Cox's Diary, by William Makepeace Thackeray

A New Drop-Scene at the Opera.

No lady is a lady without having a box at the Opera: so my Jemmy, who knew as much about music — bless her! — as I do about Sanscrit, algebra, or any other foreign language, took a prime box on the second tier. It was what they called a double box; it really COULD hold two, that is, very comfortably; and we got it a great bargain — for five hundred a year! Here, Tuesdays and Saturdays, we used regularly to take our places, Jemmy and Jemimarann sitting in front; me, behind: but as my dear wife used to wear a large fantail gauze hat with ostrich feathers, birds-of-paradise, artificial flowers, and tags of muslin or satin, scattered all over it, I’m blest if she didn’t fill the whole of the front of the box; and it was only by jumping and dodging, three or four times in the course of the night, that I could manage to get a sight of the actors. By kneeling down, and looking steady under my darling Jemmy’s sleeve, I DID contrive, every now and then, to have a peep of Senior Lablash’s boots, in the “Puritanny,” and once actually saw Madame Greasi’s crown and head-dress in “Annybalony.”

What a place that Opera is, to be sure! and what enjoyments us aristocracy used to have! Just as you have swallowed down your three courses (three curses I used to call them; — for so, indeed, they are, causing a deal of heartburns, headaches, doctor’s bills, pills, want of sleep, and such like)— just, I say, as you get down your three courses, which I defy any man to enjoy properly unless he has two hours of drink and quiet afterwards, up comes the carriage, in bursts my Jemmy, as fine as a duchess, and scented like our shop. “Come, my dear,” says she, “it’s ‘Normy’ to — night” (or “Annybalony,” or the “Nosey di Figaro,” or the “Gazzylarder,” as the case may be). “Mr. Foster strikes off punctually at eight, and you know it’s the fashion to be always present at the very first bar of the aperture.” And so off we are obliged to budge, to be miserable for five hours, and to have a headache for the next twelve, and all because it’s the fashion!

After the aperture, as they call it, comes the opera, which, as I am given to understand, is the Italian for singing. Why they should sing in Italian, I can’t conceive; or why they should do nothing BUT sing. Bless us! how I used to long for the wooden magpie in the “Gazzylarder” to fly up to the top of the church-steeple, with the silver spoons, and see the chaps with the pitchforks come in and carry off that wicked Don June. Not that I don’t admire Lablash, and Rubini, and his brother, Tomrubini: him who has that fine bass voice, I mean, and acts the Corporal in the first piece, and Don June in the second; but three hours is a LITTLE too much, for you can’t sleep on those little rickety seats in the boxes.

The opera is bad enough; but what is that to the bally? You SHOULD have seen my Jemmy the first night when she stopped to see it; and when Madamsalls Fanny and Theresa Hustler came forward, along with a gentleman, to dance, you should have seen how Jemmy stared, and our girl blushed, when Madamsall Fanny, coming forward, stood on the tips of only five of her toes, and raising up the other five, and the foot belonging to them, almost to her shoulder, twirled round, and round, and round, like a teetotum, for a couple of minutes or more; and as she settled down, at last, on both feet, in a natural decent posture, you should have heard how the house roared with applause, the boxes clapping with all their might, and waving their handkerchiefs; the pit shouting, “Bravo!” Some people, who, I suppose, were rather angry at such an exhibition, threw bunches of flowers at her; and what do you think she did? Why, hang me, if she did not come forward, as though nothing had happened, gather up the things they had thrown at her, smile, press them to her heart, and begin whirling round again faster than ever. Talk about coolness, I never saw such in all MY born days.

“Nasty thing!” says Jemmy, starting up in a fury; “if women WILL act so, it serves them right to be treated so.”

“Oh, yes! she acts beautifully,” says our friend his Excellency, who along with Baron von Punter and Tagrag, used very seldom to miss coming to our box.

“She may act very beautifully, Munseer, but she don’t dress so; and I am very glad they threw that orange-peel and all those things at her, and that the people waved to her to get off.”

Here his Excellency, and the Baron and Tag, set up a roar of laughter.

“My dear Mrs. Coxe,” says Tag, “those are the most famous dancers in the world; and we throw myrtle, geraniums, and lilies and roses at them, in token of our immense admiration!”

“Well, I never!” said my wife; and poor Jemimarann slunk behind the curtain, and looked as red as it almost. After the one had done the next begun; but when, all of a sudden, a somebody came skipping and bounding in, like an Indian-rubber ball, flinging itself up, at least six feet from the stage, and there shaking about its legs like mad, we were more astonished than ever!

“That’s Anatole,” says one of the gentlemen.

“Anna who?” says my wife; and she might well be mistaken: for this person had a hat and feathers, a bare neck and arms, great black ringlets, and a little calico frock, which came down to the knees.

“Anatole. You would not think he was sixty-three years old, he’s as active as a man of twenty.”

“HE!” shrieked out my wife; “what, is that there a man? For shame! Munseer. Jemimarann, dear, get your cloak, and come along; and I’ll thank you, my dear, to call our people, and let us go home.”

You wouldn’t think, after this, that my Jemmy, who had shown such a horror at the bally, as they call it, should ever grow accustomed to it; but she liked to hear her name shouted out in the crush-room, and so would stop till the end of everything; and, law bless you! in three weeks from that time, she could look at the ballet as she would at a dancing-dog in the streets, and would bring her double-barrelled opera-glass up to her eyes as coolly as if she had been a born duchess. As for me, I did at Rome as Rome does; and precious fun it used to be, sometimes.

My friend the Baron insisted one night on my going behind the scenes; where, being a subscriber, he said I had what they call my ONTRAY. Behind, then, I went; and such a place you never saw nor heard of! Fancy lots of young and old gents of the fashion crowding round and staring at the actresses practising their steps. Fancy yellow snuffy foreigners, chattering always, and smelling fearfully of tobacco. Fancy scores of Jews, with hooked-noses and black muzzles, covered with rings, chains, sham diamonds, and gold waistcoats. Fancy old men dressed in old nightgowns, with knock-knees, and dirty flesh-colored cotton stockings, and dabs of brick-dust on their wrinkled old chops, and tow-wigs (such wigs!) for the bald ones, and great tin spears in their hands mayhap, or else shepherds’ crooks, and fusty garlands of flowers made of red and green baize. Fancy troops of girls giggling, chattering, pushing to and fro, amidst old black canvas, Gothic halls, thrones, pasteboard Cupids, dragons, and such like. Such dirt, darkness, crowd, confusion and gabble of all conceivable languages was never known!

If you COULD but have seen Munseer Anatole! Instead of looking twenty, he looked a thousand. The old man’s wig was off, and a barber was giving it a touch with the tongs; Munseer was taking snuff himself, and a boy was standing by with a pint of beer from the public-house at the corner of Charles Street.

I met with a little accident during the three-quarters of an hour which they allow for the entertainment of us men of fashion on the stage, before the curtain draws up for the bally, while the ladies in the boxes are gaping, and the people in the pit are drumming with their feet and canes in the rudest manner possible, as though they couldn’t wait.

Just at the moment before the little bell rings and the curtain flies up, and we scuffle off to the sides (for we always stay till the very last moment), I was in the middle of the stage, making myself very affable to the fair figgerantys which was spinning and twirling about me, and asking them if they wasn’t cold, and such like politeness, in the most condescending way possible, when a bolt was suddenly withdrawn, and down I popped, through a trap in the stage, into the place below. Luckily I was stopped by a piece of machinery, consisting of a heap of green blankets and a young lady coming up as Venus rising from the sea. If I had not fallen so soft, I don’t know what might have been the consequence of the collusion. I never told Mrs. Coxe, for she can’t bear to hear of my paying the least attention to the fair sex.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00