Secrets of a Savoyard
CLIMBING THE LADDER.
The "Ruddigore" success - Congratulations from everyone - My First Meeting with Grossmith - Gilbert's Advice to a beginner - Irving's wonderful Acting and its Effect - Speaking to the Man in the Gallery - The Mystery of Jack Point - How The Tragic Ending Was Introduced - Gilbert's Approval - A Memorable Hanley Compliment - Laughter I ought not to have had - Bunthorne's Fall - Accidents, Happy and Otherwise - Ko-Ko's Mobile Toe - Not a Mechanical Trick - The Myth of the Poor Old Man of Seventy - Still Youthful in Spirit and Years.
THE Savoy Theatre had its usual large and fashionable audience on that Monday night when I was to play my first big principal part either in or out of London. What my sensations were it would be hard to describe. Nervous I certainly was, and in the front of the house my wife was sitting wondering, wondering whether the stage-fright fiasco in "All for Her" was going to be repeated in this critical performance of "Ruddigore." Both of us knew that here was my great opportunity. If I won the future was assured. If I lost --! I knew the dialogue, and I knew the songs, but during the previous week there had been all too little chance for me to study Grossmith's conception of the part from the wings.
Then my cue came and I went on. The silence of the audience was deathly. They gave me not the slightest welcome. The great Grossmith, the lion comique of his day, was not playing! Oakapple was being taken by an unknown stripling! No wonder they were disappointed and chilling. First I had a few lines to speak, and then I had a beautiful little duet with Miss Leonora Braham, who was playing Rose Maybud. And when that duet, "Poor Little Man" was over, and we had responded to the calls for an encore, all my tremors and hesitation had gone. I knew things were all right. With every number the audience grew more and more hearty. The applause when the curtain fell was to me unforgettable. It betokened a triumph.
Behind the scenes the principals and the choristers almost mobbed me with congratulations. Up in my dressing-room there were many further compliments. Sir (then Mr.) William Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan came to see me together. I heard afterwards that they had been very anxious about the performance. Gilbert, as he shook me by the hand, declared "To-night there is no need for the Lyttons to turn in their graves." Mr. Carte, though always a man of few words, gave me to understand that he realised that his confidence in me had not been misplaced. Cellier, who had occupied the conductor's seat, told me that "From to-night you will never look back." He and I remained fast friends for life.
The second act was no less successful. Since then I have come to know how wonderful receptions can be, but never did applause fall more gratefully than when as a young man under the first ordeal of a terrible test I was making that first appearance at the Savoy. Late as it is, I should like to thank any who were there and who read these lines for that sympathy and encouragement. It gave me confidence in myself and helped me along. For every young artist who comes for the first time before the footlights, may I bespeak always the same kindly feeling? It does mean so much. The Press, to whom my debt has always been great, also said many nice things about that performance. "Carte and Company, it must be admitted," said one leading paper, "are wonderful people for finding out hitherto unexploited talent."
Although George Grossmith was at first not expected to live, he made an amazingly rapid recovery, and in about three weeks he was able to resume his part in "Ruddigore." One of the first things he did was to send for me. "Gee-Gee," as the older generation remembers, was in his day a veritable prince of comedians, and in the theatre he was always paid the deference due to a prince. Outside his dressing-room a factotum was always on duty. None dare think of entering without permission. Thus, when I, a mere member of the chorus, was summoned there into the great man's presence, it was regarded by the company as an event, and everyone wanted to know what it was like! Grossmith told me he had heard of my success, gave me a signed copy of his photograph as a memento, and thus laid the foundation of a friendship that was destined to grow very intimate during the coming years.
Grossmith was a man of brilliant accomplishments, and as an artiste in facial expression and in wistful fancy, perhaps we have not seen his equal. Shortly after he left the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, he went on tour with a repertory of charming songs he had himself composed, and in that venture he made a good deal of money. For a reason theatre-goers will understand - the desire to avoid becoming a pale imitation of a man playing the same part as oneself - I was never a spectator "in front" when he was in the cast at the Savoy.
Connected with my "Ruddigore" success I was proud to become the recipient from Gilbert of a gold-mounted walking-stick that is still one of my most treasured possessions, and the letter accompanying this gift it may be well to reproduce :-
Let me explain here that, in consequence of the "brother and sister" deception, when I joined the D'Oyly Carte organisation just after my marriage, I adopted my wife's name and was known as H. A. Henri during the early part of my career. It was on Gilbert's own suggestion that I made the change.
It was true, as Gilbert said, that I had no adequate rehearsal when I was bidden to step at short notice into George Grossmith's shoes, but during the next few weeks it was my good fortune to be under the playwright's personal coaching. Subsequently I shall have to tell many reminiscences of Gilbert, who in after years gave me the privilege of being both his friend and confidant, but at this moment I want to refer to advice he gave me while "putting me through my paces" in "Ruddigore." In my anxiety I was rather hurrying the speech I was supposed to address to the picture gallery of my ancestors. He pulled me up.
"Let me tell you something, young man," he began. "That speech, ' Oh! my forefathers! ' is now a short speech, but originally it consisted of three pages of closely-written manuscript. I condensed and condensed. Every word I could I removed until it was of the length you find it to-day. Each word that is left serves some purpose - there is not one word too many. So when you know that it took me three months to perfect that one speech, I am sure you will not hurry it. Try to remember that throughout your career in these operas." Later on he also gave me this sound counsel :- "Always leave a little to the audience's imagination. Leave it to them to see and enjoy the point of a joke. I am sure you are intelligent," he went on to say, "but believe me, there are many in the audience who are more intelligent than you!"
Now, if an actor in these operas has to be careful of one thing above everything else, it is that of avoiding forcing a point. Gilbert's wit is so neat and so beautifully phrased that it would be utterly spoilt by buffoonery. The lines must be declaimed in deadly seriousness just as if the actor believes absolutely in the fanciful and extravagant thing he is saying. I can think of no better illustration of this than the scene in "Iolanthe" where Strephon rejects recourse to the Chancery Court and says his code of conduct is regulated only by "Nature's Acts of Parliament." The Lord Chancellor then talks about the absurdity of "an affidavit from a thunderstorm or a few words on oath from a heavy shower." What a typical Gilbertian fancy! Well, you know how the "comic" man would say that, how he would whip up his coat collar and shiver at the suggestion of rain, and how he would do his poor best to make it sound and look "funny." And the result would be that he would kill the wittiness of the lines by burlesque. The Lord Chancellor says the words as if he believes an affidavit from a thunderstorm was at least a possibility, and the suggestion that he does think it possible makes the very idea, in the audience's mind, more whimsical still. Imagine, again, in "Patience" how the entire point would be lost if Bunthorne acted as if he himself saw the absurdity of his poem "Oh! Hollow, Hollow, Hollow!" Grosvenor, in the same opera, is intensely serious when he laments sadly that his fatal beauty stands between him and happiness. If he were not, the delightful drollery of the piece would, of course, be destroyed.
Gilbert, by the way, gave me two other hints which should be useful to those just beginning their careers in the theatre, and they are hints which even older actors may study with profit. He held that it was most important that the artiste who was speaking and the artiste who was being addressed should always be well to the front of the stage. "If you are too far back," he said to me, "you not only lose grip over the audience, but you also lose the power of clear and effective speech." Then there is that old trouble - nearly every novice is conscious of it - as to what one should do with one's hands when on the stage. Somehow they do seem so much in the way, and one does feel one ought to do something with them, though what that something should be is always a problem. I mentioned this matter to Gilbert. "Cut them off at the wrists, Lytton," was his quick reply, "and forget you've got any hands!" Every young professional and young amateur should remember this. So long as one worries about one's hands or one's fingers, one is very liable to be nervous and to do something wrong, and so the only sound rule to follow is to forget them entirely.
For a good reason I am going to digress here to tell a story of Sir Henry Irving. It was my good fortune once to be in the wings at the Lyceum when he was playing Shylock in the "Merchant of Venice." The power of his acting upon me that day was extraordinary. Every word I listened to intently until at last, in the trial scene he had taken out his knife to cut the pound of flesh. I knew, of course, that he was never really going to cut that pound of flesh, but the sharpening of the knife, the dramatic gleam in the great tragedian's eyes, the tenseness of the whole situation, was all too vivid and all too like reality. I hated the sight of bloodshed, and in the shock of anticipation, I fainted.
When I came round I was in the green room, and a little later, amongst those who came to see me, was Irving himself. I was deadly white, and if the truth must be told, rather ashamed. But Irving was immensely pleased. He took it as a compliment to the force of his acting. Learning that I was a young actor, he declared that my emotionalism was a good omen, and said that my sensitive and highly-strung nature would help me in my work enormously. Then he went on to give me many hints that should be valuable to every aspirant for success on the stage. One hint I have never forgotten. "See to it," he said, "that you always imagine that in the theatre you have a pal who could not afford the stalls, and who is in the back of the pit or the gallery. Let him hear every line you have to say. It will make you finish your words distinctly and correctly."
If it is true, as friends have often told me, that one of the chief merits of my work is the clearness of my elocution in all parts of the house, it is due to the advice given to me in those early days by two of the greatest figures connected with the stage, Gilbert and Irving. Seeing that these operas are now being played by hundreds of amateur societies each year, I want, to pass on to those who perform in them this golden rule: Always pitch your voice to reach the man listening from the furthest part of the building. Since Gilbert's death I have often had the feeling that someone is still intently listening to me - someone a long way away!
But now I must proceed with my story. When George Grossmith returned to the cast, I was sent out as a principal in one of the provincial companies, and in this work continued for years. Sometimes we played one opera only on tour - the opera most recently produced in town - and sometimes a number of them in repertory. It was towards the end of 1888 that I first played what is, I need hardly say, the favourite of all my parts, Jack Point in the "Yeomen of the Guard," the opera which was Gilbert and Sullivan's immediate successor to "Ruddigore." And in connection with this part let us finally clear up a "mystery." It has been a frequent source of enquiry and even controversy in the newspapers.
When at the close of "Yeomen" Elsie is wedded to Fairfax, does Jack Point die of a broken heart, or does he merely swoon away? That question is often asked, and it is a matter on which, of course, the real pathos of the play depends. The facts are these. Gilbert had conceived and written a tragic ending, but Grossmith, who created the part, and for whom in a sense it was written, was essentially the accepted wit and laughter-maker of his day, and thus it had to be arranged that the opera should have a definitely humorous ending. He himself knew and told Gilbert that, however he finished it, the audience would laugh. The London public regarded him as, what in truth he was, a great jester. If he had tried to be serious they would have refused to take him seriously. Whatever Grossmith did the audience would laugh, and the manner in which he did fall down at the end was, indeed, irresistibly funny.
The first time I introduced this tragic version of the part was at Cheltenham. For some time I had considered how poignant would be the effect if the poor strolling player, robbed of the love of a lady, forsaken by his friends, should gently kiss the edge of her garment, make the sign of his blessing, and then fall over, not senseless, but - dead! I had told the stage manager about my new ending. From time to time he asked me when I was going to do it, and then when at last I did feel inspired to play this tragic denouement, what he did was to wire immediately to Mr. Carte: "Lytton impossible for Point. What shall I do?"
I ought to explain that any departure from tradition in the performance of these operas was strictly prohibited by the management. Thus, while I might demur to the implication that my work was impossible, the fact that he should report me to headquarters was only consistent with his duty. But the sequel was hardly what he expected. The very next day Mr. Carte, unknown to me at the time, came down to Cheltenham. He watched the performance and, after the show, the company were assembled on the stage in order that, in accordance with custom, he could express any criticisms or bestow his approval. What happened seemed to me to be characteristic of this great man's remarkable tact. He first told us that he had enjoyed the performance. "For rehearsals to-morrow," he went on," I shall want Mr. So-and-so, Mr. So-and-so, Miss So-and-so, Miss So-and-so," and several others. The inference was that there were details in their work that needed correcting. Then he turned to me, shook me most warmly by the hand, and just said very cordially, "Good night, Lytton." And then he left. No "Excellent"- that might have let down the stage manager's authority - but at the same time no condemnation. It was all non-committal, but it suggested to me, as it actually transpired was the case, that he was anything but displeased with my reading.
Gilbert and I, when we had become close friends, often had long talks about this opera, and particularly about my interpretation of the lovable Merryman. I told him what had led me to attempt this conception, and asked him whether he wished me to continue it, or whether it should be modified in any particular way. "No," was his reply; "keep on like that. It is just what I want. Jack Point should die and the end of the opera should be a tragedy."
For the sake of fairness I must mention that three weeks before I had introduced this version of the part, another popular artiste, who was out with one of the other provincial companies, played the rôle in just the same way. It was entirely a coincidence. Neither of us knew that the other had evolved in his mind precisely the same idea, even down to the minutest details.
One little detail in my make-up for this part may be worth recording. Whenever kings or noblemen in the old days were pleased with their jesters they threw them a ring. For that reason I invariably wear a ring when I appear as Jack Point. Simple ornament as it is, it was once owned by Edmund Kean and worn by him on the stage, and another treasured relic of the great tragedian that I possess is a snuff-box, also given to me by my old friend, Charles Brookfield.
One of the finest compliments ever paid to me as an artiste occurred at Hanley. We were playing "Yeomen." Many of our audience that night were a rough lot of fellows, some of whom even sat in their shirt sleeves, but there could be no question but that they were keenly following the play. Everywhere we had been on that tour there had been tremendous calls after the curtain. At Hanley when the curtain fell there was a dead silence! It was quite uncanny. What had happened? Were they so little moved by the closing scene of the piece that they were going out in indifference or in disgust? Gently we drew the edge of the curtain aside, and there, would you believe it, we saw those honest fellows silently creeping out without even a whisper. He was dead. Jack Point was dead!
I changed in silence myself. The effect of the incident had been so extraordinary. And when I went down to the stage door a crowd of these rough men were waiting. Somehow they knew me for Point. "Here he is!" they shouted. "Are you all right, mister, now?" Then, as I walked on, they turned to one another and I overheard one of them say: "He wasn't dead, after all." As they saw the end of the opera they verily believed something had gone wrong. Such a thing in the theatre may possibly be understandable, but that the illusion should have lingered after the curtain had dropped, and even after they had left the theatre and come really to earth in the street, seemed to me extraordinary.
The "Yeomen of the Guard" was staged again the following night, but this time the audience must have been told by their pals that they had actually seen me afterwards, and that it was "only a play." Jack didn't die - not really. It was only "pretended."
That Hanley audience rather overdrew the gravity of things. Some audiences, on the other hand, go to the opposite extreme and they have their biggest laugh when and where I least expect it. I remember once playing the Pirate King in the "Pirates of Penzance," and as a result of a slip (a physical one) I was the sorry figure in one of those incidents which I might catalogue as "laughs I ought not to have got." I had to come in, armed to the teeth, high up on the stage. By some mischance I slipped down the rocks, and encumbered with all those knives, pistols and cutlasses about me it was a pretty bad drop. The audience, of course, thought my undignified entrance a capital joke. I didn't - it hurt. But I turned the mishap to account, first picking up a dagger and putting it between my teeth, then groping round for the other weapons, and all the while cowing my pirate swashbucklers with a vicious look that suggested "Come on at your peril; I'm ready." That incident was not in the book.
Lovers of "Patience" will recall the little diversion where Lady Jane picks up Bunthorne in her arms and carries him off. Well, when Miss Bertha Lewis was playing with me in this scene quite recently, she did something quite unauthorised. She dropped me - it was a terrible crash - and the audience thought it a "scream." In the shelter of the wings I remonstrated with her, pointing out that this was a distinct departure from what Gilbert intended. All the sympathy I got was, "Well, I've dropped you only twice in eight years!" Scarcely an effectual embrocation for bruises!
When we were doing "Ruddigore" in Birmingham, some years ago, I broke my ankle in the dance with which the first curtain fell. Somehow I finished the performance, but when I went up to my dressing-room to change I fainted. When I came to I found that my foot had swollen enormously, that the top boot I was wearing had burst, and that they were doing their best to cut it away. The speediest medical aid to be found was that of a veterinary surgeon, and although the pain was awful it was nothing like the feeling of doom when I overheard him saying, "He may not walk again!" Luckily his fears were altogether unfounded, but although the accident has not affected my dancing, the ankle has never been quite right to this day.
Once, in the "Yeomen," I kicked one of the posts near the executioner's block. It dislocated my toe, but what a happy accident it was I did not realise until some weeks later, when we were playing "The Mikado," and when I was doing the dance in the "Flowers that Bloom in the Spring," I trod upon a tin-tack, and instinctively drew my toe away, as it were, from the pain. From the audience there came a tremendous roar of laughter. For a moment I could not understand it at all. Looking down, however, I was amazed to find that big toe upright, almost at right angles to the rest of the foot. With my fan I pressed it down - then raised it again. This provoked so much merriment among the audience that I did it a second time, and a third. All this time the theatre was convulsed. I confess that to myself it seemed jolly funny. Here, indeed, was a quaint discovery.
This "toe" business has ever since been one of Ko-Ko's greatest mirth-provokers in the "Flowers that Bloom in the Spring." The explanation of its origin shows that it is not a trick mechanical toe nor, as some people suppose, that it is done with a piece of string. The fact is simply that the toe is double-jointed.
Now that I have made a brief reference to dancing, I think it may be well to correct a legend which has grown up about my age, and which usually turns up when we have been encored a first or a second time for a dance or some boisterous number, especially in "Iolanthe" or "The Mikado." "Isn't it a shame?" I know some dear kind friends say, "making him do it again. Poor old man! He's well over seventy." Others declare, "Isn't he a marvel for sixty-five?" Well, if a man is as old as he feels, then my age must still be in the thirties, and certainly there is no intention on my part of retiring just yet. But if we have to go by the calendar, and if it is necessary that there should be "no possible shadow of doubt" in the future as to my age, I had better put on record the fact that I was born in London on January 3rd, 1867. The rest, a small matter of arithmetic, may be left to you. At all events I am still some distance from the patriarchal span.
The stage is a wonderful tonic in keeping one healthy and strong. Not once, but many times, I have gone to the theatre in the evening suffering from neuralgia, but the moment my cue has come the pain has entirely disappeared. No sooner, worse luck, have I finished for the night than it has returned!
Page created 18 July 2004