IN "Iolanthe," produced almost
simultaneously at the Savoy Theatre, London, and the Standard Theatre,
New York, on Nov. 25, Mr. Gilbert has once more given rein to his love
of paradox. He has successively satirised the jury system in "Trial by
Jury," the Church in "The Sorcerer," the Navy in "Pinafore," The Army in
"The Pirates," and the æsthetes in "Patience," inflicting moral stabs
under the guise of fun, and inculcating heretical views by means of propositions
which, though absurd, seem, nevertheless, comparatively true. A player
who is condemned to harp on one string, a humorist who is fated to occupy
a special field of fun, can scarcely avoid the necessity of repeating himself.
In selecting for banter the anomalies of the Bar and the decadence of the
House of Lords, he has almost of necessity been driven to self-plagiarism.
The Lord Chancellor bears a strong family likeness to the learned judge
in "Trial by Jury," while Strephon and Phyllis are but defendant and plaintiff
in another dress. Even the song in which the keeper of Her Majesty's conscience
narrates his moral resolutions when he was called to the Bar is in its
central idea not unfamiliar. But Mr. Gilbert loves to let fly the barbed
shafts of his satire at prevalent abuses, and in this case he has hit the
mark. The good barrister had resolved "Ere I go into court I will read
my brief through, and I'll never take work I'm unable to do. My learned
profession I'll never disgrace, by taking a fee with a grin on my face,
when I haven't been there to attend to the case," and the applause of the
audience showed that the thrust had struck home. The wit may be cheap,
but it appeals directly to the understanding of the multitude.
But Mr. Gilbert is at his best when the satire is more closely veiled by that whimsical conceit of which he is a master. Of this style of work the song addressed by the philosophical sentry in New Palace Yard to the stars of the night is one of the happiest examples. Regarding the gaslit windows of Parliament, the man of war moralises. He often thinks it comical "How Nature did contrive, that every boy and every gal that's born into the world alive, is either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative." The cool assumption that mankind even in tender years is immersed in politics is admirable. So, too, the entrance of the peers clad in the authentic robes of the Garter, Bath, &c., and headed by the band of the Guards, who play a pompous march, is in the broadest spirit of fun. "Bow ye lower, middle classes, bow ye tradesmen, bow ye masses!" sing the "Peers of highest station. Pillars of the British nation." The pleas of three earls urging their suit for the hand of the Watteau maiden, "Hearts as pure and fair, may beat in Belgrave-square, as in the lowly air, of Seven Dials," is as exquisite in its way as the appeal of the love-sick maidens: "Oh Captain Shaw, type of true love kept under, can thy brigade with cold cascade, quench my true love, I wonder?"
Mr. Gilbert fights against a serious difficulty in the necessary slenderness of his plot. The audience care little about the story of the fairies, although it is set to some of Mr. Arthur Sullivan's prettiest and daintiest music. They feel no interest in the feelings of the Lord Chancellor, who wishes to marry his own ward, but who eventually recognises his long lost wife, and discovers that the fairy male whom Phyllis loves is his own son. The Lords of Parliament are to the audience so many puppets brought on the stage solely to deliver Mr. Gilbert's quaint humour. The interview between the Earls Tolloller and Ararat, the idea of which is taken bodily from the scene between Archibald and Patience, falls flat. Even the wild can-can danced by the Lord Chancellor and the two Leaders of the Government in Palace Yard by moonlight impelled a general request from the gallery on Saturday night to "go on with the piece."
Although Mr. Arthur Sullivan's music is more ambitious than anything he has yet attempted in comic opera, it, too, is not free from suspicion of repetition and the commonplace, and in parts it lacks finish. If it had all been scored with the dainty hand used in the song in which the Lord Chancellor describes his nightmare, the music of "Iolanthe" might have been judged by a higher standard. As it is, by far the most important and the best number of the work is the finale to the first act, which comprises a ballad by Strephon, after the old English operatic pattern, a chorus for the fairies somwhat after the style of an old-time glee, besides several concerted pieces, worked up to a fitting climax in which the composer seems to imitate and perhaps burlesque the finale to a grand opera. But the chief merit of the music is its exact suitability to the words, and the happy manner in which Mr. Sullivan has worked hand in hand with Mr. Gilbert. No attempt is made to exalt the musician at the expense of the librettist, the humour of the text is even further marked by the manner in which the composer enables it to be delivered, and its very character is maintained without obtrusiveness. To give a few special instances, the song of the sentry, the chorus of the fairies, the pompous march of the peers, the heroic song of the successful Strephon, the duet between Lelia [sic] and Celia, and chorus in which the fairies alternately scold the lords and entreat them not to go (deliciously accompanied by strings pizzicati), and the ballad in which Lord Mount Ararat confesses that in Bonaparte's days the lords "throughout the war did nothing in particular;" yet "Britons set the world ablaze in good King George's glorious days," are all notable for the exact sympathy between words and music. In the last-named song there is even a dash of "Britannia Rules the Waves," a feature which must have been by design rather than by coincidence. To this it should be added that Mr. Sullivan's melodies, though often not unfamiliar, are uniformly graceful, that what the music lacks in sparkle, in airs which may be readily carried away, and in devices which attract the multitude, it gains in elegance and charm; and that, though the orchestration is somewhat unequal, yet, bearing in mind the character of the work and the resources of a theatrical band, it bears some of Mr. Sullivan's happiest touches, and indisputably shows the hand of a master.
A general level of excellence is attained in the performance. Miss Leonora Braham, a pretty Phyllis, looked as though she had stepped off a shelf of Sèvres china. Miss Alice Barnett, a fairy queen of Brobdingnagian proportions, who "nestles in a nutshell and gambols on gossamer," invested her part wit hall the broad humour necessary without overdoing it. Mr. R. Temple, an all-round able vocalist and actor, as Strephon, Miss Jessie Bond, a somewhat feeble Iolanthe, Mr. George Grossmith, whoseoddities as the Chancellor excuse his apparent loss of voice, Messrs. Barrington and Lely as the peers, and Mr. Manners as the sentry, all do their utmost to conduce to the excellence of the ensemble. The last-named feature is the special gift of Mr. Gilbert. No man can more ably stage-manage his own pieces, none possess in a higher degree the secret of making much out of little, thanks to an attention to detail which well-nigh approaches finicalness. How admirably the opera is dressed and mounted need not be said. Mr. Arthur Sullivan himself conducted the orchestra, while Mr. Gilbert directed matters on the stage. Although the first night audience were sufficiently independent to mark their sense of the scenes which dragged, the cheering at the fall of the curtain, when author and composer, and subsequently Mr. Doyly [sic] Carte, were called to bow to congratulations, were hearty and general.
Before and behind the curtain. The London Figaro 1882 December 2 1399: 16-17 [Theatrical news items by "Almaviva"]
THE incandescent lamps worn in the hair of four of the Peris at the Savoy on the opening night did not produce the happiest effect. The light dazzled the eyes and gave rise to an uncomfortable suspicion of possible danger. For, although the wires are doubtless completely insulated, yet a fracture or a rub would imply instant death to the unhappy lady who wears the lamp. It is doubtful, after all, whether the game is worth the (incandescent) candle.
AFTER mature consideration it was resolved to print the book of words and circulate it on the opening night. This was the plan adopted when "Patience" was produced, though on a previous occasion the book was only lent privately to a chosen few. A refusal to sell the book in the theatre would imply a loss to Messrs. Chappell, the publishers, of £40 to £50 a night. Of course, the publication invalidates the American copyright so far as Mr. Gilbert's libretto is concerned, but as Mr. Carte retains his hold upon the music, this does not particularly signify. The American performance began about an hour after that at the Savoy had concluded.
ALTHOUGH there must have been many heart-burnings felt by those who could not obtain seats for "Iolanthe," Mr. Carte did all he could. No attempt was made to pack the house in accordance with the ideas promulgated by Mr. Dion Boucicault, and on Saturday the four-shilling seats were thrown open to be secured by the public. Everybody who had a real or prescriptive right to a seat had one either in the dress circle or stalls; and, despite the demand, no one who could advance a claim was refused.
TWO troupes will take "Iolanthe" to the provinces
after Christmas. The curiosity felt all over the country about this opera
was enormous. It is estimated that forty to fifty columns were sent from
London (chiefly by telegraph) to the leading provincial papers. A few of
these notices contained copious extracts from the opera. Considering that
the provincial criticisms exceeded those in the London daily papers in
the proportion of about two to one, the growing importance of the provincial
vote in matters theatrical seems fully recognised by managers.
transcribed by Helga J. Perry, 16 May 2002