|W. S. Gilbert > Interviews > The Man, the Humorist, the Artist
William Schwenck Gilbert: The Man, the Humorist, the Artist.
With the single exception of Shakespeare, I doubt if any English playwright is so frequently quoted as Mr. W.S. Gilbert. Familiar quotations from his works creep into our daily talk, our daily papers, and even the plays — by other authors. He has given us phrases which no witty person’s vocabulary can afford to be without; indeed, his wit, in which quality no author of our time has been richer, has added to the gaiety of more than English-speaking nations. He has truly been a universal benefactor, for he has struck new veins of humour, which have set whole continents in a roar. Gilbertian humour, which is, one may believe, as distinctive and as classic as Rabelaisian humour, or the humour of Dickens, has proved as rich a find, in its way, as the gold mines of the Rand, and countless professional humorists have speculated and waxed fat upon it. So actually creative is it that when a man in real life comports himself in a whimsically incongruous fashion, we find the most comprehensive way to describe his conduct is to say that it is “Gilbertian.” And any comic playwright or librettist must nowadays be strikingly original to escape the same classification. It is overwhelming to think how much duller the world would have been, these last thirty years or so, without the immortal “Bab Ballads” or the Gilbert and Sullivan series of operas. It is almost as difficult now to imagine ourselves without these as it would be to conceive our lives without, say, the Essays of Elia, or the writings of Thackeray, or The School for Scandal.
But though Mr. Gilbert is first and foremost a humorist — a humorist with a keen intellect and the satirist’s faculty ever active — he is also a poet of exquisite fancy, a literary artist of consummate tact, and a dramatic craftsman who, by reason of his marked individuality of aim, method, and accomplishment, has for three decades stood entirely by himself among the playwrights of his day. Apart from his authorship of the “Bab Ballads,” the universal popularity of his comic opera libretti is apt to make one forget sometimes all that we owe Mr. Gilbert in the matter of comedy and drama. Yet it is a fact that during the twenty-four years which followed the production of The Palace of Truth at the Haymarket Theatre, his name was never once out of the bills of the London theatres — probably a record achievement. During that time his output included those inimitable farcical comedies, Engaged and Tom Cobb; those delightfully whimsical fairy plays, so rich in satire, The Wicked World and The Palace of Truth; that most theatrically effective of all plays of its kind, Pygmalion and Galatea — certainly Mr. Gilbert’s most popular play; that exquisitely tender poetic fancy, Broken Hearts; the gracefully sentimental Sweethearts; and the two most dramatic of all his plays, Dan’l Druce and Comedy and Tragedy. If Mr. Gilbert had never written a single one of his famous and incomparable series of operatic libretti, these few selected plays among his many would have placed the playgoing public largely in his debt.
And now, what of the man who has produced all this work and given so large a measure of entertainment to countless thousands all the world over? Like all pioneers and innovators and founders of schools — and no one will deny that Mr. Gilbert has been all three — he is eminently a strong man, a man of extraordinary independence of character, who can stand or pursue his way alone and never fear to insist on what he believes to be the justice of his cause, even to embroilment in a quarrel; although, on the other hand, he can be equally insistent in giving way to what he interprets as a consensus of adverse opinion. For instance, when, some ten or eleven years ago, the literary merits of his Brantinghame Hall did not prevent the Press from finding fault with it as a drama, Mr. Gilbert publicly announced his intention of writing no more serious plays and I, as I suppose many others of his admirers did, expostulated with him. His answer was: “You are in error in supposing that the adverse criticisms of Brantinghame Hall alone determined me to write no more serious plays. This is my sixth consecutive failure in that class of work, and I simply bow to what I take to be the verdict of the Press and the public.” In making this statement Mr. Gilbert had forgotten at least the great success of his Comedy and Tragedy, which, as he told me only a few weeks ago, has brought him many thousands of pounds. Nevertheless, such a resolution to do no more work for the public, of a kind that he thought it did not want from him, could have been formed only by a man of great sensitiveness, firmness, and strength of character, who did not fear to be misconstrued. But the author of the “Bab Ballads” and The Mikado and Broken Hearts could not be all stubbornness and strength; there is a lot of delightful human nature about him, and as a genial companion, when he is in the vein, and a kind friend, he is not to be beaten. His conversation is alive with charm and interest, for he knows his world thoroughly; he is a student of wide culture, he has travelled far with a searching eye for the picturesque and the archaeological, and his observation of men and women and their characteristics is as individual as it is keen and alert. Mr. Gilbert’s wit is not merely that of the amusing epigram, nor does it only make for “topsy-turvydom,” as many seem to think, but it plays upon all things like a searchlight, and its flashes often reveal truths as clear as the wisest sayings of the sages. Mr. Gilbert’s interests are of very wide range, and to talk with him at length is to discover an exceptionally interesting personality.
As a worker, Mr. Gilbert is a great believer in note-books — not small pocket-books, but fat, substantial, bound books, in which he jots down his ideas as they rise spontaneously in his brain. I have one of these books before me now, and a study of it shows Mr. Gilbert as one of the most systematic and painstaking of writers — as, indeed, one might judge from the finish and artistic worth of his work. In this particular book is revealed the evolution of Iolanthe from the first germ of the piece: “A fairy has been guilty of the imprudence of marrying a solicitor. She has been sent to earth on a mission, and has fallen in love with a prosaic lawyer of forty-five, quite a matter-of-fact person. She is consequently summoned, with her husband (who becomes a prosaic fairy from the fact of his marriage with her), into fairyland, and finally banished from it. Or, the solicitor (barrister), being the son of a fairy, is himself a fairy. He is in great request because he can influence juries. No one knows why, but his power over judges and juries is irresistible.” As one turns the pages one finds the idea of the plot freshly begun, altered, varied, and added to some twenty or thirty times, roughly written in jottings, and growing in scope of idea and action, gathering characters, incidents, and whimsical notions and speeches and suggestions for lyrics, as well as details of scenes and costumes, at each fresh writing; while the pages are dotted with clever and characteristic sketches of the personalities of the piece, as they suggest themselves to the author’s fancy. Some hundreds of pages are filled with these jottings, through which one can trace the piece growing and taking shape. One might write, from the study of these pages, an invaluable treatise on the art of composing a libretto. This book is rich also in ideas and suggestions for pieces which, doubtless, Mr. Gilbert has intended to write “one of these days” — delightful ideas, some of them; and it is possible to detect germs which he has used in some of his later pieces. If I were to begin to quote these, I should scarcely know where to stop, for to revel amid the pages of Mr. Gilbert’s note-book is a privilege so great that I enjoy it with a sense of selfishness. As I turn page after page that sparkles with his wit, fancy, and invention in their rough, unpolished state, I want to call in a sympathetic public to enjoy these happy thoughts with me. But, perhaps, we may yet see them taking stage form. There is a certain seventeenth-century sergeant with whom I should much like to come to better acquaintance.
When Mr. Gilbert has gathered all his ideas for a play, his practice is to put them into the form of a short story, which he writes as completely and carefully as if he intended it for publication, describing the scenes, the persons, their actions and their talk, according to the requirements of literary fiction. Then, having the story, with its development, clear in his mind, he proceeds to give it its proper dramatic form, using little to none of the dialogue he has written for the story, the manuscript of which has been promptly destroyed. With a brain so alert as Mr. Gilbert’s, it is not surprising that he can work very quickly. He told me that he conceived the brilliant little drama of Comedy and Tragedy in the few minutes occupied by the passage of a train between Sloane Square and South Kensington Stations. The late Miss Marie Litton, who was then manageress of the old Court Theatre, asked him to write her a short play, and he left her with the intention of thinking out something, got into the train, and the whole idea of the piece had flashed through his mind by the time the next station was reached. Miss Litton was delighted with the scheme; but, with becoming modesty, she considered it beyond her histrionic powers. So it awaited its chance until Miss Mary Anderson played it and made it famous.
In the matter of producing his plays, Mr. Gilbert has the reputation of being always extremely exacting and punctilious, while he is a stage manager of first-rate excellence and originality. His innovations in comic opera have been in the direction of refinement, beauty, and wit, his principle — in which, of course, he has been supported by Sir Arthur Sullivan — being to eliminate the element of “tights” for women, allowing only men to play the parts of men and boys, and also to abolish the excessive, and often vulgar, “gagging” practiced by the low comedians in opera bouffe of the French school.
As we walked about his beautiful grounds at Harrow Weald recently, watching the workmen engaged in the construction of a pretty lake — one of Mr. Gilbert’s latest hobbies — I lured him on to the subject of stage-production, although I believe he would much sooner have been talking about the means of getting the water supply for the lake, or the present condition of the Crimea, about which he purposes writing a book. But, knowing that Mr. Gilbert has always made a point of stage-managing his pieces in every detail, even from his very first piece, a burlesque on Elisir d’Amore, called Dulcamara; or, The Little Duck and the Great Quack, for which, also, he designed the dresses, as indeed he has done for all his pieces up to and including The Mikado, besides supplying rough sketches for the scene-painter to work from, thereby proving himself almost as fine a pictorial as he is a literary artist, I wanted him to talk about his methods, and he amiably did.
“In stage-managing my pieces,” said Mr. Gilbert, “I have always held that the principal actors — I mean those of considerable artistic position — are entitled to be consulted as to how their parts should be rendered, and I have frequently benefited very considerably by their suggestions. But I reserve to myself the right of veto — which, however, I do not think I have ever had occasion to impose, for I have invariably found that actors of position are only too anxious to carry out my wishes in every detail. With subordinate actors, it is, of course, ‘Do this, and he doeth it.’ When an impracticable suggestion has been made, I make a point of considering it, and of talking it over with the suggester, never rejecting it on the spot, but endeavouring to convince him that another course would be, on the whole, preferable, and I have found that this method answers admirably. With reference to ‘gags’ I am supposed to be adamantine, but this is not really so. I only require that when an actor proposes to introduce any words which are not in the authorised dialogue, those words shall be submitted to me; and if there appears to be no good reason to the contrary, the words are duly incorporated with the text. I consider that, as I am held by the audience to be responsible for all that is spoken on the stage, it is only right that nothing should be spoken that I have not authorised. Many ‘gags’ suggested by Grossmith, Barrington, Passmore, and others have rendered valuable services to my pieces.
“My method of stage-management is to go down to rehearsal with every detail prearranged and set down upon paper. I work out the scenes by means of small wooden blocks on a miniature stage, on a half-inch scale. The blocks representing men are three inches in height, those representing women two and a half inches, and each block is one inch in breadth. The blocks for the principals are variously coloured, while for the male chorus they are black, for the female white. The model scene is made exactly to scale in every detail, and I can thus readily ascertain how many people each platform or wing-opening will accommodate. Having every movement ready set down upon paper, I can easily rough through a whole piece in five days. Then I take the principals separately for a few rehearsals, while the stage-manager drills the chorus in accordance with the ‘business’ I have already arranged. By this means my ideas can be conveyed privately to the principals without causing them the annoyance of being told what to do in the presence of fifty lookers-on. Eventually principals and chorus are brought together, and, by that time, all have a general idea of what is expected of them, and rehearsals proceed in perfect harmony. Of course, the company have been thoroughly indoctrinated with the music before the stage-rehearsals are commenced.”
But this description of the elaborate care which Mr. Gilbert expends on the rehearsals of his comic operas does not adequately convey an idea of all his preliminary work. He thinks out all the minutest details of stage-business to accompany every line of his libretti, including each individual gesture and movement for principals and chorus throughout the piece. And all these details are written down, and in some cases printed (though not for publication), together with diagrams of the positions of the performers, as a practical accompaniment to the book of the play. Mr. Gilbert’s prompt-books are, therefore, perhaps the completest of their kind. Here is an example from the printed prompt-book of Iolanthe, showing how, even in the movement of the hands to illustrate the lyrical numbers, nothing is left to the chances of rehearsal, but all is deliberately designed beforehand — and set down with all the authority of type. “Note. — Whenever chorus sing ‘Tarantara,’ those singing the word bring right fist to mouth, as blowing trumpet. At ‘Tzing! Boom!’ action of violent blow on big drum, except when basses are described as speaking confidentially to each other. Throughout this scene, whenever chorus of Peers is on the stage, the disengaged hand is used to gather up the train of the mantle.”
With his long experience as a successful author and one of the eminent personalities of his time, Mr. Gilbert has naturally a fund of anecdote and reminiscence. It is interesting to learn, by the way, that the actress who has come nearest to his ideal of Galatea was Miss Mattie Reinhardt, whom old playgoers will remember in the ’seventies. But at the present moment Mr. Gilbert is enjoying a well-earned rest from the theatre — he is in “retirement,” as he says, and he devotes his time chiefly to the management and cultivation of his charming estate of a hundred and ten acres, which rejoices in the fascinating name of “Grim’s Dyke,” and is situated about three miles from Harrow Station. There he lives — practically in the heart of the country, yet within easy call of London town — the life of a country squire and a magistrate, bringing his earlier professional experience as a barrister to bear upon the administration of local justice. By the way, Mr. Gilbert told me rather an amusing story in connection with his present enjoyment of “leisured ease.” “The coachman of one of my neighbours,” he said, “was driving a week-end visitor to the station, and on his way they passed my lodge. ‘Who lives there?’ asked the gentleman. ‘Well, I don’t rightly know,’ answered the coachman, a new-comer, ‘but I believe he is a retired humorist.’ The notion of a professional humorist who had retired from business, and, no doubt, sold his fixtures, stock-in-trade, and goodwill, struck me as being funny, and moreover suggested the song I wrote for Grossmith in His Excellency, ‘The Retired Humorist.’” [sic]
It is a lovely home.Through the lodge gates the drive leads one past a spinney, where is much bracken, to the beautiful gabled house, once the residence of Mr. Frederick Goodall, R.A., but considerably enlarged since then. Fair lawns and an Italian garden stretch away from the house to where shady walks skirt the newly-made lake, with its alluring little island, and lead down to the romantic old dyke with its rustic bridges and dark pools and the bathing-place, near which stands an ancient relic of Leicester Square in the form of a mutilated statue of Charles II. Then from sloping meadows, where Mr. Gilbert’s cattle peacefully pasture, one looks over a broad and beautiful English landscape, which shows Windsor Castle on clear days. And as one strolls through the grounds, one sees acres of glasshouses wherein all kinds of choice fruits and flowers are cultivated, and a large monkey-house, where Mr. Gilbert keeps a dozen of his simian pets — he has a quaint and varied taste in animal pets, by the way — and spacious stabling. In time one may see a small theatre, for Mr. Gilbert contemplates building one for performances in aid of a cottage hospital in which he is actively interested. The house itself is full of beauty and interest, from the very entrance-hall where the gigantic model of H.M.S. Pinafore stands. Mr. Gilbert’s study is a luxurious room, suggesting hobby-pursuits rather than midnight oil, with several cameras standing ready for use, for the dramatist is an expert photographer. The large drawing-room, with its fine proportions, its minstrel gallery and its noble alabaster mantelpiece, might, like some of the galleries and nooks and corners, not forgetting what Mr. Gilbert calls “the Flirtorium,” have belonged to some old baronial hall. Not the least interesting of all is the billiard-room, around the walls of which hang the inimitable series of drawings which Mr. Gilbert recently made for a new edition of his “Bab Ballads.” Also there stand relics of famous Savoy operas, notably the specially cast bell that was tolled in The Yeomen of the Guard, and the grim headsman’s block and axe. And here Mr.Gilbert is at the moment preparing his next work — a labour of love — the book on the Crimea. It may not be generally known that in his youth the dramatist was destined for the career of a Royal Horse Artilleryman, but the Crimean War, which was exciting all his military ardour, came to an end before he could obtain his commission, and he gave up all idea of going into the army. But since then the Crimea has always been to him a kind of field of romance, and when he visited it last year he found, from his voracious reading on the subject, that every memorable spot was as familiar to him as if he had actually been there before. He found it pretty much as it was in the old war days, and he was even able to pick up relics of British soldiers among the scrub that has grown over the stricken field of Inkerman, while he saw, in the house that Lord Ruglan occupied, the name of Captain Ponsonby, one of the A.D.C.’s presumably, still legible on one of the doors. Mr. Gilbert proposes revisiting the Crimea in April, and thereafter we may expect the book which is absorbing his literary interest, and which will be unofficially illustrated by photographs taken by a Russian officer, since permission to use his own photographic skill was denied to Mr. Gilbert, although invoked in the highest quarters.
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