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Mr. W. S. Gilbert, who, in his literary capacity, has hitherto confined himself to burlesque, has deviated from his usual path by the composition of a comedy, entitled An Old Score, which is now played at the Gaiety, and which, equally free from melodramatic and farcical elements, has more pretension to be regarded as a comedy than scores of modern pieces to which that elevated appellation is assigned.
The work, though it avoids the fashionable ultra-realism of the day, is evidently intended for a picture of actual life as manifested in characters and collisions. Some persons, indeed, will trace in the position of the two principal personages a reference to a celebrated case of fraud that a few years ago created a strong sensation among the public of England and Ireland.
His elevation in India was, of course, entirely due to his own industry and talent, but the Colonel persists in thinking that in this particular case the first start did everything, and that whenever Casby refuses to help him out of a pecuniary embarrassment he proves himself a monster of ingratitude. Casby, on the other hand, has his own views on the subject, and while he does not deny his obligation to the Colonel, he emphatically declares that, although he intends to discharge it some day, the repayment will not take the shape of an advance. This cautious line of conduct by no means raises Casby in the eyes of Ethel, who looks on him as a prosaic worldling, and has really set her heart on her uncle’s son Harold (Mr. John Clayton), a reckless spendthrift, who wearies out his father’s life with his extravagance. But Harold has fallen desperately in love with Mary Waters (Miss Rosina Ranoe), the nursery governess, and is so little disposed to transfer his affections elsewhere, that when Mary is dismissed he quits his father’s house with the avowed intention of making her his wife.
The intention is not immediately carried out, for in the second act, which occurs in Harold’s chambers, we find that Mary attends him as his good genius, but that a veil is cast over the relation between the interesting pair which perhaps the audience are not expected to penetrate. And certainly the young man stands in need of a great deal of careful watching. He gains a comfortable income by writing articles for a scandalous journal called the Tormentor, but his conscience is so disagreeably touched by the baseness of his occupation that he is in a fair way of drinking himself to death. James Casby, who calls on him, accompanied by Ethel, endeavours to persuade him to return to his father, but his efforts are vain, and when he attempts to enforce his arguments by a reference to filial duty, his own alleged ingratitude to his benefactor is flung into his teeth. Colonel Calthorpe himself is the next visitor, coming not in the shape of an irate parent, but beaming with joy and forgiveness, an accident on the water having resulted in the death of one Lord Ovington, of whom he was the direct heir. The Honourable Mr. Ovington may be overcome by arguments to which the dishonourable Harold would turn a deaf ear. Such is the new peer’s hypothesis, but it proves incorrect. Harold is true to Mary Waters, and family relations are unchanged when the curtain falls.
The elevation to the peerage greatly modifies the policy of the new Lord Ovington. Honest James Casby is no longer an eligible husband for his niece, and Ethel is enjoined to break off the match, a task which she can the more easily accomplish as Harold is the real object of her choice, and she never loved James from the beginning. But Harold has disappeared, and when the bereaved Mary comes to Ovington Grange vainly to look after him, Ethel, who at first receives her coldly, is so deeply moved by the consciousness of their common misfortune, that the two forlorn damsels become the best of friends.
The story reaches its close when James Casby, having lost the hope of marrying Ethel, has an interview with her now noble father (sic), with the intention of wiping off the “old score” mentioned in the title of the piece. He explains that the Colonel’s motive in rescuing him from abject poverty was purely interested, inasmuch as that great man having earned an undeniable character for cruelty in the army, had wiped out the stain by performing a patent act of philanthropy, and had thus obtained the hand of a wealthy lady. The benefit, however, conferred upon Casby by Lord Ovington is not to be denied, and must be gratefully acknowledged. Accordingly, Casby takes out of his pocket-book two notes forged by Lord Ovington some time ago, and burns them before his eyes. Ethel, who from a place of concealment witnesses the transaction, at once begins to love James Casby, leaving Harold, who has reappeared, free to marry the devoted Mary Waters.
In the tone of this piece there is much that will remind the spectator of Mr. Tom Taylor’s well-known comedy, Still Waters Run Deep. The prosaic character is the main object of interest as opposed to the sentimental sham. James Casby, like John Mildmay, working his way by straightforwardness in word and deed, while the plausible impostor, Colonel Calthorpe, though he does not deservedly come to grief like Captain Hawkseye, is despicable to all who know him. Generally, the characters are sketched with a firm hand, and the dialogue they utter, though not especially brilliant, is consistent and to the purpose. The disreputable conduct of Harold is based on the discovery that his father, in spite of his plausible manner, is a mere scoundrel, whom he cannot esteem, and his better feelings bestir themselves through a disregard of the fifth commandment, which in his case cannot possibly be kept.
Even the ladies of the story, devoted as one of them is, are ruled by a prosaic good sense which may compromise their popularity with the fair occupants of the stalls. The love of Ethel for Harold does not prevent her from bestowing her heart as well as her hand upon James, when she recognizes the moral worth of the latter, and Mary, though, for the sake of the same Harold, she would sacrifice reputation, if not virtue, is constantly at work to promote his comforts and to subdue his vices. To the other characters may be added Manasseh (Mr. Eldred), a Jewish discounter, highly but consistently coloured, whom we have not named in our description of the plot. He holds a bill accepted by Harold, which that worthy young gentleman is unable to meet, and which he therefore takes to the Colonel. At first he is charmed by the moral severity with which the father lectures the son, but his delight is changed to disgust when the Colonel reminds him that as the bill is accepted by a minor it is not a valid document. The situation in which Manasseh takes a part is one of the best in the piece, and, altogether, a command over situation seems to be Mr. Gilbert’s forte.
The piece is well acted. Mr. Emery is not sufficiently refined for the Colonel, who, with all his faults, is a born aristocrat, but he realizes with much humour the conception of moral “humbug.” The plain, straightforward Casby, through whose cold surface a strong sentiment is constantly welling up, but whom sorrow cannot drive to despair, is admirably represented by Mr. H. Neville, and the same may be said of Mr. Clayton’s Harold, who is also an honest fellow at bottom, though he has a strange way of showing it. The ladies are quietly and equally played by Misses Henrade and R. Ranoe, while as for Mr. Eldred’s delineation of the Jew, it is a highly finished picture, showing a power of representing marked character which few artists attain. On the first night of performance An Old Score was followed by every symptom of success, and if its good fortune does not prove permanent it will be because the work is too genuine a comedy to suit the taste of the age.
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