47. Green Room cocktail

2 Jan

Ah, I forgot! You are fresh from Eden; the Green Room, my dear madam, is the bower where fairies put off their wings and goddesses become dowdies—where Lady Macbeth weeps over her lap-dog’s indigestion, and a Belgravia groans over the amount of her last milliner’s bill. In a word, the Green Room is the place where actors and actresses become mere men and women . . .

— Tom Taylor, Masks and Faces (New York: French, 1860), p. 32.

This pick-me-up, notes Harry Craddock in the Savoy Cocktail Book, is a “great favourite among mummers”. Well, naturally. It’s named after a centuries-old theatrical institution that, while it had vanished by the early 1900s, was fondly remembered by veteran treaders of the boards.

The green room, which evolved from the Elizabethan “tiring-house”, where actors would put on their costumes or “attire”, was a chamber adjoining the stage in which actors assembled before being called to make their entrance. (These days, of course, the term, whose origins are disputed, more often designates the reception lounge in a television studio for crew and guests.)

Originally, though, the green room was more than just a waiting area. It was the very “heart of the theatre”, according to one memoirist: “There beat its crimson life” (Alfred Lambourne, A Trio of Sketches: Being Reminiscences of the Theater Green Room and the Scene-Painter’s Gallery From Suggestions in “A Play-House” [Salt Lake City: Lambourne, 1917], p. 25). In this communal space actors would meet and socialise before, during and after a performance; but the green room was also, from the Restoration onwards, a “fashionable resort” that was “crowded nightly” by amusement-seeking princes, idlers and other denizens of the demimonde so that “plays began at any time, the waits between the acts were of any length, and general disorder reigned” (Mrs Alec-Tweedie, Behind the Footlights [New York: Dodd Mead, 1904], p. 61). Faced with such displays of laxity and impudence, the management of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane decided to clean house:

their Green-Rooms were free from Indecencies of every Kind, and might justly be compared to the most elegant Drawing-Rooms of the Prime Quality: No Fops or Coxcombs ever shew’d their Monkey Tricks there; but if they chanc’d to thrust in, were aw’d into Respect; even Persons of the First Rank and Taste, of both Sexes, would often mix with the Performers, without any Stain to their Honour or Understanding . . .

— William R. Chetwood, A General History of the Stage (London: Owen, 1749), pp. 235-6.

Even if the tone had been raised, in Drury Lane at least, there could not have been many who agreed with William Cooke’s naïve conviction that to admit a select number of gentlemen behind the scenes would have a “good effect” on the players and “contribute, if not to the morals, at least to the polish and refinement of the theatre”. Performers, he pointed out, “had few other opportunities of mingling with men of fashion” and, by studying the manners and deportment of the visitors, they might acquire “that habitual ease and breeding which theory can never alone inculcate” (Elements of Dramatic Criticism [London: Kearsly, 1775], pp. 212-3). Cooke failed to appreciate either that the cast, who were, after all, at work, might, as one notable exponent of the dramatic arts put it, be “discomposed by the rude mirth and noisy talk” that characterise a “Green-Room conversation” (William Dunlap, The Life of George Frederick Cooke, 2nd edn [London: Colburn, 1815], vol. 1, p. 129), or that the gallants who had obtained for themselves a backstage pass were more interested in flattering half-dressed Ophelias than in instructing Hamlet in the social graces. Samuel Johnson, for one, was well aware of the fleshly temptations that lay behind the curtain: his biographer, James Boswell, relates how he “for a considerable time used to frequent the Green-Room” in David Garrick’s Drury Lane, “and seemed to take delight in dissipating his gloom, by mixing in the sprightly chit-chat of the motley circle then to be found there”. Ultimately, though, Johnson “denied himself this amusement, from considerations of rigid virtue, saying: ‘I’ll come no more behind your scenes, David; for the silk stockings and white bosoms of your actresses excite my amorous propensities’” (James Boswell, Life of Johnson (New York: Crowell, 1894 [1791]), vol. 1, p. 111).

From: George Augustus Sala, Twice Around the Clock (London: Marsh, 1862), p. 244. Illustration by William McConnell.

By the nineteenth century the behaviour even of thespians was generally more refined. John Coleman recalled that the green room was “dedicated to delightful social intercourse” and the “etiquette observed always impressed us youngsters with the idea that it was essential to be gentlemen first, and actors next” (Fifty Years of an Actor’s Life, vol. 1 [New York: Pott, 1904], p. 319). The rules, both written and unwritten, mimicked the class distinctions and rituals of the outside world. The cast was, well, caste-bound and hence did not associate freely: in Covent Garden and Drury Lane there were two green rooms, the first exclusively reserved for the corps dramatique and the second set aside for the corps de ballét, the pantomimists, and the “little people”. In Covent Garden, as in other major playhouses, the first green room was a magnificent affair, “carpeted and papered elegantly”, and

with a handsome chandelier in the centre, several globe lights at the sides, a comfortable divan, covered in figured damask, running round the whole room, large pier and mantel-glasses on the walls, and a full-length movable swing-glass; so that, on entering form his dressing-room, an actor could see himself from head to foot at one view, and get back, front, and side views by reflection, all round.

— George Vandenhoff, Leaves From an Actor’s Note-Book (New York: Appleton, 1860), pp. 51-2.

Only once an individual was satisfied that the costume was in order did he or she sit down and enter into conversation with colleagues. Most green rooms were of course rather plainer than those of the grand theatres; but they usually contained that all-important full-length mirror, which every self-respecting, and indeed self-regarding, performer urgently requires.

From: John J. Jennings, Theatrical and Circus Life; Or Secrets of the Stage, Green-Room and Sawdust Arena (St Louis: Sun, 1882), p. 107.

Perhaps the most vivid and detailed description of life in the green room was provided by the pioneering theatre critic Clement Scott:

Here authors read their plays, nervously sensitive and inordinately vain; they are commanders of the situation for a brief hour or so, and then are thrust out of the way by the legitimate exponents of all they have created or suggested. Here, a few weeks afterwards these same swelling authors come to be flattered and congratulated; to be cold-shouldered or cursed. From this room issues the young and untried actor, carrying his fate in his hands, and who returns to these worn cushions a hopeful or despondent man. Sitting here, the young actress receives the honest praise of her companions, or whispered words of timely warning. Here men and women hate one another with a violence and an unreason, a want of justice and an absence of humanity, known in no other section of civilized society. They fawn here, they “my dear” one another, they backbite, they tell tales behind one another’s backs, they cultivate the religion of falsehood and deceit to such an extent, that people unversed in their ways are staggered, shocked, and appalled: but here also are uttered the most beautiful thoughts, here are done the most charitable deeds, here friendliness becomes a jewel on men’s and women’s breasts; here will be found the finest impulses of generous nature; here the right hand scarcely ever sees what the left hand is doing, and these battered, broken walls have listened to better examples of the religion of humanity, than ever preacher preached, or saint practised.

— Clement Scott, “The Manager’s Story”, in Clement Scott (ed.), The Green Room: Stories by Those Who Frequent It (London: Routledge, 1880), pp. 3-12 (p. 4).

By the end of the nineteenth century, alas, the green room, and the camaraderie attached to it, had largely disappeared, as times and manners changed. In some cases it was converted into the star’s dressing room. In others, as in Drury Lane, it was reduced to a prop cupboard.

The Green Room cocktail, then, is a nostalgic tribute to a lost tradition (as well as perhaps a sly nod to the goings-on in those sacred precincts). Small wonder that it was popular among actors who habitually mourned its passing. Craddock’s recipe is as follows:

1/3 Brandy.

2/3 French Vermouth.

2 Dashes Curaçao.

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