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MR. W. S. GILBERT'S ORIGINAL COMEDY
"PYGMALION AND GALATEA"
By EDWARD ST. JOHN-BRENON
[Grand Magazine, April 1905, pp. 484 - 491]
F all classes of writers those who are the greatest libertines in their dealings with the works of obscure predecessors and equally obscure contemporaries of foreign nations are our dramatists. They more than others are pardoned for that which is usually called plagiarism or plagiary which if they embellish in choicer language the thought or idea appropriated; and if I understand Milton aright he, with other "good authors,"' only considered such borrowing as "plagiary" when the author failed to better the matter he borrowed. We know that Shakespeare was a cormorant in his appetite for appropriating the situations and ideas of other playwrights, and did not hesitate to steal scenes upon scenes from dead authors, incorporating them in his own, and then presenting them on the stage as his own work. If, however, Shakespeare did this, he, by doing so, added to the wealth and splendour of our, literature; for all that he thus took and welded to his own work on the anvil of his mighty genius, with the cunning of a marvellous artificer, became choicest poetry under the magic influence of his pen and illuminated by the dazzling glories of his imagination. Had he not done so, many of the not altogether valueless works of his predecessors would have been lost in the vortex of forgotten dramatic literature, or relegated to oblivion by indifferent, unappreciative, or ignorant contemporaries.
The French drama is the general, or more common, quarry of our dramatists; for the knowledge of the French language being more diffused in England than any other, every aspiring playwright who has industry and ambition, without, however, real dramatic genius or inventiveness, has immediately recourse to the dead, and limbo-consigned, writers of that country, always so prolific in literature of every quality. Mr. W. S. Gilbert himself in one of his eccentric libretti musicked by Sir Arthur Sullivan tells us that all our plays, or certainly most of them, have a French origin.
If a drama be wholly a work of the imagination, and the invention of the author, even though the text contains ideas and situations that are the replication of others, he is unquestionably justified in calling it an "original" play; but, on the other hand, if the plot be suggested in part, or in its entirety, by someone else, though the text be replete with brilliant thoughts clothed in apt language and rich in metaphors which appeal to the understanding, it call with no sense of consistency be said to be original. But where both text and plot are suggested by another writer it is surely a grave misapplication of epithet to advertise to the world that such a dramatic composition is "original."
In a previous article on Mr. Gilbert's plays in this magazine I showed that in the "Fairy Comedy: The Palace of Truth" there was, as far as I could perceive after a most careful comparison of the play with Madame de Genlis's tale of the same title, little, if anything, in Mr. Gilbert's work (excepting the humorously false accusation of Azèma concerning the meeting of Queen Altemire and old Gélanor) that could reasonably allow him under any conditions to call that play original. But where Mr. Gilbert says, in the "Note" which laconically does the duty of preface to the first series of his collected plays, "that if a dramatist use the mere outline" (the italics are mine) "of an existing story for dramatic purposes he is at liberty to describe his play as ' original,'" he accuses himself. As this "Note" only alluded to two of the plays contained in the volume—viz.. "The Palace of Truth" and "The Princess"—those reading it naturally had a right to assume that all the other plays were "original," in the unqualified significance of the word. How far they were justified in doing so I will demonstrate by an examination of Mr. Gilbert's pleasing, and popular comedy "Pygmalion and Galatea."
Mr. W. S. Gilbert describes this play as "an original mythological comedy"—that is to say, a play whose subject, though drawn from mythology, is treated on absolutely original lines as regards the construction, treatment, and plot. Here, however, our author again seems to draw his inspiration from the fount of Madame de Genlis's rich if somewhat unequally regulated imagination. In the sixth volume of the edition of her "Contes Moraux" (Moral Tales), in which collection is also to be found "The Palace of Truth," and which was published in Paris in 1815, appears a mythological comedy entitled "Pygmalion et Galatée; ou, La Statue Animée" (Pygmalion and` Galatea; or, the Animated Statue). From the preface attached to this play we learn that Madame de Genlis intended her comedy to be a continuation of John Jacques Rousseau's once celebrated but now forgotten monologue entitled "Pigmalion."1 In this prose poem, with the passionate eloquence of which Rousseau was master, she makes the sculptor, after contemplating his finished statue of Galatea with all the raptures of a lover, rail against the gods because, though they had given him genius to create such a beautiful work of art, they had jealously denied him the power of giving it life and the love which comes with life to make life endurable, and without which the loveliest statue is but a cold—"cold as death"—and senseless block of stone.
That Mr. Gilbert caught much of his inspiration from monologue of Rousseau is evidenced in the early part of his "Pygmalion and Galatea" for, when Pygmalion tells Cynisca that he "can do more than work for wealth," the following dialogue ensues:
Now, Rousseau makes Pigmalion, when he views the statue, say
Even where Mr. Gilbert's Pygmalion states that he will work for wealth, a note in the same strain is struck by Rousseau when he makes him speak contemptuously of himself and say, "Pygmalion, make no more gods; thou art only a vulgar artist"; and this because he cannot put life into his statues.
In the first act, when Galatea, who has come to life, makes inquiries of Pygmalion as to whether the woman (his wife) who has stood model for her is as beautiful as she, Pygmalion answers:
Now Rousseau's Pigmalion, when he first contemplates his statue, wonders if there be any faults in his work which he has failed to notice and later on soliloquises thus:
I must not fail to point out that in this excerpt Mr. Gilbert has also borrowed from the text of Madame de Genlis's play as well as from that of Rousseau; for in de Genlis we have Euronome explaining to Galatea how statues are made; that, for example, for a Venus different women were obliged to sit as models for the sculptor, that he might select the most perfect feature of each and incorporate them in one, so as to get as near perfection in art as he could. On hearing this Galatea inquires:
The awakening to life of the statue, however, was obviously wholly suggested by the conclusion of Rousseau's monologue, which ends thus:
When this scene is compared with Mr. Gilbert's version, which I quote, no one will venture to deny that he took it from Rousseau; Pygmalion in a soliloquy rails against the narrow bounds which circumscribe the art. He says that he can go to a certain point, as far as the outward form goes, adding:
Here Mr. Gilbert leaves,Rousseau and evidently takes his cue from Madame de Genlis; for in reply to the above query of the animated statue Pygmalion says:
And Madame de Genlis makes Galatea in the opening scene of her play use almost the same words; indeed, so closely do they resemble each other that one can scarcely believe the resemblance accidental. These are Galatea' s, words:
Though Mr. Gilbert made use of de Genlis's "Pygmalion et Galatée" he elaborated the plot; but whether in this elaboration he took advantage of other dramatists and librettists who used this mythological romance is not a matter of immediate concern, nor would the space at my,disposition permit of so irksome and laborious an analysis even were I inclined to make it. The following are the characters in Madame de Genlis's comedy: Pygmalion; Galatea, an animated statue since twenty-four hours, wife of Pygmalion; Nireus, a child of six years of age, one of Pygmalion's models; Euronome, an old woman, Pygmalion's nurse; An Old Man; Euphrosine, a young coquette; Myrine; and Leucippus, a young man. Of these Mr. Gilbert only adopts the names of four: Pygmalion, an Athenian sculptor; Galatea, an animated statue; Leucippus, a soldier; and Myrine, Pygmalion's sister. The two, slaves, Agesimos and Minos, who are very insignificant characters, and Chrysos, an art patron; Daphne, Chrysos's wife, and Cynisca, Pygmalion's wife, may be said to have been interpolated by Mr. Gilbert; but he does not hesitate to put into Daphne's mouth much that is said by the Euphrosine in the play of Madame de Genlis; and in the scenes where Chrysos4 appears he is made to say much that is spoken by Euronome. In Madame de Genlis we have the following scene between Galatea and the child model Nireus when she first sees him:
Now this little episode is adjusted by Mr. Gilbert to his plot in this fashion:
Later on we have a scene between Chrysos and Galatea; for she, after "having examined him in great wonder," eagerly inquires of him:
From this it would seem that the personal appearance of Chrysos did not tally with the description given to her by Pygmalion of what a man was, hence her manifest incredulity as to his being one. A like misunderstanding occurs in Madame de Genlis's version of this mythological comedy; for when Galatea sees Euronome, who is a very old. woman, she cannot, bring herself to believe that she is a woman as Pygmalion had given her a very different description of what one was. This is the little scene where this slight misunderstanding occurs. As soon as Euronome comes upon the stage, Galatea says:
The introduction of Cynisca as Pygmalion's wife, instead of marrying him to the statue, has a better dramatic effect, but it can hardly be said that the speeches which Mr. Gilbert has given her are replete with original thought. Much that she is given to speak could with little trouble be found substantially in speeches allotted by Madame de Genlis to characters in the play. The character of Leucippus, the soldier and sweetheart of Myrine, has very much in common in both the French and the English plays. For example, we have the following scene in Mr. Gilbert's comedy:
Enter LEUCIPPUS with a fawn that he has shot.
Leucippus, in de Genlis, is also credited with having shot a fawn; but the news is brought to Galatea by the child-model Nireus. He rushes in upon Galatea and Euronome, and calls upon them to come out and see the return from the chase. To which Galatea asks:
Again, Madame de Genlis gives Mr. Gilbert the keynote on which to start a short disquisition on soldiers; for when Euronome explains to the innocent and miraculously-born Galatea that,
This idea with Mr. Gilbert is recast thus:
Some of Mr. Gilbert's apologists may say that he was justified in having appropriated that which he considered the best in the authors upon whom it is apparent he copiously drew for some of the material for those plays which have helped bring him fame. With these I am, after all, not disinclined to agree; for the works of Madame de Genlis have for the most part been consigned to the limbo of discarded literature, and only two volumes, so far as I can discover, now find a place on the shelves of a French library.
1. Cette petite pièce fut composée pour être jouée en societé, à la suite de Pigmalion de Rousseau.
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