|Utopia Limited > First Night Review
Pall Mall Gazette, 9 October 1893.
A once not unpopular writer – he was a professional humorist – is said to have invoked the blessing of Heaven upon the British public because it was "so easily amused." Mr. Gilbert did not always behave as if that were his intimate conviction; he seemed to think that his public were worth taking some pains to entertain; but on Saturday night he appeared to be dominated by the "easily amused" belief, and to desire to sustain his credit as a wit with the smallest possible expenditure of originality or ingenuity. This will not do for Mr. Gilbert. His work has been so admirable that he has set up a standard which it is penal for him not to come up to. It may be useful for the mechanic to act upon the line of least resistance; but the policy is never a wise one on the part of the author whose ambition to divert is not bounded by a barren applause. It is to be regretted that in Saturday night's performance Mr. Gilbert aimed so persistently at the line of least resistance that he sough to get as much while giving as little as might be. For it gave to his book not merely a sense of cheapness, but a sense of fatigue, of weariness even to exhaustion. "Utopia (Limited)" is but the scrapings of the platter, the rinsings of the cup. When Lavengro on a famous occasion invited his gypsy pal to drink again, the gypsy declined. "I can't, young man, my heart's too full, and besides, the pitcher's empty." Mr. Gilbert's heart may have been full at reunion with his colleague of old time, but his pitcher was woefully empty.
It is always a melancholy business when a writer is driven to imitate himself, to exaggerate his own method, to parody his own mannerisms. There are pages of Thackeray, as there are pages of Dickens, which are pitiful to read in their mirthless travesty of the qualities that had enchanted and amused. Mr. Gilbert, in his degree, has come to the same pass. "Utopia (Limited)" is a mirthless travesty of the work with which his name is most generally associated. It is an unconsciously ironical degradation of the method and the mannerisms that once were so entertaining. The earlier works indeed were inspired by a common spirit, constructed according to the same formula, but the spirit did not flag, the formula did not seem to be mechanical, the result did not seem to be monotonous. With "Utopia (Limited)" it is different. The philosophy of inversion, of veiled cynicism, of sugared suggestion, which had served his turn through a dozen operas suddenly fails him with the ominous number. The quips, whims, jests, the theory of topsy-turvey, the principle of paradox, the law of the unlikely, seem to have grown old in a single night. "Dixeris egregie, notum si callida verbum Reddiderit junctura novum." Mr. Gilbert has failed to make the old seem new. It does not at all follow that Mr. Gilbert's fancy is exhausted, that Mr. Gilbert's humour has run dry. The flagging pulses of "Philip" revived in "Denis Duval"; the mimicries of "Little Dorrit" are forgotten in the renewed strength of "Our Mutual Friend." There is no reason why Mr. Gilbert should not again write a brilliant book for a comic opera. There are many reasons why he should. But for the moment he has failed, and failed conspicuously. The pitcher is obviously empty; it needs to be refilled, and not "with the old familiar juice", but with some stronger liquor.
It is possible, however, that the public, who are, in the main, governed as to their likes and dislikes by sentimentalism, with not note the emptiness of the pitcher, will think only of the fulness of the heart. For them the pith Saturday night's business will be the renewal of the old alliance. The sight of Mr. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan wringing each other's hands in front of the curtain will move them to a rapture that has nothing to do with taste, discernment or logic. Gilbert and Sullivan did delightful work of old in unison; it therefore follows, as the night the day, that Gilbert and Sullivan must do delightful work again when they unite after an interval of some years. Those who are content with the simplicity of this mental process may rejoice over "Utopia (Limited)". They will ignore the signs of strain, the symptoms of effort in the piece; they will disregard the thinness of the story, the obviousness of the situations, the meagreness of the jokes, the decrepitude of the action, the strenuousness of the epigrams. Those who are less easily contented may not be tempted to go so far as to say with the Amazon, "This is the silliest stuff that I ever heard," but they will certainly refuse to be comforted by the maxim of Theseus.
It is very true that the best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them. But Mr. Gilbert has left a great deal too much to the imagination of his spectators. He has, it may be said, drawn the outline of a comic opera, but he has left it to the beholders to fill in all that he meant to put in, that he might have put in, that he most certainly should have put in. Even the most extravagant fantasy is bound to have a certain order, a certain sequence, a certain coherence of purpose if it is to be regarded as a work of art. And "Utopia (Limited)" has no coherence, no ordered sequence. Nothing comes of anything. Characters appear that promise to amuse or to amaze, and then tail feebly off, like an unsuccessful firework. The idea of two ludicrous old men being in love with the pretty princess affords opportunity for a fresh variation upon a theme that has amused mankind from the dawn of time. But the idea is but suggested to be forgotten. Mr. Gilbert has blown his bubble into the air, and lets it burst while he blows another. His different types of progress in England offered, one might think, ample chance for his rarest humour. But he has done nothing with his types; you could hardly tell one from another, the soldier from the speculator, the admiral from the county councillor. The crowning weakness of a weary business is the reproduction of a Court reception, as dull as it would be possible for a real Court ceremonial to be.
It is not surprising that the players suffered from the unfortunate conditions of the play. Mr. Barrington's pomposity of manner and unctuousness of utterance seemed more mechanical than usual in the part of King Paramount. The Lady Sophy of Miss Rosina Brandram was only a pale reproduction of earlier and happier triumphs in the interpretation of the elderly lady. According to Mr. Gilbert this was not the fault of the actress. All that the part allowed her to do she did, but neither grace nor cleverness can accomplish the impossible. Even Mr. W.H. Denny, who is an actor of much expression and varied humour, could not make the formalized fantasy of Scaphio congruously incongruous. He had his flashes of fine eccentricity, but they were inevitably infrequent. Curiosity was, of course, centred on Miss Nancy McIntosh, who played the leading part, the part of the Princess Zara, who revolutionizes the island of Utopia by the introduction of English civilization. Of Miss McIntosh's singing others shall decide. That she is a pretty woman, and so far an attractive addition to the stage, was patent the moment she appeared. But she has a great deal to learn before she can be taken seriously as an actress. Even when the nervousness of a first night and the inadequateness of the part are allowed for liberally, it is impossible as yet to guess whether she has any gift for acting. A number of actors and actresses did their best with parts that were meant to be effective satires, excellent caricatures, but which were little more than outlines, or at the best, distorted shadows. In the lesser parts the only work that gave any special sign of promise was the acting of Miss Edith Johnston as the Utopian maiden Salata, which showed an intelligent animation not always characteristic of the well-drilled subordinate.
The musical setting of "Utopia (Limited)" carries its own indubitable and final persuasions. It convinces you, in a word, that here Sir Arthur Sullivan has found that for which he has been seeking for years, and that he has solved his own problem of refined yet fully comic opera. We say his own problem, because it was assuredly not the problem already solved by Offenbach and other writers of comic opera which he set out to solve. His standpoint towards comic opera has ever been peculiarly his own; and through each achievement in that delightful art it has been possible to see whither his ideal has tended, and to gauge the distances by which he has deflected from that ideal. Setting "The Yeomen of the Guard" on one side, which scarcely comes in the category with which we are dealing at present, perhaps "The Mikado" has been hitherto the nearest to complete success. Not that in "Patience" there was not an equal abundance of admirable melody, but in "The Mikado" the sentiment and the humour of the music were more judiciously mingled; in "Patience" there was, if anything. a slight overbalance on the side of sentiment; and though this has proved anything but a drawback in the sum of its subsequent popularity – we mean in the popularity of its detached pieces – this lack of equipoise somewhat disturbed the coherence of the opera as a comic opera, and as a whole comic opera. Now it is this proportion of humour to sentiment which is so admirably conceived and worked out in the new opera. We are not sure, indeed, that there will be found as many detached pieces in it which are separately and independently beautiful as in certain earlier operas of this kind by the same composer. But we are ready to confess gladly that for coherence and unity of design, for a continuous level of refined excellence, for an interminable inspiration of fine humour, the new opera has not its equal in the whole range of the Sullivan and Gilbert series. From start to finish there is the same inimitable abundance of fancy ever restrained to the same due gaiety of level. Humour is, indeed, the pervasive note, a fine humour that never fails in its mode of expression; and the edge of that pervasive humour is gilded as it were by the occasional but not too frequent lapses into pure sentiment. Before we heard the music of the new opera, we had thought that Sir Arthur Sullivan had approached as nearly as possible to the ideal which he had set up for himself. We were mistaken; he has never done anything of this kind so well before. As we have said, he has solved his own problem, and we shall be content if he never writes more music of this kind upon a lower level of achievement.
We are not much concerned with a very noticeable fact in this opera – the obvious repetitions of himself which here and there make his audience whisper the single word "Sullivan". Reminiscences there are in abundance, reminiscences of "The Gondoliers" in particular, which are rather closer reminiscences of style than of actual notes. These do not, however, persuade us into profanation. They are part of their creator's gay personality, and it should be remembered, at the moment of hearing, that they have what a modern writer would call antenatal claims to freshness. If there is a fault anywhere to find it is in an occasional tendency to rather obvious musical symmetry; and the possibility of prophesying a phrase not yet heard is always a little irritating, even though it were impossible to accuse the phrase of commonplace or lack of refinement.
To come now to individual numbers of the opera, we naturally turn first to the second act, for the composer has artfully built up his effects in the fashion of a climax. And in that act we would principally select for praise, "Then I may sing and play," a number which, being perfectly unconventional and unexpected in its melody, has nevertheless a gaiety, a graciousness, and a loveliness in it which rank it among the most charming passages of Sir Arthur Sullivan's work. And, in view of that praise, we hesitate the less to say the only apparently deliberate bid for mere popularity in the opera will be found in the song that immediately precedes this delightful composition – the song of "The bright and beautiful English girl". The melody is melodramatic, and the refrain too obvious and commonplace, and this in a particularly uncharacteristic manner. The tenor song with which the second act opens is an example of wonderful humour and fun. The air is fine and swinging, for itself; but the passages which indicate that, through love, the tenor cannot do himself justice, are really conceived in a gust of musical humour. As an example of a peculiar kind of fascinating and flowing melody in which the phrases seem to mount over one another in a very easy and fluent motion, set to an accompaniment that reminds us strongly of Gounod, we recall with particular pleasure the duet in the same act between Zara and Fitzbattleaxe, "Words of love too loudly spoken." Goldburg's [sic] song of the first act, "Some seven men form an Association", with a delightful change in the accompaniment, is another interesting example of this composer's fresh and morning humour, expressed now by some jolly counterpoint device, now by the sly introduction of unexpected orchestration, and now by some grotesque reminiscence, as in the sham Christy Minstrel song, where a sudden outburst of "Johnny get your gun" has a laughter all its own in store for the audience. There is no necessity further to limit or expand the general criticism of this notice over separate and individual pieces. Some are below this recorded mark; thus one early song for the King "A King of autocratic power we," is almost a failure; but with this exception all may be considered rightly to fall within this general description. It only remains to add that in orchestration Sir Arthur Sullivan has never before so well proved his skill, his refinement, above all, his quick instinct. All the singers in this opera well fulfilled their parts; but in this connection one must particularly select for praise the chorus, Miss McIntosh, Miss Brandram, and Mr. Charles Kenningham.
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