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by Sarah Cole
Those of you already familiar with this 1875 play know that it, along with Brantinghame Hall, is one that erudite G&S enthusiasts seem to most enjoy sneering at. It is written in quasi-Shakespearian blank verse, the setting is fancifully medieval and Tempest-like, and the plot would be regarded as "corny". But I like it: in rereading it, I realized how much I do really like it. Although sad, I enjoy the story; and the similes, wordplay, and descriptions need more than a plot description to do them justice. Yet, because it is a product of another era that, because of its style, is subject to gross misunderstanding, I would not like to see it produced. It deserves better than arrogant contempt. The examination of the human frailties -- vanity, misplaced trust, judging by appearance -- and the human virtues -- pity, love, and sacrifice -- that drive the plot are as valid as they ever were.
Happily, many of Broken Hearts' themes and plot devices are also used in Cyrano De Bergerac, and resurface in The Yeomen of the Guard. But when the main comparisons are drawn, the wrong things are compared. For instance, many years ago I was at a conference at which one of the papers presented made the point that the ideal Gilbertian heroine was essentially weak, blighted in love, and dead (one of the characters in Broken Hearts (Vavir) falls in love with a man who doesn't love her and, being sickly, dies at the end). A similarity was understandably drawn with Jack Point, as I recall. The problem with the comparison was that Vavir isn't the play's heroine: her sister, Hilda, is. She is an idea Gilbertian heroine: a woman of strong, controlled character, who will sacrifice her own good for the greater good. Iolanthe fits this mold, as do the heroines of Charity, the much-maligned Brantinghame Hall, and, oddly enough, Jack Point. But maybe that's because the qualities of that ideal heroine are the same as those of the ideal hero: it's just that the G&S operas are, in an abusrdist way, so like real life that they don't have many heroes in them, either -- think about it. But I digress.
In short, Broken Hearts is a much more interesting play than it is given credit for being, as I hope to demonstrate.
The setting for the story is the small tropical Island of Broken Hearts, sometime in the fourteenth century. We learn that this island is the home for six women, five of whom mourn some lost love. No men are allowed there, with the exception of their servant Mousta, who is so deformed and ugly, that he isn't considered fully a man. As the play opens, he is found reading a book of spells. Near him are a little fountain (waterfall) and an old sundial. Another character -- for those stage properties become, in a sense, characters -- joins them: Vavir, who chides Mousta for dealing in magic. Mousta explains that he found the book in a small unoccupied boat that mysteriously landed itself on the island, and he has no intention of giving it up: although the women don't regard him as a man, he is one, and the spells can restore to him a man's handsome appearance.
His desire only amuses Lady Hilda, who follows Vavir on the scene. She reminds him that he is the only man allowed there, since the other maidens there (except for Vavir, we learn later), have vowed to love no living thing again. This only fuels Mousta's passion: he reminds her that "Now, monkey though I be, I am a man / In all but face and form -- I've a man's heart, / A man's desire to love -- and be loved" and, as he exits, berates the women for their contrived affections for the inanimate objects on the island, such as the fountain and the sundial.
Hilda and Vavir reminisce about their coming to the island a year before. When the prince Hilda had loved from afar sailed off to pursue glory and was never heard of again, she had come there to mourn him. Although she had no love to mourn, Vavir had come with her. She is a delicate girl, and in spite of the peace of the island, feels she hasn't much longer to live. But Hilda laughs off her fears. When they had landed, Hilda had made a "thoughtless jest" (her words, not mine) that, since women must love something, they pledge their love to something on the island. She had chosen the fountain, and Vavir the sundial. Vavir, however, has taken her sundial-love seriously. and draws some interesting conclusions about loving a marker of time's passing.
After they leave Prince Florian enters. He is a young man, and duly attracted by the island's lovely residents. Until he meets Mousta. He reveals that he was in the boat that landed, and was able to escape detection through the use of a magic veil that renders the wearer invisible. Mousta is immediately interested. Though he is ugly, he is clever (and, as his earlier remarks implied, in love), and sees the veil as the only chance he would have to woo a woman. He convinces Florian to spend the night in his cottage.
They are interrupted by Vavir, who has come to bid good-night to her sundial. Florian, concealed by the veil, stays to listen, as Vavir tells her love to the dial. She concludes by wishing it had the power of speech to speak its love. Florian, amused by the situation, answers for it, much to Vavir's horror, amazement, and presently joy. He weaves a tale of being a man enchanted into the sundial, who will be released if a maiden would love it truly for a year and a day. But when Melusine (another "broken heart") comes looking for Vavir, he gives voice to her idol, a hand-mirror. As they exit, he is greatly amused at the effect his joke has on them.
But then it is his turn to be affected. Hilda has come to bid her fountain good-night, and he is overwhelmed by her beauty in the moonlight. She tells it of the love she had lost: a certain Prince Florian, but how it (so far as it could) has taken his place in her heart. Florian then speaks through the fountain, telling her he loves her, but wondering what she would do if this Prince Florian should be alive after all. She tell him (as the fountain) that it would be an unbearable, but impossible joy: he (the fountain) should be content for she has pledged herself to him forever. But neither of them realize that Mousta has overheard this vow.
Have you counted all the crises waiting to happen?
By the beginning of Act II, Mousta has been able to filch the veil of invisibility, and hides it before Florian enters, looking for it. Mousta argues that he couldn't have taken it because, if he had, he'd be using it, and mocks him for being caught "exposed" on the manless island. Whoever is missing must be the one who has it, and he goes to find out. Before Florian can conceal himself, though, Vavir finds him. She recognizes his voice as that of the sundial, and believing him to be its disenchanted spirit, pours out her love for him (much to Florian's dismay). Not knowing how to tell her he doesn't love her, and recognizing that the blow would kill her, he sends her away with a promise to return presently. Still irresolute, he exits as well.
Now Mousta returns to test the power of the veil, in hopes of gaining the object of his affections: Lady Hilda. (You aren't surprised, are you?) She has come to tell her fountain about Vavir's now-incarnate lover, and begs it, if it can, to take human form. This time, Mousta answers for the fountain, telling her that he can take such form, but fears if he does, she will despise him. He is roughly-hewn, ugly: much like their wretched serving-man. Hilda reassures the "spirit of the fountain" that she has loved him for his generous spirit, and that his appearance would not influence it, but the "fountain" presses her for a token. She casts her ring in the pool, pledging to be his bride. Mousta takes the ring, reminding Hilda "We spurn / The dirt beneath our feet -- but never less / We grovel in such dirt for diamonds, / And sometimes find them there! A comely face / Is but the food of time -- a kindly heart / Time touches but to soften .. ." He reveals himself. Hilda is stunned with horror and amazement. At first she thinks he has so spoken to her as merely a cruel joke, but is revolted when Mousta confesses a genuine love for her goodness and generosity. Telling him she fears he will misuse it as she becomes less desirable, she wheedles from him the veil of invisibility. Once in possession, she violently scorns him: she will keep her promise to be his bride, but he, nor anyone else, will ever see her again. Wrapped in the veil, she exits, to Mousta's eloquent despair.
Florian returns, looking for Hilda. In response to his harsh questioning, Mousta tells him that she is missing: she must have his stolen veil. Hilda returns, unseen, and is amazed to see Florian arguing with Mousta. After his departure, she prepares to reveal herself to Florian, but is stopped by Vavir's arrival. Love has given her new strength and new hope; and only makes Florian's duty harder to perform. He tells her a story of a knight who met a gentle young girl. As a thoughtless joke, he spoke words of love to her, not realizing she would believe them. Vavir gradually realizes he is speaking of her; and Hilda learns that Florian loves her. As he finishes, Vavir recites the end of his story: the girl pardoned him and died. As Hilda prays for her sister's strength, Florian pleads with her that the girl must live, but Vavir collapses in his arms.
Act III is set about a half-hour before sunset. Melusine and Amanthis (another "broken heart") watch as Vavir sleeps at the foot of the sundial. Hilda is still missing, and after the others have left to look for Hilda and Florian, Vavir confesses that she fears to die without seeing her again. Hilda has heard her, and reveals herself. But instead of looking for sympathy, Vavir tells her how much Florian loves her, apologizing for having loved him. Hilda tells Vavir that the prince had been sent to the island to save her life with his love: she would disappear and he would soon forget her -- at least she tries to tell her so before breaking down. Vavir knows the truth, and that even Florian's love won't prolong her life, but Hilda insists it must, and disappears. Upon Florian's return, Vavir asks his pardon for her foolishness in misunderstanding his joke, then goes on to reveal that Hilda loves him, and is nearby. After she leaves, Florian wonders why he didn't see Hilda, then realizes she does, indeed, have the missing veil. But how did she get it? Mousta enlightens him: he had stolen it from him, and, taking Florian's place as the "voice of the fountain", had received the token of her pledge to be his wife. He is there to mock Florian's misery at losing her -- at their both losing her. Florian flies at him in a fit of jealousy, prepared to wreak fatal vengeance on the less-than-nothing reptile that should presume to love Lady Hilda. Mousta doesn't protest -- for he wants to die -- but asks Florian if the two of them were evenly matched rivals. Florian's wrath dies with that recognition. He releases Mousta, and apologizes for his harshness. Mousta is stunned by mercy, and gives him Hilda's ring before exiting.
In hopes that she will hear him, Florian announces he has her pledge, and that she has nothing to fear. Hilda does reveal herself, but not for the sake of the ring. Although she loves him more than her life, she begs him to save Vavir's life with his love. But what man can so direct his heart? But because he loves Hilda as much as any man can love, he agrees to try.
But it is too late. "There is more Heaven than Earth" in Vavir's face as she returns, supported by the other two ladies. Hilda pleads with Vavir, and Death itself, for her life. But Vavir is prepared to die: "Weep not for me; I have no pain indeed. / Kiss me again; my sun has set. Good night! / Good night!" And so ends Broken Hearts.
This article appeared in Issue 60 (April 2000) of Precious Nonsense, the newsletter of the Midwestern Gilbert & Sullivan Society. Posted by permission of Sarah Cole, Society Secretary/Archivist.
Page modified 12 Nov 2017.