|Gilbert > Plays > Charity > Review of the Production
To estimate with accuracy the degree of success attained by Mr. W. S. Gilbert’s new comedy, Charity, brought out at the Haymarket on Saturday, it is necessary to follow the progress of the performance.
The principal personage is Mrs. Van Brugh (Miss M. Robertson), a widow in the prime of life, who, inheriting the principal house in a country village, distinguishes herself by deeds of charity. The liberality of sentiment by which the liberality of her donations is accompanied offends some of her more rigorous neighbours, who scowl at her beneficence when she successively admits into her almshouses a Roman Catholic, a Jew, and a Dissenter. There is a neat sarcasm in the circumstance that the first two of this trio are regarded with a more tolerant eye than the last, the admission of the Dissenter giving especial offence to both parties in the Established Church, with the exception of Dr. Athelney (Mr. Chippendale), the village rector, who has just been appointed to a colonial bishopric, and who remains the widow’s staunch friend to the last.
At the commencement of the piece Mrs. Van Brugh’s daughter Eve (Miss Amy Roselle), an amiable but somewhat frivolous girl, is on the point of marriage with Frederick (Mr. Kendal), son of Mr. Smailey (Mr. Howe), a gentleman resident in the neighbourhood. Frederick is, apparently, a very good man, and the tone of his conversation is in the highest degree moral, but the audience soon perceive that he is a compound of hypocrite and prig, and Mrs. Van Brugh would much rather have given her daughter to the more jovial Ted Athelney (Mr. Teesdale), the rector’s son, with whom she has been brought up from childhood. But Eve is desperately in love with Fred, and Ted thinks him the most glorious creature in the world, so minor considerations are to be waived. While the good doctor and the widow are quietly discussing family matters, they are suddenly interrupted by the servants, who drag in a strange woman, caught in the act of stealing wine from the pantry. Ruth Tredgett (Miss Woolgar) is an outcast of the roughest sort, who, having no visible father, was brought up by the vilest of the vile, and who “could swear afore she could walk.” Her chief sin seems to have been a perpetual infraction of the eighth Commandment, which is not to be wondered at, since, as she herself tells us, she was brought up to be a thief. In spite of these unpromising circumstances, Mrs. Van Brugh treats the woman with kindness, and promises to put her in the way of obtaining an honest livelihood. With the strongly-expressed gratitude of Ruth, who falls at the feet of her unexpected benefactress, the first act concludes.
And a more promising first act has seldom been seen. The benevolent rector, his open-hearted son, the charitable widow, the light-hearted Eve, and the priggish Fred are all distinctly drawn and talk good dialogue. The appearance, the manner, the avowals, the thankfulness of Ruth have a most favourable effect, which is greatly heightened by the admirable acting, at once strong and natural, of Miss Woolgar (Mrs. A. Mellon). Let us add that curiosity is stimulated by a few words that occur in the course of the widow’s conversation with the rector, and which awake the suspicion that the lady’s extensive charity is intended to expiate some past offence.
The next act introduces us to Fred’s father, Mr. Smailey, accompanied by Mr. Fitz Partington (Mr. Buckstone), a “private detective,” whom he passes off as his solicitor. Mrs. Van Brugh supposes that he has merely come to talk about settlements, but one of the objects of his visit is to lecture her severely on her patronage of the outcast Ruth, which he considers compromising to the reputation of the family. When Ruth accidentally drops in, and he is left alone with her by Mrs. Van Brugh, Mr. Smailey discovers to his annoyance that she is objectionable for a reason on which he had not calculated. A stern oration, with which he attempts to keep her at a distance, and in the course of which he desires her to understand her right position when she comes into the presence of a “Christian gentleman,” is disagreeably cut short by Ruth’s abrupt exclamation, “Smailey, that’s never you!” In a few minutes we learn that years ago, when Ruth, aged 16, was transported to Port Philip, she was deprived by her pompous lecturer, then aged 40, of the little virtue she possessed; also that Smailey has committed some fraud on one Martha Vane, of Melbourne, the proofs of which are in Ruth’s possession. The position of the rigid moralist is unpleasant, and his manner towards Ruth relaxes, but still he manages to keep his ground with wonderful dignity, all things considered.
That he is by no means a good person we are by this time aware, but it is not till we hear a warning given by Fitz Partington to Mrs. Van Brugh that we know the extent of his villainy. The bulk of the lady’s property was left to her by her deceased godfather, to whom Smailey is next-of-kin. Now Smailey has reason to believe that she has not been legally married to her late husband, Captain Van Brugh, and he is convinced that in that case, unless she is described in the will of her godfather (who died in Australia) by her maiden name, the bequest in her favour will be null and void. His whole object, therefore, is to enrich himself at the expense of the lady, for whom he professes the deepest respect, and to this end there are no means which he will scruple to employ. The agitation of Mrs. Van Brugh when these discomforting facts are made known to her confirms the suspicion awakened in the first act that there is something wrong in her antecedents, and when Smailey enters with the will bequeathing certain estates to the wife of the late Captain she falls senseless.
It may be taken as a maxim of dramatic construction that there is danger in making the first of several acts extremely forcible. There is much, however, in the sudden discovery of the old relations between Ruth and Smailey, and here again the acting of Miss Woolgar does infinite service. But, altogether, the second act looks weak compared with the first.
In the third act, on the other hand, the author recovers his position. The character of Frederick is now developed. Acquainted with the peril in which Mrs. Van Brugh’s property is involved, he is as anxious as his father that the match with Eve shall be broken off, but he determines to have the credit of making a sacrifice, and the conversation between the young and the old hypocrite, in which the former with affected grief agrees with the latter that it will be base to sully by an improper match the escutcheon of a family which traces its origin from Caius Smaileus, a contemporary of Julius Cæsar, is one of the best “bits” of dialogue in the play. It is Smailey’s opinion that the late Captain Van Brugh has committed bigamy, and accordingly he has advertised for a certificate of the death of that gentleman’s first wife. Armed with a literally good case, he insists on Mrs. Van Brugh making a free avowal of her false position before all her friends, and even her daughter. In great agony of mind she tells him how, to atone for the past, she has devoted the greater part of her possessions to the rescue of unfortunate women, but he is inexorable. All the personages, the rector included, are summoned into her presence, and on her confession that she was never married at all the curtain falls. This situation is worked up with immense power by Miss M. Robertson (Mrs. Kendal), and her representation of a conflict of feelings, comprising honest indignation against the contemptible Smailey, tells with immense effect.
In the fourth act, Mrs. Van Brugh and her daughters are residing with their good old friend Dr. Athelney. Here Mr. Fitz-Partington somewhat puzzles us by telling the lady that Smailey, not content with the persecution she has hitherto undergone, is seeking evidence that she may be prosecuted for bigamy. Now, that a man who marries a second wife during the lifetime of the first may be prosecuted for bigamy we all of us understood well enough, but the prosecution under such circumstances of the second wife, herself previously unmarried, seems to us an operation rare in our courts of law. Possibly the lady might be indicated as an accessory before the fact to the crime of bigamy, but she would not be a bigamist. However, we are open to legal advice on the subject. The whole story is brought to a sudden termination by Ruth’s production of a certificate of the burial of Martha White, Captain Van Brugh’s first wife, nine years before the supposed date of that event, which somehow proves that Smailey was guilty of a forgery. Mrs. Van Brugh, Eve, Ted, and Ruth quit an uncongenial soil to accompany the rector to his colonial bishopric.
This conclusion is, to say the least of it, extremely unsatisfactory. The majority of the audience are left in ignorance whether the principal lady has been a “bigamist,” in the new sense of the word, or has simply committed a faux pas. On the strength of Mrs. Van Brugh’s passionate asservation at the end of the third act we are inclined to the latter hypothesis, though here again we speak under correction. We fear, too, that she has lost all her property, notwithstanding the discovered forgery of Smailey. Smailey himself is a most Sphinx-like person. That a scoundrel may be an austere hypocrite is intelligible enough, but why, when he has got all that he sought, and is perfectly aware that Ruth is in possession of evidence against him, he still remains to persecute Mrs. Van Brugh is beyond our comprehension. Horace tells us:–
But here is a man who seems actually to luxuriate in the sword which is gleaming into his eyes.
Otherwise the characters are well drawn. Mrs. Van Brugh and Ruth are the most important personages of all, and are, as we have already said, admirably acted. The old clergyman who, shocked at the baseness of Fred when that hopeful youth formally renounces the hand of Eve, laments that his cloth prevents him from bodily castigating the sneak, adding that his son Ted labours under no such difficulty, and Ted himself, who is willing to act on his father’s hint, are excellent parts, though small, and are capitally played by Messrs. Chippendale and Teasdale. They are animated by the same spirit of unsophisticated manliness which gave such charm to the False Shame of Mr. F. A. Marshall. Fred, though drawn with much care, is an unthankful part to Mr. Kendal, and Mr. Buckstone, though certain of much laughter, is not seen to much advantage as the detective. As the pompous and difficult Smailey Mr. Howe is very well placed, but he should be provided with a better wig.
That the play was successful there is no doubt, but that its success will equal that of Mr. Gilbert’s poetical plays there is very great doubt indeed. A rumour that the plot of Charity is in some way borrowed from that of the New Magdalen is simply absurd. The idea in both of them is the “réhabilitation de la femme,” and in both of them there is a clergyman – that is all. The details of the two plots have nothing in common.
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