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Review of the Production from The Times
Monday, December 13, 1875
 
THE COURT THEATRE

A new play, called Broken Hearts, from the pen of Mr. W. S. Gilbert, was produced at this theatre on Thursday last. For reasons which will be found elsewhere, we shall without any preface, attempt to the best of our abilities to convey some idea of the story of this, in many respects, remarkable play.

On a fair island in the tropical seas live a little band of maidens, well born and beautiful, all of whom have sought this lovely spot to mourn the memories of the love they have lost, save one only, the youngest and fairest, who has known no passion save the love which has led her to share her sister’s self-banishment. The ladies have brought with them a hideous, misshapen dwarf, one-eyed, hump-backed, and lame, at once their servant and their guardian. His presence they suffer, but his only, for here, as in the domain of the Princess Ida, no foot of man must ever tread. Here, however, as there, their will is set at nought. The young Prince Florian, by virtue of a magic veil, which renders the wearer invisible, lands upon the island, and the two sisters, Hilda and Vavir, straightway fall in love with him.

Though they have forsworn lovers these melancholy maids feel that without love life would be but a blank indeed, and they have accordingly turned from the animate to the inanimate to fill that void which their self-imposed doom has left in their hearts. The Lady Hilda concentrates her blighted affections on a fountain; Vavir loves a sun-dial better than her life; a third loves a mirror, and the others, presumably, for of this we are not told, follow the same strange course. It is as the spirit of the dial and of the fountain that the Prince, wrapped in his magic veil, speaks; but it is the man, not the spirit, that the ladies love.

Florian is Hilda’s early love, whose untimely death, as she supposed, drove her from the world; to Vavir he is the real love, while hitherto she has known but in the ideal. Florian, still invisible, learns from Hilda’s lips the love of which he has till then been ignorant, and forthwith resolves to prefer her to Vavir. Hilda would give him up to save her sister, whose tender heart, from the first somewhat enamoured of death, is broken when she learns from Florian’s lips that her love is vain; but the sacrifice comes too late, and Vavir dies with a prayer upon her lips for the lovers who have wrought her death.

Of the passion of the dwarf for Lady Hilda, and of the result of the trick by which he tries to win her love, we need not speak here. It is but an episode, not unnatural, indeed, nor ineffective, but of no direct influence on the course of the play.

Such a story – a fairy story pure and simple – must obviously lose much when stripped of the elaborate setting with which Mr. Gilbert has surrounded it, and we feel that an apology is due to him for the baldness of our version. But in justification of the remarks we proposes to make it seemed to us necessary that the story should be told, and in all honesty we must confess thast we can make nothing more of it than is here set forth.

Possessing, as it unquestionably does, some exceptional merits, Broken Hearts is, we fear, also possessed of one of the worst faults such a play can have. From beginning to end, with but one exception – an exception, we fancy, rather of accident than design – it is terribly barren of that element of human interest which is the very essence of the drama. How are our feelings aroused by the spectacle of two girls sighing their souls out to a sun-dial or a fountain? One of them, too, is no girl; the Lady Hilda is a woman of the world who has loved, and would be not unwilling to love again. This is to be gathered partly from the words of Mr. Gilbert, still more from the acting of Mrs. Kendal. With what feelings, unless they be of impatience, can we see her dabbling her hands in a little fountain and babbling to it words of love, when we have heard from her own lips the reality of the passion she once felt, and which a voice can awaken again? She is not even consistent in her folly, for at the first chance she turns from the fountain to the man.

This inconsistency is less remarkable in the case of Vavir, who is, in all but years, the veriest child, and might be not unreasonably supposed to entertain for her dial much the same passion as a child entertains for her doll. But it is this inconsistency which deadens all sympathy with both these characters. It is because at the end we discover that they are after all but flesh and blood, like the rest of us, that we turn with impatience from the absurd and impossible natures which are assigned to them in the beginning. It is by his unrealities that the author has destroyed our interest in his realities.

The one human character in the play – for the Prince is merely a lay figure for the loves of the two sisters, and is of no more interest than the dial itself – is Mousta, the dwarf. Despised and spurned by Florian and Hilda, he commands our sympathies far more than either of those do, for throughout he is consistent with himself and with human nature. He loves his mistress and employs the best means at his command to gain his ends. He fails, but in his rage at his failure he cannot forget his love, and it is by playing on that love, which is real, at least as unworthily as he has played on her foolish fancy, that Hilda triumphs. In his deformity and ugliness only is Mousta a foil to the rest of the characters, in all other respects he is superior to them all. In short, as Sir Thomas More preferred one bad book of verse to another because the one at least was rhyme, while the other was neither rhyme nor reason, so we turn with relief to Mousta, because, at least, he is a human being.

Fault-finding is not pleasant, but not to find a fault which is so apparent seems to us impossible. We are the more disposed to regret its presence for the sake of the many merits which belong to this play, and which even such a fault is powerless to conceal. A neat and polished writer Mr. Gilbert has always been, but in Broken Hearts he at times rises to a height which we do not remember him to have before attained. His smooth and melodious lines lend themselves readily to the expression of that tone of sadness which underlies all the action of the play, and in many passages he is “most musical, most melancholy.” So much might have been expected of him.

But when it is required of his verse to rise beyond this, as in the scenes between Hilda and Mousta, and between Mousta and Florian in the second act, it gains, as blank verse does not always gain, in power without losing in melody. It is no easy matter, as there have of late been many proofs, to speak blank verse well, and in this respect Mr. Gilbert should hold himself fortunate above his fellows. All, indeed, that acting can do for the play has been done. The two characters on which the author, as we imagine, mostly depends are the sisters Hilda and Vavir. Of these we have already said what we think, but with the latter we must confess Miss Hollingshead almost forces us to sympathize. So graceful and delicate a picture does she give of the poor, silly little maiden, that at times we nearly forget the sundial, and think only of the thoughtless jest which has broken that tender little heart. It is very pleasant, too, to hear – what we do not always hear upon the stage – our language spoken with such distinctness and in so natural a tone; and the best wish we can offer this lady is that the experience of years and the confidence which comes with experience may not destroy so rare and valuable a gift.

Mrs. Kendal has a less easy task; for, while the character of her sister is sketched throughout in monochrome, that of Hilda is full of varied and broken colour. She has the same sweet love for Vavir as Vavir has for her, but with that love struggles the stronger love she only has known. She has, too, a capacity for rage and scorn which the softer Vavir could never have felt. At times the effort to portray these varying emotions betrays Mrs. Kendal into something like exaggeration. This is especially noticeable in the second act, nor is her violent expression of grief at her sister’s death altogether in unison with the subdued tone which prevails throughout the whole of the last act. In the lighter and more tender passages, however, Mrs. Kendal shows that just appreciation of the author’s peculiar fancy which her past experience of his style would lead us to expect.

The care with which Mr. Anson, with still stronger temptations, has avoided a similar fault in the part of Mousta is very worthy of praise. The character might be made – is, perhaps, intended to be – a most repulsive one, but the actor has, without any loss of power, been careful to avoid all unnecessary offence. We are sorry to find Mr. Kendal has no more to do than to wear fine clothes becomingly. Prince Florian is a handsome nonentity, with neither head nor heart, of whom we should be inclined to say that the Lady Vavir was very well quit. Such a character is one of the most trying that can be intrusted to an actor, and it is no slight praise to Mr. Kendal to say that he has done more for Florian than the author has.

Broken Hearts is, in short, a pearl of, we fear, but little price, but beautiful with a costly and elaborate setting. Pretty scenery, pretty dresses, good acting, always pretty and sometimes powerful writing – all of these we admit and admire, as they deserve. But with all this, we cannot but say with Sir Charles Coldstream, – “There’s nothing in it,” and are forced to marvel why an author who can write so well about nothing should not turn his attention to something better worth his skill.


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