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Review of the first night from The Times

Tuesday, December 12, 1871


Mr. W. S. Gilbert’s “mythological comedy,” Pygmalion and Galatea, produced with extraordinary success on Saturday night, marks one step further in the direction which he has taken as a dramatist of the ideal school, in which character he is totally distinct from himself as a writer of comedies supposed to represent actual life. He started with extravaganzas, differing from his many competitors by his temperance in the employment of buffoonery. Soon burlesque in his hands lost nearly all its attributes, and we had in the Princess a piece not assignable to any recognized class. Then came the Palace of Truth, the great piece of last year, in which a well-known tale by Madame de Genlis was made the basis of a three-act comedy in blank verse, and people oblivious of Elizabethan traditions were surprised to see a fanciful subject regarded from a serious point of view.

In his newest work he assumes a classical tone, considers the antique unities, plunges into the very depth of Greek mythology, and aims at a result altogether unique on the modern English stage. In Paris, especially at the Odéon, the public is more or less habituated to mythological comedies, but even these are usually in one act, and occupy a subordinate position in the evening’s programme.

The very attempt to make the simple myth of the enamoured sculptor and the vivified statue fill three acts shows much audacity on the part of the author. Pygmalion forms a statue, falls in love with it, successfully implores the gods to endow it with life, and – that’s all. Is this the plot of a play or a “posy to a ring?” Decidedly the myth wants amplifying before it can be brought into ship-shape, or, indeed, any shape whatever. An apparently difficult problem here presents itself, and the ingenuity with which it is solved is remarkable. Mr. W. S. Gilbert blesses Pygmalion with a jealous wife, who is not the statue, but merely sat as a model for it. A spring of action is thus at once provided where action there was none. What the gods did for the sculptured figure, Mr. Gilbert has done for the myth.

The course of the fable is as follows:– Cynisca (Miss C. Hill), wife of Pygmalion (Mr. Kendal), leaves home on a short expedition, having exhorted him to bear her always in mind, and to refresh his memory by occasionally gazing on his newly-finished statue of Galatea, which has been modelled after her likeness. Not actuated by any thought of infidelity, but inspired with the desire of an artist for the perfection of his work, Pygmalion implores the gods to bestow upon the statue the only quality in which it is deficient, and Galatea becomes a living woman, represented by Miss Robertson.

To portray the mental condition of this full-grown child, who is thus shot into the world, accompanied with the gift of speech, is now the business of the author. All Galatea’s instincts are amiable, anything harsh or cruel is repugnant to her nature. She at once falls in love with Pygmalion, but is prepared to love his wife also, when she returns home, the notion of jealousy being beyond her sphere of consciousness. Leucippus (Mr. Howe), a bluff Athenian soldier, betrothed to Pygmalion’s sister (Miss Merton), she looks upon with abhorrence, because she understands that it is his profession to kill, and the explanation that he guards his country against enemies affords her but scant enlightenment. When, in addition to his other demerits, the soldier shoots a fawn, and brings in its carcase, his character, as a matter of course, is forfeited entirely.

These, however, are trifling difficulties. Far otherwise is it with the return of Cynisca, whom Mr. Gilbert has endowed with the power of inflicting blindness when she is moved by jealous rage. Statue or no statue, Galatea is manifestly a rival, and Pygmalion is deprived of his eyesight accordingly. The blow is no sooner struck than Cynisca becomes contrite; but the devoted Galatea restores happiness to the sculptor’s home. Taking advantage of his blindness, she feigns to be his wife, and draws from him the confession that his love for the statue was but a passing dream, and that his heart never strayed from Cynisca, who listens with delight in the background. Pygmalion recovers his sight, and Galatea, returning to her pedestal, gradually loses animation, and is once more a figure of marble.

In achieving the psychological study, which is suggested by the myth, Mr. Gilbert has scarcely succeeded, and perhaps success in this respect was impossible within the narrow limits of a play. Mrs. Shelley, in her romance of Frankenstein, could explain, by an application of Locke’s theory of experience, how the mind of the Monster, at first perfectly blank, was gradually brought to a quasi-rational condition. But this sort of development is not to be effected by dramatic dialogue, and Mr. Gilbert cannot help making Galatea start into life with a much larger stock of worldly knowledge than is consistent with this sudden burst into consciousness. Indeed, the reflective spectator, who, at different points of her discourse, asks himself why she knows just this, and is ignorant of just that, will find that he has proposed questions somewhat difficult to answer.

If, however, Mr. Gilbert has not done much as a psychologist, he has succeeded in placing on the stage two female characters whose effectiveness can scarcely be surpassed. Grant that in the third act of the play the mental development of Galatea has been completed, and that she is now a woman among women, and the beauty of the situation is beyond question, the author, by his perfectly ideal treatment, avoiding all suspicion of immorality, where a less delicate and poetical writer would have given room for offence. Galatea is not the subject of a possible liaison, but merely the embodiment of an artist’s devotion to his art, and thus Pygmalion’s dilemma has nothing in common with those social perplexities which we find in such variety on the stages of Paris.

It has long been a maxim in theatrical circles that the time has passed when the sympathies of an audience could be commanded by persons clad in the ancient costumes of Greece and Rome, and the success of Mr. Gilbert in rivetting the attention of a crowded house during three long acts, by the clear development of a simple classical story, confining himself, with the vigour of a Corneille, to the artist’s studio as the sole place of action, may be considered a triumph indeed. We may say of Pygmalion and Galatea, as of the Iphigenie of Goethe, that it is not so Greek as it looks upon the surface, but it is quite Greek enough to show that a modern public can be interested by something more than spectacle, and the copied details of ordinary life.

In his two leading actresses Mr. Gilbert has been happy. Miss Robertson as the ethereal and naïve Galatea, and Miss Caroline Hill as the really impassioned Cynisca, seemed to be pitted against each other in a trial of artistic skill, and are well matched. Mr. Kendal, though graceful and dignified, might have been more forcible as the sculptor. There is a comic underplot, the personages in which are Chrysos, a wealthy patron of the art, who is disposed to flirt with the vivified statue, and thereby incurs the displeasure of his formidable wife. This scarcely harmonizes with the poetical turn of the work; but the characters are played with so much humour by Mr. Buckstone and Mrs. Chippendale, and the Haymarket public is so delighted to see and laugh at these well-known favourites, that their practical value is beyond dispute.

Note: Cynisca is mis-named Cynisia and Leucippus as Leucippe throughout this review in The Times.

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