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The excited throng which filled on Saturday night every part of the Haymarket Theatre proved beyond a doubt the strong hold which Mr. W. S. Gilbert, striking into a new path, has upon the public mind. Before his Palace of Truth the combination of poetry with supernatural agency for the purposes of genuine comedy would have been deemed a monstrosity. Such a combination might, indeed, have been effected by some fanciful rhymester who merely contemplated the production of a “dramatic poem,” destined for the upper shelf of a bookcase, and nobody would have greatly wondered. But with a real stage, and real actors and actresses upon it, the case was altogether different. In the theatre a partition, apparently final, had been duly accomplished. Fairyland had been handed over to burlesque and pantomime; the actual world, or, at least, what was supposed to resemble it, belonged to the other departments of the drama. However, in the face of established usage, Mr. Gilbert gave dramatic form and colour to a well-known tale by Madame de Genlis, and the Palace of Truth proved to be one of the greatest successes of its day.
The next step of the innovation in the same direction was the employment of Greek mythology, which, like fairy lore, had been wholly appropriated by burlesque. The production of Pygmalion and Galatea in 1871 seemed to be even a more hazardous experiment than that of its predecessor. If fairies had been deemed too fantastical for cultivated common sense in its more serious moods, they were at least considered amusing; whereas, in consequence of the reaction against a long course of dreary “classicality,” which, through French influence, commenced here late in the 17th century, every actor who donned the costume of Greece or Rome, whether he represented a god, a hero, or an ordinary mortal, was simply looked upon as a “bore,” unless he excused himself by a comic song or a break-down. Nevertheless, Pygmalion and Galatea proved even more successful than the Palace of Truth, and was only withdrawn on Saturday to make room for another piece of the same school by the same author. Thus Mr. Gilbert has not only invented a new species of drama, but he has made it popular. The audience on Saturday night perfectly knew what sort of play they were about to see, and they were not only curious, but prepared to be highly gratified.
Mr. Gilbert’s new piece, the Wicked World, is even further removed from the region of actuality than either of the two preceding works. After a short prologue in rhyme, spoken by Mr. Buckstone as the goblin Lutin, we are introduced to a fairy landscape of the most ætherial kind, supposed to be situated on the back of a cloud. The inhabitants of this dreamland are Selene (Miss Robertson), a fairy queen, and her subjects, three male and the rest female, whom she looks upon as so many brothers and sisters. They pass their lives in an innocent manner, loving each other tenderly, and ignorant of anything like an earthly passion, though they are perfectly aware that at no great distance from their cloud there is a “wicked world,” peopled by beings of quality far less pure. Indeed, the centre of this world, which is, of course, the Earth, is the residence of the King of Fairyland, and thither two of the male fairies, Ethais (Mr. W. Kendal) and Phyllon (Mr. Edward Arnott), proceed, with the view of obtaining a gift that will render the condition of the community even more perfect than it is already. While they are away, Zayda (Miss M. Litton), a lively fairy, bethinks herself of an old law, which, after reciting that every inhabitant of the cloud has a counterpart on earth, empowers the fairies, during the absence of any of their number, to summon to their land the counterparts of the absentees.
Notwithstanding their calm nature, Selene and her subjects are not quite devoid of curiosity, and two roses, flung from the cloud, bring up the respective counterparts of Ethais and Phyllon – namely, two Gothic knights, who, heated by liquor, accuse each other of sorcery, and begin to fight as soon as they have set foot in the new region. They are coarse, vulgar brutes, but still they are so different from anything that the eyes of the pure natives have already seen that they excite a general interest, and Selene, most innocent of the innocents, not only offers to heal Sir Ethais (so the counterpart of Ethais is called) of a wound inflicted upon him by his antagonist, but even throws herself at his feet and, to the amazement of her subjects, declares her love for him in the most passionate terms. Of conventional proprieties Selene has necessarily no conception; and it is quite consistent that, under the influence of a powerful sentiment previously unknown, she should reveal, without scruple, her new experience.
In the second the evil results of the imprudent summons are made manifest. Darine (Miss Amy Roselle), the least perfect being of the land, is jealous of the supposed felicity of her Queen, who keeps her newly-acquired lover apart from the general gaze. This felicity must be destroyed, and Selene is persuaded to summon from Earth the counterpart of the goblin Lutin, an earthly doctor, who will presumably be able to heal the knight’s wound. By an odd coincidence, the counterpart of Darine is the wife of the doctor, who consequently talks to the fairy in a most familiar style, and gives her a sleeping draught, which she presently administers to Sir Ethais. The knight is influenced by one only passion – a sense of honour in its rudest form – and when he learns from the mendacious lips of Darine that Sir Phyllon has called him a coward, he only thinks to avenge the insult, and in return for a drug which will probably heal his wound has small hesitation in presenting the artful fairy with a ring given him by Selene. Not only is he of a rough, uncouth disposition, but he has been jilted in early youth, and therefore is the last person in any world to respond to the ideal aspirations of the Queen. In his eyes Darine is just as good or just as bad as Selene, and he perceives no difference between them.
The story now takes an almost tragic turn. The subjects of Selene, excited by Darine, declare that the Queen is no longer worthy of her diadem. Deeply humiliated, but at the same time fully resigned, Selene places this on her rival’s head, hoping to find solace in the love of Sir Ethais. She is disappointed by the coolness of his manner, and when his utter unworthiness is revealed by the discovery that he has given the ring to Darine, she bursts into a paroxysm of despair and rage, which expresses itself in a speech of unsurpassable force, and brings down the drop curtain with shouts of enthusiastic applause.
The anguish of Selene, which terminates the second act, is carried into the third. The return of the fairies Ethais and Phyllon necessitates the retreat of their earthly namesakes, and we have a parting scene in which the devotion of Selene is contrasted with the brutal indifference of Sir Ethais, who, as he goes, rudely expresses his contempt for all proffered love. Selene falls to the ground in despair, but she soon recovers her senses, and the fairies, returning to their allegiance, now the contamination of Earth is removed, all agree to look upon the recent past as an uncomfortable dream, so far profitable that it has taught them to estimate their own perfection less highly than before. The intelligence brought by the brothers is to the effect that the King in mid-earth will bestow upon the inhabitants of the cloud the gift of mortal love. Taught by brief but bitter experience, Selene and her subjects unanimously reject the donation.
Of all Mr. Gilbert’s plays, the Wicked World is unquestionably the most poetical, and most strongly marks the contempt of the author for the traditional prejudices of the stage. It is a received canon that in works of fiction, and especially plays, lovers ought to be made happy, or perpetually miserable, or die. Here, on the other hand, the story is brought to a close by the abnegation of mortal love as the best expedient for happiness. The section of fairyland exhibited is virtually a convent, the peace of which is for a short time disturbed by a pair of intruders, and the moral of the whole is decidedly monastic. Between Mr. Gilbert and those reformers of the stage who appear from time to time with the intention of restoring the glories of the Elizabethan era there is nothing in common. He affects no archaic greatness, but writes poetry in the language of the 19th century, and there is nothing in his work to show that he ever read a line of Beaumont and Fletcher. His regard for the unity of place, which is pursued in the new play as it was in Pygmalion and Galatea, and which is much more French than Greek, may, indeed, suggest a comparison with the writers under Louis XIV, but the comparison will go a very little way, for it is impossible for personages to be more diverse than the thoroughly English speakers of Mr. Gilbert and the formal declaimers of Racine. Probably our author perceived that unity of place promotes neatness and closeness of construction, and adopted it without thought of precedent.
It is not every actor who could do justice to Mr. Gilbert’s language, at once polished and powerful, and he may congratulate himself on the good service rendered to him by the Haymarket company. They all speak their words well, which is a great point. As the uncouth Sir Ethais, who still has an ideal character to maintain, Mr. Kendal has no easy task, but he acquits himself most conscientiously throughout. The very spirited acting of Miss Amy Roselle and the grotesque drollery of Mr. Buckstone, who cannot open his mouth without provoking a roar, are of inestimable value; and pert Zayda would lose half the effect in the hands of an actress less gracefully arch than Miss M. Litton. But the triumphant person of Saturday evening was Miss Robertson. Nor should the merits of Mr. J. O’Connor be overlooked. He had only one decoration to paint, but he evidently threw into it the whole of his fanciful powers, and has created a veritable fairyland, fit for the habitation of Mr. Gilbert’s aërial characters.
If we may congratulate the author on the unequivocal success of his play, we may also congratulate the London public that it can be represented by an audience at once so large and so intellectual as that of Saturday night. Mr. Gilbert no more courts the populace of modern England than did Coriolanus the mob of mythical Rome. Not a phrase drops from his pen that can be called clap-trap; a tinge of the odi profanum vulgus feeling permeates all his writing. Nevertheless, not a line of the Wicked World missed its effect. If the passages of power raised storms of applause, the half-concealed points of the never insipid dialogue were always recognized, and the recognition was shown by a general laugh. The forms of success were, of course, gone through on Saturday, but without the aid of form the success of Mr. Gilbert’s play would have been perfectly apparent.
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