|Iolanthe > Reviews > First Night Review
From The Pall Mall Gazette (London, England), Tuesday, November 28, 1882; Issue 5537.
The enthusiastic acclamations with which on its first presentation "Iolanthe; or, The Peer and the Peri," was greeted prove how successful have been Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan in educating the public. Half a dozen successive works, blending whimsically and happily what is most preposterous in fancy with what is most prosaic in fact, have prepared the way for the new extravaganza, and taught the playgoer to look out for fantastic suggestion and remote conceit. Without some such form of preparation it is doubtful whether all the melody and scholarly and subtle orchestration of Mr. Sullivan's score would have commended to a general public a piece the wit of which is so delicate and its irony so refined.
In the manner in which, upon the appearance of Mr. Sullivan in the orchestra, the audience, up to that point obstreperous, subsided, it might almost be said collapsed, into silence; in the resentment of interruption and in the denunciation of unnecessary applause, the conviction of the public that an intellectual treat not to be obtained without close attention was in store was declared. From that point to the end of the first act the triumph was signal. Every shot told. Equally to the mind of the public was the irreverence with which the denizens of fairy-land were treated and the banter directed against the House of Lords. The burlesque solemnity of the music which announced the approach of a chorus of peers, in their coronets and state robes, the light and fantastic melodies associated with elfin land, the pastoral charm of the airs assigned the young lovers, and, above all, the jocund nature of the reminiscences and revelations of the Lord Chancellor, won prompt recognition, and proved that Mr. Sullivan had once more entered into the very spirit of his associate.
In the second act the success obtained though distinct, was less exemplary. Portions of the spoken dialogue were diffuse, and the conquest of weariness and loss of interest experienced in the opening scenes was principally due to the music. No great difficulty should attend the compression which is necessary to raise this act to the level of its predecessor. The excision of part of a scene which, though characteristic of Mr. Gilbert's method, and written in his best style, is too long, and the quickening of the action immediately preceding the dénouement, will assumably serve to lift the whole into enduring triumph.
Only in a sceptical and cynical age could such fairies as Mr. Gilbert employs obtain acceptance upon the stage. Since the days of "The Tempest" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" fairy agency has been frequently employed in the drama. Randolph, who claimed to be the literary son of Ben Jonson, has indeed treated fairies with levity; has made them describe in rhymed Latin verses their predatory occupations, and has depicted them as afraid of human resentment when it takes the form of pelting them with stones. Regarding the fairies, however, in light of modern discovery, Mr. Gilbert has made them self-acknowledged shams, and has endowed them with a consciousness that their pursuits are absurd and their existence is an anomaly. An opening chorus in which they indulge proves them sensible to the altered conditions of their existence :—
This conception of fairies accepted, no difficulty attends their presence as witnesses in Chancery nor their ultimate marriage into the English peerage. That a directly satirical purpose underlies the extravagant conjunction Mr. Gilbert shows may be surmised. With this, however, it is needless to deal. A brilliant and fantastic plot, furnishing opportunity for whimsical situation and sparkling dialogue, is obtained. To this Mr. Sullivan supplies music full of fancy and drollery, the result being a play likely to attract the public for many months to come.
Some resemblance to previous works of the same authors may be traced. A song assigned Mr. Grossmith, as the Lord Chancellor, recalls, so far as the notion is concerned, a famous ballad sung by the Judge in "Trial by Jury." In certain actions of the fairies it is easy to find recollections of the æsthetic votaries in "Patience." Of little consequence are, however, these resemblances. A comic opera, indigenous in growth, ludicrous in conception, and stimulating in action, is put before the public, and machinery familiar in the poetical drama is employed for the purpose of illustrating a story the main action of which burlesques happily the life of the day.
Nothing in Mr. Gilbert's earlier work and little in previous literature is more diverting and at the same time more mordant than is the satire in "Iolanthe" of existing institutions. We must go back to the days of "La Folle Journée" to find an aim more directly political. If ever in this country a "Histoire par le Théâtre" is written such as M. Muret has supplied in France, "Iolanthe" is likely to occupy in it a place of honour. The application of the fable did not escape the audience, and the emphasis Mr. Gilbert hesitated to supply was furnished by the public.
Two scenes, excellent in all respects, serve for the action of the play. The first of these presents a landscape in Arcady, the second the Palace-yard in Westminster.
In the interpretation the place of honour belongs to Mr. Grossmith. The performance by this actor of the too sensitive Lord Chancellor, whose heart is wrung in bestowing upon others the wards he covets for himself, is thoroughly comic. Mr. Grossmith's get-up is inimitable, and his singing is especially commendable for the distinctness of his intonation — a point of importance when, as in this instance, the words are crammed with jokes. Messrs. Barrington and Lely furnish clever pictures of peers belonging to the period of George IV. Mr. Manners sings well as a sentry to whom is confided the supervision of fairy revels in Palace-yard — a place not ordinarily associated with such forms of festivity, and Mr. R. Temple is satisfactory as Strephon. Phyllis is presented in attractive style by Miss Leonora Braham. Miss Barnett's heroic proportions are once more a cause of continuous laughter, and the rôles of the leading fairies are adequately sustained by Miss Fortescue, Miss Gwynne, and Miss Grey.
The reception accorded the novelty was enthusiastic.
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