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Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
A Greek SlaveA Review by Kurt Gänzl
Excerpted by permission of the author from his book The British Musical Theatre, Vol 1., pp. 668 - 672.Page created 27 April 2002
With the end of May, 1898, came the end of the run of The Geisha. It had filled Daly's for over two years and the time had finally come to replace it. Edwardes was faced with the eternal problem of the manager of an outsize hit how to follow that hit. The formula he used was undoubtedly the best one: more of the same wrapped up in an entirely different package. Thus, from nineteenth century Japan, Owen Hall, Harry Greenbank and Sidney Jones turned their attention to ancient Rome and the year AD 90: equally picturesque, equally flexible as regards custom and humour, and as far from nineteenth-century Japan as could be. But inside the decoration the contents were to be the same. As with A Runaway Girl there were resident stars to be written for, for the Daly's galaxy was just as popular and just as powerful in box-office terms as its Gaiety counterpart, and a Daly's show without Marie Tempest, Letty Lind, Hayden Coffin and Huntley Wright would have been gravely weakened in its appeal. It was no trouble for the ingenious Hall to fabricate a newish plot and a set of characters to suit the stars of The Geisha, and the result was A Greek Slave, produced by George Edwardes at Daly's on 8 June, 1898.
Huntley Wright was cast as Heliodorus, a wily Persian soothsayer patronised by the wealthy matrons of Imperial Rome for the odd prophecy on the prospects of their love life. He is assisted in his charlatanism by his daughter Maia (Marie Tempest) who pretends to have the gifts of an oracle and who utters incomprehensible prophecies at a suitable price. Among their servants is one Archias, a talented sculptor (Scott Russell) whose most recent achievement is a statue of Eros, God of Love, for which his fellow slave Diomed (Hayden Coffin) has acted as model. With Diomed Maia has fallen in love. The princess Antonia (Hilda Moody) comes to the soothsayer in disguise and Mafia, egged on by the Prefect Pomponius (Rutland Barrington) who has been spurned by the princess, plans a humiliating trick. She announces to the princess that the God of Love himself has fallen in love with her. The statue is brought forth, and Heliodorus prepares to 'bring it to life'. Diomed is substituted and serenades the princess. But Heliodorus is planning a double-cross. He disapproves of his daughter's fancy for a slave and when the seance is over and Maia has intended that Antonia should walk off with the statue, Heliodorus arranges that the real Diomed falls to the princess. But it does her little good. The slave, in his luxurious new surroundings, pines for Maia, and all Antonia's love-making goes for nothing. Pomponius, who was anxious to see his marble lady wasting her affection on a marble statue, is furious at the social slight involved and Heliodorus finds himself in hot water. Eventually, in the middle of the Roman Saturnalia, all is cleared up and the correct pairs of lovers are united.
A Greek Slave was a less obviously comical affair than its predecessors. Rutland Barrington's role gave him little opportunity to consolidate his 'second career' and the humorous moments were left largely in the hands of Huntley Wright with Letty Lind as a pert lady's maid. The music was less tripping and bright and more ambitious, although Sidney Jones' score was peppered with enough Lionel Monckton songs to keep the balance tipped in the direction of popular taste. Even though they had George Edwardes and Monckton in common, Daly's fare and that of the Gaiety were getting further apart. The advance towards a more substantial kind of piece was, not unexpectedly, largely appreciated by the critics:
Not everyone was quite so laudatory. The Times found fault, not only with the piece, but with the performers:
The vocal writing in A Greek Slave was certainly more demanding than usual. Jones took full advantage of Miss Tempest's power and range and went so far as to demand a high C from his tenor, Scott Russell, in his 'Revels' number. But the tone was kept suitably un-operatic by the unpretentious lyrics and the tunefulness of the melodies. In one song, however, the right flavour was not achieved. It was a song for which, significantly, Ross and Greenbank were not responsible, as the lyric for Hayden Coffin's first act song, 'Freedom' was supplied by Henry Hamilton:
Content? It were to say my manhood nay,
The song was to find much popularity with baritone singers both professional and amateur, for it had the ringing tones of the drawing room about it. Jones had set Hamilton's archaic words with a gloriously operatic melody which was far too ambitious in its context. Fortunately, it was surrounded by much in a more suitable tone. Marie Tempest scored with 'The lost Pleiad', telling the story of a prodigal star-maiden:
'Twas a pretty little maiden in a garden grey and old,
Merope (or Sterope) is ostracised, until the Dog-star courts her and brings her back to light, and together they produce the Milky Way. This piece proved an apt contrast to Miss Tempest's more romantic pieces with Coffin and her sentimental show ballad 'The Golden Isle'.
Amongst the other lighter pieces, Huntley Wright gave a number 'The Wizard' describing how he became one:
I lived in desert Eastern lands
and, even more popularly, the stuttering song 'I'm Nervous' which he accompanied by an eccentric dance. The bulk of the lighter music, however, fell to the ever-popular Letty Lind who detailed the part of her life that was 'Confidential' and admitted 'I would rather Like to Try' in the first act before going on, in the second, to deliver the now expected zoological number. After the Gay Tomtit and the Interfering Parrot things came down to ground level for what was probably the best of the series, 'A Frog he Lived in a Pond'. Adrian Ross had clearly dipped into his classical background for this most Aristophanic-sounding of numbers:
A frog he lived in a pond, O!
The mixture of styles in A Greek Slave was highly attractive and it was made more so by the addition, a few weeks after the opening, of a new number for the rather underparted Rutland Barrington entitled 'I Want to be Popular', composed by Lionel Monckton:
A person who holds an official position
The song proved an excellent vehicle for topical references, and it grew and grew as the grim Pomponius thought up new measures which he might take, only to find they would not make him liked at all. The Dreyfus case was grist to the lyricist's mill, and the Czar and M. de Rougemont and many other prominent figures found themselves being used to make Pomponius popular.
But although A Greek Slave had, seemingly, got everything as right as possible, it never achieved the popularity of The Geisha. It held the stage at Daly's for twelve months, and went into a second edition with the usual ration of new songs and new dances, but in spite of all its virtues it never caught on in the way that its predecessor had. Perhaps audiences were not enchanted by ancient Rome in the way they were by Japanoiserie, perhaps it was a case of reaction after such an immense success immediately before, but A Greek Slave remained a splendid and profitable piece without becoming a true hit. It was long and widely toured and even revived by Jimmy White in 1926 with Jose Collins as Maia in a full-scale production which, partly due to its stars' inefficiencies, was not brought back to Daly's. However, it failed in America where its Herald Square production in 1899 lasted only 29 performances and seems unfairly destined in the long run to be remembered for not equalling The Geisha.