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Burlesque was the age-worn gateway through which Gilbert made his entry into the history of the modem English stage. It was like making one's way into a mansion through the back door. The lessee of the St. James's Theatre, in 1866, was Miss Herbert, who had asked Robertson to supply her with a novelty for Christmas. The founder of the "cup-and-saucer comedy," who taught so much about stage management to Gilbert, was too busy, and suggested his friend as a substitute. Gilbert was allowed two weeks to concoct a travesty upon Donizetti's L'Elsir d'Amore; the manuscript was ready in ten days. It met, as Gilbert afterward recorded,

"with more success than it deserved, owing, mainly, to the late Mr. Frank Matthews' excellent impersonation of the title role. In the hurry of production there had been no time to discuss terms, but after it had been successfully launched, Mr. Emden (Miss Herbert's acting manager) asked me how much I wanted.... I modestly hoped that, as the piece was a success, thirty pounds would not be considered an excessive price for the London right. Mr. Emden looked rather surprised, and, as I thought, disappointed. However, he wrote a cheque, asked for a receipt, and when he had got it, said: 'Now., take a bit of advice from an old stager who knows what he is talking about: never sell so good a piece as this for thirty pounds again.' And I never have."

Long before Shaw, Gilbert became a hard man to drive a bargain with – a business man in the theatre. "My first piece," recalled Gilbert, "gave me no sort of anxiety. I had nothing in the matter of dramatic reputation to lose, and I entered my box on the first night of Dulcamara with a coeur tiger. It never entered my head that the piece would fail, and I even had the audacity to pre-invite a dozen friends to supper after the performance.... I have since learned something about the risks inseparable from every 'first night,' and I would as soon invite friends to supper after a forthcoming amputation at the hip-joint." Gilbert, indeed, later developed a distinct first-night phobia and – retributive fear! – an obsessive aversion for reviewers.

  • Review of the production from The Times.

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