You are here: Archive Home > Thespis > Review from Saturday Review.
The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive   Thespis

Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art 845.33,
Jan. 6, 1872, p. 20

The Gaiety Theatre has this winter justified its name by producing a burlesque at which young and old, careless and critical, may laugh together.  We are not sure that Mr. Gilbert may not have written as well before, but he has not, we think, been equally fortunate in finding interpreters of his words.  The idea of Thespis; or, the Gods Grown Old, is that the deities of Olympus, becoming with advancing years weary of their work, take twelve months' holiday, and appoint as deputies in their absence Thespis and other members of a theatrical company who have come up Olympus for a picnic.  Here is an excellent basis laid for every kind of drollery, but it is only available on the supposition that the audience has some slight knowledge of classical mythology.  It would not perhaps go far with earnest-minded reformers of education if we urged that the boys who have wasted time at school over Latin and Greek are enabled as men to waste time at theatres over burlesques.  But to show how much the modern stage would lose by neglect of ancient literature, we need only refer to this amusing burlesque of Thespis, and to the French opera of La belle Hèlène.  Let us hope that, in spite of utilitarians, boys may long be so taught as to be able when they are grown up either to compose or to enjoy such works.  It will be a dull time when people are unable to laugh at Jupiter's complaint in this burlesque, that the influence of the gods on earth is failing, and that the sacrifices have positively dwindled down to preserved Australian meat.  Jupiter, unlike some earthly potentates, is too wise to close his ears against unpleasant truths.  Thespis and his company, being unquestionably trespassers upon Olympus, there is a pleasant humour in the warning which Thespis gives to the gods that this is a private mountain, from which he requests them to withdraw.  Jupiter, preserving his temper under this insult, tells Thespis that he is the very man he wants.  "Now," says he, "as a judge of what the public likes, are you impressed with my appearance as the father of the gods?"  We need not say that Mr. Toole acts Thespis admirably.  His performance is not only funny in itself, but the notion of placing Mr. Toole, the very embodiment of everyday English and, we might say, cockney character, in confidential intercourse with Jupiter is a joke in itself, irrespectively of what he says and how he says it.  Thespis expresses his opinion with a frankness for which kings, either of Gods or men, ought to be, but very seldom are, grateful.  "The fact is," says he, "you are not the Gods you were.  You're behind your age."  He recommends the gods to go down to earth, mingle with the world, hear and see what people think of them, and judge for themselves as to the best means of restoring their influence.  This advice of Jupiter to Thespis might be useful to Mr. Gladstone at the beginning of a long vacation.  It may deserve notice also that Thespis did not advise Jupiter to go about the country making speeches to prove that the administration of affairs by himself and his colleagues had been, in spite of factious opposition, completely and invariably successful; and that, if one department had been more successful than another, it had been either that of naval and military or of domestic management, and his only doubt was to which of these two departments to award the prize for superior excellence.  Jupiter, under the advice of Thespis, preserved a discreet silence as to the past, while endeavouring to learn how to govern better in the future.  Other rulers, perhaps, have not received such prudent counsel, or have not been willing to accept it.  Thespis offers himself and his company to fill the places of the Gods during their absence, and he assures Jupiter that actors never fail, but have always great success "in the bills."  Thespis appears to belong to that class of persons who are more prudent in speech than in action.  He gives excellent advice to Jupiter, and he narrates, as a warning for himself, "the story of the gentleman who undermined his influence by associating with his inferiors."  We are quite sure that when Mr. Toole sings the lines —

These are the consequences all proceeding
From his affable ways and his easy breeding,

he intends to make no allusion to public dissatisfaction caused by the intercourse of the Premier with Mr. Finlan, or by his civil mention of Mr. Bradlaugh's poetry.  If there be a distant resemblance between the character of Mr. Gladstone and that of the Chairman of Directors of the West Diddlesex Junction Railway, who "sang little songs to the engine-drivers," we are quite sure that it is entirely accidental; and we are perfectly satisfied that no prediction concerning the Ministry is implied in the statement referring the career of this eccentric Chairman, that "the general public did not like it," and that the train conveying him and his Board was finally shunted on a lonely siding.  But although we cannot discover political satire in Mr. Toole's song, one or two of the passages of this burlesque are certainly suggestive.  Thespis and his company, being established as Gods upon Olympus for a year, have certainly not done the ordinary work of governing the world, but they have availed themselves of their position to try a series of hazardous experiments upon the order of things which they were appointed to preserve.  Bacchus, having been persuaded to take the pledge, contrives that the grapes of Mitylene shall yield only what Mr. Bruce would call "an innocuous beverage"--namely, ginger-beer.  We cannot help thinking that there is here a covert allusion to the Home Secretary's flirtation with the Alliance.  A complaint is brought to Olympus that in Athens there has been a wet Friday in November for the last six months; to which Thespis answers, that the Athenians shall have a hot Tuesday in July for the next twelve months.  The irrelevancy, as we venture to call it, of this response might easily be paralleled in the House of Commons, when Ministers are questioned upon some inconvenient subject, as, for example, the loss of the Megara.  We happen to remember that, when it was reported that this ship had a hole in her bottom, Mr. Gladstone remarked, that the weakness discovered before the ship sailed was in her side.  We are far from suggesting that Mr. Toole, in disposing of complaints against his government, has any mental reference to Mr. Gladstone; but we certainly think that Mr. Gladstone, in difficulties which we venture to regard as similar, might usefully imitate Mr. Toole's method of encountering them.  In plausible justification of his own and his colleagues' blunders Thespis presents a strong likeness, which we can hardly regard as accidental, to the Premier.  At any rate, Mercury, seeking a strong expression for his opinion of the rulers of Olympus during the last year, does not scruple to compare them to an English Ministry:

From Jupiter downwards there isn't a dab in it,
All of 'em quibble and shuffle and shirk;
A Premier in Downing Street forming a Cabinet
Couldn't find people less fit for their work.

Thespis might have found it convenient to assure the Athenians complacently that the whole subject of wet Fridays in November was under the consideration of his legal advisers, by whose assistance he hoped to frame a comprehensive measure for regulating rainfall.This work has a large share of the same quality which so conspicuously belongs to Fielding's masterpiece in burlesque.  The scenes from which we have quoted have an inherent drollery which is felt even in a bare description.  They are also excellently adapted for every kind of laughter-moving accompaniment.  We have preferred to speak of the literary merit of the piece, because that is in the present day most rare, but it has much merit of many kinds.

Archive Home | Thespis

Page modified 13 Apr. 2014 Copyright © 2014 The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive. All rights reserved.