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Review of the Original Production from The Times,
Monday, November 9, 1874

Of late years dramas of an idyllic character have flourished greatly upon the stage, but never, in our remembrance, was so thorough an idyll played within the walls of a London theatre as Mr. W. S. Gilbert’s original “dramatic contrast,” Sweethearts, brought out on Saturday evening.

Something like a parallel to it might be found in the short dramas which are occasionally brought out at the Théâtre Français, but those of the class to which we refer are generally in verse. Sweethearts might likewise have been written in verse, for the subject would admit of metrical treatment, and the author is a well-known master both of blank verse and of rhyme. But he has elected prose, we think judiciously, as the little picture would lose one of its charms were its reality less.

The only way to give even a proximate notice of this unique work would be to take it down shorthand, and, in defiance of the law of copyright, to present it in its integrity. But even then no indication would be given of the acting, and in the case of one at least of the parts the artist on the stage may be said to have had as much to do with inventing it as the author in his study. Plot there is literally none. Typical character there is none, the two personages who carry on the action – or, rather, the non-action – of the piece, belonging to the mob of lovers who have quarrelled and made it up again, in every land, since the day when the perishable nature of the “Iræ Amantium” was first a subject of remark. Not two characters in their integrity, but two phases in two lives are exhibited, the novelty being that between the traditional disagreement and traditional reconciliation there is a lapse of 30 years.

Everything occurs in a garden attached to the ornamental cottage inhabited by Miss Jenny Northcote (Miss Marie Wilton), a bewitching but wayward young lady, to whom Harry Spreadbow (sic), a very young gentleman, is devotedly attached. Jenny hears with grief that Harry is on the point of departing for India; but she is of a pettish disposition and her sorrow is not unmingled with anger. To her girlish mind the proposition that love ought to yield to the call of duty is by no means an incontrovertible axiom. Harry might stop at home if he liked – at least, such is her opinion. So when the poor fellow comes to take his leave, bringing with him a sycamore sapling to plant as a memorial of bygone days, he meets with a sorry reception. Jenny even indulges in an unpleasant sort of mirthfulness, and is inclined to laugh where tears would have been welcome. The sycamore, she thinks, will, when it grows up, be rather a nuisance than an ornament, darkening the windows of the cottage and shutting out the prospect. When Harry asks for a flower as a keepsake, she puts into his hands an unwieldy flower-pot. When he presents her with a rose she flings it to the ground. At last he goes away in a very unsatisfactory state of mind, rather depressed than cheered by Jenny’s hope that he will take care of himself. For some moments Jenny indulges in the expectation that he will return and bid farewell once more. She is deceived. He does not re-appear and she bursts into a passionate flood of tears, which reveals the depth of affection hitherto concealed under a show of heartlessness.

Thirty years elapse and the pert girl, who wore the costume, now so strange, of 1844, has become an elderly lady of the present year. The sycamore has grown up and forbids Miss Northcote, who can no longer be called “Jenny,” to forget the past. She receives a visit from an elderly gentleman, Sir Henry Spreadbow, who has made a fortune during a long residence in India, and has come to see his native village now grown into a town. They do not recognize each other at a glance, but they soon become aware that they are the Jenny and Harry of 30 years ago, and now, it appears, that there is more love on the lady’s than on the gentleman’s side. He forgets all about planting the sycamore, and utters, in his turn, the opinion that it shuts out the prospect; but she has pressed the rose, faded as it is, which she once flung aside. They come, however, to an understanding, and, though the descending curtain does not allow us to predict the future with certainty, we have a right to infer that a happy marriage, partly of love, partly of reason, will occur before the end of the year 1874.

That in this little piece there is neither a development of plot nor an exhibition of marked character, we have already asserted. We shall not go far wrong if we say that it is a dramatic statement of complicated sentiments, and we may add that the subtlest of mental conflicts and the most delicate nuances of emotion are expressed in graceful dialogue. One sometimes feels inclined to wish that the voice of passion would speak a degree louder. To Miss Marie Wilton too high praise cannot be given. Her voice, her face, her gestures are all thoroughly at her command; the principle of the piece requires her to be subdued, whether as the young coquette or the wiser old maid, and she subdues herself accordingly, without allowing a single detail to be lost. Mr. Coghlan is easy and elegant as Harry, but it seems to us that the process of self-subduing weakens him in that characteristic colour which Miss Wilton so admirably preserves. That the piece is thoroughly successful, and that it will be much talked about as one of the theatrical curiosities of the day, there can be no doubt.

On Saturday Mr. T. W. Robertson’s Society took the place of the School for Scandal. It is not his best comedy, but it will always hold its place in the repertory of the Prince of Wales’s as the first work that brought the name of the author into celebrity.

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