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Review of the Production from The Times
Friday, November 30, 1888.
 
ST. JAMES’S THEATRE

Mr. Gilbert’s popularity as a writer of burlesque is so well established that, by a somewhat free and, perhaps, not altogether defensible process of reasoning, his success in serious drama, since he was first known to be writing a play for Mr. Barrington at the St. James’s, has been looked upon as a foregone conclusion. It was doubtless for that reason that a more than ordinary disappointment fell upon the house last night, when in the course of the performance it began to be felt that Brantinghame Hall, clever, fresh, and original, as every work of Mr. Gilbert’s must be, carried within it the germ of failure, as that word is understood at the box-office and the libraries. There was little noise or confusion at the fall of the curtain; Mr. Barrington, when he came forward to gather the verdict of the house, had nothing more terrible to face than a little good-natured chaff from the pit and gallery. But the cold demeanour of the audience told its tale. The play had split upon that perilous reef, the “sympathies” of the public. It was witty, brilliant, ingenious, and novel, but it was unsympathetic, sharing therefore a fault common to its author’s earlier pieces of the same description.

No play could open more picturesquely or promisingly than Brantinghame Hall. The Hon. Arthur Redmayne has been stock-raising in Australia, and has there fallen in love with and married a pretty girl of quaint Puritanical speech and ways, although described as the daughter of a convict. This is Ruth, Mr. Gilbert’s heroine, who, impersonated by Miss Julia Neilson, proves to be the pivot of the story. Almost too simple and guileless for any walk of life, and certainly for the “bush,” Ruth is the idol of the rough stockmen, who heartily congratulate young Redmayne upon his marriage.

The sentiments of these worthy people are not shared, however, by Redmayne’s friend, Ralph Crampton, who comes as an unwelcome visitor to the station. In fact, Crampton, despite the fact of his having a wife alive, has been making love to Ruth, and the first news of her marriage is conveyed to him, none too delicately, by her husband, who interrupts him, much to the lady’s relief, in the midst of a passionate declaration. This act Crampton, who is of a somewhat susceptible turn of mind, regards as an “unpardonable outrage,” and the erstwhile friends part in anger – an ominous incident, because of a heavy mortgage held by Crampton upon Brantinghame Hall, the seat of Redmayne’s father, Lord Saxmundham, in the old country.

The prospects of the young couple are bright, however, for Redmayne gets news of an immense fortune left to him, and he rushes off to England to take possession of it, intending to return to fetch his bride, who meanwhile is detained in Australia by the illness of her father. That is the last that is seen of the Hon. Arthur Redmayne – until the end of the play. His ship is reported to be lost with all on board, and in the second act we find Lord Saxmundham calculating upon inheriting his son’s fortune and redeeming his mortgage, which Crampton threatens to foreclose. For the old man has no suspicion that Arthur has left a widow as his heiress. The unpleasant truth is conveyed to him by Ruth herself, who makes her appearance in widow’s weeds, announcing at once his son’s duplicity and his own ruin.

Thus ends the second act, and so far the play is sound and even in a high degree sympathetic, Lord Saxmundham and his wife being entirely honourable and right-minded, although their family pride forbids them to take to their arms a convict’s daughter. Just as the mortgage is about to be foreclosed, Ruth, whose innocence of the world is more than remarkable, begins to grasp the situation; she offers Lord Saxmundham the whole of her inherited fortune, but he proudly prefers to face poverty. Crampton has come to Brantinghame Hall with conciliatory measures in his heart, but being spurned by Ruth, to whom he renews his suit, he considers that he is the victim of a fresh “outrage,” and resolves to exact his rights. The surrender of the property appears to be inevitable. “Is there no way of avoiding this,” murmurs Ruth in an agonized tone. “Yes,” whispers Crampton, “there is a way; be my wife.”

Ruth has a sudden inspiration. In an impassioned speech she declares that she has never been Arthur’s wife, that she is a shameless impostor, that her marriage certificate is a forgery, and that the fortune supposed to be hers belongs to Saxmundham. This situation is the cardinal defect of the play. That a heroine who has been winning our goodwill should in a moment bring disgrace upon herself and the memory of the man who has loved her for such a futile motive as an old peer’s scruples about accepting a loan from his plebeian daughter – this is more than human nature, at all events the human nature that goes to the theatre, can stand. Then as if to give his play the coup de grâce, Mr. Gilbert in the fourth act resuscitates the Hon. Arthur Redmayne, who we are given to understand has been cast upon a desert island; and at the sight of the husband whom she and everybody else had given up for lost, Ruth kneels and murmurs the words – which the fact that the curtain is at that moment falling renders almost grotesque – “Let us pray.”

M. Alexandre Dumas avers that the art of play-writing is the art of preparing the mind of the audience for the situations that are to come; and the truth of the axiom is forcibly illustrated by Brantinghame Hall, in the third and fourth acts of which Mr. Gilbert shocks and disconcerts us by two huge surprises. Much in the play is excellent, notably the comedy element, as exhibited in the love affairs of a young Etonian of Radical views and the daughter of an old Tory friend of the Saxmundham family. The various characters also are admirably acted, Miss Julia ‘Neilson, despite her inexperience, realizing to the full the author’s odd conception of an Australian Puritan. Mr. Barrington has a small but congenial part as a breezy country gentleman; and Mr. Herbert and Mr. Waller portray the hero and the villain in appropriate colours. Mr. Gilbert’s characteristic conceits crop up here and there, even in serious passages. The dyer’s hand, it would seem, becomes subdued to what it works in.


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