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Gilbert's Broken Hearts, described as "An entirely original fairy play," is set in "a tropical landscape," on an island where a group of women have fled the world after their hearts had been broken through the loss of their lovers. The only male presence allowed was that of their servant, "a deformed ill-favoured dwarf, hump-backed and one-eyed" and therefore no threat to their maidenhood. Peace is shattered by the arrival Prince Florian, who through his own thoughtlessness and selfish behaviour brings unhappiness to the community and hastens the death of one of the women. It has been said that in conversation with the American actress Mary Anderson, Gilbert claimed that he had put more of his real self into Broken Hearts than any other play, but it is in the realm of ideas rather than in the development of character that Gilbert reveals anything of himself in the play. It is the "wicked world" again, in which, into a tranquil world of women, a man enters, bringing "mortal love" to disturb the tranquility.
Before the opening night, Gilbert sent a copy of the play to Clement Scott, the drama critic of editor of The Theatre who was, initially, impressed by the play.
Gilbert to Scott:
Gilbert had written Broken Hearts for his great friend John Hare, the manager of the Court Theatre. Hare liked to direct the plays at his theatre but Gilbert always insisted on "stage managing" his plays; consequently they clashed at rehearsals. They were both quick-tempered men, although they could calm down just as quickly.
One argument led to the rehearsal being cancelled. Both men left the theatre in a temper — only to meet on a nearby railway station: 'Up and down the platform Gilbert and Hare tramped, each with a settled frown upon his brow and each ignoring the other as they passed, almost brushing shoulders,' says Mrs. Kendal. 'The only notice they took of one another was a sniff as they passed by. At length the little train puffed in. Both of them made for the same door, which a passenger had opened in order to alight. Naturally, as the door was too narrow to admit them both at the same time, neither could get in. Suddenly, Gilbert's strong sense of humour came to the rescue of the absurd situation. He burst out laughing. Hare looked at him, and in his turn, burst out laughing . . . They returned to the theatre. "We've come back to rehearsal," they both exclaimed at the same time. "Oh, have you?" I said, quite complacently. "I think everybody's gone. You've been some time making up your minds and at the present moment I'm going home." I left them both gazing in astonishment at me... Hare and W. S. Gilbert were both in the habit of losing their tempers every minute and recovering them in a half a minute. Gilbert was aware of his peculiar proclivity, for, on one occasion, invited to a stag party, he exclaimed in astonishment on entering the room "A dozen men, and I'm on terms with them all!"'
Broken Hearts opened at the (Royal) Court Theatre on 9th December 1875.
The play was generally well reviewed but Clement Scott, who had previously admired the play, subsequently quoted Burnand's joke about going to see "Broken Parts" in a later article. This provoked Gilbert into calling his comments "most offensive, and likely to cause a great deal of injury to my play." He described "Burnand's attempt at wit" as "silly and coarse," and went on to comment, "I am not by any means a thin-skinned man, but in this case I feel bound to take exception to your treatment of me and my serious work.
The play was a comparative failure, but it remained one of Gilbert's favourites among his plays. In fact, he considered it was one of the two best plays he had written (the other was Gretchen, an adaptation of the Faust legend). It was revived at the Savoy in June 1882 to mark Florence Terry's farewell to the stage and again in February 1883 as part of Frank Thornton's benefit. In June 1887, Jessie Bond had asked to use the Savoy to appear in the play, but Sullivan refused permission, much to Gilbert's chagrin.
Julia Neilson was a student at the Royal College of Music who was introduced to Gilbert by Joseph Barnby. She greatly impressed Gilbert who advised her to pursue a career as an actress rather than as a singer. She made her stage debut as Cynisca in Gilbert's Pygmalion and Galatea in March 1888 at the Lyceum Theatre and Ainger (Gilbert and Sullivan, a Dual Biography , Oxford, 2002) says Gilbert intended to put on Broken Hearts with her playing Lady Hilda before producing a play written especially for her. However, it appears that there was no revival of Broken Hearts at the Lyceum.
Broken Hearts was performed at the Savoy in February 1888 with Marion Terry.
There was another performance of the play in May 1888 at the Savoy, this time with Julia Neilson and Kate Rorke and according to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians - Volume 7; pg. 261, [Macmillan, London: 1980] there was also a revival of Broken Hearts at the Crystal Palace that year. Gilbert wrote a short song for Julia Neilson, as Lady Hilda, to sing during Act I and she proposed that a fellow student of hers at the Royal College of Music, Edward German, should set it.
To judge from a later letter of German's, he had barely an evening to compose a setting. Known as Lady Hilda's Song it was scored pizzicato to give the effect of a mandolin accompaniment. Although Gilbert thought the music very charming and graceful, he subsequently decided that the play would be better without it. However German pleaded with the actress to use her influence to reinstate the song and in this she succeeded. Gilbert relented, writing: 'Since Mr. German takes it so seriously, we will most certainly put back the song'. Lady Hilda's song, in which she seeks the extinguishing comfort of death, is decidedly melancholic in tone and German kept the vocal line within an easy compass. But German's intentions were thwarted by Alfred Cellier, the conductor, who thought the pizzicato effect too weak and directed the string players to use their bows. German's dismay, however, was alleviated to some extent by a compliment from the kindly Sullivan who had attended a performance. The song was published by Chappell & Co. in 1888 and Gilbert included the first verse of the lyric when he published the script of Broken Hearts published in his Original Plays, Second Series.
In later life, Gilbert had a line from the play engraved on the sun-dial at Grim's Dyke: "even Time is hastening to its end." and, by coincidence, a performance of the play took place on 2nd June 1911, the day of Gilbert's funeral, at the Academy of Dramatic Art.
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