Gilbert's Letter to The Times of 17 January 1879
Issue 29467, pg. 6 col. C


The Stage in 1878


Sir,--Your dramatic critic, in his able and impartial review of the condition of the Stage in 1878, writes as follows:--

"It has lately been asserted, and with some vehemence, that there is no dearth in England of original dramatists. This is a fact all will be well pleased to learn; but, inasmuch as, with the exception of Olivia, the most successful pieces of the last year were borrowed directly from the French theatre, it would almost appear that our own dramatists, when original, are not very good."

These lines, expressing as they do in very moderate terms an opinion which is generally entertained, are not a little galling to the few dramatic authors who, from very love of their art, devote themselves to ill-paid original work rather than to ridiculously over-paid translations, and who are but too well acquainted with the reasons that induce managers to resort to the French stages for their "novelties." Your critic's deduction seems to be based upon the assumption that London managers are infallible judges of original plays, that they are keenly jealous of the dignity of English dramatic literature, and that when they produce translations they do so most reluctantly and because no worthy original plays are to be obtained. It seldom seems to enter into the calculations of a dramatic critic that a London manager is a fallible being; that he may not, perhaps, be a good judge of a play in manuscript; and that he, having a large stake at issue, prefers the comparative certainty of a play which he has seen acted in French to the speculation of a play which is submitted to him in the skeleton form of a scenario. In the former case he benefits, not only by having the merits of the play presented to him in the clearest possible light, but he has also an opportunity of profiting by the elaborate stage-business, the result of three months' careful rehearsing, and, in fact, of re-producing the mise en scène in every detail, if it please him so to do.

It has recently become a fashion among London managers to require that an original play shall be submitted to them in a completed form before they will entertain the question of producing it. This is a condition which is applied, reasonably enough, to the work of beginners, but it is most unfair on authors who have an established position in their calling. An architect of reputation would indignantly decline to complete the plans for a public building and superintend its construction on the bare chance that somebody might eventually take a fancy to it and pay him for his labour. An actor of established position would scarcely entertain a manager's suggestion that he should study and rehearse a new part to the author's satisfaction as a condition precedent to an engagement. A tailor would stare if you proposed to him that he should make you a suit of clothes "on approval." The architect, the actor, and the tailor are accepted on the strength of what they have already done.

It is only within the last two years that managers have insisted that dramatic authors of reputation shall submit a completed work for their approval. Every original play that I have written for the Haymarket, Prince of Wales's, Court, Opéra Comique, and other leading West-end theatres has been accepted on the faith of its scenario. I may instance Pygmalion and Galatea, The Palace of Truth, The Princess, The Wicked World, Charity, Sweethearts, On Guard, Randall's Thumb, Broken Hearts, Tom Cobb, Dan'l Druce, Engaged, Trial by Jury, The Sorcerer, H.M.S. Pinafore, and many others. It would never enter my mind to entertain the question of writing a play "on approval," and I have no reason to suppose that Mr. H. J. Byron, Mr. Wills, Mr. Albery, Mr. Tom Taylor, Mr. Burnand, Mr. Wilkie Collins, or Mr. Charles Reade would consent to write for any theatre on terms which a fifth-rate tailor would indignantly reject. Mrs. Bancroft, Mr. Hare, Mr. J. S. Clarke, and other leading West-end managers are accustomed to receive the condolences of dramatic critics on the fact that, owing to the alleged dearth of original plays, they are compelled to fall back on adaptations or revivals. It would be interesting to hear from these managers to what authors they applied for original plays before producing Diplomacy, A Scrap of Paper, and The Crisis.

In the present state of dramatic affairs, an author who has the strength of character to abstain from translations deserves some little credit. It should be borne in mind that a translator is paid as highly as the author of an original work and his production is criticized with all the attention that is bestowed on an original play. A few years ago I translated the piece known to the English public as The Wedding March in two days, and I have received from various sources between £600 and £700 for it. I have been complimented, over and over again, by dramatic critics on the humour of that play, although I had no more to do with its humour than with that of the Eunuchus, which I translated (very freely, I believe, and under compulsion) at an early age. I have never regarded myself as the author of either play.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,

24, The Boltons, Jan. 16.

W.S. GILBERT

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