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Rumour spoke truth when she spoke well of Mr. Gilbert’s new play. It is unquestionably a good play, well conceived, well written, and, on the whole, well acted. Not, indeed, a faultless play, any more than the greatest works of our greatest dramatists are faultless; nor a grand play, dealing with mighty deeds, abounding in lofty conceptions, and rich with splendid language, yet a play full of human interest and human character, written in language sometimes vigorous and even noble, sometimes quaint and humorous, sometimes pathetic with a very true and tender pathos, and almost always appropriate to the character and the circumstances. Very few plays have of late years been so well received as was Dan’l Druce on its first night of representation at the Haymarket Theatre, and, perhaps, still fewer have so well deserved such a reception.
The scene of Mr. Gilbert’s story, for the outline of which, as he himself makes haste to tell us, he is indebted to the “Silas Marner” of George Eliot, is laid partly in the days of the Commonwealth, and partly in the earliest days of the Restoration. To calm, however, the troubled spirits of those who may think that they have drunk somewhat too deeply of the waters of this well-used dramatic spring, it may at once be said that the author has altogether turned his face from the political aspect of those times, and, save for the inherent picturesqueness which belongs to the days of the Stuarts, the story for all practical purposes might be of any age and of any people. Nor, though indebted to “Silas Marner,” not only for an incident in the first act, but for the general groundwork of the whole, does this fact in any way debar the author from his claim to originality. The foundations are, indeed, the foundations of George Eliot, but the structure itself is the work of Mr. Gilbert.
From the opening scene of the first act we learn who Daniel Druce is, what he is, and who and what he has been. Some few years ago he was Jonas Marple, a blacksmith in comfortable ease, well liked of and liking all men, and passionately fond of his wife and infant child. But evil days were in store for him. His wife leaves him, with whom he knows not, and takes the child with her. Henceforward Jonas Marple is no more; he passes from out the knowledge of the world to save, as he fondly hopes, the good name of the woman he still loves, and is known to other men, among other scenes, as Daniel Druce. But with his change of name there comes a change over the man himself. A gloomy misanthrope, half-crazed with grief and drink, a miser whose only care is to hoard up his miserable earnings as a fisherman, there is but little fear of any one recognizing in this wretched creature the Jonas Marple of happier times.
He is recognized, however, by his brother, who, wandering in search of this strayed sheep, has been led by a neighbour to the ruined hut on the Norfolk coast where Druce has hidden himself. It is from these two, the brother and his guide, that we get an inkling of Daniel’s story, and from the lips of Daniel himself, as he resists his brother’s entreaties to return to the world he has left and hates now as he loved it before, that the story is completed. Neither the entreaties nor the censures of his brother have any weight with Daniel, save to goad him to a full recital of his wrongs in a passage of great power and vehemence, very finely rendered by Mr. Hermann Vezin, whose impersonation of the hero, we may here say, is throughout masterly.
The unwelcome visitors leave, and Daniel is left once more to the contemplation of the only thing on the earth he loves, his “golden bairn,” which, like Pygmalion, he seems half to hope, half almost to fancy may one day take the form and substance of that other bairn who is lost to him for ever. This strange dream is once more rudely interrupted by the entrance of two Royalists, Sir Jasper Combe, and his servant, Reuben Haines. Flying from the fatal field of Worcester, they have made their hard-won way to the coast of Norfolk, whence they determine to take boat to France. They have with them Sir Jasper’s infant child, his wife being already safe over sea. With threats and the gift of the cavalier’s last piece of gold, Daniel is, with difficulty, persuaded to house them for a while, and departs to procure them food and drink.
It is not on hospitality, however, but on treachery that his mind is bent, and while his guests, or the master, at least, is making what cheer he may over some fragments of dried fish and a few drops of Schiedam, he returns with the Roundhead soldiers. Sir Jasper, who has stumbled on the hidden treasure, though wincing at first at the thought of theft, now pockets the gold, and fearing, as he tells himself, to risk the child’s life in such weather, ties a locket around its neck, with a hasty scrawl to say she will be one day reclaimed, and, leaping through the window, gains the beach and the boat his servant has launched just as the Roundheads make their way into the hut. Daniel’s eye is quick to light upon the open and empty hiding place, and loud and passionate is his grief. But in the midst of his cries the soldiers bring him the child they have found still sleeping. His dream, as he believes, is realized. His gold is gone, but in its stead is the little child. It bears the years, and, as he thinks, the likeness that his own daughter would have borne. His heart is softened, as the baby stretches out her little arms towards him. “It is the Lord’s gift;” and the loss of the gold is forgotten.
Fourteen years have passed and gone when the curtain rises on the second act. Though he still preserves the name of Daniel Druce, the man is a thing of the past, and it is the Marple of old days that we find at work in the forge to which he has once more returned. The little baby that came to him on the Norfolk coast has blossomed into a Dorothy in all the bloom and freshness of “sweet seventeen.” The times are changed; a Stuart is once more on the throne, and all Comberaven is in its best to welcome Sir Jasper back to the home of his fathers. With him comes Reuben Haines, once his sergeant of horse, but now his bailiff, a quaint braggart, full of strange conceits and jests, who has condescended to cast a favourable eye on Mistress Dorothy. At the same time, however, comes from the sea one Geoffrey Wynyard, an old playmate and boy lover of Dorothy. Absence has ripened the love of the boy into the love of the man, and in a scene of peculiar prettiness and grace he tells the story of his love, and wins from the artless girl a confession of a passion which she knows now for the first time to be love.
As they interchange their true lovers’ tokens – a ring from him, from her the silver locket she has always, she knows not why, worn around her neck – Daniel enters. He has ever been haunted by two fears – one, that the real father will come and claim from him his Dorothy; the other, a lesser fear, indeed, that she will be taken from him, not by a father, but by a lover. In a speech of great pathos, and there is hardly an actor on our stage who can throw such tenderness into his voice as Mr. Vezin, he tells the girl all she has been to and all she has done for him, and what his life will be when she has gone from him. By good luck, though, Geoffrey has been promised the post of bailiff by Sir Jasper, so there need after all be no parting, and a happy future seems in store for the lovers. Again, however, Haines appears on the scene. By some mischance Geoffrey has dropped the locket Dorothy has given him, and Haines, finding it, at once recognizes the jewel his master had tied round his little daughter’s neck when he left her in the fisherman’s hut 14 years ago.
Geoffrey, having been warned not to disclose Dorothy’s true story, fences with Haines’ questions, and declares the locket is not from Dorothy, with whom he vows he merely flirts as sailors flirt with every pretty girl they meet, but from his real love, not Dorothy, but another. He does not, unfortunately, deceive Haines, and, moreover, falls foul both of Dorothy and Daniel, who overhear him. The former believes his later, not his earlier words, while the latter would almost kill him then and there for his seeming betrayal of the girl’s secret. Thus the second act ends as unhappily as happily it began.
Here Miss Marion Terry, as Dorothy – the only female character, bye the way, in the piece – fairly divides the honours of the stage with Mr. Vezin. In look, voice, and manner she is just such a Dorothy as Mr. Gilbert has intended to present, and he should hold himself fortunate in having secured so rare and truthful a copy of his own graceful idea. In the character of Geoffrey Wynyard the acting of Mr. Forbes Robertson shows a very marked improvement. A little hard and awkward at times he may be, no doubt a little nervous, but on the whole manly, earnest, and, at times, tender and winning enough. The love scene between these two young people is, of its kind, as true and pretty a bit of acting as one need wish to see. And yet, despite the admirable acting of these three, and the truth and poetry of much of the language, it is in this act that the author is perhaps weakest.
The blemishes, to be sure, are trifling when weighed with the merits, but yet they serve to detract somewhat from the general excellence of the whole. In the first place, the act is rather too long, and the story, which the audience have by this time, in all probability, fully mastered, drags a little, ever so little, towards the close. For this there is a very easy and obvious remedy. Then there was, or it seemed to us there was, a slight difficulty in understanding the cause of Daniel’s violence towards Geoffrey. Annoyed at the failure of his plans he might reasonably have been, but surely his extreme passion is somewhat overstrained, save, indeed, it may be held to arise from lingering remnants of the disease with which the grief of former days has touched his brain. These, however, are after all but slight defects, mere spots upon a sun of more than usual warmth and light; but with the character of Reuben Haines there is a graver fault to find.
Not in the character as a character, for it is one which it is plain Mr. Gilbert has bestowed much care, and, so taking it, not unsuccessfully. The swaggering, boastful soldier rants and gasconades in the true Pistol vein, and the language put into his mouth is in full keeping with the traditionary nature of such men. But he is a note of discord in the harmony of the piece; his presence jars upon our enjoyment; and, moreover, there is something too much of his presence. This, no doubt, in a measure, arises from the fact that this one character alone provides the comic element of the piece, and in pieces of this nature it were, perhaps, better that this element should be more distributed. With a stop or two of his own to play on he would the less interfere with the softer airs of the more delicate players around him. Falstaff without his attendant sprites would not be half the man he is. In justice to Mr. Gilbert, however, it must be said that this discord is made still more discordant by the exaggeration with which Mr. Odell represents the character. He, indeed, “takes too much upon himself.” He is at too great pains to be funny. He takes up too much room, and, what with his whip, and his gestures, and his antics generally, altogether occupies too much of our time and our attention. Even allowing that the character is somewhat out of place, few who have seen the play but must have thought what one who was once a member of the Haymarket company would have done with such material. What would Mr. Compton have made out of Reuben Haines? Indeed, interpreting the thought in another sense, Mr. Odell seems to be much of the same way of thinking.
The tale of the third and last act, though here both author and actors are at their best, is soon told. Reuben Haines had offered to keep Daniel’s secret at the price of Dorothy’s hand. The girl, though Geoffrey’s still in heart and soul, will agree to pay the price for the sake of him whom she still regards as her father, but Daniel, who has wavered for a moment, stands firm, and defies the worst Haines can do. This worst he does; Sir Jasper comes to claim his daughter, and Daniel, in words as eloquent perhaps in their way, and as touching as anything our later stage has heard, in the delivery of which Mr. Vezin even surpasses what he has done before, renders her up to, as he thinks, her rightful keeper. In so doing, however, he unmasks Reuben’s treachery, and, moreover, forges the last link which is wanting to complete the chain of the story.
From his words Sir Jasper learns who Druce really is, and whose daughter is the Dorothy he has come to claim as his own. It was with Sir Jasper that Marple’s wife had fled, and the infant child, whom 14 years ago he had left in the hut on the Norfolk coast, is the true daughter of the man he had once wronged as Jonas Marple, and whom he would now wrong again as Daniel Druce. In solemn and impressive words he reveals the truth, and then leaves the house which, for the second time, he has been so near to rendering desolate. Fired with the recollection of his wrongs, and the sight at last of the wrong doer, Druce would follow him, but his daughter stops the way with gentle words and soft caresses. As she was the “Lord’s gift” when first she came to him, so now she is “an angel from Heaven” to stay him in his wrath. His anger is turned away; the lovers are together once more, and we leave the old man in rapt enjoyment of their happiness. Here, again, the acting of Mr. Vezin, Mr. Robertson, and Miss Terry is worthy of the highest praise; while Mr. Howe, who effectively represents Sir Jasper Combe, is, in this scene, as dignified and impressive as he is gay and careless in the first. Indeed, save for what had been already said about Reuben Haines, it is not easy to see how this act could be bettered either by Mr. Gilbert or those who interpret him.
In writing of such a play, dealing as it does with the finer and more delicate feelings of human nature, it is difficult, perhaps, to do adequate justice to its merits, while with its faults – and how much easier it is to find words for censure than praise – it may seem that we have dealt more hardly than was needful. If this be so, assuredly we beg Mr. Gilbert’s pardon, for we have wished to say all good things that could be said, and should have been but too pleased to have been able to leave unsaid all things that were not good. Indeed, that we have found fault at all seems to us almost an act of ingratitude to the author, who can give us for our enjoyment in these days so good a play as Daniel Druce (sic).
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