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Chapter 4

WELL do I remember my first rehearsal at the grimy little Opera Comique. I was given my part of the score jotted roughly down on scraps of paper, and I sat on the stage in the semi-darkness, singing from sight and unobserved – as I thought. So interested was I, and so absorbed, that I did not become conscious of a chin almost resting on my shoulder until I heard some one say, as though in surprise or relief, “Oh, that’s all right,” and turning round I saw the arbiter of my fate, Arthur Sullivan. He had come up behind me and listened to make sure of my ability to read and sing. Lucky for me that he chose this method; for a trial in public, with a sense of its vital importance in my future, might very well have upset my nerves and made me fail as miserably as in that disastrous examination for the Westmorland Scholarship.

My entrance into that company was a great experience for me, and a wonderful training in more ways than one. At my first contact with the stage to be brought under the influence of three such artists as Gilbert and Sullivan and D’Oyly Carte was invaluable. Their operas were an entirely new manifestation in the world of music and drama. To begin with they were thoroughly English. There had been nothing of the sort since the days of “The Beggar’s Opera,” and Sullivan’s graceful tunes, so English in character, were worthy descendants of the old folk and national songs of Britain. The delicate music was linked to words as delicate, each word, as well as each note, must be given its full value. No striving for individual effect was allowed to interfere with the ensemble, no horse-play was permitted to vulgarize or disturb the action. Nothing must interfere with the balance of the whole, and its presentation according to the perfect principles of art. It is this austerity of interpretation, loyally adhered to still, though its creators can no longer enforce it, which, I venture to think, has kept the Gilbert and Sullivan operas as fresh and crisp and charming as when they first delighted London.

Our stage discipline was strict and unbending. Gilbert’s word was law; he thoroughly worked out in his own mind every bit of action, by-play and grouping, and allowed no deviation from his plan. He took endless trouble over every detail, and in order that the setting of “H.M.S. Pinafore” should be absolutely correct he and Sullivan went to Portsmouth and visited Nelson’s flagship, the “Victory.” Gilbert made drawings and took measurements with the minutest care, and the sailors’ costumes were made in naval workshops. He had unlimited fertility of invention in comic business, and would allow no gag, no clowning, no departure from his own definite conception.

Sullivan’s musical conception was equally clear-cut and decided. Every part must be made subservient to the whole, and his sarcasms overwhelmed the transgressor with scorn. “And now, might I trouble you to try over my music,” he would say to a singer too anxious to display his or her top notes. But there was nothing to hurt or offend us in this unswerving discipline, we took their good-humoured raillery as our due when we failed in our rendering or overstepped the bounds; and the patience and enthusiasm of that artistic pair so infected all of us that we worked willingly for hours and hours at rehearsals, trying with all our might to realize the conceptions of those two brilliant minds.

“H.M.S. Pinafore” was the opera then being rehearsed, and in that I made my first appearance. I played Hebe, a minor character in the opera as it stands now, but which was originally intended for a star part. Mrs. Howard Paul was to fill that rôle; she was an established favourite with the public, and had made many successful tours with companies of her own. Her connection with Gilbert and Sullivan had begun in “The Sorcerer,” in which she played Lady Sangazure. When she engaged herself for that part she stipulated that a young baritone who had been in her own company should also be engaged. This was Rutland Barrington, who, though inexperienced in stage work, made an outstanding success in the part of Dr. Daly, and was afterwards chosen on his own merits to create the part of Captain Corcoran in “Pinafore.”

Gilbert and Sullivan and D’Oyly Carte also wished to include Mrs. Howard Paul in their new opera, and I am sorry to say that I was partly but quite innocently the cause of this gifted actress ending her connection with them. She was not a very great singer, it is true, but she excelled as a performer, and could hold an audience for hours by her clever mimicry and solo sketches. In “Pinafore” as originally planned Hebe was to have had a very good part, giving her scope for interpolation and various “turns” of her, own, a latitude which was never afterwards allowed to any member of the company.

Her voice had become unequal to the strain of taking part in the arias and the concerted music of the piece, it was necessary that another member of the company should fill the gap, and for that purpose I was engaged.

Then came the storm. When Mrs. Howard Paul was told that a certain Miss Jessie Bond, an untried new-comer, was to be so nearly associated with herself, her dignity was up in arms. What – a nonentity to be put in a position of such prominence! She was so offended that she walked out of the theatre then and there, and refused to take any part in the opera.

That was distinctly a blow for Gilbert and Sullivan, for I was quite without stage experience, and had stipulated from the first that I should have no talking to do, only singing parts. Hebe’s share in the dialogue had to be cut out entirely, and with it all the “turns” and impromptus that were to have helped out the play. In this way it came about that “Pinafore” was never the full-length production that its creators had intended, a leading character had to be turned into a subordinate one, and the wonder is that in its shortened form the merry piece has such balance and brightness.

Of course all this was quite unknown to the public, and perhaps my account of the occurrence is the only one on record.

Owing to all these cuts “Pinafore” was too short for a whole evening’s entertainment, and there had to be a curtain-raiser. In the first piece I was cast as understudy for the principal lady, whose part included speaking as well as singing lines. You may remember that I had never yet spoken a word in public, and at that stage in my career I was convinced that I could not and would not. All the same, it was distinctly mentioned in my contract that I was to understudy that part, and I was in a terrible state of mind about it. You cannot imagine with what tender care I watched over the health and safety of my principal! It was my duty to be at the theatre half an hour before the performance began, so as to allow time to dress in any emergency. But to enter the theatre was to put my head into a noose. There was a dirty little public-house in Wych Street, close to the stage-door of the Opera Comique, and I used to slip in there and stand watching for my principal to arrive. If she hadn’t come I am sure I should never have had the courage to go to the theatre at all that night, but fortunately I was not put to the test. It is amusing to look back and remember how the mere idea of opening my mouth except to sing terrified me in those days, and I feel now that it was a pity to have let a temporary feeling of nervousness stand in the way of my advancement.

At the time I speak of Gilbert and Sullivan had not entirely made good, and “H.M.S. Pinafore,” although it was by no means a failure, did not at first take the town by storm. To begin with, it was housed in what was then a most unsavoury neighbourhood; the theatre was small, poor and inconvenient, even according to the standards of those days. Its site was about midway between where the modern buildings of Bush House and Australia House stand now, on the Strand edge of that nest of slums which was afterwards cleared away to make room for the Aldwych and Kingsway. The auditorium was approached by dismal subterranean tunnels; and the stage and dressing-rooms by a winding staircase that would have been a death-trap in case of fire. There was nothing to attract a public that had not yet learnt the theatre-going habit, and with whom the early-Victorian idea still persisted, that a theatre was not quite the place for decent and respectable people to be seen in. In addition to all this, a terrible heatwave was oppressing London that summer, and actors and audience alike perspired and gasped in the stuffy old theatre.

So “H.M.S. Pinafore” was launched under difficulties, and her first contact with the briny was greeted by an only half-hearted cheer. Once she rode the ocean blue, however, her graceful lines and fresh beauty, and the witty words and sparkling melodies put into the mouths of her crew, soon taught London that here was something quite out of the ordinary, eclipsing the old farces and burlesques as the sun eclipses the moon.

Public enlightenment came about in this manner. Arthur Sullivan had just been appointed conductor of the Promenade Concerts, and he took with him our own theatre conductor, Alfred Cellier, so well known afterwards as the composer of that charming opera, “Dorothy.” His brother François was our new conductor, who brought us all through those glorious days at the Savoy. Probably by arrangement between the two Celliers, Sullivan was induced to give a selection from “Pinafore” arranged by Hamilton Clarke, at one of the “Proms.”

I was not there, of course – I only wish I had been – but we all heard that its reception was wonderful; it was encored five or six times, and the effect of that success was at once felt in the theatre. Our audiences got bigger and bigger, there was a nightly struggle for seats, and soon every one was whistling and singing the airs. The little shabby Opera Comique had never known such a furore in all its life, throngs besieged its doors, and applause nearly lifted its crazy roof off. “Little Buttercup,” “For he is an Englishman,” and all the other delightful and catchy melodies from the opera, were heard everywhere. The British Navy was brought into a prominence of affectionate fun and good-humoured banter that delighted every British heart; and the handle of the big front door, the sisters and the cousins and the aunts, and “What, never?” “Well, hardly ever,” and all the rest of it, provided ready-made wit for every would-be wag.

That was almost exactly fifty years ago, and is worth recording, because it was then that Gilbert and Sullivan opera first became really popular. “Trial by Jury” and “The Sorcerer” had just given discerning hearers a hint of what to expect, but they had never of themselves gripped the public.

Now, “H.M.S. Pinafore” was absolutely the rage in London. It was hummed and whistled, sung and quoted everywhere, and you can well imagine what a magical effect all this had on a somewhat depressed and heat flattened company. For my own part I can assure you that to find myself just at the very beginning of my stage career borne on the tide of such an immense success seemed like a miracle. I was encouraged and strengthened and urged to fresh efforts, and determined to fill rôles bigger and better than Hebe.

Very soon the “Pinafore” craze swept America also, in fact report said that over there enthusiasm was even greater than in England. Copyright laws were lax in those days, and the opera was played, anywhere and anyhow, by companies who had not the remotest right to do it, and seemed quite unconscious of any obligation towards its composers. Many of the performances were astoundingly bad, a mere travesty of the original; but, however bad they were, the promoters raked in the dollars hand over fist.

Of course Carte was furious, and he went to the United States to see what could be done to preserve his rights. He found that the only way was to send over his own company and have the opera played properly, and then leave the public to judge between true and false. So the next event in my theatrical career was an order to pack up at once and sail for America, together with a company including Rosina Brandram and Alice Barnet. At the same time “Pinafore” was carried on by another company at the Opera Comique.

But I must tell you that before leaving England I was a thrilled spectator of the famous and exciting “battle” which took place in our theatre.

Matters had not gone too smoothly between D’Oyly Carte and his business directors, they behaved in an extraordinary and irritating manner, and often interfered with his management. During the run of “The Sorcerer” they had from time to time put up notices announcing that the piece would be taken off in a fortnight, although there was no reason at all for such a course, as it was drawing good houses. One would have expected them to leave “Pinafore” alone, as it was such a huge success and was handsomely paying every one concerned; but no, they began with their pranks again. Whenever receipts fell off – and during that time of tropical heat they sometimes fell off considerably – up went notices that the play was to be closed down. Carte would rush off to soothe the directors, and get them taken down again, but the Company was in a ferment of suspense and anxiety, and Carte’s nerves became thoroughly rasped and irritated. At last he would stand it no longer. By this time he was in a strong financial position, and not forced by circumstances to be patient and long-suffering. He was able to buy them out of the business, and the lease of the theatre expiring at this opportune moment he renewed it on his own responsibility.

On the last night of the old regime the angry directors – who, by the way, had only put down five hundred pounds each to start with, so were naturally furious at the prospect of losing their huge profits – came to the stage-door with vans and furniture removers who rushed in and tried to carry away the scenery, which the directors claimed as their own property. The performance was nearly over, Miss Everard, as “Buttercup,” was singing at the time, and she pluckily tried to continue her part, in spite of the noise going on behind the scenes, and heard all over the house. There was no panic, though the startled audience suspected fire, and a few people left the theatre. Alfred Cellier had to stop the orchestra, Frank Thornton ran round to a box and spoke to the people, and George Grossmith advanced to the footlights and explained the exact situation. For us young women at the back of the stage it was most unpleasant, as a battle royal was taking place between the burly workmen and the crew of the “Pinafore.” However, the jolly Jack Tars expelled the intruders – it was quite a glorious naval victory!

The quarrel was thrashed out in court, and if the spiteful directors had actually wanted to advertise and boom the piece they could not have succeeded better. The newspapers were full of the affair, and public sympathy was all with Carte, who at the time was away in America, fighting his other enemies, the pirates.

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