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Life and Reminiscences of Jessie Bond > Chapter 5
THE journey to America was my first out of England, and a great adventure it was for a home-grown lassie like me. Our ship was called the “Gallia,” and I well remember her and her officers and crew, and the kindness I received from them all. Just at that time I needed kindness. I was not in good health, an abscess in my leg had given me great trouble before leaving England, and during the voyage it was so bad that a sailor had to lift me into my bunk every night.
And here I must tell you of something that happened in the early part of my illness, before we went to America. I had to take a few days' sick leave, and Miss Emily Cross came to see me in my little room in Southampton Row, to find out how I was. She found me in bed nursing the poor foot, and must have gone back and told a moving story to the Company, for the following letter was the result:
The “Lollipops,” enclosed in a pretty little china teapot, were, I need hardly tell you, of the golden variety, and you will see that the signatures are those of the original “Pinafore” cast. I am sure that all these kind people watched with interest and sympathy my struggle with circumstances, for I was a good deal under the weather just then. The abscess in my ankle was painful and persistent. Surgical science had not then reached its present state of efficiency, and owing to faulty treatment and want of rest my ankle became perfectly stiff, as it is to this day. Of course, I said as little as possible about it, for even partial lameness would spoil my chances on the stage. I doubt if the management ever knew; the public certainly didn’t; and those who saw me dancing and capering light-heartedly about the stage for twenty years little thought under what difficulties I did it, and the pain I often suffered. When one’s future and one’s very bread and butter depend on going on as usual, one simply has to go on, and that’s all there is about it.
In spite of illness and pain I greatly enjoyed that voyage, so interesting just then as giving me practical experience of a life on the ocean wave, which I had only previously known on the boards of a theatre. It was on board the “Gallia” that I tasted my first cocktail – all those years ago! In fact I tasted two; and they must have been fairly powerful, for they overcame unsophisticated me to such an extent that I had to stay in bed for two days – one for each cocktail!
On one of the young officers of the “Gallia” I seem to have made a deep impression. He never spoke to me during the voyage, but he used to write verses and send them to me; and afterwards when I returned to England he sought me out and proposed marriage. Poor fellow – I have some of those verses still, in which he asserts over and over again,
I have had my share of such tributes, like every popular favourite, and looking back on it all with some amusement, I think how inconvenient it would have been for us actresses if all the young adorers who declared they would die if we didn’t respond to them – had done so!
We landed in America, and at once began our rehearsals. “We have engaged a first-rate chorus, and our Principals are the best who have ever been got together for the immortal ‘Pinafore,’” Arthur Sullivan wrote about us to his mother in London. Our Josephine was the beautiful Blanche Rooseveld, a Covent Garden celebrity with an equally beautiful voice; and, when we opened in the Fifth Avenue Theatre with “H.M.S. Pinafore” as it should be played, we created a sensation. It was then being played in no less than eight theatres in New York alone, and accounts of the garbled versions which had hitherto imposed on America were almost incredible. Every conceivable liberty had been taken with music, words and setting: songs and gags had been interpolated, topical allusions introduced, and one patriotic manager even proposed to transfer the scene to the coast of New Jersey, and change H.M.S. Pinafore to a flagship of the United States Navy!
“We have seen the play as a comedy, and we have seen it as a tragedy,” one American journal confessed, “but the play these Englishmen have brought over is quite a new play to us, and very good it is.” You will observe the rather casual allusion to “these Englishmen” – no mention of their happening to be its creators.
Among other Transatlantic liberties taken with the piece, naturally the dressing had suffered. My own part of Hebe had been played in ballet skirts, as a sort of music-hall dancer. Which reminds me that although Carte was giving me four pounds a week instead of three during this tour, on account of my increased expenses, he refused to give a new dress to Hebe, so I just had to sit down and make one myself, and here is a picture of it. You may think it rather a matronly garment for so young a girl, but it was much admired then. It was composed of crimson velvet trimmed with pink satin, and how careful I was to cut and bind all those scallops correctly! The hat had a long grey feather, and I’m sure I looked quite the future Lady Porter. Facing this page is a photograph showing my costume in the revival of “Pinafore” some years later.
In New York I stayed in a cheap German boarding-house, I remember, and my room opened into that in which Alice Barnet and her husband slept; an arrangement which I liked, as I felt nervous at night in these strange surroundings. One night I woke with a feeling of oppression and a horrible smell in my nostrils, and the noise I made in trying to open the window roused Alice Barnet.
“What is the matter?” she demanded.
I replied that I smelt a horrid smell of beetles – beetles were my bête noire.
But she, once thoroughly awake, was wiser.
“It’s gas,” she said; “don’t strike alight, whatever you do.”
The gas tap was old and loose, and somehow a chance touch had turned it on. We opened every window and took all precautions, but the effect of that semi-poisoning kept us both in bed for some days.
Talking of beetles – of which I had an unreasoning horror, more than for mice or spiders or any of the usual feminine aversions – feeling very thirsty one hot day I went into a shop and asked for a drink of lemonade or some such thing, which was given to me all foaming in a glass filled from the bar siphon. I took a gulp of it, felt some solid, live thing squirming about in my mouth, – and spat out a huge blackbeetle.
“It must have crept up the mouth of the siphon,” the bartender explained.
But I examined every morsel of food and drop of liquid I consumed with minute care for long after.
That American tour was very hard work. “Pinafore” had already been played to death in America, and our version, though the genuine one, could not run for ever. Soon we were rehearsing “The Pirates of Penzance,” and with both productions we travelled nearly all over the States, seldom playing for two nights in one town. I passed through Buffalo and played there, without ever seeing the famous Falls of Niagara.
The great heat of that summer made all the travelling and hard work doubly trying, and it so affected me that often I could not act, and had to be carried from the train to the hotel and back again next morning to continue the journey. No wonder the Americans need plenty of iced water to carry them through in such a climate. I remember urgently wanting some in one of the many hotels we stayed at, and ringing my bell over and over again for the waiter. At last he came – a negro he was, of course.
“What a long time you’ve been!” I exclaimed indignantly. “I’ve been ringing and ringing until I’m black in the face!”
His astonished and careful study of my features warned me that I had narrowly escaped being embraced as a long-lost sister.
Even so long ago as that, was America coquetting with Prohibition? I don’t know; but one thing I am sure of, that whenever during our tours we needed whisky or any such revivers they were put down in our hotel bills as “Laundry.”
Yes, that tour was a hard experience, and in addition I had illness to cope with. My leg continually troubled me and, as if that were not enough, I contracted double pneumonia and nearly died.
Kind Rosina Brandram nursed me, every one did what they could, but I think they nearly despaired of me. When I had passed through what I suppose was the crisis and opened my eyes, some one was putting mustard plasters on my feet, and the whole company, Gilbert and Sullivan included, were standing round the bed with concerned faces.
“What is the matter with you all?” I said. “Why do you look so dismal? I’m going to get better.” And I did.
One of Sullivan’s many kindnesses to me must here be put on record. While I lay unconscious he had noticed a letter sticking out from beneath my pillow – an unpaid bill it was, which must obviously have given me evil dreams. It was from the doctor in England who had attended me for the abscess in my ankle, an account for between thirty and forty pounds – an impossible sum for me in those days. Sullivan took the bill away with him and sent it back to me afterwards with a cheque enclosed, and a note saying:
“Send this to England tomorrow, Jessie. I am only too glad to help such a good little girl as you are.”
Nor was Sullivan alone in his kindness and generosity. Once in England, when I was suffering agonies from toothache, Gilbert sent me to his own dentist, gave orders to have my teeth thoroughly overhauled, and then paid the whole expense. I owe it to him that I keep my own sound teeth to this day!
Both these kind and gifted men were in America with us, and it was there that Sullivan finished his new opera “The Pirates of Penzance.” He told me himself that he had written the second act without orchestration, before leaving England. Some of the musical themes for the first act were perhaps suggested to him by the events of that voyage, but it is a curious fact that when he wrote the rollicking sailor melodies of “Pinafore,” he, like Sir Joseph Porter, had “hardly ever been to sea.” He finished “The Pirates” in a New York house now demolished, but the site of it is marked by a tablet. Some little time ago I read an account of the unveiling of that tablet in the early hours of the morning, by a band of enthusiasts carrying torches.
I don’t know whether any connection of ideas inspired Gilbert with his theme for the libretto of “The Pirates,” but certainly there was poetic justice in an opera of that name being first produced and partly written in the country which had so shamelessly pirated “Pinafore.” No doubt the cute Yankees perceived and chuckled at the aptness of the name; but that did not make them any better pleased to have a highly-paying game stopped, and both Gilbert and Sullivan were on occasion made to feel their unpopularity. Not that that troubled them, but the piracy did.
“I will not have another of my librettos produced if the Americans are going to steal it,” Gilbert angrily declared before leaving England. “Not that I need the money so much, but it spoils my digestion.”
When we began to rehearse and play “The Pirates” the most careful watch was kept over both score and libretto; which, the better to ensure safety, were not allowed to be printed, and everything was locked up when not in use. Even so, expert musicians were paid to attend the performances and make notes of the score. However, such underhand methods could only produce snatches and garbled fragments, and the new opera was produced with immense success.
“A success unparalleled in New York,” as Sullivan wrote to his mother. “At last I really think I shall get a little money out of America. I ought to, for they have made a good deal out of me.” In another letter he said: “In order to strike while the iron is hot, and get all the profit we can while every one is talking about it, we are sending out three companies to other towns in America, and all these have to be selected, organized, and rehearsed.” This meant enormous work for all the promoters, and was especially hard on Sullivan, who suffered from a painful internal complaint; and yet the blithe music of “Pinafore,” and later on that of “The Pirates,” was written in the intervals of acute and agonizing pain.
We all worked hard enough, but the magnificent success was our reward. “Fortunately,” Sullivan says in another of his letters, “our Company and all the Chorus are charming people and devoted to us, and spare themselves no pains or trouble to do their work thoroughly well.” Again he says, speaking of the triumphant first night: “The mise en scène and the dresses are something to be dreamed about. I never saw such a beautiful combination of colour and form on any stage. All the girls dressed in the old-fashioned English style, every dress designed separately by Faustin, and some of the girls look as if they had stepped out of a Gainsborough picture. The New York ladies are raving about them.”
My own part in the new play was that of Edith, one of the many charming daughters of Major-General Stanley. By this time I had gained experience and confidence. I was no longer afraid to undertake a speaking as well as a singing part, and was eager to fill a more prominent position in the Company. The part of Edith, though better than that of Hebe, did not satisfy my growing ambition; and, as I had now made myself of some consequence to the management, I felt able to tackle Gilbert on the subject and ask that the part might be improved. I quote his letter to me on the subject, not only as showing his difficulties in making any alteration, but also to show how well and kindly disposed he was towards me personally, and how friendly were our relations, in spite of the few brushes almost inevitable during our long and close association of twenty years:
Perhaps this letter also indicates that I was not without inducement to leave the Gilbert and Sullivan combination and join some other company. Indeed, I had many such offers during my connection with them, but in spite of all temptations – and sometimes they were pretty strong – I could never find it in my heart to leave an atmosphere of such mirth, artistry and pleasantness; and continued to be a happy and deeply-interested member of that jolly crew until I left the stage altogether.
In connection with the plots of his early operas it is a rather illuminating fact that Gilbert’s father was a naval surgeon, so that ideas about the sea and sailors must soon have occupied his infant mind, and borne fruit later in the Bab Ballads and the librettos of “Pinafore” and “The Pirates.” Indeed, pirates and perfectly genuine ones were associated with an adventure of his early childhood, as well as with the American annoyances of his manhood.
When he was only two years old his parents were travelling in Europe, making the Grand Tour of those days. While in Naples he was out walking with his nurse one day, when two men accosted her and said that the English gentleman had sent them for the baby. She surrendered the pretty child – Gilbert was remarkable for his infant beauty – perhaps believing the tale, but more likely she had no choice in the matter. The little boy was taken up into the mountains by his captors, he distinctly remembered riding on a horse in front of a man up a steep path cut in the hill; and years afterwards he recognized the Via Posilipo as the road which he had never forgotten. The distracted parents sent carabinieri to search for him; the brigands were tracked; and for a ransom of twenty-five pounds English money they gave up their little prisoner, none the worse for his adventure. In fact, he was probably much the better in the long run, when that extremely well-invested twenty-five pounds brought him in a golden harvest of plots concerning brigands, pirates, babies changed at nurse, and all the rest of it.
“The Pirates of Penzance, or The Slave of Duty,” was produced in New York on the 31st December, 1879, and at the same time as nearly as difference in longitude permitted, one of the British companies touring the West of England with “Pinafore” gave it at a semi-private performance in a small theatre in Paignton, before an audience of about fifty people. That had to be done to preserve the copyright on both sides of the Atlantic. Not until three months later was the opera publicly produced at the Opera Comique in London, when the huge success of New York was repeated, and the play ran for four hundred nights to crowded houses.
While on the subject of “The Pirates,” I must not forget to mention another brush Gilbert and Sullivan had with an American public jealous of their success; and, foiled in piratical schemes, trying to baulk them in another way.
The orchestra of American musicians engaged to play in the new production argued that it was a Grand Opera, and therefore, according to trade union rules, they were entitled to higher rates of pay. It had been so impressed upon them by the manager that they were honoured in being chosen to play under the baton of England’s most famous composer that they felt the occasion demanded a rise in salaries, as well as in status.
Arthur Sullivan tackled the situation with his usual readiness and resource. Addressing the men, he modestly disclaimed the distinction they wished to give him, and said that on the contrary he was honoured in being able to conduct so brilliant a body of musicians. And – therein lay the sting – if they felt the position in any way beneath their dignity, rather than they should be imposed upon, he would cable immediately to England for his own orchestra, which had been specially trained for the forthcoming Leeds Festival.
The hint was promptly taken, and the Americans decided not to charge Sullivan extra for the privilege of being conducted by him. It was the last difficulty of any importance; and even that bore good fruit by the discussion it provoked and the resulting free advertisement in the newspapers.
18 November, 2008