| Chapter XVIII
I FELT very much honoured at being asked to propose the toast of the “Savoy Lovers” at the celebration dinner given by the O.P. Club, with Gilbert as the guest of the evening. The “Savoy Lovers” naturally included all who have been there and enjoyed such delightful evenings, but they were particularized on this memorable evening in the persons of our hosts, that is to say, the members of the Old Playgoers’ Club; therefore, to my mind, adding to the compliment. I acquitted myself with my usual after-dinner brilliancy, the only part of the speech I had absolutely prepared being the peroration, which took the form of a few lines ending in praise of the genial Carl Hentschel, an old friend of mine and a prime mover in establishing the club which was entertaining us. On this occasion his presence was “essential,” that was how I rhymed him, but later on, when he was in such trouble over the robbery of the royal miniatures, and I had a verse about him (at the Coliseum), he rhymed with “providential,” both of which propositions seem to indicate the character of the man.
I sat next but one to Gilbert at the dinner, and although he seemed much as usual, I thought I detected a slight feeling of nervousness at the ordeal of speech-making which lay before him. On the other hand what I took for nervousness may have been the shadow of the added dignity which he was so soon to assume with the honour of knighthood, for there was certainly no nervousness displayed in the delivery of his speech, to which we all listened with intense interest.
The inevitable note of sadness was struck in the absence of Arthur Sullivan. Fancy the enthusiasm which would have been aroused had we had the good fortune to toast the composer as well as the author, but failing this we had the consolation of his music, which is with us for all time and the freshness of which is perennial.
The mention of his name at this dinner brought most vividly to my mind that last impressive scene in the Chapel Royal when I attended his obsequies, and the whole of the music, exquisitely written, and exquisitely sung by the choir of which as a boy he had been a member, was due, every bar of it, to the fertile brain hidden in that wooden casket, never to hear it more, that at least being the accepted idea but difficult of belief. The feeling this idea gave me was inexpressibly sad.
Mr. Sidney Dark, the president of the club, in the course of his excellent speech, told us that it had been suggested to him that the mention of Sullivan’s name might strike a sad note that would be undesirable at such a festival, but, as he so well put it, “it would not be possible to toast Savoy Opera and avoid mention of one of the hands that made it, and if he is aware, as I think he may be, of this gathering, he cannot fail to be glad that not only is his memory kept green in our hearts, but that his work with its lilting memories is designed to delight generations yet unborn.”
Gilbert paid some very high compliments in his turn both to the past and present Savoyards, of whom there were a goodly number present, including George Grossmith, Richard Temple, and Jessie Bond of the original band, with whom it seemed strange to me to forgather after so many years had elapsed. I had at this time no idea that I should ever again enlist under the old banner, and naturally less that on doing so I should find myself the sole representative of the “old originals”; but not having met Jessie for so long I found myself looking at her somewhat critically with a view to the possibility of a reunion, and I determined in my mind that she looked unlikely to forsake the evident prosperity of her present existence for the hard-working sphere in which she had formerly shone.
I had no more than two or three words with her on this occasion, but we were to meet unexpectedly in the autumn of 1907 and pass a pleasant day or two. I was playing in Nottingham in Amāsis, and one morning during the week was debating between golf and going to a meet of Earl Harrington’s hounds, some seven miles out of the town. I have always been fond of attending meets and seeing hounds, if possible, find and go away, and this was a chance not to be missed. I was asking the hall-porter about trains when I was overheard by Colonel Birkin, who was just going out; on realizing my proposed programme he very kindly lent me his motor for the day, and I started off on my jaunt. On arriving at Thurgaton Priory I left the car in the drive and walked up to the house just as the hunt assembled in front of it to be photographed, when, to my surprise, I heard a voice exclaiming with evident pleasure and surprise, “Why, it’s Barry!” The owner of the voice was Jessie Bond, and we spent the best part of the day careering round the lanes after the field, and owing to the intimate knowledge of the country possessed by Colonel Birkin’s chauffeur, we saw a good deal of sport.
This was not the only turn he did us both, as on Saturday, when Jessie came to lunch with me in order to go to our matinée, we had decided to back a certain horse for the Liverpool Autumn Cup, and he advised us to change the name on the telegram for one which proved the ultimate winner.
I have strayed somewhat far from the Savoy and dinner in company with Jessie (excuse enough surely), and now wish to return to it to mention a graceful little act on the part of Henry Lytton which pleased me very much. There was a short selection of songs and quartettes given after dinner, between the toasts (Norfolk Megone’s excellent orchestra having given us a treat all through the long menu), and I saw that Lytton was announced to sing the Vicar’s song from The Sorcerer. I rather felt that I ought to sing it myself, but I was not on the programme, for the reason that I had a speech to make, and Hentschel told me they had thought it would be imposing on me to ask for more. Gilbert overheard us talking about it, and said at once, “Barrington, I hope you will sing it.” Of course I said I should be delighted, and Hentschel went as ambassador to Lytton on the matter, and he waived his privilege in most friendly and complimentary terms. The audience honoured me with an encore, and I sang the Captain’s song from Pinafore, with every one in the room acting as chorus, and a fine effect it had.
Mr. McDonald Rendle, in proposing the toast of “The Savoyards,” made a very humorous speech, delivered in a dry manner which excited great hilarity, in which he drew comparisons between Savoy Opera and modern musical comedy “of such monumental intellectuality as, for instance, The Belle of Mayfair” naturally in favour of the former works, but I thought him a trifle inventive when he told us that in a village waxwork show, near a town in which the Savoy Company were playing, the proprietor, on his visit, had demonstrated his admiration of the company by labelling all his figures with the names of the different artists, and that I figured as the understudy for the “Living Skeleton.”
The most notable absentee from this dinner was poor Rosie Brandram, of whom Gilbert truly said in his speech that her only failure was “not to look like the undesirable old ladies she was doomed to play, and in spite of all the resources of the perruquier and make-up box, never appeared more than an attractive eight-and-twenty.” The cause of Rosina Brandram’s absence was, I believe, the illness which was soon after to prove fatal. Frank Thornton was another old comrade whom I was pleased to meet that evening, he having appeared at the first performance of The Sorcerer, at the Opera Comique as “the oldest inhabitant.” He forsook us shortly after the Savoy was opened, and has now established himself as a popular favourite in Australia, only coming home occasionally to collect new plays for his extensive repertoire.
I was very vexed to miss the other dinner at which Gilbert was the guest of honour, given to him as recognition of the compliment paid him on receiving his knighthood. I was touring the provinces, and as I rarely see a London paper under these circumstances heard nothing of the project until too late. We used to have an annual supper of Savoyards in the old days, the chair being taken alternately by Grossmith, Cellier, and myself, and very cheery little gatherings they were, all kinds of special items being contributed both by principals and choristers. I formed a quartette for glee singing, being the alto myself, which gave us great joy – the quartette I mean. I do not quite know how it struck our audience.
Writing of audiences, is it not marvellous to notice how enormously they vary in appreciation? I have experienced a striking instance of this only lately, two nights running, during this 1908 revival of Mikado. An observant person being present on both might well have been excused for doubting if he or she were witnessing the same play – on the Wednesday every line securing its laugh and every number its encore, and on the Thursday practical stagnation, or perhaps I might say, comparative. How can one account for this? Of course we all know that an individual with a hearty laugh will frequently give an evening its requisite start, but can it be equally true that one person present being in the depths of gloom can affect the entire house?
An audience of one’s brother and sister artists is as good and responsive a one as anybody could wish to play to, being always generous of applause, but it would not always be conducive to the maintenance of this harmonious feeling to listen to some of the criticisms made when they forgather at the close of the entertainment.
I once attended a professional matinée of Hamlet, given by Wilson Barrett, in which his brother George played the First Gravedigger, on conventional but very amusing lines, and on coming out heard the following conversation going on behind me: “Well, Charlie, how did you like Barrett?” “Immensely, but I didn’t think much of his brother Wilson!”
I do not think audiences in London quite realize how much it depends upon themselves whether they get full value for their money. We have been told ad nauseam that the actor should be unconscious of his audience, but though this may apply to a certain extent in serious plays, it cannot do so to pieces which depend for their success on the laughter they evoke, and many an artist has been discouraged for the evening by missing the first laugh which a certain speech or action has caused him to reckon upon. As an instance of the extent to which this may affect some people, I recall Gilbert telling me that on the first night of the Mikado he made one of his fugitive visits to the green-room, and meeting one of the company asked how the piece was going. “Fairly well,” was the rather discouraging reply, which naturally distressed Gilbert considerably until meeting another of his artists, who offered the solution of such a warped view of a great success in the suggestion that the song rendered by the former artist had not been encored.
Personally I have been told that I am quite an acquisition when among the audience, having a very recognizable laugh which I am not afraid of exploiting when honestly amused. This has its merit no doubt, but on one occasion it nearly got me into trouble; it was during the run of Patience, and I was suffering from a slight attack of laryngitis, which, however, was not bad enough to prevent my working and also dining with a party of friends at the Victoria Hotel. My host had taken stalls at the Gaiety for all his guests, and argued that being really unfit to work I had better come to the play instead. He was so insistent that I gave way, sent a note round to the Savoy saying I was too ill to appear, and went off to the Gaiety. I had never done such a thing before, nor have I since, and I did not thoroughly enjoy my evening, but was stirred to laughter once, and thereby betrayed. The next morning brought me a note from Carte, hoping that I was better and ending thus, “The next time you send word you are too ill to play, don’t write it on the back of a menu; and nurse yourself at home instead of at the Gaiety Theatre.” He was too kind to take any further notice of my dereliction from duty, but I felt horribly ashamed about it, and told him so.
Among the most sympathetic audiences to which I have played or sung must certainly be numbered the patients in hospital wards, an experience that I feel sure will be endorsed by all of my colleagues who have at times contributed to their amusement. This reminds me of a curious evening I once spent at a hospital for consumption not a hundred miles from Brompton. Every item which appealed to them was listened to most attentively and rapturously applauded, but when there was something they did not much care for their coughs became abominably troublesome; the true significance of this did not dawn on me at first, but when it did my remaining contributions were given with a certain feeling of nervousness.
A well-known man of those days, E. L. Blanchard, who, under the pseudonym of “The Old Boy,” used to write the pantomimes for Drury Lane, was very kind to me when I first went on the stage (this was yet another introduction which I owed to Emily Faithfull), and in addition to giving me valuable advice, would take me for occasional walks round town, his store of information rendering these little excursions most interesting. It was he who first showed me the old churchyard gate through which Dickens’s “Joe” used to look, and I have never forgotten his once stopping me at a certain lamp-post opposite Charing Cross and saying, “You are now standing over the grave of Jack Sheppard.”
On the occasion of a testimonial performance given to him at the Haymarket, I was much honoured by being included in the cast. The play was Money, and I was a servant with no lines to speak, the principal parts being played by such well-known people as Bancroft, Hare, Vezin, Neville, and Sothern, to mention only a few. This was the only time I had ever met Sothern, whom I had frequently admired, as a pittite, when playing David Garrick, and I have a faint recollection that he upset Bancroft’s stolidity in one scene by introducing a gag which had something to do with a spavined horse. Oh, those visits to the pit! How I enjoyed them! More especially at the Haymarket, where it occupied the space now allotted to stalls, and where I saw Buckstone in The Palace of Truth, Pygmalion, and The Wicked World, three more monuments to Gilbert’s genius, which are welcome whenever seen. I have myself played in two of them, once as Pygmalion himself, in the days when I fondly imagined I had a figure, a delusion which was not shared by my old friend and critic Clement Scott, who wrote of me, “Rutland Barrington as Pygmalion looked like, and disported himself as, a prosperous butcher.” There have been times when I have rather wished I had adopted that unpleasant but remunerative profession, but at the moment (though only for a moment) it rankled. I met Scott in the Strand a few days later and he crossed the street to avoid me; but I went after him, guessing the reason, and told him that I hoped I should always be able to distinguish between Clement Scott my personal friend and C.S. my critic, at which he seemed as relieved as if he had expected me to “set about him.”
On another occasion I had the great pleasure of playing Chrysos in the same play with Mary Anderson as Galatea, and was very gratified to receive an offer from her to tour in America in the part. Of course I was unable to leave the Savoy, had I even wished it, but I feel sure I should have much enjoyed the experience. I have never yet been to America, but I still look forward to going there to play some day, though up to the present this has remained my only chance, which argues great remissness on the part of enterprising impresarii.
Another great favourite of my pit days, or rather nights, for the matinée was then almost unheard of, was Joseph Jefferson, whose Rip van Winkle captured all hearts with its tenderness and delightful vagabondage. I also had the good fortune to see him in farce, at the Haymarket, where he played Hugh de Brass in Lend me Five Shillings, and what a revelation it was of farce-acting, and what an object-lesson to many of our present-day comic men, who, it seems to me, insist too much on their points instead of endeavouring to “get home” in a quiet manner. By the way, we have at least one able exponent of the quiet method in G. P. Huntley, a countryman, I believe, of Jefferson’s, which is rather curious when we consider the national reputation for “hustling.” Of course there are others in this category, to name only Charles Hawtrey and James Welch, but I refer more particularly to the type known as low comedians.
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