Secrets of a Savoyard
RUPERT D'OYLY CARTE.
A GREAT TRADITION
There have been many who have made great reputations in the Gilbert and Sullivan characters and have established themselves as favourites with the public who love and follow the operas, and when the roll comes to be written down finally, if ever it is, Henry Lytton undoubtedly will be assigned a foremost place. He has played a wide variety of the parts, and the scope and versatility of his work is unique. It is unlikely that his record as a Gilbert and Sullivan artiste will ever be surpassed.
HENRY A. LYTTON.
AN ADMIRER OF HIS ART.
SINCERELY indeed do I offer my good wishes to my old friend, Henry A. Lytton, on his giving to the world this most interesting book, "The Secrets of a Savoyard."
Lytton represents a distinct type on our musical comedy stage. No other artiste, I think, has quite that gift of wit which makes one not merely a happier, but a better, man for coming under its spell. Its touch is so true and refined and delightful. Somehow we see in him the mirror of ourselves, our whimsicalities, and our little conceits, and could ever a man captivate us so deliciously with the ironies of life or yet chide us so well with a sigh?
Certainly it was fortunate both to him and to us that circumstances, in the romantic manner this book itself describes, first turned his early steps towards Gilbert and Sullivan, and thus opened a career that was to make him one of the greatest, as he is now the last, of the Savoyards. Like the natural humorist he is, he could be and has been a success in ordinary musical comedy rôles, but it is in these wonderful operas that he was bound to find just his right sphere. Lytton in Gilbert and Sullivan is the "true embodiment of everything that is excellent." He was made for these parts, just as they might have been made for him, and no man could have carried into the outer world more of the wholesome charm of the characters he depicts on the stage. He himself tells us on these pages how his own outlook on life has been coloured by his long association with these beautiful plays.
So closely, indeed, is he identified in the public mind with the wistful figure of Jack Point, or the highly susceptible Lord Chancellor, or the agile Ko-Ko that the thousands of Gilbert and Sullivan worshippers who crowd the theatres know all too little of the man behind the motley, the real Henry A. Lytton. For that reason I want to speak less about the great actor whom the multitude knows and more about the manner of man that he is to those, relatively few in numbers, whose privilege it is to own his personal friendship. Lytton's outstanding quality is his modesty. No "star" could have been less spoilt by the flatteries of success or by those wonderful receptions he receives night after night. Something of the eager, impetuous boy still lingers in the heart of him, and he loves the society of kindred souls who have some good story to tell and then cap it with a better one. But all the while he lives for the operas. Even now, after playing in them for twenty-five years, he is constantly asking himself whether this bit of action, this inflection of the voice, this minor detail of make-up, is right. Can it be improved in keeping with the spirit of genuine artistry? So severe a self-critic is he that he will take nothing for granted nor allow his work to become slipshod because of its very familiarity. If ever there was an enthusiast - and there is much in this book to show that he is as great an enthusiast in private life as he is while in front of the footlights - it is Harry Lytton.
The great enthusiasm of his life is Gilbert and Sullivan. Nobody who reads these reminiscences will have any doubt about that, for it shows itself on every page, and it is such an infectious enthusiasm that even we who love the operas already find ourselves loving them more, and agreeing with Lytton that they must not be tampered with and brought "up-to-date." >From Sir William Gilbert's own lips he heard just what the playwright wanted in every detail, and both by his own acting and by his help to younger colleagues on the stage he has worthily and faithfully upheld the tradition of the Savoy. I have been told more than once by members of the company how, when they have felt disheartened for some reason or other, he would come along with some cheery word, some little bit of advice and encouragement that would make all the difference to them. Often and often he has brightened up the dreary work of rehearsals by his buoyant humour and all-compelling good spirits.
What a happy family must be a company that is led by one who is so entirely free from vanity and petty jealousy and whose one aim is to help the performance along! Lytton is bound to have that aim because of his intense loyalty to the operas themselves, but how much springs as well from that inherent kindness of his, which, with that complete lack of affectation, makes him so truly one of Nature's gentlemen. "Each for all and all for each" was the motto of the heart-breaking Commonwealth days, of which he tells us such a pathetic human story here, and it seems to remain his motto now that he has climbed to the top of his profession as a principal of the D'Oyly Carte Company.
Lytton's acting always seems to me in such perfect "poise." It is so refined and spontaneous. Each point receives its full measure, and yet is so free of exaggeration or "clowning." He is, that is to say, an artiste to his finger-tips, and no real artiste, even when he is a humorist, has any place for buffoonery. Like the Gilbert and Sullivan operas themselves, he is always so clean and wholesome and pleasant. The clearness of his enunciation is a gift in itself, and his dancing reminds us of the time when all our dancing was so charming and graceful, and thus so different from what it is to-day. And then his versatility! Could one imagine a contrast so remarkable as that between his characterisation of the ugly, repulsive King Gama in "Princess Ida" and the infinitely lovable Jack Point in the "Yeoman of the Guard"? Or between his studies of the engaging and more than candid Lord Chancellor in "Iolanthe" and that pretentious humbug Bunthorne in "Patience"? Or between the endless diversions of his frolicsome Ko-Ko in "The Mikado" and the gay perplexities of the sedate old General Stanley in "The Pirates of Penzance"?
So one might continue to speak of his quite remarkable gallery of portraits, both in these operas and apart from them, and one might search one's memory in vain for a part which was not a gem of natural and clever characterisation, rich in humour and unerring in its sympathetic artistry.
Yet no rôle of his, I think, stands out with such fascination in the minds of most of us as does dear Jack Point, the nimble-witted Merryman. The poor strolling player, with his honest heart breaking beneath the tinsel of folly, is a figure intensely human and intensely appealing, and no less so because of the mingling romance and pathos with which it is played. If Lytton had given us only this part, if he had shown us only in this case how deftly he can win both our laughter and tears, he would have achieved something that would be treasured amongst the tenderest, most fragrant memories of the modern stage.
Long may he remain to delight us in these enchanting operas of the Savoy! By them English comic opera has had an infinite lustre added to it - a lustre that will never be dimmed - and no less surely do the operas themselves owe a little of their evergreen freshness and spirit to the art of Henry A. Lytton.
Page created 18 July 2004