[From Manx Quarterly #7 1909]
By Alfred Hemming.
In a volume published, I think during the reign of the Stuarts, entitled "Histriomatrix," the writer dismissed all the children of joy in a sweeping sentence. He damned them all as " Poets, Pipers, Painters, sand such like caterpillars of the Commonwealth." The writer may not, from a utilitarian point of view, be entirely mistaken. Poets, pipers, players may add to the gaiety of nations; they do not add to the strength of its finances. They merely emphasise the general dulness of its respectabilities and the sordidness of the general aim. The charge, however, of being "Rogues and Vagabonds" has lost its sting. The cry "Mother, mother, take in the washing the actors are coming!" is not even heard in lanes unpassed by motor actors. The great artist, the lark-voiced singer, the splendid actor, now patronise King and Kaiser and Czar and such lingering figureheads of moritund monarchy. The rank and file figure as L.C.C. and parochial personages. But with responsibility has come a pseudo-respectability, a quaint clinging to convention; and Art has suffered. This, however, was not so thirty years ago, and an anecdote which flashed across the grey- tissues which we call our brain. the other day, proves it.
It has for its inception, Douglas, Isle of Man. But not the Douglas of Palaces and Derby Castles, of Promenades packed with boarding houses. But the old Douglas of primitive pleasures and jaunting cars The old Douglas with a large resident population seduced here by the salubrity of the climate, the cheapness of living. and the splendid scholastic opportunities afforded by King William's College, which last-named still obtain. The choleric Colonel, retired from John Company; the liverish-looking Civil Servant, who had shaken the pagoda tree with advantage, and who liked his curry hot and his B. and S. iced. There were pleasant days and merry nights in Douglas in those times, as the few remaining of the Old Brigade can vouch for. Thirty years ago Douglas boasted three theatres.
All the stars of that period " strutted and fretted " their summers away in Manxland, content with the purest of pure air, scenery excelling even a Beerbohm Tree production, and fish so cheap that it is little wonder actors were so brainy in those days. But business was not always commensurate with talent.
" Ah !" said a manager only this week. " Jupiter Pluvius is the finest star you can bring in the summer."
" Pluvius! Pluvius! What company is he with?"-queried the interested patron of the drama.
Well, at the time when this incident happened, good old Pluvius was rather tired of his too frequent visits during the preceding season, and so was "resting," as actors out of an engagement style their enforced idleness. Old Sol ("with a hot slow ") was given a chance, much to the annoyance of a well-known actor-manager who was adventuring here, Joe E- his name. Now, Joe E- was a character; quite a Dickensian. He had so often played Micawber that he had absorbed the spirit of the master's brain child. Nothing really daunted his philosophy. In the rockiest financial impasses, with undisturbed equanimity, he waited for "something to turn up."'
But the particular snag, as Mark Twain would say, which Joe struck in Douglas shivered the timbers of his boat of hope. He was an artist, the company were efficient players, the pieces were for that day-very excellent of their kind, the expenses were not large, seeing you could take the money with one hand and "ring tip " the curtain with the other. But the public would not come in. They preferred to be on the fashionable Rialto. I think then the Rialto was the rocks in front of which is now the Harris Promenade. To whatever rocks they were, he of the collars and the cuffs and Beaconsfield curl steered, the while Joe realised he was a derelict drifting on the rock disaster. He also realised that he was living not only in Manxland, but in Queer Strect, and he remembered that by an Insular law debtors could be arrested and incarcerated in Castle Rushen if they attempted to leave the Island without satisfying their creditors. Joseph cogitated; but an avalanche of accounts, bills, summonses, writs poured in with such disgusting persistency that he soon understood why the lynx-eyed Coroner watched every boat depart.
One hot night, after a rather worse house than usual, Joe confided to the second low comedian that matters had come to a climax, and diplomacy had to be called in. He suggested that a fishing excursion in the early morning would enable them to deal with finance in a clearer environment than the precincts of a theatre.
Six o'clock next morning found the two piscatorial Thespians on the dark blue waters of Douglas Bay. They had procured the loan of a boat and fishing tackle by the aid of a small piece of paper on which was inscribed "Pass two to the pit." They pulled out to sea to contemplate on the value of space for the encouragement of thought, and the effect of the odour of ozone on impending insolvency. The time passed slowly(tremolo music)-until Joe, looking shoreward, discerned the morning boat leaving the old Red Pier. It was his " cue " for the situation. He stopped the fishing; "now is the time for " action," not "lines "-(music a little louder). Right in the course of the steamer they commenced rowing frantically against the outgoing tide. When the vessel was nearly on them, the second low comedian fell back exhausted, " catching a crab "all he had annexed that morning. Joseph incidentally lost one oar overboard, and, carefully concealing the other in the bottom of the boat, shrieked out in accents of melodramatic despair
" Save us! for God's sake, save us! We are drifting to death!"
" Ease her!" " Full speed astern!"
"Out with a rope !" "Get her alongside!" "Get 'em on board-quick!" were the orders from the captain's bridge.
" Saved! Saved!" gasped Joe-(four bars of nautical bald)-and he and his faithful companion fell exhausted on the deck, amidst resounding cheers from excited passengers.
" Full speed ahead!" shouts the captain. " Where are we going to, Captain?" shrieked Joseph, as the vessel sped on its way.
" Great heavens, Captain! No! a thousand times No! You must turn back! You must turn back. You know me? I'm E-, Joe E-, Joseph E--, of the theatre! This is Saturday; my company are all waiting for treasury, the Douglas tradesmen for settlement of their accounts my reputation is at stake! You must go back !"
The reply of the Captain was lucid, but it was also too lurid for the columns of the "Examiner." But it sufficed.
Joe explained to sympathetic passengers his appalling position. He gave the purser an I O U and two to the dress circle for his passage. Joe was a born "raconteur," and he made that smoking room ring with laughter. "Les Contes Drolatiques " of Balzac were not in it with Joe-quip and quiddity poured from him like water from the proverbial duck's back. And men who had not laughed for years laughed then. The trip seemed to pass like lightning, and a grateful company made up a purse for Joe, which enabled him to " swell " it at the Union Hotel, Liverpool, as he had not done for years. So good a time was it that he and his pal, the low comedian, never returned to Douglas.
This, however, appeared in the Manx papers in headlines:
" ABSCONDING MANAGER.
COMPANY STRANDED: CHARITABLE BENEFIT. SYMPATHETIC GOOD-BYES ON THE PIER.
FARES PROVIDED TO ENGLAND."
Joe met them on the Landing Stage with open arms, and the season was continued on the following Monday at St. Helens.
P.S.-Joe is now dead, and though he had his faults, if one took him as Hamlet took his father, and we must take everything and everybody in this vanishing world of ours, we could have better spared a perhaps better man. One of his last engagements was with Francis C. Fairlie, who was then running the Globe Theatre, London, as business manager. Joe was met on a crawl up the Strand by a friend. "Hullo, Joe! how are you doing?" askod the Other clean-shaven one. "Well," said Joe, "I'm doing 'fairly,' doing 'fairly.' "