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Mr. Gilbert’s new comedy proves to be but another exposition of his peculiar reading of the old text – All is vanity. As in his Palace of Truth, so in this piece, which he calls Engaged, he has resorted to the device of making his characters through their own mouths reveal the secrets of their innermost hearts, in order to show that human nature is utterly selfish, false and mean. He has not, however, this time dealt with the myths of ancient fable or wandered into the realms of fairy land. His characters wear the garb of the present day, and are, so far as they can be said to be anything, inhabitants of the British Isles.
His hero, described as a man of property, has an unfortunate habit of engaging himself in marriage to every pretty girl he meets. A series of complications naturally arises out of this propensity, much enhanced by the fact that in one of these moments of weakness he has gone a step farther, and declared one of three heroines of the piece to be his very wife. This announcement is made in the garden of a small cottage on the Scottish border, and having been made in the presence of more than one witness is, according to the law of the land, tantamount to the actual performance of the marriage ceremony. At first this may give rise to a suspicion that some parody on Man and Wife is intended – that play in which Mr. Wilkie Collins dealt, as will be remembered, with the peculiarities of the Scotch law of marriage. It does not appear, however, that Mr. Gilbert has any such intention, though, indeed, we cannot pretend to determine what Mr. Gilbert’s intentions in writing this piece may have been, any more than we can pretend to give a succinct account of his plot.
Plot, properly speaking, indeed, there is none. The action consists but of a series of scenes of the most whimsical and grotesque nature, in which common sense and probability are alike set at defiance. Some of these scenes are irresistibly comic by reason of their very absurdity, but the most ingenious absurdity – and Mr. Gilbert has never perhaps shown himself more ingenious in provoking laughter – is apt to weary when pushed to extreme limits. All the characters in Engaged present themselves in their true light so soon as ever they come upon the stage. Almost with the first words they speak as much is known about them as ever is to be known, and all the rest is but an elaboration of the idea that is to be caught in the opening scene. There is no plot to be unravelled; no question to be set at rest; no story of human life and interest to be told. The second and third acts are practically but a repetition of the first, and there is no more reason why there should not be a fourth, a fifth, a sixth, any number of acts, indeed, than there is that the piece should not end with the first fall of the curtain.
The peculiar humour of this piece loses but little of its point in the representation. Its fate rests on the capacity of the actors to present an utter unconsciousness, not only of the absurdity of their language, but also of the meanness of their sentiments. With them all that is believed best and most sacred in human nature, love, friendship, parental affection, is reduced to a mere question of personal interest. This fact is never to be lost sight of for a single moment. It is insisted upon over and over again, and the more inappropriate it may appear to the action or circumstance of the moment, the more fantastic, of course, is the effect intended to be produced.
As usual with Mr. Gilbert’s works, the language is neat and polished, smart perhaps, rather than witty, and owing its humour rather to the incongruity of its surroundings than to any innate expression of that quality; there are, however, some humorous passages of mock heroic sentiment couched in the true “Cambyses vein.” The actors have evidently been carefully schooled in their parts, and have mostly caught the spirit of their author with good effect. Mr. Kyrle and Mr. Dewar are the most consistent throughout, though the latter’s share in the performance is a small one. Miss Marion Terry is very effective at times, especially in the bombastic passages, but neither she nor her companions – Miss Stewart and Miss Buckstone – are at all times as completely devoid of self-consciousness as it is necessary they should be. Mr. Honey’s humour is too rich and broad for the peculiar requirements of such a piece as this. There is more of the true spirit of comedy in his acting than in that of any of the others, but it belongs to himself more than to the character the author has drawn. There is but little 29 August, 2011 has not been seen together on this stage for many a day.
Clever in a way Mr. Gilbert’s work unquestionably is, but it is a cleverness not altogether wholesome or pleasant. Unless there be some allegory intended, some purpose hidden beneath this grotesque exterior – and if there is, we are sadly at fault, for we must confess our inability to comprehend it – it can only be taken as an elaborate jest. But, apart from the fact that as a jest it is something too elaborate, there are subjects on which the jester must be prepared to find that his audience can scarcely separate the laughter he may excite from a feeling of distaste. To call such a piece cynical is idle, for that it is to be taken seriously no intelligent person would care to suppose. If intended as a satire on human selfishness it loses its point through the absence of all relief or contrast. If taken as a bit of fooling, excellent as some of the fooling is, there is altogether too much of it. One should rise from laughter as certain wise folks say one should rise from food, with a desire for more. Lastly, it is impossible to forget how often this story has been told before. “There is nothing new and nothing true, and it doesn’t matter” is so old a text. To mock at the selfishness, vulgarity, and littleness of human nature has been a favourite theme with satirists, great and little, since the world began, but it is a theme of which the world has perhaps for the present grown somewhat tired, at least in so undiluted a form.
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