The Pirates of Penzance


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[From The Musical Record (published in Boston by Oliver Ditson & Co.) of March 13, 1880, pp. 369-370]

The following is a graphic account of a rehearsal of Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan's opera, "The Pirates of Penzance," in Philadelphia, under the personal direction of Mr. W. S. Gilbert.

"No—no—no, no, n-no! Stop—stop there now! You haven't got the idea at all, you know!"

The speaker was Mr. Gilbert, the scene the South Broad Street Theatre. The stage was crowded with people but the house was empty in front, save where the popular manager, Fred Zimmermann, sat chatting to a couple of friends and watching with interest and admiration the thoroughly energetic manner in which the pirates were being drilled into practical form by the man whose genius had created them. Mr. Gilbert was not on the stage at all. He walked rapidly up and down the aisle in the parquet, watching with critical eye every movement of the company, and making them toe the mark every time. He is not an Adonis, this man of "Pinafore" and the "Pirates." A bluff-looking six footer, with the English mutton-chop regulation whiskers flanking the American regulation moustache, with a clear gray eye, in which there is rarely the slightest hint of humor, and with a fine florid complexion, a receipt for lots of out-door exercise and a guarantee of perfect physical health, he is the very model of a Britisher whose contact with the world has made him cosmopolitan, whose reputation has not spoiled him, and whose deserved fortune is enjoyed without vulgar ostentation or display. He is not above his business. The people engaged for the season know that. Business! Why, he is never apparently as much in earnest as when he settles right down to work to drill the company into a degree of perfection satisfactory to himself. And he does it. There must be no nonsense. Everything must be gotten down to the finest point, and then, and only then, the rehearsal goes on. Gilbert and Sullivan have been written up in all kinds of style, and bon mots of one are as popular as the jingling airs of the other; but it isn't often that Gilbert gives a performance in the rôle of stage manager.

"No, no, no! Now, won't you pay attention, please! That will have to be done again!" and, as he speaks, Mr. Gilbert places his arms akimbo and stands in the aisle like a miniature Colossus of Rhodes. "Say that as if you meant it," he goes on, "and then go across to the left and stand so," and he strike the required attitude.

Everybody on and off the stage watches him intently, and the pretty young lady whom he is coaching—an earnest girl who is in love with her work, but who is just now quite nervous—imitates his position as well as she can.

"Yes; that's better! And now go on." It is at the moment when the ladies, some twenty in number, come on and survey their surroundings in the pirate's port of the coast of Cornwall.

"Why, what a picturesque spot; I wonder where we are?" is the query of the ladies.

"Don't say it like that! Now, if you were really to come to such a spot, you know, you would express some surprise, wouldn't you? Of course you would. Now try that again, please."

They try again.

"Ah! quite so, that's better now," remarks the gratified author as his idea is caught and acted, and the rehearsal goes on. The young ladies are encourages and wake up lively, and anxiously await their papa 9the Major-General), who has not yet put in an appearance. Everything moves along smoothly until the lady speaks the lines, "We are the first human beings who ever set foot on this enchanted spot," in a rather sing-song sort of way.

"No, no!!" interrupts Mr. Gilbert, "repeat those lines as I do," and he gives them the proper emphasis and intonation.

The lady follows as well as she can.

"That's not quite the point yet, you know," and the patient author repeats them again. So does the lady, and this time hits the measure exactly.

Frederick, the piratical lieutenant, finally appears just as the ladies, having arrived at the conclusion that they are "the first human beings who ever set foot on this enchanted spot" are about to remove their shoes to wade along the beach. In fact, each has one shoe removed when Frederick appears and informs them that they are not in absolute solitude, and when he adds that he is a pirate, one of the funniest episodes in the piece occurs. The troop of girls, holding each one a shoe in her hand, hop back in terror on covered foot. But this has to be well done for effect. The first hop was not a success.

"Not that way, ladies; not that way," shouts Mr. Gilbert, and a brief pantomimic example of his idea is given as an accompaniment.

It is not a success—the lesson—as far as the ladies are concerned.

Mr. Gilbert gets impatient and clambers over the seats to the stage, where, pirouetting on one foot, he hops three skips and triumphantly adds: "It's quite easy, you know; now try that!"

They try it again, but again it is a failure.

Mr. Gilbert gets impatient. "It's so simple, you know," he explains, as he again hops across the stage with an airy disregard of appearances very comical. "Just try, ladies, if you can't get that idea right, you know!"

And these models of professional patience try to get the "ideah" right. But they don't to any alarming extent. Mr. Gilbert hops some more and the ladies also hop ("it's quite a hopera," somebody suggests, and is immediately rewarded with the compliment "very good—very good.") But the "hoperatic" part of the performance is not perfected, and it is only after ten minutes hard work that it is satisfactory to all concerned.

Then another scene between Mabel and Frederick follows, in which the chorus have quite an effective part to perform, and they do it at the first trial to the best of their ability. Again it doesn't please the exacting author and whilom stage manager. "Try that again, ladies," he suggests.

They try it again, half sitting and half leaning on their hands, and forming what will be an exceedingly pretty picture. But it isn't pretty just now, and it isn't by half what Mr. Gilbert thinks it should be.

"Now please pay attention," he pleads, and then goes on to tell them how it ought to be done; and at last when it is all right, Cellier, who is leading the orchestra of twenty-six pieces, gives the signal, and the music begins. As Frederick and Mabel sing, Mr. Gilbert is actively at work poising the ladies, and then the pirates get ready and come on, seizing the ladies as if they were fragile pieces of china which would crumble at a touch.

"Oh! nonsense. Come now, you know pirates don't seize ladies that way," observes Mr. Gilbert, at the same time giving a practical demonstration of how any regular good orthodox pirate would seize a lady. The pirates seize accordingly, with a firm grip and with something like piratical energy. The ladies quietly resign themselves to their fate.

"Now, why don't you ladies struggle; ladies don't submit to the pirates so easily. Struggle, now; won't you, please?" and the author gives his hands a sounding bang to emphasize his meaning.

The ladies struggle in a lady-like manner. "No—no! no! You must struggle more than that," urges Mr. Gilbert; and, as he speaks, he illustrates a frantic female trying to escape from the grasp of a bold, bad pirate. That's the idea, you know."

By-and-by he gets them to realize just what he means, and the Major-General at last makes his appearance. Willie Seymour, who made such a pronounced hit as the Admiral in "Pinafore," has the part, and it couldn't be in better hands. Seymour begins the little dialogue which precedes his song of the "Modern Major-General," and the other characters who take part in this dialogue are on hand with their line, letter perfect, but pointless and spiritless.

"Not that way," expostulates Mr. Gilbert. "Can't you say it so? 'Here we are again!'"

The King immediately responds, "There we are again."

Mr. Gilbert gets impatient. "Not 'There we are again,' but 'Here we are again.' Begin that over again please, Mr. Seymour."

Mr. Seymour begins it again, and gets up to the critical point, when the gentleman who is to play the King once more repeats, "There we are again."

"Here—Here—Here we are again. now, do please remember that, will you?"

And then the gentleman remembers it, and the fun goes on. It is all action, and Mr. Gilbert's voice is heard continually reproving one, encouraging another and giving advice to a third. He apparently never wearies, and has his own ideas about every bit of the stage business—and capital ideas they are. His greatest annoyance is the listlessness of some of the people, and once, when that was more glaring than usual to-day, he said to the ladies: "Look here now, ladies. Those ladies who have speaking parts are your mouthpieces. They say what you would if you were entrusted with speaking parts—which you never will be so long as you don't pay attention to your business." There was an immediate revival of interest on the stage.

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