OUR hopes of a continuance of the partnership were doomed to disappointment, and there was no opera follow Utopia, and Gilbert cast about for a new home, manager, and composer, which he eventually found in the Lyric Theatre, George Edwardes, and Osmond Carr, resulting in the production of His Excellency.
This was a gallant attempt at transplanting the laurels grown at the Savoy, and was supported by Ellaline Terriss, Jessie Bond, Nancy Mclntosh, le Hay, Kenningham, and myself, and was also memorable to me for the renewal of association with my old friend George Grossmith, after a lengthy severance. We much enjoyed coming together again, but it proved to be for the last time.
The centre of the stage in the first act was occupied with a statue of myself as the Regent, of the size called, I believe, heroic, and in order to have this executed with the thoroughness so essential in everything with which Gilbert is connected, I had to give a number of sittings to the well-known sculptor Lucchesi. The first few of these sittings interested me tremendously, but as the novelty gradually wore off I found it extremely difficult to keep awake. Fortunately, as Lucchesi remarked, my face, awake or asleep, was very much the same, and he was not obliged to reproduce the snore. Anyhow, it was a most effective statue, and he kindly presented me with a cast of the head as a souvenir. I had a terrible bout of rheumatism during the run of this piece, and for nearly a fortnight used to go to work in a four-wheeler, from which I was almost carried to my dressing-room and then vigorously massaged before I could move; but once on the stage, most of the stiffness left me even if the pain did not.
There was nothing particularly distinguished in the music of the opera, and it did not achieve a very long run, though extremely successful at first.
I remember going to see Grossmith in his room one evening and finding a visitor with him — a coloured gentleman, whose name I did not catch on introduction, but whom I found a very pleasant fellow indeed. After he left I inquired of Grossmith his name, and was astonished to hear that it was Peter Jackson. This was my first introduction to the Ring.
This engagement was also memorable to me as being the occasion of the production of a one-act romantic piece of my own writing, called The Knight Errant, for which Alfred Caldicott wrote some delightful music, and my old friend Percy Anderson designed some effective dresses, especially one for the Crusader.
It was fairly successful, but I used to be horribly annoyed at a laugh from the audience at a certain line in a serious situation, which came invariably. I could not understand why it was so, and we tried the line every way possible, with the same result. At last I cut it out completely, and went to hear the piece that night full of hop ; but the laugh came as before, and I never saw the piece again, have no copy of it, and do not know where the music has gone. See what a laugh may do to an author.
The only other time Grossmith and myself were playing in the same theatre was shortly after the conclusion of the run of His Excellency, and the cause of our reunion was the illness of poor old Johnnie Toole, who was playing in a piece by Ralph Lumley, called Thoroughbred, at his own theatre. The dear old fellow had not been playing in it for long before he was attacked with the illness which necessitated a retirement which was to prove permanent. He was in a dilemma what to do with his company and theatre, when it was suggested to him that he should engage me for his part, and get Grossmith to give one of his musical sketches to wind up the evening. I had several delightful interviews with Toole, who was then at Hastings, and looking forward quite cheerily to his reappearance though, as he wrote me in a letter referring to the matter, his writing was nearly as weak as his knees.
The second act took place on a race-course, presumably Ascot, and almost the whole of the tiny stage was taken up with a real coach. Nevertheless it seemed to me that we wanted more people to make some kind of excitement as a race was supposed to flash by, and I suggested to Toole that a few supers would be useful for the purpose. He wrote in answer, "Do as you like, of course, but I never found a super draw a postage stamp."
The great hit of the piece was in this act, where myself and two other characters were disguised as nigger minstrels (I was supposed to be there unknown to my wife, who was on the coach), and we sang a song written by George Grossmith, called "Keep the baby warm, mother."
It used to get rapturous encores, and I feel certain that if we had supplemented it with a few really bad riddles and another song or two, we should have been playing the piece now, and Charing Cross Hospital would never have been enlarged.
I believe Toole to have been the first to christen a theatre with a personal name, a custom I venture to think not a sound one, as it identifies it too strongly with one artist, and unless that artist is appearing there is a sense of deprivation. This, of course, only applies to eminent names, and "The Gladys," or "The Phyllis," or "The Jim" might be all right, but I think nothing could be really better than the use of the street in which the house is situated.
I rather fancy that although disappointed for many reasons from a business point of view, dear old Toole was secretly rather pleased that we were unable to keep his theatre open for any great length of time.
I saw him at long intervals almost up to the time of his death, and he was always cheerful, and when almost past seeing and hearing would inquire on every occasion that brought him to town, " What theatre do we go to to-night?"
The only Gilbert and Sullivan opera in which I did not appear was one of the most successful and most beautiful, The Yeomen of the Guard, produced during my occupation of the St. James's Theatre, and it has always been a source of regret to me that I should have missed one of the series of triumphs, and one in which a part was absolutely written for me, though I doubt if I should have made as good a gaoler as Denny, the creator of the part, and who looked to the life.
The traditional excellence of the Savoy concerted numbers was, if possible, more than usual in evidence in this piece, which abounds with ear-haunting melodies. And what a part is Jack Point! I should like to see an actor of the type of Joseph Jefferson play it.
While playing in Thoroughbred at Toole's, I began to wonder whether I had for ever cut myself adrift from musical work, but at the conclusion of the run I found I had not, as I was persuaded to join in an attempt to keep alive the glories of the German Reed entertainment at the St. George's Hall, which had some little time previously collapsed owing to the lamentable deaths of Alfred Reed and Corney Grain.
The loss of these two popular entertainers was the more to be regretted as after a long spell of only moderate success, fortune was just commencing to be more lavish of her favours. This was owing to the fact that Grain had been persuaded to resume his parts in the sketches instead of confining himself entirely to a piano monologue.
Even here I was not to be dissociated from Gilbert, as the piece chosen for our opening bill was Happy Arcadia, in which I appeared as Strephon and dragged a woolly lamb round with me, which I hated. I was anxious to have continued the run of Melodramania, which was going so very strongly when so fatally interrupted, but I was outvoted on the council, owing, I believe, to some sentimental feeling of opposition.
The German Reed orchestra was an odd contrast to what I had been accustomed to, but it had one great advantage — it was not nearly so easy to drown the singer.
One of my own duologues formed the centre of the programme, in which I played a sham professor of hypnotism, rather like a part played by Willie Edouin some few years later.
We went the usual autumn tour of the south coast towns, and the place of Fanny Holland was filled by my old Opera Comique colleague, Emily Cross. The presence of such an old friend made the tour a great pleasure, but it was none too successful; indeed, I think we were rather looked askance at by the public, as usurping a title to which we had no real right, and I believe we should have been wiser to drop the German Reed Entertainment headline to our announcements, the glamour of it having departed with Reed and Grain, never to return.
At the conclusion of the tour I returned to town, and to my great surprise and pleasure was offered a part in a new opera by Gilbert and Sullivan, to be produced at the Savoy. This was indeed good news, and I once more looked forward to a renewal of the old days, to be inaugurated with The Grand Duke, which, however, turned out to be the last work of the famous collaborators.
By this time much of the all-English atmosphere, which in former days had been so strenuously insisted on, had evaporated, so it was no surprise to find in our new prima donna a foreigner who was reputed to have taken high rank in her profession in her own country, though I never found out if this was earned entirely by her artistic capabilities, or enhanced to a certain extent by the fact of her being Countess Ilka von Palmay.
The veriest glutton for work might have been satisfied with my part in this opera, about the longest and most hard-working I have ever undertaken, and yet one in which I failed to find too many chances of scoring. At the early rehearsals it seemed to me that I was "on" all the time with the exception of one scene of Madame Palmay's, and then one morning Gilbert informed me that he had brought me into this scene also. It was a kind of mad scene, which she played very well, and it was most effective, so I naturally felt rather gratified, but the feeling diminished to a certain extent when I found that my part in it was to consist chiefly in being dragged about the stage by my wig and generally banged about. However, I went most conscientiously to work on it, and one night I elicited a great laugh by escaping from the infuriated madwoman and dodging about behind some pillars. This, however, did not strike the fair artist as humorously as it did myself and the audience, and I was requested for the future to take my punishment lying down, so to speak. Some people like all the fun to themselves.
July 18th, 1896, was the night of my last appearance at my old home, and towards the end of August in the same year I found myself launched on the troubled waters of musical comedy, the captain of the ship being that astute caterer for the public amusement, George Edwardes, whom I had first met in the employ of Carte, and who was now well on the road to fame and fortune as a manager; and with him I remained, with the exception of one or two brief intervals, until the production of The Michus, for which opera he considered it wise for some, to us, inscrutable reason to disband his old company, and from the success of the piece I imagine that he cannot have missed any of us more than we have possibly missed him.
Apart from the large number of artists who, at one time or another, appeared at the Savoy, it would seem that all the stage hands of all the London theatres have had a spell there too, for in every theatre I have played or do play in, and also in the music halls, I invariably see some face I know, and on greeting its owner am equally invariably greeted with the remark, " Well, guv'nor, we haven't met since the old Savoy days; glad to see you looking so well" a meeting that always brings me a feeling of pleasure with a touch of sadness in it.
How many people could produce two pieces at the same time, I wonder, and not get them hopelessly tangled? And yet this used to be simple relaxation for George Edwardes in those days, and he would only consider himself working if, in addition to Daly's and the Gaiety, there were a new ballet at the Empire and a farcical comedy somewhere else to manipulate. He could set a scene, too, as well as rehearse one, and I shall never forget the first night of the Country Girl, the second act of which consisted mainly of a huge staircase, about half of which was not in the theatre at all. There was a fearful wait, and when I came down to commence the act, I found George with his coat off helping the stage hands and shouting his directions, and I believe he was absolutely "discovered" when the curtain finally rose. The audience was naturally very impatient, but he set everything right with a short speech at the end of the evening. I have seldom met a man with a happier knack of saying the right thing in a few words, whether the thing to be said is pleasant or the reverse, though, to do him justice, when the latter is the case, the obligation to speak is usually handed on to one of his lieutenants, and with justice, or why employ them? There is to my mind a kind of atmosphere at Daly's which impresses you on taking your seat with the idea that you are going to get better entertainment there than at most other places, and much of this is due to the strong personality of the presiding genius, and a stronger it would be difficult to imagine. I have known his really genuine geniality employed with such effect to an unwelcome, and perhaps aggressive, caller, as to leave that person at the close of the interview with the impression that George is his best friend and well-wisher, and this happy conclusion is arrived at without the caller having uttered one word of what he came to say. I fancy the diplomatic career would have been eminently suitable to him not only for the above reason, but also because of his fondness for entertaining and natural qualities as a host; he keeps open house at home, and at restaurants you will never see him dining with less than one guest.
He was naturally always on the look-out for fresh talent, and many a young artist owes his or her tuition in singing or dancing to "The Chief," as we used to call him. One day at rehearsal a very diminutive child was brought to dance to him, which she did extremely well and to George's great satisfaction. "Really, it's wonderful — splendid! "Then turning to the child's escort, he asked, " What's the age of your little daughter?" "Not my daughter — sister — twenty-eight." The Chief's face was a sight.
Rehearsals at Daly's were always extremely lengthy affairs, partly owing to the number of people who had suggestions to offer, but more to the fact that many of the scenes were written and rewritten at the moment. In one opera I made my first entrance late in Act I, and for a whole week attended from about twelve to four without once being called upon to do anything. But I was not singular in this, as in The Cingalee there were some half-dozen ladies who formed what was christened for short "The English Party," and who, after being there hours at a time for a fortnight, heard with mingled feelings the announcement, "The English Party can go."However, their turn came later, and hours were spent over the one number in which they were prominently concerned, and which after the first night was cut bodily out.
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