Secrets of a Savoyard
PARTS I HAVE PLAYED.
List of my Gilbert and Sullivan Rôles - Parts in Other Comedies - Excursions into Vaudeville - A Human Shuttlecock - when Gilbert Appeared before the Footlights - Essays as a playwright - A Burlesque of Shakespeare - Embarrassing Invitations - A Jester's Hidden Remorse - My Life's Helpmate.
IT is my melancholy distinction to be the last of the Savoyards. Numbers of my old comrades, of course, are playing elsewhere or living in their well-earned retirement, but I alone remain actively in Gilbert and Sullivan. In all I have played thirty parts in the operas - no other artiste connected with them has ever played so many - and it may interest my innumerable known and unknown friends if I "put them on my list." In the following table I give incidentally the date of the original production of the comedies in London.
My connection with the D'Oyly Carte company falls into three periods. The first of these was in 1884 and 1885, when I went on tour for twelve months with "Princess Ida," to be followed by the heart-breaking time I have recounted in the "Vagabondage of the Commonwealth." Then, in 1887, I rejoined it to win my first success as George Grossmith's understudy in "Ruddigore." That period was destined to continue almost without interruption until 1901. For most of this time I was touring in the provinces, though I was in London for many of the revivals, as well as for several of the plays not by Gilbert and Sullivan produced by Mr. D'Oyly Carte. Eventually this latter enterprise was brought to an end by the death of Sir Arthur Sullivan in 1900, and by that of Mr. Carte himself four months later in 1901. London saw the Gilbert and Sullivan works no more until 1906, though the suburban theatres were sometimes visited by the provincial company, which in the country kept alight the flickering torch that was to burn once more with all its accustomed brightness.
Shortly after my old chief had passed away, I closed my second period with the company in order to throw in my lot with the musical comedy stage, and it was my good fortune to play leading comedy parts under several successful managements. Looking back on those years, I regard them as amongst the most prosperous and happy in my career, and yet it is no affectation to say that all other parts seemed shallow and superficial when one had played so long in Gilbert and Sullivan. Shall I say I was anxious to return to them? In a sense that would be true. Certainly the yearning was there - if not the opportunity. Then, in 1909, Sir William Gilbert earnestly invited me to rejoin the company, and I relinquished a very profitable engagement in order to play once more the parts I loved so well. Thus began my third period with the operas. This period has still to be finished.
Sir William, I ought to say, was at this time an ageing man, and he had retired with a comfortable fortune. Grim's Dyke and its beautiful grounds gave him all the enjoyment he wanted, and to the end he had the solace and companionship of his devoted wife, Lady Gilbert. He died in 1911. Following a visit to town, he had gone to bathe in the lake in his grounds, and had a heart seizure whilst swimming. He was rescued from the water and carried to his room, but there life was found to be extinct. The curtain had fallen.
But to proceed. I propose to give a list of the comedies in which I played between 1901 and 1909. Lacking a good memory for dates, I cannot guarantee at all that the order in which they appear is correct, though approximately this may be the case :-
In the opinion of many friends, my best piece of pure character acting was that as Pat Murphy, the piper in "The Emerald Isle." Without a doubt it was a fine part. I had to be blind, and in contrast to the manner in which most blind characters were played at that time, my eyes were wide open and rigid. From the moment I entered I riveted my gaze tragically on one particular spot, and my eyes never moved, no matter who spoke or however dramatic the point. Naturally the strain was tremendous. Then, at last, Pat's colleen lover began to have suspicions that he was not really blind - that the idle good-for-nothing fellow was shamming. And when Pat admitted it, the subterfuge had been kept up so long that, both to those on the stage and to the audience, the effect was marvellous to a degree. I loved playing the piper and speaking the brogue. "The Emerald Isle," as is now generally known, was the last work that Sir Arthur Sullivan composed, and on his lamented death the music was completed by my gifted friend, Edward German. I remember that when, later on, the piece was taken to Dublin, we had doubts as to whether anything in it might offend the susceptibilities of the good people of the "disthressful counthree." Strangely enough, no objection of any kind was raised until the jig in the second act, and as it was believed that this was not done correctly and that the girls were lifting their heels too high, the dance was greeted with an outburst of booing. This was quelled by the lusty voice at the back of the pit. "Shame on ye," he shouted. "Can't ye be aisy out of respect for the dead?" And another voice: "Eh, an' Sullivan an Oirishman too, so he was!" The appeal was magical. The interruption died away and the performance proceeded.
"The Earl and the Girl," the most successful of all the musical comedies in which I appeared and the one which gave me my biggest real comedy part, ran for one year at the Adelphi, and then for a further year at the Lyric. When it was withdrawn I secured the permission of the management to use "My Cosy Corner," the most tuneful of all its musical numbers, as a scena on the music-halls, and with my corps of Cosy Corner Girls it was a decided success.
One other venture of mine on the music-halls was in conjunction with Connie Ediss when we had both completed an engagement at the Gaiety. "United Service," in which we figured together, ran for fourteen weeks at the Pavilion, and it provided me with one of the best salaries I ever drew. The idea of this piece was a contrast in courtships. First we would imitate a stately old colonel paying his addresses to an exquisite lady, and then a ranker making love to the cook, with an idiom appropriate to life "below-stairs." Eighteen changes of dress had to be made by each of us, and the fun waxed fast and furious when the colonel commenced pouring his courtly phrases into the ears of the cook, and when, by a similar deliberate mishap, the soldier in his most ardent vernacular declared his passion for m'lady.
Connie Ediss and I might have done as well with a successor to "United Service." But the theatre, she said, "called her back," and accordingly we went our separate ways in "legitimate."
Some reminiscences still remain to be told of my struggling early days on the stage. One of these concerns my brief and boisterous connection with the well-known Harvey Troupe. I was chosen as deputy for their page boy, whom these acrobats threw hither and thither as if he were a human shuttlecock, and a very clever act it was, however uncomfortable for the unfortunate youngster. I scarcely relished the job, but old Harvey told me "All you've to do is to come on the stage; leave the rest to us , we'll pull you through." It was not a case of pulling me through. They literally threw me through. For half-an-hour I was thrown from one to another with lightning speed, and that was about all I knew of the performance. "You did very well," they told me afterwards, "didn't you hear the laughs?" I am afraid I hadn't heard them. I had been conscious only of an appalling giddiness and of feeling bruised and sore. Next day I was black and blue, and unable to perform, but in those hard days, when food was scarce, one had to be ready for anything.
It was about this time in my career that I secured a pantomime engagement at the Prince's, Manchester, though my rôle was merely that of standard-bearer, in the finale, to the "show lady," before whom I walked with a banner inscribed, "St. George and the Dragon." Unfortunately, in my nervousness, I marched on with the reverse side of the banner to the front, and at the sight of this piece of tawdry linen the audience laughed uproariously
When the Second Demon was absent I was chosen as his understudy, and it seemed to me to be a wonderful honour, because it gave me eight words to speak. I had the comforting feeling of being a big star already. How well I remember those lines :-
Second Demon (sepulchral and sinister) : Who calls on me in this unfriendly way?
Fairy Queen (in a piping treble) : A greater power than your's; hear and obey!
Coming to a much later date, I include in my list of memorable theatrical occasions the benefit matinee given in the Drury Lane Theatre for Nellie Farren, for many years the bright particular star at the Gaiety. The stage was determined to pay the worthiest tribute it could to the brilliant artiste who, once the idol of her day, was now laid aside by sickness and suffering, and never had such a wonderful programme been presented. King Edward, then Prince of Wales, gave the benefit his gracious patronage, and it was in every way a remarkable success. The D'Oyly Carte contribution to the entertainment was "Trial by Jury." Gilbert himself figured in the scene as the Associate. It was, I believe, his only appearance before the footlights in public, and it was a part in which he had not a line to speak. I played the Foreman. Amongst other benefit performances in which I have taken part were those to Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Dacre and Miss Ellen Terry. We gave "Trial by Jury" on these occasions also, and my part was Counsel.
Speaking of King Edward, I am reminded that when, by going to the Palace Theatre after his accession, His Majesty paid the first visit of any British Sovereign to a music-hall, the occasion coincided with the run there of an operetta of my own, called the "Knights of the Road." It was a Dick Turpin story, for which I had written the lyrics, and the music had been provided by my good friend Sir Alexander Mackenzie, Principal of the Royal Academy of Music. I conceived the idea that pieces of this kind, based on English stories and typically English alike in sentiment and musical setting, might be made an attractive feature on the music-halls, and in point of fact, all that was wrong with the experiment was that it was a little too early. To-day, when the better-class music-halls have attained a remarkable standard of taste, they would be just the thing. Nevertheless, my "Knights of the Road" had a successful career, and it served to give Walter Hyde, now one of our leading operatic tenors, one of his first chances to sing in the Metropolis.
I wrote about eight of these pieces altogether. The libretto and the scores are still in existence, and for better or for worse, they may be produced even yet. One of them is written round the well-known picture, "The Duel in the Snow." This depicts a beautiful woman rushing between the two swords in a duel, and my object was to fill in the dramatic significance of the picture, representing how it came about that the men were fighting in those wintry surroundings for the hand of the lady.
"For one night only" I appeared with the Follies. I was at the Palace in "My Cosy Corner," and Pellissier asked me to come on, garbed as the poet, in their burlesque on Shakespeare. Leaning from my pedestal, I had to reproach them for daring to take such liberties, and we finished up with a boxing match. Our jokes on that occasion were mainly extemporised. Nobody in the audience knew that I was acting as deputy, but those in the wings had heard that a conspiracy of some kind was afoot, and they entered heartily into the spirit of the burlesque.
It is far easier, I think, to improvise on the stage than it is away from the footlights, and I well remember my dilemma when I was once invited to an "at home." It was a children's party, and my hostess had told the youngsters that they were going to see Ko-Ko, the "funny man" in "The Mikado." No doubt if I had come in my Oriental costume it would have been less difficult to act up to the part, but it was quite another thing to arrive in an immaculate frock-coat and silk hat, to be escorted at once into the circle of children, and invited then and there to act the clown in the circus with "jibe and joke and quip and crank." For some moments I stood almost tongue-tied. Luckily, as it happened, my hostess handed me a cup of tea, and in my nervousness I dropped it. The children giggled hugely. With that trivial incident the ice was broken.
Enjoyable as it is to meet so many people in the social sphere, our good friends who see us from the auditorium, and then shower their invitations upon us, are at times a little embarrassing. Kind as they undoubtedly are - and we do appreciate the hospitality so readily offered to us wherever we go - they are perhaps forgetful that every week we have to get through seven or eight hard performances. With rehearsals taken into account, we have not over-much leisure for social enjoyment, and certainly no great reserves of energy. A Scotch lady was once most pressing that I should attend a dance she was arranging. Now, much as I love dancing on the stage, I have never had any taste at all for the conventional ball-room dancing, and really how could one have after doing, say, the courtly gavotte in "The Gondoliers?" " I never dance," I told my Scottish friend, "unless I'm paid for it." Evidently she mistook my meaning, for with her invitation to her dance she enclosed me - a cheque for £5. I returned it with my compliments.
From time to time on these social occasions we are prevailed upon to give one or two of our songs from the operas. Songs from the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, nevertheless, seldom sound well away from the stage and their familiar surroundings, and long ago most amateur vocalists dropped them from their repertory. I, personally, have found that the most suitable of my numbers for private circles are the Lord Chancellor's "Dream Song" - it is so dramatic that it goes quite well as an unaccompanied recitation - and King Gama's "I can't tell why." Here I must note a remarkable fact. When I am on the stage, I know not only my own lines, but the lines of everyone else, but away from the stage and the atmosphere of the play my otherwise excellent memory is not always so amenable to discipline. Indeed, I can recall an occasion when, at a garden party, I was asked to sing "Tit Willow." I cheerfully undertook to do so, but half-way through I stumbled, and try as I would even with the promptings of obliging friends, I could get no further than the middle of the second verse. And yet on the stage I have sung "Tit Willow" without a fault many thousands of times. I think I was only once in any danger of forgetting my lines on the stage. It happened in "The Mikado." Behind the scenes, unknown to me, Pooh Bah had fainted, and one of his entrances had to be made by Pish Tush. Well, I was on as Ko-Ko at the time, and the sound of an unexpected voice was so strange, so bewildering, that for a moment it seemed to me that my reason had gone. "Get off ! It's Pooh Bah" I whispered, excitedly. Pish Tush managed to give me a hint that something had happened, and we continued our comedy scene, though in my frame of mind this might easily have come to grief.
Speaking of memory, I am reminded that my first recollection in life was that of listening, as a very small child, to a lad playing a quaint little tune on a banjo. I never heard that tune again, but it has ever since remained in my mind, and only a few years ago I was talking about it to a man who had spent nearly all his life in Australia. When we were children we were neighbours in the same village. "Yes," said my long-lost friend, "I was the lad who played that tune on the banjo, and you were lying in a cot in the garden!" Between that incident and our mutual recollection of it nearly fifty eventful years for both of us had passed.
Before I close this chapter of random reminiscences I feel I must pay my tribute to the best, the oldest and the truest of all my friends - my helpmate in life, Louie Henri. As Albert Chevalier would put it, "We've been together now for (almost) forty years, and it don't seem a day too much." Louie Henri, as I have already told, secured me my first engagement, and from that time to this she has been the intimate sharer in whatever troubles and successes have fallen to me in what is now a long and eventful career. Optimistic as I may be in temperament, there were times when her encouragement meant a great deal, and to my wife I pay this brief tribute (as brief it is bound to be). Our family has consisted of three sons and two daughters. Our two elder sons served during the war in the Royal Air Force, and one of them was lost whilst flying in a night-bombing raid in France. I well remember the time when my boy was first reported missing. With that anxious sorrow weighing on my mind, it was no small trial to keep alive the semblance at least, of comedy.
Oh, a private buffoon is a light-hearted loon,
If you listen to popular rumour.
Jack Point's song appealed to me with peculiar poignancy during that time of heavy anxiety. But to return to my wife. Louie Henri, as the older generation well remembers, is able to count herself amongst the distinguished Savoyards. Before she retired she had probably played a greater number of parts - soprano, contralto, and soubrette - than any other lady connected with the company. I am sure it will be of interest if I enumerate here the rôles she has played :-
Mrs. Lytton, apart from her, success as an actress, has always been an accomplished musician, and in that respect I owe much to her for the way in which, during the preparation of my new roles, she has helped me, "a lame, unmusical dog, over the stile." Our pianoforte at home is the one on which Sir Arthur Sullivan first played over his music for "The Mikado." It is a handsome satinwood grand, designed for Mr. D'Oyly Carte by the late Sir Alma Tadema, R.A., and this most interesting and valuable souvenir was presented to me by Mrs. D'Oyly Carte.
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