Music Hall logo, see bottom of page for text links.

Dan Leno

Dan Leno, as was confessed on his behalf, "came into the world a mere child" but became a farthing millionaire with "an acre and two pints of some of the best wasp-stalking in the kingdom." This way of introducing Leno in Hys Booke was typical of his act and himself.l Although he performed in London for less than 20 years, Leno became a legend before his early death in October, 1904. One of the many much moved by his loss was Max Beerbohm, who attempted to evaluate his genius. Unlike Albert Chevalier, wrote Beerbohm, Leno was no inaugurator; at most "he shifted the centre of gravity from song to patter." His theme was ever "the sordidness of the lower middle class, seen from within. Yet, in his hand, how gloriously it blazed, illuminating and warming! All that trite and unlovely material, how new and beautiful it became for us through Dan Leno's genius!" It was, considered

Beerbohm, Leno's personality that made his act what it was universally claimed to be, for he was "a creature apart, radiating an ethereal essence all his own." Beerbohm was not a man who by instinct was drawn to the music halls. Six years earlier, in 1898, he wrote, also in The Saturday Review (shortly after replacing George Bernard Shaw as its theater critic):

The mass of people, when it seeks pleasure, does not want to be elevated: it wants to laugh at something beneath its own level. Just as I used to go to Music Halls that I might feel my superiority to the audience, so does the audience go that it might compare itself favourably with the debased rapscallions of the songs.

If Beerbohm's tribute of Leno is in a very different vein, it was perhaps because it was Leno in particular who enabled him to find a delight in the music hall less superior in its attitude than that revealed in this earlier essay.

Without his personality to go with them, Leno's songs and acts, even more than those of other artists, are clearly but a shadow of what he made them. As he died in 1904, his recordings were made when techniques were very crude, so that although it is possible to hear his voice and gauge in some little way his approach, these recordings cannot do him even such justice as the restrictions of that medium would permit. Even without his personality to give it the inimitability of which every single writer who mentions him speaks of with a mixture of wonder and reverence, a crude amateur performance of his monologue, "The Robin", gives considerable delight.

Taken in isolation, the humour is not very remarkable. For example, there is nothing excruciatingly comic about this:

Then the Baron said, "Now we will go to the meet." I couldn't see any meat. I looked round, but only saw a lot of empty plates; I think they must have eaten all the meat for breakfast.

The rich humour of the whole act is not due to individually witty lines but to the accumulation of what, separately, are quite modest playings with words.The comic effect is partly achieved by skillful timing (working on the audience's anticipation and tricking expectancy), by variations in the types of play on words-puns, association of ideas, malapropisms, word formations-and by changes of tone.

What is quite apparent is a delight in language and its possibilities which makes considerable demands upon an audience's capacity to listen intently and to bring imagination into play.

Even the brief extract just quoted shows Leno's capacity for building up a word picture and for creating an imaginative word. Furthermore his manner of imparting this information, his constant modification of one statement by another, his wistful surprise, the confidential tone, the sense that he is facing powers beyond his frail capacity, all impart to the simple humour, by association and the world of fantasy, an emotional richness which can dimly be sensed even in the old recordings.

Except in pantomime, in which he usually worked with the huge Herbert Campbell, Leno worked alone, a small figure, on a large bare stage, using fairly simple props. All was concentrated on the relationship between performer and audience.

Leno made considerable use of changes in tone. The interpolated comment on Lady Evelyn-"jolly young cat"-will get a laugh because of the violent change of tone. The remark is crude, there is no wit here; but the manipulation of tone is skillful and, in its less violent fluctuations, can be subtle. The technique is exactly that still used-and with great success-before popular and sophisticated audiences by the English comedian, Frankie Howerd. Slightly greater vailation can be seen in this short passage, where slapstick, rather less violent humour, and then the humour of surprise, follow each other rapidly:

Then springing from my horse, I rushed towards the jungle- I beg pardon, I mean the hedge-and withdrew the animal. Then we gazed upon it. And the poor cat was dead.

The sense of Leno's not quite being in control of the events he is so anxious to dominate, make possible a much more richly comic effect than the words taken in isolation might suggest.

The patter to Dan Leno's song, "The Swimming Master," contains two styles closely associated with him. The opening is superb, yet it is difficult to pin down what it is that gives it its character. What is said is utterly simple and direct. There are no tricks and the only device in the opening lines is the suggestion that we have taken a north-easterly view of the man-quite the most attractive prospect, we should all agree. The contrast between a violent entry, a hurling across the stage-even when repeated, as indicated by the patter-does not completely account for the effect. The charm and the delight of these simple lines spring, I believe, from the creation of a sense of wonder and amazement at the plain and obvious.

Leno had, the capacity for extracting wonderment and surprise out of the obvious. It is perhaps this remarkable capacity which accounts for the amazing unanimity amongst all who speak of him. Were he dependent largely upon device, physical or verbal, it would not appeal to some, or it would pall; but the ability-the creative power-to evoke wonderment at the ordinary-by a simple stance, a non-existent robin, an egg-is exhilarating and of universal appeal.

Leno, of course, had his devices. Playing with language has already been men- tioned, and in "Young Men Taken In and Done For," there is the comic pre- sentation of the pathetic or defeated which is not uncommon in popular tra- dition. "The Swimming Master," like "The Huntsman," reveals Leno's capacity to word-paint; it also shows humour derived from incongruity (in the compari- son of what he was and what he is now-still a tiny figure) and from extension or modification (the quarts of water with something in them), but it is at the end of the patter that there is to be found one of his most successful techniques: peopling the stage with characters.

Max Beerbohm remarks in his essay that Leno did not attempt vocal imitations of the characters he created. As in the patter printed here, his own responses give the gist of what has been said to him. The. dialogue and the characterisation seem complete, yet Leno has not had to step out of himself. Thus he is able to direct his audience's apprehension entirely through himself, so as to never break or modify the intimate link built up between himself and his audience.

One further point from Max Beerbohm's tribute to Dan Leno's technique; partly because it reveals an aspect of Leno's technique, but also because it suggests how important the audience is in the creation of the whole performance in popular drama:

A new performance by Dan Leno was almost always a dull thing in itself. He was unable to do himself justice until he had, as it were, collaborated for many nights with the public. He selected and rejected according to how his jokes, and his expression of them "went"; and his best things came to him always in the course of an actual performance, to be incorporated in all the subsequent performances... The technique for acting in a music-hall is of a harder, perhaps finer, kind than is needed for acting in a theatre; inasmuch as the artist must make his effects so much more quickly, and without the aid of any but the slightest "properties" and scenery and without the aid of any one else on the stage.