|Gilbert > Plays > The Fairy's Dilemma > Times Review
People who for their sins have perpetually to attend theatrical "first nights" acquire in time a Stoic fortitude and even a certain toughness. But even they must sometimes melt and become, like the famous wooden leg, as weak as flesh if not weaker. Last night at the Garrick Theatre was one of these rare occasions.
A new play by Mr. W. S. Gilbert – there is a thrill in the very phrase. It is as though some one announced the discovery of a thirteenth book of some comic "Æneid" or the lost arm (in plaster) of the Venus in the Louvre. For Mr. Gilbert has become a quasi-classic in his own life-time. We have all grown accustomed to regarding his dramatic work in the light in which we view a public monument, as something of historic interest, a permanent and unalterable possession. There was a feeling, then, in the house last night of tense – almost alarmed – expectation agreeably soothed by sentimental reminiscence. Would the new Gilbert be equal to the old? Should we be able to recapture our former sensations of delight? Evidently it was to be a case of touch-and-go, something like Waterloo as described by the Duke of Wellington to Mr. Creevey – "a d—d close-run thing." But the curtain had not long risen on The Fairy’s Dilemma before we were all reassured. Here was the fantastic Gilbert that we knew at something very near his best. The quasi-classic had come to life again, and in that very condition which Sainte-Beuve said was proper to a real classic – "frais et dispos."
Imagine a pantomime, an old-fashioned Christmas pantomime of the most orthodox type, turned inside out, treated with gay irony, made to comment with laughter upon its own absurdities. Further, imagine a comedietta of the modern "domestic" order inextricably entangled with this ironic parody of a pantomime. The result of your imagining – provided always that you happen to possess Mr. Gilbert’s imagination – will be The Fairy’s Dilemma. The Good Fairy Rosebud (Miss Jessie Bateman) is out of employment. Her business is to unite young lovers, and there has been a scarcity of young lovers lately, so that she is in danger of finding her post abolished and herself relegated to the back row of the ballet "along with the fat ones." In her extremity she appeals to the Demon Alcohol (Mr. Jerrold Robertshaw), who having to speak in verse, as all Pantomime Demons must, is studying the rhyming dictionary. Will he co-operate with her in a "job?" All he has to do is to act as the attendant spirit of a wicked baronet, Colonel Sir Trevor Mauleverer, of the Household Cavalry, who is pursuing with his dishonourable attentions the affianced bride of a clergyman, the Rev. Aloysius Parfitt. If the Demon will only help the Baronet to abduct the bride, the Good Fairy will be able to come to the rescue, and so convince the higher supernatural authorities that she is duly filling that "sphere of usefulness" appointed for Good Fairies. Agreed.
But the joke is that the Fairy and the Demon proceed to interfere, like Don César in the fourth act of Ruy Blas, in an intrigue which they do not in the least understand. They have started under a complete misapprehension of the facts. It is true that the Rev. Aloysius (Mr. O. B. Clarence) has an affianced bride, but she is not the hospital nurse upon whom the Fairy and the Demon have fixed. She is quite another lady, one Clarissa (Miss Dorothy Grimston), daughter of Mr. Justice Whortle. It is true that Sir Trevor Mauleverer (Mr. Arthur Bourchier) is pursuing the hospital nurse, but it is with the strictly honourable aim of marriage. Nor is the hospital nurse what she seems; she is the Lady Angela Wealdstone in disguise (Miss Violet Vanbrugh). At the same time, while the Baronet is really wooing Angela and the clergyman is really wooing Clarissa, they "change over and set to partners" whenever Mr. Justice Whortle is present, in order to deceive that gentleman into believing that his daughter is "engaged" not to the clergyman, but to the Baronet. The confused quartet of lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is simplicity itself by comparison. No wonder the Good Fairy has pitched on the wrong couple!
The clergyman does not quite like the game of permutations which he is compelled to play. The Baronet’s mock addresses to his (the clergyman’s) Clarissa are a little too realistic. Suppose the feigned love were to turn genuine. "Let us," says the Rev. Aloysius, "not pursue this painful theme into the embarrassing region of elusive hypothesis." In vain Clarissa assures him that "such perfunctory endearments are as necessary to the situation have been performed with the utmost delicacy," and that "we must be realistic if we are to be convincing." The Rev. Aloysius is not comforted by these assurances, is in fact not comforted until Clarissa has actually and duly become his bride.
It is at this moment that the supernatural agents intervene. The Good Fairy promises the Rev. Aloysius that he shall wed Angela, and declines to listen to him when he explains that Angela is nothing to him, seeing that he is already the husband of Clarissa. Meanwhile the Demon abducts Clarissa for the "wicked baronet," who is not wicked, and does not want the lady. In a famous passage Johnson complained of Chesterfield that he "encumbered him with help." That is precisely the encumbrance from which the clergyman and the baronet and their respective ladies now suffer. By-and-by (after Mr. Justice Whortle has sat for his photograph in his judicial robes, and the Good Fairy’s attendants have danced a ballet, and Angela has been magically transported from her dressing-table, in the very act of doing her hair, to the Judge’s garden), the supernatural agents discover what a bungle they have made of the business.
What is to be done? Why, have a grand transformation scene, of course, and turn the clergyman and Angela into Harlequin and Columbine, and Sir Trevor and the Judge into Clown and Pantaloon. So said, so done. And now you have the embarrassments of a clergyman with an ultra-clerical manner, compelled to cut capers in spangles, and the woes of a gentlemanly and soft-hearted Baronet compelled to steal sausages and sit down upon babies. Ultimately they are transformed back again into their everyday selves, but not until Clarissa has read to them a "favourable notice" of their performance as pantomimists in The Times. Mr. Gilbert’s idea of a theatrical criticism in this journal greatly arrides us. There are plentiful references, we note, to Aristotle and other ancient authors, and the verbiage is magnificently sesquipedalian. We only wish we could write such a notice ourselves.
But we are glad to have been able to follow Mr. Gilbert’s lead in one respect, at any rate, by being as "favourable" as possible. Indeed, we find The Fairy’s Dilemma most excellent fooling, and so, we fancy, did the whole house. The actors revelled in it. Mr. Bourchier’s clown would make his fortune at Drury Lane. Mr. Sydney Valentine’s pantaloon was as droll as his judge, and, as he says himself, "not so much of a transformation after all." Capital, Miss Bateman and Mr. Robertshaw as the supernaturals; quite excellent the Rev. Aloysius of Mr. Clarence. At the fall of the curtain there was a unanimous call for the author, but he did not appear.
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