|Gilbert > Plays > Times Review of On Bail
Early in 1874 a little piece in two acts, called Committed for Trial, was presented at the Globe Theatre. In the bill it was described as founded on an incident in Le Réveillon, a farce, or comedy as it was called in France, in three acts, by Messrs Meilhac and Halévy. It might, perhaps, with more accuracy have been described as a version of Le Réveillon with the chief incident – that is, le réveillon itself – omitted. Although the author was Mr. Gilbert, who in the Wedding March, a version of Le Chapeau de Paille d’Italie, had but a short while previously shown himself an ingenious adapter of French pieces of that order, and although Mr. Compton, Mr. Montague, and Mr. Arthur Cecil, then a new recruit to the stage, were in the cast, Committed for Trial was not very successful. The difficulties in the author’s way were fully admitted, and it was felt that he had, perhaps, acted not unwisely in altogether ignoring the supper party. Nevertheless, though Le Réveillon with le réveillon might, perhaps, have been considered indecorous, without it it was certainly felt to be dull. Everybody knew what had been left out, and though propriety approved the omission, the result was not considered satisfactory. That, if a popular French piece cannot be rendered into English without being shorn of the chief element of its popularity, it is better to leave the French piece alone, is an argument that may hardly be gainsaid.
Again, however, has Mr. Gilbert, nothing daunted, tried his hand at the same work. In On Bail, produced at this theatre on Saturday evening, he has shown that it was within his power to tell the French story in its completeness without offending propriety. This time he has not avoided, but surmounted, the obstacles in his path. On Bail is in three acts, as is Le Réveillon, and the incidents of each act are the same in the English as in the French piece, including the scandalum magnatum the supper party; and yet we can assure the public that the interests of morality and decorum are in no way offended. It is true that a married man is represented as supping with actresses in the green-room of a theatre; that by some of the party more champagne is drunk than is considered in accordance with the rules of society as at present observed; and that a very virtuous and affectionate wife is visited with the importunities of a former lover. All these things seem at first blush to be, perhaps, not so much in the interests of, as outrages on, decorum. But it is not so. Such things may sound shocking, but when examined will be found to resolve themselves into the most harmless little follies, while the language of the offending parties is not calculated by a single syllable to disgust the nicest ears. Over one part of his difficult task Mr. Gilbert has beyond question achieved a signal triumph. Whether over the other part his success has been equally signal; whether in his process of separation he has, while eliminating the lower, preserved the higher qualities of the original, is a question which, for many reasons, we prefer to leave to the public to discover for themselves.
Le Réveillon must by this time be pretty nearly as well known in London as in Paris. It was first acted at the Palais Royal but little more than four years ago, and has generally proved the mainstay of the French companies that have visited England since that time. It is one of the best specimens of its order with which our own stage has been rendered familiar, and though inferior in wit, perhaps, to some of its contemporaries, has so many situations of such wild and grotesque humour, and is so abundant and unflagging in its absurdity, that from its first appearance it has ever remained almost as great a favourite in London as in Paris. Mr Gilbert has kept, as we have said, to the original story with a most ingenious fidelity. His version is, indeed, where he has found it possible, almost a literal translation; where he has not found it possible he has supplied a dialogue of his own which harmonizes well with the incidents of the scene. Some of Mr. Gilbert’s own contributions form, indeed, the most amusing parts of the play, so far as mere words are concerned, for it is one thing to write English humorously, and another to translate humorous French into humorous English. That Mr. Gilbert can do the first is very well known, and he can do the last better than most people; but even he has found it at times a task beyond his powers.
Not the least of the merits of his version is the ingenuity he has displayed in Anglicizing the French characters. Gaillardin and Tourillon, the heroes, so amusingly acted only last May, and many times before, by Messrs. Didier and Schey, now become Mr. Jonathan Lovibond (Mr. Wyndham) and Mr Marcooly (Mr. John Clarke); Prince Germantoff appears as the Duke of Darlington (Miss Fanny Josephs); Duparquet is transformed into Hebblethwaite (Mr. Ashley), the manager of a provincial theatre, in whose green-room the supper is given at the Duke’s expense. Alfred, chef d’orchestra of Prince Germontoff, the lover of Gaillardin’s wife, retains at least his Christian name as Alfred Trimble (Mr. Righton), a fiddler in Hebblethwaite’s band, and is represented as having been a lover of Mrs. Lovibond (Miss Eastlake) before, not after, marriage. The guests at the supper party are the ladies of Hebblethwaite’s company, all, for aught we are shown to the contrary, ladies of exemplary lives; and for chaperon there is Mrs. Hebblethwaite (Miss Bromley), a tragedy queen of the severest aspect and the strictest virtue. Nor are these characters merely French characters with English names. For the purposes of the stage, or rather for the purposes of such a piece, they may be accepted as men and women of our own country.
The outline of the story is, we repeat, the same as the original. Lovibond, who has been arrested for an assault on a ticket-collector or a porter on the railway, is out on bail, but has to surrender at 9 o’clock in the morning. Induced by Hebblethwaite to make one of a supper party given to his company in his green-room by the Duke of Darlington, he persuades his wife that the hour of his surrender is 9 o’clock in the evening, and goes off to the supper. Trimble, who has been scraping his fiddle outside the house, then enters, and, after reproaching his former love with her inconsistency, sits down to the dinner that has been prepared for Lovibond. At this, however, he is interrupted by Marcooly, the newly appointed governor of the county gaol, who, finding some irregularity in Lovibond’s bail, comes to carry him off to prison before joining the supper party, to which he is also bidden. Finding Trimble there at such an hour, and in a smoking cap and dressing-gown belonging to the master of the house, he not unreasonably concludes that he is Lovibond, and off to prison he is marched accordingly.
At the supper party Lovibond and Marcooly are introduced to each other by Hebblethwaite under assumed names, the two men wishing not only to conceal their real identity but to appear as men of title and position in such distinguished company; and Hebblethwaite, aware of the meeting that will happen in the morning, furthers their wishes in order to have his revenge on Lovibond for a practical joke played by him some years ago. The two me get tipsy, as in the original, and in due time depart for the gaol. Here, of course, they meet and discover the imposture; but Marcooly will not allow Lovibond to be what he represents, for Lovibond, as he says, has already been arrested, and has passed the night safe in his cell. Portiboy, the barrister (Mr. Charles Tritton), who has been sent for to appear for the supposed Lovibond, and who is a friend of the real man, lends the latter his wig and gown, and the well-known scene between the two Lovibonds then ensues, and the piece eventually ends, as does the original, to the satisfaction of every one concerned.
It would be unfair to say that the laughter with which this piece was greeted on Saturday night was not in every respect well deserved. The story of Le Réveillon is in itself so amusing in its very absurdity that it would be almost impossible for a writer of any experience and capacity to make a dull piece out of it, even in English. Both those qualities Mr. Gilbert possesses in an eminent degree, and his piece, though susceptible of considerable improvement, is very far from dull. Mr. Gilbert has plenty of humour of his own, and is quick at adapting to his immediate ends the humour of other people, while his judgement and experience serve him in good stead in the difficult task of deciding what may and what may not be rendered suitable for his present purpose. If all such tasks had been performed with equal discernment many weary hours and much vain protest might have been spared us.
Nevertheless his work requires much modification if it is to continue to please. It is much too long. Three acts, or at least three changes of scene, are necessary, without doubt, to the story; but they should be, and could very well be, much shorter than they at present are. There is a great deal of superfluous dialogue and of superfluous “business,” as it is technically termed, though that, on the whole, is good and to the point. There is too much of it, however, and it frequently delays the action of the piece, which should never halt, but be quick and bustling from first to last. There is a little scene between Mrs. Hebblethwaite and Lovibond in the second act which is quite unnecessary, and, moreover, stupid of itself. The intoxication of Lovibond and Marcooly, though very amusingly portrayed by Mr. Clarke as the latter, is too prolonged; and far too long, and, perhaps, too exaggerated and too violent, is the scene between Lovibond and his unfortunate representative in the gaol. The exaggeration both of Mr. Wyndham and Mr. Righton might be toned down with advantage throughout the piece, especially as regards the latter gentleman in the first act, where he is far more tedious than amusing.
The very soul of such absurdities as this, as of wit, is brevity; but in addition to the length of the piece itself there is too great a tendency on the part of some of the actors to repeat themselves, and attempt to raise again the laughter they have evoked by a mere repetition of the same means. It is never a wise plan even when the means at disposal are scanty, but in this case there is quite enough to laugh at, such as it is, without having recourse to it. Mr. Ashley, as Hebblethwaite, the manager, acts in capital spirit, quite in accordance with the character of the piece, as also does Mr. Clarke, save for the one fault we have mentioned; and Miss Josephs, as the young Duke of Darlington, by her good taste and quiet, graceful bearing, makes the sight of a woman in man’s clothes for once endurable. We should have been better pleased to have seen Mr. Gilbert’s name again in connexion with a better class of work, but of its kind it is certainly the best we have seen for a long time, and we have no doubt that it can and will be made still better.
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