THOSE of us at the Savoy who had seen and hi the original cast of Trial by Jury were excited and pleased when the news came that it was to be played there.
I have to this day a vivid recollection of Arthur Sullivan's brother Fred as the original creator of the Learned Judge, and a most excellent performance he gave, full of that restrained humour which is imperative in dealing with Gilbert's work, a point which so many comedians fail to realize. Nellie Bromley was the Plaintiff, and a very lovely one too, and Walter Fisher the Defendant. He had a charming and sympathetic voice, and was one of the very few tenors it has been my good fortune to meet who could act as well as sing. This was the first piece in which Gilbert and Sullivan collaborated, and it possesses a perennial gaiety and freshness which is not eclipsed by any of its successors. I forget who was the original Counsel for the Plaintiff, but at the Savoy the part was handed to me, and I remember it as a very hard-working one, without, in my humble opinion, much opportunity. At a later production of the Cantata I was cast for the Judge, and was happy to find that I had pleased Gilbert with my rendering, though I honestly think the Judge rather resembles Hamlet, in that it is so good a part that no one could absolutely fail in it. However this may be, I fancy no one but myself has played it since, and I seem to have established a kind of prescriptive right to the part. I consider myself extra fortunate in this because Trial by Jury is played at nearly all the big benefits and testimonial performances, owing to the facility for introducing a crowd of well-known people who can "appear" in Court, thus not only assisting the cause without the dubious pleasure of rehearsing, but also bringing the pleasure of meeting many friends, colleagues, and acquaintances whom one otherwise would never see.
For instance, at the Ellen Terry Testimonial I had on the Bench beside me, among other stars, Mrs. Bernard Beere, Miss Lottie Venne, and Miss Genevieve Ward, while in the well of the Court was Lady Bancroft, so interested in the vagaries of the Judge that she stood up during the whole of the performance and fixed me with her lorgnettes. Among the Jury were Fred Terry, Cecil Raleigh, Anthony Hope, Arthur Collins, Martin Harvey, and many more, and they had an excellent Foreman in the person of Captain Robert Marshall; but as he had not appeared in opera for some time (so he told me), he was so occupied in watching the beat that it somewhat detracted from the humour of his performance. At any rate, this was his excuse for event ually missing his cue; but I have a notion that it was really caused by his strict attention to the "business of the part, which consists in solacing the Plaintiff with his attentions, a task which all his fellow-jury men seemed to envy him — and no wonder, for th Plaintiff was Ruth Vincent.
I remember upsetting the "crowd in court" at the Savoy very much one night (luckily, Gilbert was not present) in this way. On the left hand of the Bench the scene was painted to represent a bookcase filled with legal volumes, and at one part of the piece rose from my seat, went to the side, and appeared be looking for a book of reference. This, of course, was all in order, but when I proceeded to take a large book out of the painted canvas wonderment gave way in a moment to laughter; of course I had secreted it under my robe. I have been associated with many different Plaintiffs, all of them very pretty girls, but what concerned me more than their looks was how much they weighed. At the final picture when cupids with garlands of roses descend and red fire is lighted, it is customary for the Learned Judge as the central figure, to support the Plaintiff à la Harlequin and Columbine, she placing one dainty foot in his hands, which are held behind his back as he kneels, and then balancing herself with the knee pressing against his shoulders. It is not easy task with a fairylike Plaintiff, and with some of the more robust type it has proved a trial of strength and afforded an anxious moment. The bevy of bridesmaids also affords great scope for the inclusion of young and pretty actresses, and on these special occasions is invariably headed by Phyllis Broughton, to whom I have, in my official capacity, sent many little notes of admiration through the medium of my Usher.
The Usher is one of the funniest parts ever written, but as he is so seldom played seriously the spectator is hardly aware of this. On one occasion the comedian who was playing the part introduced some business of his own invention, if you please. Gilbert, who was not present, heard of it, and when writing to me, explaining why he had not been able to come, alluded to it, and said, "God bless him for it!" Marius and Courtice Pounds have been the best Defendants I have seen, and Eric Lewis and Hayden Coffin the two best Counsel, but even the personal popularity of the two latter failed to make the part stand out, in spite of the excellent song it contains.
Princess Ida was our next production, and to my mind the second act of this opera provided a veritable feast of music never excelled in any of the series. I did not appear in this act at all, and frequently used to stand in the wings to listen to it. I see that since writing this my opinion has been endorsed in print by George Grossmith and Workman.
I always considered my part of King Hildebrand in this opera the poorest which I had to play in all the series, and I was confirmed in my idea by the fact of Gilbert consenting to my wearing a beard for it — an adornment he usually objected to on the ground that he thought it, to a great extent, masked the expression of the face. Being such a very conscientious artist, I went the length of growing my own beard for the part. It was also a great saving of trouble and spirit-gum, but on receiving the proof of a photograph I had taken of myself I went off hurriedly to Shipwright's and had it removed. I have never seen it since.
This production was notable for an innovation being the first opera we had played in three acts but I fancy it was not altogether a successful one; it certainly was not reverted to in future. The fact that it did not achieve a very long run I attribute very largely to King Hildebrand not being sufficiently prominent, and I well remember telling Carte as much and his agreeing with me — a condition of affairs that I should somehow have taken advantage of, but which I failed to do.
I made my bow as an author during the run of this piece, Carte most kindly allowing me the use of the Savoy for a matinée of an original play of my own which I called Bartonmere Towers. Amongst others who played in it were Cyril Maude, Frank Lacy, Yorke Stephens, Philip Cunningham, and Lily Hanbury, Yorke Stephens giving a very excellent performance of the villain. Some of the criticisms were quite favourable, but one I remember best expressed a doubt as to whether I had written a comedy or a farce. I knew which it was — it was neither the one nor the other, but a comedy-drama.
Now was to come the most wonderful of all the series of these operas, the Mikado. There was not anything approaching our present knowledge of Japan and the Japanese existing at that time, and the mere presence of a small collection of people at Knightsbridge, under the name of "The Japanese Village," was creating quite a stir. Consequently the news that the next Savoy opera would be Japanese whetted public curiosity, and many were the efforts made to "tap" members of the company, and even choristers, for information. Of course, it was one of our unwritten laws that no particulars acquired at rehearsal were to be given to any one outside the theatre, and this was wonderfully well maintained; in fact, I believe the law was only broken once, and the offender was never discovered, or I feel sure he would have had "something with boiling oil in it."
Never during the whole of my experience have I assisted at such an enthusiastic first night as greeted this delightful work. From the moment the curtain rose on the Court swells in Japanese plate attitudes to its final fall it was one long succession of uproarious laughter at the libretto and overwhelming applause for the music. On making my first en trance I was rather disappointed to miss the usual "reception"; however, it came when I had spoken my first line, together with a roar of laughter, and I then realized that my make-up had rendered me for the moment unrecognizable. The trio and chorus, "Three Little Maids from School," sung by Leonora Braham, Jessie Bond, and Sybil Grey, was received with such enthusiasm and insistent encores as no musical number in my experience, or I believe any one's else, has ever equalled. It seemed as if we should never get on with the piece. Later on in the run its glories faded a little before the elaborated business of "The Flowers of Spring," which on the first night bloomed more soberly, although quite a feature.
One of the most enjoyable functions connected with the rehearsal of a new opera was the call for "music only" for the principal artists at Sullivan's flat in Victoria Street, where we would assemble and hear at first hand our songs, duets, and concerted numbers, and our interest was naturally intense and immense. I arrived at one of these calls (for Mikado) before my time on one occasion, being a very punctual man, punctuality not being looked upon as a virtue at the Savoy but as a matter of course, to find poor Sullivan looking an absolute wreck. He was a terrible sufferer from ill-health, and he told me he had passed a fearful night, and at four o'clock could not rest in bed, so had risen and walked about from room to room thinking over the composition of a song. "Just listen to this, B.," he said, and sat down to the piano and sang me one of the daintiest gems he has ever written, Yum-Yum's song, " The Moon and I." What man or woman listening to it could ever dream that it was written under such stress of pain as he described?
During rehearsals it was evident to me that Gilbert was not quite satisfied with my rendering of Pooh Bah, and it worried me considerably, because I could not quite make out what he wanted. I naturally tried my hardest to fall in with his wishes, and things seemed a little better, but when I said to him after some fortnight's work, "I hope that is more what you want," his reply came as rather a shock, "My dear Barrington, I have no doubt it will be an admirable performance, but it is no more my idea of Pooh Bah than chalk is like cheese." I then suggested that possibly a quiet visit paid to him at home, coupled with an hour or two's devotion to the exposition of his views might have the desired effect. This was duly carried out, and as Gilbert afterwards said, the upshot was a performance that exactly embodied his idea of the part. My recompense came at the end of the first performance, when he came to my dressing-room (this was a record also) and thanked me for "my invaluable aid to the success of the piece."
Richard Temple was our Mikado, and I do not think any one could wish for a better; but he used to get very angry at times with Grossmith, Jessie Bond, and myself for rolling about the stage in an excess of agony when he sentenced us to death. He declared it was not "art," and there is not much doubt that he was right, but the audience thoroughly enjoyed our antics, and the squeezing and slapping poor Jessie Bond received at our hands. She was continually threatening to complain about it to Gilbert and I cannot think why she never did. There was another practical joke of mine that she pretended caused her a deal of annoyance, thus: driving up one night in a hansom to the stage door just as she was going in, some spirit of mischief prompted me borrow four shillings of her for my fare, and this paid back in numerous instalments, all of whic were tendered on the stage during our scenes together (of course, quite unseen by the audience) and accepted angrily. Sometimes I would hand her a stamp, a penny, or two or three halfpence, with strict instructions that she should keep an account of what she received. She always declared that she never got her four shillings, but I believe my fun cost me at least six, and even then was cheap.
Temple had a narrow escape of losing his song "My Object all Sublime," as for some reason Gilbert decided at the dress rehearsal that it would not go and had better be cut. Cut it was, there and then much to Temple's chagrin; but when the choristers heard the news they went in a body to Gilbert and implored him to reinstate it. This was done, with what success we know.
This must have been an anxious first night fo Gilbert, as, in addition to being a little worried about me, he was in the same state of mind about Grossmith, who also had not been shaping quite as he wished at rehearsals; indeed, George's performance on the production was nothing like so good as it became very shortly afterwards. I fancy the costume hampered him somewhat.
The value of Rosina Brandram's glorious voice in these operas was almost incalculable; it takes a singer of more than ordinary ability to arrest the attention of an audience and make a success even with such a delightful little song as "Hearts do not Break," when it comes without a word of dialogue immediately upon the uproarious fun of such a number as "The Flowers of Spring," but she accomplished the task.
Durward Lely was a capital Nanki Poo; indeed, to my mind, by far the best we have had, the part being a very manly one for a tenor, as distinct from the usual romantic type of hero.
To follow such a phenomenal success as Mikado was bound to be a difficult matter, and must have cost Gilbert many anxious and thoughtful moments. However, it had to be followed by something, and 1887 saw the production of Ruddigore. There is no getting away from the fact that it was, for the Savoy, a very stormy first night, some of the malcontents in the gallery shouting, "Take it away — give us back the Mikado"; in spite of which, however, it achieved a run of some twelve months, a thing that many modern managers would consider quite good enough; but it so impressed me as a kind of failure that I once alluded to it as such in conversation with Gilbert, who remarked, "I could do with a few more such failures," which I quite understood when he proceeded to mention the amount of his share of the profits on it. Still, the fact remains that it was responsible for what had been hitherto an unheardof occurrence with us, a rehearsal the morning after the production, for cuts. Opinions would appear to be very conflicting about the opera, as more people have of late years expressed to me their surprise at its non-revival than of that of any other piece. Perhaps my point of view of the opera took on a jaundiced complexion, owing to the fact that during the rehearsals for it occurred what I may call my only serious disagreement with Gilbert, which happened thus:
Certain people had been in the habit of asking him to allow them to be present at a rehearsal, and as he could see no objection, certain people were present at odd times; but it got on the nerves of the artists engaged to a very great extent (artists are always touchy about things), and they resented — silently, be it said — being practically taught their business before strangers.
We held a consultation, and I proposed that a deputation should wait on Gilbert and ask him "not to do it again." This was voted a capital idea, but nobody would assist on the deputation, so Carte was invited to approach the great man on the subject. He sternly refused to interfere in any way, so matters were at a deadlock.
On one eventful morning, however, I suppose I must have had a liver attack or something (the only way I can account for going about the matter the wrong way), and I declined to rehearse "before a row of stalls filled with strangers." Then the breezes blew! Gilbert was, very naturally, very angry, and, also very naturally, did not omit to say so; but matters were eventually adjusted, and all was peace once more. I find on referring to the letters which passed between Gilbert and myself on the subject, that I personally knew all the people who were present. Professor Herkomer and Frank Burnand were two of them, the former having expressed a special desire to attend an "early" rehearsal so that he might observe Gilbert's method, the fact being that just then he was giving a performance of some play in his studio at Bushey, and hoped to pick up a useful hint or two. I was invited later to see the play, in which he made great experiments with a harvest moon, I believe, but I was unable to go.
Although Gilbert quite forgave me my little out-burst, he nevertheless for some days after "rubbed it in" by saying to any of the company who were watching from the stalls while awaiting their next cue, "You mustn't sit here, Barrington won't like it"; but after all our object was attained and we rehearsed in comfort, so I did not mind being a scapegoat in a small way, more especially as I knew that the rubbing in was done in a spirit of fun, for once a disagreement was settled, Gilbert was never man to bear malice.
In support of my argument of how trying such an experience might be to an artist, there was a member of the company with one line to speak, " It's like eight hours at the seaside," and, try as he would, he could not catch the inflection Gilbert wanted; he made it about sixteen, and I know it took quite eight to get it anywhere near right, and the whole company felt on thorns whenever this speech was approached at rehearsal.
There was a very pretty girl engaged for a minor part in one of these operas, and at her first rehearsal she spoke her lines with a most fascinating French accent, not knowing, evidently, that we were nothing if not English. Gilbert at once stopped her. " Excuse me, but is that your usual mode of speech?" "Yes," was the reply; "it is a paarrt of me, and I think it ees varree naice." "Possibly," said Gilbert "but, you see, we are an English company, so I am afraid ——" He was interrupted by the lady saying with a strong Cockney twang, "Well, I can drop it if I like."
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