|W. S. Gilbert > Interviews > The Savoy Operas
THE SAVOY OPERAS.
MR. GILBERT TELLS SOME ANECDOTES.
INSPIRATION ON A RAILWAY PLATFORM.
"Is that Mr. Gilbert? Why, he doesn’t look a bit funny!" was the exclamation of a lady overheard at a dinner.
Nor did he. She saw a man whose very smiles were austere — a man with stern eyebrows, whose manner was all restraint, whose gestures were of the fewest, whose spoken humour was not a bit "rollicking." Mr. Gilbert, in fact, was not a bit Gilbertian.
It was this term Gilbertian that Mr. Gilbert was asked the other day by a "Daily Mail" representative to define.
"I haven’t the faintest idea what it means," he said. "Of course, I’ve heard the word, and I’ve taken it to have some application to my own methods of work. But I can’t get outside my own skin, so to speak, to judge whether and in what way I come up to the ‘Gilbertian’ standard. I never write with any intention of producing certain recognisable effects, but I suppose there is a general note running through a man’s work which others recognise as characteristic of him, though he himself is unconscious of it."
"MY FAVOURITE OPERA"
Mr. Gilbert was asked to talk of the famous Savoy operas, which are soon to be revived at their place of birth, and which are to be seen at the Coronet Theatre this week.
"Of all the Savoy works, the ‘Yeomen of the Guard’ is my favourite," he said. Its genesis was peculiar. "Bored by waiting for a train in an underground station, I found myself gazing at the poster of a furnishing company, with a beefeater as the central figure. I thought a beefeater would make a good picturesque central figure for another Savoy opera, and my first intention was to give it a modern setting, with the characterisation and development of burlesque — to make it another ‘Sorcerer.’ But then I decided to make it a romantic and dramatic piece, and to put it back into Elizabethan times, and as written it became my favourite."
A SONG’S ORIGIN.
Then Mr. Gilbert told of the origin of that catchiest and most celebrated Savoy air, "I have a song to sing, O!" "I was a yachtsman, and at nights I used to listen to my Cornish crew singing one of their chanties in the fo’c’sle. It ran:
"And so on to the dozenth verse — ‘I will sing you two, O!" and so forth — a cumulative form of construction of which the ‘House that Jack Built’ is an example. I was fascinated by the quaintness of the chanty, and seized on it as a model for Jack Point’s song, and left Sullivan to mate it to his music as he liked. But at last he came to me and said, ‘You will have to break through your rule, and tell me the model of this number, if you had one in your mind at all.’ So I hummed the chanty, and after a few bars Sir Arthur said, ‘I’ve got it,’ and he finished the score that evening."
AUTOCRATS BEHIND THE SCENE.
Next to "The Yeomen," Mr. Gilbert’s favourite is "Ruddigore," which has never once been revived. "Yet it was no failure. It ran for six months, and my third share of the profits was £8,000. But it was regarded as a little gloomy, and was altered after the first night — the first occasion on which any Savoy opera has had to accommodate itself to criticism. Some time ago a manager of musical comedy suggested that ‘Ruddigore’ might have had more success if Mr. Gilbert had allowed a freer hand to its interpreters. But that was not our method. We were autocrats of the stage from the first to the last, and every detail of the performances was subject to us. Indeed, the revival next month of ‘The Yeomen’ is the very first occasion on which the entire cast has not been selected by me, so that whatever merit is due to the selection will belong to Mrs. D’Oyly Carte. So far, I don’t know the name of a single individual in the cast. However, I shall conduct all the rehearsals."
UNIFORMS COST £135 EACH.
"A point of interest about ‘Ruddigore’ was the uniforms. They were most meticulously exact to the period. We even had the buttons of the Hussars’ uniforms — there were four uniforms, each costing £135 — cast from a special die so as to show three cannons above the motto ‘Ubique,’ instead of one as worn now, and the sealed uniforms at the War Office were placed at our disposal. It was not done to satisfy the public — they would know nothing about it — but merely to please our own sense, fastidious, if you like, of having everything as it should be."
A "MIKADO" STORY.
Of "The Mikado" this gem of a story: "It was suggested to us that it would be a proper thing to introduce the Mikado’s entrance with appropriate music. A friend at the Japanese Legation suggested, ‘Why not the Japanese National Anthem, words and music?’ A capital idea, I thought. ‘You dictate the words to me,’ I said, ‘and hum the air to Sullivan.’ So it was done; and that air and those words have been sung and played somewhere almost nightly for many years in theatres and respectable drawing-rooms, and several church bazaars. But a year or two after the production of ‘The Mikado’ a correspondent sent me a German newspaper containing an interview with a Japanese diplomatist on the recent production of ‘The Mikado’ in Berlin. ‘Yes,’ said the diplomatist, ‘there is much to admire in the accuracy of detail in gesture, costume, and scenery; but I am quite at a loss to understand why the author chose to introduce the sacred person of the Mikado with the music and the words of the most ribald song ever sung in the most reckless tea-houses of Japan.’ A practical joke on the part of my Legation friend. The words? No, I never had the courage to get them translated. I prefer to remain in deliberate ignorance."
And as to any successor to the long series of Savoy successes? "In the improbable contingency of finding a successor to Sir Arthur Sullivan, yes. But that implies not only a composer like him, but a collaborateur like him. We always saw eye to eye. The same humour always struck us in exactly the same way. With Sullivan I never had to do that fatal thing — explain a joke."
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