|W. S. Gilbert > Plays > Great Expectations > First Night Review
Great Expectations, one of the latest and most striking of Mr. Charles Dickens’s ever popular novels, has at last found its way to the stage, in the shape of a dramatic version, written by Mr. W. S. Gilbert, who has performed a task by no means easy, with considerable skill. He has neither sought to exhaust the whole contents of the book, and to put these in very squeezed conditions on the boards, nor has he fixed his attention on some particular episode to the exclusion of all besides. Adopting a middle course, he has broadly surveyed the whole story as presented by Mr. Dickens, and detaching therefrom the scenes which best mark its progress and afford the best opportunities for characteristic acing, he has tacked these together in craftsman-like fashion, and we do not discover a gap in his novel that can offend any one but those unreasonable persons who expect to see a novel, the reading of which occupies several days, completely reproduced in a play which lasts about for two hours and a half.
Personages whom he could not conveniently use he has banished from the scene, and though we greatly miss our friend Wemmick, one of the most humorous characters in the book, and the weird Miss Havisham, we console ourselves with the maxim that it is better to carry on our action with a limited number of dramatis personæ, than to hurry along the stage a long series of ineffective figures.
The success of pieces of this kind, which purport chiefly to interest the public by the visible representation of characters already familiar through the medium of narrative, necessarily depends as much on the actors as on the dramatist. Indeed, the former stand in as immediate a relation to the novel as the latter, since it is from the novelist that every indication of individual peculiarity is derived, the work of the dramatist consisting of little more than arrangement, save when he goes out of his way to produce some marked “effect,” with which the display of character has little to do.
Now, we have no hesitation in saying that among all the personages who appear in the dramatized Great Expectations, the pre-eminence belongs to Mr. Jaggers, the Old Bailey attorney, as represented by Mr. John Clayton. For unexceptionable “make up” Mr. Clayton has always been noted, but while his usual excellence in this respect is manifest, he shows a far greater talent for the perception and delineation of idiosyncracy than he has yet made known. Mr. Jaggers, as he exhibits him, is a gentleman of grave and even stately aspect, “knowing,” indeed, to an almost preternatural degree, but with a knowledge that may be called “high cunning,” in opposition to the low and more common article of which we hear every day. He detects the unspoken thoughts of those with whom he converses by an à priori method, without subjecting himself to the trouble of physiognomical investigation, and his utterances are those of a solemn oracle, at once infallible and clear. Aware that knowledge is power, he asserts the power of knowledge by his dictatorial bearing. And yet, with all his grandeur, he never lays aside the semblance of a matter-of-fact man of business, and honestly repels every undue expression of reverence, by confessing that he does nothing for which he is not paid.
Next in rank to Mr. Jaggers comes the convict Magwich, alias Provis, admirably made up, and played with much bluff pathos by Mr. J. C. Cowper, and aptly contrasted with the other convict Orlick, who is endowed with the proper amount of ruffianism by Mr. W. Belford. Good natured, simple, hearty Joe Gargery is played with unction by Mr. E. Righton, but he does not make so much a mark in the play as in the novel. Biddy, nicely played by Miss Kate Bishop, is also a somewhat disappointing personage; but the first Mrs. Joe, though she soon comes to an untimely end, lives long enough to afford opportunity for a capital display of shrewishness by Miss Kate Manor.
Pip is smartly represented by Miss Maggie Brennan, but it may be laid down as a general truth that the so-called “hero” of a narrative fiction, the person whose adventures constitute its substance, and who is always in the presence of the reader, never asserts his importance on the stage. Call him Copperfield, or Ivanhoe, or Nigel, or Gil Blas, or Tom Jones, it will be invariably found as soon as he treads the boards that, although he sustains his little world, he is less an Atlas than an impersonal centre of gravity. Don Quixote, if he could be adequately represented, would perhaps appear as an exception to the race of heroes; but, though the novel which bears his name has been frequently dramatized, and every English musician remembers Dr. G. A. Macfarren’s opera, the Knight of La Mancha has never to our knowledge occupied a permanent niche in any theatrical Pantheon.
The piece closes “sensationally” with the view of the old Sluice-house, the attempted murder of Pip by Orlick, and the death of the two convicts, but the best work of pictorial art is Mr. Hann’s representation of the village church and churchyard, which is the decoration of the “prologue.”
We have already said that Mr. Gilbert has well executed his task. But we cannot forbear the remark that no dramatic version, however skilful or complete, can convey even a faint notion of the work of our great and lamented novelist.
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