You are here: Archive Home > W. S. Gilbert > Interviews > The Newest Theatre in London
The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive   Gilbert Interviews



During the present year there will be many changes in the composition of the theatrical companies of the metropolis.  Mr. Hare and Mr. and Mrs. Kendal are dissolving their long partnership; Mr. Rutland Barrington will bid good-bye to the Savoy, to make his début as a lessee and manager at the St. James’s.  Mr. Clayton is dead, and people are asking who is to take his place.  Mr. Arthur Cecil would have been an ideal successor, but he says he has made £800 a year and has had enough of theatrical speculations.  Mr. Giddens has taken a theatre.  Mr. Wilson Barnett wants one.  It is said that Mr. Grossmith also hankers after a playhouse of his own.  Apropos of these changes, one of our representatives called upon Mr. Gilbert the other day.  Why?  Because Mr. Gilbert is building a new theatre, of which Mr. Hare has taken, or will take, a twenty-one years’ lease, and Mr. Gilbert’s opinions on theatrical construction are of particular interest to the public.  The famous playwright has had great experience of theatres, and being a man of strong views, with remarkable individuality, we naturally thought that he would not build a theatre without putting some of his own brains into it.  We were right.  Our representative found that Mr. Gilbert had some remarkable ideas respecting the construction of a theatre.  These we print below, together with some further conversation on one or two other little matters:—


"We have not as yet acquired the site, but Lord Salisbury’s promise is given, and we are now awaiting the decision of the Board of Works.  The theatre will be built on a vacant piece of ground behind the National Gallery; at least, that is the site for which we are negotiating.  I considered the position very carefully, as an investor naturally considers his own interests.  This theatre I regard merely as an investment, for I have no idea of turning manager myself, I can assure you.  At present there is a great demand for theatres, and when Mr. Hare happened to mention to me that he wanted to build a theatre I offered to build it for him.  You may have a very desirable theatre, but you do not always get a desirable tenant.  So much for the way in which the theatre came to be projected.


"It will be lighted throughout by electricity, which, in my opinion, is the only light that is safe.  For I maintain that a theatre which is properly lighted by electricity has a complete immunity from fire.  Suppose that, through an accidental ‘short-circuiting,’ the heated wires come into contact with the wood, they only char it, and if proper care is exercised in the installation short-circuiting is impossible."

"If I were asked for my opinion, I should strongly recommend that the adoption of electric light in theatres should be made compulsory by Act of Parliament.  It always seems ridiculous to me that while the outcry about exits is chronic, no one thinks of striking at the root of the evil, which is the use of gas behind the stage, where all the materials are of the most inflammable nature.  I believe that at one or two of the London theatres they have the electric light in front and gas behind, which certainly seems to me to be an inversion of the reasonable order of things.  Very little danger can come of using gas in the auditorium, whereas, on the stage, it is a never-ending source of danger."


"Mr. Hare and I are agreed that most careful consideration shall be given to the installation of the electric light.  When I lay stress on the light rather than the number of exits, please don’t run away with the idea that ample means of egression will be overlooked.  To begin with; we hope to have a six-foot passage running all round the theatre, so that isolation, even if it is only six-foot isolation, is secured.  One of the articles in my belief is that it is much safer in case of a panic to go up than down.  So I think a theatre partly underground is the safest form of construction.  My dress circle will be on a level with the street, the pit and stalls below the street level, the upper circle and gallery above it.  This is the arrangement at the Savoy, which, by the way, is the only isolated theatre in London; you can walk all round it, and there will be numerous exits."


"One of the chief points which will be considered will be the careful adjustment of the lines of the auditorium so as to get the greatest possible sight power.  Personally, I should be glad to dispense with private boxes altogether, for they are often empty, but many influential people still prefer the seclusion of the private box, so the private box must remain.  The really striking alteration which I contemplate is the exchange of footlights for a row of electric lights, lining the inside of the proscenium on both sides and across the top."


"Footlights, as at present constituted, throw a portion of the face of the performer into the shade, and this upward light has to be counteracted by a downward light from a set of lights at the top of the proscenium, and between the two contending sets of lights the actor’s make up is too strongly revealed, and to the actor himself the glare and heat of the footlights are not agreeable.  I find that many actors and actresses suffer from defective eyesight, which has been brought on by the glare of the footlights.  By means of my idea the hot and glaring row of footlights will be dispensed with, except as a standby in case of accident."


"Another improvement will be a new arrangement of flies.  As flies are made now they come almost up to the inside edge of the proscenium at each wing.  By the use of a double set of flies, one over the other, we shall be able to widen the stage by six feet on each side, which will be a great improvement. For we can then set larger scenes, and thus add to the illusion of the spectator.  It is also proposed to have an endless semicircular panoramic cloth, upon various sections of which will be painted blue sky, cloudy and tempestuous sky, night sky, &c.— each section being brought on to stage as it is wanted by a very simple mechanical arrangement."


To revert to the auditorium, it is interesting to know that Mr. Gilbert considers the man in the back row of the gallery the most important person in the house, and that gentleman will be glad to hear that his comfort and his ears will be consulted in the new theatre.  Mr. Gilbert is undoubtedly right in this opinion, for if the man in the gallery is uncomfortable, he is sure to make his dissatisfaction known in the most direct and unmistakable manner.  So when he is rehearsing Mr. Gilbert makes a point of trying all effects from the back row of the gallery.  It is the custom at the Savoy Theatre to record the temperature of all parts of the house, from the flies to the gallery, and it is a tribute to the coolness of the electric light that the gallery of Mr. Carte’s theatre is the coolest part of the house.


I suppose that every one in London has seen the wonderful scene on board her Majesty’s ship Pinafore, with its real masts, its real yards, its rigging correct in every detail, and all the equipment of a real man-of-war.  In devising this admirable representation of the deck of a man-of-war, which was made from Mr. Gilbert’s rough model, a new departure has been made in scenic art.  The wings disappeared, the canvas upon which the view of Portsmouth Harbour was painted being stretched like a screen from corner to corner of the stage.  In building the stage of his new theatre, Mr. Gilbert will so construct the back and wings that the scene can, if necessary, be stretched completely round the stage without showing any angles, as the Harbour scene did in the "Pinafore."  The mizenmast of the "Pinafore" had made five voyages to Australia; the wheel had guided a real ship through a real ocean.  The men who went up aloft were real sailors, and a real "bosun" was kept on the premises to see to the real rigging.  So much for realism.  The scene was never moved during the run of the piece.  I have only mentioned these details as illustrating the advance which has been made in scenic realism during the Gilbertian era.  For aught I know, the Pirates who are now appearing nightly at the Savoy are the real article.


So much for the new theatre, and now for the new actress.  Miss Neilson, who made her début on Wednesday afternoon at the Lyceum, did so at the request of Miss Anderson, to whom Miss Neilson was introduced by Mr. Gilbert.  Mr. Gilbert is flooded with applications for engagements and recommendations by aspiring young ladies and gentlemen.  "They come to me in shoals," said the playwright, with a sigh.  "I make a point of seeing them all, and if they are prepared with any recitation, I hear them recite.  But it very seldom happens that a novice shows sufficient promise to justify me in encouraging him or her to abandon a certain income, however moderate, for the lottery of the stage.  Miss Neilson came to me with a very strong letter of introduction from Mr. Joseph Barnby, and as I had faith in that gentleman’s judgment I looked forward with some curiosity to the interview.  I saw in Miss Neilson a young lady of commanding stature and very striking beauty—a type of beauty peculiarly suited to the stage, as it consists as much in expression as in feature.  The young lady took off her hat and ulster and began to recite the speech in which Galatea describes her vivification, and I saw in her at once--or believed that I saw—great and exceptional promise of future excellence as an emotional actress. She has much to learn, but she is endowed with a fine presence, a most musical intonation, a highly expressive face, and a singular breadth of gesture.  I think she will develop into a valuable actress in a few years’ time; at present she is nothing but a novice of a highly promising description."

Miss Neilson, a pupil of Signor Randegger, is also a very distinguished student of the Royal Academy of Music, having gained the Sainton-Dolby Scholarship, the Wilberforce Scholarship, the Llewellyn Thomas prize, a medal for elocution, and many other distinctions.  Her singing voice, a soprano, is extremely beautiful, but she is very young, and her instructors consider that it will not be in a condition to stand continuous usage for some two years to come.  She sings from time to time at the Albert Hall in oratorios, but at present the hard work of the operatic stage would try the endurance of her voice too severely.  And so it comes to pass that she is to be an actress.  Mr. Gilbert is so struck with the young lady’s abilities that he is writing an original play for her—an enormous favour, as every one in the theatrical world knows very well.


"Is it true," I asked Mr. Gilbert, "that there are to be no more new operas at the Savoy?"  "What! Have we quarrelled again?" queried Sir Arthur Sullivan’s collaborateur.

"They say so, Mr. Gilbert.  The old story—lies again, I suppose?"  Mr. Gilbert smiled a little sardonically, and told me that he had the first act finished of the opera, the scene of which is to be laid in the Tower of London.  Sir Arthur is now at work on the score.

Archive Home  |  W. S. Gilbert  |  Interviews

   Page modified 20 November, 2011 Copyright © 2011 The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive All Rights Reserved.