Princess Ida

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First Night Review from The Times, Monday, January 7, 1884.


In order to appreciate duly the new operetta by Mr. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan, produced at the Savoy Theatre on Saturday evening, the intelligent spectator should do two things – forget a fact and divest his mind of an illusion. The fact we speak of is the existence of a poem or “medley” called “The Princess,” by Alfred Tennyson. Of that poem Mr. Gilbert’s libretto professes to be a “respectful perversion.” We admit the noun, but we must take exception to the adjective. The Laureate’s heroine is essentially a tragic character. She is possessed by an idée fixe, perhaps we should say an ideal – the liberation of her sex from the thraldom of man – and that ideal, however impossible one may judge it to be, and whatever one may think of the means she employs in realizing it, altogether lifts her above the sphere of the ordinary “strong-minded woman,” or of the blue-stocking, even while she discusses “the metaphysics,” or talks whole nights long up in a tower

“Of sine and arc, spheroid and azimuth,
“And right ascension.”

One may hold all idea of “woman’s rights” in condign detestation, and yet see that such a heroine, when at last she yields to the common sway of love, surrenders her ideal significance and raison d’être, and that therefore Tennyson’s poem is, as we said before, a tragedy in spite of its “happy ending.”

Mr. Gilbert has not perceived this, although Sir Arthur Sullivan has, to judge by the feeling of genuine sadness which he has imparted to the last song of Princess Ida – the best musical lyric in the score. We are not now judging of the absolute merits of Mr. Gilbert’s play, neither do we underrate the difficulties and the privileges of parody and extravaganza. All we say is that if he did not wish his heroine to be more than a commonplace modern damsel, with whom education is the fad of an idle day, and whose little life is rounded by quiet flirtations and milliners’ shops, he would have done better to avoid Tennyson altogether and rely upon his own imagination for a type. A version, even a “perversion,” of an established work of literature involves certain duties and responsibilities for the “respectful” humorist. Such responsibilities Mr. Gilbert would no doubt have been willing to accept had he written his play for his present public, and in conjunction with his present collaborator.

Mr. Gilbert’s libretto is not a new work, but the rifacimento of a burlesque drama written many years ago, for the Olympic Theatre, in which the parts of Prince Hilarion and his friends were acted by ladies. It is published in a volume of his collected plays, and those who will take the trouble to compare it with the present libretto will find that the characters, the essential features of the plot, and the occasionally shortened blank-verse – which, by the way, Mr. Gilbert would have done better to avoid in such juxtaposition – are all but identical. Only the short lyrical interludes, which in the earlier play were adapted to popular tunes from Offenbach, Rossini, and others, have been discarded, their place being taken by more elaborate and more numerous songs and concerted pieces. The same fact will account for the disappointment of the illusion referred to in the opening sentence of this notice. Those who most warmly admire what the dramatist and the composer have done for our comic stage may probably have expected that, having to deal with a more serious issue, they would have taken the opportunity of leaving their accustomed groove of easy banter for higher, though not less graceful, flights of fancy. Such, however, is not the case. Princess Ida in every respect resembles its numerous predecessors.

The types of character, the subtle touches of humour, the grotesque incongruities of situation and of diction – all this is as unchanged, as are, on the other hand, the ingredients of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s score, which contains the due mixture of sentimental ballads, “patter-songs,” “Old English” refrains, and ensembles, the latter always admirably though lightly constructed. Even the minor touches of stage effect which have proved so attractive in former pieces are met with again. The same damsels who in Patience listen in various degrees of prostration to Reginald’s (sic) “Song of the Silver Churn” are grouped in very similar attitudes round Prince Hilarion in the prologue and round the Princess in the first act, and simper and sigh and are horror struck at the corresponding moments. We are the last to quarrel with dramatist and composer for giving the public what the public like, and, as far as we could judge by Saturday’s experience, will continue to like for a long time to come. It would be contrary to the dictates of common prudence if they were to leave the golden bird of which they have secured so firm a grasp for the nobler quarry which the aforesaid “higher flights” might possibly yield.

Leaving poetic charm and psychological subtlety out of the question, the outline of Mr. Gilbert’s libretto follows that of the Laureate’s poem pretty closely. The action proper is preceded by a prologue which takes place at the castle of King Hildebrand, whose son, Prince Hilarion, has been betrothed at the age of two to Ida, daughter of King Gama. The arrival of the bride and her royal father is anxiously expected, and in the meantime the courtiers wile away the time with singing and dancing, as in operatic duty bound. The chorus “If she come here,” with its sonorous refrain “hip, hip, hurrah!” although not very distinguished in itself, serves to accompany the graceful pantomimic action which on the English stage takes the place of the grotesque motions of French opéra bouffe. That it should occur so early in the proceedings is characteristic of this play, in which dancing takes a very prominent position. After some time King Gama arrives, accompanied by his three warlike sons, Arac, Guron, and Scynthius, but not by his daughter, of whom he says to the eager bridegroom, –

“In Castle Adamant,
“One of my many country houses,
“She rules a woman’s University
“With full a hundred girls who learn of her.”

The character of King Gama is entirely Mr. Gilbert’s invention and conceived in his most humorous vein. He is, according to his own account, a “genuine philanthropist,” who displays his love for his kind somewhat in this guise:–

“I’m sure I’m no ascetic; I’m as pleasant as can be,
“You’ll always find me ready with a crushing repartee.
“I’ve an irritating chuckle, I’ve a celebrated sneer,
“I’ve an entertaining snigger, I’ve a fascinating leer.
“To everybody’s prejudice I know a thing or two
“I can tell a woman’s age in half a minute – and I do.
“But although I try to make myself as pleasant as I can,
“Yet everybody says I’m such a disagreeable man.
  “And I can’t think why!”

After which effusion he thus addresses his royal host:–

  “So this is Castle Hildebrand? Well, well!
“Dame Rumour whispered that the place was grand!
“She told me that your taste was exquisite
“Superb, unparalleled!”
HILDEBRAND (gratified). – “Oh, really King!”
GAMA. – “But she’s a liar! Why, how old you’ve grown!
  “Is this Hilarion? Why you’ve changed too
“You were a singularly handsome child!”

A king, who thus introduces himself to the audience and whose chief complaint during his subsequent captivity is that he has nothing to grumble at, is a character according to Mr. Gilbert’s own heart. Unfortunately its humorous potentialities remain undeveloped, a circumstance which is to be regretted also on account of Mr. Grossmith, its representative. He places the oddities of the philanthropic king in the most grotesque light, and sings his two “patter-songs” – the second not a very effective one – with astounding volubility. But the exigencies of the story exclude him from the stage for a long time and prevent the character from gaining that importance which no doubt would have been given to it had the play been designed for the present cast.

Princess Ida having failed to keep her troth, her father and her three brothers are retained as hostages, and marched off to durance vile, but not before the latter have given vent to their feelings in a trio, which is among the cleverest numbers of the score. The three male voices perform a kind of solemn canto fermo, surrounded by the contrapuntal arabesques of the stringed instruments. The entry after this of the solemn brass is an effect which only a master of the orchestra could have devised. We must also mention the melodious song in which Hilarion, and his friends the gentle Florian and the bold Cyril express their determination to conquer the maidens’ castle and hearts by the soft artillery of “expressive glances,” and the like. “Oh, dainty triolet,” the ladies of the court reply, although the song is no more a triolet than a Pindaric ode – a slip of metrical lore, for which, no doubt, they would be sternly reproved by Princess Ida and her girl-graduates.

To the court of that learned maiden we are transferred in the first act of the play. We advisedly say the court for the glade by the side of a lake, in which the students are picturesquely grouped does not suggest the groves of Academe. No stern portals with the inscription “Let no man enter here, on pain of death,” mar the view of a battlemented castle in the background; no busts or statues are seen of her –

“That taught the Sabine how to rule, and her,
“The foundress of the Babylonian wall,
“The Carian Artemisia strong in war –
“The Rhodope that built the pyramid,
“Olelia, Cornelia, and the Palmyrene
“That fought Aurelius, and the Roman brows
“Of Agrippina.”

Neither do the gowns of the lady students dispel the illusion of a gay court. They are beautifully designed and grouped together, form a perfect bouquet of harmonious colour; they will, we seriously apprehend, cause a revolution at Newham and Girton, but they certainly do not suggest the severity of academic discipline. After a pretty chorus of the girls, Princess Ida enters and immediately begins to harangue the students in a speech which proves he superiority of the female over the male intellect by such arguments as –

“Logic? Why tyrant man himself admits
“It’s waste of time to argue with a woman.”

Miss Braham, the representative of the heroine, has to contend with considerable physical difficulties. She does not stand “Among her maidens, higher by the head,” neither can she suppress, even in moments of danger and excitement, the beaming smile, so pleasant in itself and so little fitted to a stern reformer of womankind. But if not an imposing, Miss Braham is at least a charming Princess, who, moreover, delivers her speech with admirable correctness of metrical diction, and displays an agreeable voice in her aria d’entrata and in the pathetic song, “I built upon a rock,” already referred to. If Princess Ida is too amiable, no such exception can be taken to her coadjutrix, Miss Brandram, the formidable Lady Blanche, who discusses with becoming gravity the important question of

“how the Is and Might Be stand,
“Compared with the inevitable Must,”

and delivers a song treating of that and other metaphysical problems in such a manner as to show that the art of singing is successfully taught at Castle Adamant.

The incidents of the first act may be summed up in few words. Prince Hilarion and his friends appear in due course at Castle Adamant, and don the undergraduate’s gown, but are in spite of it recognized by the Lady Psyche, Florian’s sister. The various couples are matched as in the poem. The Prince loves the Princess, Cyril Psyche, Florian Melissa, the sweet daughter of the ill-natured Lady Blanche. Being hospitably entertained by the ladies, Cyril, in a fit of vinous humour, shocks their feelings by a boisterous love song, is punished by the Prince, and finally discloses the secret. The Princess, in her flight from the man-tainted atmosphere, falls from a bridge into the lake and is rescued from a watery grave by Hilarion.

The close of the act has been considerably modified from the play. With a view no doubt to adding tenors and basses to the musical finale, King Hildebrand and his warriors are made to invade the castle, and threaten the frightened students with dire vengeance. A respite of one day, however, is granted to the Princess. If in that time she makes up her mind to marry Hilarion, well and good; if not, her father and brothers must give their lives for her breach of faith. The vocal ensemble is the most elaborate structure of the piece. It is designed on the model of serious opera, and without reading the words one might suppose that enterprises of great pith and moment are going forward on the stage. The final tableau is a masterpiece of stage arrangement.

It will be seen that the dramatic material of the first act is not very abundant, not, at least, if its duration of considerably more than an hour is taken into account. The truth is that miscellaneous singing and dancing are indulged in to an undue extent, and “cuts” will, we think, be found necessary to reduce this part of the play to reasonable dimensions. The last act, on the contrary, is short and concise. After a spasmodic show of resistance the ladies consent to leaving the decision of their fate to their male friends. The three brothers of the Princess enter the lists against Hilarion and his companions, and are vanquished after a desperate fight, whereat, to paraphrase an old song, troubles and adventures end in lovers’ meetings, every lassie finds her laddie, not excluding the Lady Blanche, who finds a congenial mate in the philanthropic king.

The nature of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music has been sufficiently indicated in the foregoing remarks. In a general way it may be said that the concerted pieces are fully equal to the highest level he has attained in this genre, while the songs are, with one or two exceptions, below that level. According to the division which naturally suggests itself, we may point to the charming sentimental ditties assigned to Hilarion (“Whom thou hast chained”) and to his bride (“I built upon a rock”), and to the pretty quartet, “The world is but a broken toy,” in which the Princess joins with the three disguised friends. The graceful duet, “Sing Hoity-toity,” charmingly sung by Miss Braham (sic) [Brandram -ed.] Miss Jessie Bond (Melissa), and the glee for male voices, “This helmet,” may serve as specimens of what we have called the old-English or Handelian element. The sonorous cadence in the latter, worthy of the “He is an Englishman,” in The Pinafore, is especially worthy of notice.

The most effective tenor music has fallen to the share of Mr. Lely (Cyril), who made the best of his opportunity in the song, “Would you know the kind of maid,” and other ditties. In the ensembles Mr. Lely was occasionally too prominent, even as in the drinking scene his acting was a trifle more pronounced than seemed necessary. Apart from this, it would be almost impossible to find fault with any part of the performance. The acting was uniformly excellent, so uniformly that the sway of one mind – that of the author himself – could be easily recognized in each individual performance. In the same sense, the musical rendering was a perfect reflex of the composer’s intentions. Some of the principal artists have already been mentioned. It remains to add that Mr. Bracy was a sprightly, although somewhat insipid, Hilarion, and that Mr. Rutland Barrington played the part and sang the songs of King Hildebrand with as much humour and as little voice as ever. Miss Chard (Lady Psyche), Mr. Ryley (Florian), Mr. Richard Temple (Arac), and other artists contributed materially to the success of the performance, as did the chorus and orchestra.

Whatever may be thought of the abstract value of Gilbert and Sullivan’s work, it has the great merit of putting every one in a good temper. It was pleasant to watch the audience on Saturday. The occupants of stalls and boxes, including many musicians and literary men of note, the dress circle, and even the unruly “gods” in the gallery, were equally delighted, and expressed their delight after the manner of their kind. To a poet and musician who can achieve this by morally harmless and artistically legitimate means, it would be unjust to grudge the burst of applause which at the end of the piece brought Mr. Gilbert, Sir Arthur Sullivan, and Mr. D’Oyly Carte, the energetic manager of the Savoy Theatre, before the curtain. To play the stern critic in such circumstances, one would require the temper of the philanthropic King Gama of the play.

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