|Review from The
Penny Illustrated Paper
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Daily Telegraph no. 5,161, December 27, 1871, p. 2.
Possibly a holiday audience is disinclined to dive into the mysteries of heathen mythology, and does not care to exercise the requisite intellect to unravel an amusing, and by no means intricate, plot. It may be after our Offenbachian experiences that it is considered enough has been said of Jove and Juno, the loves of Venus, and the eccentricity of Mercury. Certain it is, however, that the greeting which awaited “Thespis, or the Gods Grown Old,” was not so cordial as might have been expected. The story, written by Mr. W. S. Gilbert in his liveliest manner, is so original, and the music contributed by Mr. Arthur Sullivan so pretty and fascinating, that we are inclined to be disappointed when we find the applause but fitful, the laughter scarcely spontaneous, and the curtain falling not without sounds of disapprobation. Such a fate as this was certainly not deserved, and the verdict of last evening cannot be taken as final. Thespis is too good to be put on one side and cold-shouldered in this fashion: and we anticipate that judicious curtailment and constant rehearsal will enable us shortly to tell a very different tale. That the grotesque opera was sufficiently rehearsed cannot be allowed, and to this cause must be ascribed the frequent waits, the dragging effect, and the indisposition to take up points which, recurring so frequently, nullified the pleasant effect of Mr. Sullivan’s music and destroyed the pungency of Mr. Gilbert’s humour.
According to the whim of Mr. Gilbert, the Gods in Olympus have grown old and enfeebled. They are tottering old fellows, and past their work. Jupiter hobbles about in scarlet, bent double like the Cardinal in Mr. Orchardson’s last Academy Picture. Apollo is dyed and made up like Mr. Hare in the comedy of “School.” Mars is a greybeard. Diana is sour and vixenish. The lovely Venus herself is painted, overwieldy with fat, and altogether a ludicrous spectacle. In Mercury alone is preserved the requisite vivacity, and the consequence is that the willing boy is worked off his legs, and, according to his own story, is nothing but an Olympian drudge. Something, it is clear, must be done to enable the gods to keep pace with the world down below, and to enable the universe to work harmoniously. A pic-nic, given by Thespis, the manager of a travelling company, to his friends and servants, who wander to the top of the Olympian Mount, affords an opportunity for a welcome introduction. Thespis, an active, business-like fellow, is taken into the confidence of Jupiter, and he has, of course, a notion cut and dried. He suggests that Jupiter and his worn-out old folks should go down below, mix with the mortals, and see what is going on, while the showman remains in Olympus to rule the world with his theatrical company. Mercury is left at home to be consulted if necessary. The first act terminates with a dance of joy, consequent on this happy notion and expressive of mutual satisfaction. The immortals hobble down the mountain, while the mortals, delighted at the fun, give them a parting cheer.
It turns out that Thespis is the best-natured fellow in the world, and, on assuming office, he instructs his company emphatically on two points. They are to take it as easily as possible, and to encourage any new ideas of policy which may strike them while pursuing their Olympian vocations. The first instruction is not very strictly obeyed; for Sparkeion, a fascinating Thespian, who, when on earth, was loved by Daphne and Nicemis; [sic] finds matters are much worse now that he is Apollo and the ladies are Diana and Venus. In fact, there are great difficulties with the family and with the original editions of Lemprière. For a whole year Thespis has ruled on Olympus on these easy principles, and at the end of that time he hears, to his horror, from the artful Mercury, that the day of reckoning is at hand. It is the rule in Olympus to postpone all the petitions sent up from earth for a whole year, and now is the time for the truth to be told. The petitions disclose a frightful state of things. Time has been playing tricks with the week, omitting Saturdays altogether, and making the world groan under an infliction of wet Fridays. The crops have grown upside down; and Bacchus, who has turned teetotaller, and taken the pledge, has actually dared to fill all the grapes in the world with gingerbeer. It is quite clear that this state of things cannot go on any longer. If it were persisted in, chaos would come again. So Jupiter, Mars, and Apollo sneak back to Olympus masked, and pass themselves off as representatives of the Athenian press. They listen in horror to the reading of the petitions from earth, and, having declared themselves, banish Thespis and his company to earth, first inflicting the presumptive mortal with this terrible curse.
A merry dance before the mortals depart brings the fun to an end. Now surely this rough sketch suggests a funny play, and presents us with a notion happier than many of those used for the lighter entertainments of the day. Mr. Gilbert writes in prose, and he is never dull, while his songs are quite worthy of the author of the “Bab Ballads.” A ludicrous ballad for Mr. Toole, commencing, “I once knew a chap who discharged a function On the North-South-Eastern-Diddlesex Junction,” [sic] is quite in the spirit of the well-known compositions of “Bab,” and, as it has been fitted with a lively tune and a rattling chorus, a hearty encore was inevitable. Though the ditty was long, the audience would have been well content to hear it all over again. A stanza or two from a lilting song, sung with admirable effect by Miss Farren, descriptive of some of the blunders of the Thespian company, will show us as well as anything how neat and polished is Mr. Gilbert’s versification and how sly his humour:
Mr. Arthur Sullivan, who personally conducted the piece, and was received with vociferous applause when he appeared in the orchestra, has not marred the effect by ambitious music. Tuneful throughout, always pretty, frequently suggestive, the songs and dances are quite in character with the author’s design. Some of the numbers will certainly live, and the impression caused by the music as a whole is, that it will have far more than a passing interest. For instance, the quaint lyric sung by Miss Farren, “Oh! I’m the Olympian drudge,” [sic] is suited with a very pretty minor tune, extremely taking. The song was deservedly encored. With the public no doubt the musical gem will be a ballad called “Cousin Robin”– pathetic and tender words, with a dreamy and somewhat Gounodish air. So sweetly was this sung by Mdlle. Clary that another encore was inevitable. Musicians will not improbably turn with more affection to Mr. J. G. Taylor’s song at the commencement of the second act – “What is the use of being Gods?” a very pretty and refined air – to the dance tunes, the valse, and some of the concerted music in the last act.
The acting, except for the tardy taking up of points, a fault to which we have before alluded, is scarcely less commendable than the libretto and the music. We are all familiar with the style of Mr. Toole; and it is not difficult to picture him bumptious as the theatrical manager undismayed by the compliment of being consulted on the Olympian difficulty, irrepressible and collected under all circumstances. Had the audience not been wearied towards the close, greater attention would have been paid to the eccentric fooling of our popular comedian when trying to pooh-pooh the ugly truth contained in the petitions from earth. With Mdlle. Clary, Miss Constance Loseby, and Miss Tremaine to sing, with Miss Farren to bring with her the familiar sprightliness and fun as Mercury, with Miss L. Wilson and Miss Rose Behrend [sic] to fascinate the susceptible portion of the audience, and with such clever supports as Mr. Maclean, Mr. J.G. Taylor, and Mr. Robert Soutar, there is surely sufficient acting material for justice eventually to be done to “Thespis,” and to make a struggle to obtain a better-tempered and less sleepy audience than that of last evening. There is no fault either to be found with the mounting, which is in the usual rich Gaiety style, the period not interfering with that welcome glitter and richness of appointment which are characteristics of the theatre. There is a ballet, of course, and there are the Paynes in addition.
It is more satisfactory for many reasons to look upon the performance as a full-dress rehearsal, and to look forward to brighter days yet for “Thespis.” There are audiences in the future who will cheerfully take another and more favourable view of the piece. A story so pointed and happy, music so satisfactory and refined, a spectacle so beautiful, and artists so clever deserve a better reward than a curtain falling in silence, and an absence of those familiar calls and greetings which are so pleasant. It must be remembered that it was past midnight when the curtain descended, and the audience was in a fidgety state to get away. When “Thespis” ends at the orthodox Gaiety closing hour, and the opera has been energetically rehearsed, few happier entertainments will be found. But what a sad pity it is that it so frequently happens the public is invited to attend full-dress rehearsals! This is surely not good policy.
[An abridged and slightly revised version of this review appeared in the Penny Illustrated Paper, 6 January, 1872.]
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