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Review from The Academy
June 4, 1898.


The Mephisto theme has always exerted a fascination for the dramatist, who, however, has rarely treated it with success. Goethe's "Faust" itself is admittedly not a good play, although Sir Henry Irving's diablerie, in an adaptation of it, proved effective enough at the Lyceum. Of modern failures, "The Tempter," by Mr. Henry Arthur Jones, is one of the most notable, and with this must now be bracketed "The Beauty Stone." That Mr. Pinero in association with Sir Arthur Sullivan should have failed to make Mephisto interesting is certainly a very remarkable fact; but so it is. Despite the talent expended upon it, both dramatic and musical, the piece falls absolutely flat. I can hardly recall an instance of boredom and fatigue laying hold of a Savoy audience to the same degree as in "The Beauty Stone," the very name of which induces a yawn. The root idea of all these Mephisto pieces is the same — Satan in some grotesque disguise as monk or teacher takes in hand the affairs of a small group of human beings with mischievous intent, but in the end proves a bungler, so that no harm is done. This was the idea of the old mystery plays, in which the devil was constantly flouted and made to look ridiculous. probably the lack of faith in this kind of devil has something to do with the difficulty experienced by the modern dramatist in treating the subject impressively.

In "The Beauty Stone," where we are taken back to a quaint old Flemish town of the Middle Ages, we see a poor deformed girl praying that the Virgin shall grant her good
looks and shapely limbs. It is the devil habited as a monk who comes in response to her appeal, which is surely to begin with a needless touch of satire, and is inconsistent with the spirit of the legend. He brings with him the Beauty Stone, a talisman that insures youth and beauty to its possessor. The transformation of the poor weaver girl into a young lady of dazzling beauty is the dramatic idea that has appealed to the authors, and so far it has an inspiring effect upon the house. Sir Arthur Sullivan himself is obviously lifted up by it. But what is to be done with the heroine once she is transformed? That is the question to which neither authors nor composer have given a satisfactory answer. The town is governed by a sensual-minded prince, for whose delectation a beauty show is held by the burgomaster, and it is the transformed heroine who carries off the prize. Such puerilities are unworthy of Mr. Pinero's pen. There is no breath of drama in this story, which falls as flat as an Aladdin's Lamp episode in a Christmas pantomime.

From this point matters steadily proceed from bad to worse. The prince passes his time in amorous dalliance while his friends call upon him to join the forces of a neighbouring potentate who has gone to war. To these appeals, however, he remains deaf, until the heroine, alarmed at the evil results of the Beauty Stone, runs back to her squalid home and flings the accursed thing from her, resuming ipso facto her rags and her deformity. Then the prince, aroused to a sense of duty, betakes himself to the wars. Meanwhile, the Beauty Stone passes from hand to hand. The heroine's father has a brief experience of it, and afterwards the prince's favourite, who hopes thereby to regain her lost influence over her lord. Unfortunately the prince loses his eyesight on the battle-field, and when he returns victorious it is to take to his arms not the radiantly beautiful favourite, but the poor little weaver girl whose beauty lives in his memory.

How essentially undramatic is this scheme a glance suffices to show, and one suspects that the authors and composer found their task, as regards at least two-thirds of it, very uphill work. This is shown more particularly in the character of the devil, who, instead of dominating the action as he ought to do, dwindles away to nothing, figuring merely as a slightly cynical courtier.

Considering what hands have been employed in the fashioning of this piece, its dullness, its emptiness, its lifelessness ate indeed amazing. An evil fate has overhung it in more ways than one, for one or two of the leading singers are newcomers at the Savoy, and are very far from maintaining the musical traditions of the theatre; while that droll comedian, Mr. Walter Passmore, who is cast for the part of the devil, has very little opportunity for working the comic vein. Flatness is, in short, the general characteristic of the performance. Sir Arthur Sullivan's score is the most serious to which he has set his hand since "Ivanhoe," and though, needless to say, it contains many fine passages, the Savoy habitué who expects to carry away from the piece something that he can whistle, will be disappointed. What I can unreservedly praise is the mounting and dresses; which are beautiful in the extreme. The frame, alas! almost kills the picture. The indiscretions of the inspired paragraphist had given us to understand that a wholly new kind of piece was being prepared by Messrs. Pinero and Carr. Unfortunately, "The Beauty Stone" proves to belong to a well recognised type, namely, the genre ennuyeux.

J. F. N.

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