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Life and Reminiscences of Jessie Bond > Chapter 9
CONSTANT dripping, they say, wears away a stone. These many efforts to detach me from the Savoy were not entirely successful, yet they unsettled me to some extent, and certainly they gave me a higher estimate of my own worth, and strengthened my determination to get the increase of salary for which I was always agitating.
Gilbert, as I have said before, sympathized with my desire to shine as an actress, a sympathy by no means shared by Sullivan; who on the contrary curbed all such desires on my part and tried always to keep me a humble-minded and subordinate member of the Company. How far from natural or agreeable such a rôle was to me I can leave you to judge!
One effort on the part of Gilbert to further my ambitions and determination on the part of Sullivan to squash them, also indicated a certain tension in the personal relations of the two men which had already existed for some little time, and was soon to become so serious as to dissolve the most delightful of artistic partnerships.
Gilbert had written a play called “Broken Hearts” – not musical – which he wished to produce in the Savoy, with me in the principal part. But Sullivan would not consent to lend the theatre, refusing on the ground that it would create a precedent, and that all the other members of the Company would be wanting to do likewise; so the scheme had to be abandoned, to Gilbert’s great annoyance and my disappointment. The whole affair rankled very much in Gilbert’s mind. He was, there is no doubt, a man of much greater sensibility than his partner, and the churlishness of Sullivan’s conduct hurt him deeply.
But, kind as he was to me, and willing to help me to get anything he thought it right I should have, as he says in a letter previously quoted, there were limits beyond which he would not go, and he could hit out straight from the shoulder, as the next letter proves. I may mention that by this time I had appeared in “Ruddigore” and “The Yeomen of the Guard,” with what success you know, and the contract in question was for the new opera, “The Gondoliers.” My salary was then twenty pounds a week.
But I got my thirty pounds a week! Sullivan and Carte both supported my demand, and Gilbert was overruled. He hated that; he never could bear to climb down – do any of us like it? – but he, particularly, and rather childishly, resented opposition.
The fact of the matter was, that continual demands from the principals for higher salaries had got on his nerves. Every piece that appeared was a greater success than the last; and, though Gilbert and Sullivan were the creators, we were not slow to point out that on us depended at least half of the success. At last Gilbert, exasperated, declared that he would write a play with no principal parts; every character should be on the same footing and have equal prominence; and “The Gondoliers” was the result. Nevertheless I (pertinacious little wretch) persisted in my demands, and as they couldn’t afford to lose me I got my thirty pounds; but I was the only one who asked for a rise, and Gilbert was furious with me. All the time we were rehearsing he never spoke to me, and only acknowledged my existence by sometimes saying sneeringly:
“Make way for the High-Salaried Artiste!”
By way of retaliation, being a spiteful little demon, I walked through my part woodenly, never giving the least indication of what I meant to do with it until the first dress rehearsal, when I let myself go and showed them what I was made of.
Gilbert was enchanted; all his ill-humour vanished like mist in the sunshine. Directly the curtain fell, while we were still all grouped on the stage together, he rushed up to me and kissed me before all the Company, saying:
“Jessie, my dear! I had no idea that so much could be made of so small a part!”
I was really awfully touched and pleased; but sinner that I was, I perked my little nose up and shook myself and walked off, saying:
“Perhaps you think I’m worth my salary now!”
Passing storms like this did occasionally ruffle the course of our friendship, but on the whole it flowed on deep and strong.
And here I should like to explain my own point of view, and defend myself from a possible charge of ingratitude and greed.
It is quite true that the parts had been written for me, and that my association with Gilbert and Sullivan had lasted for many years; but that fact spoke well for me as well as for them. During those years they had been immensely successful, and it was only fair that a loyal member of their Company who had stuck to them as I had done should share in that success. I had resisted all efforts to draw me away from them, as the foregoing letters have shown, and my salary of twenty pounds a week was certainly not adequate for the parts I was playing, and my undisputed drawing power. What would a music-hall artist say to it now? And even in those days I knew it to be unsuitable to my position in the Company and to the brilliance of the occasion. The Gilbert and Sullivan era was at its height, and London awaited the production of this latest opera, “The Gondoliers,” with even more pleasure and curiosity than had greeted its predecessors. We were all vowed to secrecy, and determined to let no hint of plot or music escape us. The scores were kept carefully locked up and every precaution was taken to baffle prying journalists eager for copy. They knew the scene was laid in Venice, but beyond that, nothing. One enterprising youth, determined to invent what he could not discover, wrote for his paper a highly imaginative description of the first act, and of the curtain rising on a chorus of young men in flannels and blazers, singing:
We’re young men of Venice
If his readers accepted that as truth, so much the greater was their enlightenment.
Since “Mikado,” in which my success had been outstanding, I had created the parts of Mad Margaret in “Ruddigore” and Phœbe in “The Yeomen of the Guard.” Of all my parts Mad Margaret was the one I liked best and was proudest of, for it gave me the chance to show what I really could do as an actress.
At the first reading of “Ruddigore” Gilbert said to me:
“Here you are, Jessie, this is the part I’ve written for you. Carte and Sullivan think it’s too big for you, but take it home and learn it, and we’ll see.”
I learnt it, putting in my best efforts, as you may suppose; but Sullivan was still not convinced, and before I was finally selected to play it he insisted on a sort of private view, to satisfy himself that I was competent. I had to appear before those three, Gilbert and Sullivan and D’Oyly Carte, one morning in cold blood, and say my little piece on the half-lighted stage. It was an awful ordeal.
I saw the three white faces looming out of the darkness as they sat close together; criticizing me, talking me over, with cold managerial detachment. It nearly killed me – perhaps it gave an added realism and abandon to my simulated madness, for indeed I was nearly mad with fear – but at any rate I came through triumphantly, they were all three of them delighted.
So was I, it is needless to say; I loved that part and played it with all my heart and soul, and with a success that I shall bring an independent witness to attest. And may I say here that I played it with restraint and on a low note, as a country girl in a ragged serge skirt, with straws in her tousled hair but no flowing locks or diaphanous garments; no shrieks, no excitement or striving after effect, but the impression I made was deep and lasting.
I remember that on the day of the first performance I had worked and worried myself into a state of hysteria and tears, and my poor father, who had come up to London to see me in this new and important part, was in despair.
“You must stop crying, Jessie,” he said. “If you go on like this you won’t be able to sing a note, my dear child,” and he did his best to soothe and steady me. “You must have some brandy, something to give you courage. I’ll get some and bring it to the stage-door.”
He did so, but they wouldn’t let him in – that shows how strict our discipline was! The doorkeeper didn’t know him.
“You say you’re Miss Bond’s father – humph – that’s all very fine. How do I know who you are?”
So the poor dear had to go away again, and I to do without my brandy.
I shook and tottered so much that Mad Margaret’s staff was no mere adjunct, but an absolute necessity, without it I should have fallen as I stood in the wings waiting to go on. Then some one gave me a push – I was there, on the stage, in the glare of the footlights, hundreds of eyes fixed on me, tier upon tier of dim white faces rising from floor to ceiling in the gloom. It was enough; I forgot myself, I was Mad Margaret and no one else. I made an immense success.
The following is an extract from Cellier and Bridgeman’s book on Gilbert, Sullivan and D’Oyly Carte:
Yes, I had travelled far since the days when one of my fellow-actors said that I struck him at rehearsal (of “Pinafore”) “as a rather stodgy, not over-intelligent type of girl, showing very few signs of the strong personality and great artistic capabilities that were to make her a firm favourite of the public within a short time.”
A very curious thing happened to me while playing Mad Margaret, which I think may interest those who have leanings toward the occult. One night, when “Ruddigore” had already been running some months, I had the most extraordinary feeling that the man playing with me was not Barrington, but another actor who was taking the part of Sir Rupert Murgatroyd in a provincial company that was playing in Newcastle that same night. The illusion was to me so impressive that I spoke of it to others, and the strangest thing of all was that the actor in Newcastle wrote to me that he had had exactly the same experience, a vivid impression that I was playing the part of Mad Margaret with him, instead of the actress who actually did so. What were the impressions of Barrington and the other lady I don’t know, apparently they went on as usual, but there was no doubt about the strange interchange of thought between Mr. X. and myself. People interested in those matters took it up, and there were letters and discussions in the newspapers. Some years afterwards, in 1893, I received a long letter from an inmate of the County Asylum at Prestwick, near Manchester, of which I think extracts are interesting enough to be quoted. The whole letter is perfectly coherent and well thought out, the writer claiming to have had psychic experiences. He quotes Stead, Besant and Blavatsky, and mentions the usual Electric, Magnetic and other theories. But it is his description of his own mental state that is, I think, so pathetic and arresting, the experiences of a man whose mind is unhinged, and who is yet sane enough to know it, and to be an agonized observer of his own madness.
These are the passages:
My correspondent also speaks of the prostration which overcame me after that extraordinary experience, which was a very real result of it. I have since had other small experiences of the same nature, too trivial to recount here, but proving, I think, how thin a veil divides the seen from the unseen.
After “Ruddigore” came “The Yeomen of the Guard,” and another triumph for me as Phœbe, though that part was of a very different nature to the exacting rôle of Mad Margaret. My share in the most beautiful of all the Gilbert and Sullivan operas was delightfully easy and natural. When Gilbert gave it to me at the first reading he said, “Here you are, Jessie, you needn’t act this, it’s you.”
We all enjoyed playing in that opera, and I think did our best in it. We were at our ease, it was like a jolly game, so much so that my fellow-actors delighted in teasing me and trying to confuse me on the stage, and my naughty brother, Leonard Meryll (W. R. Shirley), used to leave a lump of ice in my hand when he took it in the course of the play. That was disconcerting enough, but W. H. Denny as Wilfred seriously upset me one evening, without meaning to do so. He came on without his keys; they had somehow become detached from his belt while he was waiting in the green-room. We began our scene together, and I was in despair when I found that the keys were not there, and I had nothing to steal! Fortunately Dick Temple as Meryll, who was watching from the wings, saw that I was in trouble and what the matter was; he found the keys and showed himself for a moment on the stage, holding them up; so I acted my satisfaction and all ended smoothly. Here I must quote from Cellier and Bridgeman’s book once again:
An anonymous letter from an apparently elderly admirer has this very flattering reference to my acting as Phœbe in “The Yeomen of the Guard.”
“I doubt whether there is any lady old or young on our stage, who could fill your part as well and as satisfactorily in all respects as you do.”
“Your singing voice is very good, your action simply charming, your dress is very tasteful and you look very pretty. You laugh and you cry in a manner so natural that it is difficult not to laugh and cry with you, and when you put up your cheek to be kissed one can but envy the stalwart warrior who has the privilege of responding to your invitation.”
But the dear old gentleman tempers his praise by objecting to the amount of rouge I put on my upper lip. “Nature has given you a very pretty mouth, keep it as it is. That deep patch of rouge in the centre of the upper lip rather disfigures it, and can only look well from the very back of the house.” I sometimes feel inclined to offer a similar criticism to girls of to-day, who are not on the stage!
I remember the first night of “The Yeomen” very well. Gilbert was always dreadfully overwrought on these occasions, and this time he was almost beside himself with nervousness and excitement. He and Sullivan had both put their very best into the play, and he was more than usually anxious that all should go well. I am afraid he made himself a perfect nuisance behind the scenes, and did his best, poor fellow, to upset us all. These first nights were very hard on me as they were on all of us, they were glorious events but a terrible strain for everybody, and nearly always my understudy was called upon to officiate on the second night of a play, while I lay exhausted in my bed.
It will be remembered that the curtain rises on Phœbe alone at her spinning wheel; and Gilbert kept fussing about, “Oh, Jessie, are you sure you’re all right?” – Jessie this – Jessie that – until I was almost as demented as he was.
At last I turned on him savagely. “For Heaven’s sake, Mr. Gilbert, go away and leave me alone, or I shan’t be able to sing a note!” He gave me a final frenzied hug, and vanished.
He exacted the most minute accuracy in scenery, dresses and properties, and would have everything of the very best. An ordinary stage spinning-wheel wouldn’t suit him at all; he searched the antique shops for the real thing of the right period and found one, but it was so expensive that Carte would not buy it, so the dealer allowed him to hire it for the run of the piece. When the season ended I asked Carte if I might have it to keep, and he, forgetting that it was only hired, gave it to me. The property man stopped me as I was carrying it away, saying:
“Miss Bond, you can’t take that away, it’s not ours, it’s only hired.”
“I’m very sorry,” I said, “but it has been given to me and I mean to keep it,” – and one of my most valued possessions it was for many years.
18 November, 2008