|W. S. Gilbert > Interviews > A Savoy Rehearsal
A Savoy Rehearsal
The time is nearly three o’clock, and as many ladies of the Savoy chorus as can conveniently crowd into the stage-door office are sipping tea there and chattering about their dresses. The hall-keeper, who has obligingly renounced his chair, is presiding over the commissariat with an air semi-paternal and wholly benignant. Just on three a bell trills from the armoury of whistles and telephones at the back of the office, the stage-doorkeeper says, "All ladies down, please!" and with a few courageous efforts to deal summarily with cups of hot tea, the pretty company flutters and rustles down the stairs to the stage.
The stage is brilliantly lit. High up in the flies a gleam of pale September sunshine wars with the yellow glare of the floats. An electric lamp in M. D’Oyly Carte’s box is the only spot of light in the funereal theatre, where a few of the company are gossiping in the stalls, and one or two visitors are whispering in the boxes. The piano stool and Mr. W.S. Gilbert, which may, perhaps, be spoken of together as the guiding stars of the rehearsal, are grouped upon a little platform which is erected over the stalls. By this device a clear stage is left for the performers. Other directors of the rehearsal, who are sitting judicially upon the orchestra platform, are Sir Arthur Sullivan and Mr. Cellier. Mr. Charles Harris, the stage-director, is sometimes to be found there also, but at the present moment is at the back of the stage, engaged in the laborious occupation of keeping an eye on things in general, — with special reference to the idiosyncrasies of the stage-carpenters. In the blaze of light on the stage, and by the side of the barbaric gorgeousness of the scenery, the actors, dressed conventionally (and sometimes unconventionally) in the garb of everyday life, look peculiarly sombre; and from the point of view of uniformity, the gentlemen who are personating "Gold Sticks in Waiting," or "Warriors of the King’s Guard," strike one (we use the words in no uncomplimentary sense) as a singularly scratch lot. A few "Life Guardsmen" have made a slight concession to the demands of their impersonation by putting on pipeclayed gauntlets; but the concession does not do very much to remove their incongruity with the surroundings, and on the whole is not nearly so successful as that made by Mr, Rutland Barrington — who may be recognised as a Despot by a couple of medals on the breast of his frock-coat. Mr. Barrington is rehearsing with Miss Macintosh, and Mr. W.S. Gilbert is watching the duet — which means a great deal.
"‘Zara, my daughter!’" Mr. Barrington comes forward. "‘Zara, at last —’ There’s that seat gone again!"
The seat is replaced, and the usual arrangements having been made that it shall never again be missing, Mr. Barrington starts afresh.
"‘Zara, my daughter, at last!’— er, don’t you think if you were to come a little nearer down, Miss Macintosh? Yes, thanks. ‘Zara, my daughter —’"
"A little more deliberate, I think, Barrington, eh?" suggests Mr. Gilbert.
"Oh, certainly, certainly. ‘Zara, my —’"
"And I think, Miss Macintosh, you should show a trifle more — a little more," Mr. Gilbert waves his hand, "a trifle more expectation. Yes; that’s it. Thanks."
"‘Zara, my daughter, at last!’"
"No, no," interrupts Mr. Gilbert, "that’s not quite it. Look here. I know I shall make myself ridiculous in trying to show you; but this is what I mean. You see, I want you to put your hands like this" — Mr. Gilbert puts Zara’s hands into an attitude of eager enquiry — "and then you say, ‘Yes, dearest, I have been —’— what are the words? Ah! thanks —‘Yes, dearest’— and so on. You see?"
In this way the action and the interpretation of the dialogue are fashioned and determined. Mr. Gilbert has an eye and an ear and an opinion for everything. He knows precisely what he wants and—as our advertisers at times beseech us to do—he sees that he gets it. His manner has been described as military: certainly there is an air of military decision about him, but it is a decision which commands the approval as well as the respect of those whom it guides. It is the private, and probably the well-founded, opinion of the members of the company that Mr. Gilbert formulates in his mind the whole course of a scene or of any particular part of it before he comes down to the theatre, and models the actual performance on that inflexible ideal.
After the duet a trio. Sir Arthur Sullivan sits down at the piano, plays a "lively prelude fashioning the way in which the voice must wander"; and the voices, after one break away, slip glibly into the run of the tune. "‘Time has played [sic] his little joke,’" sings Mr. Barrington, partly to Mr. Gilbert, who sits solemnly facing him at a distance of some three feet. "‘Comes at last the final stroke!’— a little pause after ‘stroke,’ eh?—‘Comes at last the final stroke’ — you know, there’s somebody buzzing there at the back."
"Ladies! ladies!" interjects Mr. Harris, "a little less noise, if you please!"
"‘Comes at last the final stroke!’"— at last the trio is finished to satisfaction, and Sir Arthur resigns his seat. The sharpest contrast is obvious between the two collaborators at rehearsal: Mr. Gilbert, with his anxious appreciation and an observation as sensitive as a photographic plate; and Sir Arthur Sullivan with his appearance of having come prepared to be pleased with everything.
The last notes of the trio, gone over for the last time, tinkle into silence, when suddenly, as Mr. Rider Haggard would say, a strange thing happens. The theatre suddenly lights up, and the electric lights of the auditorium, tier above tier, begin to glow brightly, "Sky cloths" begin to descend magically from the flies, palace walls are pushed forward with mysterious rapidity; and at the back of the stage a moon, which hitherto has occupied a position of decent obscurity, enters on a new phase. Mr. Harris may be heard addressing the scene-shifters in the language of emotion. The "big scene" is coming on, and Mr. Gilbert wishes to see how it would look from the stalls when the theatre is lighted up.
"I think, Mr. Harris, that we will dispense with those green lights," he observes. "Spoils the effect, eh?"
Mr. Harris appears L.U.E., a little flushed after his exertions.
"And the ladies to come on at once, Mr. Gilbert?" he asks, "or are they to make themselves up?"
"Well," responds Mr. Gilbert, "I think we had better see the idea they have of ‘making up.’ But tell them to restrain themselves with the burnt cork: not to make buttonholes of their eyes, you know."
A CHAT WITH MR. AND MRS. D’OYLY CARTE
There is, therefore, an interval of ten minutes, which the ladies of the chorus devote to calling in Art to the aid of nature, and in which Sir Arthur chats to his friends in the boxes. Mr. D’Oyly Carte returns to his stage-box and to his correspondence. Usually, he watches the rehearsals and writes at the same time. He suffers many interruptions, and the presence of an admirer more or less does not ruffle him in the least.
"I can talk and write as well, if you don’t mind," he says; "but, really, you ought not to question me, but Mrs. Carte. She’s the business woman. And she really can do two things at a time — six, I believe. She will be down here in a moment."
The scratch of the pen accompanies Mr. D’Oyly Carte’s remarks.
"We’re getting near the end of the rehearsals now, you see. It is not till this week that they’re so complete. You see we haven’t the band yet; all the rehearsals go to the piano. The band is practised separately at St. Andrew’s Hall. On Tuesday and Wednesday the voices are tried with the band — still at St. Andrew’s Hall, and for the music only. On Thursday and Friday we have full-dress rehearsals. On Sunday —
"Comes at last the final stroke."
A knock at the door and an interruption — a welcome one, for it is Mrs. D’Oyly Carte. "Mrs. Carte," pursues Mr. Carte, "will tell you all about the early rehearsals."
"They’re very different from these," says Mrs. Carte, "because it is only at this stage that all the component parts come together. They begin six or seven weeks beforehand with the music only. The music is learned by heart first, and Sir Arthur rehearses the band by itself. Then Mr. Gilbert reads the play to the company, and the parts are given out. It isn’t until the fifth week of rehearsals that dialogue and songs begin to go together. You see things have to be altered to meet the needs of the case. For instance, in the beginning Sir Arthur and Mr. Gilbert make mutual concessions, the one altering the music to fit the songs, and the other adapting the songs to go with the music; and the scenery — although a model of the tout ensemble is made at first — is continually altered to fit the grouping and provide for the exits and the entrances."
"Do you keep the same chorus from opera to opera?"
"Well, we can hardly do that," she replies. "They are bound to change a good deal; but they change less than the principals. Let me see who are left — well, there’s Mr. Barrington and Miss Brandram — I think they’ve been here since the first; and Mr. Denny has been a long time; but this is an unusually ‘new’ company."
"I have often wondered how you ‘cast’ your companies."
"Well, of course, so far as the principals are concerned, that is a matter of special arrangement; but so far as the choruses, there is no difficulty in finding these. Since Mr. Carte began these operas with The Sorcerer, in 1877, we have accumulated 7,000 names on our books, with the voice, the appearance, and the ability of each lady and gentleman carefully catalogued."
"But 7,000, Mrs. Carte! — what can you do with them?"
"Well, you see," said Mrs. Carte, "we have five provincial companies now. A provincial company of Utopia, Limited itself will be sent out in about six weeks, and another at Christmas."
"Mrs. D’Oyly Carte hasn’t told you," said Mr. Carte, "that it is she who manages these companies, arranges all the dates, all the bookings — we are booked up to the end of 1894 — and every other details of organisation. I have an idea that she does it by some kind of conjuring with a map of England and a ‘Bradshaw.’"
"You generally have a company in America?"
"Not now," said Mr. Carte, who, by the way, has no very high opinion of some of the American managers, "though I prefer to send my own companies out. If you sell an American manager the rights he is apt to introduce innovations. They introduced a ballet into one of the operas, and in the Pinafore had girls for sailors."
As we watched Mr. Gilbert still anxiously directing, still polishing to the pattern his own design the smallest detail, [sic] it was rather interesting to speculate upon his probable state of mind if he saw a ballet introduced into the Yeomen of the Guard. He was out of reach of such disturbing reflections here, being engaged, in fact, with a Mistress of Deportment in idealising the curtseys of the ladies of the chorus. "A little lower down and spread the train," said the Mistress of the deportment. "Spread each other’s trains, ladies!" echoed Mr. Gilbert (and we could hear Mr. Charles Harris inquiring sarcastically of some of the ladies nearest to him if they imagined they were laying a table-cloth); "And slide the feet, ladies! Oh, slide the feet," continued Madame X——, with an unconscious reminiscence of the hard case of Mr. Bultitude.
"Mr. Gilbert seems anxious," I said. "It must be rather a trial to him on first nights."
"He never comes," said Mr. Carte. "Sir Arthur Sullivan and myself are present; but Mr. Gilbert generally walks on the Embankment. Last time he spent the evening at the Gaiety."
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