Sweeney Todd, the tale of a throat-slitting London barber who turned his murdered clients into human meat pies for public consumption, is now known as a famous musical with several film adaptations, but it is really the surviving relic of a forgotten past time: the Victorian penny gaff. The gaff, meaning a place of public amusement in Cockney slang, was a cheap form of theater entertainment generally directed at the working class British youth. They quickly became illegal, but churned on anyway, focusing on lurid tales of horror, murder, crime, and violent melodrama. Despite the fact that they were illegal, gaffs were believed to account for nearly 50% of theater space at their height and managed to last 60 years.
Sweeney Todd is a key example of typical gaff entertainment and is a fitting entry point into my brief exploration of the penny gaff. Sweeney Todd first appeared in 1846, in “The String of Pearls,” the first story to feature the murderous barber. This was written by Thomas Peckett Prest, probably the most prodigious writer of penny bloods, the Victorian equivalent of modern day pulp fiction. Penny bloods were the literary equivalent of the gaffs: cheap, violent, and focused on horror and crime. Sweeney’s origins are numerous and include local legends, songs, and news stories, giving Sweeney an almost mythical quality for Victorian Londoners and borrowing somewhat from infamous Scottish cannibal Sawney Bean. Prest, known for his Shakespearean borrowing and researching methods, apparently found the story of a French barber who would kill his customers and feed them to a local pastry cook from an 1825 publication called The Tell Tale, though the story also has English ancestors.
Though the famous musical version by Stephen Sondheim has turned Sweeney into a sympathetic and tragic character, his origins were anything but. The original Sweeney was a skilled barber who killed his clients during a shave by slitting their throats. He bullied his neighbor, a local meat pie mistress, Mrs. Lovett, into serving up the human flesh of his victims into her pies, partly as a quick way to dispose of the corpses and partly for profit. Sweeney killed for money or revenge, and he became so obsessed with his growing fortune that he soon tried to find a way to dispose of Mrs. Lovett. In many versions of the story there is a melodramatic side plot about a young woman and young man in love with each other, but kept apart by Sweeney, Mrs. Lovett, or the girl’s father. Generally one of the youths is responsible for turning him into the authorities.
According to gaff scholar Peter Haining in his book The Penny Dreadful: Or, Strange, Horrid, and Sensational Tales!, Sweeney Todd “has been a constant subject for stories, plays, broadcasts, films, and even ballet since he first appeared in 1846” (94). Sweeney was a favorite and appeared many times on the Victorian gaff stages. Created from news stories and local legends, Prest’s method of blending stories together create the most shocking, horrifying, and melodramatic piece possible is characteristic of gaff drama in general.
Essentially a form of cheap theater produced all over England, but primarily focused in London, penny gaffs had three primary characteristics. First, the audience was mostly made up of the working class youth. Secondly, the themes and often direct plots of these plays were linked across working class British culture through cheap novels, songs, illustrations, and visual entertainment, forming one of the first, most comprehensive mass-culture crazes in Western society.
Lastly and perhaps most importantly, the gaffs had such an intense impact on the bourgeouis that within ten years of their arrival they were censored into literal silence and any performances could be legally stopped and the performers arrested if dialogue was included. The British government did not come down this hard on popular culture again until Margaret Thatcher’s list of “Video Nasties” in the 1980s, when it was illegal in the United Kingdom to own privately or show publicly a specific list of horror films dubbed perverse or immoral, and blamed for a spike in crime.
The number of parallels between the Victorian penny gaff and the modern horror film are considerable. With late night shows, cheap admission prices, cheesy effects that left much up to the imagination, barely qualified actors, rowdy audiences full of young boys, audience participation, heavy censorship, a strong influence from Gothic literature, and other factors, they appear to be the same beast rearing its monstrous head in different centuries. This type of theater closely resembles the 42nd Street grindhouse cinemas in New York in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. Penny gaff audiences were made up of young men believed to be of a certain criminal element. Many members of the audience were said to be prostitutes or thieves, or belonged to homeless gangs. They were often dressed in outrageous and offensive fashions, interacting with one another in a manner that was shocking to bourgeois Victorians.
As with many horror films, particularly independent efforts, cheap was the name of the game. Sparse scenery and costumes allowed as many as ten to twelve pieces to be produced in a week, according to Frederick Burgess’s Penny Theatres: Illustrated with Views, Bills, and Advertisements, etc. Allegedly, introducing a new piece only cost a pound and brought in a substantially larger crowd, though old favorites were shown repeatedly. Enterprising managers found ways to avoid paying rent and to avoid paying the actors, who made next to nothing. Clever producers also took advantage of the local news and exploited as many murders and crime stories as they could to create new pieces – for example, the incredibly popular play Maria Marten was based on the infamous Red Barn Murder of 1827 (and survives in modern culture as a Tom Waits song, “Murder in the Red Barn”).
The theaters themselves were no prize to look upon. According to historian John Springhall, the outsides of the venues were decorated with crude fliers listing the available entertainments, colored lamps and transparencies, and sometimes, though the managers could rarely afford this, small bands to attract audiences to dance. Most of the complaints about these theaters came from the noise level. There was usually a crowd surrounding the theatre at all times of the night, dancing, smoking, drinking, and otherwise carrying on loudly. Most gaffs were not located in legitimate theatre halls. Many were found in empty shops or warehouses. Some were even cruder, and the resourceful managers would improvise a show space out of anything they could find, including stables, barns, and sheds. The typical gaff was in an abandoned shop, with the shop as a waiting room, the storage area behind serving as a stage, and wooden benches for impromptu seating.
The most direct source for penny gaffs was the penny blood, or cheaply produced magazines with stories of the horrific or criminal. Many of these, such as Varney the Vampyre and Wagner the Wehr-Wolf, were inspired by the themes of Gothic literature, which experienced its heyday only a few generations before. According to David Carroll’s helpful article “Pockets of Poison: Penny Bloods and the Demon Barber,” the bloods were in demand because of a new literate working class with more leisure time than previous generations.
Though the first penny magazine was published in 1832, The Penny Story-Teller by William Strange, the man most responsible for the look of that format arrived on the scene two or three years later, one Edward Lloyd. According to David Carroll, Lloyd also wound up exerting a substantial influence on the horror genre and his major innovation was serializing novels in cheap, weekly magazines. A popular blood from the time was Edward Vile’s Black Bess, about the real-life eighteenth century criminal Dick Turpin. “Criminals, notably highwaymen, pirates, and even Robin Hood, were always popular with the masses, and so were the horror stories” (Carroll 1).
As for horror stories, there are two primary examples that translated easily into the theatre and are indicative of gaff plots. Aside from the aforementioned Sweeney Todd, a gorier, but more short lived tale is James Malcom Rymer’s Varney the Vampire: or the Feast of Blood. Vampirism, like many other Gothic themes, was a popular subject for penny magazines. The novels of both Anne Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis were serialized. What sets Varney apart is the extra amount of horrifying sensationalism. From chapter one’s conclusion:
The glassy, horrible eyes of the figure ran over that angelic form with a hideous satisfaction — horrible profanation. He drags her head to the bed’s edge. He forces it back by the long hair still entwined in his grasp. With a plunge he seizes her neck in his fang-like teeth — a gush of blood, and a hideous sucking noise follows. The girl has swooned, and the vampire is at his horrible repast!”
The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural states that “it is not recommended reading for most people; it is chaotic, badly written, padded, and somewhat longer than War and Peace and Gone with the Wind combined. But it is important for historical specialists, both as a member of the chain of vampire stories and as the only ‘blood’ that is now generally accessible.” Like Varney, many of the bloods were long-winded and were published for months before a conclusion was reached. These conclusions were frequently similar to melodrama, in the sense that some moral message was passed and the evil character was vanquished.
Other blood “classics” are Rymer’s Ada, the Betrayed: Or the Murder at the Old Smithy, Prest’s Vileroy; or, The Horrors of Zindorf Castle, Reynold’s The Mysteries of Londonand Wagner the Wehr-Wolf. Many of these stories are adaptations of classic Gothic themes with sensational twists and more than a pinch of gore. Since its introduction in the eighteenth century, the Gothic has been inseparably linked with the broad genre of horror. It has appeared repeatedly in literature and drama, making a resurgence in film. According to Michael Booth in Victorian Melodrama,
The use of sensation to shock and horrify is a necessary part of Gothic melodrama, especially in the appearance of ghosts and apparitions of every kind, the transformation of hooded figures into skeletons against a suddenly livid red background, the streaking of Bluebeard’s chamber with blood. More generally, the pictorial treatment of wild heaths, moors, and churchyards aroused feelings of unease and foreboding” (62).
Many of these Gothic tropes were placed side by side with murder and other violence and were frequent visitors to the Victorian stage. Though penny gaffs did not have the budget to do such horrific things as streak Bluebeard’s chamber with blood and transform hooded figures into skeletons, the genre was certainly influenced by Gothic themes and scenery. It was important for gaff managers to take their productions as over the top as possible, and though this was frequently done by enacting famous or contemporary scenes of violence, supernatural horror, as found in Gothic literature, was also a common element.
A case of straight murder, known as the Red Barn Murder, or as the play is titled, Maria Marten, was probably the most popular adaptation of a real life murder, and was usually “carried out with extreme realism” (Newton 269). H. Chance Newton called it “one of the greatest murder trials in the annals of crime” (100). These adaptations concerned the case of Maria Martin, the victim, and William Cordor, her lover and murderer. Though there are several plot variations, gaff audiences would likely have only been familiar with the scene where Maria enters the eerie Red Barn, disguised as a boy at Cordor’s behest, thinking they are going to run away and get married. Instead, they argue, and Cordor announces his plans to murder Maria. She stabs him in the face, and he violently retaliates, leading to the climax.
Quite the opposite of a man stabbing his lover to death in the heat of rage is a woman poisoning a man who refuses to be her lover out of a sense of loyalty to her husband. Known as a Sir Thomas Overbury play (there are several), this true story from the time of James I is an example of what is usually known as “bowl and dagger” tragedies (Newton 22). The poisoners all kill out of a sense of insane jealousy or greed and target multiple victims. Though these death scenes were somewhat more subdued than violent stabbings, the undoubted shuddering and spasming of the poison victims would be horrifying enough. Part of the thrill of these plays was also the mystery. Though many times the audience knew who the villainous poisoner was, the other characters had to come to that shocking realization and bring the poisoner to justice.
Another example of penny gaff horror is gallows drama, which featured the executions of well-known public figures. There were particularly numerous plays or shorter scenes concerned with the beheadings of queens, such as Mary Queen of Scots, Lady Jane Grey, Anne Boleyn, and Catharine Howard. In some of these, such as the plays centering on Howard, an enraged, betrayed husband presents himself as executioner to get revenge on his unfaithful wife. The addition of a brief lover-scorned plot would only serve to make the execution (which the audience knows is going to happen) more dramatic, and to make the victim appear more villainous.
An incredibly popular, if not quite as horrific type of gaff drama was known as Newcastle fiction and was mostly concerned with thievery and acts of evading the law. Dick Turpin and Jack Sheppard were two of the most popular of these characters and were responsible for a fair amount of on stage violence. Newton, a Turpin expert, went so far as to say that “I have long come to the conclusion that that highwayman was one of the most brutal, unromantic, bloodthirsty pigs who ever dared to take the High Toby and call himself a Knight of the Road!” (76). Similar exploits, as well as several scenes of murder, are also found in Jack Sheppard, about a thief and prison-breaker, and a similar play, George Barnwell, about a servant gone bad.
The last type of play I would like to touch upon is the idea of a seemingly motiveless violent crime from the news adapted for the melodramatic and gaff stages. Newton gives a good example when he describes “a fearful combat to the death” between two gentlemen, involving a pistol and a set of fire tongs (91). This incredible story of violence concerns two men, Murray and Roberts, who were involved in some type of illegal transaction and broke out into a fight. First there was a fist fight, then Roberts shot Murray, and then Murray managed to get hold of the fire tongs and beat Roberts almost to death. “In the meantime, both the terribly injured miscreants rallied sufficiently to endeavor to choke each other and to hurl all sorts of furniture, jars, etc., at each other’s heads” (92). This incredible story had some melodramatic plots twists added, including a love triangle, for its stage adaptation.
Melodrama was also popular in the gaffs, because it had become the most popular form of theatrical expression in Victorian culture. These plots were sentimental, conventional, and romantic, always featuring characters in an absolute dichotomy of good and evil. Though the gaff stages didn’t have the budgets of professional theaters, both were regularly inundated with scenes of:
Shootings, stranglings, hangings, poisonings, drownings, stabbings, suicides, explosions, conflagrations, avalanches, earthquakes, eruptions, shipwrecks, train wrecks, apparitions, tortured heroines, persecuted heroes, and fearsome villains are only a lengthy prelude to inevitable happiness and that apotheosis of virtue. Audiences could enjoy crime and villainy and horror in the full knowledge that the bright sword of justice would always fall in the right place” (Booth 14).
It seems incredible that Victorian audiences craved these horrors on a regular basis, but according to John Springhall, melodrama was the “only common meeting place of middle-class and working-class cultural trajectories.” After censorship was tightened and managers were forced to get more creative, these performers were forced to provide a wider variety of entertainment as well. It was also quite ordinary to see crude versions of popular plays, even a contemporary one running at the same time in legitimate theatres. Gaffs showed ballets, comic songs, optical illusions, farces, melodramatic scenes from current plays, basic animal shows, and Christmas pantomimes. Burgess claimed that horrible murders were still the most favorite topic, and the audiences were “fond of extremes and will tolerate nothing else” (Sheridan, 26).
The later gaff entertainment, particularly in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, focused more on audience participation. They used such Brechtian tactics as drawing audience members on stage to join in on popular songs, dancing, and bizarrely, tricks with electricity and laughing gas. Though he may not have known about the gaffs, horror director William Castle used similar effects in screenings of his schlock horror films, such as The Tingler, starring Vincent Price, when he had an adult-sized skeleton zoom across the theater suspended on a wire.
The penny gaffs began to suffer with the introduction of the 1824 Vagrancy Act, which allowed performers to be arrested as vagabonds. When these laws were loosened, the Metropolitan Police Act of 1839 created a new list of offenses that criminalized popular recreational activities and eventually prohibited the use of dialogue in gaffs. Belief that the gaffs were somehow linked to the rise of juvenile crime rates brought these laws into existence, but the changing of audience tastes combined with a better standard of living sounded the final death knell for the gaffs. Within a decade or two, the gaffs lost their subversive, dangerous appeal and after about fifty years, they even lost the appeal of nostalgia, and did not re-open their doors. A major wave of horror popular culture that mostly affected youth did not again rear its head until the horror pulp comics (known as splatter pulps) in the late 1930s, exactly a hundred years after the opening of the gaffs.
- Booth, Micheal R. English Melodrama. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965.
- Booth, M.R. Victorian Spectacular Theatre 1850-1910. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.
- Burgess, Frederick. Penny Theatres: Illustrated with Views, Bills, and Advertisements, etc. 1882. Harvard Theatre Collection.
- Boyle, Thomas. Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead. New York: Viking Books, 1989.
- Carroll, David. Pockets of Poision: Penny Bloods and the Demon Barber. Tabula Rasa #5, 1995. http://www.tabula-rasa.info/DarkAges/
- Haining, Peter Ed. The Penny Dreadful: Or, Strange, Horrid, and Sensational Tales!London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1975.
- Newton, H. Chance. Crime in the Drama. London: Kennikat Press, 1927.
- Sheridan, P. Penny Theatres of Victorian London. London: Dobson, 1987.
- Springhall, John. Youth, popular culture and moral panics : penny gaffs to gangsta-rap, 1830-1996. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1998.
- Stephens, John Russel. The Censorship of English Drama 1824-1901. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
- Stephens, John Russel. ‘Thespis’s Poorest Children: Penny Theatres and the Law in the 1830’s.’ Theatre Notebook, XL (1986) pp. 123 – 130.
- Sullivan, Jack Ed. The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural. New York: Viking Penguin Inc, 1986.