Mr. Gilbert had an unequalled opportunity when he wrote Patience, an opportunity of which the author of The Colonel had not taken full advantage. To begin with, there was the generosity with which the “æsthetic” movement lent itself to ridicule. The things that are easy to ridicule are not always the things that arouse the wittiest ridicule; but the æsthetic movement offered certain external features which other movements of the kind have lacked. There are no “movements” to-day, except in Ireland; and the modem schools of thought have no external oddities to take hold of. The nearest contemporary parallel, perhaps, to the æsthetic movement (though, indeed, it is very distant) is what we might call the Court Theatre school; but the disciples of that school have no badges or “properties” like the sunflowers or the peacock feathers of the æsthetes. They do not wear clothes modelled on Mr. Bernard Shaw’s; they do not carry medals bearing his head, nor even keep on their mantelpieces his photograph by Mr. Alvin Langdon Coburn; and ridicule which must reach the public, if it is to be effective, cannot reach them without some such external affectation as those.
A still greater advantage offered by the æthetic craze was the unusual fact that beneath its absurdities lay a store of solid good. The follies ridiculed by The Rehearsal or The Critic or Les Précieuses Ridicules or “Mansfield Park” or “Joseph Andrews” are now as dead as can be; they were mere follies, and were not incorporated into the intellectual progress of the times. The follies of the æsthetic craze only overlay the absorption of a wide tract of knowledge and taste which had been neglected before. There is a line in Patience which is very significant. “Red and yellow! Primary colours! O, South Kensington!” says Lady Jane, and we smile, as we realize that South Kensington is now voted as Philistine as ever were the dragoons. And so, while people still laugh heartily at the plays and novels we have mentioned who know nothing of the follies they were meant to ridicule, they can laugh with double enjoyment at follies of which – dead though they are – the meaning and effect is still a living force. There lay the great opportunity which Mr. Gilbert took with mastery; and there lies the reason why Patience (though it mentions disbanded firms of drapers and discontinued concerts) need never grow old.
It is as fresh as ever – how fresh we realized with a pang when Mr. Clulow committed the one mistake in an admirable performance and dragged in a reference to the Central London Railway, revealing in a flash the difference between the modernity that comes of universality and the modernity that refuses to come of topical references. Much of the delicious nonsense about love is universally and everlastingly true; for here Mr. Gilbert, rising to his greatest height as a satirist, has ridiculed by means of a particular craze one of the ineradicable follies of human nature. It is excusable, perhaps, to regard Patience as in many ways the best of the operas. It contains some of the neatest of the lyrics, and the prose – that dangerous ground for Mr. Gilbert – is more natural than in any other of his writings. In Patience, too, Sir Arthur Sullivan did some of the best of his Savoy work.
The chorus and orchestra are as good, we believe, as ever they were in the “old Savoy opera.” The dragoons and the love-sick maidens sang admirably, though at least 18 of the latter (Miss Marie Wilson was one of the two exceptions) looked so robust and happy that their final entrance in high frocks and spirits showed little change.
We could wish that the principals were up to the level of the chorus and band. Of Mr. Clulow we have spoken; and a word of praise should be added for Miss Louie René, and for Miss Clara Dow, a new-comer, who has a charming voice, which she uses with delicacy and skill, and a rudimentary notion of acting, which, when trained, should make her a valuable asset to any one who can be persuaded to write a comic opera in these unfavourable times. All three of these, and especially Mr. Clulow, keep up something of the old tradition. They have realized the great truth that it is better to let Mr. Gilbert make them funny than to try and make Mr. Gilbert funny. He is quite funny enough without embroidery, and the secret of getting all the fun out of him is to pay attention to the exact and literal seriousness, which is the method of his wit.
No one else in the cast appeared to have realized this, and the chief offender was Mr. Workman. Mr. Workman began admirably in The Yeomen of the Guard, fell off a little towards self-consciousness in The Gondoliers, and in Patience makes the grave mistake of trying to add fun of his own by clowning to the part of Bunthorne. He is too clever an actor to be allowed to go on in this path without warning.
The soldiers were good, though Mr. Frank Wilson is a little heavy for Gilbertian “patter”; and in the absence of Mr. Harold Wilde, through illness, his part was played by an understudy with a pretty, light tenor voice. Thu audience, who may have forgotten what the old Savoy acting was like, were enthusiastic, and everything was encored.
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