Harper's New Monthly Magazine
1886 February
unsigned review
Louis Silverstein - originally submitted to the Gilbert & Sullivan Archive - revised by HJP

Mr. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan would be probably amused if a proposition should be made to erect statues to them as public benefactors. But the remark of Fletcher of Saltoun's "very wise man," that if a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation, suggests that the song-writer is as worthy of commendation as the legislator. If the wise man's wisdom be accepted, the man who promotes the "gayety of nations" is also a social force of importance, for government rests upon public opinion, and he who sways that opinion moulds the government.

The theatre in Athens was the Athenian newspaper, and Aristophanes was in a very positive and powerful sense a public man no less than Pericles. In New York and other modern cities the stage has not lost its vogue, and if the form of its influence has changed, the effect is deep and wide. If the man who makes the ballads of a nation appeals to base and mean passions, his guilt is like that of a legislator who makes unjust laws, if, indeed, it be not a greater guilt, as the malign influence of literature is more subtle and insidious than that of law. The theatre does not lose its hold, because people will be amused; and the power of the theatre is great, because amusements may be either "innocent merriment: or debauching and demoralizing excitement.

Therefore, when two men have the poser of attracting thousands and thousands of people daily for month to be entertained, and take care that the entertainment shall be such as to tempt parents and guardians, Mrs. General and Miss Pinkerton, to bring their young persons to enjoy it, they are men who have not abused a great public power which is often shamefully abused, and they are truly public benefactors. It would be a doubtful proposition, perhaps, that people should be commemorated in portraits and statutes and monuments for not doing wrong. Yet the men who are honored are those who, having certain gifts and opportunities, used them for a good and not for an evil purpose, and it is to this class that the authors of "Pinafore" and "Patience" and "The Mikado" belong. How easily they might have given the fun an ugly twist, and have filled the public mind with unclean images! A novel-writer who proposes to entertain the public may write as Scott and George Eliot and Thackeray wrote, or he may write as certain Frenchmen have written.

The charm of the Sullivan-Gilbert opera is pure rollicking fun. It is capital nonsense, like the "Bab Ballads;" the fun of high spirits, like Irving's "Stout Gentlemen" and "Pickwick." It promotes the laugh for which everybody is better, the gaiety which leaves no kind of sting, the merriment which softens and relieves the strain of daily life. Its satire, when it is satirical, is harmless and airy, and there is not a trace of bitterness or sourness or malice. It does not, like "Don Quixote, " laugh institutions away, but it laughs away care and trouble for a season. When "Pickwick" was publishing in parts it was said that grooms as they read laughed in the stable and judges upon the bench. All England was good-naturedly laughing. When "Pinafore" was first played in this country, a solemn professor wrote to a friend that if some nonsense called "Pinafore" was ever played in his city, he must not fail to see it. "I have been four times," said this professor, "and I am going ever so many times more."

"The Mikado" has been scarcely less popular than "Pinafore". Of course the novelty which in a good thing is a singular charm, like the manner of a new poet, can not be reproduced. That is the title which belongs to the first born, and while the others may have the family likeness, they can not be the first. The touch and style and characteristic qualities which distinguished "Pinafore" from other burlesques – if so rough a word may be fitted to fun so fine – re-appear in all the others. Perhaps they all gain something by the reflected light, the pleasant suggestion, the half0suspected echo. But, apart from that, each has its special excellence. From the moment the curtain goes up upon the glittering spectacle of "The Mikado" until it finally drops, the whole scene is drolly familiar.

It is the very world of the "willow pattern" china, and these are our old friends of the dinner service, the tureens and dishes and plates and vases, who are forever crossing impossible bridges, and sitting under ridiculous trees, and standing in unprecedented postures, and looking with queer slits for eyes set in chubby pink knobs for faces. It is the precise life that we should suppose natural to them. If they were released from the enchantment which holds them fixed fast upon the soup plates, they would certainly carry on in this fashion. Etlia praises the artificial comedy as a picture of life beyond the domain of conscience. This is life beyond the realm of common sense; and what a charming life it is! What a simple and jolly Lord High Executioner! And how certain it is that despite  "painful preparations" after a capital luncheon, the "something lingering with boiling oil in it" will never harm any elastic and vibratory figure of the pretty phantasmagoria.

Night after night, and twice on Saturdays, the marvelous Ko-Ko, the man of cork bounds and rebounds, and capers and plumps, and all the people of Titipu bend and bow and jump and twist and flit their fans in time to gay and taking melody; but the pleasure in beholding is not "an acquired taste" like that for Katisha, nor does it "take years to train a man" to enjoy the merry nonsense, as it does to love the venerable maiden.

So long as Gilbert and Sullivan give us such recreations we may well thank them, and with a clear conscience, for what Charles Lamb called "the true scenic delight, the escape from life, the oblivion of consequences, the holiday barring out of pendant Reflection, those Saturnalia of two or three brief hours well won from the world."

While the whole world goes and laughs at "The Mikado," and goes constantly and with unflagging delight, Mr. Wallack, the accomplished manager and admirable actor, says, "New Yorkers are amusement lovers, but not theatre-goers in the true sense of the term." He was speaking of his production of "The Rivals," with the unrivaled Sir Anthony Absolute of Mr. Gilbert, a production which was as good as could be made upon the English-speaking stage, and yet the houses were never crowded. The classic "old comedy" languished for proper attendance, while just beyond "such utter trash as "Adonis" filled the house every night with eager and applauding audiences. And why, said the manager, should the manager not resort to trash if it will draw the crowd which passes "The Rivals" unheeding? People cry that we degrade the art if we offer "trash," and when we produce a fine old comedy, they leave the house empty. No, sir, it is not the manager who degrades the theatre by "trash"; it is the public which crowds to hear "trash," and shouts over it, and bespeaks its place two weeks in advance. "No, sir; New York knows nothing and cares nothing for the theatre in its true sense."

Yet, within a stone's-throw of Mr. Wallack's theatre, the theatres in which "The Mikado" and "Adonis" and other forms of nonsense are offered are nightly thronged. With pardonable professional pride, Mr. Wallack holds that the tradition of the theatres determines what the theatre truly is. The theatre of Liston and Palmer upon the stage, and Hazlitt and Lamb in the pit; the theatre of Edmund Kean and Munden, of Shakespeare and Sheridan, and of the memoirs and anecdotes; the theatre which in this country Gulian Verplanck attended, and the feeling for which gave the name Old Drury to the Old Park – this is the theatre which the manager has in mind and a capital theatre it was.

There was nothing more enticing to the theatrical taste of fifty years ago than an announcement of a series of old comedies –classic old comedies – "Speed the Plough," and "She Stoops to Conquer," And the "School for Scandal," and "The Rivals"; if only there were some good names in the cast, these took the town, and the prospect of pleasure was something like that of a few years before in a new work by the author of "Waverley". To see coupled with the announcement the names of Finn and Placide, for instance, gave a pleasure which the name of very few comedians now imparts. Then there were the nights of high tragedy – the legitimate – the tragedy to which no exception could be taken by any person of truly classical taste. Shakespeare, of course, and Massinger, and :Venice preserved," and even the "Iron Chest," and such dramas as "Fazio" and "Virginius"; and if Fanny Kemble were the Juliet, or Ellen Tree, the Ion, that was the theatre in the true sense – the theatre of the fathers, the theatre of Garrick and Mrs. Siddons and John Kemble. This is the theatre which Manager Wallack had in mind, and the tone of his remarks recalls those of Gibbon in describing the theatre of Rome when Agaric occupied the city, the tragic and comic Muse of the Romans, he says, "had been almost silent since the fall of the republic, and their place was unworthily occupied by licentious farce, effeminate music and splendid pageantry."

But, as the manager truly says, it is the audience, not the stage, that makes the theatre. The manager is a merchant, like all other traders. He supplies what the public taste demands; and what determines that demand, who shall say? There are a dozen or more theatres open every evening in New York. If you read the bill of the play, it is evident that public opinion in New York does not demand the legitimate drama. An actor of power, like Salvini, will, indeed, attract an audience to see "Othello: or "Coriolanus". But it is the actor, not the drama, which draws them. Forrest as the Gladiator equally charmed the multitude. Can we say more than that the taste of an older day demanded the traditional tragedy or comedy, and that taste made the older theatre? But the taste of today demands fun, burlesque, "character dramas," and pretty spectacle, and that taste makes the theatre of today.

It is, however, on the other side, true of the stage as of the newspaper, that if it must conform to the prevailing taste, it can yet somewhat modify and direct the taste. As we have just said of :The Mikado," it might have been a doubtful "opera bouffe". The moral seems to be that the current cannot be stemmed, but it can be guided. If the public will not be amused by the old comedy, and demands more rollicking fun, the demand may be satisfied with healthful gaiety and "innocent merriment." There are some old theatre-goers of an earlier generation still lingering among us who will secretly confess that even in the palmy days of the legitimate drama their chief delights was in the after piece. Many an "habitue" of the Old Park yawned respectfully over the "correct thing; in five acts, who enjoyed the utmost "Raising the Wind," or, in later days, "Box and Cox".

It was always doubtful whether chess was a recreation, and it was equally questionable whether seeing Sir Giles Overreach and Sir Edward Mortimer could be properly described as an amusement. Sir Lucius and Sir Anthony, indeed, were most entertaining – but, Mr. Manager, the fashion of fun changeth.