|Gilbert > Plays > The Ne'er-do-Weel (The Vagabond)
Gilbert's play, The Ne'er-Do-Weel, revised as The Vagabond, opened on February 25, 1878 (exactly three months before H.M.S. Pinafore), and closed soon afterwards. Critics apparently considered Gilbert's attempts to combine melodrama and comedy unsuccessful. (In one scene, the villain, Quilt, bound hand and foot by the hero, announces "Before I'm a week older I'll batten on your very heart's blood!" – then makes his exit by hopping off stage, still bound.) Gilbert wrote the play on commission for an actor, E.A. Sothern, and then had trouble satisfying him. For instance, Sothern was concerned because Gilbert made the heroine a widow. Fearing that the audience would lose sympathy for the character if she weren't a virgin, he urged Gilbert to kill off her husband immediately after the wedding. (Apparently, the matter was never settled, since in the printed text her name changes during the course of the play from "Miss Callendar" to "Mrs. Callendar" and back again.)
The main characters are: Jeffery Rollestone, described as "a vagabond"; Mr. Seton; his son Gerard; Maud Callendar, Gerard Seton's wealthy cousin; Richard Quilt, Mr. Seton's ex-secretary; Captain O'Hara, "a retired merchant-sailor"; and O'Hara's niece Jessie.
Romantic entanglements are already in the air as the play begins. Richard Quilt, who has just been discharged as Mr. Seton's secretary (there was "something wrong" with his accounts), is in love with (or at least pursuing) Jessie O'Hara. But Jessie is in love with Mr. Seton's son, Gerard, to whom she has written several letters. Gerard, however, tells Jessie that although he is fond of her, he must marry a wealthy woman, and hints that he may propose to Maud Callendar, his cousin and "very dear old friend".
While Gerard is sketching a "picturesquely ruined watermill," a man "poorly dressed in old but well cut clothes" enters, and Gerard tries to hire him to pose in front of the mill as a model of, as he tactfully puts it, a "loafing, broken-down, shabby-genteel, ne'er-do-weel." It turns out that the stranger, Jeffery Rollestone, went to Harrow with Gerard. The latter, puzzled at how his old friend has come down in the world, diagnoses that there must have been a woman in the case. Rollestone admits that this is so. He fell in love with a girl whose family separated them, and as a result he plunged into a life of dissipation. Gerard offers his old friend the newly-vacated post of secretary to his father (although Rollestone suggests he would be more useful as a scarecrow). While Rollestone is acquiring a change of clothes, Gerard tries to propose to Maud Callendar, who indicated a preference for looking upon him "as a brother." Gerard complains "I believe you can't love," and Maud replies that she has indeed loved – once. Rollestone then returns, and he and Maud "recognize one another, and exhibit signs of suppressed emotion" as the curtain falls.
Act II takes place six weeks later. Rollestone is happy as secretary to Mr. Seton, a pleasant old man, but Seton is on the verge of financial ruin and will lose his ancestral home – unless his son marries the wealthy Maud Callendar. He tries to persuade his new secretary to put in a good word for Gerard with Maud. Rollestone, torn between his love for Maud and his gratitude to Seton, follows in the footsteps of John Alden (and Richard Dauntless). He tries to persuade Maud to Marry Gerard Seton, and is astounded to learn that she still loves him. By the end of the scene, they are engaged again. Mr. Seton is furious at what he considers Rollestone's treachery, and orders him to leave the house.
Left alone, Rollestone begins to soliloquize but, like Ko-Ko, he is interrupted. Quilt sneaks in by the window and tries to steal the letters that Jessie O'Hara wrote to Gerard (apparently he is planning to adopt a new profession: blackmail). Rollestone confiscates the letters (except for one, which Quilt has pocketed unobserved), ties Quilt up, questions him, and lets him go, intending to return the letters to Gerard. Quilt, however, is stopped, and Jessie's letter (addressed to "My dear, dear friend") is found on him. Captain O'Hara believes his niece must have written the letter to Gerard Seton, and Maud, who has returned, says that she will never speak to Gerard again if this is true. Rollestone then proclaims that he is the man to whom Jessie wrote the letter – to the horror of Maud, the fury of O'Hara, and the gratification of Mr. Seton.
As Act III begins, Captain O'Hara, who has just been appointed a magistrate (i.e. a Justice of the Peace), prepares to examine Quilt on the charge of burglary. As O'Hara is unfamiliar with the correct legal procedures, he asks his prisoner to help him out. Not surprisingly, Quilt gets off. Rollestone arrives (to be a witness, but he's too late), and O'Hara attacks him for "ensnaring the affections" of his niece, whom he vows never to see again. Rollestone insists that it wasn't her fault, and soon finds himself agreeing to marry Jessie (although he doesn't know her name).
Maud arrives and begs Rollestone to say something in defense of his conduct that will enable her to forgive him, but he refuses, and says that he may marry Jessie. Maud then informs him that Jessie has gone to London with Gerard Seton, and departs with expressions of pity. Gerard arrives and begins rebuking Rollestone for having proposed to Maud. Rollestone rebukes him for having run off with Jessie, and reveals that he claimed to be the recipient of Jessie's letter to save Gerard's chances of marrying Maud. It turns out, of course, that Gerard has married Jessie. But his not marrying money has not ruined his father after all, since Old Mr. Seton's cousin, Lord Dunueggan, has just died suddenly (and conveniently), thus restoring Seton to a secure financial position. Rollestone is reconciled with his old friend Gerard; Mr. Seton is reconciled with his son, despite the latter's eloping without his father's permission,; O'Hara is reconciled with his niece (though still a bit unclear as to just whom she has married); Maud reappears and announces "I know all" (how she knows all is never explained), and is reconciled with Rollestone. So the play ends happily for all concerned – except for Gilbert, when the reviews came out.
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