|W. S. Gilbert > Interviews > Collaborating with Sullivan
Collaborating with Sir Arthur Sullivan: A Chat with Mr. W.S. Gilbert.
"It is a matter of general public interest," said a representative of CASSELL’S SATURDAY JOURNAL to Mr. W.S. Gilbert, at his house in Prince’s Gardens recently, "to know how you collaborate with Sir Arthur Sullivan in the construction of a comic opera — that is, whether the words are written first or the music, and your methods of proceeding —"
"Oh," said Mr. Gilbert, seeing the lines his visitor had adopted, and making further questioning quite unnecessary, "I suppose we do it pretty much as any other two persons would who collaborate. In the first place, we arrange a meeting and I propose a subject, which, if entertained at all, is freely and fully discussed in all its bearings. Assuming that the broader lines of the plot have been thus settled, I write a scenario of fairish length — say twenty-six to thirty pages of foolscap — and this is subjected in its turn to a fresh discussion, and as a consequence, a second, third, or even fourth version of the scenario may be rendered necessary. Those passages and situations Sir Arthur thinks unsuitable to musical treatment I either modify or perhaps eliminate altogether. If I find that his difficulties or objections in any way knock the keystone out of my plan I tell him so, and he in turn yields a point or two.
"By this mode of procedure it will be readily perceived that there is some degree of give and take. Before a final plan is decided upon, we may meet several times and gradually remove such obstacles as are likely to cause any hitch in the future harmonious blending of the dialogue and music.
"When the ground has been so far cleared, I begin the numbers of the first act, and send him two or three of them at a time until the first act is completed. In this way he becomes familiar with it by slow degrees. The manuscript I send him contains none of the spoken dialogue, but only those words that are to be sung. I, however, insert between each number an outline of the dialogue that is to connect them, so that he may follow the exact drift of the plot, and fully understand how the musical situations are arrived at."
It was unnecessary for our representative to ask what it occurred to him to ask, for Mr. Gilbert answered the question by anticipation, saying —
"While Sir Arthur is composing the music for the first act I am working on the second. He first finishes the choruses and concerted parts of the entire act, and leaves the solos until the last, often composing the last one first, and the first last, as the fancy strikes him. When the opera is about half-finished, we begin with the selection of the company, and at the same time continue writing. The composing and writing take about six months, and the rehearsals two months, when once they seriously begin."
"After making your selection of a company, do you sometimes find it necessary to dismiss any of the members on account of their inability to give due expression, either to passages of pointed language or to those of the music?" was the next question; to which Mr. Gilbert replied —
"I can’t say I remember ever having to dismiss one person for incompetency in all the experience I have had. True, we sometimes get a timid or nervous individual, and in such a case I usually ask him to come here, and run over his part with him three or four times, to show him my idea of it. This relieves him of any embarrassment he might feel at rehearsal, and such a man, far from being incompetent, often turns out to be one of the best of the smaller members of the company. We seldom make a mistake, for experience has given us the knack of making advantageous choices. In recent years, whenever we add to the London company, or supply an empty place, it is usually from one of our companies that make tours in the provinces."
"How much smartness and epigram, in your opinion, Mr. Gilbert, are permissible in stage-pieces? As you have probably noticed, several authors have latterly been using a large amount of ‘brilliant’ dialogue in their plays."
"The character of the dialogue," said Mr. Gilbert, "should, as a matter of course, depend upon the personages who have to deliver it. To put polished epigrams into the mouth of a stable-boy would be as inconsistent as to decorate a beggar girl with diamonds. At the same time one is little disposed to cavil at really brilliant dialogue, wherever it may be found. It is a very rare commodity, and we are not likely to be over-laden with it."
"There is another question of interest that I should like to ask — Why you have been so continually and universally successful for so many years?’ One pauses in asking it, because an author might naturally think, ‘I succeed because my plays and librettos are clever,’ and yet not care to say so himself."
"Intellectual cleverness has very little to do with it," replied Mr. Gilbert. "A knowledge of stage-craft, and the faculty of laying on one’s colours with breadth and discretion are, in my opinion, the keynotes of success. If I were capable of writing intellectual dialogue of a high order, I should use that power very rarely, and I should administer such dialogue in homœopathic doses, for it would be absolutely wasted on nineteen-twentieths of the audience. The press would be particularly severe upon me — they always resent anything that is (to them) incomprehensible. My usual course is to assume that I am writing for the edification of a sensible but somewhat stolid individual, to whom everything must be made perfectly clear and distinct. Such a man is a fair type of an average English audience.
"Everything that is said or done on the stage should have immediate effect, not require long reflection to be understood, otherwise many in the audience would be perplexed and wrapped in study instead of enjoying themselves. I take it, my plays have become popular because everyone can understand them. To perplex an auditor is more than enough to irritate him. The satisfaction of being understood at the moment is more practically gratifying than to be ignored during one’s life and to win honours and recognition after you are dead."
"It is to be hoped that you and Sir Arthur Sullivan intend jointly to add more comic-operas to the number of your present works."
"Yes," said Mr. Gilbert, "we have already begun one; that is, I am at work upon the scenario, and that means, in the ordinary way, that the opera will be ready for next autumn."
"Of course it would be out of place to ask, at this date, what is to be the nature of the plot?"
"That is, I needn’t say, a secret. If the subject were to leak out it would very likely be anticipated, and we should then lay ourselves open to the charge of having copied our copiers."
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