Secrets of a Savoyard
GILBERT AND SULLIVAN.
World-wide Fame of the Operas - The Secrets of Their Charm - Sullivan's Music and the Popular Taste - Gilbert and the Englishman - Stage Figures That Are True to National Type - The Germans and "H.M.S. Pinafore" - Characters That Mirror Ourselves - Gilbert's Versatility - Pedigree of the Operas - Practical Hints for Amateurs - The Importance of the First Entrance - Studying the Art of Make-up - A Splendid Heritage of Humour and Song.
The Gilbert and Sullivan public are said to number three millions. Exactly how this figure is arrived at I cannot say, but it is presumed to represent those who make it a point of honour to see the operas whenever they possibly can, who are familiar with all the music and the songs, and who lose no chance of making others as enthusiastic as they are. Literally they are to be found the whole world over - from China to Peru - and the operas are as successful in Australia and America as they are in the United Kingdom. I was told once of an Englishman, exiled in the wilds of China, who had an audience of Celestials listening at his garden gate while he was warbling to himself "Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes!"
What a wonderful thing it is that plays which are all well over thirty years old should have such a faithful following! Clearly there must be something exceptional about them, some magnetic force that draws the multitudes to them, some elixir that gives to them the freshness of eternal youth. Imitators have tried hard to capture the secret of their sweet simplicity. That they have failed so far to do so is a misfortune. The Savoy operas still stand alone, unchallenged either by any changing in popular taste or by the passage of time, though if there were more of them it would be good for the public that loves such honest, wholesome enjoyment. It would also be good for the stage. What is the secret?
Sullivan's music often reminds me of a beautiful garden. No attempt is there here to picture in bold orchestral strokes the frowning peaks, the expansive landscapes or the scenes of pomp and splendour. The canvas is ever a miniature one. Each melody is comparable to a lily or a daffodil - just as unpretentious and just as charming - while the whole has the fragrance of the flowers that bloom in the spring. We love this music because it soothes and delights. It is not too "intellectual." We appreciate it as a free and easy distraction, just as we appreciate a popular novel, though we may have high-brow moments when we peer into our Darwin and Spencer. Sullivan's greatest virtue was that he wrote music that was "understanded of the people."
British folk, as we know, are easy going. We are a little too inclined to doff the thinking-cap at the first opportunity. Speaking generally, we are not a studious race, and we don't want to be bothered with "problems." Sullivan's music is never in the problem style - the problem of intricate chords and modern progressions - and just as certainly does it avoid the strident atrocities of the modern ragtime type. It is transparent and simple. It sparkles like the stream in the sunshine, and it is always joyous, buoyant and happy. We want more of such music. Give the people more of these delicate melodies - frankly popular as they are, and yet supremely good music - and into their own lives will enter much of the same romantic warmth and content.
All this shows how Sullivan in his music was perfectly and typically British. What about Gilbert? In his way I think he was the same. British audiences, he knew, did not want either abstruse plots or out-and-out farces, but they did like to be indulged with gentle ripples of laughter. They did not care over-much for the incongruous, but they did love rollicking, good-natured burlesque. And Gilbert was a master of burlesque. Endless arrows are released from his bow, but they hit the mark without disfiguring it, for the tips are not dipped in poison. The Briton can laugh with the best when his own weaknesses and foibles are held up to satire. Certain people would go at once into a tantrum. The Germans, as we know, could never understand "H.M.S. Pinafore." They said it was impossible! No doubt to them it was impossible. Gilbert was making play with Britain's proudest possession - her Navy. Well, the Germans could never have produced a Gilbert of their own in any case, but imagine the enormity of the crime if such a one had written a play caricaturing the omnipotent German War Lords and the old German Army!
Whatever the national costume in which the Gilbert characters are dressed, and however remote the age to which these costumes belong, we know at once that the garb is the purest "camouflage." We have met their like in present-day London or Glasgow or Liverpool. What a lot of folk in real life we know with the same little oddities! The Duke of Plaza-Toro, though described as a Spanish grandee, is really very much an Englishman. He sings, too, about the human weakness for small titles and orders, and we know that that is not an exclusive weakness of the Venetians or the Baratarians in "The Gondoliers." The cap can find a head to fit it much nearer home. Then there is the character of Sir Joseph Porter in "Pinafore." No doubt he is an exaggerated political type, but he is not exaggerated, after all, beyond recognition.
"The Yeomen of the Guard" is, of all operas ever written, the one most essentially English. The Elizabethan setting is there, and so is the happy spirit of old Merrie England. Slightly, perhaps, it may be a drama, but it brings to the surface the tears of gentle melancholy only. That also stamps it as typically British. Colonel Fairfax, under the shadow of the executioner's axe, does not strike a dramatic pose and tell us that it is a far, far better thing he is going to do than he has ever done. Not a bit! In effect, he says its rather hard luck, but there it is anyhow, and after all things might be very much worse. A British officer always was ready to face death with a smile. Nor does Jack Point himself, the most lovable of characters, make a parade of his grief. The burning, aching pain is smothered almost to the end beneath the outward jesting, and when his honest heart breaks there is no murmur against the cruelty of fate, nor any cry of vengeance upon the rival who has won Elsie Maynard.
Yes, we British people can often see ourselves in these characters as if in a mirror, and it is probably due to this, together with the exquisite blend of inimitable music and wit, that the popularity of these operas is so strong and enduring. Stage "puppets" as they may be, they do show us a lot about both our virtues and follies, but rather more about our follies, because as a race we are notoriously shy of our praises being sung! They are always ready to own up to their weaknesses in some capital song. So like the self-depreciating British! Like the rest of us, too, they are for ever getting into some dilemma or other, and they disentangle themselves without excitement or flurry. Each point is made without the banging of drums or the sounding of trumpets. Contrast this with Wagner, who makes a terrible fuss about the merest trifle, and works up his orchestration in a manner that might suggest that the heavens were falling. Whether we like our music like this must be a matter of taste and individual discretion. Here in Gilbert and Sullivan at all events we have common sense - for there can be common sense even in the ridiculous - and a tranquilising atmosphere. In a busy, workaday world, with its ceaseless nervous and physical strain, it is surely a grateful attribute, a pleasant diversion between the burdens of one day and those of the next!
Sir William Gilbert, as have said before, had a master mind as a dramatist. Every opera he wrote had a definite and an interesting plot, and a plot which had, moreover, a purpose. "H.M.S. Pinafore," as we know, was a shrewd shaft aimed at some of the absurdities of our political life, though I say this without being in any way a politician myself ! In "Patience" he held up to ridicule the æsthetic craze of the 'eighties. With "Iolanthe" we enter the fantastic field, and to me there is always something uncommonly whimsical in the idea that Parliament is ruled by the fairies, who thus must be the real rulers of England. "Princess Ida" was a clever anticipation of the women's movement, though it is well-known that Gilbert took the outlines of the story from Tennyson. Then "The Mikado" transports to the romantic and picturesque land of Japan. "Ruddigore" was intended to be a travesty on the melodramatic stage. Following this came an historical play, designed to show his gifts in a new, more serious and no less successful light. I refer, of course, to "The Yeomen of the Guard." Then "The Gondoliers" carried us to beautiful Venice, whilst last of all were "Utopia Limited," which I trust will soon be revived, and "The Grand Duke." It is remarkable that so wide a range could be covered in one series of plays.
Gilbert, at an O.P. Club dinner in 1906, admitted his "indebtedness to the author of the 'Bab Ballads,' from whom I have so unblushingly cribbed." The diligent student of the ballads and the operas will find many evidences of the development of ideas from the chrysalis to the butterfly stage. I have to thank Mr. Robert Bell for the following notes - confirmed and amplified by Gilbert during his lifetime - on the pedigree of a few of the more popular operas :-
"H.M.S. Pinafore" .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .."Captain Reece," "The Baby's Vengeance," "General John," "Lieutenant-Colonel Flare," "The Bumboat Woman's Story," "Joe Golightly," "Little Oliver."
"The Yeoman of the Guard" .. .. "Annie Protheroe," "To Phobe."
"Iolanthe" .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ."The Fairy Curate." "The Periwinkle Girl."
"Patience" .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. "The Rival Curates."
"H.M.S. Pinafore," it will be seen, owed more to the ballads than did any of the later operas, and it will be noticed that Captain Corcoran, with his solicitude for his crew and his carefully moderate language, was clearly of the stock of Captain Reece, of "The Mantelpiece." who
- an example of unselfishness to be compared in the other branch of the Service only with the altruism of "Lieutenant-Colonel Flare." The main theme of the opera - the babies changed in their cradles - was a great favourite with Gilbert. In the ballads it appears in "General John" and "The Baby's Vengeance," which latter poem may have suggested, moreover, certain details in "Ruddigore." The origin of Robin Oakapple's bashfulness may possibly be traced back to "The Married Couple," in which the pair were betrothed in infancy, as also happens in "Princess Ida."
"Iolanthe" has an obvious resemblance to "The Fairy Curate." In both a fairy marries a mortal, with the result in one case of the curate, Georgie, and in the other the Arcadian shepherd, Strephon. Then we are bound to notice how the feud of the two poets in "Patience" is modelled on the emulation of the Rev. Clayton Hooper and the Rev. Hopley Porter in "The Rival Curates." Indeed, the parallel between the ballad and the opera was originally so complete that in the opera the dragoons were curates, and Bunthorne and Grosvenor clergymen! Sir William, however, began to doubt whether it was good taste to hold up the clergy to a certain amount of ridicule, and so he changed the principals into æsthetes, and the curates into dragoons.
Coming to "The Yeomen of the Guard" we find that Wilfred Shadbolt, with his anecdotes of the prison cells and the torture chamber, had a prototype in the jailor in "Annie Protheroe." In both a condemned man is reprieved and enabled to outwit his rival for the love of a lady. "Were I thy Bride" is also a song with an obvious affinity to the ballad, "To Phobe." So we might continue to trace in the ballads ideas which the dramatist turned to the happiest account in the operas. Strangely enough, "The Mikado" is the opera which best keeps its secrets, and one searches the poems in vain for anything in the nature of a "pedigree."
Lucky is the actor or actress who secures an engagement in these operas at the outset of his or her career on the stage. The Savoy tradition, which Gilbert and Sullivan founded was, of course, entirely different from anything which had preceded it, and the great feature of this new school was the insistence that was and still is placed on clear enunciation, distinct vocal phrasing, and refinement of manner and gesture. The beginner who is trained on these lines is thus taught the essentials of genuine artistry, and it is also a great advantage to a new-comer that, early in his professional life, he has played in pieces which have such an infectious spirit about them and before audiences that are always so ready with encouragement. By the management itself good work is invariably recognised, and it is always possible, as has happened in my own case, for one to rise from the chorus itself to the principal parts.
Gilbert and Sullivan's works are now given by hundreds of amateur societies all the year round, and often we hear that parties of those who are going to play in them have travelled some distance to see us, and so to gather notes for their own performances. Scattered about these pages are many practical hints for these amateur players. From an "old hand " they may be of some service, not merely because they are drawn from my own long experience, but because many of these points were given me by Gilbert himself and by great actors like Irving. It will be useful, I think, if I now summarise and amplify these suggestions, which are applicable chiefly to those who are to play in these operas, but which in a general way nay be helpful to all amateur and young professional performers. Here they are :-
Now that the old stock companies have become almost things of the past, our amateur operatic societies should be recognised as one of the best recruiting fields for theatrical talent, and it is a fact that from their ranks many great artistes have sprung. I myself have seen numbers of these amateur shows, and in most of them there have been two or three performers who, with work and experience, could take a creditable place on the professional stage. For this reason I am anxious to give them all the advice it is in my power to give. First and foremost, therefore, I should insist that before any words are memorised the part itself must be thoroughly studied, so that one knows exactly what the author intends and just what sort of figure one has to depict. Especially have I made it my aim, on my first entrance in any part, to let the audience see just what the character is, whether a comedian, a tragedian, a lover, a fool, or a "fop." Feel that you are actually one of these, and especially when you make your first entry, and the battle is half won already. You will then have something of what people variously call "magnetism" or "personality" or "atmosphere." This feeling of your part at the first entrance is of vital importance, and as far as you can, you must try to keep it up right through the play.
Take the case of Jack Point. From the moment he enters the audience should know the manner of man that he is, and he must win their sympathy immediately. He is a poor strolling player who has been dragged from pillar to post. Footsore and weary though he is, Jack Point is anxious to please the crowd who have roughly chased him and Elsie Maynard in, for if he fails them have they not threatened to duck him in the nearest pond? Jack and Elsie are no ordinary players. In Elizabethan times the street dancer was a familiar character. The Merry-man and his maid, however, tell us that they can sing and dance too, a wonderful accomplishment. All this and more must be made clear on their first entry. It should be the same in the interpretation of all the other parts.
When the Duke of Plaza-Toro arrives, he must at once impress the audience that, although impecunious, he still expects the deference due to birth and breeding. Ko-Ko, on the other hand, is a cheap tailor suddenly exalted to the rank of Lord High Executioner, and from his first entrance it is obvious that he was never brought up in the dignified ways of a Court. He tells the gentlemen of Japan that he is "much touched by this reception." Somehow one feels that that speech was written out for him when he received his appointment, that he has since recited it forty times a day, and that now the upstart is trying to make believe it is entirely extempore. Then there is Sir Joseph Porter. Whenever I play this rôle I do my best to cultivate a sense of immense self-importance. I do this, of course, whilst waiting my cue, but the effect of it should be seen on the stage. Bunthorne's first appearance should be done in such a way as to stamp him definitely for what he is - an affected "poseur." The exaggeration may be relaxed a little afterwards - but it must be there at the beginning.
So long as one has studied one's part beforehand, particularly in regard to the nature of the first entry, the memorisation of the words becomes more or less easy. And amateurs ought to realise what a tremendous help to them it would be to practice their own facial "make-up." Generally they leave that to an expert, but if they practised it themselves, they would find it a very fascinating, and certainly an important, branch of the actor's profession. Many and many a time have I taken my pencils and colours, retired to some quiet room at home, and spent an afternoon experimenting in make-up. Notwithstanding that I have never played any Shakespearian characters, I have made up privately for dozens of them, and the practice has helped me in innumerable ways.
For instance, I used to be fond of making up as the hunchback Richard the Third, and I turned these experiments to account when I had to play the rôle of King Gama. Shakespeare's Touchstone also appealed to me, and having made up as this clown so often, I had many useful ideas when I came to do Jack Point. The deathly pallor of the poor jester at the end was contrived from many similar experiments. Setting photographs before me, I would make myself resemble the late Lord Roberts and the late Sir Evelyn Wood, and these were used as a model when I had to be Major-General Stanley. Several visits to the Law Courts gave me valuable hints for the Lord Chancellor. The Duke of Plaza-Toro was studied from an old print of a grandee. Ko-Ko's make up, which was bound to be a difficult one, was the outcome of a good deal of sketching on paper, particularly in regard to the treatment of the lines round the eyes. When Mrs. D'Oyly Carte first saw me as Bunthorne, she exclaimed "How you do remind me of Whistler!" That was a compliment. It was from Whistler, of course, that this role was understood to be drawn, and so I was not loath to copy the poet's photograph, even to the white lock in his ample jet-black hair!
Yes, make-up well rewards one for all the time one spends in practising it, and many brother professionals agree with me that the great past-masters of the art were the late Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree and the late Wilson Barrett. With them, of course, make-up concerned not merely the face but the figure, and it was wonderful how Tree, to instance only two of his great parts, could adapt himself either to the portly and blustering Falstaff or to the lean and haggard Svengali. And Barrett, though ordinarily stocky of build, could appear at times as a towering, dominating personality. Seeing that these men were big theatrical figures, they were not compelled to sink their identities in the parts they were playing, and yet they were such great artistes that they always did so completely.
I close this book with a simple story of the different operas. This will, I am sure, be read with interest both by those who know them already and by those, the younger generation, who are growing up to know and love them too for what they are - a heritage of pure humour and song of which the nation may well be proud, and to which it will remain faithful as long as the spirit of laughter abides in its heart.
Page created 18 July 2004