AT THE PLAY. "IOLANTHE" AT THE SAVOY.
Vanity Fair 1882 December 2 28(735): 326-327 [unsigned review]
SO long as the public choose to sit like little fledglings
in a nest with wide-open beaks and insatiable appetites gasping for Mr.
Gilbert's crumbs and worms, so long will that astute dramatic bird supply
them with their usual refreshment. He invented and patented a form of grim
jest, and a system of inverting life; and with this he coupled a subtle
cynicism, an ingenious trick of dialogue-making, sometimes a delicate and
whimsical imagination, and Mr. Arthur Sullivan's music. The result we all
know. Opera after opera was born in London, and then set out on its travels
all over the world; and the two authors have scored the most remarkable
dramatic triumphs of this century. I confess I think the vein is almost
worked out. The patient fledglings in the nest still open their beaks,
but there is just a suspicion that the gape is a yawn. "Iolanthe" is not
nearly so good an opera as "Patience," and far and away inferior work to
"Pinafore" or "Trial by Jury."
In all these operas some institution or other or some peculiar class of people is destined to be made fun of. Now, having laughed at the Law, the Church, the Army, the Navy, and the Constabulary, Mr. Gilbert has bethought himself of two sets of subjects a band of pretty fairies, and the House of Peers. Personally I love fairies, and I have a strong liking for the British Constitution, so my objection to the satire may be somewhat prejudiced, but at all events the first act is ludicrous enough. The Peers meet in full robes and coronets beside a fairy-haunted, babbling brook where they collectively fall in love with Phyllis, a pretty China Shepherdess, who is a ward of the Court of Chancery, and who loves Strephon, a maison China Shepherd, who is half mortal and half fairy. He is fairy to the waist, but his legs are mortal (it is an ingenious conceit, but curiously enough no point is made of it). In vain the Peers place their hearts and coronets at Phyllis's feet, assuring her of their "blue blood" and pleading that "hearts just as pure and fair may beat in Belgrave-square as in the lowly air of Seven Dials." In vaib the Lord Chancellor is asked for advice. He, poor man, is in love with his own ward, and of course cannot marry her without his own consent (this involves a cunning bit of casuistry, of which a really excellent and diverting point is made). Phyllis sticks to her boy, and the fairies come to her rescue. The Fairy Queen quite the largest and grandest queen you ever saw takes vengeance on the audacious Peers by decreeing that Strephon shall enter Parliament and destroy the Upper House:
"Peers shall teem in Christendom,
And a Duke's exalted station
Be attainable by com
Small wonder that, on the first night, Lord Londesborough turned pale in the stage-box, and My Lords Dunraven and Donoughmore consulted hurriedly during the entr'acte. It is but just however to record that no vivâ voce protest was made. Lord Queensberry was not present.
Strephon's mother is the pretty fairy who gives her name to the opera. He is a portly person, but she has remained exactly seventeen for several centuries, and the suggestion of her maternity rouses the legal indignation of the Lord Chancellor, who "really "cannot see how so young a girl could be the mother of a man of "five-and-twenty"; [sic] but the learned Chancellor does not know the facts. First, that Iolanthe, having married a mortal, is by fairy law liable to die, and, as a matter of fact, has been working out a term of twenty-five years' imprisonment at the bottom of a brook "upon her head" among the frogs; and secondly, that the mortal she married was none other than his Lordship himself. Upon the solution of this queer knot the piece hangs.
So fas all this is cleverly eccentric foolery, the music is always cultured, notably in some fugal passages, and sometimes genuinely original and comic. The best bit of scoring in the first act is the "Taradiddle tol lol lay" refrain; it is quick and exciting, and the finale is full of go and enthusiasm. However (to finish with the music) it is certain that "Iolanthe" is full of echoes of the composer's pervious works. The pizzicato passage for violins, about which I see such gush in respectable journals, is simply a clever crib from the chattering chorus of girls in "The Pirates" who "talk about the weather." The song "Oh, Captain Shaw!" is but a cunning treatment of the valse phrase in "Patience," and over and over again a critical musical memory recognises family features in the numbers. Still there are high merits in the Sentry's song (capitally sung by Mr. Manners), and it was a rare wit that suggested the descriptive accompaniment for Mr. Grossmith's usual "patter" song. Every line of the song contains an outrageous bit of nonsense, and it is all musically coloured with a deft hand, the very bassoons seeming to enter into the fun of the thing.
I will not unravel the second act. I think it dull and disappointing. As a rule the Gilbert-Sullivan second acts have all the fun in them, but this to my mind bar the Sentry is a falling-off. Is Mr. Gilbert laughing at us when he perpetrates such a mediæval mediocrity as this?
"PHYLLIS (speaking to two Lords). It can't possibly concern
"me. You are both Earls, and you are both rich, and you are
"LD. MOUNT. So we are. At least I am.
"LD. TOLL. So am I.
"LD. MOUNT. No, no!
"LD. TOLL. I am indeed. Very plain.
"LD. MOUNT. Well, well perhaps you are."
And so on. It has been in every farce since the memory of man. The novelty in the act is the appearance of the principal fairies with electric stars glittering in their golden hair, the light being supplied by a battery placed somewhere about their third fairy vertebra. It is an odd trick, but it rather throws their fairy faces in the shadow. Special praise is due to two of these electric immortals, Miss Fortescue and Miss Julia Gwynne; their plaintive appeal in the duet, "Don't Go," is enough to melt the heart of the stoniest Peer. The acting generally is of the gravely comic type. Mr. Rutland Barrington looks like George IV, sang in tune on the first night, and sticks to his "Patience" trick of never standing upon both his legs simultaneously. Mr. Grossmith's Lord Chancellor is a performance of excellent and sustained humour. Mr. Lely's soprano-voiced Earl is very nice and lady-like, and the Sentry is solid and sound. Miss Braham sings and playe Phyllis with a sweet clear voice, and the manners of a properly-marked bit of Dresden china; and Miss Bond and Miss Barnett are respectively girlish and massive. I can't help thinking that jokes made at the expense of the latter lady's staure and figure are questionable in every way. What would happen if the part fell to one of normal altitude and dimensions? The scenery is clever and effective. The fairies' dresses are anything but pretty. Some of the colours are positively shocking, but perhaps this is due to the use of electric light and strong batteries. Both authors have done, and can do, far better work; but so long as the little birds accept this class of writing, it is useless to expect anything more artistic. The music is decidedly superior to the libretto.
transcribed by Helga J. Perry, 22 April 2003