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Review from The Times
Wednesday, July 20, 1904

The season of charity performances came to a brilliant close yesterday with a matinée held in aid of the Bushey-heath Cottage Hospital. It is very seldom that there is chance of seeing two plays by Mr. W. S. Gilbert in one afternoon, far too seldom that a charity matinée proves half so amusing as that of yesterday. With The Fairy’s Dilemma we dealt at length on its production some ten or eleven weeks ago; Mr. Arthur Bourchier and his company played it yesterday with great gusto.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern has been seen so seldom since the first performance of it at a charity matinée at the Vaudeville in 1891 that it is worthwhile to state the argument. This “tragic episode in three tableaux” is “founded on an old Danish legend.” King Claudius, when a young man, wrote a five-act tragedy, which was damned. Although, as he tells his Queen, it was already five acts too long, he wrote a sixth act, an act by which the penalty of death was meted out to all who sneered at the play. Now Rosencrantz, who, with Guildenstern, has been invited to Elsinore, to see if he cannot dispel Hamlet’s melancholy and his tendency to soliloquy, is in love with a maiden named Ophelia, daughter of the Lord Chamberlain. Ophelia is betrothed to Hamlet, whom she loves not. At Rosencrantz’s suggestion, therefore, she steals from her father’s study the sole remaining manuscript (Lord Chamberlain’s copy) of Claudius’s play, and they induce Hamlet to act it. The penalty is death, but it is commuted to banishment to a country called “Engle-land,” where dwells a cultured race, who will enshrine the exile in their hearts. Whimsical enough, but nothing to the separate scenes and the separate lines. There is more brilliance of merely verbal wit in this little play than in anything else of Mr. Gilbert’s.

When he likes to pun (which is not often, for he did much in early days to prove that there were other forms of wit) no one can pun so neatly, and he has a peculiar knack of developing a pun which raises it, as in Ophelia’s description of the ghosts of dead (and damned) plays that assailed her, into an idea. There are scenes, too, of simple humour, like that in which Hamlet strolls on, in the limelight, with rolling eye, to soliloquize, and finds himself interrupted after every few words by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who finish his sentences for him, or take his rhetorical questions for riddles; or, again, that in which Hamlet offers Rosencrantz a flute only to find that he is a skilled performer on it. The temptation to dwell on the things that raise a laugh at every line is strong but there is a great deal more in the play than mere amusement.

It is really a very subtle piece of criticism, sometimes of Shakespeare’s play, sometimes of the commentators, sometimes of the actors who have played the great part. When Guildenstern asks what Hamlet is like, Ophelia replies:–

“Alike for no two seasons at a time.
“Sometimes he’s tall – sometimes he’s very short.
“Now with black hair – now with a flaxen wig,”

and adds than he “always dresses as King James I.” On the question of his sanity, the favourite theory, she says is that he “is idiotically sane to with lucid intervals of lunacy.”

Take, again, Hamlet’s propensity to wander about soliloquizing; his advice to the players, to which the players reply by reminding him with deference that he is an heir-apparent, not an actor, and should mind his own business, as they do; and Hamlet’s outcry when the King draws his dagger, “I can’t bear death – I’m a philosopher!” Time after time in the deftest way Mr. Gilbert throws the daylight of his wit onto the great play and the actors and the commentators – a daylight which seems to have the power of clearing the atmosphere of much wordy fog and misty enthusiasm, a good light in which to go back to the study of Shakespeare’s play. Parody of this kind, which is worlds apart from burlesque, is a form of criticism to which no one could possibly deny the title of creative, and it would be well if we had more of it.

A great addition to the “curiosity” of the performance was found in the cast, which consisted entirely of dramatic authors. Mr. Gilbert himself played Claudius. Was the stage one of the “two or three professions” at which he had a “touch” before “working mildly at the Bar”? His Claudius was certainly admirable. He would play Claudius in Hamlet finely, only the part would give him no chance of making the “points” he makes so well. Lady Colin Campbell played the Queen, Captain Robert Marshall Hamlet, Mrs. Madeleine Lucette Ryley Ophelia, and Mr. Leo Trevor and Mr. Paul Rubens Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; while Sir Francis Burnand and Miss Clo Graves appeared as the two players. The programme has it that Mr. Bernard Shaw and Mr. Anthony Hope were among the courtiers; if so they were so disguised as to be unrecognizable. A word should added for Mr. Edmond Rickett’s incidental music, which was often apt and humorous.

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