|Gilbert > Plays > The Happy Land > Background
Of all Gilbert's plays, The Happy Land is probably the one which has most to gain from an explanation of its historical background. Several matters need to be addressed: the play's authorship (including Gilbert's use of a pseudonym); its parodic relationship to The Wicked World; its topical political references; and (perhaps most interestingly) the history of its brief suppression by the Lord Chamberlain.
Who wrote The Happy Land? In later years Gilbert tried to minimise his own involvement: in 1909 he told a Joint Committee on Censorship that the play "was not written by me, but it was informed by me; that is to say, I drew up the scenario... It was written by Gilbert à Beckett". He seems to have told his first biographer, Edith Browne, that he wrote the scenario and the lyrics of the musical numbers. As a matter of fact, the British Library holds a plot outline written out by him, and the first 25 pages of the Licence Copy are also in his handwriting. A manuscript copy of "Part Second", held by the Pierpont Morgan Library, has 20 pages written by him. This evidence shows, at the very least, that he was involved closely enough with the project to make fair copies of the play for official purposes. He seems to have been the dominant writer of the partnership, providing the plot, much of the dialogue, and (I suggest) at least one lyric.
His collaborator, Gilbert à Beckett, was a minor dramatist and journalist of the period, who was one of the members of Punch's Round Table: it was he who had the idea for one of Punch's most famous cartoons, "Dropping the Pilot". Many of the lyrics in The Happy Land seem too clumsy and irregular in metre for Gilbert, and are probably by à Beckett. I suggest he contributed many of the topical political jokes and helped Gilbert to write the passages parodying The Wicked World.
Why did Gilbert hide his involvement under a pseudonym? The obvious answer is that he did not want to be too publicly involved with such a politically dangerous piece. It is true that in later years Gilbert seems to have become rather ashamed of its subversive tone; but I don't believe he was overly afraid of scandal in 1873. I believe his main reason may have been to avoid seeming to sabotage the production of The Wicked World which was running at the Haymarket at the same time as The Happy Land.
The play is only incidentally a parody of The Wicked World, though it does manage to make one or two telling points against the earlier play. The parody is simply a convenient vehicle for the political satire which is its dominant feature, and which was the cause of all its problems.
In both plays, chaos comes to Fairyland when an element of life in the mortal world is imported. In The Wicked World, this element is "mortal love"; in The Happy Land, it is "popular government" (in the sketch plot identified as "Liberal Government"). And the people who bring "popular government" to Fairyland are none other than the Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, Robert Lowe (Chancellor of the Exchequer), and A.S. Ayrton (Commissioner for Public Works).
I don't have the space here to go into detail about the political
attitudes in The Happy Land, but I can sketch the outlines. Gladstone's
government is portrayed as a penny-pinching outfit which cares nothing
for protecting the national honour. Gladstone is an opportunist windbag
("there are three courses open to us"); Lowe a shabby miser; and Ayrton
a man completely lacking in aesthetic taste. Many of the satirical lines
seem crude, their only merit being topicality – naturally I attribute
these to à Beckett. But when the writing is allowed to expand a little,
as in the "competitive examination" scene in Part First, we are surely
seeing the true Gilbert at work. For greater detail about the political
references in this play, see Elwood P. Lawrence's article "The Happy
Land: W.S. Gilbert as Political Satirist". (Reference in Bibliography.)
The play was greeted with uproarious approval on the first night (March 3rd 1873): such a daring political attack had, I believe, not been seen on the English stage in living memory; and the novelty must have been exhilarating. Edward Righton, who played "Mr. A.", described the effect of their appearance on the audience:
"...[As we] appeared, rising through the clouds, there burst upon us another gale of boisterous merriment, which increased and increased in volume as we rose higher and higher, until the three figures from Vanity Fair stood on the stage; then the applause resembled the roaring of cannon or claps of thunder...."
But the approval was not unanimous. It so happened that Edward, Prince of Wales, was among the audience that night; displeased with this full-frontal attack on the Government of which, officially speaking, his mother the Queen was the head, he tipped off the Lord Chamberlain about the nature of the play. On March 6th the Lord Chamberlain withdrew the play's licence. After some wrangling, the licence was restored on condition that the three politicians were no longer made up to look like Gladstone, Lowe and Ayrton, and that they stuck to the script in the Licensing Copy.
But by this time the play had been given widespread publicity, and everyone knew who the three were supposed to be: even in censored form, it was one of the big hits of the season, and it had a lengthy career in the provinces, where, the Lord Chamberlain's eye no longer upon it, the satire became more direct and pointed than ever.
This is the most daring play Gilbert ever wrote. Why did he write it? The satirist's stock emotion of "savage indignation" doesn't really fit what we know of Gilbert. He did not naturally support any one political party, and was prepared to ridicule Whig and Tory alike. Marie Litton, the manager of the Court Theatre, at which the play was performed, told Spencer Ponsonby of the Lord Chamberlain's department that it had all been "a 'try on' to which she had been urged by the Authors". This sounds more like it: the main target of the attack was not Gladstone but the Licenser of Plays. It was simply a defiant joke against the pompous, absurd censors of the Victorian stage.
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