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Life and Reminiscences of Jessie Bond > Introduction
A GENERATION has arisen that knows not Jessie Bond, and she feels that she must apologize for making yet another public appearance, after an interval of more than thirty years. But –; the last of the old Savoyards, one of those who played on the opening night of “Pinafore” –; have not her memories the power of recalling, if only for a moment, visions of a bygone day: the struggles and triumphs of those great spirits with whom she daily walked and talked, an echo of the song and laughter, the wit and wisdom, of the past?
You talk to-day of Gilbert and Sullivan “Revivals”; I belong to an age when as yet Gilbert and Sullivan were not. The musical world of my youth was dominated by Beethoven and the great masters of Germany: Mendelssohn was a modern and Wagner was unknown.
The stage was at a low ebb, Elizabethan glories and Georgian artificialities had alike faded into the past, stilted tragedy and vulgar farce were all the would-be playgoer had to choose from, and the theatre had become a place of evil repute to the righteous British householder.
Oratorio was then at the height of its vogue, and Shakespearean drama as interpreted by the Kean, Macready, and Kendal school still held its public; but at the other extreme there were only farces or the transplanted operettas of Offenbach, Lecocq and other French composers, which were as a rule very indifferently rendered, and their librettos so badly translated that any wit or point the dialogue might have possessed was entirely lost.
A first effort to bridge the gap was made by the German Reed Entertainers, and then came experiments by Tom Robertson and other light comedy writers, but the novels of Dickens entertained the widest public of all. He taught the people to recognize types and enjoy whimsicalities, he revealed their oddities to themselves and to each other, and ruthlessly unveiled pet hypocrisies. England was learning to laugh again, merrily, happily, and without rancour, as she had not laughed since the spacious days of Elizabeth, before the Puritan and Hanoverian shadows fell on us.
It was into this England that young Gilbert was born, an England beginning to feel youthfully high-spirited, to resent conventions and to crave for amusement. “Punch” was in its infancy, and had not yet learnt that lighter benevolence of fun that makes it to-day a sure index of our essential sanity. Gilbert began to write his Bab Ballads, contributing them to various journals and then publishing separately, and developing that sureness of touch and ability to seize on the very root of a folly and hold it up for good-humoured inspection which served him so well in his later work. He taught us to laugh at ourselves – that most salutary form of laughter –; he stripped cherished conventions to their bare bones, but if the framework were sound he left it for our respect. He tried his hand on plays and made experiments in collaboration, but it was not until he met with Sullivan that the genius of either man had full play.
Sullivan was partly of Italian descent, and was born and bred in an atmosphere of music. His father was a bandmaster, and Kneller Hall was the dominating influence of his childhood, exchanged when he was twelve years old for the ecclesiastical and courtly precincts of the Chapel Royal. There he sang in the choir and learnt many things besides music, he found favour in high places and was definitely established as a youth of parts and promise. His first essays in composition were anthems and church music, of remarkable excellence for one so young; but as his genius matured the scope of it widened, and he acquired that delicate facility in fitting sound to sense, that witty clarity and point, that made him the one man in all the world born to co-operate with Gilbert. A star danced –; under that they both were born, and its influence brought them together.
Gilbert was feeling his way as a writer for the stage, and before meeting with Sullivan he had produced several comedies, of which one, “La Vivandiere,” was played at the old Queen’s Theatre in Long Acre. For the German Reed Entertainments he wrote a little drama called “Ages Ago,” set to music by Frederic Clay, composer of “I’ll Sing Thee Songs of Araby,” and by him dedicated to his friend, Arthur Sullivan. This little play is noteworthy as containing an idea afterwards expanded into “Ruddigore.” These German Reed Entertainments, and the atmosphere which they created, had become a sort of hatching-ground for new ideas and meeting-place for the clever youth of the day, and it was at the Reed Gallery of Illustration in 1870 that Gilbert and Sullivan were made known to each other by Frederic Clay.
Sullivan had already tried his hand at collaboration and the lighter kind of music, and had discovered that Wit and Melody are heavenly twins. He had worked with F. C. Burnand and composed the musical setting of “Box and Cox,” and it was pure chance that gave him Gilbert instead of Burnand for a permanent artistic partner. Their first joint piece was “Trial by Jury” – with W. S. Penley as Foreman of the Jury –; produced at “Miss Kelly’s” Theatre in Dean Street, Soho. The stage director was Richard D'Oyly Carte, known then as a rising young concert promoter, so the Triumvirate was already complete. “Trial by Jury” was soon followed by, “The Sorcerer”; the partnership was put on a business basis with a Board of Directors to supply funds; the Opera Comique in Wych Street, Strand, was taken on lease; and there “H.M.S. Pinafore” was produced in 1878.
Modestly begun and at first little noticed, the new venture was nevertheless an immediate success. London was ready for something new, tired of heavy tragedy and stale farce, and of French importations. Tom Robertson’s comedies of domestic life were educating public taste for a more natural and realistic form of entertainment, and encouraging the decent middle-class, which desired neither to be harrowed nor shocked, but merely to be amused, to become habitual playgoers. Both actors and audiences needed educating in Gilbert’s new theory of fun, which had thrown aside all the hoary traditions of the stage. He would have no horseplay, no practical joking, no make-up of the crude, red-nosed order or ridiculous travesties of dress and manner. All must be natural, well-behaved and pleasant, and the actors were trained to get their effects by doing and saying absurd things in a matter-of-fact way, without obvious burlesque of the characters they were representing. A judge, a clergyman, an admiral, of ordinary appearance and manner, were found far more mirth-provoking when put into ridiculous situations than the pantomime clowns of the past. Audiences soon learned to share Gilbert’s point of view, and actors had to cast aside conventional methods and adopt those of the determined young playwright.
Gilbert confesses to having learnt much of his stage-craft from Robertson, who was also busy training raw recruits in naturalism, and would have no rebellion in the camp. There was plenty of scope for the innovator. To-day it is difficult for us to imagine the stiff unreality of early dramatic representations –; that it was permissible, for instance, when the actors were about to engage in conversation, for them to fetch chairs and place them before the foot-lights, conduct their conversation sitting in a row like Christy Minstrels, then replace the chairs when it was finished!
Robertson swept away all such clumsiness; he introduced natural action and grouping; and Gilbert learnt partly from him and partly from experience and his own originality to think out every situation, every bit of business, grouping, and by-play, before ever the piece was ready for rehearsal; with the result that his productions were neat, finished, artistically restrained, there was no confusion or vulgarity, no spot-lighting, no “star” was permitted to usurp attention and spoil the continuity and balance. One of the earlier Josephines protested that she as prima donna was accustomed to occupy the centre of the stage whenever she adorned it, a custom invariable in opera. “But this is only a very common farce,” she was suavely informed, and had to adjust her dignity to the new ideas.
Gilbert would have no tampering with his conceptions or his completed work, but he carefully adapted parts to the actors who were to play them, and was by no means above using suggestions or modifying details. He insisted on the strictest discipline in his company, and required from every member of it a self-sacrificing devotion to the perfection of the whole piece, and by his martinet methods he succeeded in building up such delicately finished works of art that I, one of the last of that carefully drilled band, am grieved when I see his masterpieces blurred and distorted by the modern producer. Surely they are works of art, though on a small scale; genre pictures complete in themselves, and should be left clear and unaltered to delight future generations and present to them a vision of a bygone day? Let young playwrights and musicians give us masterpieces of their own, and hold up a mirror to their own times in their own way, but leave the fine-wrought work of the past untouched.
Like many another genius, unapproachable in his own line, Gilbert imagined that his real strength lay in another direction. He hankered after serious playwriting, he was never contented to be just a humorist, he longed to write drama with a purpose, to teach, to preach. The sentimentalist in him was always at war with the humorist, and had to be kept sternly in check. He wrote many plays, but none of them, except perhaps “Sweethearts,” which is still sometimes performed, had more than a moderate success. He was not at his best in sustained effort, his librettos are all short, but the concentrated wit and humour packed into them make them perfect of their kind.
Sullivan has been much pitied for having to subdue his genius to the shackles of comic opera and write music to Gilbert’s words and more or less under his direction; but the fact remains that each one of them did his best work in conjunction with the other, and their separate productions have not lived as the operas do. Nowadays Sullivan is having his revenge, if that were needed, for his music is far better known than are Gilbert’s words. The operas are all too seldom performed and their wit is understood by comparatively few, but Sullivan’s music is played by every band and orchestra in England. It is now the gay familiar air that recalls some Gilbertian quip to mind, and keeps it in our memory as a household word.
The lure of grand opera and serious music strongly attracted Sullivan, who was as much disposed to resent the limitations of comic opera as Gilbert was, and perhaps with more reason. If he had had a librettist as accomplished as Gilbert to accompany and inspire his excursions into those loftier spheres the result might have been very different; but, as it is, the success of these attempts was only ephemeral and largely due to his already established reputation. It is chiefly by his light music that we know him now, those airy, tuneful, rippling melodies, sparkling with wit, and as flowing and natural, as daintily inevitable, as the song of a bird. He has caught the very spirit of English melody, created a modern folk-song of his own, and linked up our ballad music with the ballads of long ago. He has written hymns spiritual and spirited – “Onward Christian Soldiers” has led millions of warriors against the forces of evil – and some of his songs have a popular appeal that seems indestructible. In his youth, and while his reputation was still in the making, he was too ready to use words for his songs that were often quite unworthy of his art, and at no time was his literary taste beyond question. His association with Gilbert undoubtedly improved it, and it is clear that the quality of his music always most sensitively responded to the influence of true poetry. His anthems and oratorios are among the treasures of church music, and the incidental music written for “The Tempest,” “Henry VIII,” and “Macbeth” has an individual existence now.
But Sullivan as a serious musician and Gilbert as a serious dramatist have no real or separate existence to the great mass of English-speaking people. They are for us indissolubly linked together in the bonds of wit and melody, a deathless pair who never can grow old. There were some in their own day – as there are now – who were scandalized by their levity or bewildered by the dazzlement of their wit. “Punch” failed to appreciate them – a failure which surely the Mr. Punch of to-day can hardly believe of himself – and Disraeli in his recently published “Letters” to two sisters is found to have said:
Chesterton says that Gilbert’s satire was “too intelligent to be intelligible” to the majority. One might have expected Disraeli to be in the minority, but he was an old man and of alien blood, and burlesque was the accepted form of fun in his day. Much more surprising are the comments of Lewis Caroll on “Pinafore” as performed by children. His objections to the use of the “big, big D” now seem as funny as any of Gilbert's mock heroics. The creator of Wonderland, far from feeling at home in the topsy-turvy world of the operas, could write:
We may hope that time and better acquaintance with the operas modified the severity of Caroll’s opinion, but Disraeli did not live to see and feel the influence these merry trifles have had upon their age. They are not deep, they are not oppressively learned, they do not obviously tilt at abuses, in fact they make no pretensions whatever, they merely seek to amuse; yet they, their history, meaning, the lives and motives of their creators, have given rise to such floods of talk and literature, such endless speculations, that the impression they have made upon our national life is abundantly evident.
Gilbert, the Jester, has been and is a Force, a new light on current events and age-old conventions. We still laugh at his pungent witticisms as did the Savoy audiences who in the old days “roared their ribs out,” but the winged jest left behind it an idea, a stimulation, a leaven working slowly and surely, and has helped us to evolve that national mentality of which George Bernard Shaw is at present the most prominent mouthpiece. We have changed, we have grown, but I think we shall not soon outgrow the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, they are gems adorning our country as beautifully in their own way as do any of our national treasures of literature and art. Let us be thankful for their lustre, thankful above all for their priceless gift of kindly laughter, which is one of the best gifts of the gods to a labouring world.
19 November, 2008