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Ages Ago - Early Days

Andrew Crowther

Whenever the story of Gilbert and Sullivan is told, Gilbert's musical play Ages Ago always rates a mention. There are two facts which everyone knows about it: that it uses the device of portraits stepping out of their frames, reused in Ruddigore; and that it was at a rehearsal of Ages Ago that Gilbert first met Sullivan. These are probably its greatest claims to fame today. It is, however, more than simply a historical curiosity: it has a period charm of its own, and has a warmth unusual in Gilbert's comic works.

It was set to music by Frederic Clay, and was first performed at the Gallery of Illustration on November 22nd, 1869. The Gallery of Illustration was a little theatre in Regent Street, where a small cast headed by Thomas German Reed performed intimate musical entertainments. Even the theatre's euphemistic name emphasises the self-consciously "respectable" nature of the entertainment the company offered. They did not offer leggy burlesque or blood-and-thunder melodrama, but gentle, civilised, intelligent amusement. And it was in the intimate atmosphere of this theatre that Gilbert first developed his distinctive style.

Ages Ago was the second of his musical plays for the Gallery. His first, No Cards, had been premiered there in March 1869. But even in the eight months separating No Cards and Ages Ago, Gilbert's style had developed. No Cards had been Gilbert's first libretto with prose dialogue, and it is little more than a conventional penniless-suitor farce, with some songs loosely tacked on. Ages Ago, with its double plot, is rather more sophisticated. The lyrics are more integral to the plot, and while the penniless-suitor theme recurs, this is relegated to the framing story. It is the central section, in which the portraits step down from their frames and set up a series of complex relationships with each other, that is the point of the piece, and it is in this section that parts of the future Gilbert begin to peep out - particularly his love of taking an absurd premise to its logical conclusion.

Gilbert was still relatively new to writing for the stage. His career as a dramatist only began at the end of 1866 (I exclude his first play, Uncle Baby [1863], which was a flop and a false start), and now, three years on, he was still finding his way towards his mature style. There are touches in Ages Ago of the familiar Gilbert, such as the satire at the expense of the art world and the impostures of "new money". In his early extravaganzas he had already explored some of the humour inherent in the conventions of sung drama, and there is a nice, silly joke in Ages Ago when Lady Maud sings: "My goodness me, he's walking!", and Sir Carnaby responds: "Her goodness she, I'm walking!" But the distinctive voice makes itself heard only fitfully, and the writing is sometimes a little clumsy. Mrs MacMotherly, for instance, is a tedious old bore whose only function is to disgorge necessary plot information, and whose lengthy dialect speeches near the beginning of the play get proceedings off to a very dull start. Only when she shuts up and Mr Hebblethwaite comes in does the play (and the audience) wake up.

Ages Ago was one of Gilbert's early successes. Jane Stedman says in W. S. Gilbert: A Classic Victorian and his Theatre: "This entertainment outran Cox and Box, was revived during more than ten years and occasionally abridged, was pirated in America, and was the Gallery's greatest success" [p74]. And this the product of a still-maturing Gilbert in collaboration with Frederic Clay, described by Stedman as the composer of "'clever', charming music... which almost made up in elegance what it lacked in humour" [p75]. The combination does not sound promising. What did they get right?

Stedman's word "charming" seems inescapable here. The piece's central idea is a charming conceit, executed charmingly. The tone is generally romantic, and lacks the "cynicism" which prevented some of Gilbert's other pieces from becoming truly popular. The touches of satire are little more than wry comments, and have no bitter after-taste. There is an interesting note of affection for past ages, as opposed to the shabbiness of Gilbert's own time - for instance, in the pointed contrast of modern painting and the "Old Masters" - which probably found a responding chord in the first audiences. The music is catchy and tuneful - though Clay did not have Sullivan's ability to make the music fit the words without chopping up or distorting the lyrics. Taken purely on its own terms, the piece is a very pleasant piece of entertainment, and it is only by comparing it with the kind of thing Gilbert was beginning to achieve a few short years later that we begin to get a sense of insufficiency.

What is Ages Ago's position today? Does it have a future in performance? On this issue, I can't hope to make a definitive judgment: your opinion is as important as mine. My view, for what it's worth, is that Ages Ago might prove a refreshing alternative to Cox and Box as a curtain-raiser. I have seen it in performance, and I can attest that it works better on stage than on the page or on record: in short, it still works. I don't pretend that it's a masterpiece, but there's life in it yet.


Gilbert Before Sullivan: Six comic plays by W. S. Gilbert, edited and introduced by Jane W. Stedman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1969) is an invaluable book, providing texts of Ages Ago and of the five other libretti Gilbert wrote for German Reed. It also includes Clay's score for Ages Ago. Stedman's Introduction is excellent, and I have shamelessly ransacked it for some of the information in this article. In addition, I have referred to Jane W. Stedman's biography W. S. Gilbert: A classic Victorian and his theatre (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

Page Modified August 23, 2011