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The Characters


5.1 John Wellington Wells
5.1.1 From Dandy to Grotesque Drunkard
5.1.2 Lytton's Wells
5.2 Alexis
5.2.1 A dumb Radical
5.2.2. Hoist with his own Petard
5.2.3 Clueless and Hypocritical
5.3 Aline
5.3.1 A Baggage!
5.3.2 Saddled with a twit
5.4 Dr Daly & Constance
5.4.1 Lecherous Daly
5.4.2 Mrs (?) Partlet
5.4.3 A Grave Digger
5.4.4 The Defence
5.4.5 And the Lord Chancellor

5.1 John Wellington Wells

5.1.1 From Dandy to Grotesque Drunkard

Andrew Crowther wrote: I have a book, Gilbert and Sullivan: The D'Oyly Carte Years, by Robin Wilson and Frederic Lloyd (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1984) - which is an invaluable pictorial history of D'Oyly Carte productions. It's fascinating to see how certain characters have changed over the years - one example I particularly noticed being JW Wells.

In 1877, Grossmith is a respectably-dressed man, in top hat, frock coat, wing collar, etc. He gives the impression of an upwardly-mobile man anxious to please, keen to look his best. The same is true of photographs of later revivals, up to one in 1898 with Walter Passmore. "Smart" and "ingratiating" are appropriate words.

But go ahead to about 1920, when Henry Lytton is playing the role, and you find something quite different - a grotesque drunkard with bottle nose and mottled cheeks, a little like Stanley Holloway in appearance. The whole role is turned into an unpleasant "lower-orders" caricature. A.H. Godwin, describing Wells in Gilbert and Sullivan (1926), calls him "a crude, unmannerly creature in a ludicrous garb" which describes the Lytton portrayal very well, but not earlier versions, to judge from the photographs. The tradition seems to have stuck since then of Wells wearing loud, outlandish clothes, with an implication of tasteless "vulgarity" - quite different from what we see in the productions of Gilbert's time.

I have seen an amateur production myself in which this vulgar Wells appears. However, I have also seen another in which he is played in a way much closer to what I believe Gilbert intended - the ingratiating, slightly sinister, respectable businessman, smartly but quietly dressed. Need I add that I thought this much the better interpretation?

Tom Shepherd replied: I agree with you that this is what WSG probably intended for Wells. I am not sure that even "sinister" is necessary. The secret of Gilbert's sorcerer is that he is strictly a middle-class respectable tradesman who just happens to deal in a rather odd product, and who seems to know how to perform incantations. Otherwise, it's his very ordinariness and assumed dignity that makes him interesting and funny. It's just an old family business, like a plumbing establishment, providing good service at modest rates. I don't remember seeing Lytton photos in "clown" makeup, but I have the book you mentioned (but not in New York City) and I'll check it out next week. Gerry Howe replied: I have to say that one of the best JWWs I have ever seen is Clive Revill's on the Brent Walker video. (The video is not without other flaws, but let that pass for the nonce). He is slightly oily, ingratiating, rather snobbish (kow-towing to the aristocracy but contemptuous of the Lower Orders) - a very model of the Victorian lower middle class. He is dressed, of course, as such a tradesman would be, in a respectable frock-coat and billycock hat. Gwyn Aubrey replied: In our "modern" production of Sorcerer, set in the 1920's, Wells was dressed in the current London business fashion of the day, with an "unfortunate" waistcoat and matching bow tie. He was delineated clearly as an outsider, and really resembled a tidy and slightly more cheerful Willy Loman.

5.1.2 Lytton's Wells

Neil Ellenoff observed: I have just listened to Lytton's Koko and I am not surprised at his portrayal of JWW. I thought he was pretty awful in the former role. I know he was fairly ancient but I was really unpleasantly surprised. Gerry Howe replied to this: Do remember, though, that Lytton was not primarily a singer: he was known as having a voice that was no more than adequate. He was, however, according to audiences of his day, a superb actor. So perhaps it's not really fair to judge him purely on audio recordings. This may have been one reason why George Baker took the patter roles for many of the 1930s recordings; it is also known that Lytton was suffering from lip problems at this time. And he was certainly getting on in years: he was born in 1867 and so by the time Mikado was recorded in 1926 (I presume was this the one you meant, or was it the 1918 recording?) he would have been 60. I have Lytton's King Gama of 1932 and his Sir Joseph Porter of 1930 and again they are vocally by no means perfect but he exudes such enjoyment of the parts that the recordings are worth having for that alone! It would be fascinating if we could see video recordings of Lytton. However, there must still be a few elderly Savoyards around who can remember his performances. [This gave rise to an interesting discussion on what constitutes a Savoyard - see Appendix 2.]

Neil Ellenoff replied: Thank you, that is very helpful. Of course you are right. By listening to one performance one cannot take the measure of a career. (I was listening to the 1926 performance) David Duffey observed: My father remembered Lytton's performances and described them to me in the light of subsequent performers. (He, by the way, thought Ivan Menzies the best patter baritone.) Lytton was described as being a very slick performer, but that in his later years he had a self-satisfied, "Look at me, am I not a wonder for my age" air about all his appearances. From what I remember of the conversations of father and his contemporaries, Lytton gave up characterization and just played Lytton. This perhaps in contrast to Green and Pratt, who were all characterization and no personality and more in line with Reed, who had more personality than characterization and Jammy Convex-Whatsit who had neither. I hope I am being contentious.

5.2 Alexis

5.2.1 A dumb Radical

Tom Shephard observed: It is the class "denseness" of the hero, Alexis, that sets this work apart. As the romantic lead, we would normally expect him to be fairly typical of his class, Like Ralph or Edwin or Fairfax, etc. They are true to type. But Alexis is a radical, and a dumb one at that: preaching equality to the working classes and buying potions for the villagers: he is a selfish, destructive moron. And this is exactly what makes him interesting--and I think this is the only WSG libretto that turns the romantic lead into a schmuck. If I could act and sing, this is the role that I think I would enjoy playing; if I were casting a production, THIS is the role that I'd be most careful about. There are hundreds of weak-looking guys who can sing patter, but there are precious few romantic comedians who must play ardent-lovers-who-are-fools.

I am making an issue of this because I think Sorcerer is special. It has a political in-your-face directness that became more sophisticated later on, but lost some bumptiousness in the process. The Sorcerer, unlike Pinafore, does not merely speculate upon the disasters of misalliance; it SHOWS them to us in all their silliness and destructiveness, especially as Alexis rejoices that Marmaduke and Partlet have found one another. An upper-class man would wince horribly when he heard his future foster-mother speak of herself as "a clean and tidy widdy" but Alexis can only rejoice! There is much more I can say, but it has to wait for another time. The Sorcerer sets up the wholesome against the opportunistic, and in the end, the wholesome kind of lose. Aline is worked over and betrayed and "forgiven" Wells is talked into killing himself for Alexis's sake-----this is NOT a conclusion without a hell of a lot of irony, and, as such, is unique in the Savoy canon (although Yeomen also ends with a lot of betrayed people splatted about.)

5.2.2. Hoist with his own Petard

Arthur Robinson replied: I agree with what you say, except that one thing I'm not sure about. Alexis SAYS he rejoices by the time they get to the song, but I get the impression that he's not so thrilled at first (I think he says "This is not what I expected" or something of the sort). I've always had the impression that Alexis, though sincere in his claim that love levels all ranks, is upset at the thought of his father marrying a pew-opener; he's been hoist with his own petard. (He had expected him to marry Lady Sangazure.) Aline then tactfully intervenes, and Alexis, as I read it, makes the best of things, though without much enthusiasm.

5.2.3 Clueless and Hypocritical

Gene Leonardi observed: It was interesting to read Tom Shepard's cogent analysis of the character of Alexis who certainly, in my opinion, ranks as the true "Hero/villain" of Sorcerer. This is, actually a pretty difficult trick for a dramatist to bring across and WSG should be commended for it ;-) I actually don't see Alexis ( in the dialogue sections at least) being as resigned to matching up his father with Mrs P. as his part in the Quintet implies. I imagine this section of the show as a real joy for a good singer/actor Alexis, who can portray a character who is seeing all his high-faluting ideals smacking him right in the face.

I do want to mention the one place in the show that I believe goes right to the heart of his personality and is a true master stroke on WSG's part. Its the section at the beginning of act two when Alexis, Aline, and JWW find the villagers asleep. In response to JWW's comments, Alexis says: "Sir, you have acted with discrimination And shown more delicate appreciation Than we expect in persons of your station". This is devastatingly right and shows that Alexis really doesn't have a clue about his essential selfishness and snobbery. One can only hope that Aline, who is probably far more intelligent and certainly far nicer, finds a way out of her marriage in future years. The Sorcerer meets A Doll's House perhaps.

Bruce Miller replied to this: This describes precisely the artists who created these roles. George Bentham really seems to have been clueless and Alice May was both intelligent and vivacious (the latter almost to a fault). Gilbert may well have been influenced by Bentham in making Alexis such a jerk. Come to think of it, there's probably something of Hugh Talbot in Frederic, too.

As did Tom Shephard: You are right, I misstated Alexis's "joy,"-and you really nail it with "...than we expect in persons of your station." This is all the more interesting because it was written for the first revival, thereby giving WSG the time to further clarify the latent hypocrisy of Alexis.

5.3 Aline

5.3.1 A Baggage!

Bill McCann asked: So what are we to make of this baggage? "Let us fly to a far-off land" indeed. Looking forward to Utopia Ltd of course but what makes her tick here and now? Anyone who has to deal with the insufferable Alexis has my utmost sympathy, of course, but if they insist upon turning themselves into alternative martyrs then they have merely lost the point and are insignificant. This, it seems to me, describes most of the cast of Sorcerer as normally played. But, perhaps I am mistaken!

Andrew Crowther replied: This is a tricky one, but I suppose the simple answer is she loves him, and putting up with his huge faults is just part of this. Maybe if she had a song on the lines of the Wodehouse/Kern "Bill".... "I love because, well, I don't know, because he's just... my... Alexis!" No?

5.3.2 Saddled with a twit

And Gene Leonardi: To Bill and his (devil's advocate?) view of Aline. I'd like to say a word for Aline. She does her best considering what she's given. She's saddled with a twit who don't deserve her. A guy who just by selfishness is driven. Consider that section of dialogue, just before that other "Love" song. Alexis (True to form) wants them to drink the potion so that MY happiness may be complete. (Twit!) Aline's answer is truly from the heart and when Alexis still doesn't take the hint, she lets him have it right between the eyes.

If you cannot trust me, you have no right to love me-no right to be loved BY me.

Oh Aline, Aline. You have so much going for you. How sad that you have to be sacrificed on the altar of a "happy?" ending.

5.4 Dr Daly & Constance

5.4.1 Lecherous Daly

Bill McCann asked: Now what on earth are we to make of Dr Daly and Constance? On the one hand an obviously lecherous (if not downright paedophilic) cleric and a young girl who is clearly in need of a father figure (with a randy mother like Mrs Partlet this is not too surprising). So where is, and what happened to, Pere Partlet and what age was Constance when it did happen ? What is going through Gilbert's mind here? The sub-text might be interesting. Anyone care to grasp this particular nettle ?

First into the fray was Rica Mendes with: WOW! Quite a string of accusations of motive, wouldn't you say? Egads, man, this relationship is no different from Josephine/Ralph, Judge/Angelina, and a string of other age-gapped G&S relationships/attractions. I hope that I'm not the only one to notice a general theme in G&S and other Victorian pieces of older men being attracted to and coupling with women (girls?) young enough to be their much younger cousins/daughters.

So why is this pair any different? If anything, Daly has to be given credit for not jumping her bones as soon as he realized her attraction to him (cause, come on, a chyck blushing and sighing and turning pale etc. upon his entry to a scene is not a subtle sign of these feelings). He does the opposite, though he may think about her, he dismisses it BECAUSE of an age difference and that he can't believe that she really has those feelings for him. These are not the actions of a paedophile. As far as Constance is concerned, as Sir Jo says, "love levels all ranks". Well, it can level age gaps, as well. It's obvious that Daly is a nice guy (aside from the above reason). And, back in his younger days, he speaks about how he was attractive. Well, hate to say it, but if a man was attractive in his youth, he will remain attractive in his older years (ahem, Sean Connery, Patrick Stewart just to name a couple... ).

So is Constance to be faulted for seeing that? And is she to be faulted for being able to look past the age gap and to the person on the other side of that gap? Puh-leez. Maybe it is a father-figure thing, but what is that old saying about men who marry women just like their mothers? It's called human nature. And as for Pere Partlet - Eek.... dare I ask what the "it" you speak of is? I do hope you are speaking of his death/disappearance/etc. My guess is that Daly felt that he really didn't feel it right to mix romance with his parish, so, in the long run, he devoted himself to his duties and assumed that at some point someone outside of his parish would catch his eye and he would marry a suitable mate, without being accused of using the parish as a woman-trap. But, since he didn't get around much, and, though his tea is quite something, it just wasn't enough to bring outsiders flocking to his doors. So, as he says, he became resigned to bachelorhood.

In comes Constance, sick of the weary attempts at "wooing" that the village "boys" display, and sees the dignified and gentle Daly. Who could resist him? So she, naturally, falls in love with him. But, knowing about Daly's long-lived bachelorhood, and his apparent policy with not dating members of his flock, she knows that it cannot be. See? Easy as pie with no Freudian psych needed..

5.4.2 Mrs (?) Partlet

With Ted Rice hot on her heels: As I suggested some time ago, perhaps Partlet Mere , in recognition of her long service to the Church as a pew-opener, was awarded the degree of "Mrs," "honoris causa".

5.4.3 A Grave Digger

And David Craven chasing HIM: It is difficult to determine at what age Barlet Partlet died, but I think we do know a little bit about him. Mrs. Partlet is a pew opener, which is essentially the woman who does little tasks around the inside of the church. Such women are often married to the Grave Digger (a character, by the way, that I would love to see added to a Sorcerer production, and with whom Mrs. P should end up, NOT the notary who is a QC and is societally inappropriate for Mrs. P.) I don't believe the title "Mrs" is honorary, or if it is, not known by the residents of the village to be honorary. If Constance is a bastard, then I suspect that she and Mrs. P showed up sometime after Constance was born with the tragic story of Mr. P's death.... In an alternate universe, Mr. Richard Partlet was arrested for a crime, and in lieu of being put to death, he was forced to enter into the Royal Navy, where, after being partially crippled and losing an eye, he served with some distinction on the HMS Pinafore until executed by Captain Corcoran (nee Rackstraw) for some petty offense.

5.4.4 The Defence

Before Andrew Crowther appears with all guns blazing: In Act One, it is their age-difference which keeps these two apart. I'm not sure exactly how old Dr Daly is supposed to be - Rutland Barrington doesn't look made up as more than middle-aged in a photograph from the original production, and he obviously shouldn't be too old and doddery, simply in order to keep audience sympathy. But he must be in his forties, at any rate. As for Daly being "lecherous", which scenes are you thinking of in particular? In Act 2, he is under the influence of a strong dose of love potion, and a certain amount of sexual frustration enters the situation. In Act 1, he does pule a little, but only in asides, and he is able to keep his, um, longings in check. A middle-aged man in love with a seventeen-year-old does seem a little distasteful these days, but "paedophilia" is putting it a bit strong. As for the randy Mrs Partlet: Chapter and verse for this allegation, please? Scenes in which Mrs Partlet is full to the eyebrows with love philtre not admissible, of course.

Mr Partlet was tragically run over by a cartload of halibut on Constance's tenth birthday. Anything else you want to know? Then Gilbert's mind - I don't know if an explanation is really needed, but purely for the purposes of speculation, something does occur to me.... In 1866, Gilbert proposed marriage to Annie Hall Thomas, a prolific writer of three-decker novels. It seems probable that her mother vetoed the match; and the next year Annie married a curate called Pender Cudlip (honest!). All this is in Stedman's biography of Gilbert. Well, this provides a pretty good reason why Gilbert might not have been very fond of curates and clergymen in general. Dr Daly is presented as quite a nice fellow on the whole, but of course there is a bit of gentle ridicule in the "pale young curate" song, and, yes, when you think of it there is a slightly distasteful aspect to his relationship with Constance. Make of this what you will.

5.4.5 And the Lord Chancellor

Then a cool observation from Andrew Solovay: The Lord Chancellor, at least, is a little more open-minded. Yes, he spends most of the opera chasing a nineteen-year-old, but he ends up happily reunited with a wife several centuries his senior...


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