|Gilbert > Plays > La Vivandière > Review of London Production
Mr. H. J. Byron’s new and successful drama Dearer than Life is now followed by an “operatic extravaganza,” written by Mr. W. S. Gilbert, long celebrated as one of the cleverest artists of Fun, and more recently known as a smart writer of burlesque. The new piece, as may be inferred from the title, La Vivandière; or, True to the Corps, is ostensibly founded on La Figlia del Reggimento, but so great are the liberties taken by Mr. Gilbert with his subject that the foundation is almost concealed by its superstructure. Of Donizetti’s composition very little use is made, while much music is extracted from the Grande Duchesse of Offenbach, and the story not only acquires a new aspect from the circumstance that all the soldiers are converted into gorgeously-attired Zouaves, and all the peasants into picturesque mountaineers, but is further and more essentially modified by the introduction of new personages totally foreign to the well-known libretto.
The chief care of Mr. Gilbert has been to make his dialogue as perfect a specimen as possible of smooth verse, and to stud it profusely with elaborate puns of unquestionable originality. The art of punning has within the last few years been carried to a degree of refinement that would have astonished certainly Swift and perhaps Thomas Hood, though it must be confessed that the skill of the modern punster in effecting intricate combinations of sound has sometimes been displayed at the expense of that appearance of spontaneity and naïveté which distinguished the sallies of earlier professors. In search of materials for new puns, Mr. Gilbert shows a power of detecting phonetic affinities and of grouping together entire sentences, when they will serve his turn, in which perhaps he excels all his contemporaries. His audacity is equally great. Not only does he with unwonted frequency avail himself of the licence which permits the punster to use the final letter of a word as the initial of the word following, but he varies vowels with as little scruple as a comparative philologist in search for the common roots of kindred languages. But if obviously and purposely far-fetched, his combinations are always ingenious; and he has been well rewarded for the pains he has taken with his smooth and sparkling verse, for seldom have mere verbal pleasantries provoked such frequent laughter and applause as those in La Vivandière. Moreover, it has been his evident ambition to produce an extravaganza more elegant in its tone than the generality of burlesques. His melodies are taken rather from the Théâtre des Variétés than from the music-halls; violent “breakdowns” are eschewed, and slang, if not altogether avoided, is rarely employed.
This refinement in the manipulation of a fantastic material would seem to connect Mr. Gilbert with Mr. J. R. Planché than with the burlesque writers of the present. But there is an essential difference between the younger and the older poet. In a hundred lines Mr. Gilbert would find room for at least ten times as many puns as would have been introduced by Mr. Planché; but in writing burlesque Mr. Planché showed a degree of constructive skill which is not approached by Mr. Gilbert.
In La Vivandière there is not one striking situation, and only one part that, otherwise than as a vehicle for the utterance of sparkling dialogue, affords a chance of distinction to an actor, a caricature of Lord Byron’s Manfred, who turns out to be the lost husband of the Marchioness, and who is played by Mr. Lionel Brough after a grotesque fashion, recalling to mind the performance of the four French dancers in Mr. Watts Phillip’s Huguenot Captain. The cast comprises Mr. Toole, as Sulpizio; Miss H. Hodson, as Maria; Miss P. Markham, as Tonio; Miss H. Everard, as the Marchioness; and Miss F. Addison, as an interpolated English earl; and we can only say that they speak, sing and dance as well as can be wished. Delineation of character and practical humour were not required. It is by their own merit, irrespective of their connexion with the piece or the drollery of the performer, that the verbal jokes so strongly move the audience.
The greatest pains have been taken with the accessories of La Vivandière. The veteran Mr. T. Grieve, employed for the first time in the new theatre, has produced a scene of the Marchioness’s grounds at Chamouni, with Mont Blanc in the distance, which, shown first by daylight, afterwards by moonlight, is a spectacle in itself; and a very beautiful picture of the Grands Mulets of Mont Blanc, with a dioramatic imitation of sunset, has been furnished by Mr. Johnson.
With Dearer than Life as the principal drama, and La Vivandière as an afterpiece, the New Queen’s is so well supplied that some time will probably elapse before another change is effected in the programme.
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