|Gilbert > Plays > English Theatre in 1881
Mr. Gilbert ... has, since the comparative failure of his Gretchen, bent his wings to a lower flight. With the exception of Patience, in the great success of which he has, of course, but a partial share, and which is without the pale of our present remarks, he has produced this year but one piece, Foggerty’s Fairy, originally accepted by Sothern, but first acted a short while ago, and only for a short while, by Mr. Wyndham and his company at the Criterion Theatre.
But another piece of his, of much the same class, Engaged, has recently been revived at the Court Theatre, with a much greater share of success than was its early lot at the Haymarket. Both these pieces may be said to show Mr. Gilbert at his best, and at his worst. They show the careful elaboration of the idea which distinguishes all his work, and they show, too, the radical ineffectualness of the idea which disfigures so much of it.
Many of his critics press against him his cynicism and his satire, and talk of bitter tastes, unwholesome impressions, and so forth. But, really, this has nothing to do with the question. No doubt, Mr. Gilbert has a keen eye for “folly as it flies,” but there is a good deal of folly flying about, and it is as well that some of it should be brought down. The grotesque is the rock on which he splits; his incurable love for the grotesque, and his inability to see that the essence of the grotesque, as of wit, is brevity; his inability, also, to recognize that those whose minds have not the same play are naturally less quick in detecting, less interested in appreciating, the peculiar humours of a form of writing, which really, after all, takes its stand upon the assertion that two and two do not make four.
The grotesque effects by surprising, and it is not in human nature to go on being surprised at the same thing for ever. “It was always,” says Falstaff, “the trick of our English nation, if they had a good thing, to make it too common,” Mr. Gilbert found a good thing in his Bab Ballads and his Trial by Jury, but he has made it too common. They were short, sharp, pithy; above all, they were fresh; we were surprised, and allowed no leisure to reflect at what. But when the same idea is repeated in play after play, and trailed across three acts or four, then we cannot but begin to ask ourselves what it is we have come out to see, cannot but discover how slight a thing it really is, how vaporous and fleeting.
It is the radical weakness of his subject-matter, its want of solidity, above all its want of humanity, that stands in Mr. Gilbert’s way, for all his careful workmanship, and his clear acceptance of that essential fact that the players are for the play, and not the play for the players. Even from his more serious work the same element is rarely absent. Hence it is that even his most successful work has so little power of endurance. It runs its course, and passes away; for all its cleverness and humour, for all its play of wit, and riot of fancy, it passes away. It has not humanity enough to keep it sweet.
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