|Review transcribed by Helga J.
Perry, 18 July 2001
Updated 16 November 2001
I apprehend that the entire secret of the success of Mr W. S. Gilbert, author of "Iolanthe; or, the Peer and the Peri," the new piece at the Savoy, lies in his undoubted talent for phrase making. First, he gets hold of an incongruous idea, and then he puts it into a startling and surprising verbal shape, a portable – that is to say easily carried about, easily remembered – form. His Bab Ballads, of which his theatrical satires are dramatic enlargements, abound in quotable lines, deliberately made to be quoted.
I was present at the fourth representation of "Iolanthe" on Wednesday night, and, though it was impossible not to be struck with the startling incongruity of many of the phrases, the performance as a whole left me profoundly depressed – melancholy! miserable! The dirge-like music – sacred harmonies gone wrong – the slowness of the time. Mr. Sullivan's manifest efforts to keep up the old mock-heroic promise of "Trial by Jury," dragged and grated even upon my unmusical ear.
Where is this topsy-turveydom, this musical and dramatic turning of ideas wrong side out, to end? Sitting at the play, constantly consulting my watch, longing, hoping, that the piece might come to an end, and that I, for one, might be released from imprisonment in the narrow stalls, I amused myself with considering and endeavouring to analyse Mr Gilbert's method.
It seems to me that he starts primarily with the object of bringing Truth and Love and Friendship into contempt; just as we are taught the devil does. That is the difference between Mr Gilbert and Juvenal and Swift, the two most trenchant satirists of ancient and modern times. Juvenal and Swift lashed the vices of mankind; Mr Gilbert tries to prove that there is no such thing as virtue, but that we are all lying, selfish, vain, and unworthy. In the Gilbertian world there are no martyrs, no patriots, and no lovers.
If it be true that mothers more often than not value their children's welfare before their own; that fathers toil patiently to place their sons beyond the reach of poverty; and that some wives are angels in the house – with their tenderness, their kindness, and their grace, making life worth living – then I cannot help thinking that the Gilbertian muse, which tries to prove the contrary of all that, is nothing short of a public nuisance.
Let us see what Mr Gilbert attempts to make out in "Iolanthe." First he imagines a Lord Chancellor – a weak-minded, frivolous old man, apparently not gifted with a single quality worthy of public or private respect; and, in order to enforce the lesson of contempt for the highest legal dignitary in the land, he chooses a diminutive actor whose strong point is not personal beauty to play the part, taking care to dress him in robes made, as I understand, at the official court robe makers. The idea is not even new, for the Lord Chancellor of "Iolanthe," in love with his ward, is only a feeble repetition of the judge in "Trial by Jury."
He next tries to prove that the members of the House of Lords are a collection of amorous and senile do-nothings, scarcely removed from idiotcy, and that the members of the House of Commons are dull and stupid, the mere creatures of party. His two principal peers he makes – or they make themselves – to look like footmen.
In order, as it seems to me, to bring the army, and chivalry along with it, into contempt he introduces a comic grenadier, and puts into his mouth sentiments in scorn of helping women in danger of their lives. He causes the peers to show that friendship is a farce and a false pretence, and that one friend desires the death of another to pave the way to his own advancement.
He takes a very tall and fat lady, as I think utterly destitute of grace, and dressing her up in imitation of Marion at the Alhambra, makes her pretend to be Queen of the Fairies; and he takes another fat lady, no longer in her first youth, and dressing her up as a caricature of an Arcadian shepherdess, makes her a heartless, ogling, selfish coquette, and turns the laugh of the audience against her by making her say she is only nineteen. And to crown all, Iolanthe, the fairy, a "chit" of a girl, is made the mother of a young man of five-and-twenty.
Thus we find, within the compass of a two-act piece, derision of the judicial system, of the Peers and Commons, and of Love, Truth, and Friendship. Not content with libelling the world of fact and the world of fancy, Mr Gilbert continues to insult the performers by making them expose their weaknesses to contempt.Miss Alice Barnett, Miss Leonora Braham, and Miss Jessie Bond have to say and sing things about themselves which, assuming them to possess the sensitiveness of ordinary mortals, must be extremely wounding to their self-esteem.
I am far from denying Mr Gilbert's talent, especially his genius for vilification. At the same time I make bold to question his originality. He owes a great deal to Madame de Genlis and to Sebastian Brandt, the sixteenth century author of the "Ship of Fools," and we shall probably find the hint for his idea of a creature, the Strephon of "Iolanthe" – piping shepherd down to the waist and the rest fairy – among the monkish burlesques preserved in the Cotton MSS in the British Museum. In reply to these objections I may be told that nowadays originality is a matter of secondary importance. I admit that is a fair rejoinder. Furthermore, I may be told that a satirist is licenses to be cruel. I admit it; but he has no right to be dull. If I disburse ten shillings and sixpence for a stall at the Savoy to witness a professedly funny exhibition, and I come away sad and low-spirited, it would pay me better to stand at the corner of a street, and watch the coarse humours, of the same class, of a "Punch and Judy" show.
As a moral lesson, I prefer "Punch and Judy" to "Iolanthe." Punch beats his wife and the rest of the dolls, he hangs the beadle, and sometimes the devil, and maltreats dog Toby. But the wooden actors of the street corners have this advantage over the personages of the Gilbertian system – they do not invite us to despair of humanity, or cause us to pause in our laughter to resent the distorted picture of a society which, with all its follies and foibles, yet cherishes some generous and gracious sentiments, which is not dead to reverence of all that is noble, beautiful, and true, which does not despise human love and human sympathy, which divides us from the demons of the Gothic imagination, and raises us, in godlike attributes, above the beasts that perish.
I have much pleasure in bidding adieu to Mr Gilbert's
unwholesome fooling, and in calling the attention of my readers to an interesting
exhibition of pictures of Venice now on view at the rooms of the Fine Art
Society, New Bond-street. [...]
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