THE production of a new piece by Mr. Gilbert and
Sir Athur Sullivan at the Savoy has become – in the world of the theatre
and in the social world besides – an event as important as anything that
can occur at the Lyceum or the Princess's; and it is, of course, the union
between the pungent satirist and the delightful musician which gives to
the Savoy pieces an importance not granted in France to work of satire
by such masters of that art as Meilhac, Halévy, and Labiche – an
importance reserved in France for the labours of the younger Dumas alone.
Now this fact might be made the text for a very grave sermon indeed upon
the condition of the English theatre, where social questions are not debated,
where grave problems are not raised, where interest concentrates itself
on the cynical humour of Mr. Gilbert, on the farces of Mr. Pinero, on the
splendid setting of some familiar classic. But this is not the day for
that sermon. Gilbert and Sullivan's successes, their prescriptive right
to triumph, is, as it were, a fait accompli; and we have only to
compare the new piece with its predecessors, the novel, but perhaps hardly
sufficiently elaborated, satire on melodrama with the satire on the conventional
admirers of the primiteves in art, and the piece which innocently-minded
natives of Japan deemed to be a rather superficial study of their land
and its manners. The "Mikado" was of course no study of Japan at all. It
was a study of truly British – or shall we say truly human – weaknesses,
made by means of dramatis personae arrayed in Japanese costume.
It is doubtful whether Mr. Gilbert and Sir Arthur have been quite as firtunate
in their theme in "Ruddygore" as they were in "Patience" and the "Mikado";
and it is scarcely conceivable that "Ruddygore" shall exhibit the freshness
of "Pinafore." But it is better than certain other pieces by the two workers
which have yet been found enjoyable. And if, in these early days of its
performance, ons is to be so bold as to attempt to assign it its permanent
rank, that must be, we suppose, between the three plays that we have named
on the one hand, and the "Princess Ida, "the "Pirates," and "Iolanthe"
on the other. Anyhow, while we doubt whether there is that in it which
can secure the unexampled popularity of "Patience" and "The Mikado," there
is no question that it is to these pieces a worthy and ingenious successor.
Satire on melodrama and on the melodramatic novel had so often been attempted before – from the days of Mr. Thackeray's early serio-comic writing to those of the burlesque in which the gifted Miss Nellie Farren has appeared on the stage of the Gaiety – that it must have been curiously difficult for Mr. Gilbert to be wholly novel in matter, though individuality of method would always be his; and, to speak plain English, it is his method, not his matter, that has saved him in "Ruddygore." The story itself has not all the originality which might conceivably belong even to caricature; but the manner is Mr. Gilbert's own, and it does not weary. As to facts, here is the bad baronet – bad, it is true, only as the maidens in "Patience" were love-sick, "Love-sick all against their will" – here is the faithful retainer, as touchingly devoted to his master as Mr. George Barrett at the Princess's is devoted to Miss Eastlake in a pathetic play by Mr. Sims or Mr. Jones; here is the village damsel easily won; here is the humble suitor who is discovered to be after all of a noble line; and here is the sailor, as gallant as Mt. Terriss himself, though less picturesque. But as to ideas, once in the region of ideas we are with Mr. Gilbert indeed, who by no means believes that whoever entertains the lowly entertains always angels unawares. We are with Mr. Gilbert, whose simplest and most pastoral maiden has an eye to the extent of those flocks and herds of which a lover may profitably be possessed; whose truest comrade declines to deny the existence of errors in his friend, and would scorn in any way to palliate them; whose deepest patriot is probably at bottom a little bit of a poltroon. And Mr. Gilbert's cynicism – or shall we say his breadth of tolerance – is presented and made acceptable by an ever fresh ingenuity. Thus, it is his function to make a British sailor, and a British sailor of the great French war-time at the beginning of the century – which is the time of the action of the piece – narrate, as his noblest exploit, the hasty flight of a revenue sloop from possible encounter with the French. The men aboard the sloop had fancied the French ship a merchantman. She proved to be a frigate; but they answered her shot with a cheer, "which paralysed the Parley-voo," and when they went about with all speed, the Frenchmen
Again, when this sturdy warrior is employed by his foster-brother to aid him in his love suit, he is quickly smitten with the lady he was to have approached but as an agent or deputy; and, as he is a person who in every circumstance of life thus far has obeyed the dictates of his heart, he wishes to consider whether, indeed, he does right to disregard the dictates of his heart now. And, as he comes to the conclusion that he does not do right by any means to disregard them, he makes love to the lady violently, and at once. And the conclusion that he expresses, after conscientious argument, is reached by the lady herself in spontaneous verse. Thus prettily does she address her earlier lover:"Blessed their lucky stars
We were hardy British tars,
Who had pity on a poor Parley-voo,
Who had pity on a poor Parley-voo."
"My heart, that once, in truth was thine,But the method of Mr. Gilbert's satire is known, and on the story he has selected to unfold we need hardly dwell. It answers its purpose, nor is its purpose unworthy. It gives the audience a continuous pleasure; and it does that by wit of dialogue, by curious distortions of humour, by lively fancy, by an artful adaptation of itself to Sir Arthur Sullivan's now merry and now tender and now mock-heroic strains – by an adaptation of itself, no less artful, to the peculiarities of performers with whose ways and capabilities, and, we must add, with whose limitations, Mr. Gilbert has become entirely familiar.
Ah! Who can laws to love assign,
Or rule its flames?"
¹Later became famous as
Henry Lytton. (return to paragraph)
transcribed by Helga J. Perry, 13 November 2000