|W. S. Gilbert > Interviews > How they write their plays
HOW THEY WRITE THEIR PLAYS.
MR. W.S. GILBERT.
Mr. W.S. Gilbert is a tall, well-built, handsome man, with greyish white hair and moustache and lively bright eyes. He received me (writes our Representative) in the magnificent marble lobby of the Junior Carlton Club, and his fine bearing would have led a stranger to suppose him to be a military officer, rather than a barrister, until he talks. Then one recognizes at once the crisp smart manner of conversation which a study of law seems to inculcate in a man.
I asked him what he considered the chief traits necessary to enable one to become a successful playwright.
"Well," he replied thoughtfully, "that opens up a very large subject. They differ vastly. In my own line I should sum them up as follows: -- In the first place, the power of catching the public taste; then a thorough knowledge of stagecraft and a gift for stage-management; the capacity to invent a plot; the power to create characters; an eye for dramatic situation and scenic effect; and, finally, the faculty to write readily dialogue, lyrics, and musical numbers."
"I believe, Mr. Gilbert," I said, "that you have little or no ear for music. Don’t you find this interferes with your rhythmical numbers?"
"It is quite true that I have no ear for music, but I have a very sensitive ear for rhythm: it is precisely the difference between time and tune. I am very fond of music, but I don’t know a discord when I hear one; on the other hand, the slightest error in time, which would probably escape a musician, would jar most gratingly on my ear. My fondness for music chiefly lies in hearing pieces which are connected in my mind with associations. I would rather hear an unknown soprano singing a song I knew than Patti singing one I did not know. In fact, I am so poor a judge of music that the song appeals to me with infinitely greater force than the singer."
"Where do your plots come from, Mr. Gilbert?"
"Plots? good gracious! where do they come from? I don’t know. A chance remark in conversation, a little accidental incident, a trifling object may suggest a train of thought which develops into a startling plot. Of course I am talking of original plots. I don’t call adapting a play or translating a play writing one. Taking my own plots, for instance, the ‘Mikado’ was suggested by a Japanese sword which hangs in my study; the ‘Yeomen of the Guard’ by even a more unlikely incident. I had twenty minutes one day to wait at Uxbridge Station for a train, and I saw the advertisement of the ‘Tower Furnishing Company,’ representing a number of beefeaters—why, goodness only knows. It gave me an idea, and I wrote the play originally as one of modern life in the Tower of London. Then it suddenly occurred to me to throw the time of it back to that of Queen Elizabeth. Having got one’s plot, the next step is to fit in the characters. And the chief point in doing so is to invent original characters. But this is a very difficult matter, whether one is writing for a stock company or writing irrespective of the cast."
"No, it is not always easier to write for a non-existent company; one has too free a hand. But with a stock company it is so hard to make the characters seem original. Writing for the Savoy I had to keep the idiosyncracies of Rutland Barrington, Rosina Brandram, and the others constantly before me. I used to invent a perfectly fresh character each time for George Grossmith; but he always did it in his own way—most excellent in itself, crisp and smart, but "G.-G." to the end. Consequently every one said: ‘Why, Grossmith always has the same character;’ whereas, if different individuals had acted them, each would have been distinctive. It was no fault of Grossmith’s, than whom a more amiable and zealous collaborateur does not exist. It arose from the fact that his individuality was too strong to be concealed."
"What is your next step, Mr. Gilbert, after deciding on the characters?"
"I write out the play as a story, just as though and as carefully as though it were to be published in that form. I then try to divide it into acts. I think two acts is the right number for a comic opera. At least, my experience — and that is thirty years old — teaches me so. Sometimes, of course, the original story does not readily fall into two acts, and so requires modification. Well, I put it by for a fortnight or more, and then rewrite the whole thing without referring to the first copy. I find that I have omitted some good things that were in the first edition, and have introduced some other good things that were not in it. I compare the two, put them both aside, and write it out again. Sometimes I do this a dozen times; indeed, the general public have no idea of the trouble it takes to produce a play that seems to run so smoothly and so naturally. One must work up to a good curtain. I believe very strongly in this, although I never take up any controversies, but simply go my own way on my own lines. The last impression is always the strongest, and an audience will often pardon a feeble wearisome act for one dramatic climax at its conclusion. I can generally judge now what will have a good effect; sometimes, but very rarely, it is spoilt by the interpreters. They always do their best, but occasionally they fail to realize my intention. The fact is that for comic opera many artists, especially tenors and sopranos, are necessarily engaged who are singers rather than actors; and it is not to be expected that carefully written comedy dialogue will receive full justice at their hands. It is as though one called on the Haymarket Company to perform an opera. Critics do not seem to realize this difficulty, and frequently pronounce a scene to be dull because it is ineffectively acted by a couple of mere concert-singers.
"Well, to go on with the writing of the play, I next sketch out quite roughly the dialogue, and then fill in the musical numbers as I feel inclined. I do not attempt to write them in order, but just as the humour takes me — one here, one there; a sad one when I feel depressed, a bright one when I am in a happy mood. When at last all those of the first act are done it is sent to the composer to be set to music, with a copy of the rough sketch of the dialogue to show him how the different songs hang together. I generally like reading it over to the composer, so as to give him my idea of the rhythm, which, as a matter of course, he varies at his pleasure. There must be perfect good-fellowship between the writer and composer, as there is much give-and-take to be managed. Metres have to be changed by the writer, or tunes altered by the composer, to fit in with some idea, some intention, of the other partner. For instance, the writer may have put a theme in one metre and the composer has a tune in his head which will just suit the theme but will not fit the scansion, and so the lyrics must be altered: each must try to make the other’s part as easy as possible. There must be no jealousy, no bad feeling between the two. They must be on the best of terms; otherwise there will be no success. And I put down the popularity of the ‘Gondoliers,’ ‘Iolanthe,’ ‘Mikado," and the other operas which Sir Arthur Sullivan and I did together chiefly to this fact. He was most kind in this respect. Well, whilst the composing is going on I complete the dialogue and work up the entire stage-management on a model stage. When the rehearsal comes I have the business of each scene written down, and this inspires confidence in those one is teaching; they know that I have a concrete scheme in my head and generally watch its development with interest and curiosity.
"Oh, by the way, I should have told you that as soon as a story is finally decided on a scenic artist is set to work. His plans are carefully modified from time to time until a desirable result is obtained. The last step of all is the dress designing. I always take on myself to give suggestions in this matter—not to tie the dress designer down, but to help him. In fact, I frequently make rough sketches for all the characters. Sometimes the designer will make use of these, sometimes not.
"As to rehearsals, there are in all three weeks for the artistes to study the music; then a fortnight’s rehearsals without the music; finally, another three or four weeks’ rehearsals in position and with the music. The principals are not wearied with rehearsals until the chorus are perfect in their music."
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