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by Arthur Robinson

W.S. Gilbert's A Sensation Novel, with music by Thomas German Reed, was first performed on January 31, 1871 (the same year as his first collaboration with Sullivan, Thespis). The text is included in "Gilbert Before Sullivan", a collection of six of Gilbert's early musical plays, edited by Jane Stedman. As Dr. Stedman observes, this play anticipates Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. Gilbert satirizes the sensation novels of his day by having the stock characters in such a novel come to life and comment disparagingly on the plot, complaining because they are compelled to do the author's bidding, which is often at variance with their own desires. This play involves a bad baronet, a baby changed a birth, a self-decapitation, and other elements familiar to Gilbert and Sullivan devotees.

The first act (or "volume", as Gilbert calls it) opens in a ruined house in which several murders have been committed, where a writer of sensation novels lives for the atmosphere. He normally writes fifty three-volume novels a year, but he is now suffering from a bad case of writer's block: it has taken him nearly a week to write the first volume of his new book. (Even putting live shrimps down his back to make his flesh crawl hasn't helped.) With an incantation reminiscent of the witches' chant around the caldron in Macbeth (in both meter and ingredients:

"Finger of a bigamist,
Cobweb from mysterious vaults,/
Arsenic sold as Epsom salts. . ."

he summons the Spirit of Romance, who informs him that his characters — the mild-mannered hero, the pure heroine, the villain and villainess, and the detective — have existences of their own apart from the novel, and come to life at the end of the first and second volumes, and before the last chapter of the third volume. The author flees in terror before his characters can appear.

It turns out that these characters are quite different outside the pages of the novel. The hero, Herbert, a Sunday school teacher, and the heroine, a governess named Alice Grey, loathe one another, each bored by the other's insipidity. Herbert is in love with the seductive villainess, Rockalda (Ed. note: in life, she had been an overly-indulgent mother, so her punishment was to be the villainess in sensation novels), and Alice is in love with the villain, who has been plotting to abduct her, to succeed in his evil plans. The villain, a wicked baronet named Sir Ruthven, turns out to be as meek as a new-born lamb — outside the novel. These four are joined by the novel's detective, Gripper (disguised as a Grand Turk so that he may follow the others about "without attracting too much attention"), who apologizes for being late, but explains that it is a fictional detective's duty always to be late: if he arrived on time and prevented crimes from being committed, the novel would end too soon. He points out that if he is ever on time, Herbert and Alice will have to marry each other. All are horrified at the thought. The characters must then return to the novel for the second volume, Alice demurely pleading with the baronet to continue his diabolical pursuit of her.

After the second volume, the characters reassemble. Herbert and Alice have just had a narrow escape from marriage in the novel. Sir Ruthven explains that he diverted the train on which Alice was traveling to meet Herbert by murdering the pointsman; "how good of you," comments the grateful Sunday school teacher. Sir Ruthven then reveals to Alice that she is apparently the rightful daughter of a duke, but she was changed at birth — not by a baby farmer, but by Rockalda, who took her place in the cradle (she was twenty years older than the infant Alice, but nobody noticed the difference). Or is the duke Alice's real father? Sir Ruthven is concerned that she may actually turn out to be his own long-lost granddaughter (everyone turns out to be someone else in any self-respecting sensation novel), which might present an obstacle to their marriage; but Gripper, the detective (arriving late as usual), has deduced that he himself may be the missing granddaughter. All of them reluctantly return to the novel for the final volume.

Just before the final chapter of the last volume, Alice and Herbert get together again outside the novel, lamenting that they are about to get married, and this time it looks as if nobody will prevent the wedding. But Herbert promises, to Alice's relief, to treat her so abominably that the marriage will end in divorce. Rockalda appears, but Sir Ruthven is missing. The others consult the author's manuscript, and learn from it that Sir Ruthven has just cut off his own head. They decide to revolt: they summon the author and protest their fellow character's death. The author is taken aback to learn that his virtuous heroine loves the dastardly baronet, and his benign hero loves the yellow-haired fiend"Rock- alda," but the three remind him that they are "conventional types; you can't get on without us," and in effect threaten to go on strike unless the author brings Sir Ruthven back to life. The author protests that he can't restore to life a character who has been decapitated [a situation, incidentally, that confronts a soap- opera writer in the recent movie Soapdish], but at last gives in. The detective arrives (late as usual), and refuses to turn out to be Sir Ruthven's granddaughter, so the author agrees that he will turn out to be Sherlock Holmes in disguise [at least in the version published in 1897]. The characters are at last content, Sir Ruthven appears (with his head reattached), and the novel ends happily for everyone — except maybe the author.

This article appeared in Issue 37 (April 1993) of Precious Nonsense, the newsletter of the Midwestern Gilbert & Sullivan Society. Posted by permission of Sarah Cole, Society Secretary/Archivist. For information on Society membership write to: The Midwestern Gilbert & Sullivan Society, c/o Miss Sarah Cole, 613 W. State St., North Aurora, IL 60542-1538.

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