|W. S. Gilbert > Interviews > New York Herald
THEIR OWN OPINION OF "PINAFORE" –
PLAYS AND PLANS FOR THE FUTURE.
The Cunard steamer Bothnia, which arrived at Quarantine yesterday morning at three o’clock, brought among her passengers two of the brightest and cleverest Englishmen of our day; two Britons who have probably contributed more to the innocent amusement and pleasure of the American people than any others – Arthur Sullivan and William S. Gilbert – one the composer and the other the author of "Her Majesty’s Ship Pinafore." It was a bitter cold morning. The two famous representatives of English comic opera were still at breakfast, delightfully ensconced amid a bevy of charming American young ladies.
"I have come here from the HERALD to greet you upon your arrival on American soil," said the reporter.
Mr. Gilbert laughed and amiably introduced his comrade in arms, Mr. Sullivan. They led the writer to their stateroom below, which was in a state of bewildering confusion. The reporter, however, found a seat on a large cigar box containing, according to Mr. Sullivan’s statement, not less than five hundred cigars, while the composer crouched upon another box and Mr. Gilbert rested himself as well as he could against the sharp wooden edge of his berth.
"We had been warned by Edmund Yates and others that we should be interviewed," said Mr. Sullivan, after the conversation had been in progress in the most informal fashion for some little time; "and, to be frank with you, we had rather dreaded the ordeal; but if it is always as pleasant as this we’ll be happy to have it done every day."
GILBERT AND SULLIVAN SKETCHED.
The appearance and manner of the two famous Englishmen greatly belie the published accounts which have found their way across the ocean and which represented more especially Mr. Gilbert as a man of austere and haughty temperament. On the contrary, two more amiable, modest, simple, good humored and vivacious men could not easily be imagined. They fairly brim over with animation, high spirits and the jolliest kind of bonhomie, and it would appear to the most indifferent observer that they must shed gladness upon any company in which they happened to be. Mr. Gilbert, a fine, well-made, robust man apparently of 45, above the medium stature, with the brightest and rosiest of faces, an auburn mustache, and short "mutton-chop" whiskers, tipped, only slightly, with iron gray, large and clear blue eyes, and a forehead of high, massive, and intellectual cast. His voice has a hearty, deep ring, and his utterance is quick and jerky – as though he were almost tired of keeping up this business of saying funny things, which everybody more or less expects of him. Mr. Sullivan is quite different. In his appearance gentle feeling and tender emotion are as strongly expressed as cold, glittering, keen-edged intellect is in that of Mr. Gilbert. He is short, round and plump, with a very fleshy neck, and as dark as his collaboratteur is fair, with a face of wonderful mobility and sensitiveness, in which the slightest emotion plays with unmistakable meaning, with eyes which only the Germanic adjective of "soulful" would fitly describe and the full, sensuous lips of a man of impassioned nature. With all this Mr. Sullivan, who keeps a monocle dangling over one eye while the other twinkles merrily at you and whose dark whiskers and hair have an ambrosial curl, is also something of a polished man of fashion.
A FROTHY TRIFLE.
The conversation of course turned first upon "Pinafore" and Gilbert and Sullivan agreed in expressing their surprise at its enormous success in this country.
"It is rather hard," said Gilbert, with great good humor, "when one has done for years serious work – work, at least, aiming to be so – to find after all that a frothy trifle like this should have so far exceeded in its success the work which one has held in far more serious estimation. For we really had no idea that it would be such an extraordinary success, you know."
Mr. Sullivan cordially chimed in with this sentiment and alluded to his oratorios and other compositions of a more classical and ambitious style, which he was constrained to acknowledge had not met with anything like the popular success that "Pinafore" has enjoyed.
"Under what inspiration was it composed – champagne or Bass’ ale?"
Mr. Sullivan laughed and replied that during most of the time in which he wrote the score of the "Pinafore" he was seriously ill, and was often in great pain when he composed the merriest melodies in that tuneful little work.
"Did these striking airs occur to you spontaneously, or did you have to search for them, as it were?"
"Oh, it’s a great mistake to suppose that the music of an opera bubbles up like a spring," was the composer’s reply. "We have to dig for music like the miner for his gold. It won’t do for the miner to expect the gold to come up spontaneously. He has to dig deep for it, and so do we, also, have to dig for our musical treasures."
"And the words," the reporter queried, turning to the author. "How was it that they were so closely wedded to the musical idea?"
"Well, we have been working together harmoniously for the last seven years," was Mr. Gilbert’s reply, "and have learned to understand each other so thoroughly that even the faintest suggestion of the one meets with a ready and sympathetic response from the other. In all this period of active cooperation it has never even once occurred that we have disagreed as to the way in which an idea should be carried out, be it either poetically or musically."
"Did you expect these familiar quotations from ‘Pinafore’ to become the popular catchwords which they now are?"
"Never," was Mr. Gilbert’s serious and emphatic reply.
"Well, very seldom," the author laughingly answered, "as I once innocently said before to a gentleman who asked me the same question and who laughed uproariously he thought it was so funny. But, seriously speaking, I had no idea that these few jocular expressions would pass into the small currency of daily conversation. Had I sat down with the mechanical effort to coin a popular catchword, I probably should have failed completely."
"And how is it that ‘Pinafore’ has not been as great a success in England as it proved in this country?"
Mr. Sullivan took up the question and replied: – "Oh, it has been a very great success. In London it has been running 500 nights, and it was played at four theatres at the same time. In the provincial theatres it has been a continual attraction for the last year and a half or more."
"And," added Mr. Gilbert, "remember that it is the only operatic work by a native author and composer which ever kept the British boards over three weeks."
ORATORIO AND OPERETTA.
The conversation then turned on the plans of the British visitors.
"How long do you expect to stay?"
"Just as long as you (meaning the American public) will tolerate us," Mr. Gilbert dryly replied. "We expect to stay about three months in New York and then visit the other chief cities."
"You will open with ‘Pinafore,’ I presume.
"Yes, on the 1st of December, at the Fifth Avenue Theatre," Mr. Sullivan said. "We have heard that it has been done excellently here; but, of course, we should like to have it done according to our own ideas, exactly as we originally intended it to be done. Mr. Gilbert is a wonderful stage manager, and there are many fine telling points of stage business which he will introduce and which, I am sure, must be new to the American public. On the 23rd of this month I shall be in Boston conducting my oratorio, ‘The Prodigal Son.’"
"Are your plans for this country separate from those of Mr. Sullivan?" Mr. Gilbert was asked.
"Not in the least," was the author’s reply, "but I don’t intend to help him conduct his oratorios."
"What works will you produce besides ‘Pinafore?’"
"We intend to give ‘Trial by Jury’ and the ‘Sorcerer’ which, we are told, were never done here as they were originally intended to be done."
"And as to your new opera – the ‘Robbers,’ it is to be called, I believe?"
"The name is not yet fixed upon," Mr. Gilbert said, "we shall probably not decide upon it until we are ready to produce it. It was just the same with ‘Pinafore.’ We actually had the printed handbills ready before we finally decided upon the name."
"And as to the story of the six burglars making love to the six daughters of the proprietor of the house they break into – is that really the basis of the plot?"
"We originally mapped that out for a little one act piece like ‘Trial by Jury,’ and very likely shall use it in the present work. But I cannot tell you anything more about the plot, because, to tell the truth, the piece is not yet thoroughly elaborated. The second act is written and the first isn’t. But the treatment of the new opera will be similar to that of ‘Pinafore’ – namely, to treat a thoroughly farcical subject in a thoroughly serious manner. That has been my idea all along. If a man, I say, comes upon the stage dressed up grotesquely as a clown nobody is surprised if he performs antics and stands upon his head. It is expected of him; nobody will laugh at him. But if a man comes in looking like a dignified Wall street banker or a lofty British deacon and suddenly proceeds to stand upon his head everybody will laugh at the absurdity of the performance."
"It’s the story of a modern Zampa," Mr. Sullivan broke in; "of pirates and escapades of 200 years ago, which, if dressed up in our modern clothes, must seem very absurd."
"It’s a burlesque upon the serious melodrama," Mr. Gilbert explained, "and its absurdities and its farcical aspects are treated as seriously as the ridiculous improbabilities of grand opera are treated seriously in ‘Pinafore.’"
AN AMERICAN PIECE OF STAGE BUSINESS.
"One of the funniest things in that way," suggested the reporter, "is the scene in which Ralph, after being ordered to his dungeon cell, is led away a prisoner, but upon receiving an encore to his farewell song is brought back by the soldier to repeat it.
"Do they do that here?" Mr. Sullivan exclaimed with laughing surprise. "We never did that on the other side. That must look immensely funny."
"This is your first visit to this country, Mr. Sullivan?"
"Yes; for four years I have been coming every year, and been so often disappointed that I can hardly believe that I am here now."
"But you, Mr. Gilbert, have been here before?"
"Yes, some years ago; but I am partially a stranger in the country now. By the way, I have read the ridiculous stories about my coming to this country and leaving it in disgust because I was not admitted to Wallack’s Theatre, and all that sort of thing. The truth is I came here solely for the purpose of selling a play of mine, and was met at Quarantine, and the transaction was there completed, so that there was really no necessity of my landing in New York at all. But I landed and spent four or five days here, during which time Mr. Wallack entertained me most kindly and hospitably. What happened at the theatre was this: – I went to the door and, trying to explain my identity, said, ‘I am Mr. Gilbert,’ to which the doorkeeper, thinking that I wanted to palm myself off as Mr. John Gilbert, the veteran stage manager and actor, to obtain a free admission, caustically replied, ‘No, you aren’t.’"
Mr. Gilbert, in recalling this comical incident, could not help laughing.
A NEW PLAY FOR SOTHERN.
"Will you bring out here any of your new plays, Mr. Gilbert?"
"I have a new play for Sothern which I have not christened yet. I have also an idea of bringing out ‘Engaged.’ If done as I intend it to be done – with absolute seriousness – it would be quite funny. The American performances of ‘Engaged’ have proved quite profitable to me – they have netted me about L2,300 – but only because I renounced the publication of the play as a book in England, and therefore retained my ownership of the play here at common law which, I believe, recognized the right to one’s play – as long as it is not published."
Mr. Gilbert said that much of his and Mr. Sullivan’s time up to the 1st of December, when "Pinafore" would be brought out, would be taken up with rehearsals – probably about seven hours a day. In referring to the stage business of "Pinafore," which he had taught the London Company in great minutiae, he said: –
"I always try to impress upon every actor and actress the exact meaning of my lines, and while I will never attempt to force upon them any particular interpretation as against their own, yet I visit upon their heads the result if it should be disastrous."
"Have you had much trouble in that way?"
"Only with beginners," Mr. Gilbert replied. "The experienced actors and actresses are always perfectly willing to adopt my hints and suggestions on any point of stage business."
Mr. Sullivan was asked as to his recently reported severe illness and said he had been perfectly well since he returned from the Mediterranean. At the same time he told a funny story, which receives its main point from his habitually wearing shirts cut very low in the neck. He said a Western man, a fellow passenger on board the Bothnia, came up and asked him whether he had been well of late. He replied that he had been perfectly well.
"Well, then," said the Western man, "if you don’t want to get pleuro-pneumonia in New York, I’ll tell you what to do. The first thing you do in New York is to order yourself plenty of shirts and shirt collars. If you don’t (this he said very threateningly) you’ll die of pleuro-pneumonia, sure."
In this way the conversation went chattily on until the advent of the Custom House officers broke it up. Mr. Sullivan, after declaring his 500 cigars, and some new clothes brought for an American friend, appeared on deck wrapped in a huge fur-trimmed overcoat, in which he paced the deck, the cynosure of all eyes. Every one who looked at him or Gilbert seemed to give a good-natured smile – the very air in which they had their being appeared to be infectious with hilarity. Even the Custom House officers, usually so adamantine, were melted and turned quite civilly to the author and composer of the "Pinafore." The passengers told the reporter of some of the many witty things said by Gilbert during the trip.
GILBERT’S FUNNY SAYINGS.
At dinner, on one occasion, when the dessert, composed of pie and tart, was brought on, the author, imitating the rhythm of "Good-bye Sweetheart," dryly and sententiously said, "Good pie, sweet-tart, good pie!" which created immense laughter. Another evening the captain came down with the ribbon of the Legion of Honor in the label of his coat. A French passenger remarked that the captain was decoré.
"Yes," Mr. Gilbert said, quickly, "Quarter-deckore."
Messrs. Sullivan and Gilbert were cordially greeted upon the arrival of the steamer at the Cunard dock by a large number of friends, and received a formal invitation to be the guest of the Lotos Club on Saturday evening. They went to the residence of some intimate friends, with whom they intended to stay for the present. Mr. Sullivan will conduct the first performance of "Pinafore" in person, after which his friend and assistant, Mr. Cellier, also a passenger on the Bothnia, will take his place. Mlle. Roosevelt (Miss Blanche Tucker), who is spoken of as a very charming singer, and who also arrived yesterday on the Bothnia, will be the Josephine, and Mr. Broccolini (Mr. Clark) will be the Deadeye. The soloists will all be English, but the chorus and orchestra will be selected in this city.
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