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Mr. Tennyson, Mr. Wills, Mr. Gilbert, and Mr. Byron have also contributed to the slender stock of original material, of whom the three last named stand in the front rank of our living dramatists. The Falcon of Mr. Tennyson is rather to be regarded as an elegant curiosity than as a material addition to the literature of our stage; but to Mr. Gilbert, on the other hand, belongs the distinction of the most ambitious attempt, not only of this year, but of many preceding years. In his Gretchen, first acted at the Olympic on March 24, he essayed not, indeed, to pluck the crown from the head of Marlowe or of Goethe, but to weave one for himself from out the same fabric.
In literature it is difficult to determine the constitution of property. There is no written law which forbids a man to lay hands upon the story of Othello, and a legend which has been the common inheritance of the civilized world for centuries before Marlow enshrined it in his “mighty line” may still, perhaps, be held an open subject, even when consecrated by the genius of Goethe. Yet such ambition, if legitimate, is dangerous. Odious as comparisons are, they will and must be made; no professions of humility, no confessions of inferiority, however sincere they may be, can avert them. The prize is splendid, but in proportion to its splendour so is the ignominy of defeat the darker: the defeated forfeits even sympathy.
From this tremendous ordeal Mr. Gilbert’s work did not emerge unscathed. Perhaps it can scarcely be said to have emerged at all, inasmuch as it was in a very short while withdrawn from the stage – as the author maintained, prematurely and without sufficient reason; but as the management maintained, for the excellent reason that nobody would come to see it. Be this as it might, the play, with every chance given it, could never have attained any great or lasting share of public favour. Neither as a dramatic piece of work nor as a poetical piece of work was it of much distinction. The cause or reason of its existence was not made sufficiently clear. It was not a version of Goethe’s work; no use had been made of Marlowe’s play; yet it could not be said that the old legend had received any fresh complexion from Mr. Gilbert.
His story was practically the story of Goethe’s poem, and where the details differed, the difference was not of sufficient breadth to mark an original departure from the former’s plan. Mr, Gilbert did at once too much and too little. He should either have contented himself with constructing out of the German poem a version for the English stage, as many good versions have been constructed for the German stage, and which he probably would have done very well; or he should have dared a bolder flight still and recast the old material in a new mould of his own shaping. The form of his play was graceful, correct, and polished, but it lacked both colour and variety; the verse – it was written for the most part in verse – was not poetry, and, though smooth, distinct, and flowing, was remarkable for freshness neither of thought nor expression.
Acting of the highest order might have redeemed it; but though the principal parts were carefully played, with much grace and not without intelligence, their manner was marked, unfortunately, with the same faults as the play. They lacked both reality and passion; they were prettily, but not greatly played. Such was the fate of what we have characterized as the most ambitious effort of recent years.
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