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From Nineteenth Century and After No. 96 (Nov. 1924)

THAT those who seek to entertain the public take their financial lives in the hands is a truism which needs no elaboration. At no time has the truth of this been more amply demonstrated than during the past year. Play after play, revue after revue, has appeared and rapidly disappeared, unwept and unhonoured, into the limbo of things which are best forgotten.

Many explanations have been given for this state of affairs by those principally concerned. Usually these are wrong, partly because it often happens that the inventors of these explanations know neither their business nor their public, and partly because of the considerable truth in the old adage about not being able to see the wood for the trees. The primary causes of theatrical failures are various. Among the most fruitful sources of disaster are the forcing upon the public of quite incompetent artists who have some financial or other interest in the production; and the too prevalent practice of allowing dancers to sing and singers to dance. Nobody would suggest that Mr. George Robey shook play Julius Caesar in the 'legitimate' manner; yet he would probably do this far better than many dancers sing and some singers dance.

Another principal cause of failure is the appalling lack of judgment manifested by some of those whose concern it is to select matter for production. One of this year's most successful plays was refused by no less than ten managers; but I do not suppose that any of these managers would admit that this is an indication that they do not understand their business.

I will not attempt to examine all the reasons which have been submitted to explain the poverty of theatrical business. These include the entertainments tax, daylight saving, broadcasting at Wembley, and the universal money stringency. Yet, in spite of all these causes, which operate against every theatre with equal force, the recent Gilbert and Sullivan season drew packed houses from start to finish.

The reasons for this are not far to seek. These operas are, generally speaking, artistically perfect. The artists are selected only because they are suitable for the parts they have to play. The production is contrived so that the play, and no individual performer, is exalted. The result is an entertainment which appeals not to one section, but to practically every section, of the public. These operas have thus a vast public upon which to draw, as compared with those other entertainments which by their nature limit their circle of support. There are plays for the lovers of sensation; there are spectacular productions for those who are impressed by display; there are intimate revues for those whose minds are attuned to current subtlety; there are clever plays for those who nourish their intellects, sometimes at the expense of their intelligence; there are 'whimsical’ plays for those whose vanity it is to affect comprehension of the incomprehensible; and there are fierce, primitive plays, and farces and tragedies and operas, all of which have their supporters.

In the work of Gilbert and Sullivan, however, will be found most of the ingredients which, make for success in all of these. There may be little of the sensational, yet interest is always sustained; there is a precision of production which is almost spectacular; there is an unexcelled wealth of subtlety and wit; and there is an originality, both in stagecraft and conception that has already earned a meed of immortality. ‘A Gilbertian situation’ will remain an idiom of the English language for as long as Messrs. Micawber and Pickwick, adjectivalised, remain to assist our labouring definitions of character.

It has been said that the music of these works is the vehicle upon which they will advance down the unending corridor of the years; and he would be rash who would contest this. The originality of Gilbert is only equalled—and, perhaps, even excelled—by the amazing versatility of Sullivan. An imaginative playwright has the universe from which to draw the elements of his play. Having made his selection, he places them in the crucible of his art, and in due season precipitates the compound upon the stage. He is limited, in fact, only by the resources of production and the skill of stage carpenters and electricians. A composer, on the other hand, is limited far more severely. Compass is, perhaps, one of his handicaps. It is of no avail to give a song a remarkable melody, if no one can sing it. Further, in writing music to a lyric, a composer is again restricted by a multitude of considerations. Yet Sullivan, whilst remaining characteristically and unmistakably Sullivan, is never guilty of unintentional redundance. If the ‘atmosphere’ of two lyrics is similar, the ‘atmosphere’ of the music is also similar. For example, the judge's song in Trial by Jury is in much the same vein as that of the Lord Chancellor in Iolanthe, and the music, being sympathetic to both is therefore similar in character without being in the least identical. In the first case, the judge is explaining how he reached the Bench (and incidentally delivering the useful phrase:

She'd very well pass for forty-three
In the dusk with the light behind her);

in the second, the Lord Chancellor is explaining how he went to the Bar. Both songs have a common 'atmosphere' lyrically which is perfectly admitted musically.

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