|Gilbert > Plays > The Ne'er-Do-Weel > Review from The Times
An old French fable relates how a malignant fairy who had not been invited to the christening of a certain young Prince revenged herself for the slight by infusing a curse into every blessing that her more honoured sisters had bestowed on the unconscious infant. The work Mr. Gilbert has done for the stage has more than once reminded us of this story, and his latest play, the Ne’er-do-Weel, produced at the Olympic Theatre on Monday night, has revived the recollection with peculiar force. Whenever he desires to rise above those extravagant, though often ingenious, sallies of grotesque humour for which he is most widely, and perhaps most favourably, known, almost invariably at the highest pitch of his flight he seems impelled by some mysterious power to descend suddenly and swiftly into those lower regions wherein his fancy appears to revel with the greatest freedom and most unalloyed delight. In his most sedate and sober passages – in passages expressing sometimes real human passion and sometimes real human feeling – the spectator is shocked by the intrusion of some grotesque turn of thought, or extravagance of whim, painfully at variance with the spirit of the scene, and which, while rudely dispelling the just and pleasing effect that has been created, is unable to provoke laughter for its own sake, appearing, as it does, not as a welcome and expected guest, but rather as an impertinent intruder.
Mr. Gilbert loves to play the part of Comus. The rabble who drank of the enchanted cup and became slaves to the son of Circe were doomed, while retaining their human shapes, to bear upon their shoulders the “inglorious likeness of a beast.” Somewhat after this fashion, Mr. Gilbert, while investing the men and women of his higher drama with many admirable and pleasing qualities, seems to take a strange and malignant pleasure in deforming his work with sudden strokes of grotesque disfigurement, as inexplicable as they are unpleasant. It is difficult to account for this unfortunate peculiarity. Mr. Gilbert’s own talents, of which he has given many proofs, and his experience of the stage, which is undeniable, should alike show him that this mode of procedure is both false to nature and doubly false to art –
The ne’er-do-weel, from whom the play derives its title, is a man of good birth, position and talents whom an ill-starred love has driven into dissipation, recklessness, and beggary. In this state he meets with an old schoolfellow whose father is fortunately in want of a secretary. Established in this comfortable post, decently clothed and in his right mind, Jeffrey Rollestone, the vagabond, becomes a very respectable and useful member of society. But unfortunately there is a young lady, beautiful and wealthy, one Maud Callender, cousin of Gerard Seton, Rollestone’s benefactor. It is most desirable that the cousins should marry, that Maud’s wealth may restore the desperate fortunes of the house of Seton. The young man’s consent to this pleasant arrangement is naturally enough secured, but the girl is less complaisant. She has loved and she cannot forget the object of her love.
She has scarcely replied to Gerard’s declaration of attachment, when Rollestone, who has accepted his friend’s offer, and retired to make the necessary changes to his personal appearance, which the opportune presence of Gerard’s portmanteau have rendered possible, appears upon the scene. It is then made obvious – what the spectator has probably guessed before – that Maud Callender is the girl who, through no fault of her own, drove Jeffrey Rollestone to evil courses, and Jeffrey Rollestone is the man who stands in the way of his friend, Gerard Seton.
This closes the first act, and so far the play has progressed pleasantly enough. It is written, as are most of Mr. Gilbert’s works, with neatness and fluency, and with a mixture of humour that is generally natural and not over-strained. A scene between Maud and an elderly maiden friend of hers, one Miss Parminter, in which the latter, pleading for Gerard, is supposed by Maud to refer to her own passion for that young gentleman, has not, indeed, much bearing on the story and seems somewhat too obviously introduced to provoke laughter, as though the author were half ashamed of the sadder and softer feeling some of his scenes might have aroused – a sentiment which has, by the way, more than once appeared to us to influence Mr. Gilbert’s work. Yet this scene is certainly humorous in itself and well managed by the actresses, Mrs. St. Henry and Miss Marion Terry; moreover, it does not miss its mark, and has therefore one very strong excuse for its introduction.
The acting of Mr. Neville, too, as the ne’er-do-weel, is very effective and in good spirit, and his appearance on the scene is cleverly, if somewhat too theatrically, contrived. The conversation between him and young Seton, represented by Mr. Forbes-Robertson, is good; the vagabond tells his story forcibly and well, and at not too great a length. The scene itself, too, is deserving of great praise, as presenting one of the most picturesque and well-arranged landscapes we ever remember to have seen on the stage.
On the whole, then, the first act was satisfactory in itself and gave promise of something better still to come. Nor were the opening scenes of the second act devoid of interest. The acting of Mr. Flockton, as the elder Seton, contributed much to their success, and was deservedly applauded. This is an old country gentleman, of aimiable and courtly manners, much given to self-depreciation, a virtue which, however, he is extremely pleased to find others disposed to combat. Perhaps this quality is rather pushed to the extreme by the author, but it is displayed amusingly enough at times, and can scarcely be said to be exaggerated by the actor. The fortunes of the Seton family are by this time on the very verge of ruin. Rollestone – who has proved most valuable in his new position – has just returned defeated from a forlorn hope, and it is clear no more money can be raised on any pretence. The marriage between Gerard and Maud is the one chance left, and this marriage Rollestone himself is urged, by every tie of gratitude, to use his best efforts to encompass. He complies, but his efforts honestly meant and pushed almost to the brink of baseness, are met with the somewhat bold avowal of Maud that she has never forgotten, and never can forget, her early love for him, a love which, it appears, she had hoped could now be recompensed.
The father learns the issue of Rollestone’s intervention, and a stormy scene ends in the latter’s expulsion from the house. So far, again, there has been nothing much to find fault with, and Miss Marion Terry’s acting has in this scene been marked by a breadth and vigour she has never hitherto displayed. But from this moment a most extraordinary change comes over the spirit of the play. Rollestone, musing over the unhappy events of the last few hours and meditating on his departure from the scene of so much happiness, is disturbed by the entry through the window of a person evidently on burglarious designs intent. This is one Richard Quilt, a former secretary of Mr. Seton’s, discharged for dishonesty. His present purpose is to possess himself of certain letters written to young Seton by a Miss Jessie O’Hara, the pretty niece of a certain retired merchant captain. Between these two young people a flirtation had sprung up which had on Jessie’s side ripened into love and, had not Maud, or Maud’s wealth, stood in the way would, as subsequent events prove, have had the same issue with Seton. Quilt, himself nourishing a tender, though wholly unrequited, passion for Jessie, and being a person of a mean and dishonest nature, is anxious to get possession of these letters to use, in some not very intelligible way, against Gerard. He has scarcely, however, possessed himself of the packet when he discovers the presence of Rollestone.
Then a most absurd and unfortunate scene ensues. Rollestone, by presenting and snapping the fastenings of a pipe-case – a very old ruse, supposed to have been once successfully practised on a notorious highwayman – persuades the robber that he carries arms and becomes master of the situation. Quilt’s pockets are emptied; the letters are given up; his coat, waistcoat, and boots are stripped off, and he is told he may “hop off” as best he can. This, after a bombastic threat of vengeance, absurd in any case and inexpressibly absurd in the circumstances, he proceeds to do after the fashion of a person running in what is known as a “sack-race.” Thus, after a situation of real, if not very original power, expressed with much truth and feeling, the scene suddenly shifted to one of the wildest farce – one which would hardly, indeed, be out of place in a pantomime.
How an author of the experience of Mr. Gilbert could have made, or a manager the experience of Mr. Neville have countenanced such a mistake surpasses our comprehension. The disapproval of the audience, expressed with a vigour and clearness rarely to be met with in the present day, was a sufficient comment on the glaring impropriety of this scene, which, if the play is to continue on the stage, must undergo, as we can hardly suppose it will fail to undergo, the strongest modification. The act, however, is not yet over. Quilt is caught by two of O’Hara’s keepers, and a letter of Jessie’s, overlooked by Rollestone, is found upon him. This letter is brought by O’Hara, shrewdly guessing to whom it is written and in a violent state of indignation, to old Seton. To save his friend, and if possible further the old man’s designs, Rollestone avows himself as the object of Miss Jessie’s affection.
The third act, unfortunately, shows no improvement. It is opened by an extravagant scene, pushed to the extreme limits of weariness, in which O’Hara, who has recently been raised to the Commission of the Peace and who is as ignorant of the law as Captain Cuttle, examines Quilt on a charge of burglary. Of this scene it will be sufficient to say that, as of its predecessor in the second act, the opinion of the audience concerning it was delivered with an unanimity and emphasis that were not to be mistaken. The rest can be told in a few words. Gerard is shown to have married Jessie, and the opportune death of a near relative, which raises his father to a title and a fortune, takes the sting from such an alliance. Rollestone is thus left to marry Maud, and so the play ends.
It can scarcely be regretted that the disapproval expressed in the theatre on Monday night was as strong as it was. That what deserves should receive censure, as that what deserves should receive praise, is a sound principle, the discreet observance of which cannot but exercise a wholesome influence on the stage. It is, however, to be regretted that it is the work of Mr. Gilbert, whom the public have so often been zealous to applaud, that in this instance has been visited with a contrary expression of feeling. That he has only himself to blame for it, however, is certain.
The extravagance of some of his scenes was certainly not always lessened by the moderation of some of the actors, notably by the representatives of Captain O’Hara and Richard Quilt. But in other respects there was little fault to be found with the acting. Miss Terry, Mrs. St. Henry, Miss Gerard, Mr. Flockton, and Mr. Forbes-Robertson all did their best; Mr. Neville in the first act was very good, though with his return to his normal style of dress, he showed at times a strong inclination to return to what may be called now his normal style of acting. But the faults of the play are not to be remedied by the best of acting, and though Mr. Gilbert has certainly shown before this a tendency to indulge in faults of a similar nature, we are certainly surprised to find this mistake aggravated to such a pitch in a work bearing his name.
Thursday, March 7, 1878
The management of the Olympic have done wisely in at once withdrawing Mr. Gilbert’s Ne’er-do-Weel, and Mr. Gilbert will, we hope and believe, be proved to have shown equal wisdom in his determination to reshape his play and try fortune with it once again. With the first act there was little fault to be found. It was good in itself, and it gave promise of good to follow. As Mr. Gilbert has now the advantage, such as it may be, of a variety of opinions as to the direct cause of failure, and should be very well able to gauge for himself the true measure of their worth, we may reasonably hope that he will succeed in so recasting the play as to verify the first promise and make ample atonement both for the disappointment of the public and his own.
The recollection of failure is no doubt strong, in some cases, perhaps, stronger even in those who pronounce than in those who receive the adverse verdict. Sometimes, too, it is apt to carry with it an association neither just nor generous, and the disinclination to again court approval for what has been once rejected, even where the cause of rejection can be removed, is intelligible enough. Still, neither feeling can be said to truly establish a precedent. Failure, if accepted in time, is more than half redeemed, and the history of the stage records many a triumph evolved from something perilously like disaster. Even the Rivals was at first a failure. If Mr. Gilbert succeeds in his attempt, which has now at least the merit of novelty, though the practice was formerly not uncommon, he may set an example well worth imitation, if the imitation be tempered with judgement and not pushed to the extremity of declining in any circumstances to accept an adverse opinion. Meanwhile, Mr. Tom Taylor’s version of Miss Braddon’s novel of “Henry Dunbar” has been again revived, with the same cast as figured in the revival of last November; and the time which must elapse before the second trial of the Ne’er-do-Weel will be still further eked out with a revival of the ever-popular Money.
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