, with nothing in
them (not so much as an inkstand) but a model of a theatre before the curtain, where, in
the Italian Opera season, tickets at reduced prices are kept on sale by nomadic gentlemen
in smeary hats too tall for them, whom one occasionally seems to have seen on race-
courses, not wholly unconnected with strips of cloth of various colours and a rolling ball -
those Bedouin establishments, deserted by the tribe, and tenantless, except when
sheltering in one corner an irregular row of ginger- beer bottles, which would have made
one shudder on such a night, but for its being plain that they had nothing in them, shrunk
from the shrill cries of the news-boys at their Exchange in the kennel of Catherine-street,
like guilty things upon a fearful summons. At the pipe-shop in Great Russell-street, the
Death's-head pipes were like theatrical memento mori, admonishing beholders of the
decline of the playhouse as an Institution. I walked up Bow-street, disposed to be angry
with the shops there, that were letting out theatrical secrets by exhibiting to work-a-day
humanity the stuff of which diadems and robes of kings are made. I noticed that some
shops which had once been in the dramatic line, and had struggled out of it, were not
getting on prosperously - like some actors I have known, who took to business and failed
to make it answer. In a word, those streets looked so dull, and, considered as theatrical
streets, so broken and bankrupt, that the FOUND DEAD on the black board at the police
station might have announced the decease of the Drama, and the pools of water outside
the fire-engine maker's at the corner of Long-acre might have been occasioned by his
having brought out the whole of his stock to play upon its last smouldering ashes.
And yet, on such a night in so degenerate a time, the object of my journey was theatrical.
And yet within half an hour I was in an immense theatre, capable of holding nearly five
thousand people.
What Theatre? Her Majesty's? Far better. Royal Italian Opera? Far better. Infinitely
superior to the latter for hearing in; infinitely superior to both, for seeing in. To every part
of this Theatre, spacious fire-proof ways of ingress and egress. For every part of it,
convenient places of refreshment and retiring rooms. Everything to eat and drink
carefully supervised as to quality, and sold at an appointed price; respectable female
 
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