|W. S. Gilbert > Interviews > Real Conversations
Real Conversations. Recorded by William Archer.
Conversation V. – with Mr. W.S. Gilbert.
SCENE: The Library at Grim’s Dyke. TIME: A July Afternoon.
Discovered, Mr. W.S. GILBERT. To him enter W.A. At the same moment a strange, half-human little cry is heard from the direction of the fireplace.
W.A. (startled, turning). Dear me! what is that?
Mr. Gilbert (stroking a small grey animal with bright eyes and a bushy tail, curled up on a cushion in a red morocoo easy-chair). This? Oh, it’s a ring-tailed lemur from Madagascar.
W.A. The voice sounded almost like a child’s.
Mr. Gilbert. He very seldom makes a remark. As a rule he watches what is going on and keeps his opinions to himself.
W.A. He is a pretty little fellow.
Mr. Gilbert. He has none of the mischievousness or the dirty habits of the monkey. That’s why we keep him in the house instead of consigning him to the monkey-cage.
W.A. And this is his chair, is it?
Mr. Gilbert. Well, it’s really my chair; but he thinks it’s his.
W.A. (as two dogs come in from the lawn). You are fond of animals? I should think you have very good shooting in all that "forest primeval" I have just driven through.
Mr. Gilbert. It is a little strange — isn’t it? — that "fondness for animals" should instantly call up the association of "good shooting." No, I keep that little stretch of woodland unreclaimed because I think it makes an effective contrast to the trimness of the garden. As for shooting — I have a constitutional objection to taking life in any form. I don’t think I ever wittingly killed a blackbeetle. It is not humanity on my part. I am perfectly willing that other people should kill things for my comfort and advantage. But the mechanism of life is so wonderful that I shrink from stopping its action. To tread on a blackbeetle would be to me like crushing a watch of complex and exquisite workmanship.
W.A. I don’t think I ever kill anything that is not actively making itself objectionable to me. What little shooting I have done has been almost entirely unassociated with the taking of life — I have not even bagged a beater. But I should have fewer qualms about shooting than, for instance, about fox-hunting. I know there is a theory that the fox enjoys his little run with the hounds; but —
Mr. Gilbert. I should like to hear the fox on that point. The time will no doubt come when the "sport" of the present day will be regarded very much as we regard the Spanish bull-fight, or the bear-baiting of our ancestors.
W.A. Your sympathies, then, were with Galatea when she called Leucippus a murderer for killing the fawn?
Mr. Gilbert. Not altogether. The term "murderer" implies a "guilty mind." Leucippus "never dreamt that he should hit her at so long a range." He shot idly, but "his aim was truer than he thought it was."
W.A. You warned me that I might possibly be shocked by your views about the drama. Well, I have been bracing myself up all the way here. What are the heresies that are to take my breath away?
Mr. Gilbert. Oh, "shocked" was too strong a word. Only I take it you are rather a believer in the "new drama" and in dramatic progress; whereas I am, naturally perhaps, inclined to be a bit of a laudator temporis acti. Understand me — I don’t at all want to disparage the excellent work that is done nowadays. Only I sometimes feel like entering a little protest against the unmeasured depreciation one sometimes hears of the plays which used to give one so much pleasure in the ’sixties and thereabouts. Oh yes — I know what you are going to say: they were often adaptations from the French — and even if they were not announced as such, you could never be quite sure.
W.A. And you don’t think that a desirable state of things, do you?
Mr. Gilbert. Morally, no — certainly not. When I was a youngster I translated (under compulsion) some of the tragedies of Æschylus, but I have never, on that account, claimed to be the author the Seven against Thebes.
W.A. But artistically you approve the old state of things?
Mr. Gilbert. Well, there is no denying that a good French play — such a play as A Scrap of Paper — or a good English play on the French model — Tom Taylor’s Unequal Match, for example — had a neatness, an ingenuity, a finish that I miss in a great deal of latter-day work. The modern playwright is rather apt to huddle up his action anyhow in his last act. He works up to his great effect in his third act (if it is a four-act play) and leaves his fourth act a sheer anti-climax, sometimes introducing a thinly-disguised deus ex machinâ to cut the knot. There is nothing easier than to write a good first act, and even the heightening of the complication in the second act is not very difficult. The dramatist’s real problem is, and must always be, the solution in the last act. Now, in my time a skilled playwright would usually begin by constructing his last act, and having that clear before him,--just as you would set up a target before shooting at it. Doesn’t that strike you as a rational proceeding?
W.A. In the abstract, no doubt; but does it not depend a little on the theme whether a play is capable of being brought to what you may call a conclusive conclusion? Where the action is not purely external, but depends on character or raises an ethical issue, it can rarely be rounded off quite satisfactorily, unless it is death that rings the curtain down.
Mr. Gilbert. What do you call a "purely external" action?
W.A. Well, for instance, one that turns on the finding or losing of a scrap of paper, or on the tracking of the thief who stole a document from a dispatch-box. In these plays of Sardou’s — at any rate in their English dress — no question of character or conduct, of wisdom or unwisdom, of right or wrong, is raised for a moment. There is simply a puzzle to be solved, and the moment that is done the play is over. How seldom in real life do happiness and misery turn upon such a simple problem as this!
Mr. Gilbert. True; but in real life no curtain descends to tell you that the story is at an end. In point of fact, in real life the story never does end. Certainly it never ends with a marriage. But in constructing a play I hold that you are not justified in interesting your audiences in the adventures of a group of personages, unless you are prepared to furnish those audiences with some information as to what becomes of that group.
W.A. Have you seen Mrs. Dane’s Defence?
Mr. Gilbert. No, I was abroad while it was running.
W.A. Well, there Jones had a subject not quite unlike Sardou’s in Diplomacy; but just because he put more humanity, more half-shades, more character into it, he could not finish it off with the mere discomfiture of the wicked woman. The audience would have rebelled, I am sure, if he had brought down his final curtain on the great scene of the third act. Felicia Hindmarsh was too human — in a sense, too sympathetic — to be simply sent packing out into the night without more ado. He had to write a fourth act, if only to attenuate in some degree the violent and painful effect of the third act. That is to say, art demanded an anti-climax.
Mr. Gilbert. I quite admit that there is respectable precedent for the anti-climax. Look at The Merchant of Venice! Look at The School for Scandal! Look at nearly every "classical" five-act comedy! The last act is, as a rule, merely perfunctory. But I don’t think it ought to be. A good many recent plays, otherwise of great ability, seem to me to come to a helpless, makeshift, essentially feeble end. I cannot think that that is sound art. I don’t like to see a thing left at a loose end. I confess to a preference for finished form, even if the form, and perhaps the play itself, was borrowed from the French.
W.A. Perhaps I am a fanatic, a chauvinist; but I own I have a horror of adaptation. I think every country ought to hold its own mirror up to its own nature.
Mr. Gilbert. You would rather have a bad English play than a good French play?
W.A. Not precisely that; but I would rather have no play at all than a French play tortured into English dress. Not that I haven’t taken great pleasure in many adapatations from the French, especially of farces, and what you may call fairy-tales. A pleasant fantasy in French may remain a pleasant fantasy in English, like your own Wedding March, for instance.
Mr. Gilbert. Now, there was a thing that simply flowed from its French into its English form. I had only to reduce it from five acts to three. How long do you think it took me to write that? Just a day and a half — and it brought me in £2500!
W.A. Under these circumstances, I can understand that adaptation has its charms. Grundy, too, has made a very fortunate dip into the Labiche lucky-bag in his Pair of Spectacles — a delightful play.
Mr. Gilbert. Oh, delightful — and then he had the advantage of John Hare’s exquisite, Meisonnier-like acting.
W.A. Of course, I am not so fanatical as to object to such plays as these. I think, if you will let me say so, you were better employed in writing Engaged and Tom Cobb than in adapting Le Chapeau de Paille d’Italie; but, after all, the English drama could spare you for a day and a half.
Mr. Gilbert. But you must not speak as though all the plays of the period you look down upon were French, or even of the French school. There was nothing French about T.W. Robertson’s best work, for instance; yet he managed to make it neat and finished, with effective last acts, and no loose ends hanging about.
W.A. You can always finish off a pure comedy neatly — with a marriage; just as you can finish off an out-and-out tragedy neatly — with a death or a general butchery. But the typical modern play sets forth to imitate life, in which pure comedies and out-and-out tragedies are the rarest things possible. As for Robertson, he was a very remarkable man, and his work was in some ways epoch-making; but don’t you think most of it seems very slight and trivial nowadays?
Mr. Gilbert. Robertson was an exceedingly skilful dramatic tailor. He knew the stage perfectly, and he knew perfectly the company he had to write for — the then Prince of Wales’s stock company, which varied very little. He fitted each character with the utmost nicety to the man or woman who was to play it; and he was there to instruct them in every movement, every emphasis. But when these parts are transferred to other actors who knew not Robertson, the very nicety of their adjustment to their original performers is apt to render them misfits. I think that accounts in great measure for the comparative ineffectiveness of his plays in revival — their charm was so largely dependent on Robertson’s personal inspiration.
W.A. He was a great stage-manager, was he not?
Mr. Gilbert. A great stage-manager! Why, he invented stage-management. It was an unknown art before his time. Formerly, in a conversation scene for instance, you simply brought down two or three chairs from the flat and placed them on a row in the middle of the stage, and the people sat down and talked, and when the conversation was ended the chairs were replaced. Robertson showed how to give life and variety and nature to the scene, by breaking it up with all sorts of little incidents and delicate by-play. I have been at many of his rehearsals and learnt a great deal from them.
W.A. Still the fact remains that, though he invented an admirable mechanism for realistic drama, and pointed the way for the whole new movement, his plays themselves now seem exceedingly slight and empty.
Mr. Gilbert. Not Caste — surely you except Caste?
W.A. Yes, Caste is a fine play — all but the terrible Marquise and her Froissart. The last act is really great.
Mr. Gilbert. Robertson knew it was his masterpiece. I remember meeting him one day when he had just conceived the idea of the play and was quite full of it. He poured forth the whole story to me as we walked along, and I told him how good I thought it. He was busy with something else at the moment, and could not settle down to write it; but he said to me, "I pant to begin that piece."
W.A. Poor fellow! What a pity success came to him so late, and death so early!
Mr. Gilbert. And then another thing that Robertson did — or at least, that his comedies did — was to establish the system of touring companies. Personally, I lament the extinction of the stock companies, for they were a rough-and-ready school in which young actors learned their profession and justified their promotion to the London Stage. A young member of one of the stock companies had, sometimes, to play a hundred and fifty parts in the course of a year. Now, a beginner is sent "on tour," and perhaps has to say, "My lord, the carriage waits," for a year and a half. He gains nothing by that, except his salary — and not always even that. Still, I think the touring system, though it has its drawbacks, has something to be said in its favour. For one thing, it has quite altered the status of the dramatist, by immensely enhancing the value of a successful play. What with provincial rights, American rights, and colonial rights, one or two successes now make a man practically independent, place him above the necessity of doing hack work like the adaptations you detest, and enable him to give time and thought to his work, and scope to his ambition.
W.A. Excuse my saying so, but, except on some purely technical points, I don’t think you are a laudator temporis acti at all. On the contrary, I think you take a very liberal view of the theatrical situation.
Mr. Gilbert. Oh, I am far from denying that there has been progress in many ways; and I admire as much as you can a great deal of the work of such a man as Pinero. Indeed, I know there has been progress, by a very convincing proof — namely, that I find myself left altogether behind.
W.A. Not left behind, surely, — your energies have been diverted into another channel than that of comedy and drama.
Mr. Gilbert. That is partly the fact; but it is true, none the less, that I have been left behind. On the one or two occasions when I have returned of late to prose drama, I have found that the public did not care for my work. They were accustomed to something different, and no doubt something better. Most of my earlier work is forgotten by theatre-goers, who have learnt to look upon me simply as a writer of light libretti. They regard any attempt on my part to write seriously as they would regard an attempt on the part of Mr. Passmore to play Hamlet. It is convenient to "label" an author, and I am labelled "cynical librettist." Woe to me if I attempt to show that, in labelling me with so narrow a definition, audiences and critics are in error!
W.A. I wonder, if you are not drawing too large a conclusion from one or two experiments? At any rate, I am sure that if you had stuck to the non-musical stage, the non-musical public would have stuck to you. But I do think — pardon the pertinacity of my optimism — that if you were now beginning your career, you would find the circumstances more propitious to serious work than you did in the ’sixties and ’seventies. It was you yourself — was it not? — who complained in those days of the tyranny of "the young girl in the dress-circle." Well, the young girl in the dress circle has — shall we say grown up? — in the past twenty years.
Mr. Gilbert. It is a mistake to suppose that I ever complained of the influence of the "young girl in the dress circle." It is to her that I attributed the fact that most of the plays produced in the ’sixties and ’seventies were sweet and clean. I have always held that maxima reverentia is due to that young lady. I am so old-fashioned as to believe that the test whether a story is fit to be presented to an audience in which there are many young ladies, is whether the details of that story can be decently told at (say) a dinner-party at which a number of ladies and gentlemen are present. I put forward this suggestion with diffidence, for I am convinced that it wil not be received with approval. Nevertheless, I have always kept this test well before me in writing plays, and I have never found myself inconveniently hampered by it.
W.A. Still, I shall always feel that, as regards serious drama, you were in advance of your time. Other people could write serious dramas; you alone could give us Trial by Jury, Patience, and The Gondoliers. Whether you admit the dramatic revival or not, you were one of the prime movers in it. You restored the literary self-respect of the English stage.
Mr. Gilbert. Oh, come! there was a great deal of admirable work done in extravaganza before my day.
W.A. Before it, yes; but in your day, so far as I know, you were alone in the power of giving literary form to comic verse. It was not that the others — Farnie, Reece, even Byron — had less metrical skill than you had: practically, they had none at all. They could not write a tolerable verse to save their lives.
Mr. Gilbert. I cannot admit that this applies to Byron, who sometimes wrote excellent verse. Some of the burlesque writers of his day were not very strong in metrical form, I admit; but they made up for it by comic invention and inexhaustible, infectious high spirits. Look at Burnand, for instance — it was impossible to resist the effervescent drollery of his burlesques. Here, again, I think you critics of to-day are apt to speak with disproportionate contempt of an order of things which you saw, perhaps, only in its decadence. Not to speak of Planché, such men as Frank Talfourd, Albert Smith, and Robert Brough were extremely ingenious burlesque-writers.
W.A. Robert Brough? Was he "clean Brough" or "clever Brough"?
Mr. Gilbert. "Clever Brough," decidedly. His brother William was "clean Brough." And then think of the actors who used to appear in burlesque in those days! All the best comedians of the time — Charles Mathews, Buckstone, Compton, James Bland, John Clarke, James Rogers, Marie Wilton, Mr. and Mrs. Frank Matthews, Alfred Wigan, Patty Oliver, Robson, and many others.
W.A. It would be absurd to imagine, of course, that any form of entertainment that was so popular as mid-century burlesque could be entirely without merit. I know that Planché wrote gracefully enough. Some of his extravaganzas "let themselves be read" even now with pleasure. You are right, too, in suggesting that my horror of burlesque arises mainly from the monstrosities of its decadence — the "three-act burlesque dramas" that made the Gaiety lugubrious in the days of the "sacred lamp." But nothing you can say in praise of your predecessors alters the fact that your Opera Comique and Savoy extravaganzas did us three great services: they substituted original invention for parody, for the wanton degradation and vulgarisation of historic or legendary themes; they set up a very high standard of versification in the lyric numbers; and they substituted polished prose for the doggrel dialogue of the old burlesques, bristling with idiotic puns.
Mr. Gilbert. There again, are you not a little intolerant? Surely there are puns and puns, and a good pun is no such bad thing. There was often an exquisite neatness in the puns of Albert Smith, of Talfourd, of Brough. I remember one of Albert Smith’s, for instance: where Orson, the foster son of a she-bear, you know, is mourning the decease of his foster-mother, he says something to this effect:
That’s what I call a perfect play upon words. Then, again, in Planché’s Invisible Prince the hero, Don Leander, recalling the incidents of his boyhood, says:
Again, in his interview with the fairy Gentilla, Leander says:
These, taken at random, seem to me to be perfect in their way/
W.A. Oh, yes; Planché had a very delicate art in word-plays; and by dint of perpetually punning — seizing upon every possible jingle that came in their way — his successors contrived now and then to hit on something really clever. But, as a rule, does it not strike terror into your heart to look at a page of an old burlesque, with its violent eruption of italics, forcing the puns upon the reader’s notice? For example:
That’s a very favourable specimen of Byron’s style.
Mr. Gilbert. Byron could do much better than that. But I suppose the punning burlesque became decrepit in its old age, as every literary form must, sooner or later.
W.A. You gave it its quietus with a bare bodkin — of wit. And you performed that service — thank goodness! — not only to burlesque, but to French opera-bouffe.
Mr. Gilbert. Without going into the question how far that is true — it is certainly a very sweeping statement of the case — I cannot but ask your optimism whether it regards the "musical comedies" of to-day as a great improvement either on the "three-act burlesque drama," or on the French opera-bouffe, whose death you are good enough to lay at my door. There is a parable — is there not? — about an evil spirit which, being cast out, returned with seven other spirits more wicked than himself.
W.A. Assuredly I am no devotee of "musical comedy." As for comparing it to French opera-bouffe in French, that would be wildly absurd. The operettas of Meilhac and Haléy are marvels of wit and vivacity; but think of French wit and vivacity filtered through the medium of Mr. H.B. Farnie! These things are utterly untranslatable — they become at best like uncorked champagne, at worst like champagne spilt in the gutter. Better The Belle of New York, any day, than Meilhac and Halévy rewritten by Reece and Farnie. The other day I came across your own translation of Les Brigands — excellently done, of course, but how flat in comparison with your original work!
Mr. Gilbert. That was my one experiment in opera-bouffe, and it was a purely perfunctory translation to secure copyright. It was never intended for the stage, although, by an oversight in my agreement, it found its way there twenty-five years after it was written.
W.A. Then, comparing the modern "musical comedy" with the old burlesque, you must admit that there is one point in which it has a marked superiority — again thanks to you. The men who contribute the verses to our "musical comedy" have never fallen quite away from the standard of versification which you set up. Their lyrics are very different from the awful doggrel of the old burlesques and of the worser sort of opera bouffe adaptations.
Mr. Gilbert. There I quite agree with you. In general, the versification of these pieces is excellent. Mr. Adrian Ross, for example, is a most ingenious rhymer — so are Captain Basil Hood, and several other writers of light verse. These two gentlemen have, moreover, a cultivated ear for rhythm. The fact is that in their librettos, as in mine, the natural order of things is followed — the librettist provides the verses for the musician, instead of having to adapt his words and his rhythms to music already written by Offenbach or Lecoq.
W.A. I should think it is very seldom that an air originally written to French words can be fitted with English words that run in any recognised English measure — the metrical systems of the two languages are so utterly different.
Mr. Gilbert. Oh no — you can very often set a quite regular English stanza to a French air. The first verses of mine I ever saw in print were a version of the French laughing song from Manon Lescaut, which I did when I was eighteen at the request of Madame Parepa, who was then singing at Mellon’s Promenade Concerts. She had the translation printed on the concert-programme, and I can perfectly remember standing in the "promenade," or pit, and seeing a man reading the verses as Parepa sang them. "Ha!" I thought, "if he knew that the person standing at his elbow was the writer of these lines, how thrilled he would be!" My subsequent experience teaches me that he would have received the information with fortitude. The thing was a laughing-song, and went like this:
and so on. The French original ran thus:
You see the English is in strict metrical form, yet exactly reproduces the rhythm of the French, I afterwards used the same air and words in my "respectful perversion" of Tennyson’s Princess.
W.A. Now tell me — if you don’t mind — did you invent all the inexhaustible variety of rhythms in your operas, or did the suggestion for any of them come from Sullivan? I mean, did he ever say to you, "I have an idea for a song in something like this measure" — and hum a stave to you?
Mr. Gilbert. No, never. The verse always preceded the music, or even any hint of it. Sometimes--very rarely — Sullivan would say of some song I had given him, "My dear fellow, I can’t make anything of this" — and then I would re-write it entirely — never tinker at it. But of course I don’t mean to say that I "invented" all the rhythms and stanzas in the operas. Often a rhythm would be suggested by some old tune or other running in my head, and I would fit my words to it more or less exactly. When Sullivan knew I had done so, he would say, "Don’t tell me what the tune is, or I shan’t be able to get it out of my head." But once, I remember, I did tell him. There is a duet in The Yeomen of the Guard beginning:
It was suggested to me by an old chantey I used to hear the sailors on board my yacht singing in the "dog watch" on Saturday evenings, beginning:
And so on. Well, when I gave Sullivan the words of the duet he found the utmost difficulty in setting it. He tried hard for a fortnight, but in vain. I offered to recast it in another mould, but he expressed himself so delighted with it in its then form that he was determined to work it out to a satisfactory issue. At last he came to me and said, "You often have some old air in your mind which prompts the metre of your songs: if anything of the kind prompted you in this case, hum it to me — it may help me." Only a rash man ever asks me to hum, but the situation was desperate, and I did my best to convey to him the air of the chantey that had suggested the song to me. I was so far successful that before I had hummed a dozen bars he exclaimed, "That will do — I’ve got it!" And in an hour he produced the charming air as it appears in the opera. I have sometimes thought that he exclaimed "That will do — I’ve got it," because my humming was more than he could bear; but he always assured me that it had given him the necessary clue to the proper setting of the song.
W.A. What a curious thing the chantey must be! Do you remember more of it?
Mr. Gilbert. I remember it all, as my sailors used to sing it. I found out afterwards that it was a very much corrupted form of an old Cornish carol. This was their version of it: —
And so on until "twelve" is reached.
W.A. That is one of the quaintest chanteys I ever came across. I gather, then, from your having been able to convey the air to Sullivan, that you are not so devoid of musical faculty as many masters of rhythm have been — Tennyson, for instance, and Victor Hugo?
Mr. Gilbert. It’s true, of course, that rhythm is one thing, and tune another — and harmony a third. I may claim a fairly accurate ear for rhythm, but I have little or no ear for tune.
W.A. But you are not, like Dr. Johnson or Charles Lamb, incapable of distinguishing one tune from another — or like Dean Stanley (was it not?) who took off his hat when the band played "Rule, Britannia," under the impression that it was "God Save the Queen"?
Mr. Gilbert. Oh no, I am not so bad as that. On the contrary, I am very fond of music up to a certain point. I care more for the song than for the singer — for the melody than for the execution. I would rather hear "Annie Laurie" sung with feeling than the greatest singer in the world declaiming a scene from Tristan und Isolde. I used to be exceedingly fond of the light French and Italian operas that were popular in my youth and that are never heard now — Don Pasquale, Fra Diavolo, La Sonnambula, La Figlia del Reggimento, and L’Elisir d’Amore. I believe they might be popular again if they were neatly translated, and well done. Indeed, I have often suggested this to Carte and Mrs. Carte, and they seriously considered the idea. But they had not been familiar with this class of opera as I had been, and the project always remained in the air.
W.A. I remember, on the only occasion when I ever met Sir Arthur Sullivan, he told me he suspected you of having more taste for music than you cared to admit. He said you would sometimes, at rehearsal, have a number repeated on the plea that the action or grouping was not quite perfect, when he believed in reality you simply wanted to hear it again, for the pleasure of the thing. Do you plead guilty to such tenebrous courses?
Mr. Gilbert. I plead guilty, at any rate, to having taken the keenest pleasure in familiarising myself with Sullivan’s work — not merely the airs that everybody knows, but hundreds of details that I daresay escape general observation. He would often throw into brilliant relief the most unexpected things — "furniture lines" as we called them — phrases belonging to the mere mechanism of the story. And then his orchestration was so ingenious and admirable! When we first began to work together, and he brought down to rehearsal the mere piano score of a number, I would sometimes think, "Hallo! This is very thin! I’m afraid this won’t do!" But when I heard it with the orchestral colouring added, it was a totally different affair. I very soon learned to distrust my first impressions of a number, apart from the orchestra.
W.A. What happy chance was it that first brought you into connection with Sullivan?
Mr. Gilbert. Well, oddly enough, on our very first meeting I posed him with a musical problem. It was at the old "Gallery of Illustration," then occupied by the German Reeds, for whom I had written several short pieces. Frederic Clay introduced me to Sullivan, and I determined to play off upon him a piece of musical clap-trap which I happened to have in my mind. I had just completed a three-act blank-verse play called The Palace of Truth for the Haymarket Theatre. One of the characters in that play is a musical pedant, and it occurred to me to convert one of his speeches into prose and to try its effect on Sullivan. So I said to him, "I’m very glad to have had the pleasure of meeting you, Mr. Sullivan, for you will be able to decide a question which has just arisen between my friend Fred Clay and myself. I maintain that, if a composer has a musical theme to express, he can express it as perfectly upon the simple tetrachord of Mercury, in which (as I need not tell you) there are no diatonic intervals at all, as upon the much more complicated dia-diapason (with the four tetrachords and the redundant note), which embraces in its perfect consonance all the simple, double, and inverted chords." Sullivan appeared to be impressed by the question, which, he said, he could not answer off-hand. He said he would take it away and think it over. He must have thought it over for about thirty years, for I never received an answer to the question. I obtained my musical facts from "The Encyclopaedia Britannica," under the head "Harmony." I took a sentence and put it into blank verse without any idea as to what it may have meant.
W.A. The stage work at the Savoy was entirely in your hands, I suppose?
Mr. Gilbert. Oh yes, and very smooth and pleasant work it always was. Of course I planned out the whole stage-management beforehand, on my model stage, with blocks three inches high to represent men, and two and a half inches high to represent women. I knew exactly what groupings I wanted — how many people I could have on this bank, how many on that rostrum, and so forth. I had it all clear in my head before going down to the theatre; and there the actors and actresses were good enough to believe in me, and to lend themselves heartily to all I required of them. You see I had an exact measure of their capabilities, and took good care that the work I gave them should be well within their grasp. The result was that I never had a moment’s difficulty with any actor or actress in the Savoy Theatre. I have sometimes had a piece perfect, so far as stage-management was concerned, in four rehearsals. I don’t mean, of course, that it was ready for presentation to the public, but that the company were thoroughly at home in their positions and stage-business.
W.A. Happy the author who can so perfectly convey his ideas to his actors! And the result was an absolute smoothness and finish of representation, which people came to demand in other theatres as well. That was not the least of the benefits conferred on the English stage by Savoy extravaganza.
Mr. Gilbert. The author who cannot be his own stage-manager is certainly at a serious disadvantage. His stage-management, as I said, was half the secret of Robertson’s success; and Pinero, too, is an admirable stage-manager. But however well an author may convey his ideas, I think critics are too apt to forget that what they see never wholly represents the author’s intention. They are not careful enough to allow for the distorting, prismatic medium of stage representation. I am not speaking of my own pieces — I believe I have suffered less in this way than most people, and may often have been praised for what was really the merit of the actor. But the general tendency of criticism is the other way — to saddle the author with the entire responsibility for whatever seems wrong, and to give the actor the whole credit for whatever seems right.
W.A. No doubt it is one of the great difficulties of criticism to see the play through the actor and the actor through the play — a difficulty which can at best be only partially overcome. But the sins of dramatic criticism are an interminable subject of discussion, and I have taken up too much of your time already.
Mr. Gilbert. Oh, I am not working at anything just now — and in any case, except under the severest pressure, I never work in the afternoon.
W.A. What is your working-time of the day?
Mr. Gilbert. Well, it used to be, I’m afraid, the small hours of the night. I found I could never work better than between eleven and three in the morning. Then you have absolute peace — the postman has done his worst, and no one can interrupt you, unless it be a burglar. — But perhaps you are right — we have spent long enough indoors this lovely afternoon. Will you have a look round my garden and help me to feed my trout?
W.A. With pleasure.
[Exeunt into the sunshine.
Page modified 21 November, 2011 Copyright © 2011 The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive All Rights Reserved.