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MR. W. S. GILBERT'S ORIGINAL PLAYS

By EDWARD ST. JOHN-BRENON

[Grand Magazine, March 1905, pp 309-316]

This article is an examination of the question "How much can a dramatist take from another and still call his play original?"
Perhaps Mr. W. S. Gilbert has given as much pleasure to British audiences as any living author, and most people will say that, wherever he obtained his ideas, he put into them so much Gilbertian humour that they were entitled to be called original.
Mr. St. John-Brenan examines in an unprejudiced and not unfriendly way Mr. Gilbert's claim to call the "Palace of Truth" original.

AMONGST some dramatic authors there seems to be an affected confusion of ideas as to the significance of the term "original" when used in regard to a play, especially if that play be written by themselves. To ordinary students of the literature of the drama, a work which is labelled "original" is supposed to convey the belief that the plot is wholly the invention of the author, that the situations are evolved from his own fecund fancy, and that the final catastrophe of these—or dénouement, as the French would say—is the germination of his own brain, and in no way the appropriation of the thoughts of other and more richly endowed imaginations, however deftly used or presented for general appreciation and criticism. In the higher poetic drama it is further expected that even old and time-crystallised truths will be clothed in a manner, as regards their expression and drift, which suggests novelty and originality of thought, and that all imagery and metaphor shall be adorned in convenient and picturesque language, which must necessarily be in reasonably correct and grammatical verse. It cannot be forgotten that there is nothing new under the sun, and that every idea of the poets has been repeated since poetry took a concrete form. It is only in the presentation of the idea that there can be newness, and because it possesses this quality it is accorded the epithet "original."

The Preacher thuswise whispered me,
That which hath been again shall be;
And done things shall again be done;
For there's no new thing 'neath the sun,
No thing of which a man can say,
This ne'er hath been until to-day.*

To what extent the expression "original" can be abused is strangely set forth by the well-known dramatist Mr. William Swenck [sic] Gilbert in a note to the first series of his Original Plays. In this he tells us that "the story upon which 'The Palace of Truth' is founded is probably as old as 'The Arabian Nights.' 'The Princess' is a respectful parody of Mr. Tennyson's exquisite poem. It has been generally held, I believe, that if a dramatist uses the mere outline of an existing story for dramatic purposes he is at liberty to describe his play as original!"

True; "if a dramatist use the mere outline of an existing story" only, he may in a measure be excused by his readers for stating that the work is "original." Still his claim to originality could but in a certain sense be admitted, if he took the public into his confidence, having once thought it necessary to confess at all that he had used the outline of a story by informing it of the source of his dramatic inspiration. In Mr. Gilbert's "note" there is manifested a disingenuousness which one would hardly expect from a man of his uncommon mental faculty; for when he wrote it he probably knew that that the story, as he developed it, in this interesting "Fairy Comedy" was one written by Madame de Genlis as late as the latter part of the eighteenth century, and was published in her once well-known and much-read "Les Veillées du Château" under the same title as Mr. Gilbert's comedy "The Palace of Truth" — "Le Palais de la Vérité" — which "Tales" the inquiring student can find in any well-equipped library of famous French authors.

Stéphanie Félicité, Comtesse de Genlis, who was "gouverneur" of the children of the Royal House of France and a lady of exalted social position, was a prolific writer of secular and religious plays, short moral tales, and a number of other works of considerable interest. Anyone reading her "moral tale," as she calls it, will see at once that Mr. Gilbert made use of not only the "mere outline" of this tale. But of the whole plot, the principal situations, the characters and the language, to an extent that ought to have compelled him, he having deemed it expedient to touch on the question of originality at all, to have given no niggard credit for the help she gave him in the invention and construction of his justly popular comedy.

The story as told by Madame de genlis occupies in the collected edition of her works some 113 pages. Of the twenty-two characters which she introduces, including those to be found in the opening portion or prologue, Mr. Gilbert in his play uses eleven—name for name with those of Madame de Genlis. viz.: King Phanor, Prince Philamir, Chrysal, Zoram, Aristæus, Gélanor, Queen Altemire, Princess Zeolide, Mirza, Palmis, and Azèma.

Mr. Gilbert opens his play with King Phanor reciting some of his poetry to his courtiers, who with simulated enthusiasm extol the royal rhymer's commonplace effusions, Phanor receiving the untoward praise as if it were only the due meed of his merit. This idiosyncrasy, common to all meagre poetasters, is to be found in Madame de Genlis's tale; but Mr. Gilbert treats it inversely, for as yet the Palace of Truth has not been visited. He, however, deals with the value of such courtier commendation in the Palace of Truth, where Princess Zeolide sings a song and at its conclusion Chrysal and Zoram applaud, but honestly deprecate the singer and the song, unconscious that they are speaking their innermost thoughts. Chrysal says:

  Oh, I protest my ears have never heard
A goodly song more miserably sung.
*        *        *       *        *        *
ALTEMIRE (amused): Indeed! I think I've often heard you say
  No voice could rival Princess Zeolide's
CHRYSAL (enthusiastically): I've often said so—I have praised her voice
  Because I am a courtier—paid to praise.
I never meant one word of what I said;
I have the worst opinion of her voice,
And so has Zoram.
ZORAM:   I? Oh, dear me, no!
  I can form no opinion on the point,
I am no judge of music.
CHRYSAL:     Eh?  
ZORAM:       Not I!
  I hardly know the treble from the bass,
And as to harmony—I know the word,
But hang me if I guess at what it means!
CHRYSAL: Oh, Zoram, you are jesting—why, you wrote
The air I sang!
ZORAM: I wrote the air? Not I,
  I paid a poor musician for his work
And palmed it off upon you as my own.
*        *        *       *        *        *
ALTEMIRE: Well, Aristæus there has still to speak
What says that rollicking philosopher?
Come; growl it out!
ARISTÆUS (gruffly, as if finding fault): It's sweetly pretty,
  And very nicely sung. I like it much.
ZEOLIDE: What! Aristæus pleased?
ARISTÆUS (very savagely ): Of course I am
  I'm always pleased with everything.
ALTEMIRE: Indeed!
  Men look on Aristæus as a man
Whom nothing satisfies.
ARISTÆUS (with outrageous bluntness ): Then men are wrong,
  No child more easily amused than I,
But here at Court, where everyone is pleased
With everything, my amiability
Would go for nought; so I have coined myself
A disposition foreign to my own
In hopes my clumsy, boorish insolence
Might please you by its very novelty:
And prove, perchance, a not unwelcome foil
To Zoram's mockery of cultured taste
And Chrysal's chronic insincerity.

Having given this excerpt from Mr. Gilbert's play, I will now quote Madame de Genlis's version of this scene:

Zeolide was sitting preluding with her instrument. Zoram, in order to maintain his reputation for a connoisseur passionately fond of music, hastily approached with every demonstration of of gladness. The Princess sang and accompanied herself. Zoram listened and beat time, clapping as if he had been mad, Before the air was half over, he exclaimed, still continuing his hand applause, "Ah, how wearisome, how wearisome it is."

Zeolide blushed with vexation, and Aristæus said, "I, Madame, have not lost a bar of it, and I think the air a very good one and am in raptures with your voice."

Is it possible, Aristæus," said the Genius (Phanor), "you are becoming a gallant flatterer?"

Aristæus replied, "That I do not propose; but I am neither so frigid nor unfeeling as I appear; I am somewhat cross and wish to be thought singular; for which reason I spend my life in snarling and finding fault, entirely from a spirit of contradiction. Besides, I have made it a law with myself never openly to flatter or praise but on important matters and not directly. ... You esteem me because you believe I do not flatter you, and you love me because I do not flatter you. You think simply enough that a man with a brusque tone and blunt meanings cannot flatter."

In the first scene of the first act of the comedy Mr. Gilbert makes Zoram affect a great knowledge of music, for he conceitedly replies to Phanor's complimentary remark about his taste in music:

  Why from my birth
I have made melope and counterpoint
My favourite study;

which I have here shown to be no "mere outline" of character, but one distinctly drawn by Madame de Genlis; as is also Zoram's confession that he does not write the songs of which he is supposed to be the composer, but that he "pays a poor musician for his work"—precisely the words that Madame de Genlis puts into the mouth of Zolphire in the prologue to her tale, and which Mr. Gilbert transfers to Zoram, as there was no dramatic reason for the introduction of this and other characters in it, as they are in no way necessary to the action of the play and do not appear in the Palace of Truth nor in the visit in which centres the whole interest of the tale and the comedy.

Again, we have Chrysal, according to Mr. Gilbert, saying to King Phanor, when he espies Queen Altemire coming towards them:

  My lord, she comes—
A perfect type of perfect womanhood.
The dew of forty summers on her head
Has but matured her beauty, by my life,
For five-and-thirty years.

Which compliment we find inverted by Chrysal in the tale in this passage:

Chrisel approached Phanor, who was thoughtfully walking. Being desirous of saying something civil to the Queen, he followed the Genius (Phanor), and as soon as he was near enough to Altemire to be heard, stopped, and with a look of great complaisance, addressing himself to the Genius (Phanor), said: "How much the Queen shows her age to-day; it is not possible to think she is less than thirty-eight at least."

In his treatment of this tale for dramatic purposed, Mr. Gilbert exercised his unquestionable right of blending two characters in one when their mental characteristics, as delineated by Madame de Genlis, were similar. For example, he unites the precisely similar failings and virtues of Rosmire of the prologue with Mirza of the main incidents of the story, which, in its entirety, was copiously drawn upon by Mr. Gilbert in his comedy. Nor did he hesitate to give to the enamoured Zeolide some of the qualities of the love-stricken youth Zumio, who was the rival of Phanor in an ambitious woman's love eighteen years previously in the same Palace of Truth, in which Mirza was the rival of the Princess Zeolide during the action of the play. Even the laconic "Je vous abhorre" ("I hate you") which Madame de Genlis puts in the mouth of Zumio when he speaks impassionately to Phanor, the love-bewitched Prince of those days, he inverts into a laconic "I love you" in the mouth of Princess Zeolide when urged to make some glowing confession or manifestation of her feelings for him by Prince Philamir. Madame de Genlis, with more artistic sense than Mr. Gilbert, makes Mirza a widow; for thus she might be supposed to be more skilled in the artifice of husband-catching than an ingenuous maiden would in the ordinary course of things. The stage portrait of this woman as drawn by Mr. Gilbert is almost identical with the Mirza of Madame de Genlis. She is possessed of the secret of the Talisman and its mystic properties—that is, that whoever holds it has the faculty of concealing their thoughts by their speech even when in the enchanted Palace of Truth; and having succeeded possessing herself of it she is able to disguise her real feelings in her intercourse with her companions, using it to her advantage when she has her meeting with Prince Philamir, and to the disadvantage of Zeolide, for whom she professes the purest friendly affection.

In the second act Mr. Gilbert introduces us to a dainty coquette named Azèma, a vivacious damsel with the same name to whom Madame de Genlis introduces us in similar circumstances. I allude to the meeting of Philamir and Chrysal with her. This is its description by Madame de Genlis:

Philamir and Chrisel went into the thicket, at the entrance of which they saw a young woman sitting on a bank. She was handsome, and Chrisel would go and speak to her. The Prince found she had only just arrived, and that she no more than Chrisel knew how impossible it was to conceal her thoughts. He enquired her name. "Azèma," she replied.

*        *        *        *        *        *

"Is that your flattery?" said Azèma. You think me ugly, perhaps?"

The narrator then tells us that this young flirt makes an appointment with Philamir in the Orange Grove, an appointment which he duly keeps, and then Madame de Genlis continues her narrative:

Here he found Azèma negligently extended on the grass, and in such a manner as to leave a pretty foot and the half of a very pretty leg exposed. Her eyes were downcast, she seemed in a profound reverie, and did not appear to perceive the Prince, who gently approached.

When the prince came up to her Azèma gave a little shriek and got up hastily. "Have I frightened you?" said Philamir.

"I wish," said Azèma, "to assume an air of modesty and surprise. I have been waiting for you above an hour, in the same attitude in which you found me; and I flatter myself," added she, with downcast eyes, as if confused, "you saw my foot and leg.

Philamir smiled, and said he had never seen anything more charming.

*        *        *        *        *        *

"I shall now," continued Azèma, "under pretence of being warm, take off my glove to let you see my hand and arm."

"How delicate and white," said Philamir, seizing one of the hands of Azèma.

I will now give Mr. Gilbert's version of this same scene and the first meeting in his Fairy Comedy, which he considers, having founded it on the "mere outline of an existing story" he is "at liberty to describe as original"; but which to an ordinary mind is simply a transcription in blank verse of the original prose of Madame de Genlis.

PHILAMIR (politely to Azèma): I fear we've frightened you?
AZÈMA:   Oh, no, indeed.
  I am not frightened, though I seemed to be.
CHRYSAL: But why affect a fear you do not feel?
AZÈMA: Because, although I entered here to seek
Prince Philamir, I'm anxious he should think
This meeting simple accident.
*        *        *       *        *        *
CHRYSAL: This is a character, I'll open fire
And storm her weakest point—her vanity.
*        *        *       *        *        *
    I have remarked
  That you've a girlish prettiness
Although your nose is sadly underbred.

A continuation of the scene develops an expressed desire on the part of Azèma that she should be alone with the Prince. Chrysal, accordingly, admiring her candour, makes his exit, leaving the Prince and Azèma by themselves. Then follows this portion of dialogue:

(
PHILAMIR: I beg your pardon, but the furniture
Has caught your dress
AZÈMA (rearranging her dress hastily): Oh, I arranged it so
  That you might see how truly beautiful
My foot and ankle are.
PHILAMIR: I saw them well;
They're very neat.
AZÈMA:   I now remove my glove
  That you may note the whiteness of my hand
I place it there in order that you may
Be tempted to enclose it in your own.
PHILAMIR: To that temptation I at once succumb (taking her hand).

There is also the duel scene between Chrysal and Zoram which felicitously opens the third act of Mr. Gilbert's play. This also is to be found in Madame de Genlis's story, as well as the scene in which Gélanor questions the advisability of Phanor bringing his Queen to the Palace of Truth lest she might from him learn things concerning him which were, for the sake of her peace of mind, best kept locked up in his bosom. Again, we have the scene of the finding of the missing leaf out of Mirza's diary, in which she professes to be madly in love with Philamir, in the same act, which is also a transcription of the incident described so graphically in Madame de Genlis's tale. I here reproduce it:

On the morrow at daybreak the Prince went to the Avenue of Palm-trees, where he did not at first find Mirza, but walked about expecting her arrival. After about a quarter of an hour he perceived on the grass a sheet of paper, and saw on it the neat handwriting of a woman; he read it; and great was his surprise to find charming verses in which Mirza expressed for Philamir a most violent passion.

And this is Mr. Gilbert's reproduction of the above passage:

PHILAMIR: Mirza, I have some words to say to you—
The diary you lost to-day?
MIRZA:   Well, sir,
  And have you found it ?
PHILAMIR:   Mirza, I have found
  A portion of it—one loose leaf. Behold! (Producing paper.)
MIRZA: And you have read it, Philamir?
PHILAMIR:   I have.

Then Mr. Gilbert gives us some 6f the love verses which are without doubt his own invention, and are therefore "original," and at the end of the scene Mirza expresses in spoken words her "most violent passion" for Philamir. Pursuing this extraordinary coincidence further—if coincidence it be—I may add that the story of the misappropriation of the Talisman—the crystal box—is the same in Mr. Gilbert's play as in Madame de Genlis's tale. In Mr. Gilbert's comedy Mirza obtains surreptitiously the crystal box from Phanor, and gives him a counterfeit one. In Madame de Genlis's narrative Rosamire of the Prologue steals it, knowing it to be Phanor's, and gives him also a counterfeit in exchange, making the imitation complete. Here is the description of this episode, which is a confession made by Rosamire:

"Scarcely had you (Phanor) quitted me when I saw shining among the green herbs the fatal Talisman, which in all likelihood had fallen out of your pocket when you fell at my feet; by a very singular chance I happened to possess a box of rock crystal very like your Talisman, and at first I thought it was my own box; but, examining further, I discovered the mystic characters which are engraved upon the lid; I then no longer doubted it was a Talisman. Zumio had told me the enchantment of the Palace had no effect on you; and I guessed that this box was the preservative which might, perhaps, guard you from the effects of this dangerous charm; I immediately ran to my chamber, sought for, and found, my own box, and with a diamond's point traced and perfectly imitated the mysterious cyphers. This operation over, Zumio came, and on him I tried the virtue of your talisman; I told him I did not love him, and found the box gave me the faculty of disguising my feeling. Zumio left me in despair; I went to find and met you. I had but one fear, which was that you had discovered my theft, though scarcely two hours had passed since it had happened; but soon found you had not. While you expressed your transports, I adroitly slipt my crystal box into your pocket and kept yours. I knew the cheat must in time be discovered if we remained here, but I flattered myself I should easily prevail on you to quickly quit this Palace."

This is an example of where Mr. Gilbert has blended an incident in the life of Rosamire with that of Mirza with advantage to his play, as, indeed, he has done advantageously in one or two other. instances. He makes , Mirza accidentally drop the Talisman out of her pocket, and Philamir pick it up and retain it. Mirza, then, not having it, is obliged to speak the truth. Accordingly she tells him how she obtained it, confessing herself thus:

Abstracted it from Phanor's cabinet,
And substituted one that I possessed
Exactly like it.

Then the contrition of Philamir when he returns to Zeolide is expressed in words which are an apparent transcription of those put into his mouth by Madam de Genlis. Mr. Gilbert makes Philamir say:

  With this (the Talisman) in hand
I can tell the truth or falsehood as I please;
And you must needs believe me, Zeolide,
I've learned to set a value on your love
Transcending all the riches of the earth;
Yet I would rather live without that love—
A life of self-reproach without that love—
Than stoop to gain it by such treachery.
*        *        *       *        *        *
I tell you of my sorrow and my love
With all the warmth of a repentant heart!

Madame de Genlis, in like manner, describes the Prince's penitence as follows:

"By keeping ... that Talisman," said Philamir, "I might have persuaded you I did not go with Mirza, and had resisted her seductions; but, though I cannot lose you without the loss of happiness, I would prefer that to deceit. Yes: Zeolide, I was seduced and inveigled; ... but I love you and shall ever love you; without you I cannot be happy, and you alone of all the ladies in the world can insure my felicity."

When he had ended, the lovely Zeolide gave the Prince her hand, which he received with transport.

After this and the other examples, and many more which I might, have cited did space permit, it will be obvious to the most casual reader that Mr. Gilbert copiously drew his ideas and language—even to the places of the action of the comedy—e.g., the Avenue of Palms, &c., &c.; from the inspiring fount of Madame de Genlis's imagination.


*"The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun."—ECCLESIASTES i. 9.


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