|The Mikado > Reviews > 1908 Revival
The revival of The Mikado in 1908, after having run 672 nights on its production in 1885 and enjoyed a prosperous career in 1888,1895, and 1896, is likely to cause some trouble to the future historian of European drama. He will be a German, of course, and by the time he has arrived at perhaps the tenth volume it will be the turn of Comic Opera: Nineteenth Century, England, to be labelled, docketed, and given its final pigeon-hole in the Student’s Dramatic Culture-History. It will cause some trouble. “To what,” we imagine him writing, “are we to ascribe the unprecedented popularity which this opera has enjoyed at the hands of the British public? In the authors’ other works it is easier to explain the success, because it is easier to define the tendency. Iolanthe, for example, was the first stone thrown effectively in the democratic campaign against the House of Lords; H.M.S. Pinafore was a strong card in the hands of the Navy League; and who is unaware that Trial by Jury, in spite of the brevity of its thesis, has hastened the reform of that most regrettable anomaly, the English divorce laws? (sic) We turn to The Mikado, and what do we find? On the one hand, a state of appalling bribery and corruption on the part of State officials, a reckless disregard in both sexes of the most ordinary matrimonial precautions, and an almost universal absence of self control; on the other hand, the play undeniably shows a romantic appreciation of such natural beauties as water-fowl and spring flowers and an uncommon feeling for character in the delineation of an intriguing executioner, an exiled Heir-Apparent, and the Heir-Apparent’s august father – a humane and philanthropic despot, whose chief object is the reform of the penal code. In this heterogeneous mass of material it is impossible to discover a motive or to suggest an ultimate tendency – unless, indeed, we are driven back on the supposition that it is mystical in origin and is fraught with a significance which can only be appreciated when we are in possession of the key.”
He will be quite right. You must possess the key; and the key is a birth-certificate registered anywhere between Land’s End and John-o’-Groats – preferably nearer Land’s End. In short, you must be an Englishman; any sort of Englishman will do, but you must be English, and (a most vital point) you must remain an Englishman. Then you will understand The Mikado, which is as thoroughly English in its appeal as it is in its origin. Consider the music – always on the understanding, of course, that neither music nor words can be fairly separated from each other and judged absolutely alone. For that was the great triumph of these two collaborators; it is hardly possible, even now, to think of the operas as the work of two separate individuals, and in the dim future the two authors will no doubt have been merged into one and will go down to posterity as a single entity with a double-barrelled name. But consider the music for a moment. Apply the treatment of “the popular guardsman,” melt it down, in a pipkin or crucible, set it to simmer and take off the scum, and you will find that something essentially English is the residuum. The scum in this case is not a negligible quantity. Many good things (cream amongst others) come to the top of the pan, and in Sullivan’s case the scum was mainly Offenbach and Auber – both excellent models, whom he admired rather than imitated and whose influence was consequently indirect. What really influenced Sullivan was English Church music, English ballad music, and the school of English madrigal writers. The ballad music helped to keep his melody clear, though it helped to destroy his discrimination; the Church music taught him part-writing, if it led him into sentimentality; the effect on him of the madrigal writers of the later school of part-songs was entirely to the good, and the result is that such things as “Brightly dawns our wedding day,” in The Mikado, “Joy and sorrow,” in The Rose of Persia, and other familiar concerted numbers, remain Sullivan’s best contribution to the growth and development of English comic opera.
When we come to consider Mr. Gilbert’s share a mere glance between the pages will be sufficient to convince us that it was pre-eminently for an English audience that he wrote. For an English audience likes to regard its plays much in the same way that Boswell regarded a game of draughts – as something “calculated to fix the attention without straining it.” And this is precisely what Mr. Gilbert has so skilfully managed to do. He has fixed the attention of his public, whether in the theatre or in the home, from the day when Captain Reece was first born into this world to the day when fairy and mortal, baronet and pantaloon danced the boards together in that fantastic medley The Fairy’s Dilemma. Not once in all that long period has he put a strain on the attention. That is not his method. He prefers to attract rather than impel, to coax rather than coerce. He finds it more amusing to call some of our heads our heels and some of our heels our heads, than to stand on his head and laugh at us for standing on our heels. This is what the public likes. It wants to be amused, and does not like to have its attention or its wits too heavily taxed in the process.
There is one other feature of Mr. Gilbert’s wit which must not be left unmentioned. Dryden defined wit as “propriety of words and thoughts,” and Mr. Gilbert can lay claim to it both on the score of his unerring sense of le mot juste, and also in the ulterior sense that “propriety” was always the distinguishing feature of his writing. “Everything is quite correct,” as Pish-Tush says. There is nothing calculated to bring a blush into the cheeks of the young person; and, although the young person’s skin is not quite so thin now as it used to be, we must remember that these works were appearing in the seventies and eighties – that is to say, in the days when maidens were coy, when peacock feathers were bought for a penny-a-piece in Kensington, and parsons and mothers-in-law were a perpetual source of innocent merriment. The moral of all of which is that Mr. Gilbert must be left to speak for himself. His wit, his paradox, his fantasy must be kept intact; there must be no underlining, and, above all, there must be no gagging.
The performance last night was undoubtedly a source of innocent merriment to a very crowded house, which encored almost every number and at the end cheered Mr. Gilbert with the enthusiasm of old friends. The whole thing went with the greatest smoothness under Mr. François Cellier; band and chorus were excellent, and of the principals some were extremely good and almost all were satisfactory. As usual, the men were better than the women. Miss Louie René as Katisha (the Gilbertian Donna Anna in search of her prey) was not unimposing in appearance, and on occasions sang out, but her voice was wanting in fullness; Miss Clara Dow (Yum-Yum) also sang somewhat weakly, but she realized the part well and was clever enough to take support from the others; and in the case of Pitti-Sing (Miss Jessie Rose) the support was very well worth taking.
Amongst the men Mr. Leicester Tunks made a surprisingly good Pish-Tush, enunciating clearly and using a powerful and agreeable voice with a great deal of skill; as Nanki-Poo Mr. Strafford Moss was somewhat hoarse (though this may have been due to the fog), but his acting was spirited; Mr. Workman as Ko-Ko was more than spirited – he was galvanic, but in all his antics he kept his head and he never uttered a syllable that was indistinct; Mr. Henry Lytton was a dignified and imposing Mikado whose dignity was eclipsed only by that of Mr. Rutland Barrington as Pooh-Bah. Mr. Barrington, the only survivor of the original cast, was nothing short of portentous; he was portentously comic, and portentously solemn, and whatever he said or did seemed to be done with the weight of supreme authority.
In one point, however, the really supreme authority (Mr. Gilbert’s) was not sufficiently regarded. The “business,” which in the second act often developed almost into “horse-play,” was much too elaborate, and all the time there was a great deal too much “gag.” One or two changes, such as “scorching motorist” for “lady novelist,” no doubt have the author’s sanction, but “You silly little cuckoo” cannot, if internal evidence goes for anything, have come from the pen of Mr. Gilbert. The performance will be very much improved for being taken more “literally,” and it is already so good that improvement is well worth the making. The Mikado has now become an institution, and, like all English institutions, is destined for posterity. It is just as well to see that posterity gets it unadulterated.
Page modified 16 July 2012 Copyright © 2010-2 The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive All Rights Reserved.