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A few background notes on Foggerty’s Fairy

by Andrew Crowther

"Mr W. S. Gilbert, we hear, is busy on a three-act comedy for Mr Sothern," declared the Theatrical Gossip column in The Era on September 28th 1879. This would have struck the contemporary as an intriguing announcement. His most recent successes had all been with Sullivan, his last two solo efforts — The Vagabond and Gretchen — having been notorious flops. Had Gilbert lost the ability to write successfully on his own? No matter how it turned out, a Gilbert premiere was still an event, and you can be sure it was eagerly awaited.

But anyone awaiting this one would have been kept hanging around for a long time. The play would eventually be called Foggerty's Fairy, and its first performance would come over two years later, on the 15th of December 1881, at the Criterion. Gilbert's productivity was certainly slowing down considerably at this time, but not to this extent; so what was the cause of this extraordinary delay?

The answer can be pieced together from the pages of The Era and from T. E. Pemberton's Memoir of E. A. Sothern (London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1890).

Edward Askew Sothern (1826-1881) was a well-known actor of the time, whose life was spent touring the theatres of both Britain and the United States. His best-known role was that of Lord Dundreary, a wild caricature of the brainless aristocrat, in Tom Taylor's Our American Cousin (1858). Sothern completely rewrote the play to make Dundreary the central character. (Of course, it was Our American Cousin which President Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated. However, I have been unable to discover any evidence to show whether Sothern was or was not in the cast on that fateful evening. The absence of any comment on this in Pemberton's Memoir suggests not.) In later years Sothern was forever looking for "a new Dundreary", and in 1875 had commissioned a play from Gilbert - The Ne'er-Do-Weel, also called The Vagabond, which Sothern never acted.

In September 1879, Sothern was on one of his many lengthy American engagements; The Era's Drama in America Column of October 12 (written September 13) said that "It is proposed, during Mr Sothern's engagement [at the Park Theatre, New York], to bring out revivals of The Crushed Tragedian, Dundreary, and David Garrick, the new comedy by Mr Gilbert being reserved for the spring engagement."

So Gilbert, in England, was busy writing his "new comedy", while Sothern was running through his most famous parts in New York. At the same time, of course, New York was being overrun with pirate versions of Pinafore, and in November 1879 Gilbert, Sullivan, Carte and a whole operatic troupe landed in New York to try and rectify matters. I have no documentation to support this, but it is inconceivable that Gilbert would not have taken the opportunity to meet up with Sothern and discuss the play. Sothern's Park Theatre engagement ended on the 1st of November, and he immediately went to Boston to perform there on the 3rd; but he was back in New York for the start of a three-week engagement at the Grand Opera House on December the 8th. Gilbert may have had an early draft of the play available by then.

The play was a mixture of several elements which Gilbert had used before. The main one came from "The Story of a Twelfth Cake", which had appeared in the Christmas number of The Graphic in 1874. This story is almost identical to the one better known to us today as "Foggerty's Fairy", except that the hero was originally called Tommy Williamson. (Despite Peter Haining's statement in the Introduction to The Lost Stories of W. S. Gilbert, no version of the story appears in Temple Bar in March 1880.) To this he added elements from Tom Cobb and The Wedding March.

Of course, Gilbert had much else to do at the same time. He had to rehearse Pinafore, as well as new productions of Princess Toto, The Wedding March and Sweethearts, and he was also completing and rehearsing The Pirates of Penzance and organising touring companies of the opera to go round the States. And Sothern, having finished his three-week engagement at the Grand Opera House, started on a tour of the States himself. But in the intervals of all this they must surely have got together and discussed the play - its present problems, Sothern's expectations of it, and so on. Though the start of Sothern's tour separated them again, they were of course able to correspond to discuss the play's remaining problems.

On February the 29th 1880 The Era contained this paragraph: "Mr Sothern says that, although his new comedy, by Mr Gilbert, has cost him 3,000 guineas, he would not take 6,000 guineas for it now. It is a piece of the wildest absurdity ever perpetrated, and all the parts are immense." So Sothern certainly had some version or other of the play in his possession by now, and was evidently enthusiastic about it. The same issue told us that concrete plans had been made for Sothern to appear at the Gaiety in London with Foggerty's Fairy (the title had now been decided upon) in October, after the end of his U.S. engagement.

Gilbert returned to England in March 1880, and in June Sothern did the same. Though it was not obvious from Sothern's frenetic activity in the preceding ten months, he had been ill for much of that time, after spending the summer of 1879 fishing in Canada. He had managed to fulfil his exhausting array of engagements, but by the time he reached England he was clearly very much the worse for wear. He cancelled his engagements, and the July 11th Era told us that he was indisposed and seeking health in Brighton; but staying in one place evidently disagreed with him, and he was off touring Europe at some point in the latter half of the year. His precise movements are difficult to trace, but he did call in on the Era offices on September the 7th, seemingly well on the road to recovery. He was also there at the first night of the newly-decorated Princess's Theatre on November the 6th, but by then he had clearly had a relapse, the journalist G.A. Sala speaking of his being almost unrecognisable and "marked for death". Whatever was wrong with Sothern (and most are vague on the point, though the Times obituary mentions inflammation of the lungs) was by now beginning to get the better of him. By Christmas he was convinced he was near death; a rest cure at Bournemouth in early January did nothing to help him; he was soon back in London, and he died at his Vere Street address on the 20th of January, leaving behind him, among other things, a heavily annotated copy of Foggerty's Fairy.

According to a will signed by him on the 15th of that month, the bulk of his estate was to go to his sister Mary Cowan, who had been with him up to his death, and not to his wife and children as a previous will had stated. At the time of his death, only one instalment of 250 pounds remained to be paid of the 3,000 guineas for Foggerty's Fairy, so in theory the play was now Mary Cowan's to dispose of as she wished. However, Sothern's widow quickly rose to contest the will, and it is reasonable to suppose that all negotiations for the play had to be frozen till its ownership was sorted out.

On May the 31st, however, the 15th of January will was finally proven, and Foggerty’s Fairy was free to be disposed of. By October the 22nd it was in rehearsal at the Criterion, and on the 15th of December it opened there, with Charles Wyndham playing Foggerty.

Our patient reader of The Era had certainly waited long enough for this occasion. It had been advertised for an American premiere in Spring 1880, but something (possibly slowness of composition) prevented this. It had been advertised again for a premiere at the Gaiety in October 1880, but Sothern's illness prevented that. Sothern's death should have allowed a premiere in the first half of 1881: but, I suggest, the contesting of the will prevented that. So now, over two years after Gilbert had started work on it, the real premiere occurred. A fashionable and sympathetic audience attended the occasion.

The first night reviews leave one with a very distinct impression of how the play struck the audience. It was, on the whole, warmly received, though a small minority “murmured”; and Gilbert was called at the end. All the reviews I have seen are agreed on the play's outstanding originality. "An experiment bolder than Mr Gilbert has essayed in [Foggerty's Fairy] ... has rarely, if ever, been attempted upon the stage", said The Pall Mall Gazette (December 19 1881), and The Era (December 17) agreed, calling it "a comedy that cannot be judged by any previous work of the kind". This originality, however, appears to have left some, like the London critic on The New York Times (January 2 1882), in a state of bewilderment: "there is no harmony, no sequence of events, no clean-cut or interesting story". Both the hostile and sympathetic reviews were agreed that though many of the scenes were very funny, some missed fire and seemed irrelevant--particularly the ones with Malvina de Vere at the start of Act Three. The lasting impression received from reading the reviews is that they were confronted with a kind of weird and wonderful curate's egg, of some entirely unknown species.

We must remind ourselves that Gilbert was regarded as something of a firebrand in his day, an experimental dramatist with a capacity to shock and stimulate as hardly any other dramatist of the time could. From our present vantage point in the late twentieth century, schooled consciously or unconsciously in the ideas invented by science-fiction, the notion of "alternative universes" between which a person may move is relatively familiar, but in 1881 it was practically unheard-of: no wonder people were bewildered.

Still, the word-of-mouth opinion about the play must have been impressive. On December the 24th, George Augustus Sala, drama critic of The Illustrated London News, admitted that he had not yet seen the play, but he was not too worried by the omission:

" 'Foggerty's Fairy' was brilliantly successful, and will probably have a very long run; so there will be plenty of time to criticise it at leisure after the feverish pantomimic Boxing-Night week. I hear the 'Fairy' spoken of on all sides as one of the wittiest and as the most ingenious and daring of Mr Gilbert's dramatic productions." Presumably he intended to publish his review in the January the 7th issue (The Illustrated London News being a weekly paper).

Unfortunately, however, Foggerty's Fairy closed on January the 6th.

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