DURING the run of Ruddigore I developed a very bad attack of ambition, which took the form of keen desire to be a manager of a theatre myself, and the idea materialized when I received an offer of substantial backing from a financier of my acquaintance. The St. James's was in the market, and I secured a lease of it, having in view the production of a comedy-drama entitled The Dean's Daughter, by Sydney Grundy and F. C. Philips, the play being a dramatization of a novel by the latter.
My self-elected financier proved, however, a broken reed, and backed out of his promise after I had signed the lease, leaving me with nothing but my very modest savings to work with. I then obtained an introduction to Colonel North, but for whose kindness in stepping into the breach I should have missed an experience which I cannot entirely regret, though it brought me disaster.
I very much wanted my old friend Mrs. John Wood to play a part in this piece, which she was also inclined to do, and this would, I believe, have made an enormous difference in the result of my venture; but almost as she was on the point of signing with me, some people connected with the Court Theatre made her an offer that it would have been madness to refuse, and my hopes were dashed. She most kindly suggested that I should let my theatre and bring myself and the play to the Court, but it was impossible to arrange matters.
Olga Nethersole and Allan Aynesworth made their bows to London in this play, and I believe it might have been a commercial success but for one situation at the end of it. The unctuous hypocrisy of the Dean was a little too strong for the then state of mind of the theatre-goer — this was before the era of the so-called Problem Plays — but it was in vain that I begged of both authors to alter the end of the play, and let the meretricious cleric suffer and not the daughter he had practically sold for a deanery. In spite of this there could be no two opinions about the success of the piece on the first night, and this, too, in the face of what was an unpleasant and might have been a very awkward incident. About this time Clement Scott, who had established for himself a position which I fancy was unique in the annals of journalism, had said or done something to offend the patrons of pit and gallery, and on entering the stalls on the first night he received a decidedly hostile greeting, renewed after each act, and at the end of the evening becoming very stormy indeed, so much so that I ordered the lights to be turned down in the hope of clearing the theatre. I was greatly aided in obtaining the desired result by my old friend George Edwardes, who addressed the agitators somewhat to this effect "Boys, you're not giving Barrington a fair chance. Go home quietly, and say what you like to Mr. Scott outside the theatre." This, I thought, was extremely friendly of George and very tactful, but he rather spoilt it with his peroration, " Don't forget the first night at the Gaiety next week."
D'Oyly Carte, who was present, came round see me after the play, and when I expressed my uneasiness as to the financial side of the question owing to the defection of my financier, consoled me with the remark, "Don't worry, B., you've got a success, and won't want any more money," thus giving one more instance of the uncertainty pertaining to all theatrical ventures; for though the piece went well enough with the people who came, they did not come in sufficient numbers, and I soon had to put its successor in rehearsal.
This was a drama called Brantingham Hall, written by W. S. Gilbert, being, in fact, the first play he had finished, without music, since his association with Sullivan.
In this play Julia Neilson made her first appearance on the stage, and it was also Lewis Waller's first London engagement, and the fact that they both scored very distinct successes, which they have since emphasized in many directions, as is also the case with Olga Nethersole and Allan Aynesworth, remains one of the few consoling items in this, to me, disastrous experience.
The critics found fault with the big situation of the play, in which the heroine, believing her husband dead and in order to save his father from ruin, declares that she never was his wife, but his mistress. They seemed to think — in fact, said — that no woman would go to such a length; and of course they may be right, but no one can say with any certainty what woman will or will not do when greatly moved. Whatever the cause, failure was the result, and a ery unpleasant time for me the sequence. Gilbert very generously declined to accept any part of his author's fees; but other creditors were naturally unable to follow his lead, and eventually I emerged from the Bankruptcy Court free to make a fresh start.
My next appearance was at the Comedy Theatre, under the management of Charles Hawtrey, in a three-act farce by Sydney Grundy called Merry Margate, which was merry enough while it lasted, which was not long, and we followed this with a one-act piece by Burnand, founded on an episode in Pickwick, to which Edward Solomon had written some delightful music. Lottie Venne, Arthur Cecil, and myself represented Mrs. Bardell, Pickwick, and the Baker respectively. I am inclined to believe the Baker to be an invention of Burnand's, as I do not remember any mention of him in Pickwick; but it was a good part, and the little piece used to go splendidly; indeed, I fancy it would reproduce well, as would also another one-act piece I played in by George Hawtrey, namely, The Area Belle, in which I played Tosser to the Pitcher of Dan Leno, for one occasion only.
I well remember Arthur Cecil's surprise and envy when we assembled at his chambers in the Haymarket for the first music rehearsal of Pickwick, and I read all mine off as if I knew it. He said it took him a week to learn one song.
He was notorious for his attention to detail in the parts he played, and we had an amusing instance of it in this piece, he suggesting some business with butcher's account-book which Pickwick was to add up, but as it would have required at least four lines of dialogue to explain, it was cut.
He and Burnand eventually got so befogged over the stage management of the piece that they finally, on the suggestion of Solomon, handed over to me the task of production, and Arthur was so overjoyed at his respite that he presented me with a very quaint old Queen Anne punch-ladle, which I much prize. Another amusing incident in connection with Pickwick was the fact that, owing to some accident, the production was postponed at the very last moment, in spite of which a certain journal contained the next morning a violent diatribe against the piece and all concerned in it. It was possibly the only occasion on which I have been told I acted badly without deserving it, and then it may be only because I had not acted at all. Burnand, of course, brought an action, and was awarded damages. I was a witness, both disinterested and unpaid; I think the first and last time I have been any of the three.
On one occasion we played Pickwick at the Crystal Palace at 7.30, having to get back to the Comedy in time to play it at 10.30. This was too much for Arthur Cecil, who went off to Brighton from the Palace, and I played Pickwick at the Comedy, Charlie Hawtrey himself playing the Baker; but to my great chagrin he refused to take advantage of such a capital chance of giving his well-known imitation of me, and sang his music much less effectively in consequence.
Edward Solomon was a great loss to the musical comedy world, being absolutely brimming over with melodies that caught the ear at once — so essential to this type of entertainment; and if not the highest form of composition, possessing at least a merit which at present appears somewhat lacking; indeed, after mentioning Lionel Monckton and Ivan Caryll, one has to think for the next name.
He was also the best accompanist any one could desire, his work being an assistance to the singer instead of, as is so often the case, an effort to get the best of the battle. He once told me a story of himself against himself, which has one excellent moral, if possibly rather wanting in moral tone. He was in New York and somewhat pressed for money, so took an old score to a manager and invited his attention to an opera "he had just written," played over two acts of it, not a note of which was there, sold it, and received a cheque on account.
So far so good, but, as he told me, he had one very anxious moment, for when he had quite finished the manager said, "Just play me that song for the soprano in the first act again, will you?" Of course he could hardly remember what he had played, but he dashed at it, and nothing was noticed. In justice to him I should say that the opera was eventually written and duly delivered. One striking peculiarity of his was that when composing it was almost necessary that there should be someone with him to keep up a constant conversation.
Shortly after these excursions into foreign parts, it were, I returned to my old home for the production of the Gondoliers.
That was a very memorable first night to me. For one thing, I was suffering from the kind of bruised-all-over feeling one gets after taking a heavy fall; to this was added a nervousness as to my reception, for I felt very strongly that there was an atmosphere of sympathy for me about on account of the unfortunate result of my ambitious flight. Many people would say that this is just the kind of conceited idea an actor would have, but I still feel very proud of the justification realized by the warmth of my reception that night, and I also remember it as giving an opportunity to a brother artist to display a consideration and tact for which one might often look in vain.
Courtice Pounds and myself, as the two gondoliers, had to enter together in a boat, and we had hardly stepped out on to the stage and our greeting commenced, when he carefully hid behind some choristers until my welcome was ended. The public is always quick to recognize a graceful action, and his own reception was no less hearty on this account.
Shortly after this production Gilbert went off for a trip to Cairo, and on his return someone went to him with wild tales of gags introduced by me into the piece. This led to trouble, because as he would never see one of his own pieces from the front of the house, he had to accept the word of onlookers as to what was being done or left undone; and if, as was doubtless often the case, they held him and his work in such esteem as to consider a gag nothing less than profanation, one can understand the situation.
However, the mischief-makers were defeated on this occasion, as after some stormy correspondence and placid interviews, I prevailed with him to come and see the scenes complained of, which he did one night from the prompt entrance.
It was characteristic of him to leave the theatre without saying a word to me, and equally so that he should write me the pleasant note which lies among my treasures, to say: "Dear Barrington, — Everything admirable — alter nothing — go on and prosper."
The most memorable recollection in connection with Gondoliers is perhaps that of our visit to Windsor to play before Queen Victoria, the first theatrical company to obtain a "command " since the death of the Prince Consort.
What a state of excitement we were all in, to be sure! and how we promenaded the platform at Paddington, from which our "special" started, with an intense desire to tell every one where we were going, and what for!
D'Oyly had a harmless sort of mania for writing and sending telegrams, and Grossmith and I travelled down with him, and I don't think I ever saw so many forms filled up, except once, in an office in the Strand, where a tipster was sending off his selections.
I went with him to the office on our arrival at the Castle and sent off one on my own account to my wife, just "Have arrived," and both D'Oyly and myself were rather astonished to find there was nothing to pay; it was, of course, Her Majesty's private wire. I was more than glad afterwards that I had sent off my message as a kind of joke, because it happens to be the only souvenir of this memorable visit I have. There were no programmes issued, I believe.
We dressed in the large hall just off the Waterloo Chamber, where the stage had been fitted up, and having ascertained from one of the equerries that Her Majesty would pass close to the curtain behind which we were (indeed, we were told to keep very quiet during her passage), I quietly made a fair sized hole in my curtain through which I had an excellent view of the Queen, whom I was most anxious to see at close quarters. I remember that Her Majesty enjoyed the performance immensely, beating time to many of the numbers, and laughing heartily at the fun of the piece and the humour of the dialogue.
We were a most uproarious crowd at supper, at which our party was augmented by several of the equerries and some of the invited guests who were personally known to Carte. I have no recollection of how we got back to town, but presume we did so, as the Savoy was open the next night and I got there in good time.
We all felt very proud of D'Oyly Carte, whom Her Majesty sent for and most graciously thanked, and we felt proportionately grateful because he gave himself no airs over the matter. I have met actors and actresses since, not to speak of managers, whose heads have been turned with far less excuse.
It was during my tenancy of the St. James's that I had the honour and pleasure of assisting at one of the dinner parties given to the dramatic profession by H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, our present King. This dinner took place on 12 March, 1893, and not the least memorable feature of the evening to me was that I sat next to G. A. Sala, whom I thus met for the first time. As he combined the solemnity of an epicure with the brilliance of one of the best of raconteurs, the intervals between the courses were only too short.
What a terrible percentage of my fellow-actors present at this dinner have joined the majority — Irving, Toole, David James, Terris, Farren, Arthur Cecil, and D'Oyly Carte.
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