|W. S. Gilbert > Interviews > The Press, the Play, and the Players
INTERVIEW WITH MR W.S. GILBERT.
THE PRESS, THE PLAY, AND THE PLAYERS.
Mr W.S. Gilbert, the author of "The Fortune Hunter" and numerous other plays, the gifted writer of the Bab Ballads, and the collaborateur of Sir Arthur Sullivan, has been interviewed in Edinburgh by a representative of the "Dispatch." He came to the city to judge, by the reception accorded to "The Fortune Hunter" by a critical and cultured Edinburgh audience, whether the play was likely to prove acceptable to a London public; and last night he made his bow on the stage of the Theatre-Royal at the close of the performance.
Mr Gilbert, who is a genial, hearty gentleman, and a most interesting conversationalist, is now about sixty-one years of age, having been born in November 1836 in Southampton Street, Strand. He was educated at Great Ealing and London University, and afterwards read for the Royal Artillery, but the Crimean War coming to an end, he relinquished the idea, and studied for the Bar. While reading for the Bar he became a clerk in the Privy Council, and about that time was appointed captain of the Royal Aberdeenshire Highlanders (militia), with whom he spent annually a month in training. He first began writing for the stage in 1865, when he was twenty-nine years of age, and the manner of his introduction to the vocation which was to make him famous is not altogether uninteresting. T.W. Robertson had been asked to write a play for the St. James Theatre, but being too busy, recommended Mr Gilbert, who undertook to write a burlesque in ten days. This he did, selecting Donizetti’s "Elixir of Love," which he burlesqued under the name of "Dulcamara." Since that day he has written between seventy and eighty pieces, among which, of course, his operatic librettos stand out conspicuously.
What kind of dramatic work do you prefer, he was asked by his interviewer last night?
A blank verse play appeals most powerfully to me, because in every line I am doing all I know. In writing prose plays one is apt to let the pen be carried away by comedy scenes. When you have got to put everything into iambic form and to remember the high-sounding and grandiose conditions of blank verse you must honestly put your best into it. Blank verse always takes the best work out of me.
You have no great admiration for the problem play?
None whatever. In these so-called problem plays there is no problem whatever involved. I have a strong objection, too, to dealing with the seamy side of society in a play. It is not upon any high moral principle that I take this stand, but I object to having declassée women on the stage because I feel as a man of business that they keep more people out of the theatre than they put into it. They keep a number of staid, respectable, church-going, orderly, methodical British playgoers away from the theatre. What is worse, such plays also give these people a handle which they can use in their attacks upon the stage.
I have always understood you had strong views on the delicacy of dressing your plays, operatic or otherwise?
Yes. For exactly the same reason I would never have an indecent costume on the stage. I think it is bad policy to do that which will keep any important section of the community from the theatre, and which will afford that section reasonable ground for their attacks upon the stage as an institution.
To speak of your own work, now — which of the operas do you prefer?
I like "The Yeomen of the Guard" by far the best. It has most pretension to be considered a drama. It is more consistent, it contains no anachronisms, and it has a romantic story commenced and carried to its proper conclusion.
Although you like it best it was not the best paying of the series?
Oh, no! "The Mikado" paid the best, and "Iolanthe" came next in order.
Of all your dramatic work, which do you think the best?
"Gretchen" and "Broken Hearts," for into them I have put most of myself.
Miss Fortescue, who has brought "The Fortune Hunter" to Edinburgh, played in "Gretchen,’ did she not?
Yes; and in others of my plays — in "Dan’l Druce," in "Pygmalion and Galatea," in "The Wicked World," "Comedy and Tragedy," and "Palace of Truth."
Does it not occur to you that at the present day the numerous adaptations suggest a scarcity of British dramatists?
No it does not. The fact is managers cannot judge a play when they see it in manuscript. If Pinero writes a play and sends it to Sir Henry Irving, it is accepted, not because it is a good play, but because it is Pinero. If a stranger who may be a clever dramatist sends Sir Henry or Mr Tree, or anybody else a play it is not accepted, however good it may be, because they can’t judge. Your manager now a days crosses to France, sees a play that goes well, and how it can be slightly watered down to suit our censorious society, and immediately transplants it.
Then you have no sympathy with translations?
No! none! We ought to leave the French stage alone. They have good actors and atrociously bad plays. Their plays are much more analytical than ours, written for the most part in a quasi-Thackerian manner. Sardou’s plays elaborate character to such an extent that they might be pages out to Thackeray turned into French. Their actors, of course, can so speak and deliver speeches as to claim the attention of the audience, while ours, why, we have no actors who can make a thirty line speech interesting! Whoever heard in this country "all the world’s a stage" declaimed by a Jacques who did not in every line make it plain he had learned it off by heart. There is always the same dull monotony of delivery. Every living actor—Sir Henry Irving, Beerbohm Tree, Alexander, excellent though they may be otherwise, have that dull monotony of delivery. They keep to one note right through the sentence, and finish a semi-tone higher or a semi-tone lower as the case may be.
In what direction would you say dramatic taste lies to-day?
In the direction of musical comedy — bad musical comedy, in which half-a-dozen irresponsible comedians are turned loose upon the stage to do exactly as they please. These are our popular pieces.
Have these pieces cultivated the taste for music halls, or have music halls, would you say, cultivated the taste for musical comedy — of the bad type?
Musical comedies and the music hall act and react upon each other. If these comedians are not in a musical comedy they are at the halls, and if they are not in the halls they are in a musical comedy. The public see that clever comedian Dan Leno in a musical comedy, and they are inoculated with a taste for the halls, and so the disposition grows.
Then do you think the legitimate theatre, so called, is falling off?
The theatre is as strong as ever it was. At the moment, certainly, there are perhaps fewer original plays before the public than one would desire to see, but that is an exceptional phase. The press is largely responsible for the fact that there are so many adaptations on the English stage.
How is that?
Because they seem to draw no distinction between the production of an original play and the translation of a French one. When a boy I translated the works of the ancient Greek dramatists, but I have never considered myself the author of their works. I have always given Sophocles some credit for the writing of his own plays. It is the easiest thing in the world to call Monsieur Bertrand Mr Smith and Saint Cloud Richmond, and make your play into English. I myself twice translated French plays. On one occasion I sat up all night and did it, and I got about £3000 for it, one way and another. But I only consider it a potboiler.
And do you seriously mean that you blame the Press for the large number of adaptations on the British stage?
I do. I do not blame the actors and actresses. I blame the Press for considering them seriously as original work. Why, I hear Sydney Grundy put on the same level as Arthur Pinero, while the fact is that Mr Grundy is only a translator. He is a creditable translator, but to put him on the same level as Mr Pinero is a monstrous injustice. Remember, I do not wish, in saying this, to decry Mr Grundy in any sense.
Where do you think Mr Pinero is at his best?
In "The Magistrate" and "Dandy Dick," to which style I believe he will return. In wholly farcical plays he is at his best, and I like the quality of his work immensely. I think him a giant, but he finds his name bracketed with hacks.
Have you any further work in progress?
No! I will write no more plays. I mean to retire now. I am disheartened by the erroneous point of view from which criticisms are written in London. They never seem to dissociate the play from the author of the play. I am not complaining of bad criticisms. I have had plenty, and have learned much from them. But there is such a tendency to look upon the author of a bad or an unsuccessful play, not as a poor devil who has tried his best, but as a man who has committed an outrage against nature. The critics attack him as if he were a scoundrel of the worst type, and they go on at it week after week. I don’t feel disposed to put myself forward as a cock-shy for these gentlemen. I think it better to refrain from writing as I am not obliged to write. I prefer to work in a different groove where anything I may do will stand upon its own merits.
What do you think of your last work now playing in Edinburgh?
I think it has its faults, of course. Every play has. But I think it is very well acted, and that Miss Fortescue has got together a good cast. I want to take Edinburgh’s opinion on the play before taking it to London. I have not seen the play from the front myself, and I don’t intend to. Indeed, I have not seen a play of my own from the auditorium for twenty-one years. Save a performance at Carlsbad seven years ago.
Why was that?
It was "The Mikado," played in German, and some of my own characters I hardly recognised, save for five minutes at a time, when off they would go into the adapter’s bye-path, and I became profoundly interested in what would happen next. Pooh-Bah, in fact, quite interested me.
How many dramatic pieces have you written during the thirty years you have been engaged upon such work?
Seventy-five, and this is the only one which has been on my hands.
How much did you receive for your first work.
For Dulcamara I got £30 after asking thirty guineas, and when the money was paid I was told by the management never again to sell so good a piece for so little.
Mr Gilbert, who is staying at the Windsor Hotel, where also Miss Fortescue has her rooms, leaves for London to-day.
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