|W. S. Gilbert > Plays > Great Expectations > Review of the 1877 Revival
Great Expectations, an adaptation by Mr. Gilbert of Charles Dickens’s novel of that name, first produced at the Court Theatre some five years ago, was revived at the Westminster Aquarium Theatre on Saturday evening.
Mr. Gilbert is so ingenious an adapter both of French plays and English stories that when we find him comparatively failing in the attempt to shape into dramatic form a novel of Charles Dickens we are almost confirmed in our belief that the task when applied to the writings of this author is a hopeless one. Mr. Gilbert’s failure is, perhaps, less positive than some others made by his contemporaries, but it is still a failure. He has dealt very tenderly with the original, neither disfiguring the language nor the conceptions of the author, nor making any alterations in the plot save such as he conceived to be absolutely necessary to his purpose. It is just possible, perhaps, that had his manner of treatment been less tender he might have produced a more substantial and continuous piece; but there is so strong an individuality about all that Dickens wrote that to interfere with it in any way cannot be but delicate and dangerous work. It would be difficult, therefore, to point out precisely where Mr. Gilbert has failed, and how he might have avoided failure. It is a fact, however, that instead of an interesting and ingenious, though occasionally somewhat intricate, story, abounding in many original and amusing conceptions, and illustrated with much felicity of language, both grave and gay, we have a somewhat dull play, in which all the peremptory necessities of the stage have but made more unintelligible all that tended to complicate and obscure the original, and in which, as in all similar attempts with which we are acquainted, the action bears a terribly small proportion to the amount of dialogue.
It is one of the most unfortunate peculiarities of all adaptations of these novels that while in the pages of the book the characters are made to amuse and to interest as much by what they do as by what they say, when once they are transferred to the stage it seems impossible that they shall do anything but talk, and, it must be added, not always in quite so amusing a manner. Mr. Gilbert has certainly contrived to preserve many of the quaint ideas and happy turns of expression and thought which make the reader of the book smile; but, as these often come from Dickens himself as from his characters, the play has naturally less of them than the novel, and the unavoidable elimination of much of the context cannot but lessen the effect of that which is preserved. Indeed, these adaptations invariably remind us of those publications known as “Elegant Extracts,” in which familiar passages, or “beauties” as they are termed, of the poets are set forth in solitary magnificence, and in ignorance or carelessness of the fact that, deprived of their surroundings, they are deprived of more than half their beauty.
Mr. Gilbert presents the story of Great Expectations in a prologue and tree acts. In the prologue it is shown how Pip, then a very little boy, earns the gratitude of Magwitch, the convict, by procuring him some broken victuals and a file, and the remaining acts tell how well that deed was remembered and how curiously repaid. Many of the characters of the novel are absent from the play. Miss Haversham, the weird old lady concerning whose solitary life and strange behaviour Pip, in the story, fabricates such ingenious reports, and to whom the fortunes of that young gentleman are, by himself and his family, supposed to be due, is nothing but a name; and Estella is even a more vague and unsubstantial being than the Estella of Dickens. All Miss Haversham’s relations disappear, and so, too, does Compeyson, Miss Haversham’s false lover, and Wemmick, Mr. Jagger’s clerk, the man with a mouth like a post-office, and a variety of other men and women who have their place in the book, but who would but encumber the stage.
The story is consistently followed in all its main details. Pip is removed from the blacksmith’s forge to London, and enters on the career of a gentleman at, it is supposed, Miss Haversham’s charges. In process of time he learns who his real benefactor is – Magwitch, the convict whom he once befriended, and who, having prospered in New South Wales, has returned, at the risk of his life, to see how the boy, who was once kind to him, is faring. Instead, however, of the attempted escape and capture at the Nore, Magwitch is retaken in the Old Mill on the Marshes just as he, with Herbert, Pip’s friend, has made his appearance in time to save Pip from the vengeance of old Orlick, the scoundrel of the piece, upon whose shoulders is also laid some of the villainy of Compeyson. The officers shoot down Magwitch, who draws a pistol, not to defend, but to take, his own life, and the man dies after he has learned that Estella is his own child. The mystery of Estella is, it will be remembered, explained, though not too clearly, in the book; but in the play no explanation is attempted, and the omission of this character might, we think, have had a beneficial effect on the intelligibility of the plot. Her presence is, we presume, in obedience to that canon of dramatic law which prescribes a lover for the hero, but her absence would have better accorded with a still more important canon, which prescribes a clear and connected story.
But, though all the main details of the original are thus truthfully followed, they are, unfortunately, rendered obscure by the omission of what, though seemingly of subordinate interest, is really of vital importance to a correct understanding of the whole. A knowledge of the novel would certainly render the play intelligible, but in adaptations of even the best-known works of fiction such knowledge should never be presumed. If a play can only be understood by reference to what is not presented on the stage, if the action which is exhibited on the stage is only intelligible by a knowledge of the action which occurs off the stage, it is obvious that this play must be deficient in one of the first qualifications for dramatic success. These remarks bear no particular reference to Mr. Gilbert’s work as differing from other similar attempts, to all of which, so far as our experience serves, they are equally applicable. Indeed, considering the exceptional difficulties with which Mr. Gilbert has had to contend – for Great Expectations is assuredly not a novel which would occur to the general reader as lending itself easily to adaptation to the stage – he has been, we think, more successful than many others who have ventured into the same field; but, as we said once on a similar occasion, though it might be a bold thing to declare that to make a good stage play out of one of Charles Dickens’s novels was an impossibility, it is a task which has certainly not yet been accomplished.
When it is considered how wonderfully of late years the number of theatres in London has increased, and that at the present time nearly every one of those theatres is open, the work of getting together an efficient company will appear one of no common difficulty. In the circumstances, the managers of this little theatre may be considered to have been on the whole tolerably successful. Certainly the acting is very superior to that which was to be seen here during the representations of a play called Heroes. Mr. Belford and Miss Maggie Brennan are the respective exponents of the characters of Orlick and Pip, as they were at the Court Theatre, and neither of these performances is, to be sure, of any very particular merit; but Mr. Fawn, as Joe Gargery, the blacksmith, and Mr. Dewar, as Jaggers, the lawyer, are both to be praised. The former, especially in the earlier scenes, has caught the peculiarities of the original very happily, and renders with a good deal of skill the curious mixture of simplicity and shrewdness, the rough, uncouth exterior and the gentle, manly heart that mark honest Joe, and make him one of the most agreeable and natural of all Dickens’s characters, and so direct a contrast to the conceit of the hero, Pip; Mr Dewar gives good effect to the brusque, dogamatical utterances and “Old Bailey” manner of the lawyer; and Mr. Edgar shows some glimpses of power, not as yet very artistically managed, as Magwitch, the convict.
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