|W. S. Gilbert > Interviews > "Workers and Their Work: Mr. W.S. Gilbert."
MR. W.S. GILBERT.
Mr. Gilbert strolls about the handsome library in his new house in Harrington-gardens as he frankly conveys some of his views on the condition of the drama in England. His library is just that particular private room a library ought to be, with all aids and appliances to study and communication outwards that a perfect library should have. Mr. Gilbert, who personally superintended the construction of his house, is especially proud of three of its characteristics. These are the telephone, the electric light, and the letter-box. A cupboard to the left of a beautiful Chippendale bookcase contains a telephone communicating with the general system and a special wire to the Savoy Theatre, whither Mr. Gilbert now rarely goes except for the purpose of rehearsal. While I listen he communicates to the clerks orders as to scenery and so forth. The room, like the whole of the house, from the kitchens, lined with white glazed bricks, to the roof, is lit by the electric light. There are a steam-engine, a dynamo-engine, and accumulators in the basement, and the rooms are beautifully illuminated by cut-glass lamps supplied by the wires laid in when the house was planned. Charming lamps cut in facets to represent pineapples appear on the staircase and in the sixteenth-century dining-room with its pictures by Tintoret, Vander Capelle, and Maes. This system of illumination is of great value when Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert give their frequent and charming children’s parties and dramatic entertainments. Only the other day the drawing-room was converted into a theatre, and the backs of everybody necessarily, but so far unfortunately, turned to the carved alabaster fireplace, a handsome piece of work. On such occasions the central hall of the edifice, like that of some old country house, comes into strong relief, and quite fulfils its purpose as a gathering place. In the library Mr. Gilbert has yet another surprise for the visitor who has not called on him since he left "The Boltons." He has a letter-box with a shoot down into the butler’s pantry, the said butler being ordered to mail letters according to postal arrangements every hour or two in the day. This is an admirable plan for a busy man who is apt to leave letters on his writing-table not only for hours but days. Mr. Gilbert’s letters are flung into his private post-office, and are then completely off his mind.
"I don’t think," remarks Mr. Gilbert, "that the knack of dramatic construction can be exactly defined. My impression is that the method is very different according to the nature of the work to be done. It entirely depends on what is wanted, and on the ability of the writer to fulfil that demand. As it seems to me the first necessity of the author is to find out what is wanted—what theme is uppermost in the mind of the public at that particular moment. "Patience" and "The Pirates of Penzance" are, with many thanks to my distinguished colleague Sir Arthur Sullivan, vastly popular, in some regard perhaps by virtue of their popular application. These successes were so brilliant as to be dazzling, and Sir Arthur and I were very fortunate in our alliance with Mr. D’Oyly Carte, whose exceptional ability has brought in a large return to the confederation."
"In writing comic opera and other things, what do you think about first?"
"It is very difficult to tell how you begin. I cannot give you a good reason for our forthcoming piece being laid in Japan. It has seemed to us that to lay the scene in Japan afforded scope for picturesque treatment, scenery, and costume, and I think that the idea of a chief magistrate, who is king, judge, and actual executioner in one and yet would not hurt a worm, may perhaps please the public. This is the sword of a Japanese executioner! You will observe that it is a double-handed sword, with a grip admitting of two distinct applications of strength. Our scenery is quite Japanese, and our costumes have been imported. As I am only partner, and do not want to spoil any amusement you may possibly enjoy on the first night, I will not say any more about it, except that I am anxious about the clothes being properly worn. For I have a certain terror of what are called "dress improvers"—otherwise, as you remind me, "birdcages,"—and have my doubts about the flat black hair. Here are picture-books of Japanese people, very well-looking some of them, but not— [sic]
"Where do you begin?"
"Generally I think by what is in demand, or I think is in demand. I first ask myself what things are just then asked for by the public, and try to write up to some one interesting subject. The state of the navy, of the army, aestheticism, and so on, have thus been written about. This, however, is only my method for certain pieces, and I can understand writers beginning anywhere, and selecting any subject they may on consideration imagine to be attractive."
"It is said that English dramatic authors are not very inventive or original?"
"I do not think that public opinion, of which personally I most certainly have nothing to complain, is quite fair in its estimate of English dramatic authors. Without thinking much about the matter, the first-comer compares the English with the French dramatic author. On the face of it this is unfair. You might as well compare the command of a Dover mail-boat with that of a Cunarder. The field of the French writer is almost unlimited. He is bound by no restrictions as to bringing the blush on the cheek of the ‘maiden of bashful fifteen.’ He writes for men and married women. His first thought when hammering out the clou or main spring of his play is ‘What shall I do with my adulteress?" Now, except when a play is confessedly translated from the French, or founded upon a novel, this person is forbidden to French dramatists. Our lovers must be single young men and women, and we are tied down to a happy or comedy conclusion."
"Is not this English system very artificial?"
"Almost entirely so. You and I and a few more are happy in our domestic and other relations: but is this true of all English people? What the contemporary playwright is asked to represent is not what life is, but what it ought to be. It unfortunately happens, that is, for the dramatist, that as much may be said of ordinary life as of that of nations. It is written "Happy is the nation which has no history.’ It might as well be said ‘Happy is the family without dramatic incidents.’ But play-writing requires dramatic incidents. Good people carry on the work of the world, but they are not amusing, as a rule, and their ordinary lives would hardly make a play of any kind—except now and then a farce. Hence, except in the case of Shakespeare or of French adaptations, English dramatists are driven within the narrow limits of bourgeois thought imposed by the survival of Puritanical prejudice. The English dramatist dances his hornpipe in fetters."
"Not so well off, then, as the novelist?"
"No. The novelist’s work may be excluded from the nursery or the schoolroom, but children are supposed to go to theatres. Why young girls are taken to see ‘Othello’ and ‘Hamlet,’ not to speak of ‘Measure for Measure’ or ‘Cymbeline,’ is an insular mystery. And in every house are copies of ‘Adam Bede’ and ‘Dombey and Son.’ Yet if you put ‘Dombey and Son’ on the stage you are compelled to suppress the elopement. It seems ridiculous that what can be read at home cannot appear on the stage; but there are good English reasons why not. Young girls are not allowed to read novels, and are yet taken to the theatre. This accounts for the weakness of many English plays."
"You have been instrumental in raising the price paid by managers to dramatic authors?"
"And I think justly so. The author makes the piece, and it is idiotic that he should not be paid at least as much as the principal actor or actress. On what rational principle should I allow any manager to play my pieces according to their length for the ridiculous remuneration of three or five guineas per night when he pays a comedian ten guineas. I do not, I think, hold exaggerated views as to authors’ rights when I say the writer of a play is entitled to rank at least on an equality with the highest-paid comedian. I think the French estimate of ten per cent. a good basis for negotiation. French authors have a right to ten per cent., and with a few exceptions, such as the Français, the French theatres are more heavily amerced than ours in dues to the poor and so forth."
"The necessary qualifications of a dramatic author are then considerable."
"In a way they may be, but not necessarily. The rules of dramatic construction are simple in themselves, but various of application, and might, I should imagine, be learned by any person who would take the pains and spend the time upon them necessary to fulfil an ordinary apprenticeship to any craft. You speak of gig-driving and of writing leading articles as arts supposed to come by instinct, but I have a firm belief that every person who sits in the front rows of the stalls believes that he, she, or it could write a play, enact a part, and stage-manage the affair far better than the author. But they forget that every trade, including that of a playwright, must be learnt. The finest literary and poetical genius in the world may hopelessly founder in attempting to write a play through ignorance of rules which any person of the average intelligence of a gentleman’s butler could master with sufficient application, I do not say that average butlers could write average plays any more than average playwrights would make average butlers, but merely conclude that fair intelligence and application would supply any ordinary person with the technical knowledge necessary to the arrangements of a story for the stage so that it should not be absurd, as charmingly written plays, full of literary merit, often are. This is no hasty criticism on the great plays which require almost re-arranegment, if not re-writing, for the stage. I will quote as an instance Goethe’s ‘Faust,’ which, like Lord Byron’s "Cain," was not written for dramatic representation, but only cast in the dramatic as the most convenient poetic form. It is, as it seems to me, quite unfair to accuse Mr, Merivale or myself with our ‘Cynic’ or ‘Gretchen,’ of laying sacrilegious hands upon Goethe’s immortal work. It is hardly necessary to quote precedents, but for my own part I will say that I merely essayed to deal dramatically with the legend of ‘Faust’ as if I had never read either Goethe’s or Marlowe’s ‘mighty line.’ Surely the story is as much common property as that of ‘Samson,’ often dealt with dramatically, and latterly in France in a modern dress as ‘Dalila.’ The invention of a stage story is, of course, a different matter."
"In what way?"
"A thousand things may suggest subjects which, with proper treatment, may be made stage-plays. I recollect that ‘Tom Cobb’ was suggested to me by some curious coincidences in personal appearance. You knew Tom Robertson, and will recollect the extraordinary resemblance between him and a notorious criminal. At the funeral of Robertson I was as much startled as ever I was in my life by seeing him, as I thought, on the opposite side of his own grave. The idea of a man assisting at his own funeral was dreadful, and paralyzed me for the moment by its dreadful fascination. Your story of the Royal Academician, Mr. Frith, who once saw ‘himself walk up the front garden, and knock at the door,’ is a case in point. What I saw at the first glance was Tom Robertson standing on the brink of his own grave. Some time after, when a run of hard work had somewhat dimmed the memory of poor Robertson, I got into a railway carriage, and there he was sitting opposite to me, so real that I actually stretched out my hand and spoke before I recollected that my unfortunate friend had died almost at the moment of victory over a world which had long been unkind to him. Time passed, and it happened that one day I had a wish to appear in court as a practicing barrister. So I obtained a brief for the defence of Wainwright, the murderer. When I saw my client, he was the man of the funeral and the railway station, Tom Robertson again, a little fatter, perhaps, but the same. It gave me what Arthur Sketchley made his Mrs. Brown call ‘a turn,’ but it made my little play. All I had to do was suppose that a man for various reasons, as in the story told of Teniers, might wish to be thought dead, and add to this that when he wanted to come to life again nobody would believe in him but declared he was an impostor."
"As the Parisians did when M. Henri Berthoud avowed the extraordinary invention or literary forgery of the supposed letter of Marion de l’Orme touching Salomon de Caus and the Marquis of Worcester. One newspaper declared that its correspondent had seen the original manuscript in a library in Normandy."
"Exactly. It seems very easy when it is done. A very good fellow in New York once dissected my work as we are doing, but I have not heard that he has written a successful play."
"Your alliance with Sir Arthur Sullivan has been very successful."
"Extremely successful, and I hope we have succeeded without any of the meretricious allurements of opéra bouffe and the modern or degraded burlesque. Opéra bouffe became at one time synonymous with at least immoral if not downright indecent suggestion. Language and costume were both peculiar, and these peculiarities were supposed to be necessary to success. Yet we have enjoyed good fortune far above any achieved by opéra bouffe or burlesque without the adventitious aid of sprawling females in indecent costumes. We have never asked any of the clever, hardworking, and excellent ladies of our company and chorus to put on any dress that they could not wear in society at a fancy ball. The proof of this is that I cannot go to such a ball without meeting ladies dressed like our actresses or choristers in our last new musical plays. I only say this to show that success may be fairly won without pandering to the few fools who care for nothing but indecent costume or suggestion, and whose providers give the Puritanical mind a ground of complaint to which there is no rational defence."
"The meretricious style of burlesque seems to be, so to speak, on its last legs."
"And justly so; for it has destroyed to a great extent a charming class of entertainment. What has been the result of the semi-nude burlesque? No genuine comedy actress will appear in it. Yet we can recollect when artists like Mrs. Bancroft, Miss Saunders, and Miss Oliver appeared in burlesque with actors like Charles Mathews, J. Clark, Rogers, Buckstone, Robson, and others too numerous to mention. Now, a comedy actress bars burlesque by the terms of her engagement. Thus it is of little use for an author to write a burlesque, for he cannot get actresses to speak the lines he has taken pains to write, and naturally does not wish to hear them blurted out by half-naked women with the manners and accent of kitchenmaids."
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