|W. S. Gilbert > Interviews > The Story of a Stage Play
COMPOSED BY GILBERT AND SULLIVAN.
Very few people have any idea of the amount of earnest thought that a dramatic author must bestow upon his original work before it is in a condition to be presented to the very exacting audiences that fill a good London theatre on the occasion of the first performance of a new play. I do not mean to say that original dramatic composition involves necessarily a high order of literary ability. On the contrary, I believe the chief secret of practical success is to keep well within the understanding of the least intelligent section of the audience. The dramatic author is in the position of a caterer who has to supply one dish of which all members of every class of society are invited to partake. If he supplies nothing but crème de volaille, he may please the epicure in the stalls, but he will surely irritate the costermonger in the gallery. If he supplies nothing but baked sheeps' head, the costermonger will be delighted, but the epicure will be disgusted. Probably the dish that will be acceptable to the largest number of every class is rump steak and oyster sauce, which is, after all, a capital thing in its way, and may be taken as a type of the class of piece which is most likely to succeed. It does not call for a very high order of merit on the part of the chef, but it requires a good deal of practical skill nevertheless. The occupant of the sixpenny gallery is as fully entitled to have his money's worth as the philosopher in the stalls, and it must not be forgotten that the occupant of the sixpenny gallery is the man who is in the habit of expressing his disapprobation in the loudest and most embarrassing manner.
It has occurred to me that the difficulties of dramatic authorship - and that of anything but an elevated character - may be effectively set forth by narrating the history of a piece from its germ to its production upon the stage, and as the incidents of "The Mikado" are fresh in my mind, that piece will serve my purpose as well as another.
In May, 1884, it became necessary to decide upon a subject for the next Savoy opera. A Japanese executioner's sword hanging on the wall of my library – the very sword carried by Mr. Grossmith at his entrance in the first act – suggested the broad idea upon which the libretto is based. A Japanese piece would afford opportunities for picturesque scenery and costumes, and, moreover, nothing of the kind had ever been attempted in England. There were difficulties in the way. Could a sufficient number of genuine Japanese dresses in good condition be procured in London? How would the ladies of our chorus look in black wigs? Could they be taught to wear the Japanese costume effectively? However, none of these difficulties appeared to be insuperable, and the scheme of a Japanese piece was decided upon. Then it became necessary to fit the company with parts, and this was not so easy a matter as it may appear at first sight to be. We had written six operas for practically the same company, and in this, our seventh, it was of course necessary to steer clear of everything we had already done, and yet to fit our company with parts to which they could do justice, and which would do justice to them. As the principal character was to be a Japanese executioner, it was obvious that this part must be written for Mr Grossmith, and equally obvious that he must be represented as an exceptionally tender-hearted person whose natural instincts were in direct opposition to the nature of his official duties. Then it became necessary to fit Mr. Barrington, and I was for some weeks unable to invest Mr. Barrington's character with distinctive attributes of an effective description. In an early draft of the plot I find that he was a Remembrancer, who was engaged by Mr. Grossmith to check that gentleman's tendency to think too highly of himself, by continually reminding him of injudicious acts and speeches of which of which he had, at one time or other, been guilty. Mr. Barrington was at the same time in love with Mr. Grossmith's daughter, and his natural desire to conciliate Mr. Grossmith caused him to temper his irritating duties as Remembrancer with a profusion of statesman-like apologies. The reader will perhaps agree with me that in abandoning this device I was not ill-advised. I find, on referring to my note-book, that Mr. Barrington remained a colorless Japanese nobleman until last August, when he suddenly developed an inordinate quantity of family pride, which he endeavoured to counteract by committing deeds of indescribable meanness. Assisted by these attributes, Mr. Barrington came rapidly to the front, and ran neck and neck with Mr. Grossmith at the finish. With Mr. Lely I had some difficulty at first, for he presented himself in the guise of an Agent in Advance to a strolling theatrical company, and as it is proverbially dangerous to introduce theatrical topics into a dramatic composition, I hesitated to deal with Mr. Lely in that capacity. A certain indistinctness of outline that characterized Mr. Lely as an Agent in Advance induced me to examine him more closely. The result was that I saw through his flimsy disguise at once and identified him as no less a personage than the son of the Mikado, disguised (for family reasons) as a wandering ballad singer. As the Agent in Advance he was in love with Mr. Grossmith's ward, Miss Jessie Bond, but as the disguised son of the Mikado, he succumbed to the charms of Miss Leonora Braham. If I am not mistaken this transfer of his affections was prompted by Sir Arthur Sullivan, who had professional reasons for insisting that a tenor shall always fall in love with a soprano. Then Mr. Temple had to be provided for. Mr. Temple is an excellent baritone singer and a capital actor, and as it is advisable in a two-act opera to reserve a striking effect for the middle of the second act, Mr. Temple was cast for the Mikado, who does not appear until that period. Then the ladies had to be considered. The accident that Miss Braham, Miss Jessie Bond and Miss Sybil Grey are short in stature and all of a height suggested the advisability of grouping them as three Japanese school-girls who should work together throughout the piece. Miss Brandram is a personable young lady who has no objection to "make up" old and ugly – and of her good-natured readiness to sacrifice her own personal attractions to the exigencies of the plot we have perhaps taken undue advantage. Miss Brandram, an admirable contralto singer and an excellent actress, found herself transformed once more into an elderly and undesirable lady, with whose affections Mr. Lely had unduly trifled.
The next thing was to decide upon two scenes which should be characteristic and effective. The respective advantages of a street in Nagasaki, a Japanese market place – a wharf with shipping – a Japanese garden, a seaside beach and the courtyard of a Japanese palace, were duly weighed, and the courtyard and the Japanese garden were finally decided upon. Then the story of the piece had to be drawn up in narrative form, and this, I find, was done in eleven different ways, each, presumably, an improvement on its immediate predecessor. The story is next divided into two acts, and the sequence of events in each act is decided upon, with the exits and entrances sketched out, the purport of the various dialogues suggested, and the musical situations arranged. I had to make at least a dozen shots at the "scenario" (that is the technical name for the piece in its skeleton form) before a course of action was finally decided upon. The final scenario began thus:
And so forth, through the two acts.
The play having reached this stage, I read the story and scenario to Sir Arthur Sullivan. He approved of the story, made some valuable suggestions bearing chiefly on the musical situations, and after three or four hours of careful deliberation the chain of events was finally determined, and a twelfth and last version of the story, varying in no very great degree from its immediate predecessor, was prepared the next day - and then the libretto was begun.
The libretto in its first form is simply the scenario reduced to dialogue of the baldest and simplest nature, leaving the songs to be written afterward. No attempt at a joke is to be found in the dialogue: it merely carries on the action in the fewest possible words. Thus:
And so forth, through the two acts.
Having roughly sketched out the dialogue, it was put aside for a term, that I might devote myself to the words of the songs. My normal practice is to furnish Sir Arthur Sullivan with the songs of the first act, and while he is setting them I proceed with the songs of Act Two. When these are practically finished I revert to the dialogue, elaborating and polishing the crude suggestions contained in the first version of the libretto, while he composes the music, and so it comes to pass that the pianoforte score and the libretto are usually completed at about the same date.
The libretto is then set up in type and read to the company. This is always a nervous affair, for by this time the jokes have lost their point, the situations their novelty, and the author is generally at a loss to see where the laughs will come in. I have often seen it stated that actors and actresses form a dispiriting audience at such a ceremony, and that they care little for the story or dialogue in the abstract, their attention being concentrated on the parts which they believe they are destined to play. I am bound to say that my own experience is to the contrary effect. As a body they are keenly alive to such merits as the piece may possess, and I am sorry to say that I have often had occasion to wish that my play had "gone" with the audience half as well as it did when it was read to the company.
Then comes the actual business of putting the piece upon the stage. Hitherto it has existed only in manuscript – henceforth it is to live as an aggregate of fifty human beings. As the piece is an opera, the company must learn the music before they begin to study the dialogue and action. The music rehearsals, conducted by Sir Arthur Sullivan, or in his absence by his next in command, Mr. Frank Cellier, usually last a fortnight, during which the author occupies himself, partly in getting the rhythm of the musical numbers into his very unmusical head, partly in arranging details of scenery with the scenic artist, partly in arranging details of costume, but chiefly with determining the "stage management" of the piece, so that when the first "stage rehearsal" takes place he shall be in a position to announce a clear and distinct policy to his company. To this end fac-simile models of the scenes, on a scale of half an inch to the foot, are supplied to me by the scenic artist, and on these miniature stages the piece is duly rehearsed, by the aid of blocks of wood three inches and two and a half inches in length, representing men and women respectively. The details which are obtained by these means are committed to paper, and at the very first rehearsal the piece begins to take a definite and distinct form.
While these matters are occupying me, Sir Arthur Sullivan is busy with the music rehearsals. The company are seated in a semi-circle on the stage, the principals in front, and each number is gone through several times until it is thoroughly acquired. After two or three rehearsals at which the whole company is present, two or three rehearsals for the chorus only take place under the superintendence of Mr. Cellier, while Sir Arthur Sullivan instructs the principals at his own residence. Then principals and chorus are brought together again, and in about a fortnight the music is thoroughly grasped by everybody concerned excepting myself, who am absolutely incapable of acquiring an air with any approach to correctness. I can get the rhythms into my head easily enough, but that is all, and for the purposes of rehearsal the rhythms are sufficient.
The piece is now ready for the stage, and to the stage rehearsals we invariably devote four weeks. During the first week we usually deal with Act One, during the second with Act Two, and during the third with both acts, while the fourth is devoted to four band rehearsals and at least three dress rehearsals, the stage being generally handed over to the scenic artist and carpenters during two days of this last week, that the various portions of the scenery may be accurately fitted together. In the course of the first three weeks it is generally found advisable to call two more rehearsals of the music, as the introduction of "business" into the earlier stage rehearsals acts rather prejudicially upon music which has been learned without the accompaniment of dramatic action. Moreover, it is generally found necessary to make certain musical alterations – songs have to be lengthened or reduced, and perhaps one or two musical numbers have to be added or excised.
The first stage rehearsal is rather a depressing affair. The principals are occupied in dealing rather with the mechanical details of exits, entrances, crosses, sittings down and gettings up, and the dialogue is allowed to go by the board. The chorus deal only with broad effects, the niceties of detail are passed over for the time being. The intention of the first rehearsal is to convey a rough general notion of the relation borne to each other by the various characters in the piece, and if this is accomplished the first rehearsal has served its end. At the second rehearsal the first half of the first act is dealt with microscopically, and the "business" to be introduced into the musical numbers is roughly sketched out. The third rehearsal is concerned with the second half of Act One, and by this time the "business" of the entire act is practically settled. It is now time to call in the ballet-master, Mr. John d'Auban, who looks on during one rehearsal, and comes the next day prepared with a certain number of dances, which he teaches to the company at rehearsals called for this express purpose. As soon as the details of the first act are roughly settled, Sir Arthur Sullivan usually attends a rehearsal in order to see that the proposed "business" is not inconsistent with his musical effects, and this visit usually results in a certain amount of rearrangement. He is the most self-sacrificing and unselfish of composers, but even his good-nature is not proof against an arrangement whereby the chorus dance a wild jig during an elaborate cadenza or an unaccompanied quartet. But when a composer works with a librettist who is deaf, dumb and blind on all musical points, he is not unprepared for professional solecisms of this description.
As soon as the stage rehearsals began it occurred to me that the native ladies of the Japanese village might possibly be prevailed upon to teach us some of their dances, and Mr. Taumaker, the manager of that exhibition, most kindly promised to assist me in every practicable manner. A very charming young Japanese lady came day after day to rehearsal, and went through her dances, piece by piece, until her very apt pupils, Miss Braham, Miss Jessie Bond and Miss Sybil Grey, were pronounced reasonably proficient. It was impossible not to be struck by the natural grace and gentle courtesy of their indefatigable little instructress, who, although she must have been very much amused by the earlier efforts of her pupils, never permitted them to see that the spectacle of three English ladies attempting for the first time a Japanese dance in Japanese dress had its ridiculous side. Our verbal intercourse with this fascinating little lady was limited, all the Japanese we could command being, "Sayo nara" ("good by"), whereas the Japanese young lady (who serves cups of tea in the village tea-house) knew but one English sentence, "sixpence each."
The first dress rehearsal is usually a disappointing business. The dresses require considerable alterations to make them fit, many of the dresses are incomplete, the company have yet to learn how to put them on, the bootmaker has, as a matter of course, disappointed us. But by the second dress rehearsal the costumes are quite satisfactory, and the third, with band, scenery, and lime-lights as at night, is to all intents and purposes a first performance.
And yet not quite that, for at the close of this last rehearsal, the night before the production of the piece, the fearful thought occurred to us that the Mikado's song, in the second act, was extremely poor and had much better be cut out. It was excellently sung and acted by Mr. Temple, but the merit of his performance seemed only to make the words show to a greater disadvantage by reason of the contrast. So at least I thought, and so thought my collaborateur at the end of the rehearsal. We broke it delicately to Mr. Temple, for it was his only song, and we felt that he would have good ground for complaint if we took it from him. Mr. Temple, however, most cheerfully resigned the song, and it was publicly announced to principals and chorus that it would be omitted. Presently half a dozen gentlemen, press men and others who had witnessed the rehearsal, came to us in a body and begged us to restore the excised "number," suggesting that it could be cut out after the first performance, if it was then thought desirable to do so. Their wishes prevailed, and a message was sent to the members of the chorus (who by this time were changing their clothes) that the Mikado's song would be sung after all. As we were leaving the theatre, a few minutes later, we heard three ringing cheers from the chorus dressing-rooms. On inquiry we found that the cheers were the outcome of their gratification at the restoration of the song, which is now one of the most successful features of the second act. They were right and we were wrong.
Of the first performance of this, or any other piece with which I have been concerned, I can say little, as I always leave the theatre as the curtain rises on the first act and do not return until the end of the last. With the last rehearsal my functions come to an end. All has been done that can be done, and the fortunes of the play are in the hands of the audience.
W. S. GILBERT
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