|Gilbert's Plays > The Palace of Truth >
Allowing for obvious differences, Mr. W. S. Gilbert, in the earlier part of his career, was the Barrie of his day, one of the fantastics who combine strange things fetched from magic worlds far off with sharp fun poked at the foibles of common humanity. Happily or unhappily – it seems the first when we think of Iolanthe and Patience, the second when we remember Broken Hearts and go to see The Palace of Truth – the public and the critics of thirty years ago did not give Mr. Gilbert sufficient encouragement in that kind of playwriting. He turned the same gifts to the making of librettos, and produced in that line work of an order which he could, perhaps, never have equalled in the other. And yet to see The Palace of Truth revived 35 years after its production by Buckstone at the Haymarket is to wonder that more and more of such work was not demanded of the author.
It may not be superfluous, after these 35 years, to recall something of the story of this fantastic poetical comedy. King Phanor possesses a magic palace, which none of his Court, not even his wife and his seventeen-year-old daughter, have ever been allowed to see, though all the rest of the world may visit it at will. It is an enchanted place. Once within its crystal walls you are compelled to speak the exact truth, but you do not know that you are speaking it. You imagine yourself to be uttering the usual lies about your past, your character, and your sentiments. King Phanor, himself secure, as he imagines, in the possession of a talisman which exempts him from the spell, takes wife, daughter, daughter’s lover, courtiers, and all to spend a day in the Palace of Truth. The fun begins at once.
The King has not the talisman (it has been stolen by Mirza, for her own ends) and reveals to his Queen a horrible tale of peccadilloes. Two courtiers, Chrysal and Zoram, of whom one poses as a poet, the other as a musician, and each as the other’s dearest friend, confess that they know nothing of either art and hate each other like poison. Prince Philamir, the eloquent lover of Princess Zeolide, tells her that be really likes her very much but is only making love to her to keep up his reputation, and Zeolide, the reticent and modest, breaks into an avowal of passionate love for Philamir. And the fun of it is that not one of them has the least idea of what he is doing. Chrysal and Zoram deal each other deadly insults with courteous bows and smiles; Aristæus, the surly, “blunt and honest” courtier, confesses in blunt and honest tones that, as a matter of fact, no child is more easily pleased than himself, and Philamir clings round Zeolide’s neck to tell her he is bored to death with her.
It is all right Gilbert-topsy-turvy; and all, we should imagine, exceedingly difficult to act, demanding a neatness and a finish that no band of young actors could hope to possess. It appeared to us now and then indeed that no acting, however finished, could hope to express the two opposite meanings, by word and gesture, with complete distinctness, and that a previous knowledge of the play, or a deliberate effort of the imagination, or both, were necessary to take the full content of the wit. Certainly some of the finer points were missed; but Mr. Philip Carr’s company, rehearsed by the author himself, let very little escape them, and the audience laughed loud and long. Mr. W. H. Kemble was particularly good, and some amusing if not very adroit comedy came from Miss Margaret Bussé in the part of a “commonplace coquette” unconsciously revealing her methods.
There is nothing in the play to put it “out of date.” Certain things there are in it which must have always been out of date, like the lines about honour, which sound very well, but express a sentiment that had ceased to have any meaning long before 1870. The satire of the play is aimed at characteristics which are not confined to the fairy-story kind of court of which Mr. Gilbert writes. It is sharp and shrewd, even bitter at times; but the sharpest satire becomes palatable when wrapped in so much delicious fun. Mr. Gilbert is a master of dialogue, and his blank verse, which sometimes touches poetry and sometimes doggerel, is always easy and apt. There were occasions on which the delivery of the players did not do it justice.
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