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The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive   W. S. Gilbert 1836-1911


From The World 19 May 1880, pp. 4 - 5

'IF you will let me advise you as a friend,' said the magistrate, 'you will not take out a summons against this cabman; it will give you a great deal of trouble, and your time is valuable.'

'I am greatly obliged by your counsel,' replied the dramatist; 'but the man has been insolent, and has tried to be extortionate.'

'Never mind that, Mr. Gilbert: think of your valuable time.'

May I remind your worship that I do not prosecute cabmen as a means of livelihood.'


This short scene gives a better idea than pages of description of the keen wit and agile intellect of the inventor of what may be called the Ironical Comedy—that curiously crisp and original creation so well fitted to the spirit of the day; but it will supply no adequate conception of the extraordinary fertility of his nimble mind. Rarely does a question fail to suggest a reply to Mr. Gilbert of a strange freshness and brightness. Let his friends talk of any problem—for instance, the taste of the play going public. He opines that the play will be most successful which conciliates the largest proportion of the audience. There is nothing, perhaps, very new in this idea, but its expression is completely novel. Mr. Gilbert does a sum in addition. There is the man in the stalls who pays ten shillings, the balcony occupier who pays six, the first-circle man who pays four, the second-circle contributor of two, and the 'god' who pays one. There are thus five persons, who together pay twenty-three shillings, the average of which shows that the intellectual point at which the author's shaft must be shot is somewhere between the balcony and the first circle, neither ignoring the stalls nor forgetting the gallery. If it is suggested to the author of Sweethearts that London and New York are towns cursed with noises which, in their collective power of torture, rival the traditional odours of Cologne, he is at once ready with a theory. Imperfect man, in his earlier stages of development has dwelt mayhap on the planets Mercury and Venus. Arrived at a higher stage of development, he now dwells on the earth. His eyes, the most perfect of his organs, are supplied with eyelids, which can be closed against unpleasant sights; but, in his present stage, he is unprovided with earlids and noselids, appliances to be looked for on promotion to Jupiter and Saturn. When the New York reporter prints the result of an interview with the author of H.M.S. Pinafore and the Pirates of Penzance, and makes Mr. Gilbert say 'ide-ah' and ' appe-ah,' he takes him to task, and tells him there and then, on the island of Manhattan, that he is a 'foreigner' speaking English as a foreign language, and that, instead of ridiculing the pronunciation of English gentlemen, he should endeavour to imitate it, and thus bring his own defective accent nearer to perfection.

Like many men who have made their mark in dramatic and other literature, Mr. Gilbert comes of a literary stock. His father, Mr. William Gilbert, the author of the Inquisitors and other novels, wrote the story on which the drama of Mary Warner was founded by his friend Mr. Tom Taylor. Mr. Gilbert himself was called to the Bar, and, pending that accession to dignity, was, a clerk in the Privy Council Office, where he, like Mr. Tom Taylor in his official days, wrote much 'copy' upon Government paper. For several years he was diligently employed in writing and drawing for newspapers and magazines, and, among other noteworthy works, produced the Bab Ballads, illustrations as well as letterpress. Meanwhile he produced many pieces for the theatre, including Dulcamara, played at the St. James's Theatre in 1866, Randall's Thumb, Creatures of Impulse, and the Princess. It was in the latter work that he first displayed on the stage that ironically comic vein perceptible among the broader fun of the Bab Ballads The leading motive of the ironical comedy must be sought in the idea that it is much more comical to bring an apparently serious personage on the stage and to make him utter the most bizarre and extravagant sentiments than to produce him at once in the exaggerated 'make-up' beloved of low comedians. That a comically made-up judge, with a great red nose and 'pantomime' wig and robes should appear on the stage and do ridiculous things is only natural. The keynote of extravagance is already struck, the audience are prepared for, and expect as their due, something funny. But it is different when the judge has nothing unnatural in his appearance, and yet utters the drollest sentiments. To the fun of the situation and language is added the important element of surprise. This idea prevailed in the Palace of Truth, in Pygmalion and Galatea, and in the Happy Land, as well as in Engaged and the musical pieces to which Mr. Arthur Sullivan has lent his potent aid. In the beginning Mr. Gilbert's new theory of fun met with but scant appreciation among those selected to interpret it. The, reason of this difficulty is obvious. It had become almost a stage tradition that the actor was at once to take the audience into his confidence. If a low comedian, it was expected of him, it was supposed by his peculiar audience: and his individuality, as evinced by well-known tricks and gestures, also went, as he thought, for a great deal. At least, the secured his 'laughs.' Mr:. Gilbert found himself obliged to stem this tide of opinion as best he might. For the purpose of the ironical comedy it was, above all things necessary that the actor should appear unconscious that what he was saying or doing was funny. He was to play his part in good faith, and let the amusement of the audience arise from the incongruity between his manner and appearance and, his acts, words, and deeds. In Pygmalion Mrs. Kendal seized the idea perfectly, as did the young lady who played the Scotch lassie in Engaged, and Miss Marion Terry when she ate the tarts in the same amusing play. It is, perhaps, not easy to utter the oddest lines without betraying some consciousness of their strangeness; but the inventor of this method has succeeded in many cases in getting his intention fairly carried out. There is, and has been for some time past at least, no opposition to his view from the artists who represent his pieces. For the most part they display the best intention, and if they do not exactly catch his idea it is from no want of good-will.

This grasp on manager and company, as well as public has not been gained without immense labour of various kinds. Like the survivor of the captain and the crew of the Nancy brig, Mr. Gilbert has absorbed in himself the functions of manager, stage-manager, scene-painter, author, and actor. His method of procedure is worthy of study, as he pursues it in its earlier stages at his house in the Boltons, an oasis of South Kensington, and the centre of a kind of artistic colony; or on board of his yacht, the Pleione, a schooner of sixty-three tons, quite used to the sea, for she made voyages to the Black Sea and Iceland before she became the property of her present owner. On board the Pleione Mr. Gilbert writes his piece—that is, performs the smallest part of his work with infinite comfort. His great collie-dog, Roy, lies down at his elbow; and as the Pleione slips along, ideas follow swiftly enough. Blank verse, a favourite medium of Mr. Gilbert, comes easier afloat than ashore. The author of Pygmalion is strongly in favour of verse composition. Prose is well enough in its way; but blank verse compels severe attention, and rhyming verse is most precious on account of its suggestiveness. 'Why Pinafore?' it is asked, as fresh cigars are lighted; 'what a neat and lucky name.' 'Pinafore,' the author explains, 'was suggested entirely by the rhyme. 'Three cheers more,' sung when the gallant captain comes on board, must have something to rhyme to it. 'Semaphore' was the first idea; but this was subsequently set aside for 'Pinafore.'

Work does not go on quite so rapidly at the Boltons as on board the Pleione; for there are interruptions. Afloat there can be no letters or messages, no appointments, no people craving for 'five minutes,' no rehearsals. Happily for the human race, no monster has yet invented a telegraph for keeping a yacht in perpetual communication with the shore. But the Boltons is not far from theatres, and quite within easy reach of the pillar-post, near which stands that valuable policeman 'at fixed point,' whose aspect scares brass-bands and barrel-organs from the neighbourhood. Ambulant musicians drove Mr. Gilbert from his previous residence to the green shades of the Boltons; where no offensive sound jars upon the ear save the distant tolling of the bell at Brompton Cemetery. This would not be in itself serious disturbance, as Mr. Gilbert points out, if it were not his destiny to write comic rhymes; but it is very difficult to indite the lines of the 'Monarch of the Sea' or the 'Modern Major-General' to the accompaniment of the passing-bell. So there are double windows to the library of his pleasant house, in which absolute silence may be enjoyed. Opposite the window, looking on to the lawn, already marked out for lawn-tennis, sits the master of the snug little domain, mainly occupied, according to appearances, in getting through his quantum of a dozen and a half cigars a day, and only now and then writing down a line or two, or making a correction in that which is already written. His method of working is entirely opposed to that growing in favour every day. The opinion is now held that literary work to be good should be done the first thing in the morning; that the scribe should rise about five or six o'clock, light his own fire, make his own coffee, and in the chill gray of the morning distil such eloquence, logic, and wit as his brain may he able to produce. The author of the Bab Ballads will have none of this, and does very little actual writing by daylight, preferring very much the midnight oil, or rather that burnt between eleven at night and three or four in the morning. But the mere writing is, in his opinion, the smallest part of his work.

When he was just now compared to the survivor of the Nancy brig, some little injustice was done to him; for he is the builder as well, and has jut now laid the keel of a new craft. For the edification of the many aspiring souls whose dream is of dramatic fame, it may be well to show the process of building. launching, and sailing such skittish vessels as H.M.S. Pinafore. The first thing the author does is to take a little rest, to let the last work blow clear out of his brain; the next, is to avoid writing anything. In cabs and railway carriages, aboard ship, or during quiet strolls in the Park, the motive of the new venture shapes itself out. The story is indispensable. That must, according to the nature of the dramatic work, excite either interest or amusement. No brilliancy of dialogue, no skilful elaboration of character, will supply the want of a story, serious or comic, as the case may be. Convinced of this, Mr. Gilbert lets his story be moulded in the odd hours of the day or night, until it becomes coherent. Then the prosy part of the work commences. First of all he writes the plot out as if it were an anecdote—the condition in which his forthcoming work at present is. This covers a few quarto slips of copy and is written very neatly, almost without correction, so perfectly are the main lines settled before anything is set down. The next proceeding is the more laborious one of expanding the anecdote to the length of an ordinary magazine article by the addition of incident and of summaries of conversations. This being carefully overhauled, corrected, and cut down to a skeleton, the work has taken its third form, and is ready to be broken up into acts; and the scenes, entrances, and exits are arranged. Not till its fifth appearance in manuscript is the play illustrated by dialogue, which, it is hardly necessary to say, is not written 'end on' from the rising of the curtain to the fall thereof. The important scenes are first written, and then these brightly-coloured patches are gradually knitted together, as it were, by the shorter scenes. All this must be carefully done, and, in the case of a musical piece, with due reference to the requirements of the composer. At this stage the work is ready for Mr. Sullivan's collaboration, and all begins over again. A song, on which Mr. Gilbert has expend some labour, may happen to be in a metre too nearly resembling one which Mr. Sullivan has previously 'set,' and must therefore be rewritten. Again, the composer has his ideas as to the order of chorus, song, and duet, and wishes that at some juncture a sentimental air could be grafted on the comic stock. Mr. Sullivan is so sound a musician that he loves to introduce at least one serious air, such as the charming madrigal in the Pirates of Penzance, which is here the great musical success of the piece, while in America its presence was resented as 'out of place in a comic opera.' While the collaborators, who appear to have been made for each other, are at work on a new piece, they literally turn night into day, discussing, writing, and rewriting, as they go on. Mr. Gilbert's everlasting cigar and his colleague's perpetual cigarette keep burning on, while a decision is being arrived at whether the Sergeant of Police shall have a song with or without a chorus, and whether the madrigal shall stand where it is or be transposed elsewhere.

When everything is settled, Mr. Gilbert appears in quite another character, as a scene-painter and stage-carpenter. He actually plots out whole scenes, and models them so exactly, that no scope is left for the imagination or the blundering of the workman. Before H.M.S. Pinafore appeared the author went down to Portsmouth, was rowed about the harbour, viewed various ships, and finally pitched upon the quarter-deck of the Victory for his scene. Having obtained permission, he sketched and modelled every detail, even to the stanchions. This matter of the scenery is a serious one. It must be pretty, and attractive; but not so cumbrous that, like a delicate wine, it 'will not travel.' When a comic opera is intended to be played by three companies in England and four in the United States, it must be endowed with scenery which will bear carrying from place to place, and will look well in any theatre. Mr. Gilbert also designs most of the costumes worn in his plays. This work was not necessary for the ladies' dresses in the Pirates of Penzance, as they are strictly modern; but when producing the piece in America, there was no little difficulty in getting the dress of an English major-general made by an American theatrical clothier. Play, scenery, and costumes being arranged, and actors and actresses fitted with parts adapted to their various capacity, next comes the difficulty of stage-management. Mr. Gilbert's views on this subject are as autocratic as those of M. Victorien Sardou or Mr. Dion Boucicault; and by dint of insistence he has acquired as much influence over any company intrusted with his play as even the last-named gentleman, who, in his triple character of manager, author, and actor, may not be said nay to by the most obdurate of low comedians. Mr. Gilbert holds that he is most vitally concerned; for if the piece succeeds, the whole company and establishment succeed; but that if it fails, it is 'Gilbert's piece' that has failed, and not its representatives. Hence he insists, except in the case of artists of high rank in their profession, that the characters shall be played according to his own idea. On the rank and file he imposes his commands, and drills them with marvellous patience. Not only at the theatre at set rehearsals, but at his own house, he devotes hour after hour to ' going through the part' with dense but docile artists—willing, yet slow, to learn.

Perhaps Mr. Gilbert is the busiest man without bustle in London. He never writes unless he feels impelled to that exercise. He will not be driven, and has far too many strings to his bow to be compelled to work for publisher or manager on any but his own terms. He insists that, when a piece of his is put in rehearsal, he is the pilot of the ship; but on every other subject he is prepared to talk, as very few men of the law can talk in a strain of cheerfully ironical banter. His house is full of Hogarth's work; yet he declares that he surrounds himself with Hogarth because the success of that painter encourages the belief that any shy human being may aspire to immortality. For the older masters his admiration is very sincere. His library and dining-room are adorned by charming drawings by Volterra, Saracel, Watteau, and one magnificent Salvator Rosa, whom he reveres as the prince of scenic artists. In the dining-room is a charming portrait of Mrs. Gilbert by Alfred Weigall, and a wonderful picture of the Dutch school. Taking the house in the Boltons as it stands, it is, without any affectation of æstheticism, the abode of persons of culture and refinement, a tone not belied by the pleasant society gathered there for the practice of lawn-tennis on these fine spring afternoons. At such moments the host, albeit always ready with an apt remark, is too intent on the enjoyment of his guests to deliver his views at length on things in general. It is as the claret passes, or later yet, while the smoke rolls through the library, that he displays in abundance that delicate kind of humour so peculiarly agreeable to the spirit of to-day, averse from demonstrativeness and deaf to protestation. Its satire is neither harsh nor bitter, but gently and pleasantly sub-acid. There is in it not a suspicion of the sledgehammer swung by Juvenal, Despreaux, Churchill, and Hogarth. It is neither the flail of Dryden, the straight cut-and-thrust of Ben Jonson, nor the rapier of Molière and of Pope. It is perfectly suited to its generation. It is the dainty thrust of the highly-tempered Solingen, which shivers or doubles up against the heavy plastron of dullness, but gently tickles the diaphragm shielded only by that lightest of fencing-jackets—a good opinion of oneself, fortified by a moderate estimate of others.

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