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Secrets of a Savoyard
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Actors in real life - Reminiscences of my American visit - A thrill in Sing-Sing - The detective and the crook - Outwitting the Pirates - In "The Gondoliers" in New York - A cutting Press critique - Orchestral afflictions - Our best audiences - Enthusiasm in Ireland and a short-lived interruption - Exciting fire experiences - Too realistic thunder and lightning - "Hell's Full."


"Lytton," said a well-known man of affairs to me, we are all actors. You are an actor. I am an actor. Come with me to a meeting at which I am to make a speech and I will show you a real-life drama truer than ever you will see or hear on the stage. The audience would kill me if they dare. They would rend me limb from limb. And yet in half-an-hour - mark my words, in half-an-hour! - they will be shaking me by the hand and everything will be ending happily."

We were in Holborn at the time and we took a short cab-ride into the City. My friend had to meet the shareholders of a company which he had promoted and which had not been prospering. No sooner had he entered the meeting room than he was met with a hostile reception. Epithets of an unequivocally abusive kind were flung at him from every side. Men shook their fists in his face. When he reached the platform the demonstration was redoubled, and at first he was not allowed to speak. Solidly he stood his ground waiting for the storm to subside. Eventually they did allow him to speak, and first to a crescendo and then to a diminuendo of interruption he told them how the failure of things could not be his fault at all, how he was ready to stand by the venture to the very end, how he would guarantee to pay them all their money back with interest, and how he would work the flesh off his bones to put the company right.

Here, indeed, was real drama - and at a company meeting. Here was a man fighting for his commercial existence, and by the force of wits, sheer self-confidence and personal magnetism, gradually winning. Just after the meeting closed a number of those infuriated share-holders were on the platform shaking him by the hand and telling him what a fine fellow he was. Towards the end of his speech I had seen him look at his watch and flash a significant glance in my direction. "Well," he said, when he rejoined me, quite calm and collected, "I did it under half-an-hour-in fact, with just a minute to spare."

It is an incident like this which proves that histrionics is no theatrical monopoly. I once met another actor in real life - this time in America. I had gone to New York to do the Duke in "The Gondoliers." Amongst the many delightful people I met there was General Sickles. Sickles was a "character," and also a man of influence. Only a few weeks before he had met Captain Shaw, the chief of the London Fire Brigade, whom Gilbert has immortalised in the Queen's beautiful song in "Iolanthe." Shaw had argued with the General that America's fire-fighting methods were not as speedy as those in England.

"Oh! aren't they?" was the reply. "Come and see." Forthwith the General, who was not a fire chief himself, but who had been Sheriff of New York and was thus a powerful individual, ordered out the New York Fire Brigade. No sooner had a button been touched than the harness automatically fell on the horses, the men came flying down a pole right on to the engine, and in so many seconds the brigade was ready. Long since, of course, all these methods have been adopted in this country, and I believe I am right in saying that the improvement followed this visit of Captain Shaw to the United States. I myself saw a turn-out of the brigade and thought their swiftness astonishing.

It was General Sickles who introduced me to Mr. Burke, a famous New York detective of his day, who took me on a most interesting tour of Sing-Sing Prison. He persuaded me to sit in the electric chair, and having put the copper band round my head and adjusted the rest of the apparatus, he took a big switch in his hand and said, "I've simply got to press this and you're electrocuted - dead in a jiffy!" I'll own up I did not share his affection for his plaything. The experience was not at all pleasant.

Burke, as an additional thrill, asked me if I should like to meet a notorious bank robber, whom I will call Captain S. It was arranged that the three of us should have dinner together. Captain S., the other real-life actor referred to, was at that time enjoying a spell of liberty, and to me it was amazing how cordial was the friendship between the great detective and the great "crook." When "business" was afoot it was a battle of wits, with the bank robber bringing off some tremendous haul and the detective hot on his tracks to bring him to justice, and probably it was because each had so much respect for the other's talents that socially they could be such excellent pals.

"Yes, Burke," I heard Captain S. say, "you've 'lagged' me before this and I expect you'll do it again." I found him a delightful companion, with a fund of good stories, and he played the violin for us most beautifully.

Captain S. told us how he planned one of his earlier exploits. It was his custom to pose as an English philanthropist, who was almost eccentric in his liberality and who made himself persona grata in society. Even the most suspicious would have been disarmed by one so benevolent both in manner and in appearance. In this particular case, having decided on the bank he intended to rob, he took a flat over the building. One part of the day was spent in preparing his gang for the coup and the other part in performing kindly acts of charity. "I really felt sorry," he told us, "when the time had come to do the trick. I had been spending a lot of money and thoroughly enjoying myself. Luckily, we had found that, although the bank had steel walls and a steel floor, it had just an ordinary ceiling. That, of course, helped us enormously, and we got away with a regular pile. I left a note on the counter: 'You must blame the designer of the bank for this, not me.' "

I have not yet explained the circumstances that took me to America. Shortly after "The Gondoliers" had been produced in London it was put on in the States. No sooner had any new Savoy opera been successfully launched in London than preparations were pushed forward for its production on the other side of the Atlantic. This, in point of fact, was done as a precaution. Gilbert, Sullivan and Carte had learnt the need of that by bitter experience in their earlier ventures, which had been exploited by "pirates." These nimble gentlemen, having secured a rough idea of the new opera that was being produced in London, lost no time in bringing out a miserable travesty of it under the identical title that it was given at the Savoy. Thus not only did they trade on the reputation of these operas, but they were able to prevent the genuine production being given under its own title, inasmuch as this would have transgressed the law of copyright. So the "pirates" had to be forestalled by an immediate staging of the real operas, and in some cases these were put on in America simultaneously with, and in one case actually before, the productions in England.

"The Gondoliers" in America was not a success. Mr. Carte, who was there at the time, tried to mend matters by completely re-casting the play. I was in York, and I received a cable "Come to New York." It was never my custom to question my manager's requests. Whenever he commanded I was ready to obey. So from York to New York I travelled by the first available steamer and was soon playing the Duke of Plaza-Toro. During my first interview with Mr. Carte after my arrival there occurred an incident characteristic of the great manager. "Lytton," he said, producing his note-book, "I believe you owe me £50." I admitted it - the loan had been for a small speculation. "Well," was his reply, striking his pen through the item, "that debt is paid." It was in this way that he chose to show his appreciation of my action in responding to his summons immediately.

What I remember most about "The Gondoliers" was the simply uproarious laughter with which the audience greeted the line in the Grand Inquisitor's song, "And Dukes were three a penny." It was quite different to the smiles with which the phrase is received in England. The significance of their merriment was the fact that no fewer than seven men had taken the part of the Duke of Plaza-Toro. I myself was there as the seventh! A Press critic, having drawn attention to this rather prolific succession, proceeded to place the seven in the order of merit - at least, as it appeared to his judgment. He gave six of the names in his order of preference in ordinary type, and then came a wide gap of space, followed by the last name in the minutest type. While I do not remember where I stood I do know that mine was not the name in such conspicuous inconspicuousness!

Speaking of Press criticisms, which in this country are almost invariably fair and judicious, it was my curious experience once to go into a barber's shop in a small town in which we were playing and to find the wielder of the razor very keen about discussing the operas. He then urged me to be sure to buy a copy of the Mudford Gazette. "I've said something very nice about you," he said. I looked perplexed. "Oh! I'm the musical critic, you know," explained the worthy Figaro.

Our "properties" in the small towns were sometimes a little primitive. Once in "The Gondoliers" our gondola was made of an egg-box on a couple of rollers, and we had to wade ashore. This was at Queenstown, where there was a strike, and we could not get all our baggage from the liner that had brought us from America. But often the chief affliction was the orchestra. I remember one violinist whose efforts were woeful. "You can't play your instrument," the conductor told him at last in exasperation. "Neither would you if your hands were swollen with hard work like mine," was his retort. "This job doesn't pay me. I just come here in the evening." It transpired that he was a bricklayer. At another place the musicianship of one instrumentalist was truly appalling. "How long have you been playing?" asked the conductor. "Thirty years man and boy," was the response. "It is thirty years too long," was the retort.

From time to time I am asked where our best audiences are found. Really it is hard to say. Except for one big city - and why not there it is impossible to explain - the company have a wonderful reception everywhere. The Savoy audiences in the old days, of course, were like no other audiences, and it was something to remember to be at a "first night." Long before the orchestra was due to commence - with Sullivan there to conduct it, as he usually was also at the fiftieth, the hundredth and other "milestone" performances - it was customary for many of the songs and choruses from the older operas to be sung by the "gods." And wonderful singers they were.

The London audiences of to-day are also splendid. Our welcome in the 1920 season was a memorable experience. Gilbert and Sullivan operas depend for their freshness and their spirit far more on the audience than do any of the ordinary plays, and as it happens this enthusiasm on both sides is seldom wanting. Yet now and then we find an audience that is cold and quiet at the beginning and then works up to fever-heat as the opera proceeds, whereas on the other hand there is the audience that begins really too well and towards the end has simply worn itself out, being too exhausted to let itself go.

The North, if not so demonstrative as the South, is always wonderfully responsive to the spirit of the witty dialogue and the sparkling songs, and two cities in which it is always a pleasure to play are Manchester and Liverpool. And those who declare that the Scots cannot see a joke would be disabused if they were to be at the D'Oyly Carte seasons at Glasgow and Edinburgh. Our visits there are always successful. But if I had to decide this matter on a national basis I should certainly bestow the palm on Ireland.

Nowhere are there truer lovers of Gilbert and Sullivan than the Irish. It may be that Gilbert's fantastic wit is the wit they best understand, and it may be, too, that their hearts are warmed by the "plaintive song" of their fellow countryman, Sullivan. Whatever the cause, we have no better receptions anywhere. One feature of our Dublin and Belfast audiences is, oddly enough, shared with those at Oxford and Cambridge. They do not merely clap, but openly cheer again and again, throwing all conventional decorum away. And when the Irish are determined to have encores - no matter how many for a particular piece - there is no denying them.

What we have found in the Emerald Isle - even during the unhappy times during and after the war - was that they kept their pleasures and their politics in watertight compartments. Sinn Feiners they might be outside the theatre, but inside it they are determined to enjoy themselves, as an interrupter found on one of our latest visits, when he tried to protest against the song, "When Britain Really Ruled the Waves." "No politics here," shouted someone from the stalls, and the audience agreeing very heartily with this sentiment the protestor subsided into silence.

Looking back on the reference earlier in this chapter to fire brigades, I am reminded that I have more than once been on the stage at times when events have occurred which might have had terrible results, though my success as a panic-fighter is a distinction I would rather have foregone. One incident of this kind was at Eastbourne when we did "Haddon Hall." It will be remembered that in one part there are indications of an oncoming storm of thunder and lightning. Nowadays the authorities take care that effects of this kind are contrived with absolute safety to all concerned, but in those times the lightning was produced by a man in the wings taking pinches of explosive powder out of a canister, throwing these on a candle flame, and so securing a vivid flash over the darkening stage. Well, our man had done this so often that he had grown contemptuous of danger, and this time he took such an ample helping of the powder that the flash caught the canister, and there was a tremendous explosion. The canister went right through the stage and embedded itself in the ground.

In "Haddon Hall" I was McCrankie, dressed in a kilt and playing the bagpipes when the explosion occurred. It plunged both stage and auditorium into darkness. I could hear the injured stage-hand groaning near the wings. Somehow I managed to grope my way to the man, pick him up in my arms, and carry him to one of the exits from the stage. I remember that a number of the chorus ladies, who could not find the door in the darkness, were clawing the walls of the scenery, for in their panic that was the only way they thought they could make their escape. The strange thing was that the door was not a yard away.

Still dressed as a kilted Scot, I carried the injured man into the street, and already a crowd had gathered in the belief that there had been a terrible disaster. If not as serious as that, it had been quite bad enough, and it was a miracle that there had not actually been a calamity. In one of the boxes was one of those hardy playgoers who attended our shows night after night. We had nicknamed him "Festive." The concussion had lifted him out of his seat on to the floor. He complained that the thunder had been far too realistic!

Fortunately we were able to go on with the performance, though many of us were suffering from nerves very badly. The stage hand had been speedily taken to hospital with serious injuries. It was typical of Mr. Carte's kindness that, although the man had been guilty of a very grave fault, he did not dismiss him from his service, but on his recovery made him a messenger and afterwards gave him a pension.

Early in my career as a D'Oyly Carte principal on the provincial tours, we had a fire on the stage at the Lyceum, Edinburgh. It was the week before Henry Irving was due there to give his first production of "Faust." I remember that because we had his great organ behind the stage. Our piece that night was "Ruddigore," and while I was singing one of my numbers I became aware that something was amiss. It proved to be an outbreak of fire in the sky borders over the stage, and small smouldering fragments were falling around me in a manner that was entirely unpleasant. The steps at the back also caught fire, and it was a lucky thing that, the piece being then a new one, the audience should have taken it as a bit of realism added to the ghost scene. Otherwise nothing could have avoided a panic.

I remember the stage manager shouting to me from the wings "Keep singing, keep singing." It was not easy, I can assure you, to keep on with a humorous number in circumstances like those, and with sparks dropping over one's head, but I did keep on with the song until they decided to ring down the curtain. Then I was told to run upstairs to warn the girls, whose dressing-rooms were near the flies. Now, as a young man I had made a reputation for myself as a practical joker, and one of my favourite antics was to tell this person or that, quite untruly, "You're wanted on the stage." Thus, when I rushed up to sound the real alarm, it was treated as a cry of "wolf." I banged the doors and entreated them to come out, but it was not until the smoke began to creep into the rooms that the girls knew positively that there was a fire, and promptly scurried for safety. Fortunately the outbreak was speedily subdued and the performance proceeded.

A minor incident of this kind may be worth mentioning. We were in "Erminie" at the Comedy, and at the close of one of the acts the chorus, the ladies dressed as fisher girls and holding lighted candles, were singing a concerted "Good Night." Suddenly I noticed that one of the girls who was not paying much attention to her work had let the candle ignite the mob cap she was wearing. If the flame had reached her wig - and wigs in those days were cleaned with spirits - she must have been seriously burnt. So I ran up and tore off her cap, only to be rewarded with a haughty, "How dare you!" Later, when she realised what her danger had been, her apology and thanks were profuse.

It may not, I think, be amiss if to these combustible reminiscences is added just one more story, though in a much lighter vein. It occurred in "The Sorcerer." John Wellington Wells, the "dealer in magic and spells," disappears at last into the nether regions, as it were, through the trap-door in the stage. One night the trap, having dropped a foot or so, refused to move any further, and there was I, enveloped in smoke and brimstone, poised between earth and elsewhere. So all I could do was to jump back on to the boards, make a grimace at the refractory trap-door, and go off by the ordinary exit. "Hell's full!" shouted an irreverent voice from the "gods." The joke, I know, was not a new one, for legend has it that a similar incident occurred during a performance of "Faust." Whether it did or not I do know that it occurred in that performance of "The Sorcerer."

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Page created 18 July 2004