|W. S. Gilbert > Interviews > Gilbert, the Librettist
GILBERT, THE LIBRETTIST.
The Great Humorist at Home – How the Famous Collaboration with Sullivan Began – His Own Estimate of His Works.
[Special Correspondence of the Transcript.]
LONDON, Jan. 18.
Gilbert, the dramatic author and librettist, is a big, athletic man, and what is unusual in a large-framed person, quick in his movements, rapid in speech, sudden in ideas and hasty in temper. He is a nineteenth-century example of the human electric machine, which is apparently co-equal in age with the telephone, the incandescent light, and the electric train, which is run by an engine miles away from it. When Gilbert says good-by there is no lingering, he gets out of the room with such despatch that he reminds one of the magician’s “vanishing lady.” In going up-stairs he is not satisfied with taking two steps at a time, but generally takes three. When he picks up anything, the action resembles sleight-of-hand. An accident or an incident happens half a mile away and he is sure to see it; in fact nothing, far or near, escapes his alert detective eyesight. He smokes his cigar like a steam engine, puffing at full speed. He can eat his dinner in fifteen minutes and will walk a mile while you are putting on your overcoat. He is a peaceable man ordinarily, but if you are eager for opposition, or want more worlds to conquer, attack him, and it is likely you will be kept active for the time being. In other words, it may as well be allowed that he is something of a testy wit. He has for thirty years knocked about this world, first being educated for the army during the Crimea, in which his parents, believing that the war would last some time longer, hoped he would win glory as an officer, but by the time his military education was completed the war was flagging, and soon after drew to an end. He served sixteen years in the Royal Aberdeenshire Highlanders (a militia regiment). During this later period he also studied and practiced law. But his own account of his legal life is most amusing, for although he was in earnest, and was admitted to the bar, laboring diligently, a series of ridiculous incidents seemed to pursue him through the better part of his career as a lawyer.
Besides being a soldier and a lawyer, Gilbert became a yachtsman, a home-farmer, a cattle fancier, a sportsman of the hunting field, an amateur actor and a ballad writer, as well as an author of plays and librettos. Mr. Gilbert has a parrot, as remarkable a bird as was ever blessed with a coat of fantastic feathers. This parrot is a sailor, a genuine sea-dog — not a common sailor, but a true British tar with not an “h” to his name. When Mr. Gilbert is writing, his parrot snuggles up under the lapel of his coat. If you run in on him by chance and Gilbert gets up to greet you, at the moment the parrot looks out from under his coat and roars out in a prodigious, husky, bass voice, “Ip! Ip! ’oorah!!!” — For twenty years, one or more of Gilbert’s plays or operas were perpetually on the stage of London, nor was the spell broken until about two years ago, soon after the severance of the partnership between him and Sir Arthur Sullivan.
Gilbert gives a droll account of his first meeting with Sullivan. It was during a rehearsal of one of his own pieces entitled, “Ages Ago.” At the time he was engaged upon “The Palace of Truth.” One of his characters — Zoram — is a musical impostor. Gilbert, by the way, is unable to whistle an air in tune. In telling the story himself he said, “I was obliged to make Zoram express his musical ideas in technical language, so I took up my Encyclopædia Britannica, and turning to the word “harmony,” selected a sentence and changed it into sounding blank verse. Curious to know whether this would pass muster with a musician, I said to Sullivan (who happened to be present at the rehearsal), ‘I am pleased to meet you, Mr. Sullivan, because you will be able to settle a question which has just arisen between Mr. Clay and myself. My question is whether when a musician who is master of many instruments has a musical theme to express, it is as perfect upon the simple tetrachord of Mercury, in which there are, as we all know, no diatonic intervals whatever, as upon the more elaborate disdiapason, with the familiar chords and the redundant note, which I need not remind you embrace all the single, double and inverted chords.’ Sullivan reflected for a moment, then asked me to oblige him by repeating my question. I did so, and he replied that it was a very nice point, and he would like to think it over before giving a definite answer. That took place about twenty years ago, [sic] and I believe he is still engaged in hammering it out.”
When Gilbert writes he never leans over a desk, but sits in a long leather chair, props his feet up on a stool, and writes on a pad. The number and variety of his works is very great, ranging from Pygmalion to Ruddigore. He used to spend most of his time at his house in Kensington, but the last few years he has lived mostly at Graemes Dyke — his countryhouse, which is near Harrow, and about nine miles out of London.The place is an old one, but the royal academician, Mr. Goodall, rebuilt the house some years before Mr. Gilbert bought it. It stands on a terrace, and is a large, rambling structure, built from designs by Mr. Norman Shaw, R.A. From every point of view it is a fine piece of architecture, with some fifteen or sixteen graceful gables, and a number of handsome Elizabethan windows set in huge stone frames, The Dyke, which is spanned by several ancient arched bridges, has flowed through the rushes and tall watergrass for two thousand years, having been cut by the Romans. A massive stonewall runs along one margin of the Dyke and is reflected in its waters. The house overlooks this wall and the Dyke beyond it. It is surrounded by a hundred and ten acres. This land is laid out in a park that is full of picturesque corners and pools of water, small forests and romantic nooks. From one point can be seen the fine old chapel and buildings of Eton College, and beyond, Windsor Castle, rearing its ancient battlements high into the sky. The space between spreads out in many colored fields cut up in squares and triangles by green hedges, giving the prospect a resemblance to a New England patchwork quilt.
The following question was asked Mr. Gilbert a few months ago, “How is it, Mr. Gilbert, that you have been so universally successful for so many years? but one pauses in asking the question, because an author might naturally think, ‘I succeed because my plays and librettos are clever,’ yet not care to say so himself.” This is Mr. Gilbert’s answer: “A reply in my case, to what you ask, need by no means make one appear conceited. On the contrary, I am not ambitious to write up to epicurean tastes, but contented to write down to everybody’s comprehension. For instance, when I am writing, I imagine it is entirely for one particular dull individual not quick to grasp an idea; so I make nothing long and explanatory, but short, sharp and clear. If I can carry my point through a dullish head there will certainly be no difficulty in making it clear to a clever one. My idea is that what is said on the stage should have immediate effect, not requiring long reflection to be understood. It would be a pity for an author if an auditor did not see the points of his play and began to laugh at the fun next day. While such a performance was going on, many in the audience would be perplexed, instead of enjoying themselves. I believe my plays have become popular because everybody can understand them. To perplex an auditor is to irritate him. It is well for your great man of genius to labor for fame, but he has his disadvantages. It seems from some points of view, the comfort of being understood at the moment is as pleasant, or more so, than being neglected during one’s life and winning honors and recognition a few hundred years after you are dead.” Gilbert says that the audiences of today have less taste for really fine things, which he describes as high living, and care more for beefsteak-and-onion plays. Except “The Palace of Truth,” “Pygmalion and Galatea,” “Gretchen,” “Broken Hearts” and a few more, Gilbert confesses all his other plays are of the beefsteak-and-onion order, and that is what, in his belief, made “Pinafore” and all his comic librettos so popular. These are the dishes for which the public has been willing to pay so much that Mr. Gilbert is now a man of large fortune. Gilbert’s idea of the Deity is very original, not to say amusing. According to his belief our Maker regards us as puppets. He pulls one string and we laugh, another and we dance, still one more and we weep. It all means very little, but it serves to amuse the great Creator.
A few years ago Gilbert and Sullivan quarreled, but during the spring of 1894 [sic] the rent was patched up, and a new comic opera was begun between them. But some ill-wind has interrupted the harmony that existed, for a few days ago Gilbert produced his new work entitled “His Excellency,” with music by F. Asmond [sic] Carr; and Sir Arthur Sullivan produced his opera entitled “The Chieftain,” with words by F.C. Burnand. It now decidedly looks as if the most popular author of light librettos, and the most popular composer of light music of our time will never pull together again. They would be welcomed heartily, no doubt, if they would call a truce, if only for eight months — it takes them about this length of time to begin and finish one of their works — and together complete one more of their comic operas. Mr. Gilbert has recently suffered severely from gout, and gout is no smoother of the temper. Sir Arthur Sullivan has not been a well man for some years. These two deplorable facts explain much. An occasional attack of gout and undermined health are not the lively parents of a breezy, joyous, rolicking [sic] opera.
Gilbert always has a ready answer. A few summers ago Gilbert and a few friends were rowing on the Thames, near Cookham. As they paddled along with the current some one in the boat said, “Look! What a pretty bijou residence!” “Yes,” said Gilbert, “and here comes the she-Jew over the lawn, and that’s the he-Jew over there under the trees.”
Gilbert’s last book of words, “His Excellency,” has evidently not been a great success, but it is whispered that his next book, which is to appear before the spring, will “astonish the natives” (of London) even more than “Pinafore” did.
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