|W. S. Gilbert > Interviews > Fallen Fairies
SIR W.S. GILBERT ON THE NEW SAVOY OPERA.
All but thirty-seven years — the date was Jan. 4, 1873 — have flown since J.B. Buckstone drew a nugget from the theatrical lucky-bag in the shape of "The Wicked World," described on the Haymarket playbill as "an entirely original fairy comedy, in three acts and one scene, by W.S. Gilbert." And at the present moment all theatrical London is looking forward expectantly to the production at the Savoy, on Wednesday next, of the new version of the once-famous play which the author has prepared in collaboration with Mr. Edward German. Before "The Wicked World," which ran 200 nights — "a very good run in those days," as Sir W.S. Gilbert truly said in conversation yesterday during a band and chorus rehearsal of the new piece — he had written "The Palace of Truth" and "Pygmalion and Galatea," and all three works, as the author reminded the present writer, were designed to show that it was quite possible to write a modern play which preserved the ancient dramatic unities of time and place.
"The Wicked World" was written in blank verse. So, too, is "Fallen Fairies." In fact, the "book" of the new Savoy fairy-play will be found to be practically identical with the text of the old Haymarket fairy-play, save that the librettist has compressed the last two acts into one, and afforded the composer abundant opportunities in the shape of lyrics (of the genuine Gilbertian pattern) for the exercise of his musical grace and fancy. In some material respects the work will prove to be quite different from anything its author has previously given the Savoy public. We all, of course, cherish the remembrance of his fairies in "Iolanthe," in their deliciously incongruous surroundings. But his fairies to be seen next week, though in one sense they "fall," do not descend to Mother Earth, but are seen in far less prosaic environments — "Cloudland," to wit — and for it Mr. Harker has painted a really beautiful scene, which becomes even more beautiful in the second act, when it is revealed by moonlight. Sir William Gilbert himself described the work yesterday as "a light comedy, with a thread of sentiment running through it," and added that "in the second act the humour broadens, but merges towards the end into strong drama." "In fact," he said, "it is a combination of comedy and drama such as I have never attempted before at the Savoy, but there is, of course, plenty of humour in the opera, for which Mr. Workman, who appears in Buckstone’s part of Lutin (a serving fairy), will be mainly responsible."
PLOT OF THE OPERA.
A sketch of the "plot" will, perhaps, serve best to indicate to a generation of playgoers unfamiliar with "The Wicked World" the nature of the new opera. The fairyland imagined by the author of "The Mikado" is a place
But the sweet and serene peace and content in which they dwell is destined to be rudely broken. It happens this wise. Each of the fairies has his or her own counterpart in outward form on earth, and there is a law which decrees that whenever a fairy quits his home in cloudland to visit earth, the absent one’s mortal counterpart is summoned "from the wicked world below" to fill his place till he return. So it comes to pass, by a typically Gilbertian device, that two mortals suddenly appear in the aerial regions in the place of fairies who have been sent on a mission to terra-firma. The manner of their appearance is somewhat startling, for Sir Ethais and Sir Phyllon are Hunnish knights who find themselves precipitated into cloudland whilst engaged in a desperate sword combat. The situation may be taken, perhaps, as symbolical of the discord and dissension which the coming of the pair brings in its train. The fairies, headed by their queen, Selene (the character played at the Haymarket by Mrs. Kendal), set about reforming the rude mortals. But instead of reforming them, they only succeed in becoming themselves demoralised, and practical acquaintance on their part with what mere mortals understand as love only serves to engender a spirit of rebellion and strife, and to lead to envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness. Selene falls head over ears in love with Ethais, a quite unworthy being, as events prove; another fairy, Darine, speedily becomes jealous, and a climax is reached with the deposition of the former and the crowning in her stead of her rival, whose enthronement gives rise to one of the most picturesque, dramatic, and musically effective moments in the whole opera. For the rest, Wednesday’s audience may be left to consider for themselves what becomes of the intruding knights on their visit to fairyland, and in what manner peace and happiness are eventually restored to its unsophisticated inhabitants.
Conversing with the representative of The Daily Telegraph, while the chorus and orchestra were being taken by Mr. German through some of the delightful and very characteristic numbers which he has written for "Fallen Fairies," Sir W.S. Gilbert recalled the production of the original Haymarket version, and described some interesting reminiscences. When "The Wicked World" was produced there was a prologue, which had to be spoken by Buckstone in front of the curtain. Unfortunately the famous comedian suffered from a defective memory, besides being very deaf, and for the life of him he could not remember the words of the prologue. The prompter’s voice failed to reach him, and so the actor was hardly able to complete a single line of the verses without going up close to the wings and repeating the words after the prompter. "It was a hopeless fiasco," said the author, recalling the incident, "but fortunately Buckstone remembered his lines right enough once the play was started."
Buckstone’s deafness reminded Sir William of another chapter in the history of "The Wicked World." Its production at the Haymarket, while greeted by public and Press alike with enthusiasm, excited in one particular critic, who was suffering apparently — like the author’s fairies — from "an overweening sense of righteousness," feelings of profound disgust. His notice, consequently, which appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette, described the piece by such epithets, among many others, as "coarse" and "foul." This was not the sort of réclame desired by the author, who therefore promptly entered an action for libel. Among other things, it appeared, the critic objected to the sentence in the play, "I go to that good world where women are not devils till they die." Then, on moral grounds, he took strong exception to the incident wherein one of the stalwart knights is nursed by the Fairy Queen in her bower. ("What," remarked Sir William, with a twinkle, yesterday, "would be thought of that in these days of first aid to the injured?") Sir Henry James (now Lord James of Hereford) appeared in the action for the plaintiff, and Sir John Karslake, Q.C., for the defendants. Buckstone’s cross-examination at the hands of the latter proved distinctly diverting by reason of the witness’s deafness. He could only follow what the plaintiff said, and so there was nothing for it but for the latter to act as interpreter and repeat every question as it was put to him in the witness-box.
The result of the action (which was tried before Mr. Justice Brett, afterwards Lord Esher) might fairly have been called "Gilbertian," for the jury in their wisdom found that both the play, which had been read in court--"in a very mechanical manner," as the author recalled--and the offending notices were innocent. And returned a verdict for the defendants.
NO MALE CHORUS.
Sir William Gilbert, it may be said, does not fear to be denounced as "coarse" or "vulgar" by any critic who goes to the Savoy on Wednesday. Personally, he is delighted with the state of affairs as disclosed at rehearsal. As in the joyous Savoy days of old, he has superintended every detail, down to the minutest, of the production, and has not only instructed each member of the clever Savoy company in the gentle art of speaking blank verse, but has inspired every movement, pose, and detail of "business."
He mentioned a very curious and interesting circumstance in connection with the music of "Fallen Fairies." Years and years ago he conceived the idea of an operatic version of the old Haymarket piece. To Sullivan, as a matter of course, he communicated it. That was twenty years ago. But there was an objection — and, in Sullivan’s opinion, an insuperable one. The librettist’s scheme was for an opera without a male chorus. His singing fairies were all to be feminine, and required no companions of the opposite sex. But Sullivan would not hear of it. Strangely enough, in after years the author approached various composers, English and foreign, with a view to collaboration in the work. And always with the same result. That is, with a single exception — Edward Elgar, who offered no reason for his refusal — they one and all declined the honour of collaboration on the same ground. The list included Sir Alexander Mackenzie, Massenet, Messager, and Madame Liza Lehmann.
"Yet my view was," said Sir William, "that an opera without a male chorus would possess an extraordinary beauty of its own, whatever the technical difficulties in the way of providing contracted tone-colour, and I was determined at the first opportunity to put the experiment to the test. In Mr German I found a ready coadjutor, who at once took to the idea, and worked at it enthusiastically. Listen to this chorus (he added) and tell me if you have ever heard a finer body."
Certainly the writer had no hesitation in endorsing the encomium, and he was interested in learning that many of the chorus who are to be heard at the Savoy next week have never before faced the footlights. Some of them have been recruited from the Royal Academy of Music, others from the Royal College, and others, again, from the Guildhall School. "They were all selected," said the Savoy dramatist, "for their good voices and their good looks. The composer decided in the matter of their voices. I had the say as regards their looks. And I may tell you that when an applicant appeared with a very beautiful voice I willingly waived the question of her appearance. Similarly, when she had a beautiful face, the composer for his part gave in to me. And so we met on common ground." Where would you find a pair of collaborators more conciliatory or ‘sweetly reasonable’?
But if Sir William objected to a male chorus he entertained an objection equally strong towards a tenor. He would not hear of a tenor at any price, subscribing to George Eliot’s dictum that "when God made a tenor he spoilt a man." Against tenors in general, he tells you, he has no prejudice. "But they never can act and are more trouble than all the other members of the company put together. In fact, the tenor has been the curse of every piece I have ever written." And so, in the new opera, the baritones, Mr Claude Fleming (whose fine voice made so excellent an impression in The Mountaineers) and Mr Leo Sheffield, will have things all their own way where the love-making is concerned. That laughter will come in their train when they initiate Sir William’s artless fairies in the reprehensible delights of kissing may readily be taken for granted.
These fairies, it will be found, present a radiant vision. To quote the author again, "their dresses are the most extraordinarily beautiful things I have ever seen on the stage. Mr Percy Anderson, who has designed them, has fairly surpassed himself, and has given the fairies quite wonderful rainbow-tinted silks, and headdresses suggestive of huge insects with antennae, and diaphanous wings — the whole design suggesting a sort of glorified dragon-fly."
With the performance as it has shaped at rehearsals the author is quite delighted, and particularly does he have high hopes, histrionically as well as vocally, of Miss Nancy McIntosh, who returns to the Savoy after an absence of some sixteen years. It was in "Utopia" that she made her bow to the stage, taking the principal soprano rôle susequently — at the Lyric, in 1894 — in Gilbert and Osmond Carr’s "His Excellency." The artist herself, it may be mentioned, is delighted with her part in the new opera, and spoke in particular yesterday of a beautiful song allotted to her in the first act, and a madrigal which, she said, will recall the best Savoy traditions in this line. As for Mr. Workman, he has in Lutin a character after his own heart, and naturally feels thoroughly at home in its quaint and whimsical Gulbertian humours. With the chorus the author expressed himself finally in terms of the highest praise and satisfaction. "Their enthusiasm and energy," he said, "can only be described as touching."
When the writer was taking leave of the Savoy librettist the chorus were showing their quality in a number which only the composer of "Merrie England" could have penned, and which, like other fragments which he heard yesterday, is clearly marked out for instant popularity. If "Fallen Fairies" realises the anticipations of its author, he will turn his attention, it was interesting to learn, to an operatic version of his famous "Palace of Truth," with the co-operation again of Mr. Edward German.
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