Transcriptions of Gilbert and Sullivan interviews
These interviews can be viewed in far more polished form on the Gilbert and Sullivan Archive (click here for Gilbert, here for Sullivan). This page is the “draft” of my transcriptions, which I have maintained for my reference (more bibliographic details than would be of interest to any normal person) and to have a searchable file. I have pasted in the two Strand interviews from the G&S Archive, which I did not transcribe myself.
Many thanks to those who provided (and in a couple of cases transcribed) some of these interviews: John Cannon, Andrew Crowther, Stan DeOrsey, Robin Gordon-Powell, Tim Riley, David Stone, and Kevin Wachs
I have recently obtained the following interviews but have not yet had the time to transcribe them:
“”Interviewed” Of Course.” The Musical World 57.49 (Dec. 6, 1879) 771-2; Dec, 13, 1879, p. 790 (apparently reprinted from the New York World; I haven’t seen the original)
“An Interview with Mr. Gilbert.” Pall Mall Gazette, Dec. 15, 1888, p. 5.
Valentine, E.S. “Sir W.S. Gilbert as an Artist.” Strand Magazine 37.218 (Feb. 1909) 139-144.
Interviews with Gilbert
· “Gilbert and Sullivan…” New-York Herald, Nov. 6, 1879
· “Workers and Their Work: Mr. W.S. Gilbert.” Daily News, Jan. 21, 1885
· “The Story of a Stage Play.” New-York Daily Tribune, Aug. 9, 1885
· “Theatrical Pirates.” Evening News, Jan. 18, 1887
· “Ruddy-gore and Savoy Operas.” Pall Mall Gazette, Jan. 21, 1887
· “The Newest Theatre in London.” Pall Mall Gazette, March 22, 1888
· “Brantinghame Hall.” Pall Mall Gazette, November 26, 1888
· “Blank, Blank! The New Opera at the Savoy.” Pall Mall Gazette, Dec.3, 1889
· “Illustrated Interviews No. IV. – Mr. W.S. Gilbert.” Strand Magazine, Oct. 1891
· “The Mountebanks.” The Pall Mall Gazette, December 26, 1891
· “How They Write Their Plays: Mr. W.S. Gilbert.” St. James’s Gazette, June 23, 1893
· “A Rehearsal at the Savoy.” The Westminster Gazette, October 6, 1893
· “A Savoy Rehearsal.” The Graphic, Oct. 7, 1893
· “Collaborating with Sir Arthur Sullivan.” Cassell’s Saturday Journal, March 21, 1894
· “Gilbert, the Librettist.” Boston Evening Transcript, Jan. 26, 1895 [added Dec. 27, 2011]
· “Interview with Mr. W.S. Gilbert: The Press, the Play, and the Players.” The Edinburgh Evening Dispatch, Oct. 5, 1897
· “William Schwenck Gilbert: The Man, the Humorist, the Artist.” Cassell’s Magazine, March 1900
· “Real Conversations.” Pall Mall Magazine 25 (Sep. 1901) 88-98
· “The Revivals at the Savoy.” Pall Mall Gazette, Oct. 22, 1906
· “The Savoy Operas: Mr. Gilbert Tells Some Anecdotes.” Daily Mail, Oct. 30, 1906
· “Mr. W.S. Gilbert at Grim’s Dyke.” Graphic, Nov. 17, 1906
· “The Tendency of the Modern Stage.” Daily Chronicle, Jan. 2, 1908
· “Fallen Fairies.” Daily Telegraph, December 9, 1909
· “New Savoy Opera.” Observer Dec. 12, 1909
· “Fallen Fairies – Tonight’s New Opera at the Savoy.” Daily Sketch, December 15, 1909.
[probably not to be included as an interview?]
“A Visit to Sir William S. Gilbert.” The Nation, Aug. 3, 1911
Interviews with Sullivan
· “A Talk with Mr. Sullivan.” New-York Times, Aug. 1, 1879
· “Gilbert and Sullivan…” New-York Herald, Nov. 6, 1879
· “An Interview with Cerberus.” Musical World, Dec. 20, 1879
· “Workers and Their Work: Sir Arthur Sullivan.” Daily News, Jan. 10, 1885
· “An Interesting Interview with Sir Arthur Sullivan upon His American Litigation.” Chicago Tribune. July 14, 1885
· “Sir Arthur Sullivan: A Talk with the Composer of Pinafore.” San Francisco Chronicle, July 22, 1885
· “Sir Arthur Unbosoms Himself.” New York Mirror, Oct. 3, 1885
· “The Melody-Maker of the Savoy.” Pall Mall Gazette, Dec. 5, 1889
· “A Chat with Sir Arthur Sullivan.” Pall Mall Gazette, Sep. 21, 1892
· “Sir Arthur Sullivan Speaks for “Chums.”” Chums, Jan. 3, 1894
· “Sir Arthur Sullivan on Monday Night’s Concert.” Freeman’s Journal, April 11, 1894
· “A Chat with Sir Arthur Sullivan.” Otago Witness, Sep. 27, 1894
· “Interviews with Eminent Musicians No. 3 – Sir Arthur Sullivan.” Strand Musical Magazine, March 1895
· “Victoria and Merrie England.” Daily Telegraph, May 24, 1897
· “A Master of Melody.” The Young Woman, Nov. 1897
· “Illustrated Interviews LVI – Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan.” Strand Magazine, Dec. 1897
· “New Savoy Opera.” Daily Mail, May 17, 1898
· “The New Musical Drama at the Savoy.” Daily News, May 25, 1898
· “A Chat with the Composer of “The Lost Chord.”” The New Penny Magazine, Feb. 1900
Joint interview of Gilbert and Sullivan:
“Gilbert and Sullivan: Arrival of the Comic Writer and His Coadjutor…” New-York Herald, Nov. 6, 1879, p. 5. (Contributed by Kevin Wachs)
ARRIVAL OF THE COMIC WRITER AND HIS COADJUTOR –
THEIR OWN OPINION OF “PINAFORE” –
PLAYS AND PLANS FOR THE FUTURE.
The Cunard steamer Bothnia, which arrived at Quarantine yesterday morning at three o’clock, brought among her passengers two of the brightest and cleverest Englishmen of our day; two Britons who have probably contributed more to the innocent amusement and pleasure of the American people than any others – Arthur Sullivan and William S. Gilbert – one the composer and the other the author of “Her Majesty’s Ship Pinafore.” It was a bitter cold morning. The two famous representatives of English comic opera were still at breakfast, delightfully ensconced amid a bevy of charming American young ladies.
“I have come here from the HERALD to greet you upon your arrival on American soil,” said the reporter.
Mr. Gilbert laughed and amiably introduced his comrade in arms, Mr. Sullivan. They led the writer to their stateroom below, which was in a state of bewildering confusion. The reporter, however, found a seat on a large cigar box containing, according to Mr. Sullivan’s statement, not less than five hundred cigars, while the composer crouched upon another box and Mr. Gilbert rested himself as well as he could against the sharp wooden edge of his berth.
“We had been warned by Edmund Yates and others that we should be interviewed,” said Mr. Sullivan, after the conversation had been in progress in the most informal fashion for some little time; “and, to be frank with you, we had rather dreaded the ordeal; but if it is always as pleasant as this we’ll be happy to have it done every day.”
GILBERT AND SULLIVAN SKETCHED.
The appearance and manner of the two famous Englishmen greatly belie the published accounts which have found their way across the ocean and which represented more especially Mr. Gilbert as a man of austere and haughty temperament. On the contrary, two more amiable, modest, simple, good humored and vivacious men could not easily be imagined. They fairly brim over with animation, high spirits and the jolliest kind of bonhomie, and it would appear to the most indifferent observer that they must shed gladness upon any company in which they happened to be. Mr. Gilbert, a fine, well-made, robust man apparently of 45, above the medium stature, with the brightest and rosiest of faces, an auburn mustache, and short “mutton-chop” whiskers, tipped, only slightly, with iron gray, large and clear blue eyes, and a forehead of high, massive, and intellectual cast. His voice has a hearty, deep ring, and his utterance is quick and jerky – as though he were almost tired of keeping up this business of saying funny things, which everybody more or less expects of him. Mr. Sullivan is quite different. In his appearance gentle feeling and tender emotion are as strongly expressed as cold, glittering, keen-edged intellect is in that of Mr. Gilbert. He is short, round and plump, with a very fleshy neck, and as dark as his collaboratteur is fair, with a face of wonderful mobility and sensitiveness, in which the slightest emotion plays with unmistakable meaning, with eyes which only the Germanic adjective of “soulful” would fitly describe and the full, sensuous lips of a man of impassioned nature. With all this Mr. Sullivan, who keeps a monocle dangling over one eye while the other twinkles merrily at you and whose dark whiskers and hair have an ambrosial curl, is also something of a polished man of fashion.
A FROTHY TRIFLE.
The conversation of course turned first upon “Pinafore” and Gilbert and Sullivan agreed in expressing their surprise at its enormous success in this country.
“It is rather hard,” said Gilbert, with great good humor, “when one has done for years serious work – work, at least, aiming to be so – to find after all that a frothy trifle like this should have so far exceeded in its success the work which one has held in far more serious estimation. For we really had no idea that it would be such an extraordinary success, you know.”
Mr. Sullivan cordially chimed in with this sentiment and alluded to his oratorios and other compositions of a more classical and ambitious style, which he was constrained to acknowledge had not met with anything like the popular success that “Pinafore” has enjoyed.
“Under what inspiration was it composed – champagne or Bass’ ale?”
Mr. Sullivan laughed and replied that during most of the time in which he wrote the score of the “Pinafore” he was seriously ill, and was often in great pain when he composed the merriest melodies in that tuneful little work.
“Did these striking airs occur to you spontaneously, or did you have to search for them, as it were?”
“Oh, it’s a great mistake to suppose that the music of an opera bubbles up like a spring,” was the composer’s reply. “We have to dig for music like the miner for his gold. It won’t do for the miner to expect the gold to come up spontaneously. He has to dig deep for it, and so do we, also, have to dig for our musical treasures.”
“And the words,” the reporter queried, turning to the author. “How was it that they were so closely wedded to the musical idea?”
“Well, we have been working together harmoniously for the last seven years,” was Mr. Gilbert’s reply, “and have learned to understand each other so thoroughly that even the faintest suggestion of the one meets with a ready and sympathetic response from the other. In all this period of active cooperation it has never even once occurred that we have disagreed as to the way in which an idea should be carried out, be it either poetically or musically.”
“Did you expect these familiar quotations from ‘Pinafore’ to become the popular catchwords which they now are?”
“Never,” was Mr. Gilbert’s serious and emphatic reply.
“Well, very seldom,” the author laughingly answered, “as I once innocently said before to a gentleman who asked me the same question and who laughed uproariously he thought it was so funny. But, seriously speaking, I had no idea that these few jocular expressions would pass into the small currency of daily conversation. Had I sat down with the mechanical effort to coin a popular catchword, I probably should have failed completely.”
“And how is it that ‘Pinafore’ has not been as great a success in England as it proved in this country?”
Mr. Sullivan took up the question and replied: – “Oh, it has been a very great success. In London it has been running 500 nights, and it was played at four theatres at the same time. In the provincial theatres it has been a continual attraction for the last year and a half or more.”
“And,” added Mr. Gilbert, “remember that it is the only operatic work by a native author and composer which ever kept the British boards over three weeks.”
ORATORIO AND OPERETTA.
The conversation then turned on the plans of the British visitors.
“How long do you expect to stay?”
“Just as long as you (meaning the American public) will tolerate us,” Mr. Gilbert dryly replied. “We expect to stay about three months in New York and then visit the other chief cities.”
“You will open with ‘Pinafore,’ I presume.
“Yes, on the 1st of December, at the Fifth Avenue Theatre,” Mr. Sullivan said. “We have heard that it has been done excellently here; but, of course, we should like to have it done according to our own ideas, exactly as we originally intended it to be done. Mr. Gilbert is a wonderful stage manager, and there are many fine telling points of stage business which he will introduce and which, I am sure, must be new to the American public. On the 23rd of this month I shall be in Boston conducting my oratorio, ‘The Prodigal Son.’”
“Are your plans for this country separate from those of Mr. Sullivan?” Mr. Gilbert was asked.
“Not in the least,” was the author’s reply, “but I don’t intend to help him conduct his oratorios.”
“What works will you produce besides ‘Pinafore?’”
“We intend to give ‘Trial by Jury’ and the ‘Sorcerer’ which, we are told, were never done here as they were originally intended to be done.”
“And as to your new opera – the ‘Robbers,’ it is to be called, I believe?”
“The name is not yet fixed upon,” Mr. Gilbert said, “we shall probably not decide upon it until we are ready to produce it. It was just the same with ‘Pinafore.’ We actually had the printed handbills ready before we finally decided upon the name.”
“And as to the story of the six burglars making love to the six daughters of the proprietor of the house they break into – is that really the basis of the plot?”
“We originally mapped that out for a little one act piece like ‘Trial by Jury,’ and very likely shall use it in the present work. But I cannot tell you anything more about the plot, because, to tell the truth, the piece is not yet thoroughly elaborated. The second act is written and the first isn’t. But the treatment of the new opera will be similar to that of ‘Pinafore’ – namely, to treat a thoroughly farcical subject in a thoroughly serious manner. That has been my idea all along. If a man, I say, comes upon the stage dressed up grotesquely as a clown nobody is surprised if he performs antics and stands upon his head. It is expected of him; nobody will laugh at him. But if a man comes in looking like a dignified Wall street banker or a lofty British deacon and suddenly proceeds to stand upon his head everybody will laugh at the absurdity of the performance.”
“It’s the story of a modern Zampa,” Mr. Sullivan broke in; “of pirates and escapades of 200 years ago, which, if dressed up in our modern clothes, must seem very absurd.”
“It’s a burlesque upon the serious melodrama,” Mr. Gilbert explained, “and its absurdities and its farcical aspects are treated as seriously as the ridiculous improbabilities of grand opera are treated seriously in ‘Pinafore.’”
AN AMERICAN PIECE OF STAGE BUSINESS.
“One of the funniest things in that way,” suggested the reporter, “is the scene in which Ralph, after being ordered to his dungeon cell, is led away a prisoner, but upon receiving an encore to his farewell song is brought back by the soldier to repeat it.
“Do they do that here?” Mr. Sullivan exclaimed with laughing surprise. “We never did that on the other side. That must look immensely funny.”
“This is your first visit to this country, Mr. Sullivan?”
“Yes; for four years I have been coming every year, and been so often disappointed that I can hardly believe that I am here now.”
“But you, Mr. Gilbert, have been here before?”
“Yes, some years ago; but I am partially a stranger in the country now. By the way, I have read the ridiculous stories about my coming to this country and leaving it in disgust because I was not admitted to Wallack’s Theatre, and all that sort of thing. The truth is I came here solely for the purpose of selling a play of mine, and was met at Quarantine, and the transaction was there completed, so that there was really no necessity of my landing in New York at all. But I landed and spent four or five days here, during which time Mr. Wallack entertained me most kindly and hospitably. What happened at the theatre was this: – I went to the door and, trying to explain my identity, said, ‘I am Mr. Gilbert,’ to which the doorkeeper, thinking that I wanted to palm myself off as Mr. John Gilbert, the veteran stage manager and actor, to obtain a free admission, caustically replied, ‘No, you aren’t.’”
Mr. Gilbert, in recalling this comical incident, could not help laughing.
A NEW PLAY FOR SOTHERN.
“Will you bring out here any of your new plays, Mr. Gilbert?”
“I have a new play for Sothern which I have not christened yet. I have also an idea of bringing out ‘Engaged.’ If done as I intend it to be done – with absolute seriousness – it would be quite funny. The American performances of ‘Engaged’ have proved quite profitable to me – they have netted me about L2,300 – but only because I renounced the publication of the play as a book in England, and therefore retained my ownership of the play here at common law which, I believe, recognized the right to one’s play – as long as it is not published.”
Mr. Gilbert said that much of his and Mr. Sullivan’s time up to the 1st of December, when “Pinafore” would be brought out, would be taken up with rehearsals – probably about seven hours a day. In referring to the stage business of “Pinafore,” which he had taught the London Company in great minutiae, he said: –
“I always try to impress upon every actor and actress the exact meaning of my lines, and while I will never attempt to force upon them any particular interpretation as against their own, yet I visit upon their heads the result if it should be disastrous.”
“Have you had much trouble in that way?”
“Only with beginners,” Mr. Gilbert replied. “The experienced actors and actresses are always perfectly willing to adopt my hints and suggestions on any point of stage business.”
Mr. Sullivan was asked as to his recently reported severe illness and said he had been perfectly well since he returned from the Mediterranean. At the same time he told a funny story, which receives its main point from his habitually wearing shirts cut very low in the neck. He said a Western man, a fellow passenger on board the Bothnia, came up and asked him whether he had been well of late. He replied that he had been perfectly well.
“Well, then,” said the Western man, “if you don’t want to get pleuro-pneumonia in New York, I’ll tell you what to do. The first thing you do in New York is to order yourself plenty of shirts and shirt collars. If you don’t (this he said very threateningly) you’ll die of pleuro-pneumonia, sure.”
In this way the conversation went chattily on until the advent of the Custom House officers broke it up. Mr. Sullivan, after declaring his 500 cigars, and some new clothes brought for an American friend, appeared on deck wrapped in a huge fur-trimmed overcoat, in which he paced the deck, the cynosure of all eyes. Every one who looked at him or Gilbert seemed to give a good-natured smile – the very air in which they had their being appeared to be infectious with hilarity. Even the Custom House officers, usually so adamantine, were melted and turned quite civilly to the author and composer of the “Pinafore.” The passengers told the reporter of some of the many witty things said by Gilbert during the trip.
GILBERT’S FUNNY SAYINGS.
At dinner, on one occasion, when the dessert, composed of pie and tart, was brought on, the author, imitating the rhythm of “Good-bye Sweetheart,” dryly and sententiously said, “Good pie, sweet-tart, good pie!” which created immense laughter. Another evening the captain came down with the ribbon of the Legion of Honor in the label of his coat. A French passenger remarked that the captain was decoré.
“Yes,” Mr. Gilbert said, quickly, “Quarter-deckore.”
Messrs. Sullivan and Gilbert were cordially greeted upon the arrival of the steamer at the Cunard dock by a large number of friends, and received a formal invitation to be the guest of the Lotos Club on Saturday evening. They went to the residence of some intimate friends, with whom they intended to stay for the present. Mr. Sullivan will conduct the first performance of “Pinafore” in person, after which his friend and assistant, Mr. Cellier, also a passenger on the Bothnia, will take his place. Mlle. Roosevelt (Miss Blanche Tucker), who is spoken of as a very charming singer, and who also arrived yesterday on the Bothnia, will be the Josephine, and Mr. Broccolini (Mr. Clark) will be the Deadeye. The soloists will all be English, but the chorus and orchestra will be selected in this city.
Interviews of Gilbert
“Workers and Their Work: Mr. W.S. Gilbert.” Daily News (London), Jan. 21, 1885, p. 3; reprinted in Musical World, March 14, 1885, p. 166, and March 21, 1885, p. 180
WORKERS AND THEIR WORK.
MR. W.S. GILBERT.
Mr. Gilbert strolls about the handsome library in his new house in Harrington-gardens as he frankly conveys some of his views on the condition of the drama in England. His library is just that particular private room a library ought to be, with all aids and appliances to study and communication outwards that a perfect library should have. Mr. Gilbert, who personally superintended the construction of his house, is especially proud of three of its characteristics. These are the telephone, the electric light, and the letter-box. A cupboard to the left of a beautiful Chippendale bookcase contains a telephone communicating with the general system and a special wire to the Savoy Theatre, whither Mr. Gilbert now rarely goes except for the purpose of rehearsal. While I listen he communicates to the clerks orders as to scenery and so forth. The room, like the whole of the house, from the kitchens, lined with white glazed bricks, to the roof, is lit by the electric light. There are a steam-engine, a dynamo-engine, and accumulators in the basement, and the rooms are beautifully illuminated by cut-glass lamps supplied by the wires laid in when the house was planned. Charming lamps cut in facets to represent pineapples appear on the staircase and in the sixteenth-century dining-room with its pictures by Tintoret, Vander Capelle, and Maes. This system of illumination is of great value when Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert give their frequent and charming children’s parties and dramatic entertainments. Only the other day the drawing-room was converted into a theatre, and the backs of everybody necessarily, but so far unfortunately, turned to the carved alabaster fireplace, a handsome piece of work. On such occasions the central hall of the edifice, like that of some old country house, comes into strong relief, and quite fulfils its purpose as a gathering place. In the library Mr. Gilbert has yet another surprise for the visitor who has not called on him since he left “The Boltons.” He has a letter-box with a shoot [sic] down into the butler’s pantry, the said butler being ordered to mail letters according to postal arrangements every hour or two in the day. This is an admirable plan for a busy man who is apt to leave letters on his writing-table not only for hours but days. Mr. Gilbert’s letters are flung into his private post-office, and are then completely off his mind.
“I don’t think,” remarks Mr. Gilbert, “that the knack of dramatic construction can be exactly defined. My impression is that the method is very different according to the nature of the work to be done. It entirely depends on what is wanted, and on the ability of the writer to fulfil that demand. As it seems to me the first necessity of the author is to find out what is wanted—what theme is uppermost in the mind of the public at that particular moment. “Patience” and “The Pirates of Penzance” are, with many thanks to my distinguished colleague Sir Arthur Sullivan, vastly popular, in some regard perhaps by virtue of their popular application. These successes were so brilliant as to be dazzling, and Sir Arthur and I were very fortunate in our alliance with Mr. D’Oyly Carte, whose exceptional ability has brought in a large return to the confederation.”
“In writing comic opera and other things, what do you think about first?”
“It is very difficult to tell how you begin. I cannot give you a good reason for our forthcoming piece being laid in Japan. It has seemed to us that to lay the scene in Japan afforded scope for picturesque treatment, scenery, and costume, and I think that the idea of a chief magistrate, who is king, judge, and actual executioner in one and yet would not hurt a worm, may perhaps please the public. This is the sword of a Japanese executioner! You will observe that it is a double-handed sword, with a grip admitting of two distinct applications of strength. Our scenery is quite Japanese, and our costumes have been imported. As I am only partner, [sic] and do not want to spoil any amusement you may possibly enjoy on the first night, I will not say any more about it, except that I am anxious about the clothes being properly worn. For I have a certain terror of what are called “dress improvers”—otherwise, as you remind me, “birdcages,”—and have my doubts about the flat black hair. Here are picture-books of Japanese people, very well-looking some of them, but not— [sic]
“Where do you begin?”
“Generally I think by what is in demand, or I think is in demand. I first ask myself what things are just then asked for by the public, and try to write up to some one interesting subject. The state of the navy, of the army, aestheticism, and so on, have thus been written about. This, however, is only my method for certain pieces, and I can understand writers beginning anywhere, and selecting any subject they may on consideration imagine to be attractive.”
“It is said that English dramatic authors are not very inventive or original?”
“I do not think that public opinion, of which personally I most certainly have nothing to complain, is quite fair in its estimate of English dramatic authors. Without thinking much about the matter, the first-comer compares the English with the French dramatic author. On the face of it this is unfair. You might as well compare the command of a Dover mail-boat with that of a Cunarder. The field of the French writer is almost unlimited. He is bound by no restrictions as to bringing the blush on the cheek of the ‘maiden of bashful fifteen.’ He writes for men and married women. His first thought when hammering out the clou or main spring of his play is ‘What shall I do with my adulteress?” Now, except when a play is confessedly translated from the French, or founded upon a novel, this person is forbidden to French dramatists. Our lovers must be single young men and women, and we are tied down to a happy or comedy conclusion.”
“Is not this English system very artificial?”
“Almost entirely so. You and I and a few more are happy in our domestic and other relations: but is this true of all English people? What the contemporary playwright is asked to represent is not what life is, but what it ought to be. It unfortunately happens, that is, for the dramatist, that as much may be said of ordinary life as of that of nations. It is written “Happy is the nation which has no history.’ It might as well be said ‘Happy is the family without dramatic incidents.’ But play-writing requires dramatic incidents. Good people carry on the work of the world, but they are not amusing, as a rule, and their ordinary lives would hardly make a play of any kind—except now and then a farce. Hence, except in the case of Shakespeare or of French adaptations, English dramatists are driven within the narrow limits of bourgeois thought imposed by the survival of Puritanical prejudice. The English dramatist dances his hornpipe in fetters.”
“Not so well off, then, as the novelist?”
“No. The novelist’s work may be excluded from the nursery or the schoolroom, but children are supposed to go to theatres. Why young girls are taken to see ‘Othello’ and ‘Hamlet,’ not to speak of ‘Measure for Measure’ or ‘Cymbeline,’ is an insular mystery. And in every house are copies of ‘Adam Bede’ and ‘Dombey and Son.’ Yet if you put ‘Dombey and Son’ on the stage you are compelled to suppress the elopement. It seems ridiculous that what can be read at home cannot appear on the stage; but there are good English reasons why not. Young girls are not allowed to read novels, and are yet taken to the theatre. This accounts for the weakness of many English plays.”
“You have been instrumental in raising the price paid by managers to dramatic authors?”
“And I think justly so. The author makes the piece, and it is idiotic that he should not be paid at least as much as the principal actor or actress. On what rational principle should I allow any manager to play my pieces according to their length for the ridiculous remuneration of three or five guineas per night when he pays a comedian ten guineas. [sic] I do not, I think, hold exaggerated views as to authors’ rights when I say the writer of a play is entitled to rank at least on an equality with the highest-paid comedian. I think the French estimate of ten per cent. a good basis for negotiation. French authors have a right to ten per cent., and with a few exceptions, such as the Français, the French theatres are more heavily amerced than ours in dues to the poor and so forth.”
“The necessary qualifications of a dramatic author are then considerable.”
“In a way they may be, but not necessarily. The rules of dramatic construction are simple in themselves, but various of application, and might, I should imagine, be learned by any person who would take the pains and spend the time upon them necessary to fulfil an ordinary apprenticeship to any craft. You speak of gig-driving and of writing leading articles as arts supposed to come by instinct, but I have a firm belief that every person who sits in the front rows of the stalls believes that he, she, or it could write a play, enact a part, and stage-manage the affair far better than the author. But they forget that every trade, including that of a playwright, must be learnt. The finest literary and poetical genius in the world may hopelessly founder in attempting to write a play through ignorance of rules which any person of the average intelligence of a gentleman’s butler could master with sufficient application, I do not say that average butlers could write average plays any more than average playwright [sic] would make average butlers, but merely conclude that fair intelligence and application would supply any ordinary person with the technical knowledge necessary to the arrangements of a story for the stage so that it should not be absurd, as charmingly written plays, full of literary merit, often are. This is no hasty criticism on the great plays which require almost re-arranegment, if not re-writing, for the stage. I will quote as an instance Goethe’s ‘Faust,’ which, like Lord Byron’s “Cain,” was not written for dramatic representation, but only cast in the dramatic as the most convenient poetic form. It is, as it seems to me, quite unfair to accuse Mr, Merivale or myself with our ‘Cynic’ or ‘Gretchen,’ of laying sacrilegious hands upon Goethe’s immortal work. It is hardly necessary to quote precedents, but for my own part I will say that I merely essayed to deal dramatically with the legend of ‘Faust’ as if I had never read either Goethe’s or Marlowe’s ‘mighty line.’ Surely the story is as much common property as that of ‘Samson,’ often dealt with dramatically, and latterly in France in a modern dress as ‘Dalila.’ The invention of a stage story is, of course, a different matter.”
“In what way?”
“A thousand things may suggest subjects which, with proper treatment, may be made stage-plays. I recollect that ‘Tom Cobb’ was suggested to me by some curious coincidences in personal appearance. You knew Tom Robertson, and will recollect the extraordinary resemblance between him and a notorious criminal. At the funeral of Robertson I was as much startled as ever I was in my life by seeing him, as I thought, on the opposite side of his own grave. The idea of a man assisting at his own funeral was dreadful, and paralyzed [sic] me for the moment by its dreadful fascination. Your story of the Royal Academician, Mr. Frith, who once saw ‘himself walk up the front garden, and knock at the door,’ is a case in point. What I saw at the first glance was Tom Robertson standing on the brink of his own grave. Some time after, when a run of hard work had somewhat dimmed the memory of poor Robertson, I got into a railway carriage, and there he was sitting opposite to me, so real that I actually stretched out my hand and spoke before I recollected that my unfortunate friend had died almost at the moment of victory over a world which had long been unkind to him. Time passed, and it happened that one day I had a wish to appear in court as a practicing barrister. So I obtained a brief for the defence of Wainwright, the murderer. When I saw my client, he was the man of the funeral and the railway station, Tom Robertson again, a little fatter, perhaps, but the same. It gave me what Arthur Sketchley made his Mrs. Brown call ‘a turn,’ but it made my little play. All I had to do was suppose that a man for various reasons, as in the story told of Teniers, might wish to be thought dead, and add to this that when he wanted to come to life again nobody would believe in him but declared he was an impostor.”
“As the Parisians did when M. Henri Berthoud avowed the extraordinary invention or literary forgery of the supposed letter of Marion de l’Orme touching Salomon de Caus and the Marquis of Worcester. One newspaper declared that its correspondent had seen the original manuscript in a library in Normandy.”
“Exactly. It seems very easy when it is done. A very good fellow in New York once dissected my work as we are doing, but I have not heard that he has written a successful play.”
“Your alliance with Sir Arthur Sullivan has been very successful.”
“Extremely successful, and I hope we have succeeded without any of the meretricious allurements of opéra bouffe and the modern or degraded burlesque. Opéra bouffe became at one time synonymous with at least immoral if not downright indecent suggestion. Language and costume were both peculiar, and these peculiarities were supposed to be necessary to success. Yet we have enjoyed good fortune far above any achieved by opéra bouffe or burlesque without the adventitious aid of sprawling females in indecent costumes. We have never asked any of the clever, hardworking, and excellent ladies of our company and chorus to put on any dress that they could not wear in society at a fancy ball. The proof of this is that I cannot go to such a ball without meeting ladies dressed like our actresses or choristers in our last new musical plays. I only say this to show that success may be fairly won without pandering to the few fools who care for nothing but indecent costume or suggestion, and whose providers give the Puritanical mind a ground of complaint to which there is no rational defence.”
“The meretricious style of burlesque seems to be, so to speak, on its last legs.”
“And justly so; for it has destroyed to a great extent a charming class of entertainment. What has been the result of the semi-nude burlesque? No genuine comedy actress will appear in it. Yet we can recollect when artists like Mrs. Bancroft, Miss Saunders, and Miss Oliver appeared in burlesque with actors like Charles Mathews, J. Clark, Rogers, Buckstone, Robson, and others too numerous to mention. Now, a comedy actress bars burlesque by the terms of her engagement. Thus it is of little use for an author to write a burlesque, for he cannot get actresses to speak the lines he has taken pains to write, and naturally does not wish to hear them blurted out by half-naked women with the manners and accent of kitchenmaids.”
“The Story of a Stage Play.” New-York Daily Tribune, Aug. 9, 1885. (Contributed by Andrew Crowther. An abridged version appears as “The Evolution of “The Mikado”” in the Pall Mall Gazette, Aug. 24, 1885. David Stone reports that this also appeared in the Pall Mall Budget, Aug. 27, 1885, 8-9. Quoted in The Story of the Savoy Opera, p. 121)
THE STORY OF A STAGE PLAY.
COMPOSED BY GILBERT AND
MR. GILBERT RELATES THE HISTORY OF THE EVOLUTION OF "THE MIKADO".
Very few people have any idea of the amount of earnest thought that a dramatic author must bestow upon his original work before it is in a condition to be presented to the very exacting audiences that fill a good London theatre on the occasion of the first performance of a new play. I do not mean to say that original dramatic composition involves necessarily a high order of literary ability. On the contrary, I believe the chief secret of practical success is to keep well within the understanding of the least intelligent section of the audience. The dramatic author is in the position of a caterer who has to supply one dish of which all members of every class of society are invited to partake. If he supplies nothing but crème de volaille, he may please the epicure in the stalls, but he will surely irritate the costermonger in the gallery. If he supplies nothing but baked sheeps' head, the costermonger will be delighted, but the epicure will be disgusted. Probably the dish that will be acceptable to the largest number of every class is rump steak and oyster sauce, which is, after all, a capital thing in its way, and may be taken as a type of the class of piece which is most likely to succeed. It does not call for a very high order of merit on the part of the chef, but it requires a good deal of practical skill nevertheless. The occupant of the sixpenny gallery is as fully entitled to have his money's worth as the philosopher in the stalls, and it must not be forgotten that the occupant of the sixpenny gallery is the man who is in the habit of expressing his disapprobation in the loudest and most embarrassing manner.
It has occurred to me that the difficulties of dramatic authorship - and that of anything but an elevated character - may be effectively set forth by narrating the history of a piece from its germ to its production upon the stage, and as the incidents of "The Mikado" are fresh in my mind, that piece will serve my purpose as well as another.
In May, 1884, it became necessary to decide upon a subject for the next Savoy opera. A Japanese executioner's sword hanging on the wall of my library - the very sword carried by Mr. Grossmith at his entrance in the first act - suggested the broad idea upon which the libretto is based. A Japanese piece would afford opportunities for picturesque scenery and costumes, and, moreover, nothing of the kind had ever been attempted in England. There were difficulties in the way. Could a sufficient number of genuine Japanese dresses in good condition be procured in London? How would the ladies of our chorus look in black wigs? Could they be taught to wear the Japanese costume effectively? However, none of these difficulties appeared to be insuperable, and the scheme of a Japanese piece was decided upon. Then it became necessary to fit the company with parts, and this was not so easy a matter as it may appear at first sight to be. We had written six operas for practically the same company, and in this, our seventh, it was of course necessary to steer clear of everything we had already done, and yet to fit our company with parts to which they could do justice, and which would do justice to them. As the principal character was to be a Japanese executioner, it was obvious that this part must be written for Mr Grossmith, and equally obvious that he must be represented as an exceptionally tender-hearted person whose natural instincts were in direct opposition to the nature of his official duties. Then it became necessary to fit Mr. Barrington, and I was for some weeks unable to invest Mr. Barrington's character with distinctive attributes of an effective description. In an early draft of the plot I find that he was a Remembrancer, who was engaged by Mr. Grossmith to check that gentleman's tendency to think too highly of himself, by continually reminding him of injudicious acts and speeches of which of which he had, at one time or other, been guilty. Mr. Barrington was at the same time in love with Mr. Grossmith's daughter, and his natural desire to conciliate Mr. Grossmith caused him to temper his irritating duties as Remembrancer with a profusion of statesman-like apologies. The reader will perhaps agree with me that in abandoning this device I was not ill-advised. I find, on referring to my note-book, that Mr. Barrington remained a colorless Japanese nobleman until last August, when he suddenly developed an inordinate quantity of family pride, which he endeavoured to counteract by committing deeds of indescribable meanness. Assisted by these attributes, Mr. Barrington came rapidly to the front, and ran neck and neck with Mr. Grossmith at the finish. With Mr. Lely I had some difficulty at first, for he presented himself in the guise of an Agent in Advance to a strolling theatrical company, and as it is proverbially dangerous to introduce theatrical topics into a dramatic composition, I hesitated to deal with Mr. Lely in that capacity. A certain indistinctness of outline that characterized Mr. Lely as an Agent in Advance induced me to examine him more closely. The result was that I saw through his flimsy disguise at once and identified him as no less a personage than the son of the Mikado, disguised (for family reasons) as a wandering ballad singer. As the Agent in Advance he was in love with Mr. Grossmith's ward, Miss Jessie Bond, but as the disguised son of the Mikado, he succumbed to the charms of Miss Leonora Braham. If I am not mistaken this transfer of his affections was prompted by Sir Arthur Sullivan, who had professional reasons for insisting that a tenor shall always fall in love with a soprano. Then Mr. Temple had to be provided for. Mr. Temple is an excellent baritone singer and a capital actor, and as it is advisable in a two-act opera to reserve a striking effect for the middle of the second act, Mr. Temple was cast for the Mikado, who does not appear until that period. Then the ladies had to be considered. The accident that Miss Braham, Miss Jessie Bond and Miss Sybil Grey are short in stature and all of a height suggested the advisability of grouping them as three Japanese school-girls who should work together throughout the piece. Miss Brandram is a personable young lady who has no objection to "make up" old and ugly - and of her good-natured readiness to sacrifice her own personal attractions to the exigencies of the plot we have perhaps taken undue advantage. Miss Brandram, an admirable contralto singer and an excellent actress, found herself transformed once more into an elderly and undesirable lady, with whose affections Mr. Lely had unduly trifled.
The next thing was to decide upon two scenes which should be characteristic and effective. The respective advantages of a street in Nagasaki, a Japanese market place - a wharf with shipping - a Japanese garden, a seaside beach and the courtyard of a Japanese palace, were duly weighed, and the courtyard and the Japanese garden were finally decided upon. Then the story of the piece had to be drawn up in narrative form, and this, I find, was done in eleven different ways, each, presumably, an improvement on its immediate predecessor. The story is next divided into two acts, and the sequence of events in each act is decided upon, with the exits and entrances sketched out, the purport of the various dialogues suggested, and the musical situations arranged. I had to make at least a dozen shots at the "scenario" (that is the technical name for the piece in its skeleton form) before a course of action was finally decided upon. The final scenario began thus:
"Scene, a Japanese market place." (This was subsequently altered, for scenic reasons, to the court-yard of a palace.) Japanese noblemen and market people (men and women) discovered.
(The market people were subsequently discarded, as it was thought advisable not to "discover" our ladies, but to reserve their entrance for a special effect later on.)
Chorus of nobles and market people.
Short dialogue leading to song, in which Pish Tush explains circumstances under which Koko was appointed Lord High Executioner.
(This song was subsequently placed after Nanki Poo's entrance as, Nanki Poo being a stranger, it was considered more workmanlike to sing the song conveying this information to him, rather than to people who may be supposed to have known all about it.)
Entrance of Nanki Poo, disguised as wandering ballad singer. In reply to inquiries, he describes himself and his calling. Sings snatches of half a dozen ballads.
(a) A verse of a
(b) A patriotic song.
(c) A drinking song. (Subsequently dispensed with.)
(d) A sea song.
(e) A hunting song. (Subsequently dispensed with.)
To him enters Pooh Bah.
And so forth, through the two acts.
The play having reached this stage, I read the story and scenario to Sir Arthur Sullivan. He approved of the story, made some valuable suggestions bearing chiefly on the musical situations, and after three or four hours of careful deliberation the chain of events was finally determined, and a twelfth and last version of the story, varying in no very great degree from its immediate predecessor, was prepared the next day - and then the libretto was begun.
The libretto in its first form is simply the scenario reduced to dialogue of the baldest and simplest nature, leaving the songs to be written afterward. No attempt at a joke is to be found in the dialogue: it merely carries on the action in the fewest possible words. Thus:
Enter Nanki Poo.
Nanki--Where is Yum Yum?
Noble--Who are you?
Nanki--Ballad singer. Listen. (Sings).
After song, enter Pish Tush.
Pish--What do you want
with Yum Yum?
Nanki--I was a member of the Town Band. In this capacity I saw her and loved her. Found she was betrothed to Koko. Fled. Hearing he was condemned to be beheaded, returned. Here I am.
Pish--He was not beheaded, but made Lord High Executioner.
(Song, telling how.)
And so forth, through the two acts.
Having roughly sketched out the dialogue, it was put aside for a term, that I might devote myself to the words of the songs. My normal practice is to furnish Sir Arthur Sullivan with the songs of the first act, and while he is setting them I proceed with the songs of Act Two. When these are practically finished I revert to the dialogue, elaborating and polishing the crude suggestions contained in the first version of the libretto, while he composes the music, and so it comes to pass that the pianoforte score and the libretto are usually completed at about the same date.
The libretto is then set up in type and read to the company. This is always a nervous affair, for by this time the jokes have lost their point, the situations their novelty, and the author is generally at a loss to see where the laughs will come in. I have often seen it stated that actors and actresses form a dispiriting audience at such a ceremony, and that they care little for the story or dialogue in the abstract, their attention being concentrated on the parts which they believe they are destined to play. I am bound to say that my own experience is to the contrary effect. As a body they are keenly alive to such merits as the piece may possess, and I am sorry to say that I have often had occasion to wish that my play had "gone" with the audience half as well as it did when it was read to the company.
Then comes the actual business of putting the piece upon the stage. Hitherto it has existed only in manuscript - henceforth it is to live as an aggregate of fifty human beings. As the piece is an opera, the company must learn the music before they begin to study the dialogue and action. The music rehearsals, conducted by Sir Arthur Sullivan, or in his absence by his next in command, Mr. Frank Cellier, usually last a fortnight, during which the author occupies himself, partly in getting the rhythm of the musical numbers into his very unmusical head, partly in arranging details of scenery with the scenic artist, partly in arranging details of costume, but chiefly with determining the "stage management" of the piece, so that when the first "stage rehearsal" takes place he shall be in a position to announce a clear and distinct policy to his company. To this end fac-simile models of the scenes, on a scale of half an inch to the foot, are supplied to me by the scenic artist, and on these miniature stages the piece is duly rehearsed, by the aid of blocks of wood three inches and two and a half inches in length, representing men and women respectively. The details which are obtained by these means are committed to paper, and at the very first rehearsal the piece begins to take a definite and distinct form.
While these matters are occupying me, Sir Arthur Sullivan is busy with the music rehearsals. The company are seated in a semi-circle on the stage, the principals in front, and each number is gone through several times until it is thoroughly acquired. After two or three rehearsals at which the whole company is present, two or three rehearsals for the chorus only take place under the superintendence of Mr. Collier [sic], while Sir Arthur Sullivan instructs the principals at his own residence. Then principals and chorus are brought together again, and in about a fortnight the music is thoroughly grasped by everybody concerned excepting myself, who am absolutely incapable of acquiring an air with any approach to correctness. I can get the rhythms into my head easily enough, but that is all, and for the purposes of rehearsal the rhythms are sufficient.
The piece is now ready for the stage, and to the stage rehearsals we invariably devote four weeks. During the first week we usually deal with Act One, during the second with Act Two, and during the third with both acts, while the fourth is devoted to four band rehearsals and at least three dress rehearsals, the stage being generally handed over to the scenic artist and carpenters during two days of this last week, that the various portions of the scenery may be accurately fitted together. In the course of the first three weeks it is generally found advisable to call two more rehearsals of the music, as the introduction of "business" into the earlier stage rehearsals acts rather prejudicially upon music which has been learned without the accompaniment of dramatic action. Moreover, it is generally found necessary to make certain musical alterations - songs have to be lengthened or reduced, and perhaps one or two musical numbers have to be added or excised.
The first stage rehearsal is rather a depressing affair. The principals are occupied in dealing rather with the mechanical details of exits, entrances, crosses, sittings down and gettings up, and the dialogue is allowed to go by the board. The chorus deal only with broad effects, the niceties of detail are passed over for the time being. The intention of the first rehearsal is to convey a rough general notion of the relation borne to each other by the various characters in the piece, and if this is accomplished the first rehearsal has served its end. At the second rehearsal the first half of the first act is dealt with microscopically, and the "business" to be introduced into the musical numbers is roughly sketched out. The third rehearsal is concerned with the second half of Act One, and by this time the "business" of the entire act is practically settled. It is now time to call in the ballet-master, Mr. John d'Auban, who looks on during one rehearsal, and comes the next day prepared with a certain number of dances, which he teaches to the company at rehearsals called for this express purpose. As soon as the details of the first act are roughly settled, Sir Arthur Sullivan usually attends a rehearsal in order to see that the proposed "business" is not inconsistent with his musical effects, and this visit usually results in a certain amount of rearrangement. He is the most self-sacrificing and unselfish of composers, but even his good-nature is not proof against an arrangement whereby the chorus dance a wild jig during an elaborate cadenza or an unaccompanied quartet. But when a composer works with a librettist who is deaf, dumb and blind on all musical points, he is not unprepared for professional solecisms of this description.
As soon as the stage rehearsals began it occurred to me that the native ladies of the Japanese village might possibly be prevailed upon to teach us some of their dances, and Mr. Taumaker, the manager of that exhibition, most kindly promised to assist me in every practicable manner. A very charming young Japanese lady came day after day to rehearsal, and went through her dances, piece by piece, until her very apt pupils, Miss Braham, Miss Jessie Bond and Miss Sybil Grey, were pronounced reasonably proficient. It was impossible not to be struck by the natural grace and gentle courtesy of their indefatigable little instructress, who, although she must have been very much amused by the earlier efforts of her pupils, never permitted them to see that the spectacle of three English ladies attempting for the first time a Japanese dance in Japanese dress had its ridiculous side. Our verbal intercourse with this fascinating little lady was limited, all the Japanese we could command being, "Sayo nara" ("good by"), whereas the Japanese young lady (who serves cups of tea in the village tea-house) knew but one English sentence, "sixpence each."
The first dress rehearsal is usually a disappointing business. The dresses require considerable alterations to make them fit, many of the dresses are incomplete, the company have yet to learn how to put them on, the bootmaker has, as a matter of course, disappointed us. But by the second dress rehearsal the costumes are quite satisfactory, and the third, with band, scenery, and lime-lights as at night, is to all intents and purposes a first performance.
And yet not quite that, for at the close of this last rehearsal, the night before the production of the piece, the fearful thought occurred to us that the Mikado's song, in the second act, was extremely poor and had much better be cut out. It was excellently sung and acted by Mr. Temple, but the merit of his performance seemed only to make the words show to a greater disadvantage by reason of the contrast. So at least I thought, and so thought my collaborateur at the end of the rehearsal. We broke it delicately to Mr. Temple, for it was his only song, and we felt that he would have good ground for complaint if we took it from him. Mr. Temple, however, most cheerfully resigned the song, and it was publicly announced to principals and chorus that it would be omitted. Presently half a dozen gentlemen, press men and others who had witnessed the rehearsal, came to us in a body and begged us to restore the excised "number," suggesting that it could be cut out after the first performance, if it was then thought desirable to do so. Their wishes prevailed, and a message was sent to the members of the chorus (who by this time were changing their clothes) that the Mikado's song would be sung after all. As we were leaving the theatre, a few minutes later, we heard three ringing cheers from the chorus dressing-rooms. On inquiry we found that the cheers were the outcome of their gratification at the restoration of the song, which is now one of the most successful features of the second act. They were right and we were wrong.
Of the first performance of this, or any other piece with which I have been concerned, I can say little, as I always leave the theatre as the curtain rises on the first act and do not return until the end of the last. With the last rehearsal my functions come to an end. All has been done that can be done, and the fortunes of the play are in the hands of the audience.
W. S. GILBERT
“Theatrical Pirates.” Evening News no. 1689, Jan. 18, 1887, p. 2. (slightly abridged version reprinted in Cellier and Bridgeman’s Gilbert, Sullivan and D'Oyly Carte, pp. 203-206).
“No,” said Mr. W. S. Gilbert to a representative of The Evening News, who happened to see him on Saturday last: “no one knows the name, the plot, the dialogue, nor anything else connected with my new piece to be produced next Saturday, and therefore all ‘information’ given in connection with it must be mere conjecture.”
“I suppose you have had plenty of inquiries about it?”
“Any number, I assure you. There is scarcely a paper either in London or out of it that has not sought some kind of intelligence from me about the nature of the production; but, of course, I cannot give it. Why should I? Such a thing is unheard of."
“Not quite unheard of, Mr. Gilbert. Many theatrical managers and dramatic authors have been very pleased to have the opportunity of getting their pieces well commented upon before production. You see, the public take an exceptional interest in your pieces.”
“I am sure I am very much obliged to the public, and to you for saying so; but you see it would be most prejudicial to the interests of my colleagues, Sir Arthur Sullivan and Mr. D'Oyly Carte, as well as to myself, to let any information leak out.”
“How so? I don't quite understand.”
“Why, I am surrounded at this moment by a lot of hungry American newspaper reporters who would snap up any little item of news concerning our new production, and at once cable it over to their journals, and were we not very discreet the whole thing would find itself over there in a short time, and we should be defrauded of our copyright.”
“H as such a thing ever happened to you before?”
“Most certainly it has. It occurred with ‘The Mikado.’ An American pirate, bit by bit, obtained an imitation [sic] of the piece, and when he discovered that the costumes were to be Japanese he sent to Messrs. ---- (mentioning a well-known firm), and ordered facsimiles--or as near them as possible--of all our costumes.”
“What did you do then?”
“I had to go to Messrs. ---- and tell them that, if they supplied these costumes [sic punct] I should withdraw all the custom of the Savoy Theatre, and I had to buy up all that were made.”
“Did this put an end to the affair?”
“As far as Messrs. ---- were concerned only, but the American pirate referred to then went over to Paris and tried it on again there, and again I had to buy up all the Japanese costumes that were to be found. I cannot tell you the amount of trouble and expense we have been put to by this kind of thing.”
“I suppose you had often to invoke the aid of the law?”
“Very frequently indeed. I should think we must have been concerned in about fifteen or twenty actions. Is that not so, Carte?” said Mr. Gilbert, addressing the manager of the Savoy Theatre.
“A great deal more than that," replied Mr. Carte. “If you say between forty and fifty you will be nearer the mark.”
“Then I suppose none of the actors and actresses themselves are permitted to know anything more than is absolutely necessary?”
“Not a word; and I can assure you that even the costumes they will wear are not known to them until the very last moment.”
“When will your new piece be produced in America, then?”
“In about three weeks' time after it is produced here. The last time we sent a company out to America it was with ‘The Mikado,’ and we were compelled to exercise the utmost secrecy. The company were taken down in a special train from London to Liverpool, from thence transported in special tender on board the steamer, and were sent down into their cabins at once, and strictly forbidden to hold converse with any one until the steamer was well on its way.”
“Was all this necessary?”
“Absolutely. Even Mr. D’Oyly Carte was obliged to take his berth in an assumed name, and, thanks to the strict vigilance he kept over everybody and everything, not a soul knew of the company's departure until days afterwards.”
“I suppose you got the best of some one by all this stratagem?”
“Oh, yes. There was, as usual, a pirate over the water, preparing to bring out his version of ‘The Mikado’ and, indeed, had advertised its production for the Saturday following the Sunday or Monday that our company arrived. Of course, our unexpected appearance completely upset his plans. His production being billed for the Saturday, however, we advertised that we would produce ours on the Friday previous. He then again changed his to the Thursday, upon which ours was announced for the Wednesday, and it was actually produced on that night and met with a brilliant success.”
“Well, you certainly deserved to succeed after so much skilful diplomacy, and it is to be hoped that your forthcoming production will not give such great trouble.”
““Ruddy-gore” and Savoy Operas: An Interview with Mr. W.S. Gilbert.” Pall Mall Gazette, Jan. 21, 1887, pp. 1-2. (reprinted in Pall Mall Budget, vol. 35 no. 957, Jan. 27, 1887, pp. 10-11)
“RUDDY-GORE” AND SAVOY OPERAS.
AN INTERVIEW WITH MR. W.S. GILBERT.
Mr. Gilbert was sitting in that sumptuous library of his, in his often described house in Harrington-gardens, evidently in a state of extreme jubilation, from which I inferred that the “Ruddy-gore” rehearsals were progressing favourably, for Mr. Gilbert looks very grim indeed when things are not going to his fancy. I had called to ask for a few of the spirited pen and ink sketches which the most popular playwright of the day loves to scribble on his manuscript, perhaps to assist a train of thought, perhaps to see how the child of his brain looks on paper. Alas! I had come too late. Mr. Gilbert is not like some littérateurs and dramatists who preserve their manuscripts with religious care, and pay a Cusin or a Zaehnsdorf a fabulous sum for enclosing them in the immortality of calf. Not he. He loves Liberty fabrics, and high art, rich stuffs, old oak, brass-work, cabinets, Eastern rugs, Oriental settees, and other little matters which his manuscripts secure for him, but the soiled sheets themselves only serve to remind him of weeks of toil. So he makes a bonfire of them. Nor is he exigeant about his pens or his paper, or his ink, like some great men. Blue lined foolscap is good enough for him. I was luckily just in time to secure the little sketch given here, roughly drawn in pen and ink, on a sheet of blue writing paper, of Miss Jessie Bond’s costume. Miss Bond will perhaps say that she recognizes [sic] her costume, but her pretty face is hidden beneath the poke bonnet of the period, If the manuscripts had been burned, there yet remained some almost indecipherable sheets sewn together, on which were scribbled Mr. Gilbert’s analysis and guide to the stage management of the new opera. Until the playwright explains the mysterious writings and the cabalistic signs they remain enigmas. But Mr. Gilbert shows you a box full of little oblong blocks, much like a box of toy bricks, of different sizes and colours, and explains how each one is made to scale, how it represents a member of the Savoy company, and then Mr. Gilbert’s system of stage management becomes easy to understand, and one admires his untiring pains and exact methods. So this box contains a block representing every member of the company, different colours representing principals and chorus, and dividing them again into sopranos, tenors, basses, and so on. Mr. Gilbert also has models made to scale of the different platforms used, so that he is able to rehearse his effects in the quiet of his own library, and can thus go down to the theatre every morning with the stage business of the day well fixed in his head. Any one who has attended rehearsals of a new play will understand what a saving of time and temper is thus effected. The result of these lonely rehearsals is noted down in the manuscript book which I have mentioned, and from this I take the diagram.
THE AMERICAN PIRATES.
Many details of the new opera have already been published; but Mr. Gilbert was good enough to talk freely concerning its birth, its growth, and its preparation. “It is quite true that you make merry at our secrecy, but I assure you we do not lock our doors. We must, however, protect ourselves. It is the American pirates for whom we have a deadly hatred. But we shall soon be even with them. At present, Massachusetts is the only state where we have absolute protection against them. In the other States we have to fight. But we are a pretty powerful trio, and are determined to do battle with every American manager who attempts to produce one of our plays without paying the fee. We have fought, we are fighting, and we intend to fight, cost what it may. The pirates are beginning to fear our pugnacity, and I think we shall win in the end.”
HOW AN IMPRESARIO WAS BAFFLED.
“But the public has no idea of the dodges one has to resort to. I will tell you a story of one American impresario who wished to produce ‘The Mikado.’ We told him our terms; he declined them, and said he would produce it without paying a fee. He came over to London to buy the costumes; he went to Liberty’s and ordered a whole set of dresses. We heard of this and we went to Liberty’s and put our case. Mr. Liberty at once declined the order. Not beaten, the American took the boat for Paris. In that boat was one of Mr. Carte’s emissaries, who slept not. The American drove to his hotel on reaching Paris; Mr. Carte’s emissary drove round all the Japanese shops and bought up every bit of stuff in the market. The next morning our American drove round to find himself again foiled. Then he returned to London, and tried the City. Here again we beat him. Then he took ship for New York. So did we. In this way. Our American company was ready. Mr. Carte took them down to Liverpool in a special train, very quietly. They were taken on board in a special tender, and taken below decks at once, with strict injunctions not to appear until after leaving Queenstown. Mr. Carte, disguised, set them the good example. Thus they avoided the pressman and the cable. On arriving in New York they found our American friend had announced the ‘Mikado’ in a week’s time. He had vamped up the dresses in New York. But he was foiled again, for we produced the authorized [sic] edition a week in front of him. When it is said that because I go to Egypt therefore I am writing an Egyptian opera, I do not contradict it. It misleads the Americans. On the slender basis of this rumour I hear that more than one manager had bought Egyptian dresses.”
THE COST OF PRODUCTION.
“Ruddy-gore; or, the Witches’ Curse,” [sic] is a burlesque of old-fashioned melodrama, laid in the time of George II. There is no need to say more. The production will cost six or seven thousand pounds, for the dresses are, of course, to be very rich and elaborate. Mr. Gilbert mentioned the hussar uniforms of the period, which have been reproduced with an admirable fidelity, from the heavy gold lace to the pattern on the button. Some of these dazzling costumes will cost £180 apiece. As an instance of the thoroughness with which the Savoy operas are produced, I am allowed to say that five hundred pounds’ worth of costumes were thrown on one side, as they were found to resemble the costumes of the last act of “Monte Cristo.” Need one say that Mr. Gilbert directs every detail, except, of course, the music. In one amusing scene, laid in the picture-gallery, in the second act, Mr. Grossmith’s twenty-four ancestors, going back from the time of George I. to William the Conqueror, will walk out of their canvasses.
LIBRETTOS AND LEMON SQUASH.
“On and off I have been working at ‘Ruddy-gore’ for a year and a half,” said Mr. Gilbert; “for so soon as one opera is produced I never rest until I have found a theme for another, but having found it, I can finish it in six weeks if I work hard. The pressure all depends on the prospects of the current opera. When I have finished the numbers I send them on to Sir Arthur Sullivan, who has been working hard, I know, for a number of weeks, from mid-day to six the next morning. I never do any work in the daytime, except rehearsals, but generally begin writing at 11 P.M., and go to bed at 2 or 3 A.M. I find lemon squash the best liquid to work on. I smoke, but not so much as I used to.”
MR. GILBERT’S NERVOUSNESS.
Mr. Gilbert has never seen one of his own plays acted for fourteen years, owing to excessive nervousness, which he admits grows upon him every day. It is easy to understand that a playwright is too nervous to be present at the “first night’ of his play; but however pronounced the success, Mr. Gilbert adheres to his determination. Only on one occasion has he been persuaded to make the experiment, and then he broke down. The Duke of Edinburgh once sent for him to his box to talk to him on this very peculiarity. Being pressed to stay Mr. Gilbert had no option but to take a seat in the box. But presently he began to feel hotter and hotter, fainter and fainter, and had to beg the Duke to release him.
“We have a sort of superstition about never fixing our titles until just before the opera is produced. It is not easy to get a good title; I dare say I had half a dozen for this, printing them in block letters to see the effect on the eye. We finally fixed on ‘Ruddy-gore.’ We only changed ‘Titipoo’ to ‘The Mikado’ at the last moment.”
I asked Mr. Gilbert whether he ever proposed to change his scheme on operas, a question to which he replied by saying that the supply would always be equal to the demand. “It is true,” he went on, “that it is difficult to present a stock company in different aspects. I am a believer in stock companies. They have their disadvantages as well as their advantages. Many members of our present company have been with us for ten years; they know us, and are thoroughly trained in our ways. Now they know one another, and there are, I believe, many warm personal friendships existing among them, whereas in ordinary companies it is man against man and woman against woman, each trying to force himself to the front. Beyond a little tiff at rehearsals, which are not, [sic] I am happy to say, of frequent occurrence, we are a very united family. In the future, if we may look forward, we shall alternate revivals with new pieces. It is never good to run a good piece threadbare. Now ‘The Mikado’ has been running two years, but the other night there was £201 in the house. Yet it is to come off. Now ‘The Pinafore’ was run down to nothing, and was played to £60 houses in its last moments. [sic] What is the consequence? We have never cared to revive it, and do not think it will bear revival for a year or more. ‘The Mikado’ could be revived with success.”
“We have a thousand applications for places in our chorus,” said Mr. Gilbert, “though its normal strength is fifty. We require a good voice and a musical education for qualifications. The ladies are drawn from the professional classes, doctors, army officers, and so on, and they have every chance of promotion. We have a system of double ‘understudies’ at the Savoy, and if a lady is ambitious and clever she may emerge from the chorus to the position of leading lady. Then you see we have our provincial and American companies, which we form from London material. That is to say, a promising young lady in the chorus, if she was willing to go into the provinces, might take a small part in the provinces. And thus we endeavour to stimulate ambition.”
“The Newest Theatre in London: An Interview with Mr. W.S. Gilbert.” Pall Mall Gazette, March 22, 1888, pp. 1-2.
THE NEWEST THEATRE IN LONDON.
AN INTERVIEW WITH MR. W.S. GILBERT.
During the present year there will be many changes in the composition of the theatrical companies of the metropolis. Mr. Hare and Mr. and Mrs. Kendal are dissolving their long partnership; Mr. Rutland Barrington will bid good-bye to the Savoy, to make his début as a lessee and manager at the St. James’s. Mr. Clayton is dead, and people are asking who is to take his place. Mr. Arthur Cecil would have been an ideal successor, but he says he has made £800 a year and has had enough of theatrical speculations. Mr. Giddens has taken a theatre. Mr. Wilson Barnett wants one. It is said that Mr. Grossmith also hankers after a playhouse of his own. Apropos of these changes, one of our representatives called upon Mr. Gilbert the other day. Why? Because Mr. Gilbert is building a new theatre, of which Mr. Hare has taken, or will take, a twenty-one years’ lease, and Mr. Gilbert’s opinions on theatrical construction are of particular interest to the public. The famous playwright has had great experience of theatres, and being a man of strong views, with remarkable individuality, we naturally thought that he would not build a theatre without putting some of his own brains into it. We were right. Our representative found that Mr. Gilbert had some remarkable ideas respecting the construction of a theatre. These we print below, together with some further conversation on one or two other little matters:--
HOW THE THEATRE CAME TO BE PROJECTED.
“We have not as yet acquired the site, but Lord Salisbury’s promise is given, and we are now awaiting the decision of the Board of Works. The theatre will be built on a vacant piece of ground behind the National Gallery; at least, that is the site for which we are negotiating. I considered the position very carefully, as an investor naturally considers his own interests. This theatre I regard merely as an investment, for I have no idea of turning manager myself, I can assure you. At present there is a great demand for theatres, and when Mr. Hare happened to mention to me that he wanted to build a theatre I offered to build it for him. You may have a very desirable theatre, but you do not always get a desirable tenant. So much for the way in which the theatre came to be projected. [sic punctuation]
THE ELECTRIC LIGHT.
“It will be lighted throughout by electricity, which, in my opinion, is the only light that is safe. For I maintain that a theatre which is properly lighted by electricity has a complete immunity from fire. Suppose that, through an accidental ‘short-circuiting,’ the heated wires come into contact with the wood, they only char it, and if proper care is exercised in the installation short-circuiting is impossible.”
“If I were asked for my opinion, I should strongly recommend that the adoption of electric light in theatres should be made compulsory by Act of Parliament. It always seems ridiculous to me that while the outcry about exits is chronic, no one thinks of striking at the root of the evil, which is the use of gas behind the stage, where all the materials are of the most inflammable nature. I believe that at one or two of the London theatres they have the electric light in front and gas behind, which certainly seems to me to be an inversion of the reasonable order of things. Very little danger can come of using gas in the auditorium, whereas, on the stage, it is a never-ending source of danger.”
A PASSAGE OF SIX FEET ROUND THE THEATRE.
“Mr. Hare and I are agreed that most careful consideration shall be given to the installation of the electric light. When I lay stress on the light rather than the number of exits, please don’t run away with the idea that ample means of egression will be overlooked. To begin with; we hope to have a six-foot passage running all round the theatre, so that isolation, even if it is only six-foot isolation, is secured. One of the articles in my belief is that it is much safer in case of a panic to go up than down. So I think a theatre partly underground is the safest form of construction. My dress circle will be on a level with the street, the pit and stalls below the street level, the upper circle and gallery above it. This is the arrangement at the Savoy, which, by the way, is the only isolated theatre in London; you can walk all round it, and there will be numerous exits.”
THE AUDITORIUM AND THE FOOTLIGHTS.
“One of the chief points which will be considered will be the careful adjustment of the lines of the auditorium so as to get the greatest possible sight power. Personally, I should be glad to dispense with private boxes altogether, for they are often empty, but many influential people still prefer the seclusion of the private box, so the private box must remain. The really striking alteration which I contemplate is the exchange of footlights for a row of electric lights, lining the inside of the proscenium on both sides and across the top.”
WHY FOOTLIGHTS ARE BAD.
“Footlights, as at present constituted, throw a portion of the face of the performer into the shade, and this upward light has to be counteracted by a downward light from a set of lights at the top of the proscenium, and between the two contending sets of lights the actor’s make up [sic] is too strongly revealed, and to the actor himself the glare and heat of the footlights are not agreeable. I find that many actors and actresses suffer from defective eyesight, which has been brought on by the glare of the footlights. By means of my idea the hot and glaring row of footlights will be dispensed with, except as a standby in case of accident.”
“Another improvement will be a new arrangement of flies. As flies are made now they come almost up to the inside edge of the proscenium at each wing. By the use of a double set of flies, one over the other, we shall be able to widen the stage by six feet on each side, which will be a great improvement. For we can then set larger scenes, and thus add to the illusion of the spectator. It is also proposed to have an endless semicircular panoramic cloth, upon various sections of which will be painted blue sky, cloudy and tempestuous sky, night sky, &c.—each section being brought on to [sic] stage as it is wanted by a very simple mechanical arrangement.”
THE MAN IN THE BACK OF THE GALLERY.
To revert to the auditorium, it is interesting to know that Mr. Gilbert considers the man in the back row of the gallery the most important person in the house, and that gentleman will be glad to hear that his comfort and his ears will be consulted in the new theatre. Mr. Gilbert is undoubtedly right in this opinion, for if the man in the gallery is uncomfortable, he is sure to make his dissatisfaction known in the most direct and unmistakable manner. So when he is rehearsing Mr. Gilbert makes a point of trying all effects from the back row of the gallery. It is the custom at the Savoy Theatre to record the temperature of all parts of the house, from the flies to the gallery, and it is a tribute to the coolness of the electric light that the gallery of Mr. Carte’s theatre is the coolest part of the house.
THE HEIGHT OF REALISM.
I suppose that every one in London has seen the wonderful scene on board her Majesty’s ship Pinafore, with its real masts, its real yards, its rigging correct in every detail, and all the equipment of a real man-of-war. In devising this admirable representation of the deck of a man-of-war, which was made from Mr. Gilbert’s rough model, a new departure has been made in scenic art. The wings disappeared, the canvas upon which the view of Portsmouth Harbour was painted being stretched like a screen from corner to corner of the stage. In building the stage of his new theatre, Mr. Gilbert will so construct the back and wings that the scene can, if necessary, be stretched completely round the stage without showing any angles, as the Harbour scene did in the “Pinafore.” The mizenmast of the “Pinafore” had made five voyages to Australia; the wheel had guided a real ship through a real ocean. The men who went up aloft were real sailors, and a real “bosun” was kept on the premises to see to the real rigging. So much for realism. The scene was never moved during the run of the piece. I have only mentioned these details as illustrating the advance which has been made in scenic realism during the Gilbertian era. For aught I know, the Pirates who are now appearing nightly at the Savoy are the real article.
A NEW ACTRESS COMING.
So much for the new theatre, and now for the new actress. Miss Neilson, who made her début on Wednesday afternoon at the Lyceum, did so at the request of Miss Anderson, to whom Miss Neilson was introduced by Mr. Gilbert. Mr. Gilbert is flooded with applications for engagements and recommendations by aspiring young ladies and gentlemen. “They come to me in shoals,” said the playwright, with a sigh. “I make a point of seeing them all, and if they are prepared with any recitation, I hear them recite. But it very seldom happens that a novice shows sufficient promise to justify me in encouraging him or her to abandon a certain income, however moderate, for the lottery of the stage. Miss Neilson came to me with a very strong letter of introduction from Mr. Joseph Barnby, and as I had faith in that gentleman’s judgment I looked forward with some curiosity to the interview. I saw in Miss Neilson a young lady of commanding stature and very striking beauty—a type of beauty peculiarly suited to the stage, as it consists as much in expression as in feature. The young lady took off her hat and ulster and began to recite the speech in which Galatea describes her vivification, and I saw in her at once--or believed that I saw—great and exceptional promise of future excellence as an emotional actress. She has much to learn, but she is endowed with a fine presence, a most musical intonation, a highly expressive face, and a singular breadth of gesture. I think she will develop into a valuable actress in a few years’ time; at present she is nothing but a novice of a highly promising description.”
Miss Neilson, a pupil of Signor Randegger, is also a very distinguished student of the Royal Academy of Music, having gained the Sainton-Dolby Scholarship, the Wilberforce Scholarship, the Llewellyn Thomas prize, a medal for elocution, and many other distinctions. Her singing voice, a soprano, is extremely beautiful, but she is very young, and her instructors consider that it will not be in a condition to stand continuous usage for some two years to come. She sings from time to time at the Albert Hall in oratorios, but at present the hard work of the operatic stage would try the endurance of her voice too severely. And so it comes to pass that she is to be an actress. Mr. Gilbert is so struck with the young lady’s abilities that he is writing an original play for her—an enormous favour, as every one in the theatrical world knows very well.
“WHAT! HAVE WE QUARRELLED AGAIN?”
“Is it true,” I asked Mr. Gilbert, “that there are to be no more new operas at the Savoy?” “What! Have we quarrelled again?” queried Sir Arthur Sullivan’s collaborateur.
“They say so, Mr. Gilbert. The old story—lies again, I suppose?” Mr. Gilbert smiled a little sardonically, and told me that he had the first act finished of the opera, the scene of which is to be laid in the Tower of London. Sir Arthur is now at work on the score.
“Brantinghame Hall: A Short Interview with Mr. W.S. Gilbert.” Pall Mall Gazette, issue 7393, November 26, 1888, p. 3.
A SHORT INTERVIEW WITH MR. W.S. GILBERT.
Mr. Gilbert was sitting at his table in the mullioned window in that sumptuous library of his, with its handsome bookcases loaded with splendidly equipped tomes, its cosy ingle nook, its oaken panels, luxurious carpet, quaint works of art in iron and brass, surely a retreat for a king. Mr. Gilbert lives in a palace. The playwright was drawing a graceful young lady in very unconventional widow’s weeds, a black cloak, lined with silver grey, falling in graceful folds on the adorable figure of Miss Julia Neilson, who is to play the heroine in “Brantinghame Hall,” Mr. Gilbert’s new drama, which is to be produced to-morrow night at the St. James’s Theatre. “I have designed all Miss Neilson’s dresses,” said the playwright, “for I have my own ideas about ladies’ dresses, which I like to carry out when I have the power.”
“Such as what, Mr. Gilbert?”
“Well, I abhor bustles, improvements, tight lacing, and all such abominations, and think that woman’s dress should fall in natural folds to the figure. The heroine of my new play is an unconventional young lady, and in designing the costumes which she wears I have endeavoured to contrive dresses as such a person as my chief character is would be likely to choose.”
“Would you tell me the story of your new play? You have not turned sanitary inspector, and begun to deal with sewers of Society?”
“Certainly not,” replied the playwright, who was good enough to give me a few details about “Brantinghame Hall” which he allows me to publish—up to the surprise. Miss Neilson, for whom, at Mr. Rutland Barrington’s request, the play has been written, is the unconventional daughter of an Australian squatter, an ex-convict who has repented of his sins and is a rich man when the play opens, living 200 miles up country from Sydney. Miss Neilson is a flower of the forest, a beautiful child of nature, who knows not the taint of Society, gentle, soft-voiced, and speaking the language of the Bible. The son of a proud old English peer falls ill on her father’s station; she nurses him, cures him, and marries him. In the midst of this wedded bliss he is recalled to England by an urgent telegram, which informs him that he has come into a large legacy. He sails, and the ship in which he has taken passage goes down in mid-ocean. By this disaster the father becomes possessor of his son’s property, and looks forward to paying off the debts which have hitherto crushed the life out of him. Then appears Miss Neilson at the mansion of the Saxmundhams with the news that she is his son’s wife—she, the daughter of a convict. The proud old lord learns for the first time that his son has a wife, and is terribly upset, for the son’s money goes to the son’s wife, and not to his father. Miss Neilson only asks for the love of her “darling’s” father, and spurns the money, but the old lord is proud as he is poor. Here I must stop, for the sacrifice which the heroine makes is the pivot of the plot. “My idea was,” continued Mr. Gilbert, “to present an instance of a woman’s ‘sacrifice of self.’” The play is in four acts, the first being laid in the bush, the others in England. The two interiors of old English mansions have been devised by Messrs. George and Pete, who were the architects for Mr. Gilbert’s house in Harrington-gardens.
Recurring to the matter of dress for a minute, I asked Mr. Gilbert if he had a standard of good taste for stage costumes.
“Most decidedly I have. I will allow no one to appear on the stage in any piece which I may control in a dress which might not be worn at a fancy dress ball.”
“Then you would not allow a lady to play a man’s part?”
“Certainly not. I consider our pieces at the Savoy to be burlesques, and I have never allowed a lady to play a man’s part, or to wear a costume that she would blush to appear in at a fancy dress ball. That is my limit.”
“Then you would abolish tights?”
“Of course I would, if they were merely worn to enhance the attractions of the leg. A Rosalind may wear decent tights, but they are necessary for the part. But what I object to are the rows of ladies’ tight-clothed legs, which are merely worn, in my opinion, to gratify the eyes of the young gentlemen in the stalls. In the old days, when I wrote burlesques, I was glad enough to get my pieces produced; but, having no authority, I had no choice in the matter. When I came into power I was told that burlesques without legs meant ruin. As I have told you, I consider our Savoy pieces burlesques; was I right or wrong?”
“Then I am to understand that if you were Lord Chamberlain you—“
“My dear Sir, I am never likely to be called to that high office, so let me decline to answer your question. My views are peculiar. In my own domain I enforce them.”
““Blank, Blank!” The New Opera at the Savoy.” Pall Mall Gazette, Dec.3, 1889. page # not recorded (reprinted in Chicago Tribune, Dec 29, 1889, p. 17)
“BLANK, BLANK!” THE NEW OPERA AT THE SAVOY.
A CHAT WITH MR. GILBERT.
“Title yet unknown?” I asked Mr. Gilbert yesterday afternoon, writes a representative. “At present,” replied the famous comic-opera-wright, flinging himself into a chair in a corner of that remarkably comfortable mullion-windowed library in which he works. “We make it a rule never to settle the title until a day before the production. We leave it to the last moment, and thus get a free hand in case of a happy thought suddenly occurring to any of us. ‘The Two Gondoliers’ is the obvious title, but it has no bite. It is easy enough to get a title, but very hard to get a good one. For instance ‘The Mikado’ was a fluke. We had almost settled on ‘Titipu.’ The ‘Pinafore’ was a fluke, too.
Give three cheers, and three cheers more,
For the hearty captain of the ----------,
The --------- something to rhyme with ‘more,’ ‘semaphore,’ ‘pinafore.’ And ‘pinafore’ went down, just to fill the gap for the time, and was eventually selected. What made me go to Venice? Well, you must go somewhere, and Venice is beautiful, and lends itself to theatrical treatment. You see, you must be able to be a little lavish in the matter of costume. Do I think lavishness essential? Comic opera should appeal both to the eye and the ear.”
“That would prevent you from presenting say a modern opera, the scene of which was laid in London?”
“Of course. We have given them modern soldiers, and sailors, and peers and judges, but members of Parliament in their ordinary attire would scarcely appeal to the eye. There would be a want of colour about them which would render them theatrically ineffective. We did try jurymen, but the whole piece only lasted for half an hour.”
“How long have you been at work on the opera?”
“About five months. Of course I don’t mean every day, but off and on. I daresay I could write an opera in a week, but it would be a precious bad one. I have always put all I knew into my work, for I think if a thing is worth doing at all it is worth doing well. I daresay the public thinks I rattle off my operas as easily as I write a letter. Look here!”
And Mr. Gilbert took me to his writing table and showed me half a dozen manuscript books, each of which was a literary curiosity, and at once showed what labour Mr. Gilbrt bestows upon his work. “You see,” said the playwright, turning the leaves over rapidly, “when I am going to write a new opera I sit down, having the idea in my head, and write out an elaborate narrative which is worked out in all directions. That is, here and there there are cross-roads, in which the play may branch off in this direction or that. I pose those and pass on to the end, scribbling suggestions of bits of dialogue on the opposite page, as they occur to me. This done I begin again, and put in the dialogue, and last of all come the lyrics, which I polish and polish until I am satisfied. Take these two verses, for instance,” pointing to a sheet of MS. on the table; “they are the essence of a dozen sheets of paper, upon which I have tried every turn possible. So you see I don’t spare myself.”
“In the new opera you go back to the topsy-turvy?”
“Yes. I thought ‘The Yeomen of the Guard’ about the best thing we had done, but we were told that the public liked the topsy-turvy best, so they are going to get it. Besides my share of the opera, the work at rehearsals should not be forgotten. Five hours a day for weeks drilling the company. I told you once before about my plan of having wooden models to help me in grouping my choristers, but there are many things that can only be done on the boards themselves. For instance, one of the incidents in the new piece is a game of blind man’s buff. It looks simple enough to play that game, but it took me three days to get the fifty players in working order.”
“But your company has been accustomed to work with you for years.”
“Yes, twelve,” replied Mr. Gilbert, “and a very happy family they all are. I don’t believe there is any company so free as ours from those jealousies and heartburnings which abound in theatrical circles. They stick to us.”
“Of course, the Savoy is as regular as the Bank of England. No failures, long runs, and sure of their money.”
“Many of them have been with us for twelve years, getting salaries at the rate of £85 a year, and working for themselves in the day.”
“I suppose the plot of the new opera that has been published is correct?”
“Yes. One of the two gondoliers (who have married two peasant girls) is the heir to the Kingdom of Barataria—throne vacant. Which of the two is it? There are difficulties in the way of the solution which you will see on Saturday night.”
“You will be glad when Saturday night is over?”
“I shall,” replied Mr. Gilbert. “Then come my holidays. I am going to India for a three months’ pleasure trip.”
Mr. Gilbert lives in a little land of his own. There is nothing wanting to complete his miniature kingdom at Graeme's Dyke, Harrow Weald. With a hundred and ten acres at his disposal, the most brilliant writer of irresistible satire of the day has laid down a healthy two miles of paths, which wend their way through banks of moss and ferns, avenues of chestnut trees and secluded valleys. You turn out of one pathway only to enter a diminutive forest; again, and you are standing beside the rushes and water weeds by the side of the old dyke, which has run its course for two thousand years and more, spanned by rustic bridges; and in one part, near the bathing house, is a statue of Charles II, which originally stood years ago in Soho square. You may wander along a walk of roses and sweetbrier, or admire the view from the observatory, where the owner enjoys his astronomical watchings. From another spot Windsor Castle is visible.
Mr. Gilbert is a man of many minds. The verse of comic opera does not prevent him from watching the interests of his thoroughbred Jerseys — for there is a perfect home farm on the Gilbertian land. The hayricks look rich, the horses, the fowls, and the pigs seem "at home," and the pigeons — I am assured by Mr. Gilbert that he is using the utmost efforts to induce his feathered friends to adopt as their permanent address the fine and lofty house he has erected for them. The roofs of the vineries are heavy with great bunches, the peaches and nectarines are fast assuming an appearance calling for a hasty "bite"; flowers, flowers are everywhere, and the bee hives, green little wooden dwellings, with the bees crowding in and out, are pointed out by their owner as looking very much like small country theatres doing a "tremendous
The house was built for Mr. Goodall, R.A., from designs by Mr. Norman Shaw, R.A., and is from every aspect architecturally very fine. Many portions of it are entirely covered with ivy — the entrance porch is surrounded by the clinging tendrils. Here I met Mr. Gilbert. He is tall, stalwart, and handsome. He appears strong, and he is; he looks determined. He frankly admits that this characteristic has led success to him and him to success. His hair is grey, but the vigour of a young man is there. To hear him talk is to listen to the merry stream of satire which runs through his verse and lyrics. Imagine him declaring that he considers the butcher boy in the gallery the king of the theatre — the blue smocked youth who, by incessant whistling and repeated requests to "speak up," revels in upsetting the managerial apple cart. Then try and realise Mr. Gilbert assuring one that what he writes is nothing more or less than "rump steak and onions!" — a palatable concoction of satisfying and seasoning ingredients which is good enough to please the man of refinement in the stalls, and not too refined for the butcher boy in the gallery. "H.M.S. Pinafore," "The Pirates of Penzance," "The Mikado," and the lily-loving Bunthorne and aesthetically inclined young maidens in "Patience" rump steak and onions! He has not — save at rehearsals — seen one of his own plays acted for seventeen years. Report says that, on "first-nights," he wanders about muffled up, with his hat over his eyes, along the Thames Embankment, casting occasional glances in the direction of the water, and mentally measuring the height of Waterloo Bridge. Nothing of the kind. He goes to his club and smokes a cigar, and looks in at the theatre about eleven to see if there is "a call"; and he is seldom disappointed in the object of his visit. He is quite content to look in at the theatre and see that everything is safe for the curtain to rise, goes away, and returns at the finish. He is wise in believing that the presence of the author at such a time upsets the players, and deteriorates the action.
We are in the entrance hall. Over the mantelpiece is a fine specimen of fourteenth century alabaster. By the window is the model of a man-of-war, sixteen feet in length. It is perfect in every detail, and a portion of it was specially constructed as a model of the set of the scene in "H.M.S. Pinafore." Mr. Gilbert — who is an enthusiastic yachtsman — had the remaining forepart built when it was no longer wanted for theatrical purposes. The parrot in the corner is considered to be the finest talker in England. It can whistle a hornpipe, and, if put to the test, could probably rattle off one of its master's patter songs.
"The other parrot, who is a novice," points out Mr. Gilbert, "belongs to Dr. Playfair. He is reading up with my bird, who takes pupils."
Passing up the oaken staircase, the solidity of which is relieved by many a grand palm, a peep into the billiard room reveals on one side of the wall photos of all the characters which have from time to time appeared in his operas. Over a long oak bookcase is a run of photos unique of their kind, including those of J. S. Clarke, Mrs. Stirling, Buckstone, Compton, Chippendale, Herman Vezin, Henry J. Byron, and Irving and Hare, taken seventeen years ago. A little statuette of Thackeray, by Boehm, is near at hand, and here is another of the dramatists great friend, T. W. Robertson, the writer of "Caste," "School," "Society," and other plays inseparable from his name.
The drawing-room was Mr. Goodall's studio. It is a magnificent apartment, rich in old china, great vases 200 years old, antique cabinets, and treasured knick-knacks innumerable — for the present owner is a great lover of curios, and is an inveterate "hunter" — and exquisitely furnished. The fire-places are crowded with ferns and flowers. Near the corner, where Mr. Goodall was one time wont to sit and paint sunsets, is a curious old musical clock which plays twelve airs. It is 150 years old. Mr. Gilbert sets the hands going, and to a musical tick - tick - tick a regiment of cavalry pass over the bridge, boats row along the water, and ducks swim about. Frank Holl's picture of the dramatist is here, and several by Duncan, and the famous water-colour painter, whose brush was only responsible for a single example in oils, possessed by Mr. Gilbert; others by Boughton, Mr. and Mrs. Perugini, and Adrian Stokes. Here is, also, an early example of Tenniel. It was bought unfinished. Mr. Gilbert met the artist one day, and described it to him. He remembered it, though drawn half a century ago. Tenniel took it back, and finished his work only a few months ago. This little satinwood cabinet came from Carlton House, and there is a curious story regarding the manufacture of a fine Japanese cabinet of 200 years ago. In those days whenever a child was born to a wealthy Jap an order was given for a cabinet to be made. It took fifteen years to manufacture, so fine was the workmanship, and it was presented to the child on his fifteenth birthday.
Under a glass case are a pair of marble hands joined together, by Boehm. They are those of Mrs. Crutchley, who danced in the recent guards burlesque at Chelsea, modelled when she was eight years old. Mr. Gilbert handles a fifteenth century carved ivory tankard. It is five inches in diameter, and carved out of a solid tusk. Unfortunately it is broken. When Miss Julia Neilson was making her first appearance in "Comedy and Tragedy," a tankard was wanted. It had been overlooked at the theatre. Mr. Gilbert was present, rushed off in a cab to Kensington, where he was then living, and got back in time. Miss Neilson so entered into her part (and small blame to her) that, quite forgetting the valuable goblet she had in her hand, she brought it down with a bang on the table with this result.
The dining room contains some fine work in oak. A massive Charles I sideboard, dated 1631, was made for Sir Thomas Holt, a cavalier, who murdered his own cook in a fit of passion. He was charged "that he tooke a cleever and hytt hys cooke with the same upon ye hedde, and so clave hys shoulders and the other syde on ye other shoulder. "It was, however, ingeniously argued that although the indictment stated that the halves of the cook's head had fallen on either shoulder, it was not charged against him that the cook had been killed, and on this technicality Sir Thomas escaped. There are some valuable oil paintings here, too — a fine example of C. Van Everdingen. The only other work of his in England is in the messroom of the Honourable Artillery Company. There are also fine works by Giorgione, Van der Kappelle, Tintoretto, Maes, and others.
The library — where we sat together talking — has one distinctive curiosity. It opens out on to the lawn, and its white enamel bookcases contain close upon four thousand volumes out of a compact stock of some five thousand works scattered about the house. All round the apartment are drawings by A.Caracci, Watteau, Lancret, Salvator Rosa, Rubens, Andrea del Sarto, and others, and on top of the bookcases are arranged seventy heads, representing all sorts and conditions of character typical of India. They are made of papier-mache, and were brought home from India by Mr. Gilbert, whither he had wandered in search of new pastures for plot and fresh ideas, so that, should he ever write an Indian opera, the company engaged would find an excellent guide to making up their faces from the figures. On the table — in the centre of the room — amongst the flowers, are portraits of some of the dramatist's proteges, so to speak. No man is more far-seeing than he. He can single out talent, and, having found it, he encourages the possessor. No one has been asked more frequently, "Should I go on the stage?" He calls for a sample of the applicant's abilities, pronounces judgement, and those who have heard his "don't" were as wise in refraining from seeking for fame from Thespis as those who welcomed his "go" and have acted on his advice. Among many who made their first appearances in his pieces are Mrs. Bernard Beere, Mr. Wyatt, Miss Jessie Bond, Mr. Corney Grain, Mr. Arthur Cecil, Miss Leonora Braham, Miss Brandram, Miss Julia Neilson, Miss Lily Hanbury, Miss Alma Murray, and Mr. George Grossmith.
"Grossmith," said Mr. Gilbert, "applied to Sir Arthur Sullivan first. Sullivan was pleased, thought him the very man for the part of John Wellington Wells in "The Sorcerer," and so did I. You see, when making an engagement, the composer tests the applicant vocally, whilst I try him histrionically. Previous to that Grossmith had done nothing, save in the way of entertainments at young men's societies and mechanics' institutes. He didn't want to offend them — what would I advise? 'Go on the stage,' I said, 'and you'll make such a success as to render yourself quite independent of them.' I think he has.
"Then in 'Trial by Jury' - one of my early works, which I consider one of the best, and in which the Judge was played by Sir Arthur Sullivan's brother Fred, now dead — the foreman of the jury was played by a gentleman who had only a couple of lines to sing. But whenever he opened his mouth the audience roared. The estimable foreman of the twelve good men and true on that occasion was Mr. W. S. Penley. Just a moment."
It is post time, and on the day of my visit he had just finished the libretto of his new comic opera. He weighs the great blue envelope in his hand, and, after the servant has left the room, he flings himself into his favourite chair, and suggestively remarks, "There goes something that will either bring me in twenty thousand pounds or twenty thousand pence!" And a favourite chair with Mr. Gilbert is an article of furniture not to be despised. It is of red leather, and he has used the same size and pattern for a quarter of a century. He takes it with him wherever he goes, for he never writes at a desk. When working he sits here with a stool exactly the same height, and stretching himself on these, he writes on a pad on his lap.
I asked him if he would write me a few original verses for publication in this article. "Thank you very much," said he, "but I'm afraid I must ask you to excuse me. When I have just finished a piece I feel for a few days that I am absolutely incapable of further effort. I always feel that I am quite 'written out.' At first this impression used to distress me seriously — however I have learnt by experience to regard it as a 'bogie,' which will yield to exorcism. This, however, is quite at your service;" and he crossed to the recess by the window, and from a heap of papers took out a sheet. It was a couple of delightful verses, left over from "The Gondoliers," written in his best style, and seen by no one till this moment. Tessa was to have sung them in the ear of the Grand Inquisitor, when he commands the two kings of Barataria — one of whom the fair Tessa loves — to leave their lovers and rule their kingdoms. The following are the verses, the second being given in fac-simile :-
Good sir, I wish to speak politely —
Forgive me if my words are crude —
I find it hard to put it rightly —
Without appearing to be rude.
I mean to say, — you're old and wrinkled —
It's rather blunt, but it's the truth —
With wintry snow your hair is sprinkled:
What can you know of Love and Youth?
Indeed I wish to speak politely;
But, pray forgive me, truth is truth:
You're old and — pardon me — unsightly,
What can you know of Love and Youth!
"My life? Date of birth, November 18, 1836. Birthplace, 17, Southampton-street, Strand, in the house of my grandfather, who had known Johnson, Garrick, and Reynolds, and who was the last man in London, I believe, who wore Hessian boots and a pigtail. I went to school in Ealing, presided over by Dr. Nicholas — a pedagogue who appears more than once in Thackeray's pages as 'Dr. Tickle-us of Great Ealing School.' I was always writing plays for home performance, and at eighteen wrote a burlesque in eighteen scenes. This was offered to every manager in London, and unanimously rejected. I couldn't understand why at the time — I do now. I was intended for the Royal Artillery, and read up during the Crimean War. Of course, it came to an end just as I was prepared to go up for examination. No more officers were required, and further examinations were indefinitely postponed until I was over age. I was offered a line commission, but declined; but eventually, in 1868, I was appointed Captain of the Royal Aberdeenshire Highlanders (Militia), a post I held for sixteen years. I was clerk in the Privy Council for five miserable years, took my B.A. degree at the London University, and was called to the bar of the Inner Temple in 1863. I was at the bar four years, and am now very reservedly raised to the Bench — but only as a Justice of the Peace.
"I was not fortunate in my clients. I well remember my first brief, which was purely honorary. I am a tolerably good French scholar, and was employed to interpret and translate the conversations and letters between attorney, leading counsel, and client — a Parisian. It was at Westminster. The Frenchman, who was a short, stout man, won his case, and he looked upon me as having done it all. He met me in the hall, and, rushing up to me, threw his arms round my neck and kissed me on both cheeks. That was my first fee.
"On another occasion I defended an old lady who was accused of picking pockets. On the conclusion of my impassioned speech for the defence, she took off a heavy boot and threw it at my head. That was my second fee. By the way, I subsequently introduced the incident into an article, 'My Maiden Brief,' which appeared in The Cornhill Magazine.
"I joined the Northern Circuit, and attended assizes and sessions at Liverpool and Manchester. Perhaps a dozen briefs, but nothing substantial. The circumstances attending my initial brief on circuit I am not likely to forget. I was to make my maiden speech in the prosecution of an old Irish woman for stealing a coat. Mr. and Mrs. Bancroft and the members of the Prince of Wales's company, then on tour, were present on the Bench, and I'm sorry to say, at my invitation. No sooner had I got up than the old dame, who seemed to realise that I was against her, began shouting, 'Ah, ye divil, sit down. Don't listen to him, yer honour! He's known in all the slums of Liverpool. Sit down, ye spalpeen. He's as drunk as a lord, yer honner — begging your lordship's pardon.' Whenever I attempted to resume my speech, I was flooded by the torrent of the old lady's eloquence, and I had at last to throw myself on the protection of the Recorder, who was too convulsed with laughter to interfere. Mrs. Bancroft says in her memoirs that I never got that maiden speech off, but in that she is mistaken. The old lady had three months.
"My first lines appeared in Fun — Henry J. Byron was the editor then. He asked me to send him a column of stuff with a half-page block every week. Well, I did not think it possible to get fresh ideas week by week; but I accepted it, and continued writing and illustrating for six years, though at the end of every seven days I always felt written out for life, just as I do now. My first play was 'Dulcamara,' produced at the St. James's Theatre by Miss Herbert. Tom Robertson and I were great chums, and he, being unable to write her the Christmas piece, was good enough to say he knew the very man for it and recommended me. I wrote it in ten days, rehearsed it a week; it ran five months, and has been twice revived. No arrangement was made about the price to be paid, and after it had been produced Mr. Emden, Miss Herbert's acting manager, asked me how much I expected to receive for the piece. I reckoned it out as ten days work at three guineas a day, and replied,'Thirty guineas.'
"'Oh!' said Emden, 'we don't deal in guineas — say pounds.'
"I was quite satisfied with the price, took his cheque and gave a receipt. Then Emden quietly turned to me and said —
"'Take my advice as an old stager. Never sell as good a piece as this for £30 again.'
"I took his advice; I never have.
"Then I commenced to write for the Royalty and Old Queen's Theatres. 'La Vivandiere' was one of these; and at various times 'An Old Score,' 'Ages Ago,' 'Randall's Thumb,' and 'Creatures of Impulse,' appeared. These were followed by 'The Palace of Truth,' and 'The Wicked World.' 'Pygmalion and Galatea,' which took me six months to write, was produced in 1871. 'Sweethearts' came out in 1874, and 'Broken Hearts' two years later. I consider the two best plays I ever wrote were 'Broken Hearts' and a version of the Faust legend called 'Gretchen.' I took immense pains over my 'Gretchen,' but it only ran a fortnight. I wrote it to please myself, and not the public. It seems to be the fate of a good piece to run a couple of weeks, and a bad one a couple of years — at least, it is so with me. Here is an instance of it: —
"'The Vagabond' was produced at the Olympic, with Henry Neville and Miss Marion Terry in the cast. I was behind during the first act, and everything went swimmingly - author, actors, and audience delighted. I remained during half of the second act, when Charles Reade put his hand on my shoulder, and exclaimed, 'Gilbert, its success is certain.' 'Ah, but,' said I, 'there's the third act to come!' 'The third act?' said Reade, who had been present at my rehearsals. 'The third act's worthy of Congreve!' That was enough for me. Off I went to my club, and returned to the theatre at eleven; as I passed through the stage door, I heard one of the carpenters say to the hall keeper, as he passed, "Bloomin' failure, Bill." He was quite right. The whole of the third act had been performed in dumb show! That was fourteen years ago; and yet, strange to say, only the other day I received a letter from young Mr. Wallack in New York, saying he had found the manuscript of a play called 'The Vagabond,' and, feeling sure that it would be extraordinarily successful, if produced, wanted to know what was my price for the piece. He knew nothing of its melancholy history.
"My operatic work has been singularly successful — owing largely, of course, to the invaluable co-operation of Sir Arthur Sullivan. When Sullivan and I first determined to work together, the burlesque stage was in a very unclean state. We made up our minds to do all in our power to wipe out the grosser element, never to let an offending word escape our characters, and never allow a man to appear as a woman or vice versa.
"My first meeting with Sullivan was rather amusing. I had written a piece with Fred Clay, called 'Ages Ago,' and was rehearsing it at the Old Gallery of Illustration. At the same time I was busy on my 'Palace of Truth,' in which there is a character, one Zoram, who is a musical imposter. Now, I am as unmusical as any man in England. I am quite incapable of whistling an air in tune, although I have a singularly good ear for rhythm. I was bound to make Zoram express his musical ideas in technical language, so I took up my 'Encyclopaedia Britannica,' and, turning to the word 'Harmony,' selected a suitable sentence and turned into sounding blank verse. Curious to know whether this would pass muster with a musician, I said to Sullivan (who happened to be present at rehearsal, and to whom I had just been introduced), 'I am very pleased to meet you, Mr. Sullivan, because you will be able to settle a question which has just arisen between Mr. Clay and myself. My contention is that when a musician who is master of many instruments has a musical theme to express, he can express it as perfectly upon the simple tetrachord of Mercury (in which there are, as we all know, no diatonic intervals whatever) as upon the more elaborate disdiapason (with the familiar four tetrachords and the redundant note) which (I need not remind you) embraces in its simple consonance all the single, double, and inverted chords.'
"He reflected for a moment, and asked me to oblige him by repeating my question. I did so, and he replied that it was a very nice point, and he would like to think it over before giving a definite reply. That took place about twenty years ago, and I believe he is still engaged in hammering it out."
Not the least interesting part of my day with Mr. Gilbert was in having his methods of working explained. Mr. Gilbert's tact and unequalled skill as a stage manager are well known, but he explained to me a decidedly novel secret which undoubtedly greatly assists him in his perfect arrangements of mis-en-scene. He has an exact model of the stage made to half-inch scale, showing every entrance and exit, exactly as the scene will appear at the theatre. Those shown in the illustrations represent the two sets which will be seen at the Lyric Theatre when his new opera is produced. Little blocks of wood are made representing men and women — the men are three inches high, and the women two and a half inches. These blocks are painted in various colours to show the different voices. The green and white striped blocks may be "tenors"; the black and yellow"sopranos"; the red and green "contraltos"; and so on. With this before him, and a sheet of paper, Mr. Gilbert works out every single position of his characters, giving them their proper places on the model stage, and he is thus enabled to go down to rehearsal prepared to indicate to every principal and chorister his proper place in the scene under consideration.
His subjects are often the outcome of pure accident. "The Mikado" was suggested by a huge Japanese executioner's sword which is hung in his library — the identical sword which Mr. Grossmith used to carry on the stage as Ko-Ko. "The Yeomen of the Guard" was suggested by the beefeater who serves as an advertisement of the Tower Furnishing Company at Uxbridge Railway Station.
A rather curious and certainly unique fact in dramatic authorship, and one that is without precedent in the annals of the stage, is that Mr. Gilbert's name has appeared in the London play bills without a single break for nearly twenty-four years. On July 1 the spell was broken by the termination of his connection with the Savoy.
“The Mountebanks: A Christmas Day Interview with Mr. W.S. Gilbert.” The Pall Mall Gazette, Saturday, December 26, 1891, 1-2.
A CHRISTMAS DAY INTERVIEW WITH MR. W.S. GILBERT.
The public doesn’t care an icicle whether the interviewer goes out on Christmas Day or stays at home. Yet a good many of them were out on worse errands than that which caused a Pall Mall Gazette representative to pick his way over the frozen surfaces of the Belgravian pavements yesterday morning. These were the thoughts that failed to console me, writes our interviewer, who, for sins of omission or one or other of the third or fourth generations who had failed to expiate an ancestral offence, pressed the button of the electric bell which was ultimately to put him in connection with Mr. W.S. Gilbert. “I stepped cautiously over the glazed parqueteries in the hall—as slippery as the pavements outside—on to the islands of rugs, and found terra firma at last in this large London dining-room. Presently the towering figure of Mr. Gilbert loomed in the doorway, and the spirit of his welcome to me was almost Japanese in its self-depreciation for having fixed upon such a morning for our interview, “but the truth is,” said Mr. Gilbert, with all the good-nature of a Johnny Pounce, “we have been rehearsing day and night. And the worst of it all is that the music has been so much delayed that I have had at least two sleepless nights over it, and we shall have to crave the indulgence of the public for yet another day. You certainly won’t see “The Mountebanks” at the Lyric Theatre before next Thursday. I delivered the finished book to Mr. Cellier as long ago as last April, but his many engagements, coupled with this ill-health at the present time, have thrown the opera back so much that up to this morning I am entirely at a loss to know how my opera will look. I have had no bird’s-eye view of the whole work, and cannot until to-morrow get a correct idea of its general effect. Fortunately, however, we have one of the best companies that it has ever been my privilege to entrust my “book”: to, and they can convert mountains into molehills, and no doubt by Thursday we shall have made such satisfactory progress that I shan’t know my own child, which now keeps me awake at nights.”
“And what is the “Mountebanks” about, Mr. Gilbert?” – “Well, I expected that question. It’s only natural; and so I have just sketched out what you may want to know”—and with this Mr. Gilbert handed me a sheet of “Silurian”—I believe that is the title—grey-blue notepaper, bearing the following legend written in a bold hand: --
An alchemist, who has blown himself up in his researches after the philosopher’s stone, has left a powerful potion behind him which has the property of making sham things real. This potion—which is diluted with wine—falls into the hands of a number of persons, all of whom for different reasons are assuming identities or dispositions which do not belong to them. Unacquainted with the potion’s power, they drink the doctored wine, and at once are transformed into the characters they have assumed. Thus a gang of banditti, who have seized on a monastery for a felonious purpose, have disguised themselves in the monks’ robes, and are transformed into veritable Dominicans—to the distress of the girls to whom they were to have been married. Two mountebanks who pretend to be clockwork representations of Hamlet and Ophelia are transformed accordingly. A young bride, who, for an unworthy purpose, has disguised herself as an old woman, becomes an old woman in fact. A conjuror who pretends to be dying of slow poison really suffers the agonies he simulates. A young girl who pretends an affection she does not feel, in order to lure an admirer from a rival beauty, becomes the love-sick girl she affects to be, and her rival, who, for the purposes of rehearsing the reception of a couple of grandees, has assumed the part of a wife, becomes a wife in earnest. Of course matters are eventually restored to their normal condition.”
“It is all on account of this potion?” – “Yes, and the sad part about it is that the alchemist was a most proper person, actuated by a high moral tone, when he was blown up. He wished that his fateful potion should be used to enable those well-intentioned people to realize [sic] those high aspirations and good intentions which, as things now are, are generally supposed to form the “macadam” of a place we need not mention.”
“I must say,” added Mr. Gilbert, “that, in addition to the admirable way in which Mr. Sedger has put the opera upon the stage we have a company of actors, a “galaxy of dramatic talent,” upon which I have good cause to congratulate myself. The company and chorus are certainly the pleasantest I have ever had to deal with. Mr. Wyatt is the chief of the banditti, who, by a trick change, become Dominican monks. Mr. Lionel Brough is the proprietor of the troupe of mountebanks, and Miss Jenoure and Mr. Harry Monkhouse are the dancing girl and clown who undertake to play the parts of the two clockwork figures of Ophelia and Hamlet. The original clockwork figures are on their way to be exhibited to the Duke and Duchess of Palermo, who are great connoisseurs of automata, but owing to their lifelike character they are detained by the police, as being unprovided with passports. In this dilemma the proprietor of the troupe suggests that the dancing girl and clown shall simulate the automata, which they do, and having taken some of the alchemist’s elixir they are transformed and worked on the principle of the “put-a-penny-in-and-the-figure-will-work.” Mr. Robertson, the tenor, is the handsome lover, the jeune premier, and the object of contention between Miss Geraldine Ulmar and Miss Lucille Saunders, who play the interesting young ladies whose fortunes and misfortunes constitute the sentimental interest. Miss Eva Moore is the young bride who is transformed into the old woman.
“The opera is in two acts, and will play on the first evening from 8 o’clock to 11.15, and from 8:15 till 11.15 on following nights. The scene is laid in Sicily, the Trinacria, the first act taking place in a mountainous pass within view of Mount Etna; the second in the monastery by moonlight. The period of the opera is about 1805, just before the brief rule of the French in Naples, when Joseph Bonaparte was King. The dresses of the Sicilian peasants, banditti, and Dominican monks have been designed by Mr. Percy Anderson.”
“The music?” – “Well, so far as I know, who have no pretence to a right judgment in such things, it is very skilful, especially in the orchestration, but throughout I have somewhat suffered by a lack of—well, I haven’t seen quite as much of Mr. Cellier as I used to of Sir Arthur Sullivan, or as much as I should have liked. In fact, is it that which has so far kept us back. I have no doubt, however, that the “Mountebanks” will be ready for production next Thursday.”
And then I left.
“How They Write Their Plays: Mr. W.S. Gilbert.” St. James’s Gazette, June 23, 1893, p. 5. (Part of this interview is quoted in Percy Fitzgerald, Savoy Opera and the Savoyards, p. 144; also in Stedman, p. 212, as an “unidentified interview”; an abridged version appeared in Munsey’s Magazine 9  681-2)
HOW THEY WRITE THEIR PLAYS.
MR. W.S. GILBERT.
Mr. W.S. Gilbert is a tall, well-built, handsome man, with greyish white hair and moustache and lively bright eyes. He received me (writes our Representative) in the magnificent marble lobby of the Junior Carlton Club, and his fine bearing would have led a stranger to suppose him to be a military officer, rather than a barrister, until he talks. Then one recognizes [check] at once the crisp smart manner of conversation which a study of law seems to inculcate in a man.
I asked him what he considered the chief traits necessary to enable one to become a successful playwright.
“Well,” he replied thoughtfully, “that opens up a very large subject. They differ vastly. In my own line I should sum them up as follows: -- In the first place, the power of catching the public taste; then a thorough knowledge of stagecraft and a gift for stage-management; the capacity to invent a plot; the power to create characters; an eye for dramatic situation and scenic effect; and, finally, the faculty to write readily dialogue, lyrics, and musical numbers.”
“I believe, Mr. Gilbert,” I said, “that you have little or no ear for music. Don’t you find this interferes with your rhythmical numbers?”
“It is quite true that I have no ear for music, but I have a very sensitive ear for rhythm: it is precisely the difference between time and tune. I am very fond of music, but I don’t know a discord when I hear one; on the other hand, the slightest error in time, which would probably escape a musician, would jar most gratingly on my ear. My fondness for music chiefly lies in hearing pieces which are connected in my mind with associations. I would rather hear an unknown soprano singing a song I knew than Patti singing one I did not know. In fact, I am so poor a judge of music that the song appeals to me with infinitely greater force than the singer.”
“Where do your plots come from, Mr. Gilbert?”
“Plots? good gracious! where do they come from? I don’t know. A chance remark in conversation, a little accidental incident, a trifling object may suggest a train of thought which develops into a startling plot. Of course I am talking of original plots. I don’t call adapting a play or translating a play writing one. Taking my own plots, for instance, the ‘Mikado’ was suggested by a Japanese sword which hangs in my study; the ‘Yeomen of the Guard’ by even a more unlikely incident. I had twenty minutes one day to wait at Uxbridge Station for a train, and I saw the advertisement of the ‘Tower Furnishing Company,’ representing a number of beefeaters—why, goodness only knows. It gave me an idea, and I wrote the play originally as one of modern life in the Tower of London. Then it suddenly occurred to me to throw the time of it back to that of Queen Elizabeth. Having got one’s plot, the next step is to fit in the characters. And the chief point in doing so is to invent original characters. But this is a very difficult matter, whether one is writing for a stock company or writing irrespective of the cast.”
“No, it is not always easier to write for a non-existent company; one has too free a hand. But with a stock company it is so hard to make the characters seem original. Writing for the Savoy I had to keep the idiosyncracies of Rutland Barrington, Rosina Brandram, and the others constantly before me. I used to invent a perfectly fresh character each time for George Grossmith; but he always did it in his own way—most excellent in itself, crisp and smart, but “G.-G.” to the end. Consequently every one said: ‘Why, Grossmith always has the same character;’ whereas, if different individuals had acted them, each would have been distinctive. It was no fault of Grossmith’s, than whom a more amiable and zealous collaborateur does not exist. It arose from the fact that his individuality was too strong to be concealed. [sic punct]
“What is your next step, Mr. Gilbert, after deciding on the characters?”
“I write out the play as a story, just as though and as carefully as though it were to be published in that form. I then try to divide it into acts. I think two acts is the right number for a comic opera. At least, my experience—and that is thirty years old—teaches me so. Sometimes, of course, the original story does not readily fall into two acts, and so requires modification. Well, I put it by for a fortnight or more, and then rewrite the whole thing without referring to the first copy. I find that I have omitted some good things that were in the first edition, and have introduced some other good things that were not in it. I compare the two, put them both aside, and write it out again. Sometimes I do this a dozen times; indeed, the general public have no idea of the trouble it takes to produce a play that seems to run so smoothly and so naturally. One must work up to a good curtain. I believe very strongly in this, although I never take up any controversies, but simply go my own way on my own lines. The last impression is always the strongest, and an audience will often pardon a feeble wearisome act for one dramatic climax at its conclusion. I can generally judge now what will have a good effect; sometimes, but very rarely, it is spoilt by the interpreters. They always do their best, but occasionally they fail to realize [check] my intention. The fact is that for comic opera many artists, especially tenors and sopranos, are necessarily engaged who are singers rather than actors; and it is not to be expected that carefully written comedy dialogue will receive full justice at their hands. It is as though one called on the Haymarket Company to perform an opera. Critics do not seem to realize this difficulty, and frequently pronounce a scene to be dull because it is ineffectively acted by a couple of mere concert-singers.
“Well, to go on with the writing of the play, I next sketch out quite roughly the dialogue, and then fill in the musical numbers as I feel inclined. I do not attempt to write them in order, but just as the humour takes me—one here, one there; a sad one when I feel depressed, a bright one when I am in a happy mood. When at last all those of the first act are done it is sent to the composer to be set to music, with a copy of the rough sketch of the dialogue to show him how the different songs hang together. I generally like reading it over to the composer, so as to give him my idea of the rhythm, which, as a matter of course, he varies at his pleasure. There must be perfect good-fellowship between the writer and composer, as there is much give-and-take to be managed. Metres have to be changed by the writer, or tunes altered by the composer, to fit in with some idea, some intention, of the other partner. For instance, the writer may have put a theme in one metre and the composer has a tune in his head which will just suit the theme but will not fit the scansion, and so the lyrics must be altered: each must try to make the other’s part as easy as possible. There must be no jealousy, no bad feeling between the two. They must be on the best of terms; otherwise there will be no success. And I put down the popularity of the ‘Gondoliers,’ ‘Iolanthe,’ ‘Mikado,” and the other operas which Sir Arthur Sullivan and I did together chiefly to this fact. He was most kind in this respect. Well, whilst the composing is going on I complete the dialogue and work up the entire stage-management on a model stage. When the rehearsal comes I have the business of each scene written down, and this inspires confidence in those one is teaching; they know that I have a concrete scheme in my head and generally watch its development with interest and curiosity.
“Oh, by the way, I should have told you that as soon as a story is finally decided on a scenic artist is set to work. His plans are carefully modified from time to time until a desirable result is obtained. The last step of all is the dress designing. I always take on myself to give suggestions in this matter—not to tie the dress designer down, but to help him. In fact, I frequently make rough sketches for all the characters. Sometimes the designer will make use of these, sometimes not.
“As to rehearsals, there are in all three weeks for the artistes to study the music; then a fortnight’s rehearsals without the music; finally, another three or four weeks’ rehearsals in position and with the music. The principals are not wearied with rehearsals until the chorus are perfect in their music.”
“A Rehearsal at the Savoy: How the New Opera Is Prepared.” The Westminster Gazette, October 6, 1893, p. 7.
A REHEARSAL AT THE SAVOY.
HOW THE NEW OPERA IS PREPARED.
It was very well to have Mr. Gilbert’s polite letter saying that I could attend the rehearsal, but the production of it by no means satisfied the stage-door keeper. That careworn person who not only guards the gate, but supplies the company with afternoon tea, started by trying to send me about my business before he found out what it was; then he examined the letter as carefully as a bank clerk examines a note. Whether he thought it a forgery I hardly know; at any rate he would not act on it, but sent in my card to Mr. Gilbert. Soon came a boy who told me to follow him, and led me down interminable stairs. After this I was taken into a little room, where I swore a fearful oath, such an oath as bound the members of the Vehm Gericht or the Clan-na-Gael, not to reveal “the details of plot and effects” to any human being. Then I was admitted to the stalls of the theatre, which looked cold and dreary. It was all covered with white sheets, and only lighted by the skylight over the gallery, one or two electric lights in the dress circle, and a lamp in the prompt side stage box. The 32 gentlemen of the orchestra in straw hats, “bowlers,” and “tubes,” as French slang calls the silk hat, were in their place, but not their places, and a good half-hour was spent in arranging their seats, a difficult task carried out by Mr. Arthur Cellier. For a long time we—that is, about half-a-dozen people in the stalls, sat gazing at the gorgeous pale amber silk brocade curtain which in the gloomy half-light looked dull and dingy. Then Sir Arthur Sullivan, in a suit of dark-grey “dittoes,” appeared and helped Mr. Cellier in seating the orchestra, and the difficulty of the task caused him to remark that “next time he would write all the music pizzicato, so as to save the room taken up by the violin bows.” At last that business was arranged, and the voice of Mr. Charles Harris was heard—it is a voice which is always heard with ease—telling someone to stop the gallery lights. Mr. Harris scarcely seemed himself, and, in fact, those who have heard him rehearsing a company when he is master of the situation, would hardly have recognised him in the subdued-looking person who sat mum in a corner of the stalls most of the time. At last Sir Arthur took his seat, the overture was soon played, and the curtains parted, disclosing a picture of tropical scenery, and some pretty girls in fantastic costumes, with splendid wigs that caused Mr. Clarkson, who sat in the stalls, to beam with pride and pleasure. The opening chorus sung—did ever a comic opera begin otherwise than by a chorus?—the real business of a rehearsal began.
“I don’t think there are enough young ladies for a good volume of sound,” said Sir Arthur. “Nor I,” answered Mr. Gilbert; “we must send on the others at once.” Then he ran round to the stage, some more young ladies arrived, and he began to arrange them, pushing and pulling them about gently, and calling them, as custom demands “My dear.” In a few minutes he came back to the stalls, and, sitting down by the side of Mrs. Gilbert, looked at the result of his handiwork. “You, miss, you in yellow, and you, miss, next to her, will you put your arms round one another’s necks—if you’re on good terms,” called the author, and turning round said, “they aren’t always, you know.” Still, he was not satisfied. “You two at the back incorporate yourselves—I mean embrace one another. Sullivan, may I put one right at the back on the mound; will the voice be right?” “Certainly, Gilbert.” “Now, my dear, go right back and take your skin with you—never go anywhere without your skin.”
It was a joke about the tiger-skin she had to lie upon—a mild joke if you like, but mild jokes are as successful at rehearsal as in a Court of Justice. At last they were posed even to the satisfaction of Mr. Percy Anderson, who designed the boldly-coloured dresses. Then Mr. Gilbert came close to me. “How are the rehearsals going?” I asked.
“Very well indeed,” he replied, “they couldn’t go better. I never had pleasanter rehearsing—no jars or unpleasantness at all. It’s going beautifully, but of course they’ll all lose their heads later on—they always do. How’s my gout? Oh, better, though I haven’t had time to attend to it—at the beginning of the rehearsals I had to be wheeled about in a bath chair. Any politics in the piece? Yes and no. They’re vague. You’ll find many references to the state of England and some hits at existing abuses, but nothing of a party character. It doesn’t do to divide the house. Hi, miss, you in green on the left—I can’t tell which is which now they’ve got their wigs—lie down at once on your face—I’ve told you about it before.”
The young lady began to expostulate or explain, but he stopped her firmly yet amiably. Both he and Sir Arthur act on the suaviter in modo fortiter in re principle. The musician is exceedingly courteous, but has sharp little bursts of impatience promptly subdued; Mr. Gilbert is a genuine Job. A Savoy rehearsal is indeed a study in propriety of demeanour, and too refined for many Parliamentary terms to be used at it. What a difference to other theatres, where nothing is done without a quantity of highly-decorated language! In truth, at the Savoy, there is a charming family tone—everyone seems polite and respectful, and there appears to be a genuine feeling of good-fellowship all round.
“You know,” said Mr. Gilbert to me, “I’ve told that girl about it before. Tell a thing once to a man, and he never forgets it. Tell it to a woman, and—well, they’re thinking all the time about the question how they and their neighbours look. One rehearsal went almost to pieces till I thought of making them all take off their bonnets and then they did attend to me. Oh, that won’t do!” and off he dashed to the stage, and the scene was done over again and again. The dialogue went well enough, for most of the company proved to be word perfect; very funny it is too, and I long to let some of the jokes out of the theatre, but there’s the oath! The orchestra laughed so heartily at times that it could not play. The music, too, was well known—only one chorus, a very pretty accompanied sextette, went wrong; Sir Arthur’s keen ear felt the basses were in error, and Mr. Cellier pointed out that they dropped to a C instead of G, which weakened the harmony, and possibly made consecutive fifths or octaves. The dances, exits, and entrances gave the trouble. When it is correctly done it seems quite natural that after a complicated movement all the performers should be exactly in a picture at the end of a musical phrase, but when such an affair goes wrong it seems impossible to get it right. The royal drawing-room gave the greatest trouble. With great pains an exact copy of a St. James’s reception is given: all the proper officials are there, and the Life Guardsmen average over 6 ft. 3m! There are a dozen or so of débutantes in gorgeous Court dresses—fifty guineas apiece they cost. The young ladies look lovely, or most of them do, for a prettier set of girls than the Savoy chorus could hardly be found, and they wear their dresses and manoeuvre the tremendous trains as if to the manner born. However, to get all the debutantes and their trains off the stage, mass the gorgeously clad officials, then call the young ladies back again and bring the whole splendid group up to the footlights exactly at the last chord of rich procession music, seemed for a while impossible; but by patience and skill it was done. This Drawing Room scene, which will make every woman in the land bully her husband, father, brother, or sweetheart, as the case may be, to take her to see “Utopia, Limited,” is the great effect of the second act. The first tells how Utopia was happily governed by King Paramount (Mr. Rutland Barrington), whose government was despotism tempered by dynamite. However, his eldest daughter, Princess Zara (Miss Nancy McIntosh), had been sent to Girton, and came back a rabid Anglomaniac, bringing with her half a dozen “imported flowers of progress” in shape [sic] of gentlemen who, according to her and themselves, represent the chief factors of English greatness. The King is induced to Anglicise his Court and country, and the Drawing Room is one of his greatest efforts. The process succeeds admirably in some respects, but causes dissatisfaction in others. How the trouble arises, and how, with a truly Gilbertian stroke, it is settled, I may not tell, nor can I speak of the many quaint and charming songs, brilliant jests, curious dances, and laughter-moving pieces of business that enliven it.
“What do you think of our new prima donna?” said Mr. Gilbert when she came on the stage. “I’ll tell you with pleasure,” I replied—“on Monday.” He was enthusiastic, and said they had never had an artist who sang so well, acted so cleverly, spoke so charmingly, and looked so pretty as Miss Nancy McIntosh. In the past there were sopranos who, perhaps, outstepped her at each particular point, but she surpassed them all in general excellence. However, if you want to know more about the young lady you can find out all about her in THE WESTMINSTER BUDGET of September 8. The rehearsal began at about half-past 11, there was half an hour’s rest for change of scene, and it was half-past five when Mr. Rutland Barrington uttered the last word but one of the dialogue. Not the last word, for to utter the tag would have terrified everyone. Members of the profession are superstitious, almost as superstitious as seafaring folk, and believe that if that last word were said before the first night, at the best the piece would be a failure, and perhaps an earthquake might happen. “You can’t sing the finale to-day,” said Sir Arthur, “for a new one is to be written. When can we rehearse again, Mr. Harris?”
“In twenty-four hours,” answered Mr. Harris, “at the least.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“The floor is being parqueted for the Drawing-Room scene,” answered Mr. Gilbert. “We’ve spared no expenses, I can tell you; in fact, the production has cost no less than ------.” He mentioned a sum that is as much as most of us earn in 15 years, and I who had noticed the gorgeous mounting, the countless electric lights in the palace scene, and the splendid dresses, was not a bit surprised. “So little as that?” I replied. He smiled gravely. Seeing how much there is in the new opera that must charm everybody, I felt disposed, even anxious, to offer to become partner, and risk a share of that tremendous sum already spent on the production, for I fancy that it would be a capital investment.
“A Savoy Rehearsal.” The Graphic 48 (Oct. 7, 1893) 447, 450 (signed “E.S.G.”). PDF available free from British Newspapers database. Reprinted in the Brisbane Courier, 1 Dec. 1893, and in the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society booklet on Utopia Limited.(and quoted in Brian Jones, Helen D’Oyly Carte, pp. 105-107).
A Savoy Rehearsal
The time is nearly three o’clock, and as many ladies of the Savoy chorus as can conveniently crowd into the stage-door office are sipping tea there and chattering about their dresses. The hall-keeper, who has obligingly renounced his chair, is presiding over the commissariat with an air semi-paternal and wholly benignant. Just on three a bell trills from the armoury of whistles and telephones at the back of the office, the stage-doorkeeper says, “All ladies down, please!” and with a few courageous efforts to deal summarily with cups of hot tea, the pretty company flutters and rustles down the stairs to the stage.
The stage is brilliantly lit. High up in the flies a gleam of pale September sunshine wars with the yellow glare of the floats. An electric lamp in M. D’Oyley [sic] Carte’s box is the only spot of light in the funereal theatre, where a few of the company are gossiping in the stalls, and one or two visitors are whispering in the boxes. The piano stool and Mr. W.S. Gilbert, which may, perhaps, be spoken of together as the guiding stars of the rehearsal, are grouped upon a little platform which is erected over the stalls. By this device a clear stage is left for the performers. Other directors of the rehearsal, who are sitting judicially upon the orchestra platform, are Sir Arthur Sullivan and Mr. Cellier. Mr. Charles Harris, the stage-director, is sometimes to be found there also, but at the present moment is at the back of the stage, engaged in the laborious occupation of keeping an eye on things in general,--with special reference to the idiosyncrasies of the stage-carpenters. In the blaze of light on the stage, and by the side of the barbaric gorgeousness of the scenery, the actors, dressed conventionally (and sometimes unconventionally) in the garb of everyday life, look peculiarly sombre; and from the point of view of uniformity, the gentlemen who are personating “Gold Sticks in Waiting,” or “Warriors of the King’s Guard,” strike one (we use the words in no uncomplimentary sense) as a singularly scratch lot. A few “Life Guardsmen” have made a slight concession to the demands of their impersonation by putting on pipeclayed gauntlets; but the concession does not do very much to remove their incongruity with the surroundings, and on the whole is not nearly so successful as that made by Mr, Rutland Barrington—who may be recognised as a Despot by a couple of medals on the breast of his frock-coat. Mr. Barrington is rehearsing with Miss Macintosh, and Mr. W.S. Gilbert is watching the duet—which means a great deal.
“‘Zarah, [sic] my daughter!’” Mr. Barrington comes forward. “‘Zarah, at last—’ There’s that seat gone again!”
The seat is replaced, and the usual arrangements having been made that it shall never again be missing, Mr. Barrington starts afresh.
“‘Zarah, my daughter, at last!’—er, don’t you think if you were to come a little nearer down, Miss Macintosh? Yes, thanks. ‘Zarah, my daughter—’”
“A little more deliberate, I think, Barrington, eh?” suggests Mr. Gilbert.
“Oh, certainly, certainly. ‘Zarah, my—’”
“And I think, Miss Macintosh, you should show a trifle more—a little more,” Mr. Gilbert waves his hand, “a trifle more expectation. Yes; that’s it. Thanks.”
“‘Zarah, my daughter, at last!’”
“No, no,” interrupts Mr. Gilbert, “that’s not quite it. Look here. I know I shall make myself ridiculous in trying to show you; but this is what I mean. You see, I want you to put your hands like this”—Mr. Gilbert puts Zarah’s hands into an attitude of eager enquiry—“and then you say, ‘Yes, dearest, I have been—’—what are the words? Ah! thanks—‘Yes, dearest’—and so on. You see?”
In this way the action and the interpretation of the dialogue are fashioned and determined. Mr. Gilbert has an eye and an ear and an opinion for everything. He knows precisely what he wants and—as our advertisers at times beseech us to do—he sees that he gets it. His manner has been described as military: certainly there is an air of military decision about him, but it is a decision which commands the approval as well as the respect of those whom it guides. It is the private, and probably the well-founded, opinion of the members of the company that Mr. Gilbert formulates in his mind the whole course of a scene or of any particular part of it before he comes down to the theatre, and models the actual performance on that inflexible ideal.
After the duet a trio. Sir Arthur Sullivan sits down at the piano, plays a “lively prelude fashioning the way in which the voice must wander”; and the voices, after one break away, slip glibly into the run of the tune. “‘Time has played [sic] his little joke,’” sings Mr. Barrington, partly to Mr. Gilbert, who sits solemnly facing him at a distance of some three feet. “‘Comes at last the final stroke!’—a little pause after ‘stroke,’ eh?—‘Comes at last the final stroke’—you know, there’s somebody buzzing there at the back.”
“Ladies! ladies!” interjects Mr. Harris, “a little less noise, if you please!”
“‘Comes at last the final stroke!’”—at last the trio is finished to satisfaction, and Sir Arthur resigns his seat. The sharpest contrast is obvious between the two collaborators at rehearsal: Mr. Gilbert, with his anxious appreciation and an observation as sensitive as a photographic plate; and Sir Arthur Sullivan with his appearance of having come prepared to be pleased with everything.
The last notes of the trio, gone over for the last time, tinkle into silence, when suddenly, as Mr. Rider Haggard would say, a strange thing happens. The theatre suddenly lights up, and the electric lights of the auditorium, tier above tier, begin to glow brightly, “Sky cloths” begin to descend magically from the flies, palace walls are pushed forward with mysterious rapidity; and at the back of the stage a moon, which hitherto has occupied a position of decent obscurity, enters on a new phase. Mr. Harris may be heard addressing the scene-shifters in the language of emotion. The “big scene” is coming on, and Mr. Gilbert wishes to see how it would look from the stalls when the theatre is lighted up.
“I think, Mr. Harris, that we will dispense with those green lights,” he observes. “Spoils the effect, eh?”
Mr. Harris appears L.U.E., a little flushed after his exertions.
“And the ladies to come on at once, Mr. Gilbert?” he asks, “or are they to make themselves up?”
“Well,” responds Mr. Gilbert, “I think we had better see the idea they have of ‘making up.’ But tell them to restrain themselves with the burnt cork: not to make buttonholes of their eyes, you know.”
A CHAT WITH MR. AND MRS. D’OYLEY CARTE
There is, therefore, an interval of ten minutes, which the ladies of the chorus devote to calling in Art to the aid of nature, and in which Sir Arthur chats to his friends in the boxes. Mr. D’Oyley Carte returns to his stage-box and to his correspondence. Usually, he watches the rehearsals and writes at the same time. He suffers many interruptions, and the presence of an admirer more or less does not ruffle him in the least.
“I can talk and write as well, if you don’t mind,” he says; “but, really, you ought not to question me, but Mrs. Carte. She’s the business woman. And she really can do two things at a time—six, I believe. She will be down here in a moment.”
The scratch of the pen accompanies Mr. D’Oyley Carte’s remarks.
“We’re getting near the end of the rehearsals now, you see. It is not till this week that they’re so complete. You see we haven’t the band yet; all the rehearsals go to the piano. The band is practised [sic] separately at St. Andrew’s Hall. On Tuesday and Wednesday the voices are tried with the band—still at St. Andrew’s Hall, and for the music only. On Thursday and Friday we have full-dress rehearsals. On Sunday—
“Comes at last the final stroke.”
A knock at the door and an interruption—a welcome one, for it is Mrs. D’Oyley Carte. “Mrs. Carte,” pursues Mr. Carte, “will tell you all about the early rehearsals.”
“They’re very different from these,” says Mrs. Carte, “because it is only at this stage that all the component parts come together. They begin six or seven weeks beforehand with the music only. The music is learned by heart first, and Sir Arthur rehearses the band by itself. Then Mr. Gilbert reads the play to the company, and the parts are given out. It isn’t until the fifth week of rehearsals that dialogue and songs begin to go together. You see things have to be altered to meet the needs of the case. For instance, in the beginning Sir Arthur and Mr. Gilbert make mutual concessions, the one altering the music to fit the songs, and the other adapting the songs to go with the music; and the scenery--although a model of the tout ensemble is made at first—is continually altered to fit the grouping and provide for the exits and the entrances.”
“Do you keep the same chorus from opera to opera?”
“Well, we can hardly do that,” she replies. “They are bound to change a good deal; but they change less than the principal. [sic] Let me see who are left—well, there’s Mr. Barrington and Miss Brandram—I think they’ve been here since the first; and Mr. Denny has been a long time; but this is an unusually ‘new’ company.”
“I have often wondered how you ‘cast’ your companies.”
“Well, of course, so far as the principals are concerned, that is a matter of special arrangement; but so far as the choruses, there is no difficulty in finding these. Since Mr. Carte began these operas with The Sorcerer, in 1877, we have accumulated 7,000 names on our books, with the voice, the appearance, and the ability of each lady and gentleman carefully catalogued.”
“But 7,000, Mrs. Carte!—what can you do with them?”
“Well, you see,” said Mrs. Carte, “we have five provincial companies now. A provincial company of Utopia, Limited itself will be sent out in about six weeks, and another at Christmas.”
“Mrs. D’Oyley Carte hasn’t told you,” said Mr. Carte, “that it is she who manages these companies, arranges all the dates, all the bookings—we are booked up to the end of 1894—and every other details of organisation. I have an idea that she does it by some kind of conjuring with a map of England and a ‘Bradshaw.’”
“You generally have a company in America?”
“Not now,” said Mr. Carte, who, by the way, has no very high opinion of some of the American managers, “though I prefer to send my own companies out. If you sell an American manager the rights he is apt to introduce innovations. They introduced a ballet into one of the operas, and in the Pinafore had girls for sailors.”
As we watched Mr. Gilbert still anxiously directing, still polishing to the pattern his own design the smallest detail, [sic] it was rather interesting to speculate upon his probable state of mind if he saw a ballet introduced into the Yeomen of the Guard. He was out of reach of such disturbing reflections here, being engaged, in fact, with a Mistress of Deportment in idealising the curtseys of the ladies of the chorus. “A little lower down and spread the train,” said the Mistress of the deportment. [sic] “Spread each other’s trains, ladies!” echoed Mr. Gilbert (and we could hear Mr. Charles Harris inquiring sarcastically of some of the ladies nearest to him if they imagined they were laying a table-cloth); “And slide the feet, ladies! Oh, slide the feet,” continued Madame X-----, with an unconscious reminiscence of the hard case of Mr. Bultitude.
“Mr. Gilbert seems anxious,” I said. “It must be rather a trial to him on first nights.”
“He never comes,” said Mr. Carte. “Sir Arthur Sullivan and myself are present; but Mr. Gilbert generally walks on the Embankment. Last time he spent the evening at the Gaiety.”
“Collaborating with Sir Arthur Sullivan: A Chat with Mr. W.S. Gilbert.” Cassell’s Saturday Journal, March 21, 1894, p. 522. (reprinted in Savoyard 16.2 , Sep. 1977, pp. 31-32) [checked against Cassell’s Saturday Journal in British Newspaper Library but not allowed to make copy because of condition]
“It is a matter of general public interest,” said a representative of CASSELL’S SATURDAY JOURNAL to Mr. W.S. Gilbert, at his house in Prince’s Gardens recently, “to know how you collaborate with Sir Arthur Sullivan in the construction of a comic opera--that is, whether the words are written first or the music, and your methods of proceeding---”
“Oh,” said Mr. Gilbert, seeing the lin-s his visitor had adopted, and making further questioning quite unnecessary, “I suppose we do it pretty much as any other two persons would who collaborate. In the first place, we arrange a meeting and I propose a subject, which, if entertained at all, is freely and fully discussed in all its bearings. Assuming that the broader lines of the plot have been thus settled, I write a scenario of fairish length—say twenty-six to thirty pages of foolscap—and this is subjected in its turn to a fresh discussion, and as a consequence, a second, third, or even fourth version of the scenario may be rendered necessary. Those passages and situations Sir Arthur thinks unsuitable to musical treatment I either modify or perhaps eliminate altogether. If I find that his difficulties or objections in any way knock the keystone out of my plan I tell him so, and he in turn yields a point or two.
“By this mode of procedure it will be readily perceived that there is some degree of give and take. Before a final plan is decided upon, we may meet several times and gradually remove such obstacles as are likely to cause any hitch in the future harmonious blending of the dialogue and music.
“When the ground has been so far cleared, I begin the numbers of the first act, and send him two or three of them at a time until the first act is completed. In this way he becomes familiar with it by slow degrees. The manuscript I send him contains none of the spoken dialogue, but only those words that are to be sung. I, however, insert between each number an outline of the dialogue that is to connect them, so that he may follow the exact drift of the plot, and fully understand how the musical situations are arrived at.”
It was unnecessary for our representative to ask what it occurred to him to ask, for Mr. Gilbert answered the question by anticipation, saying--
“While Sir Arthur is composing the music for the first act I am working on the second. He first finishes the choruses and concerted parts of the entire act, and leaves the solos until the last, often composing the last one first, and the first last, as the fancy strikes him. When the opera is about half-finished, we begin with the selection of the company, and at the same time continue writing. The composing and writing take about six months, and the rehearsals two months, when once they seriously begin.”
“After making your selection of a company, do you sometimes find it necessary to dismiss any of the members on account of their inability to give due expression, either to passages of pointed language or to those of the music?” was the next question; to which Mr. Gilbert replied--
“I can’t say I remember ever having to dismiss one person for incompetency in all the experience I have had. True, we sometimes get a timid or nervous individual, and in such a case I usually ask him to come here, and run over his part with him three or four times, to show him my idea of it. This relieves him of any embarrassment he might feel at rehearsal, and such a man, far from being incompetent, often turns out to be one of the best of the smaller members of the company. We seldom make a mistake, for experience has given us the knack of making advantageous choices. In recent years, whenever we add to the London company, or supply an empty place, it is usually from one of our companies that make tours in the provinces.”
“How much smartness and epigram, in your opinion, Mr. Gilbert, are permissible in stage-pieces? As you have probably noticed, several authors have latterly been using a large amount of ‘brilliant’ dialogue in their plays.”
“The character of the dialogue,” said Mr. Gilbert, “should, as a matter of course, depend upon the personages who have to deliver it. To put polished epigrams into the mouth of a stable-boy would be as inconsistent as to decorate a beggar girl with diamonds. At the same time one is little disposed to cavil at really brilliant dialogue, wherever it may be found. It is a very rare commodity, and we are not likely to be over-laden with it.”
“There is another question of interest that I should like to ask—‘Why you have been so continually and universally successful for so many years?’ One pauses in asking it, because an author might naturally think, ‘I succeed because my plays and librettos are clever,’ and yet not care to say so himself.”
“Intellectual cleverness has very little to do with it,” replied Mr. Gilbert. “A knowledge of stage-craft, and the faculty of laying on one’s colours with breadth and discretion are, in my opinion, the keynotes of success. If I were capable of writing intellectual dialogue of a high order, I should use that power very rarely, and I should administer such dialogue in homœopathic doses, for it would be absolutely wasted on nineteen-twentieths of the audience. The press would be particularly severe upon me—they always resent anything that is (to them) incomprehensible. My usual course is to assume that I am writing for the edification of a sensible but somewhat stolid individual, to whom everything must be made perfectly clear and distinct. Such a man is a fair type of an average English audience.
“Everything that is said or done on the stage should have immediate effect, not require long reflection to be understood, otherwise many in the audience would be perplexed and wrapped in study instead of enjoying themselves. I take it, my plays have become popular because everyone can understand them. To perplex an auditor is more than enough to irritate him. The satisfaction of being understood at the moment is more practically gratifying than to be ignored during one’s life and to win honours and recognition after you are dead.”
“It is to be hoped that you and Sir Arthur Sullivan intend jointly to add more comic-operas to the number of your present works.”
“Yes,” said Mr. Gilbert, “we have already begun one; that is, I am at work upon the scenario, and that means, in the ordinary way, that the opera will be ready for next autumn.”
“Of course it would be out of place to ask, at this date, what is to be the nature of the plot?”
“That is, I needn’t say, a secret. If the subject were to leak out it would very likely be anticipated, and we should then lay ourselves open to the charge of having copied our copiers.”
Anderson, Joseph. “Gilbert, the Librettist.” Boston Evening Transcript, Jan. 26, 1895, p. 11. (Cited but with incorrect date in Benford, p. 1, and Journal of Popular Culture 12.3 (Winter 1978) p. 457). (Contributed by Stan deOrsey)
GILBERT, THE LIBRETTIST,
The Great Humorist at Home – How the Famous Collaboration with Sullivan Began – His Own Estimate of His Works.
[Special Correspondence of the Transcript.]
LONDON, Jan. 18.
Gilbert, the dramatic author and librettist, is a big, athletic man, and what is unusual in a large-framed person, quick in his movements, rapid in speech, sudden in ideas and hasty in temper. He is a nineteenth-century example of the human electric machine, which is apparently co-equal in age with the telephone, the incandescent light, and the electric train, which is run by an engine miles away from it. When Gilbert says good-by there is no lingering, he gets out of the room with such despatch that he reminds one of the magician’s “vanishing lady.” In going up-stairs he is not satisfied with taking two steps at a time, but generally takes three. When he picks up anything, the action resembles sleight-of-hand. An accident or an incident happens half a mile away and he is sure to see it; in fact nothing, far or near, escapes his alert detective eyesight. He smokes his cigar like a steam engine, puffing at full speed. He can eat his dinner in fifteen minutes and will walk a mile while you are putting on your overcoat. He is a peaceable man ordinarily, but if you are eager for opposition, or want more worlds to conquer, attack him, and it is likely you will be kept active for the time being. In other words, it may as well be allowed that he is something of a testy wit. He has for thirty years knocked about this world, first being educated for the army during the Crimea, in which his parents, believing that the war would last some time longer, hoped he would win glory as an officer, but by the time his military education was completed the war was flagging, and soon after drew to an end. He served sixteen years in the Royal Aberdeenshire Highlanders (a militia regiment). During this later period he also studied and practiced law. But his own account of his legal life is most amusing, for although he was in earnest, and was admitted to the bar, laboring diligently, a series of ridiculous incidents seemed to pursue him through the better part of his career as a lawyer.
Besides being a soldier and a lawyer, Gilbert became a yachtsman, a home-farmer, a cattle fancier, a sportsman of the hunting field, an amateur actor and a ballad writer, as well as an author of plays and librettos. Mr. Gilbert has a parrot, as remarkable a bird as was ever blessed with a coat of fantastic feathers. This parrot is a sailor, a genuine sea-dog—not a common sailor, but a true British tar with not an “h” to his name. When Mr. Gilbert is writing, his parrot snuggles up under the lapel of his coat. If you run in on him by chance and Gilbert gets up to greet you, at the moment the parrot looks out from under his coat and roars out in a prodigious, husky, bass voice, “Ip! Ip! ’oorah!!!”— For twenty years, one or more of Gilbert’s plays or operas were perpetually on the stage of London, nor was the spell broken until about two years ago, soon after the severance of the partnership between him and Sir Arthur Sullivan.
Gilbert gives a droll account of his first meeting with Sullivan. It was during a rehearsal of one of his own pieces entitled, “Ages Ago.” At the time he was engaged upon “The Palace of Truth.” One of his characters—Zoram—is a musical impostor. Gilbert, by the way, is unable to whistle an air in tune. In telling the story himself he said, “I was obliged to make Zoram express his musical ideas in technical language, so I took up my Encyclopædia Britannica, and turning to the word “harmony,” selected a sentence and changed it into sounding blank verse. Curious to know whether this would pass muster with a musician, I said to Sullivan (who happened to be present at the rehearsal), ‘I am pleased to meet you, Mr. Sullivan, because you will be able to settle a question which has just arisen between Mr. Clay and myself. My question is whether when a musician who is master of many instruments has a musical theme to express, it is as perfect upon the simple tetrachord of Mercury, in which there are, as we all know, no diatonic intervals whatever, as upon the more elaborate disdiapason, with the familiar chords and the redundant note, which I need not remind you embrace all the single, double and inverted chords.’ Sullivan reflected for a moment, then asked me to oblige him by repeating my question. I did so, and he replied that it was a very nice point, and he would like to think it over before giving a definite answer. That took place about twenty years ago, [sic] and I believe he is still engaged in hammering it out.”
When Gilbert writes he never leans over a desk, but sits in a long leather chair, props his feet up on a stool, and writes on a pad. The number and variety of his works is very great, ranging from Pygmalion to Ruddigore. He used to spend most of his time at his house in Kensington, but the last few years he has lived mostly at Graemes Dyke—his countryhouse [sic], which is near Harrow, and about nine miles out of London.The place is an old one, but the royal academician, Mr. Goodall, rebuilt the house some years before Mr. Gilbert bought it. It stands on a terrace, and is a large, rambling structure, built from designs by Mr. Norman Shaw, R.A. From every point of view it is a fine piece of architecture, with some fifteen or sixteen graceful gables, and a number of handsome Elizabethan windows set in huge stone frames, The Dyke, which is spanned by several ancient arched bridges, has flowed through the rushes and tall watergrass [sic] for two thousand years, having been cut by the Romans. A massive stonewall [sic] runs along one margin of the Dyke and is reflected in its waters. The house overlooks this wall and the Dyke beyond it. It is surrounded by a hundred and ten acres. This land is laid out in a park that is full of picturesque corners and pools of water, small forests and romantic nooks. From one point can be seen the fine old chapel and buildings of Eton College, and beyond, Windsor Castle, rearing its ancient battlements high into the sky. The space between spreads out in many colored fields cut up in squares and triangles by green hedges, giving the prospect a resemblance to a New England patchwork quilt.
The following question was asked Mr. Gilbert a few months ago, “How is it, Mr. Gilbert, that you have been so universally successful for so many years? [sic] but one pauses in asking the question, because an author might naturally think, ‘I succeed because my plays and librettos are clever,’ yet not care to say so himself.” This is Mr. Gilbert’s answer: “A reply in my case, to what you ask, need by no means make one appear conceited. On the contrary, I am not ambitious to write up to epicurean tastes, but contented to write down to everybody’s comprehension. For instance, when I am writing, I imagine it is entirely for one particular dull individual not quick to grasp an idea; so I make nothing long and explanatory, but short, sharp and clear. If I can carry my point through a dullish head there will certainly be no difficulty in making it clear to a clever one. My idea is that what is said on the stage should have immediate effect, not requiring long reflection to be understood. It would be a pity for an author if an auditor did not see the points of his play and began to laugh at the fun next day. While such a performance was going on, many in the audience would be perplexed, instead of enjoying themselves. I believe my plays have become popular because everybody can understand them. To perplex an auditor is to irritate him. It is well for your great man of genius to labor for fame, but he has his disadvantages. It seems from some points of view, the comfort of being understood at the moment is as pleasant, or more so, than being neglected during one’s life and winning honors and recognition a few hundred years after you are dead.” Gilbert says that the audiences of today have less taste for really fine things, which he describes as high living, and care more for beefsteak-and-onion plays. Except “The Palace of Truth,” “Pygmalion and Galatea,” “Gretchen,” “Broken Hearts” and a few more, Gilbert confesses all his other plays are of the beefsteak-and-onion order, and that is what, in his belief, made “Pinafore” and all his comic librettos so popular. These are the dishes for which the public has been willing to pay so much that Mr. Gilbert is now a man of large fortune. Gilbert’s idea of the Deity is very original, not to say amusing. According to his belief our Maker regards us as puppets. He pulls one string and we laugh, another and we dance, still one more and we weep. It all means very little, but it serves to amuse the great Creator.
A few years ago Gilbert and Sullivan quarreled, but during the spring of 1894 [sic] the rent was patched up, and a new comic opera was begun between them. But some ill-wind has interrupted the harmony that existed, for a few days ago Gilbert produced his new work entitled “His Excellency,” with music by F. Asmond [sic] Carr; and Sir Arthur Sullivan produced his opera entitled “The Chieftain,” with words by F.C. Burnand. It now decidedly looks as if the most popular author of light librettos, and the most popular composer of light music of our time will never pull together again. They would be welcomed heartily, no doubt, if they would call a truce, if only for eight months—it takes them about this length of time to begin and finish one of their works—and together complete one more of their comic operas. Mr. Gilbert has recently suffered severely from gout, and gout is no smoother of the temper. Sir Arthur Sullivan has not been a well man for some years. These two deplorable facts explain much. An occasional attack of gout and undermined health are not the lively parents of a breezy, joyous, rolicking [sic] opera.
Gilbert always has a ready answer. A few summers ago Gilbert and a few friends were rowing on the Thames, near Cookham. As they paddled along with the current some one in the boat said, “Look! What a pretty bijou residence!” “Yes,” said Gilbert, “and here comes the she-Jew over the lawn, and that’s the he-Jew over there under the trees.”
Gilbert’s last book of words, “His Excellency,” has evidently not been a great success, but it is whispered that his next book, which is to appear before the spring, will “astonish the natives” (of London) even more than “Pinafore” did.
“Interview with Mr. W.S. Gilbert: The Press, the Play, and the Players.” The Edinburgh Evening Dispatch, Tues. Oct. 5, 1897, p. 2.
INTERVIEW WITH MR W.S. GILBERT.
THE PRESS, THE PLAY, AND THE PLAYERS.
Mr W.S. Gilbert, the author of “The Fortune Hunter” and numerous other plays, the gifted writer of the Bab Ballads, and the collaborateur of Sir Arthur Sullivan, has been interviewed in Edinburgh by a representative of the “Dispatch.” He came to the city to judge, by the reception accorded to “The Fortune Hunter” by a critical and cultured Edinburgh audience, whether the play was likely to prove acceptable to a London public; and last night he made his bow on the stage of the Theatre-Royal at the close of the performance.
Mr Gilbert, who is a genial, hearty gentleman, and a most interesting conversationalist, is now about sixty-one years of age, having been born in November 1836 in Southampton Street, Strand. He was educated at Great Ealing and London University, and afterwards read for the Royal Artillery, but the Crimean War coming to an end, he relinquished the idea, and studied for the Bar. While reading for the Bar he became a clerk in the Privy Council, and about that time was appointed captain of the Royal Aberdeenshire Highlanders (militia), with whom he spent annually a month in training. He first began writing for the stage in 1865, when he was twenty-nine years of age, and the manner of his introduction to the vocation which was to make him famous is not altogether uninteresting. T.W. Robertson had been asked to write a play for the St. James Theatre, but being too busy, recommended Mr Gilbert, who undertook to write a burlesque in ten days. This he did, selecting Donizetti’s “Elixir of Love,” which he burlesqued under the name of “Dulcamara.” Since that day he has written between seventy and eighty pieces, among which, of course, his operatic librettos stand out conspicuously.
What kind of dramatic work do you prefer, he was asked by his interviewer last night?
A blank verse play appeals most powerfully to me, because in every line I am doing all I know. In writing prose plays one is apt to let the pen be carried away by comedy scenes. When you have got to put everything into iambic form and to remember the high-sounding and grandiose conditions of blank verse you must honestly put your best into it. Blank verse always takes the best work out of me.
You have no great admiration for the problem play?
None whatever. In these so-called problem plays there is no problem whatever involved. I have a strong objection, too, to dealing with the seamy side of society in a play. It is not upon any high moral principle that I take this stand, but I object to having declassée [sic] women on the stage because I feel as a man of business that they keep more people out of the theatre than they put into it. They keep a number of staid, respectable, church-going, orderly, methodical British playgoers away from the theatre. What is worse, such plays also give these people a handle which they can use in their attacks upon the stage.
I have always understood you had strong views on the delicacy of dressing your plays, operatic or otherwise?
Yes. For exactly the same reason I would never have an indecent costume on the stage. I think it is bad policy to do that which will keep any important section of the community from the theatre, and which will afford that section reasonable ground for their attacks upon the stage as an institution.
To speak of your own work, now—which of the operas do you prefer?
I like “The Yeomen of the Guard” by far the best. It has most pretension to be considered a drama. It is more consistent, it contains no anachronisms, and it has a romantic story commenced and carried to its proper conclusion.
Although you like it best it was not the best paying of the series?
Oh, no! “The Mikado” paid the best, and “Iolanthe” came next in order.
Of all your dramatic work, which do you think the best?
“Gretchen” and “Broken Hearts,” for into them I have put most of myself.
Miss Fortescue, who has brought “The Fortune Hunter” to Edinburgh, played in “Gretchen,’ did she not?
Yes; and in others of my plays—in “Dan’l Druce,” in “Pygmalion and Galatea,” in “A Wicked World,” [sic] “Comedy and Tragedy,” and “Palace of Truth.”
Does it not occur to you that at the present day the numerous adaptations suggest a scarcity of British dramatists?
No it does not. The fact is managers cannot judge a play when they see it in manuscript. If Pinero writes a play and sends it to Sir Henry Irving, it is accepted, not because it is a good play, but because it is Pinero. If a stranger who may be a clever dramatist sends Sir Henry or Mr Tree, or anybody else a play it is not accepted, however good it may be, because they can’t judge. Your manager now a days crosses to France, sees a play that goes well, and how it can be slightly watered down to suit our censorious society, and immediately transplants it.
Then you have no sympathy with translations?
No! none! We ought to leave the French stage alone. They have good actors and atrociously bad plays. Their plays are much more analytical than ours, written for the most part in a quasi-Thackerian manner. Sardou’s plays elaborate character to such an extent that they might be pages out to Thackeray turned into French. Their actors, of course, can so speak and deliver speeches as to claim the attention of the audience, while ours, why, we have no actors who can make a thirty line speech interesting! Whoever heard in this country “all the world’s a stage” declaimed by a Jacques who did not in every line make it plain he had learned it off by heart. [sic punct] There is always the same dull monotony of delivery. Every living actor—Sir Henry Irving, Beerbohm Tree, Alexander, excellent though they may be otherwise, have that dull monotony of delivery. They keep to one note right through the sentence, and finish a semi-tone higher or a semi-tone lower as the case may be.
In what direction would you say dramatic taste lies to-day?
In the direction of musical comedy—bad musical comedy, in which half-a-dozen irresponsible comedians are turned loose upon the stage to do exactly as they please. These are our popular pieces.
Have these pieces cultivated the taste for music halls, or have music halls, would you say, cultivated the taste for musical comedy—of the bad type?
Musical comedies and the music hall act and react upon each other. If these comedians are not in a musical comedy they are at the halls, and if they are not in the halls they are in a musical comedy. The public see that clever comedian Dan Leno in a musical comedy, and they are inoculated with a taste for the halls, and so the disposition grows.
Then do you think the legitimate theatre, so called, is falling off?
The theatre is as strong as ever it was. At the moment, certainly, there are perhaps fewer original plays before the public than one would desire to see, but that is an exceptional phase. The press is largely responsible for the fact that there are so many adaptations on the English stage.
How is that?
Because they seem to draw no distinction between the production of an original play and the translation of a French one. When a boy I translated the works of the ancient Greek dramatists, but I have never considered myself the author of their works. I have always given Sophocles some credit for the writing of his own plays. It is the easiest thing in the world to call Monsieur Bertrand Mr Smith and Saint Cloud Richmond, and make your play into English. I myself twice translated French plays. On one occasion I sat up all night and did it, and I got about £3000 for it, one way and another. But I only consider it a potboiler.
And do you seriously mean that you blame the Press for the large number of adaptations on the British stage?
I do. I do not blame the actors and actresses. I blame the Press for considering them seriously as original work. Why, I hear Sydney Grundy put on the same level as Arthur Pinero, while the fact is that Mr Grundy is only a translator. He is a creditable translator, but to put him on the same level as Mr Pinero is a monstrous injustice. Remember, I do not wish, in saying this, to decry Mr Grundy in any sense.
Where do you think Mr Pinero is at his best?
In “The Magistrate” and “Dandy Dick,” to which style I believe he will return. In wholly farcical plays he is at his best, and I like the quality of his work immensely. I think him a giant, but he finds his name bracketed with hacks.
Have you any further work in progress?
No! I will write no more plays. I mean to retire now. I am disheartened by the erroneous point of view from which criticisms are written in London. They never seem to dissociate the play from the author of the play. I am not complaining of bad criticisms. I have had plenty, and have learned much from them. But there is such a tendency to look upon the author of a bad or an unsuccessful play, not as a poor devil who has tried his best, but as a man who has committed an outrage against nature. The critics attack him as if he were a scoundrel of the worst type, and they go on at it week after week. I don’t feel disposed to put myself forward as a cock-shy for these gentlemen. I think it better to refrain from writing as I am not obliged to write. I prefer to work in a different groove where anything I may do will stand upon its own merits.
What do you think of your last work now playing in Edinburgh?
I think it has its faults, of course. Every play has. But I think it is very well acted, and that Miss Fortescue has got together a good cast. I want to take Edinburgh’s opinion on the play before taking it to London. I have not seen the play from the front myself, and I don’t intend to. Indeed, I have not seen a play of my own from the auditorium for twenty-one years. Save a performance at Carlsbad seven years ago.
Why was that?
It was “The Mikado,” played in German, and some of my own characters I hardly recognised, save for five minutes at a time, when off they would go into the adapter’s bye-path, and I became profoundly interested in what would happen next. Pooh-Bah, in fact, quite interested me.
How many dramatic pieces have you written during the thirty years you have been engaged upon such work?
Seventy-five, and this is the only one which has been on my hands.
How much did you receive for your first work. [sic]
For Dulcamara I got £30 after asking thirty guineas, and when the money was paid I was told by the management never again to sell so good a piece for so little.
Mr Gilbert, who is staying at the Windsor Hotel, where also Miss Fortescue has her rooms, leaves for London to-day.
Salaman, Malcolm C. “William Schwenck Gilbert: The Man, the Humorist, the Artist.” Cassell's Magazine 20 (March? 1900) 413-421. (Abridged version reprinted in Orel, Gilbert and Sullivan: Interviews and Recollections, 1994.)
With the single exception of Shakespeare, I doubt if any English playwright is so frequently quoted as Mr. W.S. Gilbert. Familiar quotations from his works creep into our daily talk, our daily papers, and even the plays—by other authors. He has given us phrases which no witty person’s vocabulary can afford to be without; indeed, his wit, in which quality no author of our time has been richer, has added to the gaiety of more than English-speaking nations. He has truly been a universal benefactor, for he has struck new veins of humour, which have set whole continents in a roar. Gilbertian humour, which is, one may believe, as distinctive and as classic as Rabelaisian humour, or the humour of Dickens, has proved as rich a find, in its way, as the gold mines of the Rand, and countless professional humorists have speculated and waxed fat upon it. So actually creative is it that when a man in real life comports himself in a whimsically incongruous fashion, we find the most comprehensive way to describe his conduct is to say that it is “Gilbertian.” And any comic playwright or librettist must nowadays be strikingly original to escape the same classification. It is overwhelming to think how much duller the world would have been, these last thirty years or so, without the immortal “Bab Ballads” or the Gilbert and Sullivan series of operas. It is almost as difficult now to imagine ourselves without these as it would be to conceive our lives without, say, the Essays of Elia, or the writings of Thackeray, or The School for Scandal.
But though Mr. Gilbert is first and foremost a humorist—a humorist with a keen intellect and the satirist’s faculty ever active—he is also a poet of exquisite fancy, a literary artist of consummate tact, and a dramatic craftsman who, by reason of his marked individuality of aim, method, and accomplishment, has for three decades stood entirely by himself among the playwrights of his day. Apart from his authorship of the “Bab Ballads,” the universal popularity of his comic opera libretti is apt to make one forget sometimes all that we owe Mr. Gilbert in the matter of comedy and drama. Yet it is a fact that during the twenty-four years which followed the production of The Palace of Truth at the Haymarket Theatre, his name was never once out of the bills of the London theatres—probably a record achievement. During that time his output included those inimitable farcical comedies, Engaged and Tom Cobb; those delightfully whimsical fairy plays, so rich in satire, The Wicked World and The Palace of Truth; that most theatrically effective of all plays of its kind, Pygmalion and Galatea—certainly Mr. Gilbert’s most popular play; that exquisitely tender poetic fancy, Broken Hearts; the gracefully sentimental Sweethearts; and the two most dramatic of all his plays, Dan’l Druce and Comedy and Tragedy. If Mr. Gilbert had never written a single one of his famous and incomparable series of operatic libretti, these few selected plays among his many would have placed the playgoing public largely in his debt.
And now, what of the man who has produced all this work and given so large a measure of entertainment to countless thousands all the world over? Like all pioneers and innovators and founders of schools—and no one will deny that Mr. Gilbert has been all three—he is eminently a strong man, a man of extraordinary independence of character, who can stand or pursue his way alone and never fear to insist on what he believes to be the justice of his cause, even to embroilment in a quarrel; although, on the other hand, he can be equally insistent in giving way to what he interprets as a concensus [sic] of adverse opinion. For instance, when, some ten or eleven years ago, the literary merits of his Brantinghame Hall did not prevent the Press from finding fault with it as a drama, Mr. Gilbert publicly announced his intention of writing no more serious plays and I, as I suppose many others of his admirers did, expostulated with him. His answer was: “You are in error in supposing that the adverse criticisms of Brantinghame Hall alone determined me to write no more serious plays. This is my sixth consecutive failure in that class of work, and I simply bow to what I take to be the verdict of the Press and the public.” In making this statement Mr. Gilbert had forgotten at least the great success of his Comedy and Tragedy, which, as he told me only a few weeks ago, has brought him many thousands of pounds. Nevertheless, such a resolution to do no more work for the public, of a kind that he thought it did not want from him, could have been formed only by a man of great sensitiveness, firmness, and strength of character, who did not fear to be misconstrued. But the author of the “Bab Ballads” and The Mikado and Broken Hearts could not be all stubbornness and strength; there is a lot of delightful human nature about him, and as a genial companion, when he is in the vein, and a kind friend, he is not to be beaten. His conversation is alive with charm and interest, for he knows his world thoroughly; he is a student of wide culture, he has travelled far with a searching eye for the picturesque and the archaeological, and his observation of men and women and their characteristics is as individual as it is keen and alert. Mr. Gilbert’s wit is not merely that of the amusing epigram, nor does it only make for “topsy-turvydom,” as many seem to think, but it plays upon all things like a searchlight, and its flashes often reveal truths as clear as the wisest sayings of the sages. Mr. Gilbert’s interests are of very wide range, and to talk with him at length is to discover an exceptionally interesting personality.
As a worker, Mr. Gilbert is a great believer in note-books—not small pocket-books, but fat, substantial, bound books, in which he jots down his ideas as they rise spontaneously in his brain. I have one of these books before me now, and a study of it shows Mr. Gilbert as one of the most systematic and painstaking of writers—as, indeed, one might judge from the finish and artistic worth of his work. In this particular book is revealed the evolution of Iolanthe from the first germ of the piece: “A fairy has been guilty of the imprudence of marrying a solicitor. She has been sent to earth on a mission, and has fallen in love with a prosaic lawyer of forty-five, quite a matter-of-fact person. She is consequently summoned, with her husband (who becomes a prosaic fairy from the fact of his marriage with her), into fairyland, and finally banished from it. Or, the solicitor (barrister), being the son of a fairy, is himself a fairy. He is in great request because he can influence juries. No one knows why, but his power over judges and juries is irresistible.” As one turns the pages one finds the idea of the plot freshly begun, altered, varied, and added to some twenty or thirty times, roughly written in jottings, and growing in scope of idea and action, gathering characters, incidents, and whimsical notions and speeches and suggestions for lyrics, as well as details of scenes and costumes, at each fresh writing; while the pages are dotted with clever and characteristic sketches of the personalities of the piece, as they suggest themselves to the author’s fancy. Some hundreds of pages are filled with these jottings, through which one can trace the piece growing and taking shape. One might write, from the study of these pages, an invaluable treatise on the art of composing a libretto. This book is rich also in ideas and suggestions for pieces which, doubtless, Mr. Gilbert has intended to write “one of these days”—delightful ideas, some of them; and it is possible to detect germs which he has used in some of his later pieces. If I were to begin to quote these, I should scarcely know where to stop, for to revel amid the pages of Mr. Gilbert’s note-book is a privilege so great that I enjoy it with a sense of selfishness. As I turn page after page that sparkles with his wit, fancy, and invention in their rough, unpolished state, I want to call in a sympathetic public to enjoy these happy thoughts with me. But, perhaps, we may yet see them taking stage form. There is a certain seventeenth-century sergeant with whom I should much like to come to better acquaintance.
When Mr. Gilbert has gathered all his ideas for a play, his practice is to put them into the form of a short story, which he writes as completely and carefully as if he intended it for publication, describing the scenes, the persons, their actions and their talk, according to the requirements of literary fiction. Then, having the story, with its development, clear in his mind, he proceeds to give it its proper dramatic form, using little to none of the dialogue he has written for the story, the manuscript of which has been promptly destroyed. With a brain so alert as Mr. Gilbert’s, it is not surprising that he can work very quickly. He told me that he conceived the brilliant little drama of Comedy and Tragedy in the few minutes occupied by the passage of a train between Sloane Square and South Kensington Stations. The late Miss Marie Litton, who was then manageress of the old Court Theatre, asked him to write her a short play, and he left her with the intention of thinking out something, got into the train, and the whole idea of the piece had flashed through his mind by the time the next station was reached. Miss Litton was delighted with the scheme; but, with becoming modesty, she considered it beyond her histrionic powers. So it awaited its chance until Miss Mary Anderson played it and made it famous.
In the matter of producing his plays, Mr. Gilbert has the reputation of being always extremely exacting and punctilious, while he is a stage manager of first-rate excellence and originality. His innovations in comic opera have been in the direction of refinement, beauty, and wit, his principle—in which, of course, he has been supported by Sir Arthur Sullivan—being to eliminate the element of “tights” for women, allowing only men to play the parts of men and boys, and also to abolish the excessive, and often vulgar, “gagging” practiced by the low comedians in opera bouffe of the French school.
As we walked about his beautiful grounds at Harrow Weald recently, watching the workmen engaged in the construction of a pretty lake—one of Mr. Gilbert’s latest hobbies—I lured him on to the subject of stage-production, although I believe he would much sooner have been talking about the means of getting the water supply for the lake, or the present condition of the Crimea, about which he purposes writing a book. But, knowing that Mr. Gilbert has always made a point of stage-managing his pieces in every detail, even from his very first piece, a burlesque on Elisir d’Amore, called Dulcamara; or, The Little Duck and the Great Quack, for which, also, he designed the dresses, as indeed he has done for all his pieces up to and including The Mikado, besides supplying rough sketches for the scene-painter to work from, thereby proving himself almost as fine a pictorial as he is a literary artist, I wanted him to talk about his methods, and he amiably did.
“In stage-managing my pieces,” said Mr. Gilbert, “I have always held that the principal actors—I mean those of considerable artistic position—are entitled to be consulted as to how their parts should be rendered, and I have frequently benefited very considerably by their suggestions. But I reserve to myself the right of veto—which, however, I do not think I have ever had occasion to impose, for I have invariably found that actors of position are only too anxious to carry out my wishes in every detail. With subordinate actors, it is, of course, ‘Do this, and he doeth it.’ When an impracticable suggestion has been made, I make a point of considering it, and of talking it over with the suggester, never rejecting it on the spot, but endeavouring to convince him that another course would be, on the whole, preferable, and I have found that this method answers admirably. With reference to ‘gags’ I am supposed to be adamantine, but this is not really so. I only require that when an actor proposes to introduce any words which are not in the authorised dialogue, those words shall be submitted to me; and if there appears to be no good reason to the contrary, the words are duly incorporated with the text. I consider that, as I am held by the audience to be responsible for all that is spoken on the stage, it is only right that nothing should be spoken that I have not authorised. Many ‘gags’ suggested by Grossmith, Barrington, Passmore, and others have rendered valuable services to my pieces.
“My method of stage-management is to go down to rehearsal with every detail prearranged and set down upon paper. I work out the scenes by means of small wooden blocks on a miniature stage, on a half-inch scale. The blocks representing men are three inches in height, those representing women two and a half inches, and each block is one inch in breadth. The blocks for the principals are variously coloured, while for the male chorus they are black, for the female white. The model scene is made exactly to scale in every detail, and I can thus readily ascertain how many people each platform or wing-opening will accommodate. Having every movement ready set down upon paper, I can easily rough through a whole piece in five days. Then I take the principals separately for a few rehearsals, while the stage-manager drills the chorus in accordance with the ‘business’ I have already arranged. By this means my ideas can be conveyed privately to the principals without causing them the annoyance of being told what to do in the presence of fifty lookers-on. Eventually principals and chorus are brought together, and, by that time, all have a general idea of what is expected of them, and rehearsals proceed in perfect harmony. Of course, the company have been thoroughly indoctrinated with the music before the stage-rehearsals are commenced.”
But this description of the elaborate care which Mr. Gilbert expends on the rehearsals of his comic operas does not adequately convey an idea of all his preliminary work. He thinks out all the minutest details of stage-business to accompany every line of his libretti, including each individual gesture and movement for principals and chorus throughout the piece. And all these details are written down, and in some cases printed (though not for publication), together with diagrams of the positions of the performers, as a practical accompaniment to the book of the play. Mr. Gilbert’s prompt-books are, therefore, perhaps the completest of their kind. Here is an example from the printed prompt-book of Iolanthe, showing how, even in the movement of the hands to illustrate the lyrical numbers, nothing is left to the chances of rehearsal, but all is deliberately designed beforehand—and set down with all the authority of type. “Note.—Whenever chorus sing ‘Tarantara,’ those singing the word bring right fist to mouth, as blowing trumpet. At ‘Tzing! Boom!’ action of violent blow on big drum, except when basses are described as speaking confidentially to each other. Throughout this scene, whenever chorus of Peers is on the stage, the disengaged hand is used to gather up the train of the mantle.”
With his long experience as a successful author and one of the eminent personalities of his time, Mr. Gilbert has naturally a fund of anecdote and reminiscence. It is interesting to learn, by the way, that the actress who has come nearest to his ideal of Galatea was Miss Mattie Reinhardt, whom old playgoers will remember in the ’seventies. But at the present moment Mr. Gilbert is enjoying a well-earned rest from the theatre—he is in “retirement,” as he says, and he devotes his time chiefly to the management and cultivation of his charming estate of a hundred and ten acres, which rejoices in the fascinating name of “Grim’s Dyke,” and is situated about three miles from Harrow Station. There he lives—practically in the heart of the country, yet within easy call of London town—the life of a country squire and a magistrate, bringing his earlier professional experience as a barrister to bear upon the administration of local justice. By the way, Mr. Gilbert told me rather an amusing story in connection with his present enjoyment of “leisured ease.” “The coachman of one of my neighbours,” he said, “was driving a week-end visitor to the station, and on his way they passed my lodge. ‘Who lives there?’ asked the gentleman. ‘Well, I don’t rightly know,’ answered the coachman, a new-comer, ‘but I believe he is a retired humorist.’ The notion of a professional humorist who had retired from business, and, no doubt, sold his fixtures, stock-in-trade, and goodwill, struck me as being funny, and moreover suggested the song I wrote for Grossmith in His Excellency, ‘The Retired Humorist.’” [sic]
It is a lovely home.Through the lodge gates the drive leads one past a spinney, where is much bracken, to the beautiful gabled house, once the residence of Mr. Frederick Goodall, R.A., but considerably enlarged since then. Fair lawns and an Italian garden stretch away from the house to where shady walks skirt the newly-made lake, with its alluring little island, and lead down to the romantic old dyke with its rustic bridges and dark pools and the bathing-place, near which stands an ancient relic of Leicester Square in the form of a mutilated statue of Charles II. Then from sloping meadows, where Mr. Gilbert’s cattle peacefully pasture, one looks over a broad and beautiful English landscape, which shows Windsor Castle on clear days. And as one strolls through the grounds, one sees acres of glasshouses wherein all kinds of choice fruits and flowers are cultivated, and a large monkey-house, where Mr. Gilbert keeps a dozen of his simian pets—he has a quaint and varied taste in animal pets, by the way—and spacious stabling. In time one may see a small theatre, for Mr. Gilbert contemplates building one for performances in aid of a cottage hospital in which he is actively interested. The house itself is full of beauty and interest, from the very entrance-hall where the gigantic model of H.M.S. Pinafore stands. Mr. Gilbert’s study is a luxurious room, suggesting hobby-pursuits rather than midnight oil, with several cameras standing ready for use, for the dramatist is an expert photographer. The large drawing-room, with its fine proportions, its minstrel gallery and its noble alabaster mantelpiece, might, like some of the galleries and nooks and corners, not forgetting what Mr. Gilbert calls “the Flirtorium,” have belonged to some old baronial hall. Not the least interesting of all is the billiard-room, around the walls of which hang the inimitable series of drawings which Mr. Gilbert recently made for a new edition of his “Bab Ballads.” Also there stand relics of famous Savoy operas, notably the specially cast bell that was tolled in The Yeomen of the Guard, and the grim headsman’s block and axe. And here Mr.Gilbert is at the moment preparing his next work—a labour of love—the book on the Crimea. It may not be generally known that in his youth the dramatist was destined for the career of a Royal Horse Artilleryman, but the Crimean War, which was exciting all his military ardour, came to an end before he could obtain his commission, and he gave up all idea of going into the army. But since then the Crimea has always been to him a kind of field of romance, and when he visited it last year he found, from his voracious reading on the subject, that every memorable spot was as familiar to him as if he had actually been there before. He found it pretty much as it was in the old war days, and he was even able to pick up relics of British soldiers among the scrub that has grown over the stricken field of Inkerman, while he saw, in the house that Lord Ruglan occupied, the name of Captain Ponsonby, one of the A.D.C.’s presumably, still legible on one of the doors. Mr. Gilbert proposes revisiting the Crimea in April, and thereafter we may expect the book which is absorbing his literary interest, and which will be unofficially illustrated by photographs taken by a Russian officer, since permission to use his own photographic skill was denied to Mr. Gilbert, although invoked in the highest quarters.
Archer, William. “Real Conversations. Recorded by William Archer. Conversation V. – with Mr. W.S. Gilbert.” Pall Mall Magazine 25 (Sep. 1901) 88-98. Also appeared in The Critic 39 (1901) 240-250. Reprinted in Archer’s book Real Conversations (1905), pp. 106-131.
SCENE: The Library at Grim’s Dyke. TIME: A July Afternoon.
Discovered, Mr. W.S. GILBERT. To him enter W.A. At the same moment a strange, half-human little cry is heard from the direction of the fireplace.
W.A. (startled, turning). Dear me! what is that?
Mr. Gilbert (stroking a small grey animal with bright eyes and a bushy tail, curled up on a cushion in a red morocoo easy-chair). This? Oh, it’s a ring-tailed lemur from Madagascar.
W.A. The voice sounded almost like a child’s.
Mr. Gilbert. He very seldom makes a remark. As a rule he watches what is going on and keeps his opinions to himself.
W.A. He is a pretty little fellow.
Mr. Gilbert. He has none of the mischievousness or the dirty habits of the monkey. That’s why we keep him in the house instead of consigning him to the monkey-cage.
W.A. And this is his chair, is it?
Mr. Gilbert. Well, it’s really my chair; but he thinks it’s his.
W.A. (as two dogs come in from the lawn). You are fond of animals? I should think you have very good shooting in all that “forest primeval” I have just driven through.
Mr. Gilbert. It is a little strange—isn’t it?—that “fondness for animals” should instantly call up the association of “good shooting.” No, I keep that little stretch of woodland unreclaimed because I think it makes an effective contrast to the trimness of the garden. As for shooting—I have a constitutional objection to taking life in any form. I don’t think I ever wittingly killed a blackbeetle. It is not humanity on my part. I am perfectly willing that other people should kill things for my comfort and advantage. But the mechanism of life is so wonderful that I shrink from stopping its action. To tread on a blackbeetle would be to me like crushing a watch of complex and exquisite workmanship.
W.A. I don’t think I ever kill anything that is not actively making itself objectionable to me. What little shooting I have done has been almost entirely unassociated with the taking of life—I have not even bagged a beater. But I should have fewer qualms about shooting than, for instance, about fox-hunting. I know there is a theory that the fox enjoys his little run with the hounds; but--
Mr. Gilbert. I should like to hear the fox on that point. The time will no doubt come when the “sport” of the present day will be regarded very much as we regard the Spanish bull-fight, or the bear-baiting of our ancestors.
W.A. Your sympathies, then, were with Galatea when she called Leucippus a murderer for killing the fawn?
Mr. Gilbert. Not altogether. The term “murderer” implies a “guilty mind.” Leucippus “never dreamt that he should hit her at so long a range.” He shot idly, but “his aim was truer than he thought it was.”
W.A. You warned me that I might possibly be shocked by your views about the drama. Well, I have been bracing myself up all the way here. What are the heresies that are to take my breath away?
Mr. Gilbert. Oh, “shocked” was too strong a word. Only I take it you are rather a believer in the “new drama” and in dramatic progress; whereas I am, naturally perhaps, inclined to be a bit of a laudator temporis acti. Understand me—I don’t at all want to disparage the excellent work that is done nowadays. Only I sometimes feel like entering a little protest against the unmeasured depreciation one sometimes hears of the plays which used to give one so much pleasure in the ’sixties and thereabouts. Oh yes—I know what you are going to say: they were often adaptations from the French—and even if they were not announced as such, you could never be quite sure.
W.A. And you don’t think that a desirable state of things, do you?
Mr. Gilbert. Morally, no—certainly not. When I was a youngster I translated (under compulsion) some of the tragedies of Æschylus, but I have never, on that account, claimed to be the author the Seven against Thebes.
W.A. But artistically you approve the old state of things?
Mr. Gilbert. Well, there is no denying that a good French play—such a play as A Scrap of Paper—or a good English play on the French model—Tom Taylor’s Unequal Match, for example—had a neatness, an ingenuity, a finish that I miss in a great deal of latter-day work. The modern playwright is rather apt to huddle up his action anyhow in his last act. He works up to his great effect in his third act (if it is a four-act play) and leaves his fourth act a sheer anti-climax, sometimes introducing a thinly-disguised deus ex machinâ to cut the knot. There is nothing easier than to write a good first act, and even the heightening of the complication in the second act is not very difficult. The dramatist’s real problem is, and must always be, the solution in the last act. Now, in my time a skilled playwright would usually begin by constructing his last act, and having that clear before him,--just as you would set up a target before shooting at it. Doesn’t that strike you as a rational proceeding?
W.A. In the abstract, no doubt; but does it not depend a little on the theme whether a play is capable of being brought to what you may call a conclusive conclusion? Where the action is not purely external, but depends on character or raises an ethical issue, it can rarely be rounded off quite satisfactorily, unless it is death that rings the curtain down.
Mr. Gilbert. What do you call a “purely external” action?
W.A. Well, for instance, one that turns on the finding or losing of a scrap of paper, or on the tracking of the thief who stole a document from a dispatch-box. In these plays of Sardou’s—at any rate in their English dress—no question of character or conduct, of wisdom or unwisdom, of right or wrong, is raised for a moment. There is simply a puzzle to be solved, and the moment that is done the play is over. How seldom in real life do happiness and misery turn upon such a simple problem as this!
Mr. Gilbert. True; but in real life no curtain descends to tell you that the story is at an end. In point of fact, in real life the story never does end. Certainly it never ends with a marriage. But in constructing a play I hold that you are not justified in interesting your audiences in the adventures of a group of personages, unless you are prepared to furnish those audiences with some information as to what becomes of that group.
W.A. Have you seen Mrs. Dane’s Defence?
Mr. Gilbert. No, I was abroad while it was running.
W.A. Well, there Jones had a subject not quite unlike Sardou’s in Diplomacy; but just because he put more humanity, more half-shades, more character into it, he could not finish it off with the mere discomfiture of the wicked woman. The audience would have rebelled, I am sure, if he had brought down his final curtain on the great scene of the third act. Felicia Hindmarsh was too human—in a sense, too sympathetic—to be simply sent packing out into the night without more ado. He had to write a fourth act, if only to attenuate in some degree the violent and painful effect of the third act. That is to say, art demanded an anti-climax.
Mr. Gilbert. I quite admit that there is respectable precedent for the anti-climax. Look at The Merchant of Venice! Look at The School for Scandal! Look at nearly every “classical” five-act comedy! The last act is, as a rule, merely perfunctory. But I don’t think it ought to be. A good many recent plays, otherwise of great ability, seem to me to come to a helpless, makeshift, essentially feeble end. I cannot think that that is sound art. I don’t like to see a thing left at a loose end. I confess to a preference for finished form, even if the form, and perhaps the play itself, was borrowed from the French.
W.A. Perhaps I am a fanatic, a chauvinist; but I own I have a horror of adaptation. I think every country ought to hold its own mirror up to its own nature.
Mr. Gilbert. You would rather have a bad English play than a good French play?
W.A. Not precisely that; but I would rather have no play at all than a French play tortured into English dress. Not that I haven’t taken great pleasure in many adapatations from the French, especially of farces, and what you may call fairy-tales. A pleasant fantasy in French may remain a pleasant fantasy in English, like your own Wedding March, for instance.
Mr. Gilbert. Now, there was a thing that simply flowed from its French into its English form. I had only to reduce it from five acts to three. How long do you think it took me to write that? Just a day and a half—and it brought me in £2500!
W.A. Under these circumstances, I can understand that adaptation has its charms. Grundy, too, has made a very fortunate dip into the Labiche lucky-bag in his Pair of Spectacles—a delightful play.
Mr. Gilbert. Oh, delightful—and then he had the advantage of John Hare’s exquisite, Meisonnier-like acting.
W.A. Of course, I am not so fanatical as to object to such plays as these. I think, if you will let me say so, you were better employed in writing Engaged and Tom Cobb than in adapting Le Chapeau de Paille d’Italie; but, after all, the English drama could spare you for a day and a half.
Mr. Gilbert. But you must not speak as though all the plays of the period you look down upon were French, or even of the French school. There was nothing French about T.W. Robertson’s best work, for instance; yet he managed to make it neat and finished, with effective last acts, and no loose ends hanging about.
W.A. You can always finish off a pure comedy neatly—with a marriage; just as you can finish off an out-and-out tragedy neatly—with a death or a general butchery. But the typical modern play sets forth to imitate life, in which pure comedies and out-and-out tragedies are the rarest things possible. As for Robertson, he was a very remarkable man, and his work was in some ways epoch-making; but don’t you think most of it seems very slight and trivial nowadays?
Mr. Gilbert. Robertson was an exceedingly skilful [sic] dramatic tailor. He knew the stage perfectly, and he knew perfectly the company he had to write for—the then Prince of Wales’s stock company, which varied very little. He fitted each character with the utmost nicety to the man or woman who was to play it; and he was there to instruct them in every movement, every emphasis. But when these parts are transferred to other actors who knew not Robertson, the very nicety of their adjustment to their original performers is apt to render them misfits. I think that accounts in great measure for the comparative ineffectiveness of his plays in revival—their charm was so largely dependent on Robertson’s personal inspiration.
W.A. He was a great stage-manager, was he not?
Mr. Gilbert. A great stage-manager! Why, he invented stage-management. It was an unknown art before his time. Formerly, in a conversation scene for instance, you simply brought down two or three chairs from the flat and placed them on a row in the middle of the stage, and the people sat down and talked, and when the conversation was ended the chairs were replaced. Robertson showed how to give life and variety and nature to the scene, by breaking it up with all sorts of little incidents and delicate by-play. I have been at many of his rehearsals and learnt a great deal from them.
W.A. Still the fact remains that, though he invented an admirable mechanism for realistic drama, and pointed the way for the whole new movement, his plays themselves now seem exceedingly slight and empty.
Mr. Gilbert. Not Caste—surely you except Caste?
W.A. Yes, Caste is a fine play—all but the terrible Marquise and her Froissart. The last act is really great.
Mr. Gilbert. Robertson knew it was his masterpiece. I remember meeting him one day when he had just conceived the idea of the play and was quite full of it. He poured forth the whole story to me as we walked along, and I told him how good I thought it. He was busy with something else at the moment, and could not settle down to write it; but he said to me, “I pant to begin that piece.”
W.A. Poor fellow! What a pity success came to him so late, and death so early!
Mr. Gilbert. And then another thing that Robertson did—or at least, that his comedies did—was to establish the system of touring companies. Personally, I lament the extinction of the stock companies, for they were a rough-and-ready school in which young actors learned their profession and justified their promotion to the London Stage. A young member of one of the stock companies had, sometimes, to play a hundred and fifty parts in the course of a year. Now, a beginner is sent “on tour,” and perhaps has to say, “My lord, the carriage waits,” for a year and a half. He gains nothing by that, except his salary—and not always even that. Still, I think the touring system, though it has its drawbacks, has something to be said in its favour. For one thing, it has quite altered the status of the dramatist, by immensely enhancing the value of a successful play. What with provincial rights, American rights, and colonial rights, one or two successes now make a man practically independent, place him above the necessity of doing hack work like the adaptations you detest, and enable him to give time and thought to his work, and scope to his ambition.
W.A. Excuse my saying so, but, except on some purely technical points, I don’t think you are a laudator temporis acti at all. On the contrary, I think you take a very liberal view of the theatrical situation.
Mr. Gilbert. Oh, I am far from denying that there has been progress in many ways; and I admire as much as you can a great deal of the work of such a man as Pinero. Indeed, I know there has been progress, by a very convincing proof—namely, that I find myself left altogether behind.
W.A. Not left behind, surely,--your energies have been diverted into another channel than that of comedy and drama.
Mr. Gilbert. That is partly the fact; but it is true, none the less, that I have been left behind. On the one or two occasions when I have returned of late to prose drama, I have found that the public did not care for my work. They were accustomed to something different, and no doubt something better. Most of my earlier work is forgotten by theatre-goers, who have learnt to look upon me simply as a writer of light libretti. They regard any attempt on my part to write seriously as they would regard an attempt on the part of Mr. Passmore to play Hamlet. It is convenient to “label” an author, and I am labelled “cynical librettist.” Woe to me if I attempt to show that, in labelling me with so narrow a definition, audiences and critics are in error!
W.A. I wonder, if you are not drawing too large a conclusion from one or two experiments? At any rate, I am sure that if you had stuck to the non-musical stage, the non-musical public would have stuck to you. But I do think—pardon the pertinacity of my optimism—that if you were now beginning your career, you would find the circumstances more propitious to serious work than you did in the ’sixties and ’seventies. It was you yourself—was it not?—who complained in those days of the tyranny of “the young girl in the dress-circle.” Well, the young girl in the dress circle has—shall we say grown up?—in the past twenty years.
Mr. Gilbert. It is a mistake to suppose that I ever complained of the influence of the “young girl in the dress circle.” It is to her that I attributed the fact that most of the plays produced in the ’sixties and ’seventies were sweet and clean. I have always held that maxima reverentia is due to that young lady. I am so old-fashioned as to believe that the test whether a story is fit to be presented to an audience in which there are many young ladies, is whether the details of that story can be decently told at (say) a dinner-party at which a number of ladies and gentlemen are present. I put forward this suggestion with diffidence, for I am convinced that it wil not be received with approval. Nevertheless, I have always kept this test well before me in writing plays, and I have never found myself inconveniently hampered by it.
W.A. Still, I shall always feel that, as regards serious drama, you were in advance of your time. Other people could write serious dramas; you alone could give us Trial by Jury, Patience, and The Gondoliers. Whether you admit the dramatic revival or not, you were one of the prime movers in it. You restored the literary self-respect of the English stage.
Mr. Gilbert. Oh, come! there was a great deal of admirable work done in extravaganza before my day.
W.A. Before it, yes; but in your day, so far as I know, you were alone in the power of giving literary form to comic verse. It was not that the others—Farnie, Reece, even Byron—had less metrical skill than you had: practically, they had none at all. They could not write a tolerable verse to save their lives.
Mr. Gilbert. I cannot admit that this applies to Byron, who sometimes wrote excellent verse. Some of the burlesque writers of his day were not very strong in metrical form, I admit; but they made up for it by comic invention and inexhaustible, infectious high spirits. Look at Burnand, for instance—it was impossible to resist the effervescent drollery of his burlesques. Here, again, I think you critics of to-day are apt to speak with disproportionate contempt of an order of things which you saw, perhaps, only in its decadence. Not to speak of Planché, such men as Frank Talfourd, Albert Smith, and Robert Brough were extremely ingenious burlesque-writers.
W.A. Robert Brough? Was he “clean Brough” or “clever Brough”?
Mr. Gilbert. “Clever Brough,” decidedly. His brother William was “clean Brough.” And then think of the actors who used to appear in burlesque in those days! All the best comedians of the time—Charles Mathews, Buckstone, Compton, James Bland, John Clarke, James Rogers, Marie Wilton, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Matthews, Alfred Wigan, Patty Oliver, Robson, and many others.
W.A. It would be absurd to imagine, of course, that any form of entertainment that was so popular as mid-century burlesque could be entirely without merit. I know that Planché wrote gracefully enough. Some of his extravaganzas “let themselves be read” even now with pleasure. You are right, too, in suggesting that my horror of burlesque arises mainly from the monstrosities of its decadence—the “three-act burlesque dramas” that made the Gaiety lugubrious in the days of the “sacred lamp.” But nothing you can say in praise of your predecessors alters the fact that your Opera Comique and Savoy extravaganzas did us three great services: they substituted original invention for parody, for the wanton degradation and vulgarisation of historic or legendary themes; they set up a very high standard of versification in the lyric numbers; and they substituted polished prose for the doggrel [sic] dialogue of the old burlesques, bristling with idiotic puns.
Mr. Gilbert. There again, are you not a little intolerant? Surely there are puns and puns, and a good pun is no such bad thing. There was often an exquisite neatness in the puns of Albert Smith, of Talfourd, of Brough. I remember one of Albert Smith’s, for instance: where Orson, the foster son of a she-bear, you know, is mourning the decease of his foster-mother, he says something to this effect:
Behold me strewin’
With leaves this little bier of my own bruin.
That’s what I call a perfect play upon words. Then, again, in Planché’s Invisible Prince the hero, Don Leander, recalling the incidents of his boyhood, says:
Here, in a frolic mood, at evening’s close,
With a new top I pegged my tutor’s toes.
The dear old quiz! Ah, I remember well
It was not on my top his vengeance fell!
Again, in his interview with the fairy Gentilla, Leander says:
though an elf,
I still shall have a body like myself?
FAIRY: Oh, certainly, for though you need not fetter
Yourself to that, you couldn’t get a better.
LEANDER: A finer compliment was never uttered!
FAIRY: You’re so well bred, you ought to be well buttered.
These, taken at random, seem to me to be perfect in their way/
W.A. Oh, yes; Planché had a very delicate art in word-plays; and by dint of perpetually punning—seizing upon every possible jingle that came in their way—his successors contrived now and then to hit on something really clever. But, as a rule, does it not strike terror into your heart to look at a page of an old burlesque, with its violent eruption of italics, forcing the puns upon the reader’s notice? For example:
I must bid Ganymede to earth to fly—
Ganymede, brin-g an immed-iate reply.
Nectar celestial drink’s supposed to be,
It’s called divine—this is de vine for me.
That’s a very favourable specimen of Byron’s style.
Mr. Gilbert. Byron could do much better than that. But I suppose the punning burlesque became decrepit in its old age, as every literary form must, sooner or later.
W.A. You gave it its quietus with a bare bodkin—of wit. And you performed that service—thank goodness!—not only to burlesque, but to French opera-bouffe.
Mr. Gilbert. Without going into the question how far that is true—it is certainly a very sweeping statement of the case—I cannot but ask your optimism whether it regards the “musical comedies” of to-day as a great improvement either on the “three-act burlesque drama,” or on the French opera-bouffe, whose death you are good enough to lay at my door. There is a parable—is there not?—about an evil spirit which, being cast out, returned with seven other spirits more wicked than himself.
W.A. Assuredly I am no devotee of “musical comedy.” As for comparing it to French opera-bouffe in French, that would be wildly absurd. The operettas of Meilhac and Haléy are marvels of wit and vivacity; but think of French wit and vivacity filtered through the medium of Mr. H.B. Farnie! These things are utterly untranslatable—they become at best like uncorked champagne, at worst like champagne spilt in the gutter. Better The Belle of New York, any day, than Meilhac and Halévy rewritten by Reece and Farnie. The other day I came across your own translation of Les Brigands—excellently done, of course, but how flat in comparison with your original work!
Mr. Gilbert. That was my one experiment in opera-bouffe, and it was a purely perfunctory translation to secure copyright. It was never intended for the stage, although, by an oversight in my agreement, it found its way there twenty-five years after it was written.
W.A. Then, comparing the modern “musical comedy” with the old burlesque, you must admit that there is one point in which it has a marked superiority—again thanks to you. The men who contribute the verses to our “musical comedy” have never fallen quite away from the standard of versification which you set up. Their lyrics are very different from the awful doggrel of the old burlesques and of the worser [sic] sort of opera bouffe adaptations.
Mr. Gilbert. There I quite agree with you. In general, the versification of these pieces is excellent. Mr. Adrian Ross, for example, is a most ingenious rhymer—so are Captain Basil Hood, and several other writers of light verse. These two gentlemen have, moreover, a cultivated ear for rhythm. The fact is that in their librettos, as in mine, the natural order of things is followed—the librettist provides the verses for the musician, instead of having to adapt his words and his rhythms to music already written by Offenbach or Lecoq.
W.A. I should think it is very seldom that an air originally written to French words can be fitted with English words that run in any recognised English measure—the metrical systems of the two languages are so utterly different.
Mr. Gilbert. Oh no—you can very often set a quite regular English stanza to a French air. The first verses of mine I ever saw in print were a version of the French laughing song from Manon Lescaut, which I did when I was eighteen at the request of Madame Parepa, who was then singing at Mellon’s Promenade Concerts. She had the translation printed on the concert-programme, and I can perfectly remember standing in the “promenade,” or pit, and seeing a man reading the verses as Parepa sang them. “Ha!” I thought, “if he knew that the person standing at his elbow was the writer of these lines, how thrilled he would be!” My subsequent experience teaches me that he would have received the information with fortitude. The thing was a laughing-song, and went like this:
An entertaining story,
A fiction amatory,
About a legal star,
Ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha!
A legal dignitary
A member of the bar,
Ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha!
and so on. The French original ran thus:
C’est l’histoire amoureuse,
Autant que fabuleuse,
D’un ancien fier-à-bras,
Ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha!
D’un tendre commissaire
Que l’on disait sévère,
Et qui ne l’étaait pas,
Ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha!
You see the English is in strict metrical form, yet exactly reproduces the rhythm of the French, I afterwards used the same air and words in my “respectful perversion” of Tennyson’s Princess.
W.A. Now tell me—if you don’t mind—did you invent all the inexhaustible variety of rhythms in your operas, or did the suggestion for any of them come from Sullivan? I mean, did he ever say to you, “I have an idea for a song in something like this measure”—and hum a stave to you?
Mr. Gilbert. No, never. The verse always preceded the music, or even any hint of it. Sometimes--very rarely—Sullivan would say of some song I had given him, “My dear fellow, I can’t make anything of this”—and then I would re-write it entirely—never tinker at it. But of course I don’t mean to say that I “invented” all the rhythms and stanzas in the operas. Often a rhythm would be suggested by some old tune or other running in my head, and I would fit my words to it more or less exactly. When Sullivan knew I had done so, he would say, “Don’t tell me what the tune is, or I shan’t be able to get it out of my head.” But once, I remember, I did tell him. There is a duet in The Yeomen of the Guard beginning:
I have a song to sing, O!
Sing me your song, O!
It was suggested to me by an old chantey [sic] I used to hear the sailors on board my yacht singing in the “dog watch” on Saturday evenings, beginning:
Come, and I will sing you—
What will you sing me?
I will sing you one, O!
What is your one, O?
And so on. Well, when I gave Sullivan the words of the duet he found the utmost difficulty in setting it. He tried hard for a fortnight, but in vain. I offered to recast it in another mould, but he expressed himself so delighted with it in its then form that he was determined to work it out to a satisfactory issue. At last he came to me and said, “You often have some old air in your mind which prompts the metre of your songs: if anything of the kind prompted you in this case, hum it to me—it may help me.” Only a rash man ever asks me to hum, but the situation was desperate, and I did my best to convey to him the air of the chantey that had suggested the song to me. I was so far successful that before I had hummed a dozen bars he exclaimed, “That will do—I’ve got it!” And in an hour he produced the charming air as it appears in the opera. I have sometimes thought that he exclaimed “That will do—I’ve got it,” because my humming was more than he could bear; but he always assured me that it had given him the necessary clue to the proper setting of the song.
W.A. What a curious thing the chantey must be! Do you remember more of it?
Mr. Gilbert. I remember it all, as my sailors used to sing it. I found out afterwards that it was a very much corrupted form of an old Cornish carol. This was their version of it:--
FIRST VOICE: Come, and I will sing you--
ALL: What will you sing me?
FIRST VOICE: I will sing you one, O!
ALL: What is your one, O?
FIRST VOICE: One of them is all alone,
And ever will remain so!
ALL: One of them, etc.
SECOND VOICE: Come, and I will sing you--
ALL: What will you sing me?
SECOND VOICE: I will sing you two, O!
ALL: What is your two, O?
SECOND VOICE: Two of them are lilywhite maids,
Dressed all in green, O!
ALL: One of them is all alone,
And ever will remain so!
THIRD VOICE: Come, and I will sing you--
ALL: What wil you sing me?
THIRD VOICE: I will sing you three, O!
ALL: What is your three, O?
THIRD VOICE: Three of them are strangers.
ALL: Two of them are lilywhite maids,
Dressed all in green, O!
One of them is all alone,
And ever will remain so!
And so on until “twelve” is reached.
THIRD VOICE: Come, and I will sing you--
ALL: What will you sing me?
THIRD VOICE: I will sing you twelve, O!
ALL: What is your twelve, O?
THIRD VOICE: Twelve are the twelve apostles,
ALL: Eleven of them have gone to heaven,
Ten are the Ten Commandments,
Nine is the moonlight bright and clear,
Eight are the eight archangels,
Seven are the seven stars in the sky,
Six are the cheerful waiters (!)
Five are the ferrymen in the boats,
Four are the gospel preachers,
Three of them are strangers,
Two of them are lilywhite maids,
Dressed all in green, O!
One of them is all alone,
And ever will remain so!
W.A. That is one of the quaintest chanteys I ever came across. I gather, then, from your having been able to convey the air to Sullivan, that you are not so devoid of musical faculty as many masters of rhythm have been—Tennyson, for instance, and Victor Hugo?
Mr. Gilbert. It’s true, of course, that rhythm is one thing, and tune another—and harmony a third. I may claim a fairly accurate ear for rhythm, but I have little or no ear for tune.
W.A. But you are not, like Dr. Johnson or Charles Lamb, incapable of distinguishing one tune from another—or like Dean Stanley (was it not?) who took off his hat when the band played “Rule, Britannia,” under the impression that it was “God Save the Queen”?
Mr. Gilbert. Oh no, I am not so bad as that. On the contrary, I am very fond of music up to a certain point. I care more for the song than for the singer—for the melody than for the execution. I would rather hear “Annie Laurie” sung with feeling than the greatest singer in the world declaiming a scene from Tristan und Isolde. I used to be exceedingly fond of the light French and Italian operas that were popular in my youth and that are never heard now—Don Pasquale, Fra Diavolo, La Sonnambula, La Figlia del Reggimento, and L’Elisir d’Amore. I believe they might be popular again if they were neatly translated, and well done. Indeed, I have often suggested this to Carte and Mrs. Carte, and they seriously considered the idea. But they had not been familiar with this class of opera as I had been, and the project always remained in the air.
W.A. I remember, on the only occasion when I ever met Sir Arthur Sullivan, he told me he suspected you of having more taste for music than you cared to admit. He said you would sometimes, at rehearsal, have a number repeated on the plea that the action or grouping was not quite perfect, when he believed in reality you simply wanted to hear it again, for the pleasure of the thing. Do you plead guilty to such tenebrous courses?
Mr. Gilbert. I plead guilty, at any rate, to having taken the keenest pleasure in familiarising myself with Sullivan’s work—not merely the airs that everybody knows, but hundreds of details that I daresay escape general observation. He would often throw into brilliant relief the most unexpected things—“furniture lines” as we called them—phrases belonging to the mere mechanism of the story. And then his orchestration was so ingenious and admirable! When we first began to work together, and he brought down to rehearsal the mere piano score of a number, I would sometimes think, “Hallo! This is very thin! I’m afraid this won’t do!” But when I heard it with the orchestral colouring added, it was a totally different affair. I very soon learned to distrust my first impressions of a number, apart from the orchestra.
W.A. What happy chance was it that first brought you into connection with Sullivan?
Mr. Gilbert. Well, oddly enough, on our very first meeting I posed him with a musical problem. It was at the old “Gallery of Illustration,” then occupied by the German Reeds, for whom I had written several short pieces. Frederick [sic] Clay introduced me to Sullivan, and I determined to play off upon him a piece of musical clap-trap which I happened to have in my mind. I had just completed a three-act blank-verse play called The Palace of Truth for the Haymarket Theatre. One of the characters in that play is a musical pedant, and it occurred to me to convert one of his speeches into prose and to try its effect on Sullivan. So I said to him, “I’m very glad to have had the pleasure of meeting you, Mr. Sullivan, for you will be able to decide a question which has just arisen between my friend Fred Clay and myself. I maintain that, if a composer has a musical theme to express, he can express it as perfectly upon the simple tetrachord of Mercury, in which (as I need not tell you) there are no diatonic intervals at all, as upon the much more complicated dia-diapason (with the four tetrachords and the redundant note), which embraces in its perfect consonance all the simple, double, and inverted chords.” Sullivan appeared to be impressed by the question, which, he said, he could not answer off-hand. He said he would take it away and think it over. He must have thought it over for about thirty years, for I never received an answer to the question. I obtained my musical facts from “The Encyclopaedia Britannica,” under the head “Harmony.” I took a sentence and put it into blank verse without any idea as to what it may have meant.
W.A. The stage work at the Savoy was entirely in your hands, I suppose?
Mr. Gilbert. Oh yes, and very smooth and pleasant work it always was. Of course I planned out the whole stage-management beforehand, on my model stage, with blocks three inches high to represent men, and two and a half inches high to represent women. I knew exactly what groupings I wanted—how many people I could have on this bank, how many on that rostrum, and so forth. I had it all clear in my head before going down to the theatre; and there the actors and actresses were good enough to believe in me, and to lend themselves heartily to all I required of them. You see I had an exact measure of their capabilities, and took good care that the work I gave them should be well within their grasp. The result was that I never had a moment’s difficulty with any actor or actress in the Savoy Theatre. I have sometimes had a piece perfect, so far as stage-management was concerned, in four rehearsals. I don’t mean, of course, that it was ready for presentation to the public, but that the company were thoroughly at home in their positions and stage-business.
W.A. Happy the author who can so perfectly convey his ideas to his actors! And the result was an absolute smoothness and finish of representation, which people came to demand in other theatres as well. That was not the least of the benefits conferred on the English stage by Savoy extravaganza.
Mr. Gilbert. The author who cannot be his own stage-manager is certainly at a serious disadvantage. His stage-management, as I said, was half the secret of Robertson’s success; and Pinero, too, is an admirable stage-manager. But however well an author may convey his ideas, I think critics are too apt to forget that what they see never wholly represents the author’s intention. They are not careful enough to allow for the distorting, prismatic medium of stage representation. I am not speaking of my own pieces—I believe I have suffered less in this way than most people, and may often have been praised for what was really the merit of the actor. But the general tendency of criticism is the other way—to saddle the author with the entire responsibility for whatever seems wrong, and to give the actor the whole credit for whatever seems right.
W.A. No doubt it is one of the great difficulties of criticism to see the play through the actor and the actor through the play—a difficulty which can at best be only partially overcome. But the sins of dramatic criticism are an interminable subject of discussion, and I have taken up too much of your time already.
Mr. Gilbert. Oh, I am not working at anything just now—and in any case, except under the severest pressure, I never work in the afternoon.
W.A. What is your working-time of the day?
Mr. Gilbert. Well, it used to be, I’m afraid, the small hours of the night. I found I could never work better than between eleven and three in the morning. Then you have absolute peace—the postman has done his worst, and no one can interrupt you, unless it be a burglar.—But perhaps you are right—we have spent long enough indoors this lovely afternoon. Will you have a look round my garden and help me to feed my trout?
W.A. With pleasure.
[Exeunt into the sunshine.
“The Revivals at the Savoy.” Pall Mall Gazette, Oct. 22, 1906, p. 7. (Quoted in H.M. Walbrook, Gilbert & Sullivan Opera, Chapter 19, as an interview given by Gilbert “not long before his death” [sic].)
THE REVIVALS AT THE SAVOY.
MR. W.S. GILBERT INTERVIEWED.
FAVOURITE OPERAS AND WORK WITH SULLIVAN.
FROM OUR SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE.
At his beautiful home in the heart of the country, far removed from the traffic of the stage, Mr. W.S. Gilbert gave, on Saturday night, to our special representative, an interview with regard to the forthcoming revival of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas at the Savoy Theatre.
“I know, however, very little about it,” he began, “for the only communications I have had from Mrs. D’Oyly Carte are one that I received a fortnight ago, saying the revival was contemplated, and another this morning, saying it was decided, and that she has been trying to get some of the original artists, but without success.”
“What has become of them?”
“Mr. Temple, Mr. Barrington, and Mr. Courtice Pounds are engaged elsewhere. Mr. Denny is in America. I do not know where Mr. Shirley and Mr. Brownlow are. Mr. George Grossmith confines his work to the entertainment platform, and Mr. Walter Passmore, who succeeded him at the Savoy, is engaged for Drury Lane. Miss Brandram is an invalid, Miss Bond is married, and has retired from the profession, and Miss Ulmar, Miss Hervey, and others are no longer available. So that until I see the company I can form no opinion of the prospects of the production. A great deal will depend, of course, on the character of the performance. I am going to superintend the rehearsals, and I shall do my best conscientiously to bring the company up to the requisite pitch of excellence, but, of course, I cannot hold myself responsible for the result. It is the very first time, during a professional career of forty years, that I have not selected or approved the cast of one of my pieces in a London production. Mr. Cellier will superintend the music, and the operas will be revived, without alteration, as they were originally produced. If the revival of ‘The Yeomen of the Guard’ is successful, it will be followed, I understand, by ‘The Mikado,’ and ‘The Gondoliers.’”
Views on the “Yeomen of the Guard.”
“Is there any special reason why ‘The Yeomen of the Guard’ has been selected for the first of the series of revivals?”
“I really know nothing whatever about it. I was informed only this moring that the piece would be produced, although I had previously been given to understand that its production was contemplated; but of the reason for the selection I know absolutely nothing. Personally, I think it is far and away the best of the series. It is on a somewhat higher platform than the others, the dramatic story is told consistently, and it has no serious anachronisms. It is a work of a higher class than the others, and I believe Sullivan had the same idea with regard to the music. In dialogue and other ways, the others were irresponsible. I tried to construct ‘The Yeomen of the Guard’ on the lines of comic opera pure and simple, as it was understood in the days of Auber and Scribe; in point of fact, the plot of the piece would in itself supply the elements of an effective drama.”
“And after ‘The Yeomen of the Guard,’ have you any special favourite?”
“The best of them all, I think, are ‘Ruddigore’ and ‘Utopia, Limited.’”
No Gagging Allowed.
“Do you see in the supply of musical comedy any change in public taste since the days when your operas were first produced?”
“All I can say is that people seem to like it. It has its merits, and at all events I have nothing to say against it. My own artistic sense, however, is opposed to leaving comedians to do exactly as they please in using the author’s libretto as a sort of skeleton framework on which to hang their own eccentricities. I have never myself permitted any unauthorised gagging. I have always told the company if they desire to introduce gags of any kind they must submit them to me first, and if I see no objection, I will allow them. But I must have the dernier mot, as I am responsible for the whole, and I don’t care to be credited with the humour of other people.”
The Company’s Loyal Support.
Mr. Gilbert went on to mention that, despite all the performances of the operas in London and the provinces during the past twenty or thirty years, he had never seen a performance from the front of the house.
“How is that?” he was asked.
“I suppose it is because I am never satisfied with my own work. I always feel that it might be very much better than it is. That feeling has kept me out of the theatre. Except for some occasional modifications that may be made afterwards, my work is done as soon as I have finished superintending the rehearsals. And no author has been more loyally supported by his company than I. For twenty years I was in command of the Savoy stage, and I never had a material difference with any one of them. They were always most anxious to carry out my ideas in every way.”
“What happens with regard to the rehearsals of the touring companies?”
“The stage manager takes notes at the original rehearsals of all my business, and for the provincial representations reproduces it exactly, so that the country companies are rehearsed on all the lines that I have laid down, and so far as the ‘traffic of the stage’ in those companies is concerned, it is precisely the same as that on the London stage.”
The Perfect Harmony with Sullivan.
“Is there,” Mr. Gilbert was asked, “any likelihood of your ever collaborating in any more operas?”
“No, so far as I can see. There are, of course, many excellent composers, but they are accustomed to a different style of piece. Sullivan and I always worked together in perfect harmony. We valued each other's contributions, and, where it was necessary, each gave in to the other. I fully appreciated the value and importance of his music, and wherever I could modify my views to meet any wish of his I always did so, and he would do the same for me. Our work was absolutely amicable and harmonious throughout. I never once had an angry or an irritating word with him in the course of the production of a piece. Whatever differences there were between us arose entirely outside the productions. But so far as our work went, we were always perfectly unanimous, and that is a good deal to say, seeing that the whole of the productions at the Savoy—so far as the plays themselves, the scenery, the dresses, the stage management, and every feature of the performance was concerned—were entirely in our hands. Mr. D’Oyly Carte had, of course, complete confidence in us, just as we had complete confidence in him in his management of the business side of the theatre, and he would no more have thought of interfering with us in our department than we should have thought of interfering with him in his. Each had his own department and confined himself to it.”
“The Savoy Operas: Mr. Gilbert Tells Some Anecdotes.” Daily Mail, Tues. Oct. 30, 1906, p. 5.
THE SAVOY OPERAS.
MR. GILBERT TELLS SOME ANECDOTES.
INSPIRATION ON A RAILWAY PLATFORM.
“Is that Mr. Gilbert? Why, he doesn’t look a bit funny!” was the exclamation of a lady overheard at a dinner.
Nor did he. She saw a man whose very smiles were austere—a man with stern eyebrows, whose manner was all restraint, whose gestures were of the fewest, whose spoken humour was not a bit “rollicking.” Mr. Gilbert, in fact, was not a bit Gilbertian.
It was this term Gilbertian that Mr. Gilbert was asked the other day by a “Daily Mail” representative to define.
“I haven’t the faintest idea what it means,” he said. “Of course, I’ve heard the word, and I’ve taken it to have some application to my own methods of work. But I can’t get outside my own skin, so to speak, to judge whether and in what way I come up to the ‘Gilbertian’ standard. I never write with any intention of producing certain recognisable effects, but I suppose there is a general note running through a man’s work which others recognise as characteristic of him, though he himself is unconscious of it.”
“MY FAVOURITE OPERA”
Mr. Gilbert was asked to talk of the famous Savoy operas, which are soon to be revived at their place of birth, and which are to be seen at the Coronet Theatre this week.
“Of all the Savoy works, the ‘Yeomen of the Guard’ is my favourite,” he said. Its genesis was peculiar. “Bored by waiting for a train in an underground station, I found myself gazing at the poster of a furnishing company, with a beefeater as the central figure. I thought a beefeater would make a good picturesque central figure for another Savoy opera, and my first intention was to give it a modern setting, with the characterisation and development of burlesque—to make it another ‘Sorcerer.’ But then I decided to make it a romantic and dramatic piece, and to put it back into Elizabethan times, and as written it became my favourite.”
A SONG’S ORIGIN.
Then Mr. Gilbert told of the origin of that catchiest and most celebrated Savoy air, “I have a song to sing, O!” “I was a yachtsman, and at nights I used to listen to my Cornish crew singing one of their chanties in the fo’c’sle. It ran:
Solo: Come, and I will sing you.
Chorus: What will you sing me?
Solo: I will sing you one, O!
Chorus: What is your one, O?
Solo: One of them is all alive, [sic]
And ever will remain so.
“And so on to the dozenth verse—‘I will sing you two, O!” and so forth—a cumulative form of construction of which the ‘House that Jack Built’ is an example. I was fascinated by the quaintness of the chanty, and seized on it as a model for Jack Point’s song, and left Sullivan to mate it to his music as he liked. But at last he came to me and said, ‘You will have to break through your rule, and tell me the model of this number, if you had one in your mind at all.’ So I hummed the chanty, and after a few bars Sir Arthur said, ‘I’ve got it,’ and he finished the score that evening.”
AUTOCRATS BEHIND THE SCENE.
Next to “The Yeomen,” Mr. Gilbert’s favourite is “Ruddigore,” which has never once been revived. “Yet it was no failure. It ran for six months, and my third share of the profits was £8,000, But it was regarded as a little gloomy, and was altered after the first night—the first occasion on which any Savoy opera has had to accommodate itself to criticism. Some time ago a manager of musical comedy suggested that ‘Ruddigore’ might have had more success if Mr. Gilbert had allowed a freer hand to its interpreters. But that was not our method. We were autocrats of the stage from the first to the last, and every detail of the performances was subject to us. Indeed, the revival next month of ‘The Yeomen’ is the very first occasion on which the entire cast has not been selected by me, so that whatever merit is due to the selection will belong to Mrs. D’Oyly Carte. So far, I don’t know the name of a single individual in the cast. However, I shall conduct all the rehearsals.”
UNIFORMS COST £135 EACH.
“A point of interest about ‘Ruddigore’ was the uniforms. They were most meticulously exact to the period. We even had the buttons of the Hussars’ uniforms—there were four uniforms, each costing £135—cast from a special die so as to show three cannons above the motto ‘Ubique,’ instead of one as worn now, and the sealed uniforms at the War Office were placed at our disposal. It was not done to satisfy the public—they would know nothing about it—but merely to please our own sense, fastidious, if you like, of having everything as it should be.”
A “MIKADO” STORY.
Of “The Mikado” this gem of a story: “It was suggested to us that it would be a proper thing to introduce the Mikado’s entrance with appropriate music. A friend at the Japanese Legation suggested, ‘Why not the Japanese National Anthem, words and music?’ A capital idea, I thought. ‘You dictate the words to me,’ I said, ‘and hum the air to Sullivan.’ So it was done; and that air and those words have been sung and played somewhere almost nightly for many years in theatres and respectable drawing-rooms, and several church bazaars. But a year or two after the production of ‘The Mikado’ a correspondent sent me a German newspaper containing an interview with a Japanese diplomatist on the recent production of ‘The Mikado’ in Berlin. ‘Yes,’ said the diplomatist, ‘there is much to admire in the accuracy of detail in gesture, costume, and scenery; but I am quite at a loss to understand why the author chose to introduce the sacred person of the Mikado with the music and the words of the most ribald song ever sung in the most reckless tea-houses of Japan.’ A practical joke on the part of my Legation friend. The words? No, I never had the courage to get them translated. I prefer to remain in deliberate ignorance.”
And as to any successor to the long series of Savoy successes? “In the improbable contingency of finding a successor to Sir Arthur Sullivan, yes. But that implies not only a composer like him, but a collaborateur like him. We always saw eye to eye. The same humour always struck us in exactly the same way. With Sullivan I never had to do that fatal thing—explain a joke.”
Huyshe, Wentworth. “Mr. W.S. Gilbert at Grim’s Dyke.” Graphic, Nov. 17, 1906, p. 637. (Contributed by David Stone)
“We have met before, have we not?” said Mr. W.S. Gilbert as he advanced to greet me on entering the study of his beautiful house in the Weald of Harrow. I reminded him that it was in 1882, at the dress rehearsal of Iolanthe at the Savoy Theatre that we had met, and we talked awhile of that and of the notable frst night, which followed it and began a run of thirteen months—that quaint conceit which presented us with a fairy Grenadier Guardsman and a fairy Lord Chancellor, and the charming strains of “O, Foolish Fay,” with its allusion to the love-quelling cascades of Captain Shaw’s Fire Brigade.
“And now we are set to have a revival under your own direction, Mr. Gilbert, of Iolanthe, I hope, and the others of the great series which captivated England in the seventies and eighties, and in the familiar house identified with them.”
“That is Mrs. Carte’s intention,” said Mr. Gilbert.
“And you will begin with The Yeomen of the Guard, rehearsed under your own direction?”
“Yes; I shall stage manage that and the others—in the interests of the pieces themselves.”
This was a remark which seemed to me somewhat perplexing, and to require elucidation. I was helped out of my difficulty by the perfectly frank and kind courtesy with which my inquiry was met. And here I may say that if there are any who have been misled by vague diatribes against Mr. Gilbert, to the effect that he is an ill-natured man and so forth, that notion would be at once dispelled upon a personal acquaintance with him. As he himself says, he has never had an angry word with any member of the Savoy company during the twenty years that the stage was under his personal control. He attributes the idea to his having been blessed with a constitutional frown, which is a purely physical fact, and gives no clue to his real nature.
“In the interests of the pieces themselves, Mr. Gilbert? But the pieces are as right as ever they were, are they not?”
“Well, I hope so; but in a few years they will revert to me, and I do not want them to come back with diminished reputation.”
“I’ll tell you what I mean. Mrs. D’Oyly Carte and I have been on the friendliest terms for these twenty-five years and more. She is a lady for whom I have always entertained a profound regard, and who has hitherto invariably treated me with perfect kindliness and consideration. In the old days of the Savoy productions the arrangements between Sir Arthur Sullivan and myself and Mr. D’Oyly Carte were on a basis which was mutually satisfactory to all three of us. Sir Arthur and I were absolute autocrats behind the curtain, and Mr. D’Oyly Carte equally absolute in front of it. To me fell the histrionic training of the performers in my pieces, and Sir Arthur Sullivan and I decided the cast. The music was, of course, under Sullivan’s direction, and the stage management was entirely controlled by me. Mr. Carte had complete control of the auditorium. For instance, when he reduced the price of boxes from three to two guineas without consulting us we said nothing; it was not in our department, and was a matter entirely under the control of Carte. So, you see, the triple alliance worked quite well.”
“Why, yes, it was a thing that all of us who lived in the Savoy golden age right through the eighties thought would be broken only by death.”
“Well, it was broken for causes into which I need not enter, but which had nothing whatever to do with the actual work of production. Nothing, as I have said, occurred to disturb the friendly relations between us and Mrs. D’Oyly Carte, both before and after she became Mrs. D’Oyly Carte, and, of course, she was as familiar with our arrangements and the divisions of our responsibilities as we were ourselves. Well, Mrs. Carte is about to produce The Yeomen of the Guard at the Savoy, and although I am to stage manage it, I do not know the name of a single individual who is to play in it. In casting the piece as she pleases, Mrs. Carte is entirely within her rights, as, in making my contract with her, it never occurred to me to stipulate for a privilege which has been accorded to me, as a matter of course, by every manager I have had to do with for forty years past. And now that is really all I have to say that would be of interest to you or the public. Would you like to have a look round the place?”
And so we went on a little tour round the beautiful mansion and grounds of the master of Grim’s Dyke, and along the woody banks of the Dyke itself, the ancient boundary of the Kingdom of Casivellaunus [sic], whose capital was at Verulamium (St. Albans).
“It is only about a mile from here,” said Mr. Gilbert, as we were talking archaeologically of Grim’s Dyke, “that Boadicea killed herself to escape the attentions of the Roman General—so the old story goes.”
It is a fascinating feature of Mr. Gilbert’s estate, this strange mere-like, ancient dyke, with its still brown water and its wooded banks—a weird thing, and made still more weird by the forlorn statue of Charles II.—the very statue which originally stood in King Square (now Soho Square) when it was first built and named after the Merry Monarch—which stands in the Dyke itself. I wanted to suggest to Mr. Gilbert that the Guildhall Museum would be a more fitting place for this interesting relic of Stuart London, but I merely reflected a moment upon the strange fate of certain fragments of old London—Temple Bar in a Hertfordshire park, and Charles II. in Grim’s Dyke!
Very interesting are some of the “properties” to be seen here and there among the costly and beautiful objects with which Mr. Gilbert’s house is filled. In the entrance hall is a grand model, 14ft. long and 16ft. high, of the three-decker line of battle ship Queen, [sic] 100 guns, one of the last of the wooden walls of England. This immediately suggests H.M.S. Pinafore, that famous craft whose captain, on being pressed, qualified his statement that he “never was sick at sea” [sic] by substituting the phrase “hardly ever,” which became one of the popular sayings of London during and after the run of that famous early Gilbert and Sullivan work. This model, indeed, is not only a model of the old battleship, but part of it seved as model for the stage quarter-deck of the Pinafore, of which Lord Charles Beresford remarked, at the dress rehearsal, that he could not find a single fault. Mr. Gilbert said that he found great difficulty in getting the model kept in good order nowadays, for there were few who are able to rig an old-fashioned three-masted battleship. The old salt who used to set her running rigging to rights when it got slack is now dead. In the billiard room are the terribly realistic block and axe which were used in the Yeomen of the Guard during its original run at the Savoy. They were exactly copied, by special permission of the Constable, from the actual examples preserved in the Tower which were used for the execution of Lords Kilmarnock and Balmerino.
“And are they to be used again when the Yeomen of the Guard is produced in the revival, Mr. Gilbert?”
“I don’t know. I have not been asked for them.”
In the billiard-room also there are large frames containing photographs of the characters in the original casts of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, and between them are hundreds of the original drawings made by Mr. Gilbert himself for the immortal Bab Ballads. In this room are thus gathered pictorial reminiscences of Mr. Gilbert’s literary and dramatic career, from the days when his quaint and original genius first burst upon an astonished and delighted public thirty-five years ago. Close by, on the adjoining landing, is a thirty years ago photograph of Mr. Gilbert in the uniform of a captain of the 3rd Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders, in which distinguished corps he served for nearly twenty years. He still has the erect bearing of a soldier.
In the splendid drawing-room, formerly Mr. Goodall’s studio—for the house formerly belonged to Mr. Goodall, R.A.—with its unusual waggon roof, are some of Mr. Gilbert’s choicest possessions, among them an ancient Japanese cabinet, enriched with the choicest decorative work in mother-of-pearl and lacquer, probably one of the finest specimens of Japanese art in the country. A beautiful and delicately decorated grand piano shows how it is possible to deal with this difficult piece of furniture when taste is brought to bear upon the necessary expense. Mr. Gilbert is proud of the perfect acoustic properties of this room, but it is only by asking questions that another interesting fact is elicited, which goes to show how much of the artist exists in a man whose poetic and dramatic genius are well enough known and recognised wherever the English language is spoken. The most striking architectural feature of the drawing-room is a colossal and splendid mantelpiece of carved alabaster, which rises from the floor right up to the spring of the vault of the roof. It is not possible to give an idea of this great work, conceived and executed in the true Renaissance spirit. The conception and the original model in the rough were Mr. Gilbert’s own, carried out artistically by Mr. Ernest George and carved by Mr. Walter Smith. The architrave of the mantelpiece is supported by large terminal caryatid figures of satyrs, and when Mr. Gilbert was posed by THE GRAPHIC photographer, with this fireplace as a background, he remarked upon the immediate propinquity of one of the satyrs that he was sure that our readers would know which was which, adding that he objected to being cut out by his own background.
The library where Mr. Gilbert sat and chatted with us is the abode of the beautiful little ring-tailed lemur, whose portrait, riding, according to the ways of baby lemurs, on his mother’s back, appeared some little time ago in the Daily Graphic. This little animal was actually born and bred upon the estate. Mr. Gilbert tells, with evident pleasure, how its father and mother (who live in the melon-house) were allowed to roam about the grounds in the summer time. “They would come back to feed,” he said, “in the cage which was, in fact, a trap as well. When, afterwards, their little one was born, I sent word of the fact to the Zoological Society, and they said it was a remarkable and unique event.”
It is not easy to get Mr. Gilbert to talk of his dead friend and colleague, Sir Arthur Sullivan. “We were in agreement on all points connected with our art,” he said; “his music for my words, my words for his music. There was never a question between us as to our complete and mutually delightful collaboration. No difficulty ever arose between us in connection with the production of our plays, and when, at one time, the relations between us were a little strained owing to my difference with Mr. D’Oyly Carte, we were always on speaking terms; and it is pleasant to me to remember that a thorough and complete understanding existed between us at the time of his death. It has been assumed that my absence from his funeral was due to another quarrel; but, as a matter of fact, we were on excellent terms, and on the day of his funeral I myself was lying desperately ill at Helonan, near Cairo, from a severe attack of rheumatoid arthritis.”
Stoker, Bram. “The Tendency of the Modern Stage: A Talk with Sir W.S. Gilbert on Things Theatrical.” Daily Chronicle, Jan. 2, 1908, p. 8. (Apparently published in 1907 in the New York World; see copyright note at end of article and excerpts quoted in The Writer 19.11 [Nov. 1907] 171-172. Part of this is [mis]quoted in Dark & Grey, p. 207, where it is described as an article from “the World’s Magazine.” A parody of this interview appeared in Punch, Jan. 8, 1908, p. 34.)
“In the recent ‘Honour List,’” said Sir William Gilbert, “I found myself politely described by some Court flunkey as ‘Mr. Gilbert, playwright.’ Nine times out of ten, when a dramatic author is referred to by a newspaper man, he is described as a ‘playwright.’ The term ‘wright’ is properly applied to one who follows a mechanical calling, such as a wheelwright, a millwright, a cartwright or a shipwright. We never hear of a novel-wright, or poem-wright, or essay-wright; why, then, of play-wrights? There is a convenient word, ‘dramatist,’ that seems to describe fitly one who devotes his time to writing dramas, taking the word ‘drama’ in the broadest sense.”
My conversation with Sir William Schwenck Gilbert—the first knight on whom the honour was conferred purely as a dramatist—was held partly in the study of his beautiful house, and partly as we walked about the grounds of his charming estate, Grim’s Dyke, at the edge of the great common some twelve miles to the northwest of London, known as Harrow Weald, part of the ancient Forest of Middlesex.
The house was built some forty-odd years ago for Frederick Goodall, the painter, from the designs of Norman Shaw, the architect, who built so many fine houses in England. Mr. Gilbert—as he was then—purchased the estate in 1890. As it stands on the top of the hill, the views from it are fine. Bushey Heath marks the sky-line some three miles away to the north-west, and adjacent to Grim’s Dyke is Bentley Priory, the last home of Queen Adelaide, widow of William IV.
Sir William Gilbert has made many improvements to the property, chiefly in the way of adding to its picturesque effects. Among these is a pretty length of an acre and a half in extent. Here in the summer time Sir William and his friends swim daily, sometimes two or three times in the day. The forming of the lake was a matter of some difficulty, for, as the hill is of gravel, it was necessary to “puddle” the excavation with clay in order to make it water-tight.
Sir William supervised the doing of this himself, with the result of so severe a rheumatic attack that he had to spend some six months in Helouan before he regained his powers of movement.
Everywhere are beautiful trees—oak, ash, chestnut, pine—with deep undergrowth of laurel and rhododendron, and many lovely dells, where the bracken rises waist high.
The house is large, and has many large and handsome rooms, all of which are stored with objects of interest and beauty. The great drawing-room, which was formerly the painter’s studio, and has the dimensions and windows of a chapel, is a storehouse of works of art. The fireplace, a massive carving in Derbyshire spar, some fifteen feet high, was designed by Sir William himself. On the opposite wall hangs, among many others, his portrait by the late Frank Holl, R.A. Scattered through the room are some lovely cabinets; one of great beauty, Italian of the XIV. Century; another, Japanese, three hundred years old, wrought in lacquer, tortoiseshell, cedar, ivory, and agate. On one table is a great ivory goblet, German, of the XVI. Century; the tusk from which it was carved must have been enormous. On another table is an exquisite piece of carving in marble of a cat and kittens by the sculptor Freminet, 1863. Elsewhere in the house, scattered among works of art and curios of all kinds, are interesting souvenirs of the dramatist’s own plays. For instance, in the billiard room are the block and axe used so long in “The Yeomen of the Guard.” Here, too, are hung around the walls frames containing the original drawings, done by the author, for the “Bab Ballads”; there are some two hundred and fifty of them in all. In the hall—wherein is a fine suit of steel armour—is a model of a full-rigged ship. It rests on a sea of green glass, and is fourteen feet long. It is a facsimile of one of the old three-deckers of a hundred and ten guns sent to the Black Sea at the time of the Crimean War—the Queen, in which Sir Evelyn Wood was a midshipman before he forsook maritime for land warfare. From this model, whose rigging is perfect in every detail, the scene from “Pinafore” was taken.
“W.S. Gilbert”—by which name, rather than by his new title, he is best known—is a big-made man of just under six feet high. As he is now in his seventy-first year, it is not to be expected that he should have retained all the burliness of his more youthful days. But the same dominant nature remains, and is expressed as of old by his masterful and militant [sic] appearance. Hair and moustache have grown white, but the face maintains its ruddy warmth. His humour is as trenchant and as quick as it has always been. Nothing is too big or too small for its mordant force. His readiness and quickness are wonderful; the occasion which another would miss is seized with lightning rapidity.
“And your own plays?” I asked. “How many of these have you written?”
“I think the exact number is sixty-three.”
“How do you regard the respective work of the dramatist and the novelist, one against the other?”
“Their method of work is, and must be, quite different. The novelist can make his own milieu as he goes along. He can create and alter his own characters; paint his own scenery; suggest his own changes of feeling; describe effects and emotions in general terms. In fact, he appeals directly to his readers. But the dramatist cannot appeal to his audience directly; his work can only appeal through the distorting medium of many prisms. That is where we writers of plays are handicapped. We are not always masters in our houses.”
“Not even when you control the stage absolutely?”
“Not even then, though that gives us a chance. I attribute our success in our particular craft to the fact that Arthur Sullivan and I were in a commanding position. We controlled the stage altogether, and were able to do as we wished—to carry out our ideas in our own way, so far as the limitations of actors would allow of it.
“During the years we were running new operas at the Savoy I generally had royalties on my librettos to an average of about £3,000 a year. In all, I have had somewhere about £25,000 or £30,000 on this account.”
“Roughly speaking, how many copies would that mean?”
“Well, I will leave you to work that out. I had sixpence halfpenny on each copy in London and fourpence halfpenny in the country. I suppose it averaged up about fivepence or fivepence farthing for each copy. At fivepence each this would show a sale of one million four hundred and forty thousand copies. As, however, the total amount is approximate and the royalties vary, we may, I think, call the output a million and a half.”
“What,” I asked, “is the tendency of the modern stage?”
“Forward! Distinctly forward. In fact, from the very first, from the days of Thespis there has been a continual development of a better class of play. There have, of course, been periods of set-back; times when all seemed to be on the down grade. But such variations occur in the development of every art. For instance, we used here in England to be largely if not wholly dependent on French plays. Indeed, in the past many of our great plays took their inspiration from foreign sources. For instance, I remember John Oxenford, the famous critic of the ‘Times,’ telling me that ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ was taken from a German one-act play; and that the screen scene in ‘The School for Scandal’ was adapted from a scene in one of the plays of Calderon.”
“How about the modern French plays?”
“The French players are better than the plays. I do not care for the spirit which seems to animate the modern French dramatists—most of them, at all events. Their work is almost invariably founded on breaches of the Seventh Commandment. But the players are superb.”
“What in your opinion is the coming vogue of plays—tragedy, drama, comedy, or what?”
“Tragedy is hopeless; drama has better prospects; comedy better still; farce best of all. I speak, of course, of the comparative probability of success, not of actual merit. The different forms of comedy are easier of fulfilment. [sp sic] We have at present a considerable number of fine comedians, but few, if any, tragedians.”
“How do you account for that?”
“Supply and demand. Everybody wants comedy, but no one wants tragedy. They go to see Shakespeare’s tragedies because a certain knowledge of his work is properly held to be essential to people of education. People like to be on a sort of nodding acquaintance with his plays; and so they go to see them, because to witness a performance of his plays is the easiest and pleasantest way of acquiring a superficial knowledge of them. But in reality in tragedy it is the actor who draws. But as the world wants comedy it has it, and fairly good comedy, too. Pinero and such men have done an infinity of good in raising comedy higher.”
“How about musical comedy?”
“That is two things. As we have writers of comedy and good comedians the prospects of comedy are bright enough. But I fear there is no composer now before the public whose work is being taken seriously by connoisseurs—if I except Mr. German, whose work is of a higher order than that of his rivals. I think this is a great pity, for the modern musical comedies serve to amuse people, even if they cannot claim to be art of a high order. They please a very large class—those who don’t want to think; the shop-girl, the typewriter, the gentleman from Aldershot, and the people who make theatre parties and merely want to be amused.”
“What is your opinion about the American stage?”
“I don’t care much for the class of plays that appeal at present to the American audience. As a rule they are on the side of exaggeration, and their construction is generally inartistic. Their actors are better than their authors. That gives the play a chance, for good actors can often pull poor plays through. Authors should be grateful to players who can make their work vivid to the audience. For my own part I have always attached immense importance to the actor’s art.”
“How do you think the stage—the dramatic stage—is and is to be affected by the great popularity of the music-hall?”
“That is a rivalry in which the theatre is very heavily handicapped. The work in a music-hall is carried on under conditions which would be absolutely fatal to good work in a theatre. And then, again, the performers are different. Every performer in a music-hall is more or less a master in his craft. Not the actors only, but all who take part—conjurors, trick bicyclists, dancers, and so forth. In that world it is not sufficient to be a specialist in ignorance or incompetence. A man does not go on the music-hall stage merely because he has been spun for a clerkship in a bank or has failed in the Guards! The strong point about the music-hall commercially is that it only tries to amuse. There its ambition is satisfied; it does not try to elevate. My impression is that people go to places of amusement to be amused; and somehow the music-hall often fits better into the social structure than does the theatre. You need not give up a whole evening to it. It is more facile in its ways; at whatever hour you go in you can take up at once whatever is going on.”
“Do you think the theatre has a function beyond mere amusement?”
“It should have, but it rarely pays to attempt anything beyond mere entertainment. My own experience is that the higher the literary quality of the play the greater its chance of failure.”
“Can you illustrate that—if not by the failure then by any of the things that make for failure?”
“When ‘The Wicked World’ was produced I had to bring a libel action against the ‘Pall Mall Gazette.’ In his summing up Mr. Justice Brett, who for the purpose of the trial had read the book of the play, said that there were some passages that would rank with any to be found in poetical drama. As illustration he read the speech from the first act beginning ‘Thou hast seen black and angry thunder clouds.’ Now this very passage was the only one cut out after the first performance because the lines dragged.”
“There are,” I suggested, “those who say that the public won’t allow literary merit to be exercised in play writing.” He smiled—a grim sort of smile—as he answered:
“If plays with a strong pretension to literary merit fail they do so not on account of that literary merit, but in spite of it. In a play the public want the story, and any departure from its strict course, introduced because the author is of opinion that the literary excellence of the departure justifies its introduction, simply adds to its chances of failure. Some authors make the same mistake with what they call ‘comic relief.’ Literature belongs to the structure of a play, and not merely to its incidents. I sometimes think it would be a good thing if when a dramatist had completed his play he would read it carefully from beginning to end, and cut out all the passages with which, on account of their literary excellence, he is best pleased.”
Then with a grim naïvete all his own he added:
“I have not always done it myself!”
Copyright in United States of America, 1907. Press Publishing Company, “New York World.”
“Fallen Fairies.” Daily Telegraph, December 9, 1909, pp. 11-12 (an abridged version of this appeared in Orel’s Gilbert and Sullivan: Interviews and Recollections)
SIR W.S. GILBERT ON THE NEW SAVOY OPERA.
All but thirty-seven years—the date was Jan. 4, 1873—have flown since J.B. Buckstone drew a nugget from the theatrical lucky-bag in the shape of “The Wicked World,” described on the Haymarket playbill as “an entirely original fairy comedy, in three acts and one scene, by W.S. Gilbert.” And at the present moment all theatrical London is looking forward expectantly to the production at the Savoy, on Wednesday next, of the new version of the once-famous play which the author has prepared in collaboration with Mr. Edward German. Before “The Wicked World,” which ran 200 nights—“a very good run in those days,” as Sir W.S. Gilbert truly said in conversation yesterday during a band and chorus rehearsal of the new piece—he had written “The Palace of Truth” and “Pygmalion and Galatea,” and all three works, as the author reminded the present writer, were designed to show that it was quite possible to write a modern play which preserved the ancient dramatic unities of time and place.
“The Wicked World” was written in blank verse. So, too, is “Fallen Fairies.” In fact, the “book” of the new Savoy fairy-play will be found to be practically identical with the text of the old Haymarket fairy-play, save that the librettist has compressed the last two acts into one, and afforded the composer abundant opportunities in the shape of lyrics (of the genuine Gilbertian pattern) for the exercise of his musical grace and fancy. In some material respects the work will prove to be quite different from anything its author has previously given the Savoy public. We all, of course, cherish the remembrance of his fairies in “Iolanthe,” in their deliciously incongruous surroundings. But his fairies to be seen next week, though in one sense they “fall,” do not descend to Mother Earth, but are seen in far less prosaic environments—“Cloudland,” to wit—and for it Mr. Harker has painted a really beautiful scene, which becomes even more beautiful in the second act, when it is revealed by moonlight. Sir William Gilbert himself described the work yesterday as “a light comedy, with a thread of sentiment running through it,” and added that “in the second act the humour broadens, but merges towards the end into strong drama.” “In fact,” he said, “it is a combination of comedy and drama such as I have never attempted before at the Savoy, but there is, of course, plenty of humour in the opera, for which Mr. Workman, who appears in Buckstone’s part of Lutin (a serving fairy), will be mainly responsible.”
PLOT OF THE OPERA.
A sketch of the “plot” will, perhaps, serve best to indicate to a generation of playgoers unfamiliar with “The Wicked World” the nature of the new opera. The fairyland imagined by the author of “The Mikado” is a place
“Where mortal love is utterly unknown,
Whose beings, spotless as new-fallen snow,
Know nothing of the Wicked World below.”
But the sweet and serene peace and content in which they dwell is destined to be rudely broken. It happens this wise. Each of the fairies has his or her own counterpart in outward form on earth, and there is a law which decrees that whenever a fairy quits his home in cloudland to visit earth, the absent one’s mortal counterpart is summoned “from the wicked world below” to fill his place till he return. So it comes to pass, by a typically Gilbertian device, that two mortals suddenly appear in the aerial regions in the place of fairies who have been sent on a mission to terra-firma. The manner of their appearance is somewhat startling, for Sir Ethais and Sir Phyllon are Hunnish knights who find themselves precipitated into cloudland whilst engaged in a desperate sword combat. The situation may be taken, perhaps, as symbolical of the discord and dissension which the coming of the pair brings in its train. The fairies, headed by their queen, Selene (the character played at the Haymarket by Mrs. Kendal), set about reforming the rude mortals. But instead of reforming them, they only succeed in becoming themselves demoralised, and practical acquaintance on their part with what mere mortals understand as love only serves to engender a spirit of rebellion and strife, and to lead to envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness. Selene falls head over ears in love with Ethais, a quite unworthy being, as events prove; another fairy, Darine, speedily becomes jealous, and a climax is reached with the deposition of the former and the crowning in her stead of her rival, whose enthronement gives rise to one of the most picturesque, dramatic, and musically effective moments in the whole opera. For the rest, Wednesday’s audience may be left to consider for themselves what becomes of the intruding knights on their visit to fairyland, and in what manner peace and happiness are eventually restored to its unsophisticated inhabitants.
Conversing with the representative of The Daily Telegraph, while the chorus and orchestra were being taken by Mr. German through some of the delightful and very characteristic numbers which he has written for “Fallen Fairies,” Sir W.S. Gilbert recalled the production of the original Haymarket version, and described some interesting reminiscences. When “The Wicked World” was produced there was a prologue, which had to be spoken by Buckstone in front of the curtain. Unfortunately the famous comedian suffered from a defective memory, besides being very deaf, and for the life of him he could not remember the words of the prologue. The prompter’s voice failed to reach him, and so the actor was hardly able to complete a single line of the verses without going up close to the wings and repeating the words after the prompter. “It was a hopeless fiasco,” said the author, recalling the incident, “but fortunately Buckstone remembered his lines right enough once the play was started.”
Buckstone’s deafness reminded Sir William of another chapter in the history of “The Wicked World.” Its production at the Haymarket, while greeted by public and Press alike with enthusiasm, excited in one particular critic, who was suffering apparently—like the author’s fairies—from “an overweening sense of righteousness,” feelings of profound disgust. His notice, consequently, which appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette, described the piece by such epithets, among many others, as “coarse” and “foul.” This was not the sort of réclame desired by the author, who therefore promptly entered an action for libel. Among other things, it appeared, the critic objected to the sentence in the play, “I go to that good world where women are not devils till they die.” Then, on moral grounds, he took strong exception to the incident wherein one of the stalwart knights is nursed by the Fairy Queen in her bower. (“What,” remarked Sir William, with a twinkle, yesterday, “would be thought of that in these days of first aid to the injured?”) Sir Henry James (now Lord James of Hereford) appeared in the action for the plaintiff, and Sir John Karslake, Q.C., for the defendants. Buckstone’s cross-examination at the hands of the latter proved distinctly diverting by reason of the witness’s deafness. He could only follow what the plaintiff said, and so there was nothing for it but for the latter to act as interpreter and repeat every question as it was put to him in the witness-box.
The result of the action (which was tried before Mr. Justice Brett, afterwards Lord Esher) might fairly have been called “Gilbertian,” for the jury in their wisdom found that both the play, which had been read in court--“in a very mechanical manner,” as the author recalled--and the offending notices were innocent. And returned a verdict for the defendants.
NO MALE CHORUS.
Sir William Gilbert, it may be said, does not fear to be denounced as “coarse” or “vulgar” by any critic who goes to the Savoy on Wednesday. Personally, he is delighted with the state of affairs as disclosed at rehearsal. As in the joyous Savoy days of old, he has superintended every detail, down to the minutest, of the production, and has not only instructed each member of the clever Savoy company in the gentle art of speaking blank verse, but has inspired every movement, pose, and detail of “business.”
He mentioned a very curious and interesting circumstance in connection with the music of “Fallen Fairies.” Years and years ago he conceived the idea of an operatic version of the old Haymarket piece. To Sullivan, as a matter of course, he communicated it. That was twenty years ago. But there was an objection—and, in Sullivan’s opinion, an insuperable one. The librettist’s scheme was for an opera without a male chorus. His singing fairies were all to be feminine, and required no companions of the opposite sex. But Sullivan would not hear of it. Strangely enough, in after years the author approached various composers, English and foreign, with a view to collaboration in the work. And always with the same result. That is, with a single exception—Edward Elgar, who offered no reason for his refusal—they one and all declined the honour of collaboration on the same ground. The list included Sir Alexander Mackenzie, Massenet, Messager, and Madame Liza Lehmann.
“Yet my view was,” said Sir William, “that an opera without a male chorus would possess an extraordinary beauty of its own, whatever the technical difficulties in the way of providing contracted tone-colour, and I was determined at the first opportunity to put the experiment to the test. In Mr German I found a ready coadjutor, who at once took to the idea, and worked at it enthusiastically. Listen to this chorus (he added) and tell me if you have ever heard a finer body.”
Certainly the writer had no hesitation in endorsing the encomium, and he was interested in learning that many of the chorus who are to be heard at the Savoy next week have never before faced the footlights. Some of them have been recruited from the Royal Academy of Music, others from the Royal College, and others, again, from the Guildhall School. “They were all selected,” said the Savoy dramatist, “for their good voices and their good looks. The composer decided in the matter of their voices. I had the say as regards their looks. And I may tell you that when an applicant appeared with a very beautiful voice I willingly waived the question of her appearance. Similarly, when she had a beautiful face, the composer for his part gave in to me. And so we met on common ground.” Where would you find a pair of collaborators more conciliatory or ‘sweetly reasonable’?” [sic punct; Orel omits last ”, probably correctly]
But if Sir William objected to a male chorus he entertained an objection equally strong towards a tenor. He would not hear of a tenor at any price, subscribing to George Eliot’s dictum that “when God made a tenor he spoilt a man.” Against tenors in general, he tells you, he has no prejudice. “But they never can act and are more trouble than all the other members of the company put together. In fact, the tenor has been the curse of every piece I have ever written.” And so, in the new opera, the baritones, Mr Claude Fleming (whose fine voice made so excellent an impression in The Mountaineers) and Mr Leo Sheffield, will have things all their own way where the love-making is concerned. That laughter will come in their train when they initiate Sir William’s artless fairies in the reprehensible delights of kissing may readily be taken for granted.
These fairies, it will be found, present a radiant vision. To quote the author again, “their dresses are the most extraordinarily beautiful things I have ever seen on the stage. Mr Percy Anderson, who has designed them, has fairly surpassed himself, and has given the fairies quite wonderful rainbow-tinted silks, and headdresses suggestive of huge insects with antennae, and diaphanous wings—the whole design suggesting a sort of glorified dragon-fly.”
With the performance as it has shaped at rehearsals the author is quite delighted, and particularly does he have high hopes, histrionically as well as vocally, of Miss Nancy McIntosh, who returns to the Savoy after an absence of some sixteen years. It was in “Utopia” that she made her bow to the stage, taking the principal soprano rôle susequently—at the Lyric, in 1894—in Gilbert and Osmond Carr’s “His Excellency.” The artist herself, it may be mentioned, is delighted with her part in the new opera, and spoke in particular yesterday of a beautiful song allotted to her in the first act, and a madrigal which, she said, will recall the best Savoy traditions in this line. As for Mr. Workman, he has in Lutin a character after his own heart, and naturally feels thoroughly at home in its quaint and whimsical Gulbertian humours. With the chorus the author expressed himself finally in terms of the highest praise and satisfaction. “Their enthusiasm and energy,” he said, “can only be described as touching.”
When the writer was taking leave of the Savoy librettist the chorus were showing their quality in a number which only the composer of “Merrie England” could have penned, and which, like other fragments which he heard yesterday, is clearly marked out for instant popularity. If “Fallen Fairies” realises the anticipations of its author, he will turn his attention, it was interesting to learn, to an operatic version of his famous “Palace of Truth,” with the co-operation again of Mr. Edward German.
“New Savoy Opera. – Interview with Sir W.S. Gilbert.” Observer Dec. 12, 1909, p. 11. (Contributed by Tim Riley.)
NEW SAVOY OPERA.
INTERVIEW WITH SIR W.S. GILBERT.
SOME OF THE SONGS.
BAD MEN AND GOOD FAIRIES.
There is some reason—so we must suppose—
Why preferably just below the nose.
It was at the moment when the chorus of fairies were rehearsing the joyous song concerning the manner in which mere mortals bestow their kisses that a representative of THE OBSERVER found W.S. Gilbert willing to foreshadow some of the quaint and beautifull things that await playgoers in the new opera which he has written, [sic punctuation] with Mr. Edward German, and which is to be produced at the Savoy Theatre next Wednesday evening.
“Fallen Fairies,” so far as the book is concerned, is a new version of “The Wicked World,” which was produced nearly thirty-seven years ago at the Haymarket, with Mr. and Mrs. Kendal, Mr. J.B. Buckstone, and Miss Amy Roselle in the cast. Now, however, the play opens with the entrance of fairies in procession from various parts of the stage.
“The dresses,” Sir William said, “are extraordinarily beautiful, and contain a very new effect of apparent wings. When the fairies raise their arms the drapery falls from their waists to their knees, and when their arms are spread it has the effect of wings. The dresses have all the hues of the rainbow, the wings are painted like birds’ wings, and there are quaint head-dresses suggestive of orchids and dragon flies.”
The fairies, it seems, have the power to summon from the earth their mortal counterparts, but the thought of man in fairyland is so horrible that they hesitate to exercise it. There is, however, one consideration that weighs with them, namely, that man, the brute, might by contact with their life immaculate become comparatively respectable. This quaint conceit is expressed in a style that is very characteristic of the author in the following duet, which we are permitted to quote, for two of the leading fairies:--
DARINE. Man is a being
Of every vice detestable;
To virtue blinded, he pursues
A course that's unarrestable.
Yet if we let one man of shame
Observe our lives immaculate,
He would (returning whence he came)
Ecstatically ejaculate -
The pure alone
Know true content!"
These tidings good,
No doubt, he would
Zayda. Man is a
brute, oppressed by strange
Enlighten him, and you will change
His normal immorality.
If we exhibited to some
Our course of life delectable,
They might in course of time become
Oh, picture then
Our joy sublime,
If mortal men
Became in time--
Suppose we say,
In guarded way,
It is agreed that there is truth in this point of view, and two mortals are summoned from the earth—counterparts of the fairies’ brothers and like them in face and form, and played by the same actors. Instead, however, of being the pure angelic creatures that they were, they are, Sir William pointed out, barbaric knights of Hunnish type.
At the moment when the two knights are summoned from the earth they are engaged in a terrific combat with double-handled swords. After they have recovered from their surprise they continue the duel, and one is wounded. Selene, the Queen of the Fairies, tends his wounds, and takes him to her bower, where he remains several hours. The fairies are all greatly shocked. The evil passions that love brings in its train are let loose. Selene is dethroned, and Darine is elected to be Queen in her place.
“I do not wish to say,” Sir William added, “how the opera ends; I would rather keep that as a surpsrise. It may be said, however, that the story, which begins as light comedy and becomes, in the second act, broad comedy, eventually merges into very strong drama, almost tragic. It thus differs from other operas, and to this extent it is experimental. If it succeeds, I hope to follow it with other pieces of the same class.
“Everyone is very sanguine about it, and the music appears to me to be extraordinarily beautiful, equal to anything I have ever had. But, then, I am not an expert. I only speak from the public point of view, and I regard it as very beautiful and, when quaintness is needed, very quaint.”
As to the principals, Sir William expressed himself delighted with their performances. Mr. Workman, who in the early part of the opera is a serving fairy, becomes the Knights’ henchman, with a whimsical song, which Sir William is good enough also to allow us to quote, of the lady in the case:
In yonder world, which
With worry, grief, and pain in plenty,
This maxim is accounted true
With nemine dissentiente:
A woman doth the mischief brew,
In nineteen cases out of twenty!
woman doth the mischief brew,
In nineteen cases out of twenty!
In all the woes
That joy displace,
In all the blows
That bring disgrace
On much enduring human race,
There is a lady in the case!
Yes, that's the fix
We have to face--
Her whims and tricks
Throughout you trace.
In all the woes that curse our race
There is a lady in the case.
that's the fix
They have to face
If woman from great
Were utterly eliminated,
Unruffled peace would reign supreme,
No quarrels would be propagated.
But that is a Utopian dream
Of mortals unsophisticated.
CHORUS. But that is a Utopian dream
Of mortals unsophisticated!
It's true that foes
Might then embrace,
All earthly woes
But where would be the human race
With never a lady in the case?
Yes, that's the rub
We have to face--
It gives a snub
That kills the case
What would become of all our race
With never a lady in the case?
that's the rub
That kills their case.
“Miss Nancy McIntosh, who plays the part of Selene, the Fairy Queen, made her debut in ‘Utopia,’ and has since played,” Sir William recalled, “in several operas associated with me. She then went for two years to New York, where she played Shakespearean parts. She has great gifts as an actress and a wonderful capacity for delivering blank verse. Miss Madie [sic] Hope comes from the Gaiety and the Playhouse with a high reputation as a singer and an actress, which she has fully justified at rehearsal. She is a very great acquisition and plays the part of Darine, who, after the revolt, is crowned as Queen in the place of Selene. Miss Jessie Rose plays a light comedy part among the fairies. She is distinguished for her brightness, for the clearness of her enunciation, and for her general capacity as an actress. She has been playing at the Savoy the parts that were identified with Miss Jessie Bond, and playing them admirably. Miss Ethel Morrison, who has also a good part, has a most beautiful contralto voice, like the late Miss Rosina Brandram’s. In Mr. Claude Flemming and Mr. Leo Sheffield we have two fine baritones and excellent actors. The whole of the company are distinguished for their clearness of enunciation; we have paid particular attention to that.
“The conductor is Mr. Hamish McCunn—a composer of distinction, whose suggestions at rehearsal have been particularly valuable.
“Judged by the models, the scenery in cloudland painted by Mr. Harker, is also very beautiful,” Sir William added. There is a further novelty, in addition to the dramatic turn that is taken by the story. There is no male chorus.
“Fallen Fairies – Tonight’s New Opera at the Savoy.” Daily Sketch, Wednesday, December 15, 1909.
“Fallen Fairies” – Tonight’s New Opera at the Savoy
SOME GILBERT STORIES
To-night may mean much for the gaiety of nations, particularly for the English-speaking races. The question to be answered this evening at the Savoy Theatre is, “Are Gilbert and German as good as Gilbert and Sullivan?”
The comic opera, “Fallen Fairies,” to be produced to-day, with Mr. C.H. Workman as the principal comedian, is practically a new one. Nearly 38 years ago William Schwenck Gilbert, then a barrister with a growing fame for writing skittish verse, was responsible for a comic opera, “”The Wicked World,” which had a long run at the Haymarket Theatre. That play, in which Mr. and Mrs. Kendal, J.B. Buckstone, and Amy Roselle appeared, Sir William has re-written at his leisure. The three acts have been compressed into two, many new Gilbertian touches have replaced the old, there are fresh lyrics, and the story ends differently. But the great thing is that as composer to the arch-funmaker of the age, Mr. Edward German, long famous for his dainty music, has replaced the late Sir Arthur Sullivan as music-creator to the Savoyards.
NOTHING BUT GILBERT.
How will the work of the pair strike the public to-night? Success probably means a further flow of Gilbertian wit, for though Sir William is well past the three score years and ten, and though he has a ducal mansion and estate on the western fringe of London, he is still a keen worker. Day after day he has spent long, arduous hours at the Savoy rehearsing the company, for he is not only an unrivalled stage manager, but he insists upon supervising very detail, from the engagement of the actors to the exact position a singer shall occupy whilst he is facing the footlights. In a Gilbert production comedians do not invent their own “business,” as in a pantomime, and there is never any “gagging.” The performance is Gilbert first, Gilbert last, and Gilbert all the time.
As to the music by Mr. German, we can but hope, and hearken to Sir William, who says: “It is extraordinarily beautiful—equal to anything I have ever heard—and quaint when quaintness is necessary.” That must mean that the mantle of Sullivan has fallen upon German, and that the new composer, like the old, sees humour with the same eyes as the author.
Granting this, we may expect the people to demand more, and we may picture Sir William, in his great library at Grim’s Dyke, lying back in his favourite old armchair to think out fresh fancies and frolics of phrases for the entertainment of countless thousands.
A LITTLE LAND OF LOVELINESS.
Sir William, of course, has more money than ever he can spend, and Grim’s Dyke has delights by the dozen to help him pass pleasant days. On this Harrow estate there are woodlands, an old-world moat, a model farm, avenues, valleys, rose walks, gardens, vineries, terraced walks, with steps which remind one of Dorothy Vernon at Haddon Hall, a lake, an observatory—in fact, the whole place is a little land of loveliness. Then the splendid house, with its noble rooms, furniture of all periods, pictures, plate, curios, and statuary is a sheer joy to the lucky guest of the brightest brained man of his day.
It is a common saying that, while London attracts the cleverest men of the Empire, few great Britons were born in the Metropolis. Well, if this be true, then Sir W.S. Gilbert is one of the few, for he first saw the light of day in a historic house just off the Strand, and his ancestors for generations have lived in London. He was born on November 18, 1838, and can remember a grandfather who wore a pigtail and Hessian boots, plus other garments of a by-gone age.
Sir William attended school at Ealing, and had for master that renowned pedagogue, Dr. Nicholas, whom W.M. Thackeray wrote of as Dr. Tickle-us. Had the Crimean War lasted a little longer than was the case, the light literature of the second half of the nineteenth century might have been robbed of its brightest star, for young Gilbert was about to become an officer in the Royal Artillery when hostilities ceased and further fighters were not required. [?? - my copy is hard to read] The young man was offered a commission in the Royal Aberdeenshire Highlanders, but it was guns or nothing for him, and he chose the law in preference to a foot regiment.
MET SULLIVAN 40 YEARS AGO.
Such a peaceful occupation gave him an opportunity to develop his genius for humorous verse, so before long he left the court for the theatre. Gilbert’s first meeting with Sullivan was at the old Gallery of Illustration just over forty years ago. The young author was then writing “The Palace of Truth,” in which figured a musical impostor, who talked bewildering technicalities to demonstrate his knowledge of the art. Gilbert, knowing little of music, turned to a learned treatise for words to put into the mouth of his posing character, and thus he made up a startling sentence containing such staggerers as “the tetrachord of Mercury” and “diatonic intervals.” When casually introduced to Sullivan, Gilbert fired off his weird and wonderful phrases in the form of a question, and, naturally, the composer, alarmed at this apparent display of theoretical knowledge, said he would have to think his answer out. But answer came there none in all the years of friendship.
[The following is not an actual interview, but seems worth including.]
Nettleton, George H. “A Visit to Sir William S. Gilbert,” from Correspondence column of The Nation 93.2405 (Aug. 3, 1911), 96-97 (Dillard 138).
TO THE EDITOR OF THE NATION:
SIR: Little more than a year ago I was privileged to visit Sir William S. Gilbert at his home in Harrowweald [sic] and to hear him talk intimately of his dramatic effort and aims. Some reminiscences of our conversation may be suggestive to those who have regarded Gilbert chiefly as the librettist of “Pinafore” and “The Mikado” and as the author of popular comedies.
Gilbert’s own interest lay primarily in his serious poetic dramas. “Broken Hearts,” “Gretchen,” and “The Wicked World” were, he said, his own favorite plays. As the talk turned on the question whether in “Gretchen” the heroine’s sudden yielding to sin was probable, I was forced to confess that there seemed to me no natural reason for the change of character. I was quite taken aback at the answer: “Just so. The explanation is unnatural. It is diabolical power—the Satanic spell that Gretchen cannot resist. The Faust legend is sufficient authority for any improbabilities of dramatic action.” As Gilbert went on to press the point, he seemed to suggest a reason why his poetic dramas are often unconvincing. He was content at times to let his characters escape irksome conformity to the laws of nature and to hold them accountable only to the lax laws of fairlyand.
Of Gilbert’s extraordinary sensitiveness to adverse criticism I had remarkable proof. Though he was scrupulously faithful to the minutest detail of rehearsals, he confessed, to my amazement, that he had never dared to attend a single actual public performance of even the most popular of his dramatic or operatic successes.
“What, never!” I ventured.
“Well, hardly ever!” he replied, with a twinkle. “In fact, really the sole exception that I recall was a production of “The Mikado” in German. They persuaded me to go, and it was”—he leaned forward confidentially—“rotten.” Then he added: “I have always been fearful of failure. In the theatre there is always something that may go wrong. The risk of seeing my own failure in public—no, I cannot brave that.”
Other proofs of Gilbert’s peculiar sensitiveness were frequent. He had just produced a new opera, “Fallen Fairies,” based on his early poetic play, “The Wicked World,” but the fairies had fallen upon somewhat stony ground. That his expectations had not been met fully had evidently cut to the quick. Again, I had just been reading the volume on Gilbert by Edith A. Browne in the series called Stars of the Stage. As the author’s preface acknowledges a debt to Gilbert for biographical information, I ventured to ask his opinion of the work. “Don’t ask me,” he said. “Part way through the book she said some things that I couldn’t bear about my poetic plays. I never read the rest of it. Usually, you know, Lady Gilbert is my press censor. She reads all the press notices, but lets me see only those she thinks I will like. I tremble at reviewers.” Still another evidence of Gilbert’s feeling came by merest chance. I had been speaking of a successful amateur revival of his delightful extravaganza, “Engaged,” and to his passing phrases about its whimsical absurdity I thoughtlessly rejoined that nothing in the play itself seemed to me so absurd as the criticism on it which interpreted it as a bitter and cruel caricature of mankind. “Did somebody say that of ‘Engaged’?” queried Gilbert. It was too late to retreat, and I had to tell of the pages in the book of Filon, the French critic, on “The English Stage,” in which he finds something almost of Swift’s saeva indignatio underlying the playful topsy-turvydom of Gilbert’s fancy. “And they call that dramatic criticism in France, do they?” said Gilbert gently. “Could any one have misconceived ‘Engaged’ more perfectly?”
Another trait which Gilbert revealed was his attention to details. The themes of many of his operas, he said, had come to him by chance. A Japanese sword hanging on his library wall had suggested the picturesque setting of “The Mikado,” a Venetian picture that of “The Gondoliers.” The chromo of a beef-eater placarded as an advertisement at a railway station had been sufficient hint for “The Yeomen of the Guard.” I remarked that such instances suggested intuition rather than accident. “Well,” said Gilbert, “I suppose there is a knack in observing trifles. Most people are too busy to bother with petty details.”
Since the advent of “Gilbert and Sullivan opera” the mirth-loving public has been loath to let its most delightful jester put aside cap-and-bells. Doubtless this English Yorick was a fellow of infinite jest, yet if I essayed to pluck out the heart of his mystery, I should take a hint from one who interpreted the English humorists of an earlier age. “Harlequin without his mask,” says Thackeray, “is known to present a very sober countenance, … a man full of cares and perplexities like the rest of us, whose Self must always be serious to him, under whatever mask or disguise or uniform he presents it to the public.”
GEORGE HENRY NETTLETON.
Yale University, July 16.
Interviews of Sullivan
A TALK WITH MR. SULLIVAN
THE COMPOSER OF “PINAFORE” AT HIS HOME.
HIS REMARKABLE SUCCESSFUL CAREER AND HIS PLANS FOR THE FUTURE—THE ANTICIPATED VISIT TO NEW-YORK WITH GILBERT—THEIR NEW PIECE.
LONDON, July 18. – Some dozen years ago I met a pleasant, genial young man who was introduced to me as the coming English musical composer. It was at a London club, and the stranger informed me that his first work of any great importance would be produced at the Worcester Festival. I had business in the ancient city at that time, the Summer of 1868. At the grand civic breakfast, which opened the musical meeting, I sat beside my London friend and saw him conduct his first oratorio, “The Prodigal Son,” a work full of that gift of melody and splendid orchestration which has since been developed in so many directions, and which has placed Dr. Sullivan in the first rank of English composers. Since that happy and hopeful time I have watched this musician’s career with interest and with admiration. Knowing something of his great capacity, his earnestness, and the struggle which honest art encounters and must overcome to be successful in these days, I am the better enabled to bear testimony to the industry and the private and public worth of a composer whose music at this moment is delighting the people of all English-speaking countries. His contemplated visit to New-York, and the interest which we all feel in the career of celebrities—their persons, manners, habits, and characters—induced me to ask Dr. Sullivan to let me pay him, not only a friendly visit, but one of a professional character—not exactly to interview him, but to chat with him, having regard to the publication of a personal sketch. He consented, and Tuesday last found me ringing his bell at No. 9 Albert Mansions, Victoria-street. Ushered into an outer room, I was asked to be good enough to wait for my host, while he concluded an interview with a foreigner who had called unexpectedly. The room was not unfamiliar to me, but I looked round it with a view to this letter. It was a large square room on the ground floor of the splendid series of chambers which may be said to have introduced the now popular flats of London. The walls were partly covered with a very miscellaneous collection of pictures, chiefly photographs and engravings. There was a fine portrait of Beethoven, another of the Prince of Wales, with the autograph “Albert Edward.” There was a series of pictures of Paris, some of them illustrative of the troublous days of the Commune. There were shelves filled with books in many departments of literature, including dissertations upon music, historical works, poems, and novels. If Mr. Sullivan is to be judged by his library, he is a man of wide and varied reading, and his literary recreation is not confined to English works, but embraces the miscellaneous studies of France and Germany. There were two tables in the room, each covered with papers, letters, pamphlets, writing materials, and other indications of work and business. On the shelves and mantel-piece were a few articles of bric-à-brac, some old china, a bust or two of celebrities, and on the floor a guitar and a musical box. One end of the room was partly cut off by one of those delightful screens which are now so common in English houses, made up of mounted pictorial scraps. You could see at once that the apartment was that of a bachelor, and a bachelor of artistic taste.
Presently the young composer, who is a Doctor by the honorary action of Cambridge University, came to welcome me from the adjoining room. A man of medium height, broad-shouldered, well-built, Dr. Sullivan at once impresses you with his power. He is decidedly handsome. The expression of his face is sympathetic: it has a touch of Orientalism, is dark, and the features are mobile. Black, wavy hair is brushed away from a compact, intellectual forehead. They eyes are dark, the nose sensitive, the jaw and chin indicating firmness and strength of character. Like many Englishmen, Dr. Sullivan wears side whiskers and a mustache; unlike many Englishmen, he is a man with whom you are at home at once. Frank, easy, and unaffected in his manners, he is the sort of person whom America is sure to like the moment it sets eyes on him. He was born in London on the 13th of May, 1842. His first systematic instruction in music was commenced at the Chapel Royal under the Rev. Thomas Helmore, and at the age of 14 he was still a chorister when he gained the Mendelssohn scholarship, founded at the Royal Academy of Music by Jenny Lind. He studied harmony under Mr. Sterndale Bennett, who was afterwards knighted, and under Mr. Goss, who received similar honors at the hands of her Majesty. When he left the Academy he went to Leipsic, where he remained three years at the Conservatorium. In 1861, he came back to England the author of that new music to Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” which first gained him recognition among musicians. His next work was the cantata “Kenilworth,” which was produced with distinguished success at the Birmingham Festival in 1864. His compositions from this time followed each other with remarkable rapidity, each work strengthening his reputation; namely, the “Symphony in E,” played at the Crystal Palace in 1865; his overture, “In Memoriam,” one of the attractions of the Norwich Festival in 1866; his “Marmion” music at the Philharmonic in 1867; his oratorio of “The Prodigal Son,” the principal original work in the programme of the Worcester festival in 1868; his “Overtura di Ballo,” at the Birmingham Festival of 1879; “On Shore and Sea,” at the International Exhibition of 1871; the festival Te Deum, to commemorate the recovery of the Prince of Wales, produced at the Crystal Palace in 1872, and his oratorio, “The Light of the World,” which was the chief attraction of the famous Birmingham Festival of 1873. There is hardly any branch of musical composition which Dr. Sullivan has not touched, though, from a monetary point of view, the encouragement to write classical music is not very great in England. Mr. Sullivan probably received as much for one of his popular songs as he obtained for his oratorios, each of which cost him a year’s hard work. Among his most successful ballads of a sentimental nature are “Once Again,” “Looking Back,” “Will He Come?” “Sweethearts,” “Let Me Dream Again,” and “The Lost Chord.” [sic punct] Some of these have sold as many as 50,000 copies, and the waltz founded upon “Sweethearts” has by this time possibly reached a sale of 100,000. But it seems probable that the success which gives a man comfortable quarters and a carriage and pair is destined to come out of Dr. Sullivan’s dramatic compositions in collaboration with his friend Mr. W.S. Gilbert. These are: “Trial by Jury,” produced at the Royalty in 1875; “The Zoo” [sic] in the same year; “The Sorcerer” at the Opera Comique in 1877, and the “Pinafore” in 1878. It is notable in regard to the latter work that its wildest success, from an artistic point of view, has been obtained in the United States.
Dr. Sullivan conducted me into his private room, similar in size, more comfortable in furniture than the one I had just left. On the walls were more miscellaneous pictures, including the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh adorned with their autographs, a photograph of Long’s exquisite study of “An Ancient Custom,” a sketch of Jerusalem, and on the mantel-shelf innumerable cards of invitation to at homes, dinners, and receptions. There were lounges and easy chairs here and there, a grand piano, candle lamps, and a portion of the score of the new opera which is to be produced in New-York.
“I am glad you came to-day,” said Dr. Sullivan, stirring the fire which was blazing on the hearth, although the day was the middle of the English Summer, “because to-morrow I am going away to rest for three months. I have struggled against the necessity of it, but my doctor, Sir Henry Thompson, and others, insist upon it. I have been suffering from a troublesome complaint of the kidneys, and am advised that unless I take care I may have to lay up altogether. It is rather a serious business for me just now. It compels me to give up my annual engagement in connection with the Covent Garden concerts, and to put aside a great deal of very important business. I shall, however, be able, I hope, to occupy myself all the time with the new piece.”
In regard to his visit to the United States, he said: “I have only one fear, and that is the kindness of my friends, for I have many on the other side of the Atlantic, and I should like to join them heartily in anything they may do to make the time pleasant and agreeable. But, as you know, I am, though a good deal before the public, rather a quiet man. The only prominent chair I care to sit in is the one I occupy when I am conducting; but I have too great a sense of the kindness of our friends in New-York not to reciprocate in every way their sympathy and good-fellowship. I hope we shall sail early in October, though until Mr. D’Oyley [sic] Carte returns to London our arrangements will not be quite complete.”
“There is a good deal of gossip about the new piece. It has been said that the idea is a sort of dramatized ‘Bab Ballad,’ in which six burglars and six policemen help you to characteristic choruses.”
“Ah, that,” said Sullivan, handing me a cigar, “was an idea we had for a short piece; but we have introduced it into the latter part of the new opera, which will be in two acts, like the ‘Pinafore.’ The notion chiefly develops a bit of burlesque of Italian opera. It is a mere incident. An old gentleman returns home in the evening with his six daughters from a party. Nice bit of soft music takes them off for the night. Then a big orchestral crash, which introduces six burglars. They commence their knavish operations in a mysterious chorus, lights down. Presently the old gentleman thinks he hears some one stirring; comes on; of course, sees nobody, though the burglars are actively at work. The noise is only the sighing of the wind, or the gentle evening breeze. The old gentleman and the burglars perform a bit of concerted music, and in due course the six ladies enter. The six burglars are struck with their beauty, forget their villainous purposes, and make love. Chorus of burglars and old gentleman’s daughters, whose announcement that they are ‘wards in Chancery’ creates great consternation among the bandit lovers. Then there is the policemen’s rescue and other humorous conceits of Gilbert, which I hope and believe will be as funny as anything in the ‘Pinafore’ or ‘The Sorcerer.’”
Sullivan laughed heartily as he suggested to me the points of this episode, suiting the action to the word, the word to the action; and we fell into a general conversation about Gilbert’s work.
“We get on together admirably,” said the Doctor. “His ideas are as suggestive for music as they are quaint and laughable. His numbers never fail; they are never a foot too short or too long, and they always give me musical ideas. When first we commenced this kind of thing we did not expect to make the success we have achieved. ‘Trial by Jury,’ for instance. After we had rehearsed it until the people were dead perfect, and the title-piece went as smoothly as possible, it seemed to fall flat on both our intelligences.”
“You knew too much about it possibly; and after all there is a great deal of drudgery in rehearsing, which becomes wearisome and must often put you out of conceit with your best ideas.”
“I expect that is so, for on the first night, the public coming in fresh to it, the piece went, as you know, with immense éclat. But our greatest surprise is the success of ‘Pinafore’ in America. It seemed to us that the subject was rather local than general. On the first night, I remember, Gilbert’s opinion was that it would answer our purpose; it would run for a few months, by which time we should have to prepare something to succeed it. There is one thing, I fancy, in favor of these pieces--let us call them eccentric operas—they are in a new and original vein, and I also hope that the fact of their being harmless on moral grounds, untainted by double entendre, works which may be performed before any audience, has also something to do with their popularity.”
“Some people think that you should dedicate your talents to grand opera.”
“Yes. Those people know nothing of the difficulties which that opinion suggests. There is no grand operatic theatre open to the English composer. Gilbert and myself, I think I may say it without vanity, could accomplish something worthy in that direction; but we are not prepared to work on speculation. The musical field for English composers is quite limited. I am very fond of dramatic composition, and think I succeed best in that line; but I have no other opportunity except that which is offered by theatres which can produce such works as those I have already done. I believe I am the only English composer who lives by composing. It is true, I conduct, but that is only incidental to my professional occupation. You would hardly believe how many persons of real capacity as composers find it utterly impossible to make bread and cheese. I have been peculiarly fortunate. It is true I have worked hard all my life, but I have made money and valuable friends. It is not only necessary in art that you should be a master of your profession, but that you should have favorable opportunities of exercising it. I have been lucky in this respect and am always anxious to acknowledge it and to make some return for my good fortune by doing what I can to help those who are struggling upward. My correspondence every day is no inconsiderable business. I receive 30 or 40 letters every morning. I am obliged to employ a shorthand writer to assist me in answering them. The majority of them are from persons seeking advice or appointments, wanting chances to sing or play, and soliciting my professional aid. I do as much as I can for them, not simply from ordinary feelings of humanity, but, as I say, out of gratitude for my own success.”
“I am glad you have spoken of this, because it enables me to mention your intimacy with some members of the royal family.”
“Yes. My particular friend is the Duke of Edinburgh. He has always been most kind, and I am sorry some of his newspaper critics do not know him as well as I do. If they did, they would understand that what they often consider a haughty and reticent manner is the result of an innate modesty of character and unostentatious good nature. This peculiar lamp you see on the piano came to me a year or two ago from the Duke, sent all the way from Russia. He was looking over a store in St. Petersburg, saw it, and it occurred to him, having seen me scoring an oratorio by candle-light, that this would be useful; and when you think how many claims Princes have upon their time and attention, you will understand I appreciate this little remembrance of me so far away. The sympathy which the royal English family has for art and for artists is quite a prominent characteristic. There is nothing more charming than their manner and treatment of you when they come to know you. Once introduced to them, they never forget you. For instance, if the Prince of Wales were to come in now and I presented you to him and you did not meet him again for several years, he would know you at once, he would remember where he met you, and show that he did so by possibly asking you if you had lately seen me. This is a faculty which the English royal family cultivate, and which, supplementing their natural kindness, makes them so popular among people who know them. It is not long since the Queen asked me to do some little trifle for her in the way of my profession. It was a very small matter, which I should do for you or for any friend without expecting any acknowledgment; yet I got from the Queen a charming autograph letter about it. A few days ago I said to the Duke of Edinburgh I should like, before I went to America, to complete my set of portraits of the royal family with one of the Queen, but I supposed it was probably out of the question to ask for it. He said he would see about it when an opportunity offered. By the next post I receive this letter.”
He handed me a large envelope which contained a photograph of the Queen, bearing her own autograph, and a very charming letter from the Duke of Edinburgh, who said that the moment he had mentioned the subject to her Majesty, she had taken from a cabinet this picture and written her name upon it and requested him to forward it.
“And now, good-bye,” I said, in due course, “and thank you very much for being so good as to let me take up so much of your valuable time.”
“Not at all,” he said; “I am very glad to have had this pleasant chat before I go away to try to get well. Present me to your American friends after your own sense of good taste.”
“I shall only strive to depict you as you are. Bon voyage, and a happy and quick return!”
“An Interview with Cerberus.” New York Herald, Dec. 4, 1879. (reprinted in The Musical World 57.51 [Dec. 20, 1879], 811-812; transcription from The Musical World, which presumably Anglicised the spelling)
An Interview with Cerberus.
(From the “New York Herald,” December 4th.)
“Damme, it’s too bad!”
In a cosy corner of the Brunswick Café a representative of the Herald yesterday found Messrs Arthur Sullivan, D’Oyly Carte, and Alfred Cellier at lunch, and it being an apt opportunity, he sought an interview with the three gentlemen while they were enjoying their cigarettes and café noir. It appears that Her Majesty’s Ship Pinafore has not been launched by them in this country without trouble. While they have received every possible favour from the public and the most satisfactory cooperation on the part of the principal artists and the chorus of their company, the moment the orchestra ascertained that money might be made by blackmailing—no other words than “blackmailing’ describes their actions so well—certain persons connected with the Musical Mutual Protective Union in that orchestra insisted that the written contract should be ignored and another demand enforced. Colonel Mapleson had the same trouble, and for the moment was compelled to yield, because the malcontents, as in the present instance, caught him on the edge of an important performance. This seems to be their game. Happily, however, for the public good, a movement is on foot that will enable our best musicians to find employment and protection outside of any “Union.”
Mr D’Oyly Carte, the manager of Messrs Gilbert and Sullivan’s company, was the first gentleman to answer the inquiries of the interviewer concerning the difficulty, and he very modestly and succinctly recited the following history of the trouble:
“Applications were made to Mr Sullivan and myself by different gentlemen who desired to be engaged in the orchestra. Asking their terms, the reply was, “About 20 dollars a week.” Subsequently the figures were reduced to between 17 and 18 a week. These propositions came from accredited members of the Musical Union, and notably from one gentleman, who, we are informed, occupies a high position in that organisation. We referred them to Mr John T Ford, part of whose contract it was to supply the orchestra. Twenty-seven gentlemen were engaged; the contracts were duly signed, and the rehearsals took place. My impression is that after the contract was signed Mr Ford was induced to make some further concession on account of the matinées. Everything went on swimmingly until about three o’clock on the afternoon of Monday—mark you, this was just before the initial performance—the entire band ‘struck’ and insisted on receiving 25 dollars a week, or, as their spokesman said, ‘they would not go into the orchestra.’ We were in a dilemma, and Colonel McCall, representative of Mr Ford, having no other resource, and unwilling to disappoint the public, gracefully yielded to their demand. On Tuesday a consultation was held with Mr Sullivan, when, as he will tell you, he, in a not very pleasant mood, announced his determination to dispense with the services of the orchestra if they persisted in their intention, and to conduct the opera with his own piano accompaniment, assisted by Mr Alfred Cellier, his old Covent Garden conductor, on the harmonium. Meanwhile he proposes to cable his London orchestra, and in fifteen days be independent of all these annoyances.”
“Do you regard the demand of the orchestra as unjust?”
“Yes, because the members of orchestras elsewhere in the city are receiving much less. There are few theatres where they get more than 18 or 20 dollars a week, and there are a number where they receive less. The excuse they give is that because Mr Sullivan conducts in person the event is invested with unusual importance, and they are therefore entitled to larger pay.”
Mr Cellier, who is well known in foreign musical circles, here interposed the remark:--
“It ought to be said in this connection, as a matter of justice to the majority of our orchestra, that the action taken is traceable to but few parties, and that the rest ought to be held comparatively blameless.” “I agree with you perfectly,” observed Mr Sullivan, “but what is justifiable in their action? They have disregarded their written contract, and that is an experience quite new to me among gentlemen who belong to our profession.”
“And you have known nothing of this kind in England?”
“Nev--; I can scarcely recall a similar incident. To put it plain, in England we should call such treatment swindling, and probably in our courts the parties would be indictable for a conspiracy to obtain money by coercion.”
“Then such an organisation is unknown abroad?”
“Yes, so far as its control of management is concerned. We have our music benevolent societies and similar institutions, but nothing interferes with the bread and butter of a musician.” “My theory,” said Mr Cellier, “is that managers should combine and employ no man who belongs to a union that attempts to control their business.” “You remember,” observed Mr Carte, “that an agreement was made in England some years ago by the provincial managers not to give a certain percentage of the gross receipts to travelling combinations. A meeting of the leading managers of London was promptly called, and we bound ourselves to send out no companies at all unless the resolution was rescinded. The result was that in less than a fortnight, figuratively speaking, the malcontents were on their knees.” “Yes,” remarked Mr Sullivan, “and if the managers of New York and other cities would pursue the same course, all this evil of which we are now the subject, and of which I understand, Mr Mapleson has had a taste, would be averted.”
“There certainly,” said Mr Cellier, “ought to be free trade in art, if in nothing else.”
“What I most regard in a professional point of view,” observed Mr Sullivan, “is the fact that the cultivated musicians, the men who have spent their lives in hard study, who have come from conservatories and are earning their daily bread by teaching or in other musical pursuits, are forced into competition with other musicians of a lower grade, who spend their time during the day on other pursuits, and consider an hour or two in the orchestra with much the same practical interest that they contemplate the repairing of an old shoe. I mean to say that here is a difference between your trained professionals and your mere machines.” “I am of the belief,” said Mr Carte, “that it is these machines—the mere mechanics and speculators in music—who are making our trouble.”
“If the matter remains unsettled, what will you do, Mr Sullivan?”
“Promptly telegraph to London for my own people to come. In twelve days I can put before yonder curtain one of the best Pinafore orchestras in the world. Meanwhile, as Mr Carte has mentioned, I will, if necessary, conduct the performance on a grand piano assisted by my conductor, Mr Cellier, on a harmonium—and I am not sure that Pinafore will not even then be presented in a manner that the New York public will thoroughly enjoy.”
“I infer from some of your remarks that you have nothing to do with the business department?”
“Nothing whatever beyond the ratification of contracts. The night before I left England I signed engagements for eighty-five nights at Covent Garden.”
“Changing the subject, what is your opinion of our orchestras—that is, presuming you have heard some of them?”
“Your question is one that I prefer not to answer in full, because I have not attended the Philharmonic concerts and probably not heard the best of your musical work. At the opera, however, and in the instrumentation elsewhere, it has occurred to me that the tone is much thinner than it is with us in England.” “Yes,” added Mr Cellier, “and the pitch is higher—I should say a good quarter of a tone—than that of our Covent Garden orchestra. The pianos are also of a very high pitch.” “And again,” continued Mr Sullivan, “I think that, as a class, your instruments are inferior. In England the players take pride in securing the best that are obtainable, and they make many sacrifices in saving money to purchase them. The result is shown in a much stronger effect than I have yet heard produced in America. We have at home, at Covent Garden concerts, sixteen first violins, sixteen seconds, ten violas, ten ’cellos, and ten double basses, and I fancy that they give a larger quality of tone than you hear from any similar organization in America.”
“Do you find that our musicians favourably compare with your own?”
“Undoubtedly,” replied Mr Sullivan. “I have found among them some of the best, but the wonder to me is that some of the worst are permitted to exert a controlling influence in your Musical Union, and push the really deserving ones to the wall.” “In fact,” said Mr Carte, “if a number of supers were to combine with the utility people in a theatre and insist that they should receive the same pay as the leading gentleman or the star, it would be not less presumptuous than the action of the cheap musicians who are running this Musical Union.”
“What is the chief difference between your orchestration of ‘Pinafore’ and that which you have heard in New York, Mr Sullivan?”
“Frankly speaking, and without desiring to be offensive, what American interpretations of Pinafore I have heard are merely bold productions of the piano score arranged for a number of instruments instead of one. Consequently there is no delicacy, poetry, or colour in the accompaniment. My first object in instrumentation is to give a thorough support to the voices, and, at the same time, never allow my vanity to run into the danger of overwhelming them. There is always a temptation to the composer to fill up the blank spaces on his score, and this I have tried to avoid.”
“But if you play on the Piano as you suggested?”
“Then,” replied the composer, dropping his binocular from his right eye and twinkling merrily with his left—
- “Then, I presume it will be H. M. Pianoforte.”
“Damme, it’s too good!” – exclaimed the interviewer, convulsed with laughter, hurriedly taking precipitous leave, to the “amazement and surprise” of the newly interviewed.
“Workers and Their Work. Sir Arthur Sullivan.” Daily News, no. 12,090, Sat. January 10, 1885, p. 5. (Abridged version reprinted as “An Interview with Sir Arthur Sullivan,” Liverpool Mercury, Monday, Jan. 12, 1885, issue 11546, p. 6; abridged version reprinted in Musical World, 63.4 (24 Jan. 1885), 56-58, as “King Arthur of the Table Round: An Interview with Sullivan,” and Sir Arthur Sullivan Society Magazine no. 56, Summer 2003.)
It is dusk in Victoria-street, London, as Sir Arthur Sullivan stands at his own fireside, smoking his cigarette, which lightens the labour of finishing the score of the new comic opera to be presently read at the Savoy Theatre. On the walls around hang sketches by the Princess Louise, Marchioness of Lorne, a portrait of Jenny Lind, presented to the composer by that admirable artist, and an engraving of Raffaele’s Madonna di San Sisto. In answer to my question, Sir Arthur says—
“As a general matter of habit I write almost entirely at night, when posts have ceased from troubling and omnibuses are at rest. I can do more between twelve and four, when my quiet is entirely undisturbed, than I could get through in the whole day. And as I am not obliged to rise early, it seems as convenient a time for working as any other. You, who know what it is to be perpetually disturbed while writing copy, will at once understand how fatal interruption must be to musical composition. I don’t for an instant infer [sic] that one is easier than the other, yet cannot help thinking that writers can pick up the broken threads of an idea more swiftly than musicians can. It is impossible for us to work to advantage in short spells—bit by bit, as it were—for an hour or so at a time, as I understand one can write or paint. It takes a long time for the musician to get thoroughly hold of his subject, and when he is in full swing he likes to write on and on till he is beginning to get tired. Nobody, I should think, could write any fairly good music when he is fatigued and jaded. I apprehend one must come fresh to any artistic work.”
“You have never undergone the drudgery of teaching?”
“I have given a few lessons, but very few. I began to write early in life, and during the time I was composing serious music went through some little hard times, like other beginners in every art or craft. But instead of teaching for bread I, fortunately, wrote songs, at first for five and then for ten guineas a piece and more. They happened to strike the public taste. Many of these I published on the ‘royalty’ system—so much per copy sold. ‘The Lost Chord’ has brought me a yearly income ever since. The only one of my better known songs that I sold outright was ‘Sweethearts,’ for 700£ to Chappells. I was pleased to get so much money, and I hope and believe my friends did well by the bargain. You know all about ‘Cox and Box’ with Mr. Burnand’s capital words, and my subsequent work with Mr. Gilbert. The sale of the book containing the full score of ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ was almost incredible. The first batch ordered and printed was 30,000. I have a collaborator in Mr. Gilbert, who writes lyrical words in a manner equaled by no living author. Words pretty enough to read are not always effective when sung. Fortune has been very kind to me.”
“It is precisely because you have gained such honours and rewards as to be beyond all suspicion of envy, jealousy, discontent, or disappointment that I ask your opinion on the present and probable future of music and musicians in England.”
“I have been successful in my own country beyond my deserts, and I am always received most cordially abroad. I am, I believe, but am not quite sure, the only English composer of to-day who has had an important work performed by the French Conservatoire. I am to conduct the forthcoming Leeds Festival, and have personally nobody and nothing to complain of. And I do not teach. So I can afford to be outspoken on behalf of my brethren. The knowledge and appreciation of music have enormously increased in this country during the last 20 years, and will probably go on increasing; but I am not so sure that the position of the professional musician will improve in proportion. In England there is a curious preference for musical foreigners. Italians, Frenchmen, and, above all, Germans are preferred both as teachers and executants. For instance, the direction of the Birmingham Musical Festival is considered a sort of blue ribbon among English musicians. It has been given to a foreigner who speaks very little English, against whose ability I have not a word to say, except that a German who cannot speak English appears oddly selected to conduct English choruses.”
“Sir Michael Costa was a foreigner.”
“True; but he was domiciled in England, and, moreover, had a position such as no other person is likely to enjoy. He reigned at once over the Royal Italian Opera and the Philharmonic and Sacred Harmonic Societies. And he was an almost ideal conductor and a sound musician, although not endowed with any special creative faculty. He, of course, conducted the Birmingham Festival for years. This was very different from importing a foreign musician for the occasion.”
“You then hold patriotic views as to art?”
“I know it is laid down that art has no nationality. In a broad sense this is true, but in its particular application to musicians it is very wide of the mark. As a free trader you insist on free-trade in art. Tell me then how English musical executants are received abroad, how an English violinist would get on in a French band, how an English flute player would be accepted in Germany. I am not referring to ‘stars,’ but to good average performers. Look at the conditions of the Paris Grand Opera concerning the production of new operas by French composers! There is no idea of ‘fair trade’ or reciprocity of any kind with regard to ordinary English musicians abroad. But English people, who have excellent professors of their own, prefer Germans to teach the pianoforte to their children. Perhaps they get them cheaper. I do not know, but I should think it very likely [sic] from various incidents which have come to my knowledge. The prejudice in favour of foreign teachers seems to promise badly for the young people whom we are now educating as musicians in this country.”
“The field of labour will grow larger.”
“Not in proportion to the number of bands. There is, I apprehend, imminent danger of the supply outrunning the demand. And so long as distinct preference is shown for foreigners the profession will remain as the only one without prizes. When the greatest distinction that an English musician can achieve is conferred upon a foreigner, not even resident here, what have our young people to look forward to? They are an army of rank and file without hope of commission or command.”
“Or a church without bishoprics.”
“Without deaneries, rectories or even curacies, as long as foreigners are employed in preference to Englishmen. If there were no competent conductors for a great musical festival in this country I would say nothing; but there are several—Mr. Barnby, Mr. Cowen, Mr. Stanford, and others. Foreigners will have nothing to do with our pictures, our books, our music or musicians. Why we run mad after them and their work I do not understand. There seem to be art periods in various countries. That of German music since Bach has been very short. Excepting Wagner, whom it would be too long to discuss, the last great German name is Schumann. Take purely French music from Grétry to Gounod, and tell me what it all amounts to. Now I come to Italian opera. You understand perfectly that I do not mean opera sung for convenience in Italian, as the older scholars wrote in Latin as a common language, but the modern Italian school of opera. The Italian opera of the chief masters, Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini, is dead for a very good reason. These composers of melody wrote for great artists, for a galaxy of wonderful singers who interpreted their work superbly. When these melodies are now sung by an artist of nearly the same calibre everybody will go to hear them; but the operas are not intrinsically strong enough to bear indifferent or even moderate execution. In ‘Semirade’ there is a duet which is good for nothing unless it is sung to perfection. And the famous things in ‘Norma,’ ‘Sonnambula,’ and the ‘Puritani’ require exquisite handling and voices of exceptional power. Just now there is a scarcity of great singers, and Italian opera, properly so-called, is dead, for a time at least, in consequence of the impossibility of adequate performance. The rage now is for everything German in music, just as it is for German clerks in the city.”
“Is not the area of music large enough for all?”
“Not, as I think, for all who are now studying it as a profession in this country to make a living upon. Everybody cannot achieve success as a composer. Playing the organ at church is a help to a young musician but those who hope to live by their art divide themselves naturally into two classes, teachers and executants. I will give you in round numbers an idea of the army of young persons now going through a course of instruction at the public institutions in London. The Royal Academy of Music has 500 students, the Royal College of Music 200, and the Guildhall School of Music, I believe, 1,300 or 1,400. I do not say that all of these—especially the latter—intend to live as professional musicians, but a great number have a hope of doing so. It is, I should think, very foolish to give a son musical training unless he has almost what is called genius, or at least decided talent. Competition will be very great, and the weaker will be thrust to the wall. At this moment a great number of well-taught young musicians are very hard put to it to find anything like employment, remunerative or otherwise. The sheet-anchor of these is supposed to be teaching, but teachers are, owing to many causes, becoming more numerous than pupils. As for the executants, they have to struggle against foreign competition also. The possessor of a very fine voice has an advantage over everybody, but many strive to become singers who are very poorly qualified in that prime necessity. And when singers and instrumentalists are proficient they are met by a serious competitor in the shape of that new development, the musical amateur.”
“Is he or she very formidable?”
“Extremely so as interfering with the bread and butter of the profession. You urge that the general interest of the public in any pursuit must be in favour of those professing it, and quote the prosperity of the theatre as an instance. The cases are not parallel, although there is some similarity between them. You know the theatrical amateur well! Have not you found that he is, as a rule, much more interested in what he acts himself and his friends and rival amateurs act than in studying the method of a genuine actor, except perhaps for low comedy business? He will go sometimes night after night till he learns ‘that bit of business’ with the key or the candlestick, or whatever it is, but he is all the time thinking how nearly he can imitate Brough or Toole, or Terry.”
“Still he goes to the play, and in a manner encourages the drama, as the musical amateur goes to opera, oratorio, and concert.”
“Hardly. I think, on reflection, you will agree with me that musical amateurs as a body go very little to public performances. They care as a body infinitely more for their own singing and playing than for that of the most famous artists. Look at the audiences at the Monday ‘Pops’ and many other concerts. They are composed of the same persons, not of musical amateurs. Many of these sing and play very well, and as nearly everybody likes what is fairly good and costs nothing better than something very good for hard cash, musical amateurs make their own and their friends’ music instead of paying professional performers. Such joys are cheap, and appear to interest the amateur musical mind very much. But they lop off an important item from an artist’s income, just as vast institutions like the Guildhall School of Music deprive private teachers of numerous pupils. I should think half the music of London is performed by amateurs to one another. They have their inner public, their partisans and admirers, just like Handel and Buononcini, Grisi and Lind, Wagner and Gounod. They are perfectly happy among themselves, but afford very slender support to professional musicians.”
“Then you are not hopeful as to the outcome of enlarged musical teaching?”
“It is only as to the craft that I am not very sanguine. It may be excellent for the nation if hard on my brother English musicians. Possibly it is only a phase of a change which may make England a great musical nation. I will not attempt a forecast on this part of the subject. What I see before me is that foreigners are preferred for teaching, and for the great prizes of the highly skilled musician; that amateurs are becoming in a way rivals to the profession [sic] as executants; and that probably a great school like the Guildhall School of Music, with excellent professors, is perhaps a little confused as to its purpose, or is in a manner diverted from its purpose by the public. The latter is quite in consonance with our national genius for giving to those who have. When an educational prize, such as a scholarship, is bequeathed it is competed for and sometimes won by the children of parents who could amply afford to pay for their education without begging from the founder. Our old grammar schools have been treated very much like this, and when cheap and admirable musical education is given for sums not exceeding forty pounds a year, persons of considerable income avail themselves of the opportunity. But the effect is curious. The classes intended to be benefited are cut out, and the intention of the foundation reversed. The Guildhall School of Music gives excellent teaching to intending teachers and also to a crowd of ordinary pupils. It thus educates teachers and takes away the persons to be taught by making the latter its own pupils. Perhaps the right people are sometimes missed, but very rarely I think, for musical capacity is of all that which declares itself early.”
“Shall we ever have a genuine National serious Opera?”
“I know the American saying about prophesy, [sic] so I don’t pretend to know. But it seems likely enough. There is room for something, and this might be created here as well as on the Continent and imported. But many conditions are required for success in operatic management. I apprehend that a successful opera must be played every night to make money. Life is too hurried now to calculate over one opera on Mondays and Wednesdays, another on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and another on Fridays and Saturdays. People will not, I think, do this; and then, if you run your opera every night, you require a double cast—or, as they say in poor coal country, a “double shift”—of singers. Good singers will hardly consent to sing through a grand opera every night. Very few have sufficient physical power, and even they would be wise not to exert it. So there would be difficulties in management apart from competition and execution. You must also consider the rivalry of the concert room. I do not now speak of the great rewards given to the prime donne popular throughout the civilized [sic] world. My remarks are generally concerning musical people, in Mark-lane style, “from fair to middling.” But a good singer now gets as much for singing two or three songs at a concert as for singing through a long and difficult opera, requiring some knowledge of the stage as well. But I yet think that England may become a great musical country, and that before long we may have a National Opera.”
And Sir Arthur Sullivan having finished his cigarette bids me farewell, and addresses himself to his writing table to get on with the score of the new comic opera. It is needless to inform the readers of the Daily News that musical composers do not “tinkle-tinkle” on the pianoforte to develop their ideas, but put them upon paper at once, without piano or other instrumental or vocal accompaniment.
“An Interesting Interview with Sir Arthur Sullivan upon His American Litigation.” Chicago Tribune. July 14, 1885, p. 5.
A cheery “Come in,” and “I am very glad to see you,” followed a rap at Room No. 24 at the Grand Pacific yesterday morning. The speaker was a typical Englishman between five feet five and five feet six in hight, a picture of good nature and good health, and must have tipped the beam at 175 pounds. His beard was worn close-cut, and his hair was parted exactly in the middle. He was dressed in the lightest of apparel, and altogether seemed at ease with the world which had laughed over and enjoyed “Pinafore,” “Patience,” “Iolanthe,” and lastly “The Mikado,” for the speaker was Arthur Sullivan, who had just arrived from New York on his way westward. “I am going directly to Los Angeles,” he said, “where I have six nevvies and nieces ranging from 6 to 21 years. They are children of my brother, who died some years ago. They went West and invested in some property, but two months ago their mother died, when they wrote for me to come out. I shall go directly there, and may stop on my way back. It is very hot for traveling. What you take to cool off is only temporary, you know, but perhaps it is better that it is only temporary,” Mr. Sullivan added with a laugh.
“There seems to be an endless muddle about ‘The Mikado.’”
“Yes; and it is extremely annoying to have it put on the way it must be here by this fellow Rosenfeld, who got all he knows about Japanese customs and everything else about the opera from a dollar score book. Why, do you know, in London the rehearsals lasted for eight weeks. We went to the Japanese Village in London, which contained 200 people and which burned down about a month ago, and brought the people to the theatre so that the production was true down even to the almost inimitable Japanese gestures. The production here must be a remarkable performance indeed, for of all the operas we have written ‘The Mikado’ requires the most from costuming and scenery.”
“How did you ever find that character of Yum-Yum?”
“That was a kind of a pretty-bit, wasn’t it? Do you know some young women came to me in New York to get in ‘The Mikado’ just so they could be called Yum-Yum.”
“You may be surprised to hear that ‘Pinafore’ is running this week in Chicago.”
Mr. Sullivan appeared to be astounded, remarking that he did not think it could be tolerated at this late day. He then spoke of the trouble over the production in this country of his last work. “When Mr. Gilbert and myself were ready,” said he, “for negotiation about ‘The Mikado,’ Mr. J.C. Duff and Mr. John Stetson came over to London to see us about the matter. We favored Mr. Duff, because he had a theatre where the piece could run if it made a success, rather than Mr. Stetson, who had but a short lease. We offered it to Mr. Duff, but he haggled about the price and desired to select his own orchestra, something I insisted upon doing myself or through my agent, which was the same thing. He finally went away, but came back in a few days and asked us for a compromise. We told him it was too late as we had in the meantime closed with Mr. Stetson on the same terms we had offered him. He has since said the production of the piece in this country was public property, but if he believed this why did he come over and offer to pay us for it? It is just as if you had sold a number of watches for $50 and had another one just like them to sell at the same price. I offer you $10, but you will not take that, when I seize the watch and go out of the reach of extradition. They denounce the greed of Carte, my agent. It is not Carte—it is myself—who desires what belongs by right to me. This is too great a country to take the work of authors for nothing.”
“It is the same old question of copyright, that seems no nearer settled now than it did twenty years ago.”
“Yes, it is the old question; but I think there has been a great advance. It is rubbing from American authors as well as English. Every bookstand in England is flooded with American books which have not paid their authors a cent. I do not blame the country, when it was small and had no writers read outside of it, for wishing to obtain reading at the smallest cost; but now it has become intolerable. A ring of publishers in the East has stood in the way of copyright regulations between England and America, but the publishers in the West are bringing them to favor international copyright as a protection against Western competition. I would like to have stopped off in Chicago two or three days and looked about, but this ‘Mikado’ you have here rubs the wrong way. You know what I mean. This Rosenfeld is such a -------- ---------, but don’t publish those words, for he could bring a libel suit against me. The piece I am sure will not be produced until the courts pass upon the points raised. I do not wish to be avaricious, but I am not above money, and what I earn by my work I believe I ought to receive. If I could dispense of the exclusive production of ‘The Mikado’ in districts, say, like the East, the West, and the Pacific Slope, the public would see far better performances than now, for newspapers would be justified in going to greater expense, and the authors would have the satisfaction of having their works produced as they were intended. As it now is there is simply loss all around, as no one ever heard of these piratical fellows making anything in the long run.”
“Have you any works now in preparation?”
“The musical season is now over in London and does not begin again till October. I have the Leeds concerts and the Philharmonic concerts. These are all I have left in active musical direction. The social season, filled with all the rounds of social festivities, is now on, but they do not interest me much. No; I do not yet know how long I shall remain in the West until I learn how much time it will take to straighten out the affairs of my brother’s children.”
“Sir Arthur Sullivan: A Talk With the Composer of “Pinafore.”” San Francisco Chronicle, July 22, 1885. [have photocopy but no page number] (The version of this interview on the Web at http://www.sullivan-forschung.de/intbe.htm is abridged)
The composers [sic] Gilbert and Sullivan, who represent in the musical world the part that Beaumont and Fletcher played in the early days of English literature, have gained a world-wide reputation by their joint productions. The musical member of the copartnership, Arthur Sullivan, who was knighted by the Gladstone ministry at the direction of Queen Victoria, arrived in this city yesterday on a visit to his relations. A CHRONICLE reporter called upon the composer and found the author of “Patience” and “The Mikado” to be a man of small frame, inclined to stoutness, with large black eyes and every feature denoting the Italian blood which he inherited from his mother. In manners and conversation Sir Arthur exhibits that quiet self-repression which seems to be an essentially component characteristic of all men of any force of character. Speaking of his own works, he said:
“Both Mr. Gilbert and myself were very much surprised at the success of ‘Pinafore’ in America. The work is essentially English, dealing with English institutions, and yet the American public seemed to appreciate every point of the libretto and understand the import of the music as a satire on the English navy. It is commonly thought that these various satirical works, with their airy tunes and sprightly plots, are merely light and fanciful pieces. If they are entitled to any claim as compositions, I rely entirely on that underlying vein of seriousness which runs through all my operas. In the composition of the scores I adhered to the principles of art which I had learned in the production of more solid works, and no musician who analyzes the scores of these light operas will fail to find the evidence of seriousness and solidity pointed out.”
“Is it true, then, that you place more dependence on your oratorios, symphonies and hymns as musical works than on your light operas?”
“It is. My sacred music is that on which I base my reputation as a composer. These works are the offspring of my liveliest fancy, the children of my greatest strength, the products of my most earnest thought and most incessant toil. Speaking of these hymns, as I was passing through Utah I stopped at Salt Lake City and visited the Mormon Tabernacle. There I heard sung one of my earliest productions, composed years ago, and set to original words. I was much affected at this recollection of my boyhood and young ambition.”
“To what fact do you attribute the decadence of the Italian school of opera?”
“The Italian school is dead from its own inherent defects. The works of Verdi, Bellini, Rossini and Mercadante are never sung as is necessary to bring forth what merit there is in the composition. The great fault of these great composers was that they wrote for extraordinary voices. As these voices no longer exist, the works cannot be represented as they should. The silver tones of Mario, the godlike strains of Sontag, the divine tones of Grisi, live only as memories. The success of the Italian operas depended upon the wonderful voices of those who sang them. Besides, in analyzing the Italian grand opera, you will find that in a great many cases the most widely divergent emotions and the most opposite sentiment were expressed in the same manner, and depended entirely upon the singer and his dramatic ability to express the true passion. What do I think of the Wagnerian episode? I will tell you. Wagner’s success was greatly due to his personal influence, his iron will and his untiring industry. His chief merit lies in having shown to the musical world the possibilities of operatic music. He has shown us the combination of the drama and the opera, but deviated from his theory or was at fault in practice in concentrating all dramatic effects in the orchestral portions of his work, and subordinating the stage and its action to the orchestra. He has shown us a picture that can be painted, but has not painted it himself.”
“What then is the opera of the future?”
“Oh, your question suggests possibilities of which all true musicians dream, and reveals a vision which seems near and enchanting, but which is far off. The opera of the future is a compromise. I have thought and worked and toiled and dreamt of it. Not the French school, with gaudy and tinsel tunes, its lambent lights and shades, its theatrical effects and clap-trap; not the Wagnerian school, with its somberness and heavy ear-splitting airs, with its mysticism and unreal sentiment; not the Italian school, with its fantastic airs and fioriture and far-fetched effects. It is a compromise between these three—a sort of eclectic school, a selection of the merits of each one. I myself will make an attempt to produce a grand opera of this new school.” Here the eyes of the composer closed and he leaned back in his chair as if lost in thought.
“Yes, it will be an historical work, and it is the dream of my life. I do not believe in opera based on gods and myths. That is the fault of the German school. It is metaphysical music—it is philosophy. What we want are plots that give rise to characters of flesh and blood, with human emotions and human passions. Music should speak to the heart, and not to the head. Such a work as I contemplate will take some time.”
“Sir Arthur Unbosoms Himself.” New York Mirror, Oct. 3, 1885, 2. (quoted in Young, p. 142)
“Sir Arthur will see you if you will step this way,” said a hall boy of the Hotel Brunswick to a representative of THE MIRROR on Monday morning last. Up the broad flight of carpeted steps, and through a long corridor to a door that bore the number “21,” and the scribe’s knock was answered by a cheery “Come in!” The room was elegantly furnished, but even before this fact could be thoroughly noted, the famous composer of Pinafore, The Pirates, The Mikado and a score of other operas, Sir Arthur Sullivan, had stepped forward and cordially greeted the visitor.
“You must, as a representative of the journalistic profession,” he began, as the reporter sat down, “pardon me if I do not feel toward you in the kindly spirit that I ought; but I have an impression that the papers have not acted rightly toward me. If a gentleman comes to me and I treat him as a gentleman, why should he not have the courtesy to treat me in the same way? Instead of that, how have the newspapers spoken of me? They have dilated on the fact that I have a slightly bald head, and that I am stout. Why do they not criticise my work instead of my personal appearance? Then the way one paper spoke of the chorus, it was simply shameful. The ladies of the Mikado company are refined and retiring, and but little like the creatures which are pictured to the public. … Why, yesterday I took the entire company up to West Point on the Sylvan Dell, and we had a most delightful time. It would have surprised you to have seen the musical acquisitions of the company. There was a piano on board, and some of the members played such pieces as Chopin’s waltzes, while the ladies sang, accompanying themselves. The menu was printed on pretty Japanese cards. All of the company—at least those engaged behind the scenes—were with us. At West Point we were shown all about, and enjoyed ourselves greatly.”
“Were you pleased with your reception last Thursday evening?”
“I was both flattered and delighted at the manner in which I was received. Some of the papers have stigmatized my making a speech on that occasion as in bad taste. After a man has been kicked into the gutter and tossed about like a cork in a whirlpool, hasn’t he any right whatever to retaliate? As for the American public itself, I like it very much. They have the instinct of seeing a point and showing their appreciation on the instant that makes it a pleasure for a company to play before them. I have no right to grumble about either the financial or the artistic success of The Mikado at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, for it has been playing, according to the books, to between $9,000 and $10,000 every week.”
“Were you badly disappointed at the Judge’s decision in the Mikado case?”
“Well, I hardly know just what to say about that; but there is one thing I wish to state most distinctly—and that is that I have no wish or desire to complain of the Judge’s ruling. As he himself said, it was not his place to make the law; he was only there to administer it. I am certain that he had no bias in the case, and that if he could have given us the decision he would have done so. Of course, I would much rather have had the decision the other way, for everybody’s sake. This question did not touch the copyright. The Judge’s decision was that the representation by Mr. Duff of my opera with different instrumentation was no violation of anyone’s rights, and was therefore practically justifiable. In point of law, though, I think it is a misrepresentation of my work and should not be allowed. At any rate, I cannot understand why managers should be trying to cut one another’s throats continuously, We were in hopes that the decision of the Judge would be the same as in the cases of Gounod’s Redemption and our Iolanthe in the Massachusetts Circuit, which was directly opposite to that in our case, and both the performances were protected. The Judge held in that case that the work was not given as the composer wrote it, and therefore was not justifiable.
“However, the American public are sharp, and I am much gratified at the large business done by the Fifth Avenue in comparison to the Standard Theatre. I have always said that I would rather play to an American public than any in the world, because they are so appreciative. I think the opera is in for a good run at the theatre, and that it will play there for a long time. In London I think it is likely to run for fully a year yet. This week I shall probably devote a part of my time to rehearsals of McCaull’s Opera company, [sic] and the rest of the week I shall spend in seeing friends. I shall not sail on the Servia next Saturday as I had intended to. It is quite uncertain when I leave, as I have had cablegrams which may alter all my plans. In fact, I may stay three or four weeks longer. I have lots to do in London. I am engaged on a most important sacred work that I am writing for the Triennial Musical Festival at Leeds, the greatest musical festival in all England, and which I conduct as well. This festival lasts a week, and on this occasion there is assembled together the finest band and chorus in the world, numbering altogether about 600 people.”
“Have you any idea of returning to America?”
“Oh, yes. Probably in a couple of years hence. I have family interests in California, and they will probably draw me over again. That reminds me that that is what I came over for this time. It was only by accident that I was here at the time of the production of The Mikado.”
“Can you tell me something about the new opera which Mr. Gilbert and yourself are now writing?”
“Mr. Gilbert is at work on the book now, and all that I know of it is from the papers. I have no idea—not the faintest—as to the subject. There is no necessity for us to hurry it along, for, as I said, The Mikado is likely to run another year yet in London. When I get back Mr. Gilbert will show me what he has written, and we will discuss it. When we are both satisfied with the musical capabilities of the words, then I go to work at the music. The words are always written first, for they give the suggestion for the music. However, I think I’ll hardly be able to write a note for two months after I get back. Speaking of Gilbert’s work, have you noticed what an extraordinary polish there is to his versification? There is never a weak syllable or a halting foot. It is marvellous. He has a wonderful gift, too, of making rhythms, and it bothers me to death sometimes to make corresponding rhythms in music. He will turn up with something in that line occasionally that has never been done before. How he gets them out of his head I don’t know.”
“How long does it take you to write an opera?”
“Generally it takes us about four months, or at least we average that for each work. There is constant discussion. We meet night after night, day after day. He will suggest one alteration and I another. When about half of the opera is finished rehearsals begin, and while these are progressing we will be writing the other half, and thus--save time. We never give less than two months to rehearsals, and that is where we get the perfect ensemble and correctness of detail.”
“Have either yourself or Mr. Gilbert ever been in Japan? The opera is said to be so truthful to life in that empire.”
“Neither of us, but I will tell you how we obtained these accurate details. At the time we were writing the opera, about a year ago, we had in London a regular Japanese village, in which there were about 200 Japanese brought over expressly for the purpose. They built a regular village with streets and shops and tea-houses, and the manager of the concern offered us every facility to obtain information. He was even so kind as to send Japanese up to the Savoy Theatre to rehearse with us. You have seen the girls in the representation put their hands on their knees whenever spoken to, and draw them up toward the lips. That is just as they do. The postures throughout are a part of the dances. These Japanese girls came to rehearse with us, and they taught us one of their dances, which consisted principally of different postures. We couldn’t introduce that into the opera, as it lasted fully half an hour; but we took that same dance, cut it up, and scattered it all over the opera; so that all of the posturing is part of that one dance, and is perfectly accurate. A high Japanese authority visited us and gave us any amount of information regarding the scenes and properties which are used.
“Mr. Mitford, who was for years Secretary of the English legation at Japan, who speaks the language perfectly, and who probably knows more about Japan than any Englishman living, has one of the original dresses worn by the Mikado, and is our authority for both the costume and the queer head-dress which is worn. The costume worn in the opera came also from Japan, and is a true copy of it, though I will not swear that it has ever been worn by a Mikado.”
“The Melody-Maker of the Savoy: A Chat with Sir Arthur Sullivan.” Pall Mall Gazette, issue 7712, Thurs. Dec. 5, 1889. [don’t have page number] (An abridged version appeared in the Pall Mall Budget, Dec. 12, 1889, p. 1578.)
During the last few weeks there has been no busier man in all London than Sir Arthur Sullivan. When he has not been at work upon the score of his new opera he has had to transfer his energies to the stage of the Savoy Theatre, and divide his time between the piano and the baton. Little wonder, then, that his Cerberus in Victoria-street has been more than ordinarily cautious in the selection of those favoured callers whom he graciously allows to pass into the presence of England’s most popular composer. By a fortunate combination of circumstances (writes a representative of the Pall Mall Gazette) I found myself the other evening on the threshold of No 2, Queen’s Mansions, and, being duly armed with the password, was requested to “step this way.” The mighty melody-maker is sitting in the cosy little room which has witnessed the evolution of so many operas. Books and pictures surround him on all sides. In one corner stands the piano whose resounding wires have given birth to countless tunes. Sir Arthur, who looks quite appropriately Venetian in his flannel shirt and loose open jacket, is pondering over a voluminous bundle of “score,” and occasionally indicating orchestral effects in pencil upon the surface of a blank sheet.
“I am terribly busy, and have only a few minutes to spare,” are his first words, as he greets me with a cordial hand-shake. “A few minutes,” however, is an elastic phrase, and so I instal myself in an available armchair. “I am just thinking out the overture,” Sir Arthur goes on, “for, of course, we must have something to play before the curtain goes up. This is the second act”--and he points to the pile of music in front of him—“'from which I am taking a theme or two. We have had our first band rehearsal to-day at Princess’ Hall, and correcting the parts is no light task, I can assure you.”
“And do you always leave your overtures to the last moment?” “Oh, yes; always. Hamilton Clarke, who is now in Australia, used to help me with them very often when I was pressed for time. Do you remember the ‘Mikado’ overture? He did that for me. I just arranged the order of the piece--the ‘Mikado's March,’ then “The sun whose rays,” first for the oboe and then for violins and ’cellos, two octaves apart, and finally the allegro. He wrote the whole thing in a very few hours: in fact, he made it almost too elaborate, for I had to cut it down a little. The ‘Iolanthe’ overture was a quick bit of work, too. I did that myself, completing it in less than two days. And there was a lot of fresh writing in it too. I dare say you will recollect the ‘Captain Shaw’ motive combined with those florid passages for the wood-wind.”
“And is the new overture to be in strict ‘form’?” “'No. As you know, I took the trouble to do that in the case of ‘The Yeomen of the Guard,’ but it went for nothing after the first night.” I venture to dissent from this last statement, but Sir Arthur is inflexible on the subject. “Naturally,” he says, “I should prefer to please serious musicians in such a matter, but one must consider the general public.”
“Of course you will have an oboe solo in your introduction?” “Ah, that settles it,” laughs the composer. “I was just considering that point when you came in, but as you have put it in that way I shall not do so this time.” I shudder at the possible mischief I have done, and beg Sir Arthur not to throw over the instrument he always treats so beautifully. “Well,” he says, “what is one to use for a solo if not the oboe? The clarinet is not really effective, the flute is out of the question, so is the bassoon; the cornet I hate as a solo instrument, and strings would hardly do. So you see it is a case of ‘reductio ad oboe.’”
THE COMPOSER AND HIS WORK.
“Are you a very rapid worker?” – “Well, that depends. Sometimes I do three or four numbers in a day, and sometimes I take a fortnight over a single song. I commenced my new opera at Weybridge in July, and worked steadily at it most of the autumn. Of course I had a good break for the Leeds Festival. I did all the orchestration, by the way, in about thirteen days.”
“Which of your many Savoy songs gave you most trouble.” - “I should say that ‘The Merryman and His Maid’ was one of the most difficult to deal with. I know it took me a fortnight, for I set and reset it over and over again. It was the ‘House that Jack built” character about it which was so awkward. An additional phrase was added in each verse, as no doubt you recollect. There is a precedent for the style of that particular composition, for Gilbert got the idea of it from a song which he heard on board his yacht—a nautical ballad beginning—
I have a sing to sing, O.
Sing me your song, O! [sic]
This went on increasing in length as each verse was sung, just as our ‘Merryman’ did. I have got it written out somewhere, and, if I can only find it, you shall see it.” But a search through many bundles of MSS fails to bring to light the model of Jack Point’s quaint “singing farce.”
THE TENTH OF THE SERIES.
“And what about the music of the new opera, Sir Arthur?” – “Well, I have made it as light and catching as possible. There is a good deal more work in it than there was in the ‘Yeomen,’ for nearly all the numbers are rapid. You will hear very little slow music in it. Of course the result is that there are more pages in the score. Two minutes’ allegro means perhaps twenty pages, but with an andante movement you would only use about six. There is a quantity of concerted music in the piece—duets, trios, quartets, quintets, and so on. Still I have not altogether neglected the interests of the soloists. The tenor has quite a big song in the second act; Miss Ulmar will have some short couplets; Barrington has got a topical song; and Jessie Bond will, I think, be well suited. Denny has two solos, but they are both of them very slight in character. You will like the Cachuca in the second act. It is composed exactly on the lines of the well-known dance which was so popular some years back—in fact, both rhythm and notes go very near the original.” And the composer demonstrates this to me by humming the refrain. “In the first act I have tried to put a good deal of Italian colour into my music. You will notice this especially at the beginning of the opera, and in the duet for the two gondoliers. The second act will savour of Spain to a certain extent, though of course I have not made it up entirely of boleros and other Spanish measures.”
“And the finale of the first act?” – “Well, that portion of the opera is not quite so extended as usual, but I am very pleased with the way it comes out. I think ‘Iolanthe’ contained the longest finale I ever wrote. Goodness knows how many pages of the score it covered.”
COMIC OPERA V. CANTATA.
“How does the amount of labour which you devote to one of your operas compare with the trouble which a concert work gives you?” – “Well, really there is no comparison between the two cases. People generally think that I can rattle off one of these Savoy pieces without the least difficulty in a very short space of time. But that is far from being the truth. I can assure you that my comic operas—light and airy as they may seem—give me far more trouble and anxiety than a cantata like ‘The Golden Legend.’ In this latter case, you see, I am quite irresponsible. I have no one to consider but my band and my singers. There is no stage business to worry about, and I can make sure of my effects, because I know just how all the component parts of my body of executants will be placed. It is all straightforward and simple. But when I do an opera for the Savoy it is very different. A quantity of the music has invariably to be rewritten—very often more than once. Either singers are not quite suited, or else I find that the situation, when it takes place upon the stage, requires something different to what I had anticipated. For these reasons, too, I am only able to begin the orchestration when the rehearsals of the piece are well advanced. It is then that I find out for the first time what sort of accompaniment is wanted for each number. For instance, I might write a quintet with the lightest possible orchestral support. Perhaps Gilbert arranges his business so that the singers are well down the stage. In that case all goes well. But if he considers it necessary to post the five ladies and gentlemen at some distance from the conductor and band, I have to make my accompaniment far more prominent. Otherwise the singers would not hear the orchestra, and we should all be at sixes and at sevens. In this opera, now, I have had to reset eight numbers. No, my ‘Martyr of Antioch’ and ‘Golden Legend,’ strange as it may seem, gave me far less mental anxiety than my ‘Pinafore’ and ‘Pirates.’ Naturally enough, I am getting thoroughly into the right groove for this work by force of long experience. Consequently, I know by now pretty well what the requirements of the theatre and the company are. But then we have reached double figures in our productions—the new opera will be our tenth—and so have had plenty of opportunities of learning our way about. But, if you will excuse me, I must go on with my work, and get this overture off my mind.”
“Goodbye, Sir Arthur; and please let us have the oboe solo!”
“A Chat with Sir Arthur Sullivan.” Pall Mall Gazette, Wed. 21 Sep. 1892 (issue 8581), pp. 1-2. Reprinted as “An Interview with Sir Arthur Sullivan. By an Unorthodox Critic,” Musical Opinion & Trade Review 16.181 (Oct. 1892) 16.
A CHAT WITH SIR ARTHUR SULLIVAN.
BY AN UNORTHODOX CRITIC.
“It was a singular permit which gained me my entrée to Sir Arthur Sullivan’s presence on Tuesday,” writes a Pall Mall critic; “for, in the words of that warrior who presides over Sir Arthur Sullivan’s temporal welfare, I might see the great composer about his new work, ‘Haddon Hall,’ but it was to be distinctly understood that he could not possibly be interviewed. What I succeeded in doing, however, was to have a fairly interesting talk with Sir Arthur Sullivan about many musical matters, and incidentally about the new Savoy opera. There is very little of the Bohemian about Sir Arthur Sullivan’s extremely pleasant flat in Victoria-street, unless it be successful Bohemianism—a variety with which I have but little acquaintance. I found everything in order, and Sir Arthur himself surrounded by written music on every hand.
“This week the genial composer has been engaged partly on the work in connection with the rehearsals of ‘Haddon Hall,’ which are now practically finished, and largely on the completion of his work for the forthcoming Leeds Festival, the first rehearsal in London for which takes place next Monday. Sir Arthur has been specially [sic] busy with the score of Bach’s Mass in B minor, and has personally supervised the organ part, which has been arranged by Mr. Frederick Cliffe.
“Yesterday also, Sir Arthur went on his way to Cardiff to conduct the performance at the Musical Festival there of his ‘Golden Legend.’ These things filled up our time very agreeably, and it was only here and there that anything of real importance connected with ‘Haddon Hall’ escaped him.
“He wishes above all things that the public will approach the new opera in a somewhat different frame of mind from that which has dominated them when they have contemplated the first night of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. Sir Arthur thinks Mr. Gilbert so unapproachable in his own particular vein that he purposely sought out a libretto of a somewhat more serious and romantic character than has previously been the case. The new work will be described on the bills as a light English opera, for it is not essentially comic, and it is certainly not simply romantic. Being essentially musical and consistently dramatic, it answers most nearly to the opéra comique as understood in France, and it is an opera in which music plays a very important part. The musical interest must be taken seriously, and it must be listened to quâ music. Sir Arthur is anxious to see if he cannot find a place for the English opéra comique on our stage, and as such he has wedded really important music to a libretto which is distinctly interesting, and the comic relief of which is pure comedy.
“The subject, as is now pretty well known, deals with the elopement and return of Lady Dorothy Vernon. It opens with a prologue, sung by the chorus behind the scenes; and there is more than a touch of the old English colour in the music of the early numbers. The first act is interesting, and contains one of those four-part madrigals in which Sir Arthur Sullivan so easily excels—one of those expressions of national music in which it used to be the duty of every English gentleman, from the times of Good Queen Bess downwards, to be ready to take part.
“It is in the second act, however, that the great musical effect of the opera is obtained, and the great finale here will take some twenty-five minutes to play. The effects will be remarkable, and the storm scene, during which a complete change of scenery is made, will be depicted both on the stage and by means of musical expression. This finale certainly is very ambitious, and marks the culmination of the musical interest. The third act, however, is extremely bright, and is decidedly short; it consists almost entirely of the finale. There is no patter song, strictly so called, in the opera, but Mr. Denny’s song to a bagpipe accompaniment will certainly be one of the features of the work.
“The comedy element will be supplied by the Puritans, who promise to be very humorous gentlemen, and by MacCrankie. [sic] But the public must not come to the Savoy with the impression that they are going to see a comic opera, but to see and hear an opéra comique. When the subject of ‘another Savoy opera’ was mooted, Sir Arthur Sullivan felt that to follow in any way the lines upon which the Gilbert and Sullivan operas have been constructed would have provoked inevitable comparison, and this it was his chief object to avoid. ‘You see,’ he added, ‘that Gilbert and I have always been the best of friends, and I sincerely hope that if I am strong enough we shall write at least one more opera together. Mr. Sydney Grundy is a charming fellow, with a great dramatic gift, very willing and very quick at catching my suggestions, and from all I hear the opera is very complete dramatically, and the staging certainly is remarkably sumptuous. Mr. Percy Anderson’s dresses are wonderful, and I shouldn’t be at all surprised if you find that the effect in the finale of the second act is something quite unprecedented. I feel a little depressed about the work now that the strain of the rehearsals is taken off me, but I must be a very bad judge indeed, especially of my own work, because I have always been most depressed at rehearsal by those works which have been the most successful. In one thing we are exceptionally fortunate this time because we have an unusually fine quartet of singers in Miss Lucile Hill, Miss Brandram, Mr. Courtice Pounds, and Mr. Richard Green. I have taken care to give them more than one opportunity to distinguish themselves. If I can tell you anything more about the opera after the work is copyrighted in America—which will be during the course of the next forty-eight hours, I think—please come and see me.’ With this genial injunction I left Sir Arthur, who was looking decidedly tired, to make his preparations for his journey to Cardiff.”
Mountmorres, Lord. “Sir Arthur Sullivan Speaks for “Chums.” –And gives us Interesting Talk about His Boyhood.” Chums issue 69, Jan. 3, 1894, 295-6.
The well-known composer of the “Golden Legend” received me at his magnificent house in Victoria Street. Its somewhat sombre exterior is no index of the sumptuous comfort within. Furnished throughout in Oriental style, with Mushabeer screens, luxurious divans, heavy pile eastern rugs, and a wealth of quaint bric-à-brac and objets d’art, it marks Sir Arthur Sullivan at once as a man of taste and also a lover of comfort.
The study, in which I awaited his arrival, is a triumph of cosiness and beauty. From the centre of the ceiling hung a great Turkish lamp in brass, whose seven little flames in glass vessels cast a warm red glow on the room. In one corner I noticed the theatrophone—a telephonic arrangement by which Sir Arthur is able to enjoy the music of the principal London theatres and concert-rooms without leaving the house. The walls were lined with well-stocked bookshelves, over which was a choice assortment of old china. A large photograph with a long inscription brought to mind the long and intimate friendship which existed between Jenny Lind and Sir Arthur, beginning at a time when he was little more than a boy in the world of music.
I had scarcely settled myself in one of the seductive couches when the door opened and the composer made his entrance. He is a short, thickly-set man, with dark iron-grey hair and black side-whiskers and moustache. His face is one of singular power, and his bright eyes with their drooping lids bespeak the musician at a glance. First greetings over, as he inhaled a cigarette, Sir Arthur said, speaking in his slow, quiet way: --
“You know, as I have often told you, I hate being interviewed. In fact, I never will submit to the ordinary general interview, but I don’t mind saying a few words to the boys, and telling them some anecdotes of my earlier days. It is very hard to say anything when you ask me my advice to boys—there is so much one would wish to say, and it has all been said over and over again before.
“Perhaps the thing that I—and, in fact, all men who have got on in the world—feel to be one of the greatest things to bear in mind is—‘whatever you do, do it as well as you possibly can.’ It is the old proverb over again—‘What is worth doing at all is worth doing well.’ Always aim to do your present occupation to the very best of your ability. It is a first-rate thing for a boy when he has done anything to feel—‘Well, that is the best thing I have ever done.’ It may not be—very often is not—and very soon he will get dissatisfied with it and try to better it. But all the same, he should always feel on its completion—‘I could not do it better: it is the best I am able to do.” It shows he has thrown himself into his work or whatever it was. He should be pleased with it when it is done—his own conscience should praise his effort.
“That is a great thing, and it goes a long way towards success. It is a thing, too, that the dullest can aim at. Do their best, always nothing but their best. Never mind how bad it is, if it is their best. Everyone can do that.
“I remember once, in my earlier days, I was doing some little stage music for an opera at Covent Garden, and I was worried because it took me so long and gave me so much trouble. I could not do it superficially. It was only a little thing, and yet I felt I had to put my whole being into it. I took as much pains with the orchestration as if it had been some great work, a symphony or an oratorio, and the consciousness of this bothered me, and I one day said as much to Beverley—you know, the great scene painter. He was then doing some work for Covent Garden. His reply has stuck to me ever since. ‘That is how it should be. If I had to paint a brick wall I should take as much trouble over it as if it were a miniature of the Queen.’ That is the spirit in which to set about life.”
Sir Arthur Sullivan stood leaning against the mantelpiece, and one could see from the emphasis with which he spoke that he really felt the importance of what he said. He impressed it on me over and over again, and constantly, in his subsequent conversation, recurred to the subject—always in his subdued tones, but none the less keenly—as his message to boys. His last words as I was leaving were, “Don’t forget to tell them that about feeling that they have done their best whenever they have done anything.”
But to return: --
“The story of my boyhood? Oh, gracious! That is rather a large order. Well, let me see.” And he thought for some moments. “I almost forget it. But I suppose I had better begin with my earliest recollections. The first thing, then, that I remember must have been when I was three years old. We were moving down to Sandhurst. My father, you know, was bandmaster of the Royal Military College. I don’t remember the journey one scrap, but I can distinctly recollect wandering about great bare empty rooms, and inspecting them in our new house on our arrival. That stands out very vividly. After that there is a long blank.
“The next thing is that my father made me learn every instrument in the band except the bassoon and the hautbois. I used to practise all day long, and spent most of my time in the band-room. In fact, though, of course, I didn’t play in the band, I took part in all their practices. Very soon I was able to undertake any instrument. And no one knows how useful, how invaluable, that training has been to me. To it I attribute all my powers of orchestration. I know every instrument as an old friend, know their worth and their peculiarities and their strong points—ay, and their weak ones, too. Oh, it has been a blessing to me, that early training.
“And, by the way, that suggests another word of advice to boys. Let them acquire every scrap of knowledge that comes in their way; they mustn’t think anything beneath them; learn all they possibly can. Well, to continue, I went to a private school, a little place in the village. A new master had just come there from one of these training colleges, and, compared with the other people about—mostly regular old fossils—he was quite one of the rising generation. He was for ever talking to me about the lovely music at Westminster Abbey and the Chapel Royal, and what splendid musical training the choirs had. Well, that simply turned my brain. I was mad on choirs; I read about them, thought about them, and even dreamed about them.
“My father was very much against my going to a choir school, but I was bent on it. I remember as well as if it was only yesterday jumping out of bed one morning with what seemed to me an inspiration. I ran into my father’s room, and found him dressing.
“‘Father,’ I said triumphantly, ‘Purcell was at a choir school.’ I thought that was an unanswerable argument, and was much disappointed that my father did not think so too. On the contrary, he thought it was high time I was moved away from the influence of my choir-talking schoolmaster. So at the age of eleven I was moved to a boarding-school in Bayswater. But here I stuck to my old determination. I had set my heart on a musical career, and my new master wrote to my father and said he had much better allow me to follow my inclination.
“The fact was he could make nothing of me. I hated Latin; Greek I would not learn. History and geography were all I made my way with: I had a passion for history and geography—I have still. Well, my father finally consented. So my new pedagogue escorted me to see Sir George Smart, then organist of the Chapel Royal. He asked me one or two questions, patted me on the head, and took me downstairs and made me sing to him. He seemed much struck with my voice, and as I accompanied myself was astonished to find I was something of a musician. He told me to submit myself to the Rev. Thomas Helmore, the head of the choir school.
“Off we set again, I in great spirits. When we got to Onslow Square, where Helmore was supposed to be living, we found he had left, and that his house was in the hands of caretakers, or someone who did not know where he had gone. We did not know what to do. My master was for giving it up there and then, but my heart was set on finding the man. I divined that if he had lived there he must have eaten something, and suggested a round of the tradesmen in the neighbourhood. The very first butcher’s we went into was able to give us his new address. That was funny, wasn’t it?
“Well, it was a Saturday that I saw him. On the Monday I got a note from him asking me to come on the Tuesday. I joined the school at once. It was Holy Week, and on Maundy-Thursday the choir had to sing at the distribution of the Maundy money. I had only been in the school two days and had to sing one of the parts in the duet. I stayed on in the choir for three years, as keen on music as could be. Of course, I had had no real technical training, except just what we picked up at the rehearsals—the choir practices I mean. But I was everlastingly composing, and Mr. Helmore—an excellent man, for whom I always had the greatest admiration—used to take an interest in me and encouraged me. He got me to bring my compositions to him, and would correct them, and give me hints on harmony. Everything else that I learnt I had to find out for myself, and I was always at the piano.
“During my time there I experienced the greatest emotion that I have ever known, or ever shall know now. The choir used to go to sing in the choruses of Jenny Lind’s oratorios, and the first time I heard her sing I was quite paralysed by the beauty of it. I had never, and have never, heard anything so lovely. I have heard better voices, but never such exquisite singing. I got back in the evening and sat half the night on the stairs. I was in such a state of nervous prostration I could not go to bed. I never knew there could be such exquisite music on earth. I could not cry, I could not speak, I could not really think – I was simply paralysed with a strange, overpowering emotion.”
At the very recollection of that night Sir Arthur became quite excited, and spoke with unusual energy.
“Shortly after that—I had just turned fourteen—I read in a newspaper of the foundation, principally through the instrumentality of Jenny Lind and the very oratorio I allude to, the Elijah at Exeter Hall—I read of the foundation of the Mendelssohn Scholarship. The first competition was just about to take place, and as the limits of age were fourteen to twenty, I determined to go in for it. I asked Helmore’s leave, and he gave it, but was not at all sanguine of my success.
“I sent in my compositions, and out of thirty candidates, Barnby, now Sir Joseph Barnby, and myself were picked out to appear at the Royal Academy before Gosse, Sterndale-Bennett and the rest, to undergo a viva-voce examination. We were told that on the morrow one of us would receive a letter nominating him the successful scholar. You may be sure I was much too excited to sleep a wink all that night. The whole of the next day I was in a perfect fever, rushing every minute to the door to see if there was a letter for me, and as often returning disappointed. Late in the afternoon, just as I was beginning to lose heart, there came a postman’s rap. I rushed off and met the maid with a letter. ‘Master Arthur, there’s a letter for you.’ And I did not need to look inside to know that I was elected the first Mendelssohn Scholar.
“My voice had not then cracked, so I was obliged to stay on with the choir. But through the kindness of Mr. Helmore I was allowed to study at the Academy. I was there for two years, and was then sent out to complete my training in Leipzig, where I stayed until the termination of my scholarship.
“At the age of nineteen I returned to London with the music of Shakespeare’s Tempest. And I think we may say that there my boyhood ends, and my musical career begins. But I must just say one word of what extremely kind friends Jenny Lind and her husband, Herr Goldschmidt, were to me all through my early days. She took the deepest interest in me from the moment I won the scholarship.”
In the course of further conversation Sir Arthur reiterated his advice to boys, and went on to speak in the warmest terms of how much he owed to the choir school of the Chapel Royal and Mr. Helmore.
“He was a splendid man, and knew exactly how to manage boys. I am sure they were a far more conscientious set than most schoolboys, and I put it all down to the fact that he trusted them. If he wanted a thing done, he put them on their honour, and he could rely on its being done; and it is to be hoped that feeling will never die out.
“Well I remember many a Saturday morning. We used to have a half-holiday on Saturdays, and were allowed to go where we liked in the afternoon, so long as we were back by tea-time. But sometimes we would want to get away before dinner for some reason.
“In the morning we used to rehearse the music for Sunday. And Mr. Helmore would say to us: ‘Well, boys, as soon as you have that music perfect you may go. But I rely on your doing it before you go out.’
“We used to troop off to the music-room and stick at it without stopping till it was perfect. We never once scamped it or shirked just because he wasn’t there, although sometimes we were dying to get away, and had to give up something to stay. All that did us a lot of good. Ah, I can see it now, when poor Alfred Cellier and myself were leaders of the choir. One of us would play and the other conduct, taking it in turns; and we used to go on till it was even better than usual when we were put on our honour like that.”
“Sir Arthur Sullivan on Monday Night’s Concert.” Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser (Dublin), Wed. April 11, 1894, p. 8.
Yesterday Sir Arthur Sullivan left Dublin by train at two o’clock. Some time before his departure he was good enough to afford to a representative of the Freeman a brief opportunity of asking him a few questions as to his own impression of the performance of his works by the band and chorus of the Dublin Musical Society on Monday night, and as to one or two matters connected with music in general. Sir Arthur very kindly laid aside some pressing business preliminary to his departure for the purpose of granting this interview.
Asked what he thought himself of the performance, his answer was—I was very much surprised and very much pleased. The tone of the chorus was admirable.
Was the band satisfactory to you, Sir Arthur? On the whole very satisfactory indeed. You labour here under the disadvantage of having no permanently organised orchestra. Seventy or eighty players might every one of them be brilliant solo performers, and yet they would not form a good orchestra unless they constantly played together. The band of the musical society were most willing and intelligent, and all were very attentive to my wishes, and the result was that I got some difficult accompaniments beautifully done. On the whole the performance was a very good one indeed. I was delighted at the enthusiastic reception given to myself.
In reply to a remark to the effect that Dublin audiences were excitable and enthusiastic, Sir Arthur said—I found the audience last night very like a first-rate English audience.
Are audiences so warm in the expression of their feelings in England? Oh yes; you should hear them at the Leeds Festival, for example, when some of my works are performed. The London audience is cosmopolitan.
Have you written many orchestral symphonies? I have written a great many orchestral works, some of which are very well known. I wrote a symphony when I was in Ireland thirty years ago. I have written a great many overtures, which are very well known, and are performed all over the world.
Do you write chamber music? No, it does not appeal to me as the orchestra does. My ideas always come to me with a certain orchestral colouring. But I spent four years in Leipzig in early life, and heard the best music of every kind there, and the result is that I never think of a composer’s name, but only whether the music is good or bad of its kind. Whether it be a quartette of Brahms, or an opera of Wagner, if the music be beautiful I accept it. Camps in music are a mistake.
You have then a catholic taste in the sense of universality in what you admire? Yes, thoroughly catholic. It would be very much better for young musicians if they had that disposition. You frequently hear one person saying there is no good in anybody’s music but that of Brahms, and another saying there is no good in anyone but Wagner, whilst you find a third entirely devoted to the French school. That is lamentable. Sir Arthur added—I have been very much pleased by my visit here.
It is not your first visit? It is my first professional visit. I was here as a lad thirty years ago.
Your early musical education was a church education, Sir Arthur? Yes; and I believe it affords the best foundation a young musician can have. He gets a solid training as regards harmony.
Were you acquainted with the late Sir Robt Stewart? Oh, yes; I think the last place I met him was at a Birmingham festival some years ago.
Did you ever hear him play the organ? No, but I heard of his playing. I was told that he extemporised delightfully. I have not myself written for the organ, except in connection with the orchestra, as in the “Martyr of Antioch.” The “In Memoriam” overture has an organ close. I had a very eclectic instrumental training, having been brought up in connection with military bands; and I played all the instruments except the oboe and the bassoon. I also played the viola. I have written very little for the piano; it is an instrument that I don’t care to write for, although it is a very useful instrument. I only care to write for the orchestra, the colouring of which I love.
Our representative then apologised for having trespassed so long upon Sir Arthur’s time, and, having thanked him for his courtesy, withdrew.
“A Chat with Sir Arthur Sullivan.” Otago Witness, 27 Sep. 1894, p. 42. (Presumably reprinted, and possibly abridged, from another newspaper.)
It was while crossing the Channel to England that the writer was introduced to the Knight of the “Lost chord.” [sic] He is, as everybody knows, of small stature, with iron-grey whiskers, and a very knowing twinkle about his sharp eyes. He was, he informed us, about to indulge in a short spell of hard work in the heart of the country.
His usual plan is to take a small
house in some out-of-the-way spot where he knows no one, and there to work away
at; [sic punct] his operas like any galley
slave for about 10 hours a day.
Lunch, Sir Arthur informed us, was a powerful interruption to hard work, so he accordingly dispenses with it on these occasions altogether. Starting at about 10 in the morning, he works till 4 without a break. Then he takes a couple of hours’ hard exercise, of which he usually devotes one hour to rowing and the other to walking.
After dining substantially, he starts work about 8 o'clock and keeps on right into the small hours of the morning. On being asked whether any of his most celebrated music had been the result of sudden inspiration, Sir Arthur remarked that he had produced most of it by sheer hard work or “plug.”
“It is just the same,” he observed, “in composing music as in making boots; nothing is effected without assiduous toil. For instance,” he went on to say, “the ‘Lost chord’ [sic] gave me no end of trouble. I made several unsuccessful attempts to set it to music, and even gave up the task altogether, but being pressed to go on with it I managed it at last.”
With regard to this celebrated piece,
Sir Arthur remarked that it was one of the few things he had composed which was
entirely independent of the words to which the music was set. He had seen a
German audience go into wild enthusiasm over the “Lost chord” when sung to them
in English, of which hardly any of them understood a word.
The conversation turning on Jenny Lind, Sir Arthur informed us that he had the highest possible opinion of her character, which he said was as free from mercenary motive as any he had ever known. “As to her singing," he went on, “she was the only woman I ever heard whose voice brought tears to my eyes.”
The subject of this sketch had, he
told us, often been interviewed, but never so often or so persistently as in
“I could not stir out of my hotel,” he remarked, “in any American town, but before I had turned the first corner I was buttonholed by some seedy-looking individual, who informed me that I should be laying the readers of the Philippopolis Advertiser under an eternal obligation if I would allow him a few moments’ conversation.
“The worst of it was,” he went on to say, “unless I gave the fellow a few minutes' conversation, an account of an interview with me appeared just the same in the Philippopolis Advertiser, with a lot of disgraceful remarks put into my mouth which no gentleman would ever think of uttering, so I mostly gave in with as good a grace as I could.
“The most pertinacious reporter I ever remember,” Sir Arthur continued, “was one I met in San Francisco. He came to my hotel one evening and requested the pleasure of an interview. I flatly refused, and went to bed. The next morning the fellow was waiting in the passage, where he must have spent the night. I slipped by him, on pretence of getting some breakfast, and stayed away all day. On going to bed that night I found him waiting patiently like a watch-dog for me, but I brushed by him and locked myself in my room. The next morning he was there just the same, and by this time, being touched by his persistency, I agreed to give him an interview on condition that he promised to prevent the issue of accounts of bogus interviews in the San Francisco papers. This he readily undertook to do, and I discovered that there must be honour 'even among journalists,' for he was as good as his word.”
By this time the steamer had reached its destination, so we parted with Sir Arthur Sullivan, after a very agreeable voyage.
von Zedlist, M.A. “Interviews with Eminent Musicians No. 3 – Sir Arthur Sullivan.” Strand Musical Magazine 1.3 (March 1895) 169-174. (This interview was also reprinted in the Savoyard 16.1, May 1977, pp. 20-24)
Interviews with Eminent Musicians.
No. 3. – SIR ARTHUR SULLIVAN
Sir Arthur Sullivan’s career has been a particularly brilliant one. Characterised by a fervent love for his art, the chief aim of his life has been to devote himself heart and soul to the achievement of a maximum of true excellence in his compositions. From his earliest infancy he was surrounded by musical elements, for his father, to whom he was passionately attached, was an enthusiastic musician, who for many years held the position of bandmaster at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. Mr. Sullivan fostered his little son’s sensibilities with the warmest care, and encouraged the child to accompany him daily to the band rehearsals, thereby initiating him in the mysteries of instrumental practice. Incredible as it may seem, little Arthur had barely reached the age of eight when he was thoroughly acquainted with, and could play, all the wind instruments, save two.
The father’s watchful eye having detected exceptional signs of musical instinct in his son, Thomas Sullivan lost no time in prevailing upon Sir George Smart, who, in his turn, induced the Rev. T. Helmore, the then Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal, St. James’s, to hear the boy’s voice. A meeting took place, and the master was delighted at the sweet, pure rendering of “With Verdure Clad,” by little Arthur Sullivan, who accompanied himself on the pianoforte. So deep an impression had the boy’s singing made upon Mr. Helmore that a few days after the meeting he notified to [sic] Mr. Sullivan that his son might join the choir of the Chapel Royal.
With his entry to the Chapel Royal practically began a very remarkable and zealous career, for it was during his three years’ sojourn there that the young musician made his first attempts at musical composition.
“What was the name of the very first song you composed, Sir Arthur?” I enquired, when I called upon the famous composer at Queen’s Mansions.
“‘O Israel,’ and it was shortly afterwards followed by an anthem, which was sung in chapel. Bishop Blomfield, who was then Dean of the Chapel Royal, on hearing that one of the chapel boys had composed the anthem, sent for me,” continued Sir Arthur, “and gave me half a sovereign, with an affectionate pat on the back and some words of kindly encouragement. I remember I felt extraordinarily proud on that occasion, for it was the first money I had earned for myself.
“In 1856 I competed for the Mendelssohn Scholarship, with the invaluable advice and assistance of the Rev. Mr. Helmore, who urged me to work very hard, so that on the result of the stringent examinations being made public, I was delighted and surprised to learn that I had been elected first Mendelssohn scholar.”
“Who were your masters, Sir Arthur?” I asked, presently.
“For two years I studied harmony and counterpoint with Goss,” was his reply, “and the pianoforte with Sterndale Bennett and O’Leary. After that time my voice broke, and it was then decided that I should go to Leipzig. Here I entered the Conservatoire, and my masters were Hauptmann, Rietz, Moscheles, and Plaidy.”
“Did you work very hard at Leipzig?”
“Sometimes,” replied Sir Arthur, with a smile; “but you know what a student’s life means: loafing as well as working.”
“Who were your ideal composers in the early days of your career?”
“Mendelssohn, Schumann and Schubert appealed most strongly to my feelings, and ‘Tannhauser’ and ‘Lohengrin’ of Wagner were especial favourites of mine, but I am very eclectic in my tastes.”
Sir Arthur composed an overture called “The Light of the Harem” in Leipzig, which was received with acclamation at the students’ annual concert, and received warm commendation from the press.
Spohr was in Leipzig at the time when Arthur Sullivan’s successful overture was followed by the production of a string quartette. Young Sullivan was then a mere lad, and on being introduced to Spohr, surprised the master by his youthful appearance. Spohr, moreover, could scarcely believe that so excellent a composition was the creation of so young a man.
The incidental music written to Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” which was produced in Leipzig in 1861, and afterwards made a sensation in London at the Crystal Palace Concerts, where it was repeatedly given, proved that the young musician’s powers had not been overrated. Sir Arthur’s early career was brightened and made pleasurable to him by reason of his association and friendship with many great musical men. Amongst those whom he remembers with keen delight is Rossini. The Italian maestro took more than an ordinary interest in Sullivan’s talent, and was particularly attracted by “The Tempest” music, which he used to play over repeatedly with the young musician, who had arranged several of the numbers as pianoforte duets.
“I think,” said Sir Arthur, speaking of Rossini, “that he first inspired me with a love for the stage and things operatic, and this feeling and departure led to my undertaking the duties of organist at the Royal Italian Opera, under the conductorship of my friend Sir (then Signor) Michael Costa. At his request I wrote a ballet, entitled ‘L’Ile Enchantée,’ and my necessary intercourse with the stage employés, dancers and others gave me much insight in the blending of music and stage management, which became very valuable to me as time progressed.”
From ’62 to ’66 Sir Arthur was called upon to produce a great variety of compositions, and his truly inspirational knowledge, accumulated by this time with astounding copiousness, enabled him to prove himself equal to any unexpected requirement or sudden emergency. An anecdote illustrative of this of this capacity is worthy of record here.
One night “Faust” was being performed, with Mr. Costa as conductor and Arthur Sullivan at the organ. In the midst of the church scene the wire connecting the pedal under Costa’s foot with the metronome stick at the organ gave way. Such an untoward occurrence might have meant trouble for the organist had not his usual presence of mind and savoir faire come to the rescue, for it is easy to understand that under the circumstances the organist would be unable to hear anything save his own instrument, and therefore it would be impossible for him to keep time with the conductor of the orchestra.
A brilliant thought struck him instantly. He summoned a stage-carpenter, and whispered to him, without further ado, “Run sharp, and tell Mr. Costa that the connecting wire has broken, and that he must keep his ears open and follow me.” This happy inspiration saved the situation, and all went without a hitch. No one was more delighted or grateful than the illustrious conductor himself, who loudly praised Mr. Sullivan for the apt manner in which he had saved the situation.
It was in 1866 that Sir Arthur Sullivan produced, together with Mr. Frank Burnand, an adaptation of J. Maddison Morton’s farce, “Box and Cox,” under the title of “Cox and Box.”
“That was quick work,” said Sir Arthur, smiling at the reminiscences of his early feats in the direction of rapid composing and scoring: “for the operetta was announced for public production one Saturday, while upon the previous Monday evening I had not yet written one note for the orchestra! ‘Cox and Box’ had been performed several times in private, and I had generally extemporised the accompaniments when they were required on those occasions. But we had arranged to give a performance at the Adelphi Theatre, for the benefit of a fund organised by the staff of Punch, and 1 was to conduct a full orchestra on the afternoon of the Saturday in question. Where there’s a will there’s a way, however, and I made up my mind to complete the orchestration in good time. I succeeded by dint of perseverance, and having completed the score by 11 A.M., at 12 the dress rehearsal took place, followed two hours later by the performance.”
“The Contrabandista” was composed, scored, and rehearsed within sixteen days; while, incredible as it will seem to all, Sir Arthur began the overture to “Iolanthe” late one night and finished it by seven o’clock on the following morning.
1 asked Sir Arthur to tell me something about his method of work.
He replied characteristically, and in a very few words. Taking bulky volumes from his huge bookcases, he showed me his compositions admirably scored and faultlessly inscribed therein in a minute hand, while I observed that they were completely scored for full orchestra.
“But,” 1 exclaimed, “you sometimes jot your ideas down in the rough before notating them with this precision in your books?”
“Oh, yes,” said Sir Arthur, “I make a hieroglyphic sketch before writing out the full score, as I know exactly which instrument I require in order to produce the desired effects, combinations and harmonies. I never use a piano when composing, for it would limit my ear as to the effects I want; therefore, while writing I score the compositions right off for a complete band, and I do not hear the result of my creations until they are performed and I am conducting them.”
Speaking about the difficulties of composition and the want of something suggestive and sympathetic oft-times to aid the writer, Sir Arthur told me two very touching incidents connected with his work. He had been asked to compose an overture for the Norwich Festival in 1866, and could find no subject suitable to the style of composition which recommended itself to his creative mood at the time. He confided the cause of his trouble to his father, who would not hear of his son giving up the commission entrusted to him.
“Try again, my boy,” said his father; “something is sure to occur to direct your thoughts into a new channel. Don’t give it up.”
Thomas Sullivan’s words proved to be strangely and solemnly true, for in three days he suddenly died of aneurism [sic] of the heart, and his son, who was passionately attached to his father, flung himself into his work on the night of the funeral in order to take refuge from his overwhelming grief.
“In Memoriam” contained all the pent-up, passionate sorrow which Arthur Sullivan experienced at the irretrievable loss of his best friend, and the funereal, mournful strains which burst from the tear-stained paper he inscribed them on proved how intensely the subject, which had so suddenly come upon him, had stirred his innermost feelings.
The other anecdote relates to “The Lost Chord,” Sir Arthur’s most popular song, which Madame Antoinette Sterling renders so magnificently.
This, as “In Memoriam,” was the production of an overwrought brain, racked by much mental anxiety and suffering.
“I was nursing my brother through a severe illness,” said Sir Arthur, meditatively, “and had hardly left his bedside for several days and nights. Finding one evening that he had fallen into a doze, I crept away into a room adjoining his, and tried to snatch a few minutes’ rest. I found this impossible, however, so I roused myself to work, and made one more of many attempts during four years to set music to Adelaide Proctor’s interesting words. This time I felt that the right inspiration had come to me at last, and there and then I composed ‘The Lost Chord.’ That song was evolved under the most trying circumstances, and was the outcome of a very unhappy and troubled state of mind.”
I gathered from facts which Sir Arthur touched upon, dealing with his career, that he has never felt the slightest inclination for teaching. In spite, however, of his disinclination, he was persuaded to accept the post of principal to the National Training School for music (1875). The National Training School became, after some years, the Royal College of Music, on which occasion the Queen conferred the honour of knighthood upon the composer simultaneously with Professor Macfarren.
Speaking about his early works, and especially concerning those with which Mr. W. S. Gilbert has aided him in earning a world-wide reputation, Sir Arthur told me that he decidedly preferred “The Yeomen of the Guard” to all others. His operettas have achieved a universal renown, and once, when he was travelling in the United States, a very funny incident occurred, which he related to me.
“Together with a party of friends,” said Sir Arthur, “I was traversing a rather uncivilised district in the State of California when we stopped at a mining camp for some refreshments. The driver informed me that 1 was expected there, and feeling rather gratified to hear this, I made my way towards the whisky store. Three or four fellows were lounging about, and one approached a big, sturdy man, who was standing near me, and said to him, ‘Are you Mr. Sullivan?’ The man shook his head and pointed his finger in my direction. After looking me up and down, the man demanded, ‘What do you weigh?’ ‘About 162 pounds,’ was my reply. ‘Pooh!’ said my interrogator, ‘that’s a queer start. Do you mean to tell me you gave J. Blackman fits in Kansas City?’ ‘Certainly not,’ I answered. ‘Well, who are you, anyway?’ I answered that my name was Sullivan. Quite disappointed, he said, ‘Oh, ain’t you John L. Sullivan, the slogger?’ ‘No, I am only Arthur Sullivan,’ I replied. ‘What!’ he said, with evident surprise, ‘are you the man as put
Pinafore together?’ I said ‘Yes,’ and smiled at him. ‘Well, I never!’ he answered; ‘but I’m glad to meet you anyway. Come and have a drink with us.’”
Another, and this a curious coincidence — for, of course, it was nothing more — occurred upon the occasion of Sir Arthur’s first visit to San Francisco. He told it me as follows: --
“I had arrived one morning, and was strolling about the hotel, waiting in a rather undecided way for something to turn up. Quite by accident I met a lady whom I had known in London, and as she was just about to step into her carriage to take a drive, she invited me to accompany her to the promenade, where an excellent band was to be heard every day. I accepted her invitation and we had a delightful drive, finally drawing up near the band-stand. Imagine my surprise, nay, I must add, my deep emotion, when the bandmaster, as if by enchantment, struck up ‘The Lost Chord,’ which was played admirably from beginning to end. It was a pure accident, of course, for my visit to California was not known to anyone at the time; but I need not say how much I was touched to hear those strains, which carried me back so many thousands of miles to Home!”
In his capacity as a conductor it should be stated that as in all his actions, musical and otherwise, Sir Arthur is vigorously prompted by the soundest instincts of justice and common sense.
Who would imagine that, experienced and celebrated as Sir Arthur is, he could feel the anguish of nervousness? And yet he told me that on a first night he suffers tortures ere the moment arrives for him to take his seat and conduct his new work.
“For an hour before the curtain rises,” he said, “I shut myself up in the little room adjoining the orchestra and refuse to see anyone. The suspense is horrible, I assure you. It is not because I fear that the work will not please the public, for they are so kind to me that perhaps even if this were the case they would not tell me so; but it is the reflex of the mental excitement I have undergone during the elaboration of the opera. Then I am so overcome by the kind welcome and warm reception accorded to me when I appear at the orchestra door that I feel as though I must burst into tears. But from the moment I am seated, and have taken the bâton in my hand, my nervousness vanishes like a dream. I am no longer the composer, but a part of the orchestra, aiming to pull the work successfully through before the most critical and important public in the world.”
Sir Arthur is a great favourite with the Royal Family, if I may judge by the many photographic and other souvenirs which adorn his home. Her Majesty Queen Victoria holds, of course, the place of honour in the musician’s drawing-room. A pretty story is told of Her Majesty in connection with that portrait. The background being very sombre, she inscribed her name on it, contrary to her custom, in white ink. When handing the photograph to a trusted envoy who was commanded to convey it to Sir Arthur, the Queen said naïvely, “Mind you tell him that I wrote my name in white ink so that he would be sure to see it.”
One cause of serious worry to Sir Arthur Sullivan is his enormous correspondence. “It is the burden of my life,” he explained to me, somewhat aggrievedly. “I receive about forty letters a day, and I assure you that thirty-five of these are, as a rule, begging letters. Is it not curious,” he continued, “that people should ignore the fact that a composer’s life is fraught with hard work and consequent anxieties, and that one’s time is not one’s own to devote to letter-writing? You would be surprised to see some of the letters I receive. Not only do they mostly contain demands for money, but even persons who are utterly unknown to me ask me for letters of introduction to managers and musical people generally.”
The lesson which Sir Arthur teaches us in his Art may be learned over and over again in his apartments in Queen’s Mansions. During his vast travels abroad he has amassed a large collection of rare antiquities, his taste apparently inclining him towards those curios hailing from the far East.
In his entrance hall Arabian lamps hang, giving out their mysterious quaint lights in softly sombre rays, while you peep through a lovely screen of old Cairo wood-work before reaching the dwelling rooms. The doors are artistically draped with elaborate Persian and Greek hangings and, nestling beneath the spreading leaves of rare palms, you meet with large restful divans upon which Oriental silks of great beauty and price are carelessly thrown.
Sir Arthur’s material surroundings convey to the casual visitor an impression of artistic calm and physical comfort. The harmonious colouring of the Persian tiles affixed to the walls is so soothing to the eye, the exquisite taste and judiciousness characterising the adventitious decorations are so perfectly in keeping with the personality of the genius loci, that Sir Arthur’s home may be accepted by the aesthetic and the worldling alike as the aptest of “modern instances,” or typical of the “eternal fitness of things.”
“ “Victoria and Merrie England.” Daily Telegraph, no. 13,115, May 24, 1897, p. 5. (reprinted in Musical Opinion and Music Trade Review 20.238 [July 1897] 677-8) (musical examples transcribed by Robin Gordon-Powell)
“VICTORIA AND MERRIE ENGLAND.”
SIR ARTHUR SULLIVAN’S NEW BALLET.
By A MUSICIAN.
“Yes, the work is practically finished, and a formidable task it has been,” and with something like a sigh of relief Sir Arthur Sullivan pushes aside the heavy score which lies before him on the table of his sanctum in Victoria-street.
“I don’t think I quite realised what I was doing when I promised Mr. Alfred Moul a Jubilee ballet for the Alhambra. But it is certainly pleasant, now that the strain is ended, to look back at the past few months and feel that—well, that I have not been idle. There is almost as much work here as in two Savoy operas,” adds Sir Arthur, bestowing an affectionate pat upon the bulky pages of his latest score. “In ballet, you see, the composer has no lyrics to help him, nothing to suggest a measure or a rhythm. He must cudgel his own brains for every beat and every bar, and realise at the same time that he will have no voices to help him out. That is what I have been doing in the Riviera, and here is the result—another budget of music which, I hope, will please the ears of my good friends the public. There will be just room here for the score, when in good time it comes to take its place with the rest.” And the composer turns with paternal pride to the bookshelves where his full-scores, from “The Tempest” and “The Prodigal Son” to “Utopia” and “The Grand Duke,” stand side by side in imposing array.
“Your preparation for the Diamond Jubilee has been an elaborate one, then, Sir Arthur?”
“Yes, indeed, and there are those who would have made it a still busier time for me. Look at this ‘Jubilee Ode,’ which an amiable Baboo has sent me from India. The first two stanzas promise well:
Let us sing the Diamond Jubilee
Of our great Queen-Empress Victoria,
As her Majesty has reigned truly
Over the British Empire and India,
For sixty years, a period of reign
Scarcely marked by any Monarch
In the world’s history on the main,
Although the events be many and dark!
“It appears later on, however, that the poet is a vocalist in want of an engagement; for he concludes his ode by styling himself Orpheus—
Who is very anxious to sing this song
Before the presence of the mighty Empress;
And surely to do so it is not wrong,
Let him therefore be called for by express!
“I have not yet decided to set this poem to music; nor have I, up to the present, summoned Orpheus ‘by express.’”
“But we are forgetting the new ballet, Sir Arthur.”
“No chance of my doing that just yet awhile. Signorina Legnani wants a new dance and I must score it to-night. As for ‘Victoria and Merrie England’ as a whole, let me say that we have tried to make our ballet as British as possible. We shall not hurt the feelings of our foreign visitors by reminding them of any little international difficulties that may have cropped up in the past. On the other hand, Signor Carlo Coppi and Mr. Alfred Moul have made their scenario a frame for a series of pictures of English ‘jollification’ in various ages, with just a glimpse of fairyland in the middle and a burst of patriotism at the end. We begin, in the time of the druids, with Britannia asleep in a forest of oaks.” Here Sir Arthur seats himself at the little cottage piano whose strings have hailed the birth of so many of his melodies, and touches the tender theme of the Berceuse which soothes Britannia’s slumbers:
“Then comes the fairy Genius of Britain to more sprightly music, after which we have a solemn procession of Druids. Here I have given the harps and clarinets something to do:
“Of course the cult of the mistletoe cannot be neglected, and so the Druids join with their priestesses in a dance round the sacred oak:
“This done we say good-bye to ancient Britain, and take a peep at the coming of age of a young nobleman in the time of Elizabeth.” There is pretty music here, but the composer hurries through the pages of the score until he comes to the third scene of the ballet, where he lingers over a chain of delightful numbers, written to illustrate a May Day pageant in the reign of Charles I. First, a dainty violin passage as the revellers begin to take their places:
Next, a dance the rhythm of which quickly catches the ear:
And then a Mazurka with a real “swing” in it:
“Here come the hobby-horses,” says Sir Arthur, after he has touched upon a pas de deux for Robin Hood and Maid Marian. “Clarinets and bassoons, you see!”
“And here,” adds the composer, as he strikes up a jovial tune, “is the May Pole Dance, which puts an end to the merrymaking”:
Then the music takes different shape. A storm rises in the heart of Windsor Forest, and Herne the Hunter, with his uncanny followers, comes upon the scene. When they have vanished a group of wood-nymphs dance to a swaying valse-theme:
“And now,” says the composer, “we come to the ‘Procession of the Yule Log,’ a march which, as you see, is built upon a ‘ground bass.’ Here is one of the tunes which I have fitted to this foundation”:
When Sir Arthur’s lively peasants have brought their Yule-log home they proceed to make the most of it in the fire-place of a fine old baronial hall, where Christmas is kept in the good old-fashioned way. The boar’s head and roast beef are brought in to the mingled strains of “Caput Apri Defero” and “The Roast Beef of Old England”; “The Fine Old English Gentleman” is also pressed into service; while the tenants pay homage to their lord to music peculiarly courtly in its grace:
“There is some lively dancing here,” remarks the composer, as he plays a pas seul allotted to a jester who has been a little too attentive to the punch bowl:
“Then we have also a game at ‘Blind Man’s Buff,’ a ‘Kissing Dance,’ and a fugue—“
“Yes, a fugue, in which the dancers take to their feet, one after another, as the ‘subject’ makes its various entrances. A little daring, isn’t it? But why shouldn’t you have a minute or two of severe counterpoint in a ballet? What Mr. Ryan and Mr. Alias have done with the scene of the Queen’s Coronation and the gathering of British and Colonial troops you will see in due course. In the march-music many old friends, newly treated, will be recognized. For instance, at one point I have an English, a Scotch, and an Irish tune uniting their voices in friendly rivalry:
Then after a brief snatch of the “Pas redoublé” to which the troops will execute their manoeuvres:
Sir Arthur concludes his exposition.
“You see,” he says, “I have tried to keep the music as English in style as possible. That has been my main object. Here and there, perhaps—“
“But what is it you are playing now, Sir Arthur?”
“Legnani’s new solo dance. I am going to score it this evening.”
“Isn’t there a little touch of Paris and Vienna there?”
“Quite right, so there is. Well, the orchestration shall be strictly English; so perhaps I shan’t be found out. Good-bye!”
Lawrence, Arthur. “A Master of Melody. A Chat with Sir Arthur Sullivan.” The Young Woman 6.62 (Nov. 1897) 41-44. (contributed by John Cannon) (quoted in New York Times, Nov. 7, 1897)
What a host of recollections the mere mention of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s name brings to one’s mind! I can well imagine that if, at some future date, say towards the middle of the next century, the man of the future were asked to name six—no, I will say three men of the present day with whom he would most like to converse, Sir Arthur Sullivan would be one of that limited number; for may it not be said that, apart from his great ability and splendid career, of which one can leave the public to judge, he is, as someone has aptly termed him, our “musician-laureate”; and indeed, if we have our “only generals,” is he not, as far as popularity and genius are concerned, our “only composer”? And then, again, is it too much to say that the result of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s brilliant and diversified musical work during the past thirty years has been to transform a largely unmusical country into a largely musical one?
Sir Arthur Sullivan would be the last man to make such a claim; but I imagine that it would not be going one whit too far to say that, so far as our musical world is concerned, Sir Arthur’s work has marked out a new era. Since the times of Elizabeth and Henry VIII., [sic punct] when Great Britain stood in the forefront as a musical nation, slowly receding, however, until the days of Charles II., when the revival in music was mainly confined to trivialities of the French and Italian school, the musical forward movement in this country had been an exceedingly slow one, and it is only during the last thirty years that we can lay claim to having become a really musical people. The rapid strides which have been made in our musical world have certainly been coincident with Sir Arthur Sullivan’s career, and it is safe to say that, directly and indirectly, in addition to the brilliant work which he has accomplished, Sir Arthur Sullivan has been the great pioneer of a real musical reformation amongst us.
When it is admitted that Sir Arthur Sullivan does not look with any particular favour on the way of the “interviewer,” it can readily be understood it is not due to any lack of geniality; for, as all his friends and acquaintances know, Sir Arthur is geniality itself, but rather to his inability to find time for matters apart from his many social duties as well as his work.
It was some two or three years ago that, at Walton-on-Thames, I first had the privilege of a brief chat with him on a busines matter which had no sort of connection with interviewing and in alluding to Sir Arthur’s reluctance to being “interviewed” I do so with a not unnatural desire to express my gratitude for the valuable time and the very pleasant conversations which the distinguished composer has, on different occasions, so kindly and generously accorded me.
Sir Arthur Sullivan’s career has been of such exceptional brilliance and of so public a character that it would seem, in a sense, almost superfluous to enter into biographical detail; but his life’s history is so full of interest to all of us, and especially so to all lovers of music, that it will perhaps be of advantage to allude to some of the main points of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s life-work, in addition to recording the little chat which I had with him on behalf of THE YOUNG WOMAN.
“My first published work,” Sir Arthur remarked, “was the music which I wrote to Shakespeare’s Tempest, when I was eighteen years of age and studying in Germany, and it was the performance of this work, a year after I returned to England, in ’62, which first brought my name before the public at all prominently.”
In talking with Sir Arthur Sulluvan, and in thinking of the work he has done and the great influence he has exercised on the musical world, it is difficult to believe that he was born fifty-five years ago,--for two very different reasons. In talking with him it is hard to believe that he is over fifty, because of the extreme youthfulness, so far as the word indicates extreme mental and physical alertness, indicated in the keen quick glance, the good-humored laugh, and the intense interest which Sir Arthur takes in everything connected with his profession and outside it; and, on the other hand, it is very hard to believe that all Sir Arthur has done has been accomplished in the space of one lifetime.
An able writer, Mr. Charles Willeby, has said, in writing of the great master of melody: “As the only career parallel to his, that of Adelina Patti has been instanced. The suggestion is not without point. Both are products of the ‘forties,’ both have Italian blood in their veins, both have reached the highest pinnacle of success, and both are truly beloved by a country which has a reputation for callousness with respect to the provider of its artistic pleasures. . . . All value that there is in the comparison is constituted in the mere fact of the comparison itself—the fact that for brilliancy, for a series of glorious triumphs, there is only one career in the world of music at all analogous to that of Arthur Sullivan.”
Sir Arthur’s Italian descent was on his mother’s side; his father was, of course, an Irishman, and a very clever executant musician. How the youthful Arthur Sullivan attended the band rehearsals so that he knew the value of every band instrument before he was eight, and how he became chorister at the Chapel Royal, beginning his successful career by winning the Mendelssohn Scholarship, must be well known to everyone; but I do not think that the pathetic way in which one of his first and best-known overtures came to be written is so well known, and I must once more quote Mr. Charles Willeby’s book on the Masters of Contemporary Music, to which, for reliable detail, Sir Arthur has on one or two occasions referred me in regard to this circumstance.
It happened that Arthur Sullivan had accepted an invitation to write a work for the Norwich Festival. “As the time approached for its completion he worked and worked, but without any result satisfactory to himself. About a month before the Festival, in sheer despair at his inability to satisfy himself, he said to his father (to whom he was passionately attached), ‘I shall give up the Norwich work. I can't get an idea of any kind. I suppose that the fact of sitting down in cold blood to write an abstract work by a certain date, with nothing suggestive to work upon, paralyses me.’ ‘No, my boy,’ said his father. ‘You mustn't give it up, you will succeed if you stick to it. Something will probably occur which will put new vigour and fresh thoughts into you. Don't give it up.’ How truly prophetic were his words! Three days afterwards his father died suddenly. On the evening of his funeral the poor fellow, heartbroken as he was, sat down to bury his grief in his work. How fully he did so we only recognise when we listen to the sorrowful long-drawn strain [sic] of his “In Memoriam” overture. It is so truly elegiac. What his father had said was true enough; all that he needed was something suggestive to work upon, but he little thought how powerful that something was to be. Within eight days of his father's death, the work was finished and ready for the Festival.”
With the “breaking” of young Arthur Sullivan’s voice came the end of his choral efforts at the Chapel Royal, and having studied harmony and counterpoint with Goss, and the pianoforte with Sterndale Bennett in England, we find him at Leipsic working hard both at pianoforte playing and composition. [sic] At this time Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Schubert were his ideals, and, very naturally, a reflection of these composers is to be found in his earlier work. At this time he wrote a string quartette, which was afterwards heard by Spohr in Leipsic, and it is said that, when the lad was introduced to him, the master could hardly believe that it was he who had written it. “So jung,” he exclaimed, “und doch so weit in der Kunst!” (So young, yet so advanced in art!) Then the Tempest music came to be written, and in ’61 Sullivan returned to London, bringing the score with him.
As far as the greater public is concerned, I am not sure that it is not by such splendid pieces of melody as “The Lost Chord,” rather than by larger efforts, that the good work which Sir Arthur Sullivan has done will be best, or more popularly, remembered. The composition of this truly beautiful song is also linked with sad memories in the life of the composer, for its composition came about in this way. His much-loved brother Frederick (sic) fell ill, and for three weeks his brother Arthur watched by his bedside night and day. One night—the end was not very far off then—while his sick brother had for a time fallen into a peaceful sleep, and he was sitting as usual by the bedside, he chanced to come across some verses of Adelaide Procter’s with which he had five years previously been very much impressed. Now, in the stillness of the night, he read them over again, and almost as he did so he conceived their musical equivalent. A stray sheet of music-paper was at hand, and he began to write. Slowly the music grew and took shape, until, becoming quite absorbed in it, he determined to finish the song. Even if, in the cold light of day, it were to prove worthless, it would at least have helped to while away the hours of watching. In a short time it was complete, and not long afterwards in the publisher’s hands. Thus was written “The Lost Chord,” perhaps the most successful song of modern times—at all events, one whose sale has, up to now, exceeded 250,000 copies.
In any consideration of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s musical genius one cannot but be struck by his extraordinary versatility. His work covers a wide field, and whether he may be considered best in symphony or oratorio, in cantata or opera, must remain, for the most part, a matter of taste. His melody is to be found everywhere, and the hymn-book has been enriched by such tunes as the popular setting to the hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”
Even in a brief summary one should not forget to mention the place which Sir Arthur has occupied in our national life as musician-laureate. It was in 1863, on the occasion of the marriage of the Prince of Wales, that he was asked to compose the music, and the music which he has written for all sorts of popular functions forms no insignificant portion of the catalogue of his work. “On Shore and Sea” was written at this period for the opening of the International Exhibition at South Kensington in 1871, for which Gounod also wrote “Gallia,” and in the following year came the Festival “Te Deum” in celebration of the recovery of the Prince of Wales. In 1886 he wrote an ode with Lord Tennyson for the opening of the Indian and Colonial exhibition by the Queen, and in the following year an ode with Lewis Morris for the ceremony of laying the foundation-stone of the Imperial Institute by Her Majesty.
It would be impossible, also, to apply any measurement to the amount of innocent fun and happy hours which multitudes have derived from the Gilbert-Sullivan operas. I well remember being taken, when I first came up to this wonderful London of ours, by a friend of mine, a clergyman to see the “Mikado.” [sic punct] My friend was, too, a cleric inclined to asceticism, and yielding to no one in his robust Puritanism, but it would not be easy to say how much he enjoyed the libretto of the “Mikado,” and the strange quips and jests which Sir Arthur Sullivan so cleverly infuses into the delightful melodies of his music. But the number of good clerics present on that occasion and other occasions was not a small one, and many of us have not forgotten to be thankful for the “innocent merriment” and for the exhilarating music which was an education as well as a perpetual delight.
I found Sir Arthur at home, on the occasion of which I am writing, at his town house in Victoria Street, and a veritable House Beautiful it is. From the moment you enter the hall, with its hanging Arabian lamps, its ornate and harmonious decoration, with its lovely screen of old Cairo woodwork, until you find yourself seated with Sir Arthur in his study (a handsome room on the ground floor facing the street), whilst your host, who is one of the most delightful conversationalists imaginable, selects a Turkish cigarette from a case which reposes on the centre table, on which stand quaint and well-shaded lamps lighted by electricity, you are impressed with the melodious harmony, so to speak, of your surroundings, and indeed a little enthusiasm is excusable where everything seems to so accurately reflect your host’s good taste and personal refinement.
“Of course there is a good deal of scope for the young woman in the musical world,” Sir Arthur remarks, in reply to one of my questions; “but, as you know, the profession in all its branches is very much overcrowded. It is a curious thing that although so very many young women are exceptionally gifted, they only shine as executants. They do not seem to possess any real power, so far as composition is concerned. They can compose pieces much as the average man can write an intelligent letter; and just as you would not on that ground describe him as a literary man, this feminine facility in composition implies little more. Yet they are splendid executants, singers, and players.”
“Do you still give audiences to young people who wish your opinion with regard to their ability as singers or pianoforte players,” I interject; “or have you found it too much of a tax on your time?”
“I have been compelled to give it up. I found that if I yielded to every request—and one cannot very easily make distinctions—that I should have no time for anything else, but be listening to the efforts of beginners for the rest of my life. I have been obliged to have a little form printed, which I send out in very much the same way that I suppose an editor does in regard to rejected manuscripts. I get a score of letters every day on the subject, as it is, and my secretary has really no time to answer them. Then, again, I don’t at all like delivering judgment. It’s very unpleasant. One must give honest criticism, and it is very unpleasant to have to say to a girl, ‘You have no talent—try something else.’ Few people have any conception of how very much moderate talent there is nowadays. The more of this moderate talent there is, the keener, of course, the competition becomes. Naturally, the tendency with the great bulk of these would-be musicians is to become badly-paid teachers. But the teaching is much better than it used to be, thanks to the better instruction given in the Royal Academy, the Guildhall School of Music, and similar schools and academies.
“The attention which the public gives to all-round instruction in music is startling; in fact, I should be inclined to say that it is overdone. My own theory, as far as possible my practice as well, has always been to educate a good listener rather than an indifferent performer.
“Of course, any competent young woman can get a good deal of employment at parties and at small concerts all over the country, whilst the higher and more remunerative work remains in the hands of a comparatively small number of the greater artistes.”
Then, in response to a more personal reference, Sir Arthur replies—
“Yes, musical composition entails a good deal of hard manual labour. Here, for example,” and as he spoke Sir Arthur brought down from a shelf a ponderous volume containing, as I discovered, some 720 tremendous pages of full orchestral score, “is my scoring in ‘Ivanhoe,’ every semiquaver of which for voices, fiddles, other stringed [sic] and wind instruments, and so on, has necessarily to be written out with my own hand before the work can be ready for the copyist.” Every worker feels the strain of downright clerical work, but the enormous amount of manual labour entailed in the orchestrating of a full score, for voice and band parts, is of an exceptionally heavy character, and an awkward accompaniment to the genius of the composer.
“But before the work of composition commences, I suppose you have a sort of shorthand for the first stage?”
“Quite so,” was the reply. “Here is a sheet of it. It consists, as you see, of diminutive dots and dashes. I suppose it differs from good stenography in one material respect, that no one else would understand it, although it means a good deal to me.”
“And have you anything at hand at the present moment?”
“Well, I suppose I may be said to be resting for the present,” said Sir Arthur smilingly, “as I have nothing definitely in hand. I have, however, promised to write a work for the Leeds festival, but the difficulty is to find a good subject.”
But I feel that I have bothered Sir Arthur sufficiently, and as I rise to go I make an inquiry as to whether he has any word to say to the beginner who wishes to acquire high musical honours, and Sir Arthur replies, “No, I don’t think I have, unless it be to warn the beginner that the standard of excellence in every department of music has risen tremendously during the past twenty-five years, and any young woman or young man will find it very hard work to rise above the rank of mediocrity. Incessant practice and good physical health are necessary to the executant, but in any case the great secret is to start young. Whatever else may be acquired in middle age, musical ability is a birthright. It can be developed, but never acquired.”
"Polly! What's the time?" obtrusively cackled the elderly parrot whose cage hangs in one of the rooms of Sir Arthur's delightful retreat at Walton-on-Thames. It was a wonderfully fine afternoon, and this was my final call on Sir Arthur Sullivan in regard to this article. Sir Arthur had just finished writing the opening bars of his rendering of the Christmas hymn, "It came upon the midnight clear," so that it might form a souvenir-autograph for this issue of THE STRAND MAGAZINE.
The experience throughout - from the time that I had my first chat on the subject in the study of his town house in Victoria Street - had been such a pleasant one that, as Polly, apparently happy in its exceedingly limited powers of human expression, reiterated her chuckling inquiry for the third or fourth time, the query served to remind me that even journalistic inquisitiveness has its finality, no matter how delightful the process may have proved - to the interviewer.
Sir Arthur's loquacious parrot is, I am afraid, only a vague humorist, and whether or no the bird's insistence upon knowing the hour of the clock may have acted as a valuable hint to innumerable callers - though this is mere speculation on my part - yet the reiteration of the word "time" might well be made the basis of a more serious text, for each succeeding year has served to give an added lustre to the fame of our greatest English composer; and, moreover, although Sir Arthur is now in his fifty-sixth year, his energy has not one whit abated. In talking with him, it is indeed difficult to realize that his first composition - the music to Shakespeare's "Tempest " - was composed so far back as 1860, and that his first opera was produced thirty years ago. Indeed, Sir Arthur Sullivan's professional experience extends over a very considerable period of our wonderful Victorian Era, and furnishes by no means the least important part of its history. Rarely has any man's work achieved such success in a lifetime, and as during that period Sir Arthur has known everyone worth knowing, it may fairly be said that his reminiscences, if ever he cared to write them, would form one of the most interesting volumes of autobiography ever published. To the fertility of his rare genius Sir Arthur Sullivan has added an infinite capacity for unceasing hard work. There is hardly any phase of musical composition which he has not treated and beautified, and the fruit of his wonderful versatility is to be found in oratorio, hymns, songs, and cantatas, as well as in the ever-popular Gilbert-Sullivan operas, which have been such a source of "innocent merriment," and a perpetual delight, to hundreds of thousands on both sides of the Atlantic. One of the happiest features of what is, perhaps, the most distinguished artistic career of our own time is the real personal popularity which has kept pace with the spontaneous and far-reaching recognition which has been accorded to Sir Arthur Sullivan's genius as a composer. Although without prejudice on the subject, Sir Arthur is not particularly amenable to the wiles of the interviewer, so that from this point of view I may perhaps add my own humble testimony to the fact that, although I have worried Sir Arthur on many occasions, I have always been struck with his unfailing and wholly natural courtesy - "old-fashioned" some people might term it; but, if so, one must be pardoned for hoping that it is an old fashion which will never get quite out of date.
Sir Arthur was the younger son of Mr. Thomas Sullivan, a clever Irishman who from 1845 to 1856 occupied the position of bandmaster at the Military College, Sandhurst, whilst his mother was descended from an old Italian family, and the Italian blood in his veins may, perhaps, serve as an explanation - to those who are curious in questions of heredity - for the almost un-English vivacity of manner which is one of Sir Arthur's most salient characteristics, whilst he has added to it a very English (or Irish) dogged determination and persistence, a quality which has been remarkably displayed in the way in which he has done his best work under the greatest difficulties, and a great part of his most melodious and most humorous light operas were composed and orchestrated in the midst of illness and in the intervals of great physical pain.
Yes, that was the first time I saw my name in print," and Sir Arthur points to a cutting from the Illustrated London News, dated 1856, which is framed and hung on the wall, announcing the fact that Master Arthur Seymour Sullivan, aged fourteen, had won the Mendelssohn Scholarship; and it is easy to see from the composer's manner that no subsequent "notice", of whatever character, has ever given him equal pleasure. Then comes a tour of exploration round the house in search of personal photographs and similar curios reproduced in these pages, and to which it will be possible to refer later on.
Young Arthur Sullivan's practical training in orchestral matters began very early, for there were hardly any instruments in his father's band at Sandhurst which he did not learn to play with facility. Mr. Sullivan was happy in the belief that his younger son possessed rare musical ability, although he could have had no conception of the pre-eminent distinction which his son was destined to attain. At the age of eleven nothing would satisfy the embryo musician but that his father should get him into the choir at the Chapel Royal. "His voice was very sweet," said Mr. Helmore, who was then master at the Chapel Royal, "and his style of singing was far more sympathetic than that of most boys." The young musician was only three years in the choir, yet long enough to make his first attempt at musical composition. He was the author of a boyish effort, "0 Israel," and an anthem, which was duly sung in the choir. Sir Arthur referred to these very early efforts with a smile of compunction, but it was in part due to this training that - when, in 1856, the Mendelssohn Scholarship was instituted - the erstwhile chorister came out at the head of the list. It may be of interest to mention that Sir Joseph Barnby was one of the candidates. "And so it happened," said Sir Arthur, "that I did not experience any exceptional struggles or difficulties when I began my profession, for the winning of the scholarship gave me a certain prestige and many good friends, so that I took some very pleasant letters of introduction with me when I left England to study in Leipzig. Yes, that portrait of me (when a student at Leipzig) was taken when I was eighteen, and when I was in the throes of my first serious composition, the 'Tempest' music, which was not produced in England until two years afterwards, when I was twenty."
The success which attended the "Tempest" music, when it was produced at a Crystal Palace Concert on the composer's return to London in 1862, was immediate and emphatic, and amongst those who came to hear it performed on the second occasion was the great novelist, Charles Dickens. He was waiting outside the artists' room as Sullivan came out, and going up to him and shaking him by the hand, he said: "I don't profess to know anything about music, but I do know that I have listened to a very beautiful work." Soon after this, Dickens accompanied Chorley and the then Mr. Sullivan to Paris, and Sir Arthur told me :-
"I always found Dickens a most delightful companion. Apart from his high spirits and engaging manner, one might give two special reasons for this," said Sir Arthur. "On the one hand he was so unassuming - he never obtruded his own work upon you. I have never yielded to anyone in my admiration of Dickens's work; but, speaking of him as a companion, I can safely say that one would never have known that Dickens was an author from his conversation - I mean, that he never discussed himself with you ; whilst, on the other hand, I have often since wondered at the wonderful interest he would apparently take in the conversation of us younger men. He would treat our feeblest banalities as if they were the choicest witticisms, or the ripe meditations of a matured judgement"; and, as Sir Arthur smiled at the recollection, he told me how vividly he remembered the fine face, the keen eyes, and the varied expressions of the novelist's face, and how wonderfully it used to light up as he talked with you.
"There was quite a little coterie of us in those days," Sir Arthur continued. "First of all there were Charles Dickens and his daughters, Charles Collins, his son-in-law, and his brother, Wilkie Collins, and then there was Mrs. Lehmann, one of the married daughters of old Robert Chambers. Dear old Chorley used to have a house in Eaton Place, where we were wont to assemble and have little dinners. Browning was one of us. I liked him immensely, but as a conversationalist he was, at that time, somewhat overwhelming - you couldn't get a word in. It was marvellous how Browning sustained his interest in everything, especially in music. Up to the last he used to regularly attend the Monday Popular Recitals, and so on."
“New Savoy Opera: A Chat with Sir Arthur Sullivan.” Daily Mail no. 638, Tue. May 17, 1898, p. 3. (excerpt quoted in Gayden Wren, A Most Ingenious Paradox, p. 278)
“I am most anxious that the public should understand that the forthcoming Savoy piece is an entirely new departure,” said Sir Arthur Sullivan to a “Daily Mail” representative yesterday, over the tea-cups in his flat in Victoria-street.
“It is most important that they should know what they are going to see. In the first place the work is not a comic opera. It is a serious earnest, [sic punct] romantic drama, in which the dialogue and action are both as important as the music. The musical numbers arise in operatic libretto terms, but the sequence of the musical numbers, whether songs, trios, or quartettes, never interferes with the dramatic necessities of the play.
“Mind, I don’t mean to say that there is no humour in the piece—there is a delicate humour throughout. But there are no comic songs or numbers, in the ordinary acceptation of the term. The story is serious and romantic—even as the novels of Mr. Anthony Hope and Mr. Stanley Weyman are serious and romantic. The score although not as heavy as that of ‘Ivanhoe,’ has taken me
MORE TIME AND HARDER WORK
than anything I have done for some time. You will appreciate the difficulty of making a thing earnest and serious, and yet endeavouring to be neither heavy nor dull.”
“And what about the rehearsals?”
“So far as I am entitled to express an opinion,” said Sir Arthur, “I think the performance will be admirable. The nature of the piece, the character of the music—these require singers. Even our comedians, Messrs. Passmore and Lytton, are most excellent musicians, which is a very rare and a very fortunate thing for all of us. We have three new-comers in the cast—Miss Pauline Joran—whom you have heard at Covent Garden—and two young American singers, Messrs. Isham and Devoll, who are intelligent, gifted, and of great promise.
“I am very hopeful about the piece, because I think the public may welcome something of
A NOVEL CHARACTER
on the stage. And I insist that this piece, at any rate in form, is an absolute novelty. Here you have a strong plot and dialogue written by Mr. Arthur Pinero—surely the most brilliant dramatist of our day in London—and lyrics by Mr. Comyns Carr, a man of strong poetical feeling, and, above all, a scholar.
“I have only to add that I have tried to do my share of the work with the most scrupulous and exacting care. Voilà tout!”
Before our representative left, Sir Arthur played some of the numbers, and showed some of his daintily transcribed score—absolutely pretty and delicate in notation. One chorus is especially haunting in melody, and contrapuntally, of course, brilliant.
For Sir Arthur Sullivan was the first composer to elaborate counterpoint in the lighter forms of music—witness the juxtaposition, contrapuntally treated, in the policeman’s chorus in “The Pirates of Penzance.”
“The New Musical Drama at the Savoy – What Sir Arthur Sullivan Says.” Daily News, 25 May 1898, p. 3 (cited in Cambridge Companion to Gilbert and Sullivan, p. 249) [contributed by Robin Gordon-Powell]
THE NEW MUSICAL DRAMA AT THE SAVOY.
WHAT SIR ARTHUR SULLIVAN SAYS.
It was on Monday night that I called on Sir Arthur Sullivan, and his innumerable well-wishers will be glad to learn that I found him not only looking well in health, but several years younger than he did on the last occasion I visited him—about six months ago. Why the phenomenon? Well, I believe the great secret—if a reason be necessary—is to be found in the fact that he has been working incessantly day after day on the new piece, and Sir Arthur thrives astonishingly on exceptionally hard work. The writing of the music for the new drama has not been less arduous—perhaps more so—than the setting of any of his famous light operas, but every note of it has been written in less than four months. “Monday, May 23rd,” was the date of my call. “It was at 4.30 this morning that I completed the orchestration,” Sir Arthur exclaimed, and the work was not begun until the last week in January. Omitting all thought of the creative part of the work, it is difficult to imagine the amount of sheer manual labour, and the rapidity of composition, which this statement implies.
“I think the work has proved more arduous than anything else I have done,” said Sir Arthur, “and this is not explained by the fact that the piece is of a serious character, because the composition of a light or comic opera where I must appear to be in a chronic state of high spirits, and write in a light, tuneful vein throughout, with the constant fear of the commonplace or banal before me, is no easy task. But in this case it was a long time before I got into the right groove, and the construction of the concerted numbers, and the instrumentation took me more time than usual. [sic punct] Most of my Savoy operas have taken me about a fortnight to ‘score,’ but I am sorry to say I have been nearly a month over the instrumentation of this piece.
“I think it should be made clear beforehand that this piece, ‘The Beauty Stone,’ is of a totally different character to anything we have had previously at the Savoy Theatre. It is not ‘heavy,’ and I hope the same thing may be said of the music, but it is a romantic drama, not a humorous piece, and though it possesses light qualities, and may admit of humorous treatment in some of the songs and incidents, it is written on serious lines. There is certainly nothing depressing about it. That will, I think, be granted, but I am so afraid that the audience will come to the theatre expecting a comic opera, with all the quips, cranks, and jokes pertaining thereto, and not finding them will be disappointed. Oh, no, it doesn’t end unhappily or anything of that sort. There is an undercurrent of pathos throughout the play, and the opening scene begins with a duet of despair because they are old, poor, and wretched, between the old couple Simon and Joan, Mr. Lytton and Miss Rosina Brandram, who sing their song at the loom.”
“Well, it isn’t like that all the way through,” said Sir Arthur, cheerfully, “or those people who had come solely to be amused might, perhaps, burst into tears and leave the theatre! But the motive throughout is that the possession of beauty does not necessarily bring happiness with it. Of course you get the humorous element, as you do in romantic and historical novels, although--” smilingly—“you would hardly describe them as being comic books!
“The Evil One, which will be played by Mr. Passmore, is dressed in the costume of the period, and mixes with the crowd. He has everything to do with the action of the story, and is represent [sic] as the Devil of the middle ages, when, as is explained in the preface, ‘he was a constant figure in popular imagination, familiarity engendering a sentiment in which contempt fought strongly with awe for preeminence.’ He adopts various disguises, a friar and so forth, is nobody’s confidant, and is throughout a stranger to those with whom he converses, a mysterious personage. He holds the Beauty Stone and hands it to one and the other—always with results that—but I mustn’t tell the story.”
“And the vocal music?” – “There are twenty-four numbers, six or seven of which are long concerted pieces. I don’t know that you ought to ask the composer which of them is likely to attract most attention—so far as the music is concerned—but I might instance two light duets with dancing which take place between the Devil (Passmore) and Jacqueline (Miss Emmie Owen), a sort of waif, who becomes his page and attendant, and a tender duet for the two old people, recalling their youthful love.”
“Saida is the prima donna of the piece, and will be played by Miss Pauline Joran, who is not only a great singer, but an admirable musician. She was educated as a violinist, but has a wonderfully fine voice and a dramatic ability which I think will convince everyone that we are very fortunate to have secured such a brilliant artiste for the part. One of the most striking scenes in which Saida figures is at the point where she endeavours to lure back the hero—Philip, Lord of Mirlemont, to her love. This is a fairly long piece of concerted music, written in an oriental vein and in this as by way of accompaniment to Saida’s song—and the dance—I have to bring in a chorus of knights and dames who sing in a fashion which suggests a series of hushed ‘asides,’ alternating with a chorus of Eastern maidens.”
“Which means a task of intricate workmanship?” I suggest, and then I enquire, “But what does ‘the oriental’ in music really imply?”
“Well, I have tried to give it an unconventional colour. The conventional oriental colour in music is gained by the use of certain intervals, such as the augmented second and the diminished fifth, but I have rather tried to give it oriental colour by means of the languor of the music and by adopting a scale of my own after the Greek modes,” and Sir Arthur very good-naturedly ran over on the pianoforte some of the scales for the first, according to the conventional, and then, the scale which he had adopted, and a few bars of the music—langorous and bringing to one’s mind the suggestion of strange eastern scenes and colour.
“And how may I describe the scale which you have adopted?” I inquired ruthlessly, after thanking him. “I don’t want to be too technical, but music lovers” I ejaculated desperately. [sic] Then I saw by the expression of Sir Arthur’s face, as he commiserated my endeavours [sic] to grapple with musical matters that some little joke was forthcoming.
“Well, you see,” he explained, laughing heartily, “it is quite my own secret invention that scale: [sic punct] but, if you like, you can mention that it is a compromise between the Phrygian Mode and the Hypo-mixolydian. No doubt this is quite clear to you?”
Under these circumstances an interviewer can only “preserve his face,” as the Chinese express it, by becoming even more remorseless in his interrogation, and I adopted this course.
“And the Devil music—is it weird?”
“No, not in the conventional sense. It is characterised by a certain grim levity—that is how I should distinguish it.”
In reply to a further question Sir Arthur said: “The part of the hero, Philip, is taken by a newcomer, Mr. Devoll, who can be relied upon, I think I may say, to give the best possible rendering to a very strong part. Love ditties are not absent, but it is not the traditional tenor part where the rapturous tenor is made to look—well—like a consummate idiot! It is a part which implies manliness.”
“You know, I’m not partial to being interviewed,” said Sir Arthur, at parting; “but, for or against it”—laughing good-humouredly—“I feel sure I can never do right! Either I am secretive and quite inaccessible, because I don’t accede to any journalist who may choose to knock at the door, or if I am caught in a weak moment in this way I am told that I am trying to puff and advertise my operas. I must think over it, and try to decide which is the worst charge! But you can easily see that, adopting either of the alternatives, I shall be equally wrong!”
It was evident that neither charge has disturbed Sir Arthur’s equanimity in the slightest degree, but it will be admitted that the forthcoming productions [sic] stands in no need of the services of my journalistic “advance agent,” and it is to be hoped that one will not have assisted the absurd suggestion of “advertisement” in thus taking advantage of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s characteristic good-nature and courtesy by thus attempting to lift just a bit of the “curtain.”
“A Chat with the Composer of “The Lost Chord” – Sir Arthur Sullivan and His Work.” The New Penny Magazine 5.54 (Feb? 1900) 61-67. (contributed by John Cannon)
It is such a pity that the readers of a magazine should, speaking comprehensively, be in ignorance of the dangers by flood and field, the encounters, and the escapes, which are daily survived in their interest by its contributors! Little do the gentlemen of England, who sit at home at ease leisurely skimming the contents of their favourite magazine, think of the risk which has been run for their amusement or instruction. Knowing the enormous difficulty of the enterprise, it was not unnatural that I showed signs of rebellion on being told to have a “chat with Sir Arthur Sullivan.”
“Have a chat with Sir Arthur Sullivan!” To obtain a chat with Nelson on the column above Trafalgar Square were far easier. However, dreading that any hesitation would tempt my Editor to quote Richelieu’s irritating “There’s no such word as fail,” I could but acquiesce, and depart into solitude to ponder on ways and means to attain the unattainable. For did not report say that the composer of Ivanhoe and Patience, and a thousand other gems, dwelt in an eminently impregnable fortress, or on an island set in a lake of fire, if not in a private and particular Seventh Heaven, where never yet did Penholder penetrate?
But on the other hand, since the Post Office Directory calmly states that this unapproachable musician may be addressed at 60, Victoria Street, one’s course seemed plain—send a letter there, and await the result. A few hours only elapsed ere the following surprise was delivered: “Sir Arthur Sullivan will be happy to see you tomorrow at three o’clock,” written by the hand of his secretary. So far, so good. But when I arrived, and Sir Arthur joined me in his dressing-room, all my hopes of merging from the encounter with flying colours vanished, for this is what happened—
He, with freezing politeness: “Forgive me if I ask you to remind me of the object of your call.”
I: “To gain information for Messrs. Cassell’s NEW PENNY MAGAZINE.”
He: “Ah, to be sure, but there’s nothing on which I wish to inform Messrs. Cassell for the Magazine.”
I: “However, since I have to write about you, I must needs have some topics.”
He: “Why write about me? I have never done anything to deserve such treatment. I’ve never killed anybody, or worked a miracle, or even taken part in a scandal.”
I: “In fact, all you have ever done is to make life pleasanter for other folks. Cannot you tell me something about the doing?”
I: “Or about the other folks?”
He: “Absolutely nothing.”
I, beginning to feel rather hopeless: “Or about anything pleasant which has ever happened to you?”
He: “No. The fact is I don’t approve of this sort of journalism; this turning a fellow inside out for public inspection!”
I, in despair: “Then why did you let me come?”
He: “Why did I? I think it was because I liked your letter. You express yourself very well; that comes of your profession. Tell me” (thawing suddenly, since no longer himself the topic), “do you honestly like journalism, and the meetings with all sorts and conditions of men which it entails?”
I: “Yes, I like it,” seizing an irresistible opening, “but only when the meetings prove agreeable.”
A sympathetic twinkle of fun showed itself for an instant in Sir Arthur’s dark eyes, when the door opened and a ministering angel appeared in the form of an old acquaintance, Wilfred Bendall. He, surprised to find in me the impersonation of the journalist of whose advent he had been warned, immediately came to the rescue of a situation which looked like becoming too critical for comfort, and by a series of well-directed questions and reminders of the days of yore, soon led his friend into such a communicative state of mind that my mission, which ten minutes ago had looked so like failure, in the end fulfilled itself without further effort on my part.
To give a résumé of the whole, sorting into chronological order those events which bear on the history of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s career, disregarding the conversational form in which they were related, will probably be the most advantageous method.
When but a small boy, between four and five years old, Sir Arthur Sullivan showed so much taste for music that it became quite evident that his father would have a worthy son. To tolerate a discord was so impossible to the child that even when he strummed on the piano for his own amusement he would only strike notes that sounded well together.
His father, Thomas Sullivan, an Irishman, was bandmaster at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst from 1845 to 1856, and during that time the band reached an unusually high standard, thanks to the very musicianly care he bestowed upon it. His wife was of an old Italian family named Righi. To such a happy combination as that parentage afforded may probably be owed the determination and the sprightly fancy which are evident characteristics of our subject. For be it known that often have his gayest melodies been produced in short intervals of such pain as would have totally annihilated anyone of less steadfastness of purpose.
To attend the daily practices of the Sandhurst band was little Arthur Sullivan’s greatest pleasure, and not many years had passed before he could play every wind instrument, and thoroughly understood the capabilities of each as component parts of the orchestra. When the moment came for sending him to school he begged to be allowed to become a member of the choir of the Chapel Royal or of Westminster Abbey, but decision being given in favour of a school kept by an elderly man named Pless, in Bayswater, there the boy went. However, determined to gain his point, he soon persuaded that amiable person to take him to call on Sir George Smart, organist of the Chapel Royal, who lived in Great Portland Street, in the house where Weber died. Sullivan sang “With Verdure Clad,” accompanying himself on the piano, with such good effect that he was sent on at once to the Rev. Thomas Helmore, Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal. Mr. Helmore who [sic punct] was satisfied with his voice, and delighted with his sympathetic manner of singing, readily admitted him to the choir and as a boarder in his house, 6, Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, where the rest of the boys lived and had their education.
Sir Arthur Sullivan is emphatic in his praise of the admirable method of voice-training and general musical culture practiced by Mr. Helmore, as indeed are Edward Lloyd and W.H. Cummings, both ex-children of the Chapel Royal.
An incident which speaks volumes for the great musical endowment of the boy Sullivan took place when he was thirteen. He had sung the solo soprano part of The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, composed by Sir Frederick Gore Ouseley as an exercise for his degree of Doctor of Music at Oxford, and when at the end of the school term he went home for the holidays, he said to his father, “There is a splendid march in that new work; you really ought to get it for the band.” But, as it was not published, that seemed an impossibility. However, determined not to be beaten, the boy sat down early one morning, and before night he had written out the march from memory in full military band score. The Sandhurst Band, very proud of the really marvellous achievement of its young associate, excelled itself in the perfection of its rendering of that music.
During the succeeding June the examination took place for the scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music, just founded in memory of Mendelssohn through the efforts of Jenny Lind, who had given a performance of Elijah at Exeter Hall with the object of providing funds for the purpose.
A great many competitors presented themselves, and were all in turn dismissed but two, the eldest and the youngest—Joseph Barnby and Arthur Sullivan—who were considered so equally matched that after a very exhaustive examination judgment was reserved until the morrow. The receipt of the letter which brought to Sullivan the news that victory lay with him is still remembered as providing the most rapturous moment of his existence. He shows to visitors to his house in Victoria Street a framed cutting from the Illustrated London News of 1856, announcing the winning of the Mendelssohn Scholarship by “Master Sullivan, chorister in her Majesty’s Chapel Royal,” remarking that it was the first time he had seen his name in print.
The professors at the Academy under whom he studied were Sterndale Bennett and Arthur O’Leary for the pianoforte, and John Goss for harmony and composition, and he also attended the orchestral and choral practices under Charles Lucas. The original scholarship was extended to a second year in consequence of good progress, and at the end of that time it was again given to Sullivan that he might be enabled to go to the Conservatorium at Leipzig. The two and a half years spent in Leipzig he describes with enthusiasm as having been “perfectly lovely,” and tells amusing anecdotes—deftly led thereto by the kindly Mr. Bendall—of some of his fellow students, amongst whom were Carl Rosa, John Francis Barnett, Edvard Grieg, Franklin Taylor, and Edward Dannreuther.
His masters at the Conservatorium were Moscheles, Louis Plaidy, Rietz, Reinecke, and Ferdinand David.
Those were the days when the music of Schumann, Schubert, and Wagner was just beginning to hold its own, in rivalry to that of the generally adored Mendelssohn, and Sullivan was soon enrolled amongst the staunchest adherents of the new school. On his return to London in 1861 he went to Cipriani Potter, then the head of the Royal Academy of Music, and poured forth torrents of eloquence on the subject of his freshly discovered divinities. But Potter, who had been an intimate friend of Beethoven, would not heed, and merely shook his head over what he considered the ruin of a promising youth.
However, Sullivan, as was usual with him, got his own way in the end, for having persistently played Schubert, Chopin, Gade, and Schumann at Mr. Potter’s house several evenings consecutively, he had the delight of making a complete convert. The same thing happened, regarding Schumann, to Sir George Grove, secretary of the Crystal Palace and an authority on matters musical, and to August Manns, conductor of the band, who, on being shown by Sullivan Schumann’s first symphony in B flat, proceeded to put it down for immediate performance during the ensuing series of winter concerts.
Just before Sullivan left Leipzig he had composed a setting to Shakespeare’s Tempest, which had been given with great success at the Gewandhaus, and in the spring of 1862—on 5th April to particularise—it was included in the programme at the Crystal Palace. The music made such a stir, awoke such paeans of praise from all the critics, that it had to be repeated on the following Saturday, when all musical London decamped in a body to Sydenham. Amongst the audience on that eventful occasion was Charles Dickens, who had been so much enchanted with the composition that at the end of the performance he made his way round to the artists’ room, and, seizing Sullivan’s hand with his long, strong fingers, he exclaimed: “I don’t pretend to know much about music, but I do know that what I have been listening to is a very great work.”
Dickens and Sullivan were intimate friends, and to the young composer the association was a delight, for the author was the most charming companion imaginable, full of fun, yet with ever ready sympathy should a grey day intrude in a time of life which contained mostly sunshine.
Other folks, more or less celebrated, whom Sullivan constantly met at about that date, were Charles and Wilkie Collins, Browning, Mrs. Lehmann, one of the married daughters of Robert Chambers, the Edinburgh publisher, founder of “Chambers’ Journal,” and Chorley, at whose house in Eaton Place were given pleasantly informal little gatherings. Rossini was another whose friendship the young musician valued very highly, and to whose inspiration he feels that he owes his love of operatic work. Sullivan was then (in 1862) organist of St. Michael’s Church, Chester Square, and had just composed six Shakesperian [sic] songs which he sold for five guineas each to Messrs. Metzler—a good investment for the publishers, by the way, since included in the series were “Orpheus and His Lute” and “The Willow Song.”
In order to learn the inmost details of stagecraft, he accepted the post of organist at the Royal Italian opera, Covent Garden, offered him by his old friend, Sir Michael Costa; this he retained for four years, during which time, in addition to the ordinary duties of an organist, he composed the music of a ballet for that house.
His ready adaptability to any and every emergency made Sullivan invaluable to his employers. Nothing ever came amiss to him, hours of work were never too long or singers too exacting; his devotion to music in every mood carried him and them happily through all.
Compositions came quickly from his facile pen, but, having learnt the folly of selling a song outright, he agreed with Messrs. Boosey for a royalty on each copy of “Will He Come?” [sic punct]“Sweethearts,” “Once Again,” “Looking back,” and “Let Me Dream Again,” which arrangement has meant, as may be imagined, a most satisfactory revenue. In 1866 Sullivan supplied the music to Cox and Box, which was the first of his great dramatic successes. Thespis, or the Gods Grown Old, followed at the Gaiety Theatre, and after that came Trial by Jury at the Royalty, which started the collaboration with W.S. Gilbert, for which the world must needs for ever congratulate itself.
Mr. D’Oyly Carte also secured the next production of these two brilliant brains, and put on The Sorcerer at the Opera Comique; but, it failing to hit the public taste, he soon asked them to supply him with fare more likely to be popular, and in May, 1878, H.M.S. Pinafore was launched, Astonishing as it may seem, considering the immense success which it finally achieved, its career did not start at all brilliantly; but Sir Arthur Sullivan, who was then conducting the Promenade Concerts at Covent Garden, nightly played an arrangement of Pinafore music, which helped to gain interest for the opera. Then it went to America, and ran like wild-fire all over the States, was performed at New York in eight theatres at the same time, was hummed, and whistled, and quoted to such an extent that it came to be considered a pest, and there was talk of imposing a fine should anyone be heard to use a line from it in ordinary conversation. “What, never? Well, hardly ever!” was the plague of the existence of a certain editor, who threatened his entire staff with dismissal should yesterday’s offence be repeated—the catch-phrase having appeared in twenty articles in one edition. Most of the long list of Gilbert and Sullivan operas which followed the triumphant Pinafore—Patience, Iolanthe, Yeoman of the Guard, [sic] Ruddigore—have been so successful that they have had to be translated into almost every European language.
Difficult, indeed, is it to realise that the music which has thus contributed to the gaiety of nations was often composed during short intervals from pain so intense as to render the sufferer almost insensible. Two of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s compositions are pathetically associated in his remembrance with the sufferings of others, viz., “In Memoriam” and “The Lost Chord.” He had been asked to write an overture for the Norwich Festival in 1866, but when the date of the performance was drawing dangerously near he was still without an idea, and, feeling entirely at a loss, he said to his father: “I shall give up the commission. Nothing will come to me.”
“Oh, no, my boy, don’t do that, something is sure to occur soon to give your thoughts a new direction. You must not give it up.”
In three days the adored father suddenly died of aneurism of the heart, and his son, on the night of the funeral, in a passion of grief, seized a pen and some music-paper. By the morning his work for the Norwich festival was ready. “The Lost Chord” dates from some time later, when Arthur Sullivan’s brother was seriously ill, and he sat for weeks by the bedside, almost fearing to breathe lest the invalid should be disturbed, whilst Adelaide Procter’s beautiful words incessantly repeated themselves in his tired brain, but without evoking any musical equivalent. However, at last, when the crisis was past and the invalid had fallen into a restful sleep, an inspiration came to his guardian, and by the dim light of the carefully shaded lamp the setting of “The Lost Chord” was finally accomplished. To know the circumstances of this immensely popular song’s creation is to have yet another reason for admiring its pathetic melody. Of all the huge successes scored by Sir Arthur Sullivan, “The Lost Chord” is well in advance as regards numbers of copies sold; next to it comes “Sweethearts,” and then “Let Me Dream Again.”
He is an extremely rapid worker, and is always stirred to special wealth of invention when pressed for time; indeed, he confesses that to sit calmly down to compose for an indefinite occasion is quite unendurably boring to him. But once aware that a work must be done and ready for rehearsal by a certain date, however near at hand, his flow of ideas is unlimited. He never uses a piano when composing, and he scores the whole orchestral work before having heard a note of the music.
The labour of putting his ideas on paper is to him most tedious, and, as he insists on doing very note of it himself, it really does mean an almost overwhelming task. Think, for instance, of Ivanhoe, with its countless pages for an orchestra of about 100 performers. No wonder that to accomplish the scoring of it required five months of incessant work. That Sir Arthur Sullivan goes at a tremendous pace when once started will be understood from the following “record” breaking specimen of time occupied—
Overture to Iolanthe composed between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m.
Overture to Yeoman [sic] of the Guard, twelve hours.
Epilogue to Golden Legend composed and scored for orchestra and chorus in less than twenty-four hours.
The work of “reducing” Sullivan’s operatic compositions for the piano has for some time been entrusted to Mr. Wilfred Bendall.
The abode in which this most prolific composer does his work is a ground floor flat in Victoria Street, but as unlike any other flat as Stonehenge is to Salisbury Cathedral—the latter in all its wealth of grace and ornament being taken as a simile for his delightful surroundings.
The rooms lead out of each other and into spacious passages in the most satisfactory manner, avoiding the least suggestion of cramped space. Treasures from everywhere meet in Sir Arthur Sullivan’s London house, for he has travelled much, and has never returned without bringing some fresh additions to his store of unique belongings, and always the very best of its kind procurable. Some Persian tiles which form a hiding-place for flower-pots in his drawing-room were the source of envy to Sir Frederic Leighton, every time that connoisseur in such matters visited his friend.
For an absolute rest—when he “wants just to walk about and breathe and get strong for more work”—Sir Arthur Sullivan goes to Switzerland. For a “half-holiday” he goes to Weybridge; but to do things by halves is not a weakness of his, as my readers must needs acknowledge, especially when so long a “chat” for a magazine is brought to a close by the gift of his portrait, specially signed for their benefit—and mine, who claim the photograph eventually in remembrance of “a famous victory.”
Interviews or possible interviews quoted that I am trying to find (as of 15 January 2012)
(1) (possibly from New York World? Cited in Stedman’s biography, pp. 172-3) Gilbert is quoted as saying of the new opera “the idea is pure melodrama taken seriously… It’s a sort of reductio ad absurdum of melodrama”
(2) Stedman (p. 212 fn 3) refers to an “interview given to New York newspapers on Gilbert’s arrival in Oct. 1879” in which Gilbert says "pictures and things distract my attention when I look up."
(3) The following is from an article in the New York Times, Aug. 14, 1892, p. 13; article dated London, Aug. 13; the complete article is probably from a London newspaper. “In an interview to-day, touching the disagreement between himself and Mr. Sedger, Mr. Gilbert said: “Mr. Sedger wanted daily half-price matinee performances of “The Mountebanks” and only two or three evening performances, and to pay the company half salaries. I have never had my pieces subjected to such a degrading Scotch auction and would rather that they were withdrawn altogether.” ”
The following may or may not be interviews, but in any case they’re primary sources that I can’t identify:
· Gilbert is quoted in Tony Joseph, The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company 1875-1982, p. 46 (from Era, May 4, 1907, p. 17): the words and music of Miya Sama “were suggested to Sir Arthur Sullivan and myself by the gentleman who was then Mr. Bertram Mitford and who is now Lord Redesdale. Mr. Mitford, whose knowledge of Japan was ‘extensive and peculiar,’ very kindly offered to assist us in the production, and it was at one of the rehearsals at which he was present that I personally asked him if he could suggest an effective Japanese air with native words that would suit the Mikado’s entrance. He at once suggested ‘Miya Sama,’ and Sir Arthur Sullivan, who jumped at the idea, took down the notes as Mr. Mitford hummed them, and I took down the words from his dictation.”
“In France the dramatist has a right to claim success; in England he must beg for mercy.”
If anyone can identify these- (or knows of other interviews not listed at the top of this web page), please e-mail me at arobinson@lagrange,edu ,
Incidentally, Reginald Allen’s First Night Gilbert and Sullivan (p. 27) refers to Gilbert’s “interview for the Jan. 3, 1876, Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News.” I’ve seen this; it isn’t an interview, it’s a letter.
Transcribed by Arthur Robinson, Lewis Library, LaGrange College, Georgia (USA), firstname.lastname@example.org
Last updated 24 July 2012