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Tom Cobb

Review of the Production from The Times
Monday, April 26, 1875

Not very long ago, Mr. W. S. Gilbert, for many successive seasons, highly distinguished himself as the author of a series of fanciful dramas, by which, after a fashion that had nothing in common with ordinary burlesque, the vices and follies of the present day were severely satirized in regions ostensibly belonging to fairy-land or to mythical Greece. In the production of pieces of the kind to which we refer, this most original of modern dramatists has apparently stopped short; but that the spirit to which they owed their existence is still alive is amply proved by a “farcical comedy,” entitled Tom Cobb; or, Fortune’s Toy, brought out on Saturday night at the St. James’s Theatre, with a success that was not only great, but has every chance of being permanent.

Mr. Gilbert is not incorrect when he avows that his new piece, albeit in three acts, is farcical. No plot borrowed from the Palais Royal could be more audaciously improbable than the plot which he has invented. Some of his personages, clad as they are in modern habiliments, are scarcely less fantastic than those who figured in his fairy plays; but the author never allows his fancy to tempt him from his purpose, which is that of steady, unflinching satire. He loves to make his audience roar by flinging at them a palpable absurdity, to stimulate their admiration by a succession of sparkling lines, but his main object is to dash “humbug” in its divers manifestations. He never becomes frivolous; the feeling expressed by Juvenal’s declaration, “Difficit est satiram non scribere,” lies at the foundation of his work.

The “shams” exhibited in Tom Cobb fall into two groups, widely distinct from each other. One belongs to the Hibernian category, with which the world has long been acquainted, and with which it was made especially familiar by the late Mr. Thackeray. Colonel O’Fipp (Mr. Clifford Cooper) is an Irish adventurer, with a daughter, Matilda (Miss Edith Challis), who is close upon the limit where the bloom of youth leaves off. This daughter, in connexion with a system of incontrovertible paper currency, has enabled the Colonel, without a shilling of hard currency in his pocket, to keep up a decent appearance for many years. Some gentleman is sure to be fascinated by the charms of Matilda, and equally sure to be honourably engaged to her with her father’s consent, if he will only cash that estimable gentleman’s bills. Should his resources be exhausted during the blissful period of courtship, he must be prepared to resign his position to some more profitable successor. The father and daughter are admirably and discriminately drawn, the latter being several degrees less heartless than the former, but not differing from him sufficiently to become an obstacle in his path.

The group just described is the work of a consummate artist, but it is not novel. The other group, on the contrary, which represents what may be loosely called the æsthetical school of humbug, is entirely new to the stage. The Effingham family, whom Mr. Gilbert calls “romantic,” could not, indeed, have existed except under a combination of very modern circumstances. Caroline Effingham (Miss Litton), who falls in love with the soul of a man whom she has never seen, and through the medium of a persevering correspondence becomes, or thinks she has become, engaged to him, may be compared at the first glance to Lydia Languish, but she and her family really live and breathe in an atmosphere of which Sheridan was altogether ignorant. Her father (Mr. De Vere), a rotund old imposter with a bald head and long sleek back hair, her tall-talking but rather more worldly brother, Bulstrode Effingham (Mr. W. J. Hill), and her mother (Mrs. Chippendale), who faintly echoes the rest, represent a school which had its origin when a smattering of German metaphysics, ill understood, interwove itself with the sentimentalities of an earlier date, and which still, with new improvements, is to be found in many places. The inflated twaddle uttered by the kindred four may to some seem mere nonsense; but it is a most faithful copy of a species of falsehood that is too often accepted as truth. It is the family Effingham, which appeals not only to the eye, but to the ear, always forming itself into picturesque combinations, that will make the fortune of the play.

The two groups are brought within the compass of one plot by Tom Cobb (Mr. E. W. Royce), a young surgeon who is the last victim of the charms of Matilda O’Fipp. Poor Tom is one of those easy, good-hearted fellows who allow their morally and intellectually inferiors to get the better of them, and his resources having been thoroughly drained by the Colonel, he is now to be sacrificed for the sake of prosperous Mr. Whiffle (Mr. Edgar Bruce), another member of the same profession whom he has assisted in his studies, and who rewards him by making him everywhere an object of ridicule. Whiffle’s last joke has been to give the name of “Tom Cobb” to an old pauper patient in whom he detects a resemblance to his unlucky friend.
Matilda really prefers Tom Cobb to Whiffle, though she prefers the latter to nobody at all, and it is therefore expedient to get the former out of the way. Harassed by his debts, Tom is easily persuaded by Whiffle to absent himself for three months, leaving behind him information to the effect that he is dead. To keep up the delusion he also leaves a will, by which he bequeaths the whole of his property to his adored Matilda. No sooner has he disappeared than Whiffle finds the patient whom he has nick named “Tom Cobb” dead in his bed, and discovers a considerable sum of money in notes and gold, the property of the deceased, under a hearth-stone. Of this, by virtue of the real Cobb’s will, the Colonel takes immediate possession, and on the strength of it his position is greatly improved.

When, after the lapse of three months, Tom Cobb re-appears, it is [in] the interest of the Colonel and the now affianced Whiffle and Matilda to prevent him from resuming his identity, and to his utter amazement he is recognized by no one. To make assurance doubly sure, the Colonel pretends to take compassion on him, and offers him the noble allowance of 20s. if he will consent to wear a new name. Tom accepts the offer, runs his finger down the advertising column in search of an appellation, and, finding that “Bishop of Bath and Wells” and “Mr. and Mrs. German Reed” are unsuitable, arrives at “Major-General Fitzpatrick,” which he adopts. This choice brings him into collision with the second group – that of the Effinghams; for it is of an unseen Fitzpatrick that Caroline has become enamoured. He is now the centre of an entirely new set. Father, mother, sister, brother, all worship him as the great “Warrior-poet,” and whenever he opens his mouth each takes out a pocket book to note down his utterances; nay, when he seems less anxious than might have been expected to contract a marriage with Caroline, he is threatened with an action for breach of promise, Bulstrode Effingham being not only an “abstraction,” but a concrete lawyer’s clerk.

All comes to an end when it turns out that Tom Cobb is actually the grandson and sole surviving relative of the deceased pauper, who has left not only the money under the heart-stone, but some £1,200 Consols. The Colonel and his daughter would now willingly make things pleasant, but on mature reflection Tom prefers Caroline to Matilda. She is not so ethereal as she pretends to be, but, at all events, she is the more disinterested of the two.
The absurdity of this plot is obvious, but it has at least the merit of ingenuity, and the far higher merit of bringing into dramatic shape more wit, humour, and truthful satire than would go to the making of half-a-dozen ordinary comedies.

Every justice is done to the piece by the performers. Mr. Clifford Cooper, as the imposing Colonel; Miss E. Challis (somewhat unstable in her brogue), as Matilda; Mr. Edgar Bruce, as the ready-witted Whiffle; Mr. De Vere, as the pursy philanthropist Effingham; Miss Litton, as the gushing Caroline; Mrs. Chippendale, as the more subdued Mrs. Effingham; and the ever humorous Mr. W. J. Hill as the inspired log, Bulstrode, have all something to do, and do it well. Nor is Tom Cobb, as might be supposed, a mere cause of talk and action in others; his oppressed condition, his patient temperament, his frequent surprises, make of him a character, and this is thoroughly understood by Mr. E. W. Royce.

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