From 1830 to 1870, the exact time the macabre and violent incarnations of the penny dreadful were being published, otherwise known as penny bloods, a complementary form of theater was also taking place, Penny Gaffs.
The penny gaff alludes to attending a cock fight for a penny, but the actual penny gaff had lost the chickens and put bawdy performances in their place. The penny dreadful and the penny gaff entwine in many ways, beginning with the obvious; both cost a penny.
As such they were clearly for the lower, barely or non educated classes. Penny gaffs even more so, because you at least needed to be literate to read a penny dreadful. The gaffs being a live event didn’t even require that. It was especially popular amongst a younger crowd; 20 somethings, teenagers, even many poor children would attend. Because of the high number of underage attendees, there was no price reduction for age otherwise it would cut drastically into the profit margin. Large or small you paid your penny and went in.
You might go into a shop which doubled as a temporary theater at night, or the backroom of a pub, where some makeshift stage had been assembled. The idea was to emulate the popular music hall that the middle classes were enjoying. In the poor areas of London there might be 20 penny gaffs going on in a 5 mile radius.
Each performance would last and hour and a half to 2 hours, then everybody OUT and the next round in and the next show is on. You would pay your penny, go to a room to wait for the performance area to clear, then be herded in.
A Master of Ceremonies of sorts would appear to warm up the audience and introduce the acts. The humor was overwhelming raunchy and low brow. Some singers would sing, often bawdy or patriotic, jingoistic song, some clowing would ensue and short plays and vignettes would be performed.
The short plays are where we find another connection with the penny dreadfuls. They were most often about the same highwaymen, robbers and criminals which appeared the dreadfuls. In fact both the dreadful and the gaff took their criminal protagonists from the same source.
The Newgate Calender was one of the most popular periodicals of the 18th and 19th centuries. It was originally a monthly bulletin of executions. Biographies of some of the executed criminals would appear and by the mid 19th century it was fully of immensely embellished anecdotes about criminals who became infamous and the stars of the penny gaffs and penny dreadfuls.
The Newgate Calender contained heavy handed lessons about the horrors of Catholicism, foreigners, and every manner of vice while practically bursting into loving tears over the subjects of Protestantism, patriotism, capital, punishment and royalty. Just in case you think things are any different today than they’ve ever been.
The plays and vignettes would feature the exploits of some famous criminal like Dick Turpin or Jack Sheppard. Some would retell and dramatize the incidents of a famous bloody crime, the more Manson-like the better.
The crowd would eat it up. Between the raunchy sex and the violence it was enormously popular amongst both young men and women of the lower classes. The shows were roudy affairs, although with a large degree of patriotism thrown in whenever possible.
Naturally the more puritan aspects of British society considered the penny gaffs to be a hotbed of vice and criminals and labored for years to have them banned.