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It is very doubtful whether Dr. Arthur Sullivan's opera, The Sorcerer, which was produced at the Opera Comique, under the auspices of the Comedy Opera Company, Limited, will add much to his reputation as a musician, or remove the prejudices of those who are doubtful of the skill of Englishmen in the art of composition. Dr. Sullivan is a representative man, as the head of the National Training School of Music, and every work of his is regarded in that "fierce light which beats about a throne." Notwithstanding the importance of his position, or the attempts he has made to assert it by the production of works presumably consistent with the dignity and character of the head of a musical educational establishment, such as an occasional oratorio or a single symphony, each marked by some degree of talent or ability, still those who are best acquainted with his powers declare confidently that Comic opera is his especial forte.
This declaration is borne out by the existence of The Contrabandista, Cox and Box, Trial By Jury, and one or two smaller things. It is feared, however, that the quality shown in either of these works, is everywhere missing in The Sorcerer. Every one in the least degree acquainted with the construction of an opera, cantata or even of a song, where the author of the words is a distinct personage from the composer, must feel the truth of the oft-repeated statement with reference to disappointing music from a quarter where success ought to accrue if a reputation is justly based and correctly acquired, that failure must follow where the musician is at the mercy of the word-monger, courteously called a librettist, poet, dramatist, or author of the plot. From one so experienced as Mr. Gilbert some amusing book ought certainly to be expected, Cynical and sarcastic of course but with some reasonable ground for those qualities of thought and expression.
In The Sorcerer such qualities exist, but it is doubtful whether they are fitted for association with music. The design of conveying moral lessons by such means may, in the minds of some, be suitable for the purposes of comic opera. In our opinion it is not. Let vice be the subject of sarcasm, if it is insensible to graver rebuke; but let virtue, even though it be negative, remain unscathed by the corroding fluid of cynicism. From this it may be gathered that the motive of the play is not good. The treatment has neither the merit of smartness or originality. Not in the plot, nor in the dramatic personæ, and least of all in the expressions put into the mouths of the several characters, will any novelty be found. There are almost as many plays, farces, and dramas having as chief agent the effects of a love-philtre as there are pantomimes in which a red-hot poker is employed as an implement of persuasion, punishment, or encouragement; and such language and ideas which the actors in The Sorcerer are made to utter, have been better set forth by the same hand elsewhere.
The characters are of the old stage type. A courteous old baronet, one of the laudatores temporis acti; an ancient dame of high degree, not yet too old or too dignified to be moved by the passion of love, but controlling her feelings less with the air of a lady of culture than after the manner of the conventional stage quaintness; a grave old woman of a lower type; a lovesick girl, aspiring to a state above her own rank; an ordinary young lover; and an equal ordinary young lady, to whom he is engaged. These are the characters to be found in dramas and plays of all sorts, written before the author of The Sorcerer had his beginning.
The invention of the "dealer in magic and spells," and making him a smug man of strictly business habits, ready to supply any of the articles needed or expected in incantations, either in the bottle or in the wood, including "our penny curse, which sells by the thousands," is a happy idea, and as carried out by Mr. George Grossmith, an amusing identity. But whatever views may be elsewhere entertained upon the matter, the earnest, hard-working, and serious Clergy should not be made the subject of sneering caricature upon the stage. It is necessary that some relic of our ancient respect for dignity, position, or learning should be maintained; and if the stage is to be used to impart and enforce lessons of morality and good manners, some restrictions must be placed upon the bilious or peculiar fancies of playwrights.
We can quite understand, and, to a certain extent, sympathize with the author in his expressed opinion concerning the British workman, for, in his usual state, or "when quite sober," he is a fair target for all the shafts of sarcasm which can be leveled at and against him; but the class of the clergy represented by "Dr. Daly" might have been left untouched, for no good could be done by holding it up to ridicule, for such it resolves itself into.
That it is necessary to be conservative in some things, even in Comedy-Opera, Dr. Arthur Sullivan, who supplied the music, seems to have considered, to have felt, and to have expressed in the character of his music. He has, wisely perhaps, refrained from exercising his invention or his imagination, and has resorted to his memory. The audience, undisturbed by care that the sequences of melody might be interrupted by some rude phrase which would make the music appear new and fresh, placidly give themselves over to the flow of tune rhythmically and melodious familiar. In this lies the reason for any success it may have gained. People do not go to a theatre to think, or to be set a thinking; they will, therefore, delight in an entertainment which gives no reason for thoughtful reflections. For if we are to believe all we are told on the subject, they dislike the works of Shakespeare, Beethoven, or Wagner, because they stir the soul and set the mind in exercise; so they may relish the combination of Gilbert and Sullivan. The music may make a few dance measures for the delectation of the votaries of that exercise; a great number of hymn-tunes might be formed out of its solemn strains.
The book offers little pleasure, and only one lesson, namely, that it is possible to exceed the privilege at a reputation by needlessly treating it in a light way serious thing. There is, happily, a counterbalance in the music, for it treats light matters in a very serious form.
This review was submitted to the G&S Archive by Louis Silverstein.
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