|Ruddigore > First Night Review from The Times
The production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s new operetta, Ruddygore; or the Witch’s Curse (a most unfortunate name, by-the-by), was on Saturday evening accompanied by a phenomenon never before experienced at the Savoy Theatre. With the rapturous applause of a more than sympathetic first night audience, which called composer and author, Mr. D’Oyly Carte, the manager, and all the principal performers before the curtain, a small but very determined minority mingled its hisses. As yet these signs of disapproval were too partial to interfere with the general success of the new play, which, for all we can tell, may have as prosperous a run as The Mikado itself. At the same time they should give Mr. Gilbert pause, for we have no hesitation in attributing them to the feebleness of the second act and the downright stupidity of its dénoûment. It is just possible that these few hisses may, by a bold figure of speech, be said to represent the thin end of the critical wedge, and if that instrument is once applied to Mr. Gilbert’s airy structures, if the public once begin to criticize, or even to think, all the quibbles and concetti and flashes of genuine humour to be found in the storehouse of the “Bab Ballads” will not prevent disaster.
The fundamental idea of the new play, like all Mr. Gilbert’s ideas, is extremely good. A baronet, whose ancestor has burnt a witch, and who, by the curse of that witch, is compelled to commit a crime once a day at the risk of torture and death, but who, being in reality a very good man, defeats the effect of his own compulsory wickedness, getting over his crime early in the morning, founding an orphanage when he has stolen a child, and devoting the proceeds of a bank robbery to the endowment of a bishopric, is in itself an extremely whimsical figure, capable of all manner of quaint and humorous distortions. But Mr. Gilbert has spoilt his own idea by a mistake so obvious that one observes it with surprise in a dramatist so experienced, albeit never famous for his plots.
Instead of one baronet he gives us two. The horror at his own crimes, which Mr. Rutland Barrington as Sir Despard Murgatroyd has felt in the first act, Mr. Grossmith feels in the second, having been compelled to resume the loathed dignity which for 20 years he has escaped by his sudden disappearance and retirement to a fishing village in the disguise of Robin Oakapple, an honest farmer. The consequence is that the fun which is kept alive in the first act runs completely dry in the second, which is long and tedious, and winds up with an anti-climax of inanity, at which, as we remarked before, even some of the devoutest Savoy-worshippers drew the line.
The family portraits of the Murgatroyds having stepped from their frames to torture their last descendant in default of his diurnal crime are addressed by Mr. Grossmith in the following manner: Robin. – “I can’t stop to apologize; an idea has just occurred to me. A Baronet of Ruddygore can only die through refusing to commit his daily crime.” Sir Roderick Murgatroyd (21st Baronet). – “No doubt.” Rob. – “Therefore, to refuse to commit a daily crime is tantamount to suicide!” Rod. – “It would seem so.” Rob. – “But suicide is itself a crime; and so, by your own showing, you ought none of you to have ever died at all.” Rod. – “I see – I understand. We are all practically alive?” Rob. – “Every man jack of you.” All that is admirable in this dialogue is the boldness, worthy of a better cause, which offers such stuff even at the end of a burlesque to a representative audience, comprising, in addition to distinguished literary men, such artists as Sir J. Millais and Mr. Whistler, and such politicians as Lord Randolph Churchill, himself, by the way, the object of a somewhat doubtful reception at the hands of the upper gods.
Whether any amount of pruning and cutting will ever make the second act acceptable is a question which the author should seriously consider. In our opinion its constructive faults are too serious for merely negative remedies. There are, of course, redeeming points shining like good deeds in a naughty world. Mr. Grossmith, Mr. Barrington, and Miss Jessie Bond sing a so-called patter trio – a form of art which is in the converse ratio of merit to the conventional patter-song, as two German flutes are, according to the proverb, to one. Here a lively tune, nonsensical but funny words, and the marvellous glibness with which the artists utter tune and words combine to make a very amusing whole. Again, the breakdown, danced and accompanied with song by Mr. Barrington and Miss Bond, the former from a bad baronet turned into a goody Sunday teacher the latter, his victim, once Mad Margaret, now his wife (and a gentle district visitor), was positively sublime in its demure quaintness. We might also mention a kind of sentimental ballad, “There grew a little flower,” given to Miss Rosina Brandram in recompense, apparently, for her unsympathetic part of Dame Hannah, an elderly virago, and sung by her in a very agreeable manner, Mr. Temple joining in the refrain. Here the composer has supplied an extremely pretty, though simple, tune of the English ballad type.
The ghost scene of the second act, representing the descent of the Murgatroyd ancestry from their picture frames, of which preliminary notices and the hints of the initiated had led one to expect much, was a very tame affair. In the first instance, the stage management was not here equal to Savoy level. A set of very ugly daubs, reminding one of the property family portraits so ruthlessly disposed of by Charles Surface, and pulled up as you might a patent iron shutter to reveal a figure in the recess behind, can scarcely be called a good example of modern stage contrivance, especially when, as on Saturday night one of these blinds or shutters comes down at an odd moment, while another refuses to move in time. At the Savoy Theatre, where appliances are perfect, and where money is or should be no object, one expects something more realistic.
The musical treatment of this scene appears to us pitched in the wrong key. Sir Arthur Sullivan, in a parallel situation of The Sorcerer, has shown that the mock-ghastly as well as the mock-heroic is quite within his reach. He is indeed one of the few musicians who possess humour as distinguished from mere fun in a very high degree; his contrapuntal devil in The Golden Legend would alone be sufficient to establish the point. But the present ghost-scene has evidently not found him in a happy mood. He treats Mr. Gilbert’s grotesque spectres as if they were a dread reality coming straight from the charnel house. We miss in the instrumentation those touches of exaggerated horror which in The Sorcerer always remind one of the real purport of the scene, and the song sung by Mr. Temple, who himself has no humour in his anatomy, with a powerful voice, might well find its place in a tragic opera of a somewhat conventional type. The innate seriousness of music, the sincerest of all arts, has evidently been too much for the composer, and the result is one evidently quite different from that which he and the dramatist intended.
We have kept the more agreeable part of our task for our concluding remarks, even at the risk of reversing the order of critical surrey. Well had it been for the authors if they had been able to do the same by placing their second act before the first; in that case no dissentient voice would have been heard amid the final applause. The first act is as bright and pretty as the second is heavy and meaningless. Here everything sparkles with the flashes of Mr. Gilbert’s wit and the graces of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s melodiousness. One is almost at a loss what to select for quotation from an embarrassment of humorous riches. Rose Maybud, a village maiden, is, for example, a true creation of the Gilbertian type. A foundling, hung to the knocker of the workhouse door, she calls nothing her own but a book of etiquette, written, according to the title-page, “by no less an authority than the wife of a Lord Mayor,” and that hallowed volume, the only heirloom left to her by truant parents, has accordingly been through life her guide and monitor, which she consults in the most trying situations of her amorous career. Shall she encourage the timid Robin, “who combines the manners of a marquis with the morals of a Methodist.” or shall she listen to Richard, the bold sailor, who wooes (sic) her in a manner scarcely accordant with the book of etiquette, but pleasant all the same, or shall she prefer the reformed Sir Despard to either? As to these and other knotty points the sacred manual is duly consulted.
Even more amusing than Rose is the aforesaid honest tar – honest in the sense that Iago affected that epithet, only in a less atrocious fashion. Always consulting his heart and “sailing ten knots on a bowline with a clear conscience for his binnacle light,” this gallant sailor thinks nothing of betraying the secret of his foster-brother, the disguised baronet, and of winning his bride for himself. The dauntless courage, coupled with such single-heartedness, is set forth in a naval ballad of the approved pattern, of which we must quote a verse or two:–
This ballad at the same time may serve to illustrate the extreme artfulness of the author’s and composer’s method. Set to a rolling sea tune in the Dibdin style by Sir Arthur Sullivan and sung to perfection by Mr. Durward Lely, who in the ensuing hornpipe displayed almost superhuman agility, the song might well be taken for a serious glorification of the British Navy by an ingenuous patriot in the gallery, while, on the other hand, the frequenter of the stalls, provided moreover with a book, would of course see the satire, both being pleased according to their lights.
A similar mixture of the real and its mock-counterfeit gives its charm to the “mad scene,” represented by Miss Jessie Bond with an intensity of action which, with very little difference, might have served a very different purpose. In the opening scena the composer has parodied operatic madness as treated by Donizetti, Gounod, and Meyerbeer, in the most successful manner. Even the elaborate cadenza for a wind instrument is not wanting. Soon afterwards, however, we have a genuinely sentimental ballad, fitted with a graceful tune. Here again the juxtaposition of burlesqued and of real feeling leads to the twofold result already referred to. It is scarcely needful to add that a composer who managed to introduce a madrigal, or it may have been a part-song, into a Japanese opera, has not failed to endow an English subject with local colour of the homely kind. The madrigal “Where the buds are blossoming,” is indeed a gem, and will no doubt meet with vast popularity even apart from its surroundings.
Of the music in general it may be said that it is of a fair average kind, being not equal to The Sorcerer but certainly superior to Princess Ida. That any composer has been able to produce an acceptable score to such words and in a vein so thoroughly exhausted is in itself a miracle.
With the exceptions made above, the performance, the stage management, and the dresses may be spoken of with unqualified praise. The opening scene, representing an English fishing village 80 or 90 years ago, is beautifully painted, and the military and naval costumes of the same period are copied in the costumes of the male chorus, while a bevy of professional bridesmaids wear the high-waisted dresses, trying to any but the best modelled forms, but very pretty withal. Most of the leading performers have already been named. Miss Leonora Braham as Rose Maybud acted most charmingly, but sang persistently out of tune, probably on account of nervousness or indisposition. For the excellence of the acting author and composer deserve at least as much praise as the individual artists. Each of them has been provided with a part fitting his or her idiosyncrasies with the perfection of a well-made garment. Even the chronic huskiness of Mr. Barrington’s voice is cunningly accounted for by Mr. Gilbert when the unreclaimed Sir Despard sings
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