The Sorcerer


You are here: Archive Home > The Sorcerer > Playing Alexis

Misplaced Blame: The Problems of Playing Alexis as the Villain of The Sorcerer

by Daniel Florip

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Gilbert and Sullivan Archive.

Certainly the most often debated characters in the Gilbert & Sullivan operas are the tenors, and the character of Alexis in The Sorcerer is no exception. This probably is the case because W. S. Gilbert wrote such well rounded characters that pinning down the villains in the operas is difficult, and for whatever reason the tenors, fairly or unfairly, often end up with the villain moniker. Of those tenors often classified as villains, Alexis in reality is least deserving of that title. Indeed, Alexis is a much more well rounded character than many believe, and when his many attributes as well as his faults are properly brought to the surface, there should be no temptation for the director to change the plot at the end of the opera to satisfy the sensibilities of the audience.

Part I. Alexis is a much more well rounded character than many believe.

Too often, people reading The Sorcerer (and, unfortunately, people directing The Sorcerer) make out Alexis to be the villain of the opera. In making this determination, they look to the facts that (1) Alexis, through the artificial means of the philtre, seeks to impose his own ideas of love on everyone else in the village, that (2) Alexis asks Aline, his true love, to drink the philtre, as if he doesn't trust her to love him forever, and that (3) Alexis becomes furious after Aline finally drinks the philtre and through no fault of her own falls in love instead with Dr. Daly. On first glance this is a damning catalogue, but playing Alexis strictly as a cad or portraying Alexis strictly as the villain of the piece disregards the other facets of his character as presented by Gilbert, and is surely an incorrect interpretation. Certainly decades of directors' failing or refusing to fully develop Alexis's character has not helped the situation. In reality, Gilbert was a master at fleshing out his important characters and giving them personalities that transcend the definitions of "good" or "bad," and Alexis is no exception.

A. The plan to distribute the philtre.

It's very true that Alexis seeks to drug the entire village to impose his ideas of love upon all. His plan may be slightly misguided, but does it make him a cad? No. Does it make him a "baddie?" Certainly not. In fact, the libretto tells us that Alexis means well, pursues some very noble ideals, and even experiences some success until others foul up his plans; his fault is that he simply chooses an unusual means of achieving his goal.

1. Alexis: a republican intoxicated by love.

Certainly Alexis's most redeeming quality is his desire that love be, to quote Sir Joseph Porter, "a platform upon which all ranks meet." Alexis has lectured on the subject at mechanics' institutes and lunatic asylums, among other venues, and has also delivered lectures to the highborn, although the aristocracy "hold aloof" [n.1] from his ideals. Alexis makes it very clear in his speech to Aline that he believes high and low should form an everlasting union if love is present as the bond. There's also absolutely no doubt in the libretto that Alexis is deeply in love with Aline, and is also deeply happy. Alexis is so happy in fact, that he can't imagine any other member of the human race living without the happiness of being in love as he is. Therefore, Alexis takes it upon himself to give the gift of floating over that "lucid lake of liquid love" to all the unmarried villagers. Being a man of the world, Alexis realizes that the circumstances of life often interfere with the establishment of true love, and therefore he takes a step in circulating the philtre to ensure that love itself becomes unassailable. Can this honest want of true love and eternal happiness for all people truly be the mark of an opera's villain?

2. Alexis's reaction to Mrs. Partlet: surprise, not snobbery.

Assuredly, many will point to Alexis's behaviour when confronted with the prospect of the philtre's "failure" in Act II in order to highlight his "true" manner of thinking. Alexis is shocked to see his father, Sir Marmaduke, taking on with Mrs. Partlet, the lowly pew opener, instead of with Lady Sangazure, who is presumably the 7,036th in direct descent from Helen of Troy:

ALEXIS: [rather taken aback] My dear father, this is not altogether what I expected. I am certainly taken somewhat by surprise. Still it can hardly be necessary to assure you that any wife of yours is a mother of mine. [aside to ALINE] It is not quite what I could have wished.

Certainly it is easy to treat these lines as highborn snobbery from Alexis by inserting sighs and grumbling and wary sneers at Mrs. Partlet into his speech, but one must also remember that while circulating the philtre Alexis was aware that Sir Marmaduke and Lady Sangazure had been in love with each other for years. Alexis expected to make a perfect match between Marmaduke and Sangazure – a match not only presumably perfect in his own mind, but perfect in the sense that the two had "madly" loved each other for half a century! Alexis's surprise at his father's union with someone who had likely never before even entered the realm of his father's romantic interests cannot be faulted, particularly when the perfect mate in Lady Sangazure had been expected. Nowhere during the Act II episode between Alexis, Sir Marmaduke, and Mrs. Partlet does Gilbert suggest in the libretto that Alexis's surprise is due to snobbery; in fact, it is Mrs. Partlet herself who introduces the notion that Alexis might not agree with his father's marrying a lowborn woman. Indeed, as Alexis attempted through the philtre what fifty years' time had failed to accomplish, i.e., at long last a joyous union between two lovers, Alexis would not agree with the idea of any woman other than Lady Sangazure joining his father in marriage; one is perfectly justified in believing here that Alexis is irked not because of a tendency to snobbery, but because of the failure of the plan he has effected to join Sir Marmaduke and Lady Sangazure – two people who by any measurement of love and reason should be united.

Remember also Alexis's lines in the quintet that follows his dialogue with Sir Marmaduke and Mrs. Partlet:

I rejoice that it's decided,
Happy now will be his life,
For my father is provided
With a true and tender wife.

It has been suggested by many that the "correct" manner of interpreting the Savoy Operas and Gilbert's other non-Sullivan works is to play the characters as if they earnestly believe in what they are saying. This notion is reinforced by the note provided by Gilbert to accompany his script for Engaged, a play authored by Gilbert which premiered six weeks before The Sorcerer in 1877. This note is thought by many to apply to the manner in which Gilbert intended all of his topsy-turvy works to be performed:

It is absolutely essential to the success of this piece that it should be played with the most perfect earnestness and gravity throughout. There should be no exaggeration in costume, make-up, or demeanour; and the characters, one and all, should appear to believe, throughout, in the perfect sincerity of their words and actions. Directly the actors show that they are conscious of the absurdity of the utterances the piece begins to drag. [n.2]

One can also look to a speech given by Gilbert in 1906 which suggests both his and Sullivan's intent (after Thespis of course) that their often absurdly concocted situations ought to be played with an earnest realism that was scarcely seen in the musical comedy of the time:

[Sullivan and I] resolved that our plots, however ridiculous, should be coherent, that our dialogue should be void of offence, that, on artistic principles, no man should play a woman's part and no woman a man's. [n.3]

Therefore if one interprets The Sorcerer as Gilbert surely intended, Alexis believes in what he is saying when he "rejoice[s] that it's decided." After the initial shock of the mix-up between Lady Sangazure and Mrs. Partlet gets through his system, Alexis's common sense kicks in and he realizes that his father is indeed happy. Once the quintet begins, there is nothing further in the opera that suggests Alexis is unhappy with his father's marrying Mrs. Partlet. Interpreting Alexis's lines as Gilbert likely intended only strengthens the notion that Alexis's reaction to his father's union with Mrs. Partlet is produced more by surprise than outright snobbery.

3. Alexis's odd plan actually works well for the cause of happiness until Wells throws a wrench into the machinery.

Having examined Alexis's good intentions, we now come to the execution of his plot. Certainly, drugging the village with a philtre is an odd means of achieving Alexis's end of happiness and love for all, but an odd means to a noble end is no crime. In fact, in the universe of The Sorcerer, the use of the potion itself may not be so odd after all. Mr. Wells tells us that the patent oxy-hydrogen love-at-first-sight philtre is his firm's leading article – obviously the use of the philtre is not so rare as one might believe. In fact, the only oddity of Alexis's plan is that he proposes to administer the philtre to the entire village, and not simply make use of a phial for his own romantic purposes.

Indeed, Alexis's plan works perfectly until Mr. Wells tinkers with it. Upon waking from the sleep induced by the philtre, all the unmarried villagers pair up in loving happiness, singing of their joy in finding each other and engaging in a dance. Though not documented in some versions of the libretto, the vocal score shows the chorus of villagers praising the work of Alexis at this point:

Oh joy! Oh joy! No words can tell
Our state of mind delighted!
For girl and boy
A marriage bell,
Will say that we're united.
True happiness
Reigns ev'rywhere
And dwells with both the sexes,
All will bless
Example rare
Of their beloved Alexis. [n.4]

Not only are the villagers now in love, but according to Aline's dialogue the villagers are paired to complement each other perfectly in order to enjoy life to the fullest. How can one argue with this expression of happiness in Ploverleigh? At this point, everyone is happy with Alexis for opening the doors of love to the entire village. Everyone, that is, save for Constance, who represents the first mix-up. Of course, Constance is torn between her philtre-induced love for the elderly Notary and her earlier love for Dr. Daly. How did this mix-up occur? Certainly through no fault of Alexis; Mr. Wells sees fit to remove the upper-class villagers from the scene of the spell on grounds of propriety and by so doing sabotages the entire operation:

I did not think it meet to see
A dame of lengthy pedigree,
A Baronet and K.C.B.
A Doctor of Divinity,
And that respectable Q.C.,
All fast asleep, al-fresco-ly,
And so I had them taken home
And put to bed respectably!

Clearly the merchant-class Mr. Wells has bought into the idea that some people either by birth or position are just too good to be lying around snoring in public with the commoners. Although Alexis seems to agree that moving Lady Sangazure, Sir Marmaduke, Dr. Daly, and the Notary was probably a good idea (and no, Alexis's line to Mr. Wells regarding the delicate appreciation expected from "persons of your station" is not snobbery on the part of Alexis; it's simply the truth in the universe of the Victorian class system), if not for the meddling of Mr. Wells, Alexis still would've allowed the upper crust to remain with the commoners and would've matched them with the same good sense with which he and Aline matched everyone else. Marmaduke would've been matched with Sangazure based on Alexis's knowledge of their love of fifty years, and presumably Constance would've been matched with Dr. Daly, based either on what Aline may have heard through the village grapevine or Aline's good sense in pairing a young wife to soothe the declining days of an older husband. Clearly what Alexis wants is happiness and love for all, and save for the fouled up situation caused by the actions of Mr. Wells, happiness and love for all is exactly what occurs. As Aline states, "How joyful they all seem in their new-found happiness! The whole village has paired off in the happiest manner." The fault behind the mix-ups belongs alone to Mr. Wells's class-conscious sense of "decency."

4. If Alexis's plan makes him the villain of the piece, surely the plan makes Aline a villain as well.

Alexis is certainly no worse by participating in the plan to distribute the philtre than is Aline, and Aline is generally considered to be sweet and more morally responsible. Of course, Aline agrees with Alexis that it is a "laudable object" to bring love to all the villagers and couple them without regard to rank or wealth, and once Aline weathers the frightening storm of the incantation and gets over the fact that she'll be working with a sorcerer who could change her into a guinea pig, she is just as anxious as Alexis to distribute the philtre. Remember Aline's duet with Alexis after the distribution of the philtre in the Tea- Cup Brindisi:

Oh love, true love, look down on our sadness–
Dwell in this village–oh, hear us in this!

Remember also Aline's lyrics once the villagers have awoken to their new feelings of passion:

Oh joy! oh joy!
The charm works well,
And all are now united!
The blind young boy
Obeys the spell,
Their troth they all have plighted.
True happiness Reigns everywhere,
And dwells with both the sexes,
And all will bless
The thoughtful care
Of their beloved Alexis.

It's quite clear from these lyrics that Aline very much wants the scheme to move forward, and is very pleased with how the plan is proceeding after Constance's song in Act II.

Certainly if Alexis is declared the villain of The Sorcerer based on the hatching of his plan, Aline must also be labelled a villain due to her acquiescence and participation in the plot. Of course, it's tough to think of Aline as a villain, and therefore, logically, we must not attach the label of villain to Alexis, at least not simply for the reason of his hatching the plot to bring happiness to all.

Clearly Alexis cannot be said to be a villain strictly based on his setting the philtre plan in motion, as he pursues some very noble goals, he's not really the pretentious snob that so many make him out to be, and in fact his plan actually works well until fouled up by others. At any rate, how can the plan make Alexis a villain without also labeling Aline as such?

B. Asking Aline to drink the philtre.

Section A has focused on Alexis's plan to circulate the philtre and the motivations behind that plan. Hopefully, it's been established that the plan alone is not enough to make Alexis a "baddie." Simply put, if Alexis is to be classified as a villain, he needs to do something much more despicable. Of course, most readers of the The Sorcerer suggest that Alexis's request that Aline drink the philtre is just the sort of despicable act that is needed to classify Alexis as a scumbag. However, Alexis has some very logical reasons for asking Aline to drink up, and Alexis's rage can certainly be chalked up to astonishment, disbelief, and human nature.

1. Alexis's request: trust not, regret not.

Alexis's request isn't a matter of not trusting Aline; it's a matter of having an absolute assurance of happiness. Alexis, being a grenadier guard, is likely a man of the world; he's seen a lot of things and known a lot of people. He likely has more than a passing knowledge of relations between man and woman. Alexis knows that time can change people and that ardor can cool, and he's asking Aline to make certain that they are always as blissfully happy in their love as they are in their present circumstances.

Naturally, Aline rebuts with "Have faith in me, for my love can never, never change!" Oh, really? How many women say the very same thing on their wedding day, and how many marriages break up? Aline's plea carries weight like a ladder made of Jell-O. Besides, earlier in the opera Aline is perfectly content with distributing the philtre to the village; obviously Aline trusts no one else in the village to find true love and happiness for themselves, yet she asks Alexis to trust her in this very same regard. Aline believes that she's the only person in the entire village who can be trusted to fall in love with "the right person" and stay happily in love with that person for life. Hello Hypocrisy, it's nice to meet you.

Moreover, after "Thou hast the power," Aline still seems delighted that Sir Marmaduke has found a match with the aid of the philtre; even after her spat with Alexis, the philter still doesn't seem like that bad of an idea to her. With this being the case, how inappropriate can Alexis's request really be? The only argument that Aline has with Alexis is that Alexis has asked her to drink the philtre. She obviously still has no problem with drugging everyone else to ensure lasting happiness for all. Considering Aline's hypocrisy and the logic behind the request, asking Aline to drink the philtre isn't quite so egregious an act by Alexis after all. Alexis simply wants to share love and happiness with Aline forever, regardless of the obstacles life might throw in their path, while Aline (who of course would also partake in that same eternal bliss upon drinking the philtre) trots around on her hypocritical high horse.

2. Rage against the refusal: Alexis reacts within human nature.

Easily the most damning statement made by Alexis is his song, "Thou hast the power;" if this song doesn't make him sound like a cad, then nothing will. But one should examine the circumstances giving rise to this outburst. Alexis believes he has found his true love in Aline. Not only is Aline his true love, but Aline has a history of deferring to his judgment in everything. Certainly, for good or for ill, Alexis has become accustomed to wearing the proverbial pants in the relationship. Now Aline (probably for the very first time) defies his judgment, and in a matter of paramount importance! Surely the shock to Alexis's system at this point must be great; one can't reasonably expect anything less. Who among us hasn't reacted to an adverse position with unfounded anger at one time or another? It's human nature! Should we really be judging tenors in our operas by such an absurd double standard?

Of course, Alexis is further angered when he discovers Aline in the arms of Dr. Daly. At this point, Aline has done all Alexis has asked and has acquiesced and drunk the philtre. It would seem that Alexis's rage at this point is clearly irrational, as he is hoist by his own petard. But again, let's examine this situation: Alexis has found his true love in the arms of another man. What rational man wouldn't be furious upon first making such a discovery? Alexis's reaction is completely within the realm of human experience. Moreover, after he cools off and has time to contemplate the situation, Alexis nobly offers up his own life to put all right again, even after Dr. Daly volunteers to leave town and allow Aline to return to Alexis's arms. In these two instances Alexis may be full of anger, but that anger is certainly not outside the bounds of what could be expected of him, and upon cooling off, he really is quite magnanimous and noble in his defeat.

Clearly Alexis's request that Aline drink the philtre is not so egregious an act as many believe. Alexis has very logical reasons for asking this favour of Aline, and his anger which stems from her refusal fits with human nature. Couple this with the fact that Alexis's plan to administer the philtre to the village pursues some very noble ends, gains the support of Aline, and is only fouled up by the actions of Mr. Wells, and one can see that clearly Alexis is no stock "baddie." Alexis is certainly not the villain of The Sorcerer any more than Aline or Mr. Wells is. Once again W. S. Gilbert wins the day, creating a character in Alexis who has many noble qualities to balance his faults, and who must be said to be a much more well rounded character than many believe.

Part II. "Improved" endings: what a farce life is, to be sure.

Lately this writer has been exposed to some productions of The Sorcerer which feature plot changes at the end of the opera – changes apparently intended to make the end of the work sit better with the sensibilities and pleasures of the audience. These changes which (A) bring down the curtain with Aline spurning Alexis, or, (B) in the alternative, send Alexis to hell instead of Mr. Wells, are complete nonsense, and create more plot holes and inconsistencies than they aim to fix. [n.5]

A. Aline dumps Alexis: make up your mind, lady.

Imagine this scenario at the end of the opera: once the joyful music starts, everyone reverts back to their "old" loves, the principals reprise "Now to the banquet we press," and Alexis attempts to dance with Aline. Aline, visibly angry with him, casts him off, dumping him. Alexis exits to one side, while Aline exits to the other. Everyone else finishes singing, and the curtain comes down. This altered ending apparently allows the audience to leave with a good taste in their mouths after watching two hours of incorrect direction which portrays Alexis strictly as the bad guy. Does this ending raise any red flags? It certainly should. Not only does this scenario disrespect Sullivan's work (the vocal score assigns Aline and Alexis vocal lines of their own to join in the merriment), but the idea of Aline breaking up with Alexis does not fit with anything seen prior.

Remember that prior to the opera's finale, Aline pleads for Alexis's life when Alexis nobly volunteers his own life to reverse the philtre's spell:

ALEXIS: …Well, I am ready!
ALINE: No, no – Alexis – it must not be! Mr. Wells, if he must die that all may be restored to their old loves, what is to become of me? I should be left out in the cold, with no love to be restored to!

If Aline dumps Alexis just before the curtain, then we are absolutely forced to believe that Aline would (1) put on the act of pleading for Alexis's life and saying that she doesn't want to live without him; (2) allow Mr. Wells to die basically for nothing, when she apparently still believes Alexis to be in the wrong; and (3) pay with Mr. Wells's life for the chance to vindictively make Alexis live his life without her. None of these corollaries is at all in keeping with Aline's character. Aline may not be completely blameless in general (as was shown in Part I above), but can anyone really believe that this otherwise sweet, loving, and moral girl would send Mr. Wells to his death unless she really and truly loved Alexis and truly wanted to be with him? Aline obviously still loves Alexis very much, and it's absurd to think that she would break up with him after the spell is lifted.

Remember also that Gilbert and Sullivan wrote Alexis and Aline to sing in the joyous finale: they're obviously happy, not fighting. The absurdity of this alternate ending is clear. Why on earth would Aline dump Alexis after pleading for his life based on her love for him?

B. Alexis dies in place of Mr. Wells: patently absurd and utter disrespect of the author and composer.

Again in an attempt to "give the audience what it wants" after seeing two hours of Alexis played incorrectly as a complete cad, a director might endeavour to change the ending of the opera to make Alexis the person sacrificed to Ahrimanes, in place of Mr. Wells. This need to punish the bad guy and save the good guy results from directing Alexis as the villain and Mr. Wells as blameless, which causes the audience to root against Alexis. In reality, the opera as originally conceived and performed for decades under Gilbert's direction portrayed Mr. Wells in a much more sinister light. In addition, the true character of Mr. Wells is class-conscious, cowardly, shallow, and untruthful. When the opera is performed in this manner, the audience should have no problem with Mr. Wells's death. In any event, making this change to the plot with any success while resulting in minimal absurdities requires drastic changes to the music, lyrics, and dialogue.

1. The original Wells: certainly no pretty boy.

As originally conceived by W. S. Gilbert, the character of John Wellington Wells was much more sinister in bearing and grotesque in appearance than many people envision today. This grotesqueness in the character of Wells survived through the long career of Henry Lytton, who learned his parts in the Savoy operas directly from Gilbert himself and who retired from the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in 1934 after decades of appearing as the company's lead comedian. A famous engraving of the incantation scene from the opera's 1877 opening night depicts George Grossmith's Mr. Wells as looking quite demonic in his own right, and photographs of Lytton in the role fifty years later show the same grotesqueness and severity in makeup and demeanour

Early reviews of The Sorcerer from the opera's original run and subsequent tours give us a glimpse of Gilbert's original idea for Mr. Wells. Reviewers referred to Mr. Wells as a "smug man" [n.6] delivering "cheap lines" and hawking wares which "are introduced in such a manner as to dispel every notion of business." [n.7] Moreover, the original Wells was "a piece of burlesque of the most violent absurdity" [n.8], and Grossmith played the role with a "vivid grotesqueness" [n.9], including "grotesque business" and "pointed delivery of racy text." [n.7] This vision of the Wells character was carried on by Henry Lytton, who described the character in a summary of the plot of The Sorcerer in his book The Secrets of a Savoyard. Lytton, who learned the part of Mr. Wells under the direction of Gilbert (and thus most probably inherited Gilbert's view of how the character should be interpreted), described Mr. Wells as an obvious "glib-tongued charlatan," and a "hustling dynamo" who is a "pushful tradesman." [n.10]

The descriptions of Mr. Wells by Lytton and early reviewers by no means paint a flattering picture of the character; clearly Mr. Wells at these points in history was grotesque and conniving, and seldom displayed proper business decorum. This portrayal of the character would change slightly when Martyn Green inherited the role from Lytton; photographs of Green in the role exhibit much softer makeup, and Green himself introduced additional comic business into the part, such as using his umbrella as a billiard cue during the incantation. [n.11] Due to the destruction of the D'Oyly Carte sets and costumes for the opera in the London blitz, the opera was out of the repertoire until 1971, when John Reed brought back Mr. Wells as a comically and loudly dressed cockney businessman, with the sinister and conniving nature of the character completely thrown out of the window. This much more sympathetic portrayal of Mr. Wells is thought by many directors today to be "correct," when these directors have in fact not bothered to examine Gilbert's original vision for the character. Certainly this original vision for Mr. Wells makes the character's death at the end of the opera much more palatable for the audience.

2. Look at the libretto! Wells is class-conscious, cowardly, shallow, and untruthful.

John Wellington Wells is clearly not the noble and innocent businessman that many modern directors interpret him to be. Even a casual perusal of the libretto will reveal many glaring faults in Mr. Wells's character – faults that when not hidden by the director should easily make the audience root against Mr. Wells and cheer for his death rather than the death of Alexis.

Firstly, as noted previously, Mr. Wells doesn't subscribe to the noble idea of love between the social classes; he makes a point of carrying home the upper- class villagers who have fallen asleep under the influence of the philtre. Additionally, Mr. Wells sings "And mine alone the blame," admitting that all the topsy-turvydom in the opera is his own fault.

Secondly, Mr. Wells is an incredibly shallow and selfish coward. He tries to wriggle out of dying by talking about money and how much his death will harm his business financially. In essence, he says, "Even though my business created this whole mess, I can't take responsibility for it, because my death will lose money for my shareholders." Clearly, money and his own life are more important to Mr. Wells than undoing all of the harm caused by his product. Moreover, Mr. Wells's willingness to substitute Alexis's death for his own stands in stark contrast to Alexis's noble volunteerism in that department; Wells clearly shirks the responsibility while Alexis accepts it and prepares to sacrifice himself.

Thirdly, Wells lies his head off to Lady Sangazure in their Act II duet, and in so doing drives her to the brink of suicide! Is this treatment part of the philtre's warranty package? Instead of telling her the truth that he doesn't love her, or (gasp!) actually humouring her until something can be done to break the spell, Mr. Wells spins the yarn of the beautiful tropical brunette for the old and gray Lady Sangazure, driving her into despair because he simply hasn't the guts to be straight with her.

When these glaring faults of Mr. Wells's character aren't downplayed by the director, they should be more than enough to turn the audience against Wells and allow the audience to leave the theatre happy with Gilbert's original ending to the opera. If Mr. Wells is played as even slightly more sinister than the average shopkeeper, Gilbert's ending should be no problem for the audience to swallow. By the beginning of the finale, Alexis in his accepting of responsibility and volunteering for death should appear far more noble and deserving of life than the still scheming and shirking John Wellington Wells.

3. Pick up your pen – it's rewrite time.

Making this change to the opera's plot requires an extensive rewrite of the final scene of the opera to eliminate further absurdities and plot holes which result. Such rewriting of course is incredibly disrespectful to both Gilbert and Sullivan; we're not talking about changing a word here and there, but cutting lines and music that are integral to the work.

If Alexis dies, Aline is the only villager left alone and unhappy at the end, and she hardly seems deserving of such a fate. Surely she has her faults, but she's also sweet and generally moral. To change the plot because "Alexis is deserving of death" ignores the fact that Aline seems at least deserving of love because she stuck with Alexis through thick and thin for the sake of love. If Alexis dies, Aline has no one.

If the "Die thou" music isn't cut, and all of the characters instead point to Alexis, the scene is hardly believable; can we really expect Alexis's father, Alexis's dear friend Dr. Daly, and an entire adoring village to send him to his death, rather than damning the out-of-town businessman who brought the philtre in the first place? Such an expectation is absurd. Of course, cutting the "Die thou" music rips even greater holes into the work and requires more rewriting. These are only a few of the plot problems resulting from killing Alexis instead of Mr. Wells; these few likely snowball into a dozen further inconsistencies.

In the end, if a director chooses to play Mr. Wells as W. S. Gilbert originally intended and does not choose to hide Mr. Wells's many character flaws behind a veneer of false innocence, the director shouldn't have to worry about displeasing his or her audience with Gilbert's original ending. The audience will root for Alexis (who has redeemed himself with his offer of self-sacrifice) to end up happily with Aline, and will be happy with the fact that Mr. Wells ultimately takes responsibility for the opera's topsy-turvydom.

Clearly neither of the two alternate endings herein mentioned are respectful of Gilbert's plot and libretto and Sullivan's music. Moreover, both alternate endings open up even larger plot inconsistencies than they aim to fix, and neither is necessary if the characters of Alexis and Mr. Wells are correctly interpreted within W. S. Gilbert's original vision.

Wrapping it all up…

Hopefully now some eyes have been opened and the reader has begun to rethink his or her interpretation of Alexis and his relationship to both Aline and Mr. Wells. Is this wishful thinking, however? Perhaps; fans of the Savoy operas for years have dumped on Alexis more than probably any other character. So long as people realize that the Savoy operas are never as simple as calling one character "bad" and another "good," this writer will have achieved his goal; W. S. Gilbert was far too much of a genius to allow us to make such an easy distinction when examining his characters.


n.1. All direct quotations from the opera are taken from W. S. Gilbert, The Complete Plays of Gilbert and Sullivan (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997, reprinted from the 1941 edition published by Garden City Publishing Company).

n.2. W. S. Gilbert, Engaged (London: Samuel French, n.d.). Many thanks to Marc Shepherd for suggesting the use of Gilbert's Note, and also to Andrew Crowther for providing the text and citation.

n.3. W. S. Gilbert, address given on the occasion of a Savoyard Dinner organized by the O.P. Club at the Hotel Cecil, 30 December 1906. Gilbert's address printed verbatim in the Daily Telegraph, 31 December 1906.

n.4. All references to the vocal score reference the Kalmus vocal score, K 09560, printed in the United States by Belwin Mills Publishing Corp.

n.5. It's a profound shame that in the past decade UMGASS, a world leader among student-led societies which honour Gilbert & Sullivan opera, has tended dangerously down the path of rewriting Gilbert's plots. One can only hope that future UMGASS artistic directors will seek creative methods of bringing to life what is on Gilbert's page, rather than substituting their own whims into plots which have remained popular in their own right and without fail for nearly 140 years.

n.6. The Monthly Musical Record, 1 January 1878, p.7.

n.7. The Entr'acte and Limelight: Theatrical and Musical Critic and Advertiser, 24 November 1877, vol.439, p.11.

n.8. The Illustrated London News, 17 November 1877, vol.71, ed.2002, p.510.

n.9. The World, 21 November 1877, vol.7, ed.177, p.10.

n.10. Henry A. Lytton, The Secrets of a Savoyard, (London: Jarrolds Publishers, Ltd., 1922). A transcript of Lytton's discussion of the plot of The Sorcerer can be found on the World Wide Web at books/lytton_secret s/stories.html#sorcerer .

n.11. Martyn Green, Martyn Green's Treasury of Gilbert & Sullivan, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961), pp.39-42.

Article copyright © Daniel Florip, 2005. [First published in GASBAG, Issue 230, Autumn 2005.]

Page Created 4 August, 2011