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Chapter 14

SOME weeks ago I was reading about the way in which the Germans have mangled “The Mikado.” They have turned it into a revue and, to make it really up-to-date, they have introduced wireless, motor-cars, aeroplanes and syncopation. Nanki-Poo is now an American sugar king’s son, Katisha is a Japanese fruit merchant’s daughter, and Ko-Ko is mixed up, so I read, with marmalade trusts and a “Union of Dictators.”

It is dreadful that such things should happen. It is horrible that vulgar people should lay hands on our dear old operas and try to drag them down to the gutter. But reading about these desecrations did set me thinking. Have we clean hands – quite clean hands – even in England? Ought we to pretend we are shocked when we, too, have been letting the “jazz spirit”, creep in, little by little, into our own Gilbert and Sullivan Opera?

Nothing like what the Germans have done, of course, would ever be allowed over here. Yet you do not know how it grieves me when I see the mannerisms, tricks and antics which seem to have been made part of our present-day performances, and which would never, never, have been tolerated for a moment at the Savoy.

Let us take my own favourite part – poor little Mad Margaret in “Ruddigore.” Why, oh! why, must she be played like a raving, screaming lunatic, whose only place should be the asylum? Margaret is not a mad girl really. She is a distraught girl – a genuine creature of pity, possibly – but a wild maniac she most certainly is not on any possible showing.

“’Tis only
That I’m
That’s all.”

In those few, simple words, which are really the key to the reading of the part, she tells her own story Love-loneliness – that is her trouble. She is just a sad, solitary figure whose head has been turned crazy, but not demented, by heart-hungry grief. Suggesting her as a wild-eyed gabbling idiot is not only inartistic, but it shows a woeful mis-reading of the spirit of the part.

Some people say that Mad Margaret is a kind of tragic Ophelia. She is not, and was never meant to be, a kind of Ophelia. When I created the rôle I was dressed as a simple country girl in a country girl’s rags and I carried a rough piece of stick. I was not arrayed in white chiffon – how could she possibly afford such a dress? – nor was it considered necessary for me to carry a sheaf of straw mingled with poppies. Why should one sing to poppies when one is dreaming of “only roses – only roses”?

Rutland Barrington and Jessie Bond as Sir Despard Murgatroyd and Mad Margaret in Ruddigore

In the second act I used to have a severely simple black dress, a severely simple poked bonnet covering my severely straight hair, and had pattens hung on my wrists. I was still, you see, just a plain country girl, in whose head there was not a thought of vanity. All I dare do was to look up wonderingly and beseechingly at Despard Murgatroyd. We were both terribly, terribly solemn, but to say that we were terribly solemn does not say that Barrington and I were not, in our odd way, very amusing.

To-day the Mad Margarets, though they may still dress in black, bedeck themselves with all sorts of little frills and furbelows, show the choicest of curls peeping from under their bonnets, and act with an exaggerated voice and gesture never meant for the part. To my mind it is all quite wrong. Margaret is not the kind of girl who would spend a couple of hours before the looking-glass tricking herself up to make herself “Frenchy.”

Then there is the case of Phœbe in “The Yeomen of the Guard.” What I hate is that senseless “business” in “Were I thy bride.” You know what I mean – the scratching of the jailer’s chin, the ruffling of his hair, the ogling of the eyes, and all those other “comic” antics which, goodness knows why, are supposed to be “funny.”

I think it is wicked that there should be this vulgarity in one of the loveliest of all the songs in the operas. Sir William Gilbert would not have endured it for a moment. He intended that the audience should hear his most beautiful lyric – and they never hear it to-day. Sir Arthur Sullivan would not have stood it either. The air he had written was far too sweet to be drowned beneath silly laughter.

During the rehearsals I remember that Gilbert asked me – he was only a man, and perhaps didn’t know! – how I would wheedle Wilfred Shadbolt. “Well, Mr. Gilbert,” I answered, “I might just gently stroke his chin, and I might . . .” He stopped me. “That will do!” he exclaimed, “that will be splendid!” You see what he meant! He wanted the wheedling suggested, but he did not want a lot of low comedy introduced, and still less did he want the action to mar the effect of the song.

I remember something else. W. H. Denny was too good an artist to take any licence, but as he was seated on the floor, he once looked up slightly in a rather humorous way. “Mr. Denny,” I said sharply, “I won’t have any movement while I’m singing my song.” And Shadbolt never did sway about or do any of that dreadful ogling – at the Savoy. Why should he? We knew well enough in those days that this so-called broad humour added nothing to a really beautiful song.

Now a word or two – only a word or two – about the men’s parts. Who, I want to know, intended that the Mikado should prance about like a madman, hissing out his lines like a serpent? Never Gilbert! The very thought would make him turn in his grave. Never poor Dick Temple! The raving monster we so often see now is not one bit like the suave and oily Mikado he created at the Savoy.

Temple’s Mikado was – as we might put it – “every inch a gentleman.” In his quiet, refined way he made you feel that here, despite the grim and sardonic streak in his nature, was really a fatherly ruler and a “true philanthropist.” Who possibly could believe that of present day Mikados stalking about like a demon with leering eyes and ugly evil grimaces? When Temple sang about

“My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time”

he sang it in a smooth, unforced voice in which every syllable told, and all he did was to clasp and unclasp his hands and smile pleasantly like a kind-hearted despot. When he spoke of “boiling oil” he did not shriek like a fury. The lurid words seemed just to drop off easily from an oily tongue. That was where he was so much an artist. He knew that the real humour was in Gilbert’s words, and he had no need to force it out, which is something rarely understood by the present generation of players.

But I could go on picking out details of the same kind from most of the operas. Here are two apparently small matters which show how a false line can be taken even in little things. Why do Elsie and Phœbe make a Court curtsy in “The Yeomen of the Guard” quartet and why do Tessa and Gianetta do the same thing in the second act of “The Gondoliers”? They were just poor girls who would never know how to make such a curtsy. In “Princess Ida” its introduction is far more appropriate. Under Gilbert such a social blunder would never have happened.

I fear the real trouble is that, while we in our day were taught always to be refined and reposeful, the aim to-day is all towards overacting, even though exaggeration often conflicts with the real spirit of the parts. Take the case of the Duke of Plaza-Toro. Why should he be made a kind of jumping Jack-in-the-box? Why should he have the very bad manners to “pull faces” at the back of the Duchess? Frank Wyatt, who created the rôle, would have been the last man to be guilty of such a liberty. The Duke, who is a courtier and distinctly a man of gentle birth and breeding, though for a time he may be down on his luck, would positively never do such a thing.

What I do want you to understand is that I am not blaming any of the present artists individually. Not at all! I am an old woman now – very nearly seventy-seven, you know! – and I love doing whatever I can to help those who have taken our places in these beautiful operas! I do not say that, because we played in a certain way, that way is therefore the right way. But I do say that our way was Gilbert’s way – and that Gilbert, a real master of stage-craft, knew when he was rehearsing us what he was doing.

No: the fault is the “system.” The London audiences of our day expected refinement and “polish.” In the provinces, where the subtlety of Gilbert’s humour may not have been so easily grasped, the touring companies, I imagine, had to play on much “broader” lines than would have ever been allowed at the Savoy. So little by little innovations crept in, antics that drew a laugh became part of the accepted interpretation, and each new artist tried, if he or she were not actually encouraged, to “go one better.” And this “going one better” has gone on so long unchecked that the operas are being absolutely spoilt by over-acting and low comedy.

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