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First Night Review from The Times
Wednesday, February 8, 1871

A very clever satire on the popular fiction of the day, conveyed in dramatic form, has been written by Mr. W. S. Gilbert, and now constitutes the chief part of the entertainment given by Mr. and Mrs. German Reed. It is entitled A Sensation Novel, and is nominally divided, not into acts, but into volumes, the drop-curtain being painted in imitation of the binding of a book, with a medallion representing a “thrilling” incident.

The supposed author of the novel is shown in a room in Bankside, which, having been rendered infamous by several horrible crimes, he has hired as a likely source of inspiration. Having finished his first volume he has come to a standstill, and invokes the “Spirit of Romance,” who appears as a sort of gray Zamiel. The connexion between this spirit and the novelist shows much originality and thought on the part of Mr. Gilbert. Certain deceased gentlemen and ladies, having been guilty of delinquencies, ridiculously trivial, during their lifetime, are compelled, by way of expiation, to become the stock personages in sensational novels, and are accordingly placed at the disposal of the novelist by the assistant demon. They have already figured in several works, and are allowed to meet together in their own proper characters at the end of the first and second volumes, and immediately before the termination of the third. In the novel yet unfinished they appear as the Lady Rochelda (Mrs. German Reed), a “weird beauty with yellow hair and panther-like movement;” Sir Ruthven Glenolven (Mr. German Reed), a wicked baronet, equipped as a Life Guardsman; Hubert de Browne (Mr. Arthur Cecil), an immaculate young tutor; Alice Gray (Miss Fanny Holland), a virtuous and persecuted governess; and Gripper (Mr. Corney Grain), a detective, whose mission it is always to arrive too late.

The novel is not acted before the eyes of the audience, but the doomed persons, when they assemble at the end of each successive volume, explain what they have been compelled to do and suffer, and, expressing their own proper sentiments, reveal no little disgust at the situations into which they have been forced by the author. Sir Ruthven is heartily tired of the crimes foreign to his disposition which he is made to commit, and has already committed in many previous novels; while the amiable Hubert thinks that he too severely atones for his pristine sins as a frequenter of music-halls and singer of comic songs by being always compelled to symbolize immaculate virtue in its “spooniest” shape. Still more serious is the fact that Hubert really detests Alice, whom the author forces him to adore, and loves the wicked Rochelda, who, out of the novel, is a very jovial, good-humoured lady; while Alice reciprocates his hatred, and is violently enamoured of Sir Ruthven, whom, in the novel, she is bound to abominate.

The progress of the novel we need not describe. Mr. Gilbert works out his notion with consummate ingenuity. All sorts of absurd and improbable incidents are introduced, everybody turns out to be somebody else, and the whole is enlivened by capital singing and acting, exceedingly appropriate music having been composed by Mr. German Reed. At the end, however, the personages, who, as we have said, are allowed to meet just before the termination of the third volume, are so highly incensed by the ultimate fate assigned to them by the author that they break out into open rebellion against him. The poor man is forced to comply with their wishes, and, abandoning his original intentions, he restores to life wicked Sir Ruthven, who has committed suicide, and marries him to good Alice, while he unites wicked Rochelda with good Herbert, at the same time insisting that the good shall reform the bad, in order to bring the novel to a tolerably moral conclusion. This eccentric satire is illustrated by Mr. O’Connor by very pretty decorations, comprising a view of Windsor and Eton seen from the top of the Round Tower, and another of a hut in Barbary.

As a supplement to the Sensation Novel there is an elaborate medley, sung after the fashion of those devised by Mr. John Parry, showing the misfortunes which befell some Cockney visitors to Baden-Baden. It is composed and executed by Mr. Corney Grain, who shows admirable talent in the use of voice and piano for purposes of description.

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