Prologue: In the Stalls
MY life is like a music-hall,
Where, in the impotence of rage,
Chained by enchantment to my stall,
I see myself upon the stage
Dance to amuse a music-hall.
'Tis I that smoke this cigarette,
Lounge here, and laugh for vacancy,
And watch the dancers turn; and yet
It is my very self I see
Across the cloudy cigarette.
My very self that turns and trips,
Painted, pathetically gay,
An empty song upon the lips
In make-believe of holiday:
I, I, this thing that turns and trips!
The light flares in the music-hall,
The light, the sound, that weary us;
Hour follows hour, I count them all,
Lagging, and loud, and riotous:
My life is like a music-hall.
'Prologue', as it's called in the Penguin Classics anthology Decadent Poetry from Wilde to Naidu, originally appeared in Arthur Symons' 1895 collection London Nights under the above title. For those unfamiliar with him, Symons was a leading figure of the Decadent avant-garde, a critic, and the author of The Symbolist Movement in Literature, which TS Eliot credited with introducing him to the work of Laforgue, Verlaine and Rimbaud. Symons was a habitué of the music-halls in the 1890s and wrote reviews and critical articles on them for the press. He went so far as to propose that the music-halls might one day hold their own against the conventional theatre.
The poem moves along nicely with its variations on ballad metre (ballads were a stock-in-trade for the artistes of the halls) — in fact I fancy it almost breaks into a melancholy air at the third stanza. Out of context, though, it might seem a rather slight thing. It certainly has a languor about it, a degree of world-weariness, a touch artifice in the painted dancer and stage lights — all elements you'd expect in a Decadent poem; it's impressionistic and has a healthy dose of narcissism, but that doesn't entirely explain its fascination. There's something in it that resonates.
London Nights received the famous notice, in the Pall Mall Gazette, which opened with the line, 'Mr Arthur Symons is a very dirty-minded man, and his mind is reflected in the puddle of his bad verses.' Parts, though by no means all, of the rest of the collection describe Symons' sexual liaisons with prostitutes and dancers.
When 'In the Stalls' was published the music-hall hadn't yet transformed into the solid, respectable (bar the odd innuendo), rather worthy, working-class entertainment that was variety theatre. In the 1890s even the most up-market establishments were being harried by the likes of Mrs Ormiston Chant and the National Vigilance Association, who believed it was a corrupting influence on the nation's youth. It was only in 1892 that the Empire, Leicester Square, had been forced, by court order, to build a screen between the auditorium and the promenade bar where the prostitutes plied their trade. The screen was smashed to bits on the first night after its erection by Winston Churchill and his nobby cadet chums.
The music-hall in 'In the Stalls', then, is a noisy, smoky, amoral place, awash with booze and often on the point of riot. It's not like going to see Les Mis. In fact, it sounds like the sort of place where young folks with a Bohemian disposition have always tended to congregate. Symons, who travelled to Paris with his friend Havelock Ellis, the pioneering psychologist, described the 'scene' there thus:
These terms [Decadence, Symbolism, Impressionism], as it happens, have been
adopted as the badge of little separate cliques, noisy, brain-sick young people who
haunt the brasseries of the Boulevard Saint-Michel, and exhaust their ingenuities in
theorizing over the works they cannot write.
He'd be right at home down Dalston on a weekend evening. It seems that Bohemia was ever an inefficient device of producing art, much energy being lost to the atmosphere as hot air. Symons, on the other hand, was a prolific artist and critic. There is some interesting work on his poetry and the way he used ideas about dance, degeneracy, genius, the psychological innovations in Ellis's work, anomie and self-alienation. 'The Brilliance of Gas-Lit Eyes: Arthur Symons’ Erotic Auto-Voyeurism Observed' (van Bronswijk) is worth the price of admission for the title alone.
Looking backwards the poem has a whiff of the doppelgänger story about it, a proper chiller, where, as Marina Warner puts it, in late-nineteenth-century stories, 'the double is his shadow self, his secret, evil alter ego, his damned soul.' (Warner) I also find it interesting that it was published in the same year as the Lumière's first public screening of a moving picture at which admission was charged. It's now such a commonplace to 'see [oneself] upon the stage' that it’s hardly worth mentioning. My dog saw himself on The Culture Show, for crying out loud —for the record, he attacked himself.
And perhaps Symons wasn't so far out in his predictions for the rise of music-hall; after all, it begat variety, which begat light entertainment, which has filled the television schedules for fifty-odd years; and a staple of the halls was the amateur talent night, which can trace its lineage all the way down to the 'Britain's Got X-Factor Idol on Ice' de nos jours. And if that ain't cause for some good old-fashioned Decadent soul-sickness, I don't know what is.
[As a footnote I'd add that in 1999 I secured eight days employment as an extra on a film called 'Ester Kahn'. It's set in a Victorian theatre, but is a stinkeroo which has never, to my knowledge, been properly released in the UK. I kept it quiet until a couple of years ago when I found out that it's based on a short story by Mr Arthur Symons.]
[As a further postscript, and on a more prosaic level, it occurs to me perhaps the poem simply describes the dissociative and self-reflexive dream-state that the dedicated toper would recognize as early morning hangover guilt.]
van Bronswijk, R. "THE BRILLIANCE OF GAS-LIT EYES: ARTHUR SYMONS‘ EROTIC AUTO-VOYEURISM OBSERVED." DQR Studies in Literature 36.1 (2006): 287-302.
Warner, Marina. Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media into the Twenty-First Century. Illustrated ed. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.