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The Era 31 December 1871

Mr W.S. Gilbert has hit upon a most ingenious and strictly original idea for the framework of his grotesque opera, properly produced at the Theatre which devotes its energies to comic opera. It is called THESPIS; OR, THE GODS GROWN OLD. It is in two acts, sufficiently long acts, to be sure, since the performance lasts from a little after nine until past midnight, and it has been musically illustrated by Mr Arthur Sullivan, our most distinguished English composer.

When the curtain rises a gauzy scene, illustrative of fog, is presented. Some sombre attendants of Diana clothed in murky black sing a melancholy strain, a prelude to the approach of Diana herself, a middle-aged discontented female, who discusses with Apollo, a made-up old fop (the exact ditto of Mr Hare in the comedy of School), the triste character of Olympus and the tediousness of existence in Heaven. The fog is banished to earth by Apollo, and forthwith is disclosed a bright and carefully painted scene by Mr Gordon, representing a Ruined Temple of the Gods on Mount Olympus. The grumbling and maundering of Diana and Apollo are stopped by the approach of Mercury, a dissipated youth, who remains out all night, and is employed by the deities to run to earth on suspicious errands. The basket brought up from the lower world by the winged messenger tells a dreadful tale.

The gods are evidently passés.  They are in the habit of effecting juvenility by make-up; a bottle of hair dye, false wigs, auricomus fluid, monstrous chignons, pearl powder, and rouge, hare’s feet and puffs are evidence enough that Jupiter, Juno, and Venus are supplementing nature by meretricious art. The appearance of Jove and Mars confirm the suspicion. Jupiter, the thunderer, hobbles on a stick, and is made up after Mr John Brougham as the Cardinal in Bel Demonio. Mars has a grey beard and squeaky voice. As for Venus, her embonpoint is past the fascinating stage, and she can most justly be described as “fat, fair, and forty.”

By some extraordinary chance, on this very day, which suggests to the gods themselves their ludicrous incapacity, a picnic is given by Thespis (Mr J. L. Toole), a travelling showman, to his starring company. They wander up the slopes of Olympus, and choose as the spot for lunching the very ground hallowed by the footsteps of the gods. It is a merry company. Sparkeion (Mdlle. Clary) is half married to Nicemis (Miss Constance Loseby), but has no objection pending the completion of the contract to a desperate flirtation with Daphne (Miss Annie Tremaine). Thespis has enough to do with the troublesome, wrangling members of his company, and his great effort is to keep up a proper amount of dignity before them. Tipseion (Mr Robert Soutar), with a purple nose and a bloated face, has taken the temperance pledge, and only Sillimon (Mr J. G. Taylor) sustains the requisite amount of obsequiousness and sycophancy before his august Manager.

The eating and drinking has commenced, and the actors and actresses are at the height of their enjoyment, when who should appear but Jupiter, Mars, and Apollo, who have a trick of announcing their presence by quaintly harmonised sentences. Jupiter is not angry at this invasion upon his sacred ground, but is glad of an opportunity of hearing the opinion of the lower world on the inhabitants of Olympus. Thespis is very outspoken. He speaks his mind freely, and has no hesitation in saying that the Olympians are considered a shocking bad lot. He assures the King of Heaven that the scandals concerning Danae, Leda, and Europa are perfectly common property, and that the impression down below is that the gods, having grown old, should delegate their important duties to others. What then can be done? Nothing, according to Thespis, is clearer. The gods must go down to earth, mix with the world, and see what is going on, while Thespis and his company remain where they are and direct the universe. The proposition is assented to, and, after a dance and a chorus of farewells, Jupiter and the divinities disappear down the hill, leaving Thespis master of the situation.

A year has passed before the scene changes in the second act to the Temple on Olympus Restored. Thespis flatters himself that he has got on very well indeed. There have been squabbles, it is true, concerning connubial relationship, caused mainly by the extraordinary difference between the original and the family version of Lempriere, but the great crux is settled by Thespis in a sensible and dignified manner. Well may Apollo (nee Sparkeion) be in doubt concerning his relationship with the changed Nicemis and Daphne, and possibly he is not averse to the decision of Thespis, which gives him Daphne for a wife in Heaven and allots to him Nicemis for a partner on earth. The cool and collected Thespis imagines that his plan for ruling the universe is as satisfactory as it is original. He has merely prescribed two unalterable laws. The acting gods and goddesses, who take everything as coolly as possible, are to encourage any new idea which springs from their fertile brain. All this has been going on without interruption for a year. A sly hint dropped by Mercury (Miss E. Farren), who has remained in heaven for references, persuades Thespis that after all it is not so smooth as he was led to imagine. It is the rule in Olympus to postpone reading the petitions from earth for a year, and Mercury wickedly suggests that they have considerably accumulated.

Jupiter, Mars, and Apollo, still with their harmonised ejaculations, present themselves in disguise on petition-day, and, at the request of Thespis, they are introduced as members of the Athenian press, until such time as the year’s history has been told. A frightful state of things is disclosed by the appeals. Time, in his efforts at originality, has dropped one day out of the week altogether; and, owing to the religious scruples of Sunday, an utter want of harmony has prevailed. The crops have grown upside down, to the disguist of the farmers; wars have been put an end to at the request of the Peace Society, and the consequence is, fear being removed, that every quarter of the globe is at sixes and sevens; Jove, forgetting to turn off the rain, has deluged the land; and Bacchus, with his riduculous teetotalling notions, has filled all the grapes in the world with ginger-beer. So monstrous and appalling are the disclosures that the divine trio is unable to preserve any longer its incognito. Jupiter declares himself, the Thespian company is prostrate with humility, the “contemptible comedians” are cursed with the future of “eminent tragedians,” and all is as it was before.

An evident insufficiency of rehearsing and a want of cutting alone prevented this humorous story from making its proper effect. Notwithstanding the cold reception bestowed upon it, the workmanship, both literary and musical, is so admirable that we predict a future of complete success. Mr Gilbert has not only supplied dialogue most pointed and witty, his songs, written with the greatest care, almost revive the lost art of comic song-writing. A ballad, whimsical and delightfully absurd, commencing “I once knew a chap who discharged a function on the North South-Eastern [sic] Diddlesex Junction,” and descriptive of a too generous railway director, who treats all the servants of the company with lavish extravagance, and whose eccentricity is rewarded by being shunted into a siding in the wilds of Barking, is conceived in the happiest spirit; and being admirably sung by Mr J. L. Toole, and furnished with a screaming, whistling, and shouting chorus, fairly brings down the house. Two comic lyrics sung by Miss Farren, the one wailing over the miseries of an Olympian drudge, and the other descriptive of the horrors caused by the reign of Thespis, are excellent examples of Mr Gilbert’s lyrical art.

Mr Sullivan, who on the first night conducted the orchestra, and was enthusiastically received, has provided the opera with music that is simply charming. We all know, or ought to know, what Sullivan can write, but he has not attempted to overwhelm us with his musical power. He writes up to the intellect of the ordinary Gaiety audience, and he is as happy in musically illustrating a “Bab Ballad,” as he is in lovingly lingering over a love-song. The ballad called “Cousin Robin,” conceived in the happiest spirit by Mr. Gilbert, has suggested a wealth of melody to Mr Sullivan, and happening to be delivered in the purest artistic spirit by Mdlle. Clary, is one of the effects of the opera. This was encored from end to end. So was Mr. Toole’s railway ballad. So were Miss Farren’s two songs, and had there been time, the audience would gladly have listened again to the pretty dance music which Mr Sullivan has introduced.

Mr Toole as Thespis is of course the feature of the acting portion of the entertainment. If this invaluable comedian made something out of Aladdin, what will he not make out of Thespis, for here he has a ludicrous idea at once presented to him. As it is, raw and incomplete as is the play, we see what a character Thespis will become. He is the very life and soul of the opera. The irritability of the bothered manager is in Mr Toole’s happiest style, while nothing can exceed the extravagance and delicious humour of the confident Thespis, who wakes up after a year to discover he has plunged the world into inextricable confusion. The little fussy attempts to ridicule the facts conveyed in the petitions, the quaint asides and the admirable “cheek” (we can use no other word) of the Showman are gems of Mr Toole’s art. We prophesy great things from the Thespis of Mr Toole. 

Next to Mr Toole we would place in order of merit Miss Farren, the most delightful and mercurial of Mercurys, the ne plus ultra of abandonment and spirits; a messenger who is always on the dance, and never so happy as when a practical joke is possible. Then we have Mdlle. Clalry, whose French accent gives an exquisite charm to her pronunciation, who, in spite of her accent, delivers her speeches à merveille, and whose singing of the ballad about naughty “Cousin Robin” is a thing to be heard. Miss Annie Tremaine and Miss Constance Loseby, perpetually rivals on the stage, but true sisters in art, give us the advantage of their ringing voices and their delightful style. Would that all worked so hard, so devotedly, and with such success as these two ladies, who are always called upon and never at fault. Mr. John Maclean, Mr J. G. Taylor, and Mr Robert Soutar must be bracketed together, and it is undeniable that the assistance they give on this occasion is most valuable.

Mr F. Sullivan played Apollo with a nice sense of humour, and was of value in the harmonised expletives. Mr Wood as Mars also distinguished himself not a little in this respect, and Mr Marshall was very efficient as Timidon. For rare personal beauty and for the employment of faultless costume Miss L. Wilson and Miss Rosa Behrend must be selected. The robe of Miss Behrend in the second act, in point of colour, is absolutely superb. Mrs H. Leigh, one of the most versatile and valuable members of the company, distinguished herself as ever; while Miss Jolly fully entered into the fun of appearing as a Venus not negelcted by Time. Messrs H. and F. Payne showed most welcome burlesque spirit, the notion given by the former of a disappointed heavy man of a travelling company being very cleverly conceived. In the ballet, undistinguished by Thompsonian colour, but returning to the pinks and silver ofr conventional dances, Mdlle Este, Misses Wright, and Smithers distinguished themselves considerably.

To the clever scenery of Mr Gordon we have before alluded. We shall be much disappointed if Thespis does not turn out to be, in spite of the first night verdict, the most successful of the Gaiety comic operas.

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