SCOTT, Clement. OUR PLAY-BOX. THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE; OR, THE SLAVE OF DUTY. The Theatre 1880 May 1 New [3rd.] series 1: 305-309

(with scans of the illustrations originally appearing on page 305, facing page 307 and 307)

An entirely original melodramatic Opera, in Two Acts, written by W. S. GILBERT. Composed by ARTHUR SULLIVAN.
Produced at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, New York, on Wednesday, December 31st, 1879.
Produced at the Opera Comique, London, on Saturday, April 3rd, 1880.


London. New York.
Major-General Stanley MR. GEORGE GROSSMITH. MR. J. H. RYLEY.
Samuel (his Lieutenant) MR.. G. TEMPLE. MR. FURNEAUX COOK.
Frederic (the Pirate 'Prentice) MR. F. POWER. MR. HUGH TALBOT.
Serjeant of Police MR. BARRINGTON. MR. F. CLIFTON.
General Stanley's Daughters
Ruth (a Pirate Maid-of-all-Work) MISS EMILY CROSS. MISS ALICE BARNETT.

ACT 1. A Rocky Seashore on the Coast of Cornwall.
ACT 2. A Ruined Chapel on General Stanley's Estate.
THE THEATRE 1880 May 1 page 305No wonder, indeed, that stage success is so seldom obtained, when, in order to win the prize, it is necessary to elbow your way through a crowd of obstinate obstructionists who are positively offended at the pronounced amusement of the people. Between the author's desk and the voice of the public comes a formidable barrier of discontent, composed of men half-cynical and semi-critical, weary and bored playgoers who never come to the theatre with a healthy appetite, but, with a faded and fastidious palate, proceed to discuss with slight interest, and to dismiss with ill-timed scorn, the kind of work that should, if for nothing else, be welcomed for its originality. It is only a very strong and powerful combination of opinions that can break through this quick-set hedge, and once more the authors of "The Pirates of Penzance" have been able to hold their own. Two dramatic writers in our time have acquired the art of amusing the public in an original manner, and have gradually become so firm in their saddles, conquering prejudice, and confident of their natural power, that they in time could afford to smile at the silliness that, once powerful to crush, can only now pull feebly at their successful skirts. They happened to be two friends members of the same clubs, belonging to the same set, thrown together as the very outset of their literary career, valued by such as watched their undaunted progress and soaring power, destined, as we all thought then, to become greater than the rest of their fellows, unless comparisons were utterly at fault and their names were T. W. Robertson and W. S. Gilbert. The fame of Robertson was not obtained without a struggle; he was sneered at and jeered at, held up as the king of teacups and saucers, and the founder of namby-pambyism. He was so simple that the quidnuncs insisted he was little; he gained recognition with such ease that his style was laughed at as milk-and-water. The success of Robertson for a long time seemed to irritate such as professed to study art. Here were the people in the theatre laughing and crying all the evening, charmed with a pure, fresh, and incomprehensible feeling, touched to the quick with light turns of humour and rays of fancy as sparkling as the spring-time sun that steals into the window and suddenly illuminates the room; but all that the malcontents could say was that it was elaborated nothingness, and that every play was the same. Here indeed was a fallacy. The author was the same, not the play. He treated various subjects with the same kind of handling. We could go into the dramatic gallery, and, hearing his dialogue and appreciating his love of manliness in men and purity in women, could say, "That is a Robertson," just as we say, That is a Walker, or an Orchardson, or a Fildes, or an Allingham, or a Marcus Stone; but it was a long time before those who craved for originality and English work permitted the worth of the happy and delightful painter of English life.
    Mr. Gilbert is undergoing the same kind of trial. Here he is making his audiences laugh without ceasing, tickling them with the concealed straws of his unexpected fun, pleasing their ears with ingenious lyrics and verbal conceits, fascinating them, only they do not know it, with his masterly workmanship, showing the value of finish even in his extraordinary eccentricity. And yet what are his countrymen ordered to do? Is it to encourage or disparage? Do they say, Thank Heaven, here is an original humorist at last; an author who has been accepted nem. con. in the land of quaintness of thought and expression America a relief from the burden of bad French books and nasty French innuendo; a writer who can write words that tune themselves to the musician's fancy; a composer of songs that sing of themselves, so happy is his skill in turning a verse and polishing a sentiment? or do they not rather say, Why, my dear Gilbert, you have given us all that before! This patter-song is that patter-song, this chorus answers to that chorus; we can trace your bumboat woman in your piratical maid-of-all-work, your First Lord of the Admiralty in your Major-General, your spick-and-span sailor in your duty-loving Frederic, your Dick Deadeye in your Pirate King? Ingenuity is exercised in recalling the incidents of one comic opera in order to fit it into the motive of another; but it is forgotten the author has a style and a manner, and that though he is the same, he is still uncommonly different in all that he undertakes. Look at the Bab Ballads; there they are, scores of them, all together, bound up in one volume, one after the other. They are all in the same vein, touched by the same governing spirit, and yet the reader of books does not weary of them. Why should the spectator of plays be tired of a succession of "Sorcerers" and "Pinafores" and "Pirates" when, with the same touch, Mr. Gilbert has always got a new tune? The people don't say so; they can listen to Mr. Gilbert without a book to guide them, and they applaud him, although the superfine gentlemen insist that laughter, applause, and encores ought really to be put down as "bad form" a detestably vulgar expression that marks the character of those who use it. Why on earth should not people applaud and cheer if they are so disposed? The art of the stage must die if it is to be draped in funereal silence at the dictation of old young men.
    The style of humour of which these Bab Ballad operas is composed has hitherto defied analysis and description. Everyone has had a try at it, but no one has hit the mark. Literary critics, with the Bab Ballads, and dramatic critics, with these inverted dramatic studies, have all made an attempt to define the Gilbertian fun; but I believe it to be beyond definition. It has been called topsy-turvy, deformed, exaggerated, caricature, grotesque; it has been compared to the effect of a man looking at his face in a spoon, in a magnifying-glass, or at the world through the wrong end of an opera-glass; but none of these things hit the mark. It is a kind of comic daring and recklessness that makes fun of things which most people would not dream of mentioning, and reveals to broad daylight the secrets of suggestiveness. In a dim, dreamy, and incoherent way we have all thought many of Mr. Gilbert's ideas; but he says them. They are true, or they would not be so familiar to us. Most people suppress some of their funniest thoughts for fear of offending somebody. Mr. Gilbert makes of his conscience, or inner guide, or daily companion, a friendly jester, who urges him to say the first thing that comes uppermost, careless of consequences. This humorist is so extremely frank and determined in his unbelief, that he can see no human action without believing it to be veneered with humbug. Now, how exquisiteis the satire here of duty. Ten out of every dozen men would hesitate to ridicule such a sentiment, believing that it is a good, a pure, and generous impulse. But Mr. Gilbert can only see the humbug in it, and searches for its ludicrous aspect. In a comical way he shows us all that is mean, and cruel, and crafty, and equivocal even in the world's heroes; and he makes us laugh at them because we are convinced such faults are lingering in the breast of the best of us. "That's all very well," says the serious mother to the sharp and observant child; "but there are some things that little children should not say!" The author of the Bab Ballads is no believer in this doctrine of reflection. He says exactly what comes uppermost, and gets the laugh. A man has a ridiculous face; he looks like a dog or a bird. Some of us don't say so; it might offend or give pain. Mr. Gilbert has it out and amuses by his very truthfulness. Most of the incidents of life have their comic side; there is humour mixed up with pathos in our everyday experiences. We pass over the fun as perhaps too trivial for special mention; but Mr. Gilbert stores it up, remembers it, and, when he alludes to precisely the same funny things that have occurred to us, we appreciate his daring and recognise the justice of his observation.
    Meanwhile, "The Pirates of Penzance" is a success beyond question; the malcontents have been beaten down, the humour of the text appeals to the whole audience, the quaintness of the conceits are as original as in any of the other operas, and the spirit of the thing, musical and literary, is beyond all praise. Musicians who have technical knowledge may not like this, that, or the other; but, given such a subject and such a character of work, I cannot see how it could have been better done than by Mr. Sullivan, who is such a magician that he makes me listen to his orchestra as well as to his voice-parts, and enables me to enjoy without fatigue a most delightful entertainment. On this point I can only speak as one of the public. We can enjoy music and criticise in our way without being technical. Some people will like one thing and one another, as, for instance, the singing of Miss Marian Hood in the madrigal, "Oh, leave me not to live alone and desolate," which, by consummate art and exquisite expression, is turned into a song-poem worthy of the highest-class opera; the admirable simplicity and irresistible quiet of Mr. George Grossmith, as the patter-song singing Major-General; the burlesque spirit of Mr. Temple, as the Pirate King; and, certainly best of all, the true comedy, twinkling fun, and delightful gravity of Mr. R. Barrington, as the Policeman, who in the smallest part of the opera makes the greatest hit. I wish that actors would remember how often this occurs, and how little an audience thinks of lines, or scenes, or being out of the first act. Supposing this had been a play, how many leading comedians would have played the policeman? Not one, and yet Mr. Barrington is remembered when all is over as having done the best bit of art in a very clever company. There are scores of things more, no coubt, to praise; but, in truth, the whole thing goes so well it is so sharp, concise, and well-organised there is so much good acting in the rank and file of the piece, in each individual member of the famous police force, and in the fluttering tribe of the Major-General's daughters, that for once the mind is deadened to individual excellence and astonished at the general effect. The whole thing ripples and rhymes as neatly as Mr. Gilbert's verses, and flows as charmingly as Mr. Arthur Sullivan's music. I can give it no higher praise. C. S.
THE THEATRE May 1 1880 facing page 307
illustration facing page 307 (click for larger image)
THE THEATRE May 1 1800 page 307
illustration on page 307 (click for larger image)



transcribed by Helga J. Perry, 21 November 2000