theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
Did you know that the death of music hall performer Marie Lloyd in 1922 struck T S Eliot as “the most important event which I have had to chronicle [in The Dial magazine]”?
What made her unique? Writing his monthly ‘letter’ in The Dial, Eliot said, “It requires some effort of analysis to understand why one person, among many who do a thing with accomplished skill, should be greater than the others; nor is it always easy to distinguish superiority from great popularity, when the two go together […] Although I have always admired her genius I do not think that I always appreciated its uniqueness….” He goes as far as describing her as “perhaps the most perfect, in her own line, of British actresses”.
Even people who know little about music hall – its history or its performers – have usually heard of Marie Lloyd, though they may only be aware of an apocryphal story which goes that one of her numbers was ‘I Sits Among the Cabbages and Peas’. This version of events has it that it was ‘Cabbages and Peas’ that caused an outcry from Mrs Ormiston Chant of the Purity Party and led to Marie having to appear before the Vigilance Committee.
Oft-quoted as fact, not least on the internet, there is no supporting evidence that such a song existed. Archivist and historian Max Tyler, a member of the British Music Hall Society, is quoted on MusicWeb-International.com as saying: “I’ll give you £100 if you can show me the words and music of a Marie Lloyd song called ‘She Sits Among The Cabbages and Peas or Leeks’ It may be a good story but it just ain’t true.”
The Mary Whitehouse of her day, Mrs Chant was so outraged by the nature of Marie’s act – Marie was the sublime mistress of the double entendre – that she protested from her seat in the stalls at the old Empire Music Hall in Edmonton during Marie’s act. Mrs Chant was fighting a campaign to stop music hall licences being renewed.
Marie herself was not about to tone down the naughty nature of her act. When she was performing in the States, she told the New York Telegraph that her audiences “don’t pay their sixpences and shillings at a music hall to hear the Salvation Army. If I was to try to sing highly moral songs, they would fire ginger beer bottles and beer mugs at me. I can’t help it if people want to turn and twist my meanings”.
This “most perfect” of actresses was not only supremely talented and popular but she played her part when it came to supporting fellow performers who could not command the sort of wages she could. In 1907 she gave her full support to the Music Hall strike – indeed, the first meeting was held at the home she shared with her second husband, Alec Hurley. “We (the stars) can dictate our own terms. We are fighting not for ourselves , but for the poorer members of the profession, earning thirty shillings to £3 a week. For this they have to do double turns, and now matinées have been added as well. These poor things have been compelled to submit to unfair terms of employment, and I mean to back up the federation in whatever steps are taken.”
Marie Lloyd died on 7 October, 1922, only a few days after appearing at the Empire. The funeral in Hampstead was a sight to be seen, described by The Era, as a “Royal Progress”, with thousands lining the route of the funeral procession. Atop the hearse lay her ebony cane and top hat. TS Eliot described it as “a ceremony which surprised even warmest admirers”. He quotes a contemporary newspaper: ‘Wreaths had poured into the house in Woodstock Road from all parts of the country. There were hundreds of them from people whose names are almost household words on the variety stage, and from such people as ‘a flower boy’ in Piccadilly Circus: the taxi-drivers of Punter’s Garage: and the Costermongers’ Union of Farringdon Road…’
Eliot ended his piece in The Dial by saying that he was “quite incapable of taking any interest in any literary events in England in the last two months, if any have taken place”.
Originally published on 6 August 2008 © Sarah Vernon
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