Music hall

Music hall

In Brief

Although the institution of the "music hall" is explicitly mentioned only a few times in Ulysses, many of the songs included in the novel were performed in these British entertainment venues, which dominated popular culture in the later 19th century and the first half of the 20th, until competition from jazz, television, and rock and roll pushed them to the margins.

Read More

One particular Dublin music hall appears as part of the Dublin street furniture in Wandering Rocks: "They passed Dan Lowry's musichall where Marie Kendall, charming soubrette, smiled on them from a poster a dauby smile. / Going down the path of Sycamore street beside the Empire musichall Lenehan showed M'Coy how the whole thing was." This passage makes it sound as if Lenehan and M'Coy are passing by two music halls in quick succession, but in fact they were different names for the same establishment. Dan Lowrey's Star of Erin Music Hall was renamed the Empire Theatre of Varieties in 1897. Today the building on Sycamore Street, just off of Dame Street in the vicinity of The Temple Bar, houses the Olympia Theatre, which still books many musical acts.

Early London music halls evolved from public houses that offered live entertainment. Paying customers could sit at tables eating food, drinking alcohol, and smoking tobacco while the performances went on. By the end of the 19th century the halls became more like traditional theaters, and eating, drinking, and smoking were no longer part of the picture. Music halls featured various kinds of popular music, including folk songs and ballads, light opera, and American minstrel routines, as well as theatrical fare including comic skits, recitations, melodramas, acrobatic displays, ventriloquists, drag acts, mimes, and more. In this respect establisments like the Empire cannot be easily distinguished from mainline theaters like the Gaiety, the Queen's, and the Royal, which mingled purely dramatic productions with similar crowd-pleasing displays.

But the halls' bread and butter was performance of professional composers' fresh, contemporary songs. Most of these songs had catchy refrains, and audiences would often join in on the choruses. The subject matter appealed to working-class concerns and sensibilities. Many songs from the music hall repertoire are still familiar today, such as It's a Long Way to Tipperary, Daddy Wouldn't Buy Me a Bow Wow, I'm Henery the Eighth I Am, and Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay. Bloom encounters one of these mega-hits, Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?, being performed on the streets as the carriage rolls along in Hades: "As they turned into Berkeley street a streetorgan near the Basin sent over and after them a rollicking rattling song of the halls. Has anybody here seen Kelly? Kay ee double ell wy. . . . He's as bad as old Antonio. He left me on my ownio." Other popular songs mentioned in Ulysses, such as Love's Old Sweet Song, Those Lovely Seaside Girls, and Woodman, Spare That Tree, would have appeared on music hall programs.

In Scylla and Charybdis A.E. contrasts the artificiality of music hall songs with the natural expressiveness of folk songs: "—People do not know how dangerous lovesongs can be, the auric egg of Russell warned occultly. The movements which work revolutions in the world are born out of the dreams and visions in a peasant's heart on the hillside. For them the earth is not an exploitable ground but the living mother. The rarefied air of the academy and the arena produce the sixshilling novel, the musichall song. France produces the finest flower of corruption in Mallarmé but the desirable life is revealed only to the poor of heart, the life of Homer's Phæacians."

In Calypso Bloom thinks of the wages that his daughter is earning in the photographer's shop in Mullingar and contemplates other employment possibilities for a spirited young woman: "Twelve and six a week. Not much. Still, she might do worse. Music hall stage." Gifford comments that this alternative employment would be "Not very well paid and possibly morally compromising, since music-hall artistes were regarded as living on the permissive fringes of middle-class society."

JH 2017
Dan Lowrey's Star of Erin Music Hall, in an image from a program cover reproduced in Eugene Watters' and Matthew Murtagh's Infinite Variety: Dan Lowrey's Music Hall, 1879-97 (Norwich, 1975). Source:
Engraving of the Oxford Music Hall ca. 1875, held in the London Theatre Museum collection. Source: Wikimedia Commons.