|You are here: > > Chapter VI
PLAYED in comparatively few amateur theatrical performances – half a dozen, at the outside. I played John Chodd, jun., in Society, at the old Gallery of Illustration, in 1868; and, singularly enough, one of my critics was Mr. W. S. Gilbert, who, under the heading of “The Theatrical Lounger,” in The Illustrated Times, said: “Mr. Grossmith has comic powers of no mean order; and his idea of John Chodd, carefully modelled on Mr. Clarke, had, nevertheless, an amusing originality of its own.” The after-piece was a burlesque on No Thoroughfare, written by my father, in which I danced and sang more than I acted. This performance was repeated once.
I then essayed the part of Paul Pry, in Poole’s comedy of that name, at the Gallery of Illustration, in 1870, and played in the after-piece, a burlesque of which I was part author. These performances went off very well, and we were very much complimented (as all amateurs are), and declared our attempts to have eclipsed our neighbours (as all amateurs do). But such a thought as going on the stage never entered my head for a moment; I refused several offers, including a good one from Mr. E. P. Hingston to appear in the comic opera La Branche Cassée, at the Opéra Comique, the very theatre at which I was destined to make my débût.
After entertaining all over the country for seven years, I made a rather important discovery; viz., that my income was as rapidly decreasing each year as my family and household expenses were increasing. I disliked being away so long from London; for there is nothing so valuable to any public singer or actor as the constant appearance of his name in the entertainments or theatrical columns of the metropolitan daily papers.
I had begun my autumn and winter tour with my father for 1877-8, when, in the November of 1877, I received the following letter:
The great compliment which I considered the letter conveyed filled me with more delight than I ever could express. I think I read the letter over twenty times. I was not thinking of the offer of the engagement, for I was immediately under the impression that I should decline it. My father never had a good opinion of my amateur acting, and I valued his judgment so highly that his opinion was in a great measure shared by me.
Arthur Sullivan had only heard me sing once, after a dinner party, and it was evident, from his letter, I had created some sound impression; hence my extreme delight at his offer. I remember, after the said party, Sir Arthur (he was then Mr.) kindly asked me back to his rooms, with a few other friends, including Alfred Cellier, the composer, and Arthur Cecil, to whom I was (and still am) much indebted for the most valuable hints he had from time to time given me respecting the style of sketch and song suitable for “smart” drawing-room work, and who had taken great interest in me. At Sullivan’s, that evening, we all sang, played, and chatted till an early hour in the morning; and I, as a comparatively “new” man, was especially “drawn out.”
Following Arthur Sullivan’s letter, with its complimentary offer, came a long one from Arthur Cecil (who, it appears, had suggested my name to Sullivan), pointing out the pros and cons, with an additional “summing up” of both, worthy of a judge – and a good judge, too.
Cecil told me afterwards that Sullivan and he were both writing letters at the Beefsteak, when the former said, “I can’t find a fellow for this opera.”
Arthur Cecil said, “I wonder if Grossmith –”
Before the sentence was completed, Arthur Sullivan said, “The very man!”
I was then communicated with. I am much indebted to these two Arthurs. I reverence the name of Arthur; and if ever I am blessed with another son – But there! as they say in novels, “I am digressing.”
Then came a week of awful anxiety. Should I cancel the provincial engagements which I had already made, and which were, of course, a certainty, in favour of a new venture, which was not? My father said, “Not.” He did not think I had voice enough. Arthur Sullivan, however, thought I had. I went to consult him, and he struck the D (fourth line in treble clef, if you please), and said, “Sing it out as loud as you can.” I did. Sullivan looked up, with a most humorous expression on his face – even his eye-glass seemed to smile – and he simply said, “Beautiful!” Sullivan then sang, “My name is John Wellington Wells,” and said, “You can do that?”
I replied, “Yes; I think I can do that.”
“Very well,” said Sir Arthur, “if you can do that, you can do the rest.”
Then off I went to W. S. Gilbert, at Bolton Gardens, to see what the part itself was like. Mr. Gilbert was very kind, and seemed pleased that I meditated accepting the engagement. [A few months beforehand I had played the Judge, in Trial by Jury, at the Hall in Archer Street, Bayswater, and the rehearsals were conducted by Mr. Gilbert, who himself coached me for the first time.] Gilbert read me the opening speech of J. W. Wells, with reference to the sale, “Penny curses,” &c., with which, of course, I was much amused, and said he had not completed the second act yet; but the part of Wells had developed into greater prominence than was at first anticipated. I saw that the part would suit me excellently, but I said to Mr. Gilbert, “For the part of a Magician I should have thought you required a fine man with a fine voice.”
I can still see Gilbert’s humorous expression as he replied, “No; that is just what we don’t want.”
I then went to Mr. R. D’Oyly Carte, who had hit upon the idea of comic opera, by English author and composer, and interpreted by English artists, and who formed the Comedy Opera Company Limited, for the purpose of starting the venture at the Opéra Comique. I asked Carte if he could give me a day or two to think of it. The request was granted, apparently to oblige me; but I imagined, from his look, that D’Oyly Carte also required a day or two to think of it.
I afterwards learned that the directors of the Comedy Opera Company, to a man, were adverse to my engagement. One of them sent the following telegram to Carte: “Whatever you do, don’t engage Grossmith.” I myself personally was being tossed on the terrible billows of indecision. I had a certain amount of confidence in myself, but thought that if the piece failed – and the Opéra Comique had been an unlucky theatre – I should practically be thrown on my beam ends, having cancelled all my provincial engagements; and they were not many.
I thought, however, that the advertisement of being associated with W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan would be invaluable; and, in spite of the entreaties of all my friends, I decided to write and accept the engagement. I informed my father of my decision, and he did not hesitate to express his disappointment, not to say disapproval. To my great joy and relief, I received the following letter from Mrs. Howard Paul, whose opinion on all professional matters I esteemed most highly, and who had always given me so much encouragement:
This was a great comfort to me – in fact, to all of us. I wrote Mrs. Howard Paul that I had decided to take the engagement; and on the 5th November, 1877, she, Barrington and myself, and a few others, celebrated the event in the back garden at Bedford Park with a display of fireworks.
Messrs. Gilbert, Sullivan, and Carte backed up the engagement with me, and the directors, though in the majority, were, happily for me, defeated.
Then came the business part of the matter with D’Oyly Carte, which was amusing. As I had sacrificed my country engagements, I wished Carte to guarantee me a month’s salary. That request he acceded to, but not to the amount of salary I required. He was instructed “only to go to a certain amount,” which happened to be three guineas a week less than I asked for. The discussion, such as it was, was quite pleasant, as, in fact, all my future negotiations with him were destined to be. I have been associated with Mr. D’Oyly Carte for over ten years now, and am pleased to say I have never had anything approaching a disagreeable word with him.
I said to Carte: “Look at the risk I am running. If I fail, I don’t believe the Young Men’s Christian Associations will ever engage me again, because I have appeared on the stage, and my reputation as comic singer to religious communities will be lost for ever.”
Carte said, “Well, I dare say I can make that all right.” Then a sudden idea occurred to him. “Come and have some oysters.”
I did!! I shall ever regret it! A lunch off oysters and most excellent Steinberg Cabinet infused a liberality into my nature for which I shall never forgive myself. Carte again broached the subject – after lunch – of the salary; and in the end, with a cheerful smile, I waived the extra three guineas a week.
I calculate that, irrespective of all accumulative interest, that lunch cost me, up till now, about £1,800.
One dark night in that very November I fulfilled my last provincial institution engagement (at Dudley), and went back to stay the night, or what was left of it, at the Guest Hospital, with Dr. Orwin, my old schoolfellow, with whom I had the pugilistic encounter at the preparatory school on Haverstock Hill. He called me up at five o’clock the next morning, which was, if possible, darker than the night before, and packed me off to London to attend my first rehearsal, which was held in the refreshment saloon (without refreshments) at the Opéra Comique.
The course adopted with reference to the Gilbert and Sullivan rehearsals is as follows: The music is always taken first. The principal singers and the ladies and gentlemen of the chorus are seated in a semi-circle on the stage. A cottage piano is in the middle, and we are rehearsed as an ordinary choir would be. Sir Arthur Sullivan usually first composes the difficult choruses, especially the finale to the first act – an elaborate score.
The quartettes and trios arrive next, and the duets and songs last.
I have sometimes only received the tunes of my songs the week before production. The song in the second act of Princess Ida was re-written, and I only got the music two nights before the performance. The difficulty then was, not in learning the new tune, but in unlearning the old one.
The greatest interest is evinced by us all as the new vocal numbers arrive. Sir Arthur Sullivan will arrive hurriedly, with a batch of MSS. under his arm, and announce the fact that there is something new. He takes his seat at the piano and plays over the new number. The vocal parts are written in, but no accompaniment.
Mr. François Cellier listens and watches; and how he can remember for future rehearsal, as he does, the elaborate accompaniments and symphonies, and with the correct harmonies, &c., from simply hearing Sir Arthur play the pieces over a few times, is to me astonishing.
Mr. Gilbert will attend all these musical rehearsals: he takes mental notes of the style of composition, time, rhythm, everything, and goes home and invents his groups and business. For every piece he has small stages constructed – exact models of the Savoy Theatre – with set scenes. The characters are represented by little bricks of various colours, to distinguish chorus from principals, and ladies from gentlemen. Many a time he has shown me some future intended grouping, entrance, or general effect; and I must say it has been most interesting. No expense is spared to get the requisite accuracy; and I believe the little model of a ship, for the recent revival of H.M.S. Pinafore, cost £60.
It is well known that Mr. Gilbert is an extremely strict man, and on all matters of stage business his word is law. All the arrangements of colours and the original groupings, with which the frequenters of the Savoy are so well acquainted, are by him.
Sir Arthur Sullivan is also very exact with reference to the rendering of the music; and it is perfectly understood between author and composer that no business should be introduced by the former into the chorus so as to interfere with a proper performance of the music.
For example, in the original rehearsals of The Mikado, Mr. Gilbert arranged a group of the chorus to “bow down” to his Majesty as he entered, with their backs to the audience. Sir Arthur Sullivan came down, and, the moment he saw this, said that the voices could not be well heard from the front, as the faces of the singers were turned towards the back of the stage. Mr. Gilbert immediately altered the business; and as his powers of invention are apparently unlimited, the present effective grouping in a semi-circle on the right-hand side and back of the stage was substituted.
I have said that Sir Arthur Sullivan is strict with the music. Every member of the chorus has to sing the exact note set down for him or her; and often, in the midst of the rehearsal of a full chorus double-forte we have been pulled up because a careless gentleman has sung a semi-quaver instead of a demi-semi-quaver, or one of the cousins, sisters, or aunts has failed to dot a crotchet.
One of the most prominent and popular members of our company was remarkably quick in picking up the music by ear a – method of learning music by no means advisable. One day he was singing a solo allotted to him which he had learned in the way mentioned, and he occasionally sang (let us say) two even crotchets instead of one dotted and a quaver, and he made one or two slight deviations from the melody. Sullivan listened, with a most amused expression, and, at the conclusion, said: “Bravo! that is really a very good tune of yours – capital ! And now, if you have no objection, I will trouble you to sing mine.”
The music is generally given to us before the piece is read by Mr. Gilbert; so we are often in complete darkness as to the meaning of the words we are singing. In the opera of Princess Ida, we were rehearsing the whole of the concerted music of the first act. My song, “I can’t think why,” sung by King Gama, was not composed, and the whole of my share in the rehearsals was the following three bars and a half of recitative:
At one of the rehearsals, after singing this trifling bit of recitative, I addressed the composer and said: “Could you tell me, Sir Arthur, what the words, ‘This seems unnecessarily severe,’ have reference to?”
Sir Arthur Sullivan replied: “Because you are to be detained in prison, of course.”
I replied: “Thank you. I thought they had reference to my having been detained here three hours a day for the past fortnight to sing them.”
The result was, that Sir Arthur liberated me from the remainder of the first act rehearsals; and as I had not to put in an appearance in the second act, and had only one unwritten song in the third, I had, for a wonder, a pretty easy time of it.
The musical rehearsals are child’s play in comparison with the stage rehearsals. Mr. Gilbert is a perfect autocrat, insisting that his words should be delivered, even to an inflection of the voice, as he dictates. He will stand on the stage beside the actor or actress, and repeat the words with appropriate action over and over again, until they are delivered as he desires them to be. In some instances, of course, he allows a little license, but very little.
He has great patience at times; and, indeed, he needs it, for occasionally one or other of the company, through inaccurate ear or other cause, will not catch the proper action or inflection. From the beginning it has been the custom, if possible, to allot some small part to a member of the chorus. The girls have nearly always benefited by the chance, and some have risen to the foremost ranks. The men are not so fortunate, I regret to say. They do not seem to be so quick. Gilbert has nearly been driven frantic (and so have the onlookers for the matter of that) because a sentence has been repeated with a false accent.
The following sketch, founded on fact, is an example of what I mean:
Suppose Mr. Snooks has been promoted from the chorus, and allotted a very small part, on account of his suitable voice, slimness, stoutness, gigantic proportions, or the reverse. He has one line – let us say, The King is in the counting-house. The first thing Mr. Snooks does when his cue arrives is to make the most of his opportunity by entering with a comic slow walk, which he has evidently been studying for the past few days in front of a looking-glass. The walk is the conventional one indulged in by the big Mask in a pantomime.
Mr. Gilbert: Please don’t enter like that, Mr. Snooks. We don’t want any “comic man” business here.
Mr. Snooks : I beg your pardon, sir; I thought you meant the part to be funny.
Mr. Gilbert : Yes, so I do; but I don’t want you to tell the audience you’re the funny man. They’ll find it out, if you are, quickly enough. Go on, please.
Mr. Snooks enters again with a rapid and sharp catch-the-six-thirteen-Liverpool-street-local-train kind of walk.
Mr. Gilbert : No, no, no, Mr. Snooks. This is not a “walking gentleman’s” part. As it is only a short one, there is no necessity to hurry through it like that. Enter like this.
Mr. Gilbert proceeds to exemplify what he requires, and after a trial or two Mr. Snooks gets it nearly right.
Mr. Gilbert (encouragingly): That’ll do capitally. Go on, please.
Mr. Snooks : The King is in the counting-house.
Mr. Gilbert : No, no, Mr. Snooks; he is nothing of the sort. He is in the counting-house.
Mr. Snooks: The King is in the counting-house.
Mr. Gilbert (very politely): I am afraid I have not made myself understood. It is not counting-house, but counting-house. Do you understand me?
Mr. Snooks : Yes, sir.
Mr. Gilbert : Very well; try again, please.
Mr. Snooks : The King is in the counting-house.
Mr. Gilbert (still politely): Mr. Snooks, don’t you appreciate the difference between the accent on “counting” and the accent on “house”? I want the accent on “counting” – counting-house. Surely you have never heard it pronounced in any other way? Try again, and please pay attention.
Mr. Snooks (getting rather nervous): The King is in the counting-HOUSE!
Mr. Gilbert twitches his right whisker, and takes a few paces up and down the front of the stage. Eventually he comes to a standstill, and calmly addresses Mr. Snooks: “It is my desire to assist you as far as I possibly can, but I must have that sentence spoken properly. I would willingly cut it out altogether; but as it is essential to the story, that course is impossible. If you cannot speak it with the right accent, I shall be reluctantly compelled to give the words to someone else who can. Go back, please, and think before you speak.”
Mr. Snooks (endeavouring to think he is “thinking”): The King (pause) is (pause) IN
Mr. Gilbert (bottling up his fury): We won’t bother about your scene now, Mr. Snooks. Get on with the next. Grossmith! Grossmith!! (To Seymour, the stage manager): Where’s Mr. Grossmith?
Mr. Grossmith (a very small man, with a still smaller voice): Here I am.
Mr. Gilbert : Oh! there you are. I’m sorry to have kept you waiting. We’ll go on with your scene. Do you want to try your song?
Mr. Grossmith : Not unless you want to hear it!
Mr. Gilbert : No; I don’t want to hear it. (Roars of laughter from the company.) Do you?
Mr. Grossmith : No!
Good humour prevails, and the rehearsal proceeds. At its termination Mr. Gilbert approaches Mr. Snooks, who is absolutely wretched in the corner.
Mr. Gilbert (privately to Mr. Snooks): Don’t worry yourself about that. Go home, and think it over. It will be all right to-morrow.
On the morrow perhaps, it is not all right; but Mr. Gilbert will pass it over, and by dint of perseverance (which is, of course, appreciated), and the chaffing he gets from his fellow-choristers at the theatre, and the bullying from his wife at home, Mr. Snooks, in the course of a week, gets it actually right; but the word is always pronounced to the end with a certain amount of doubt.
The performer frequently gets the credit which is due to Mr. Gilbert, and to him absolutely. As a rule, the little midshipmite in H.M.S. Pinafore is supposed to be a perfect genius. There have been scores of midshipmites in town and “on tour,” but they are all geniuses.
Some, of course, are naturally clever, and I should be grieved to disparage any child; but if admiration, cheers, and applause on the stage are at all times dangerous to the mind of man, what must be the effect on children!
A little boy, with a pretty voice, who played in the performance of the Pirates of Penzance by children, came to me some time back in despair. His vanity had been touched by the approbation of the public, and his eyes fascinated by the glare of the footlights and limelights. They were all he thought of. His voice had gone, or, to be more accurate, had cracked. He was too old to act as a child, and too young to act as a man; and he “pooh-poohed” any idea of an ordinary situation. All the credit of his success his friends attributed to his own talent, and not to his stage manager.
It is such a case as this, and this only, that induces me to say that I have seen Mr. Gilbert instruct a little boy in the part of the midshipmite for an hour or so at a time, simply how to walk across the stage. The boy has been absolutely stupid even for his age; but has been selected because he happened to be smaller than the others who had come up for competition. Through constant drilling the child developed into a mechanical toy, and received the approbation of the generous public, as if he merited it instead of his tutor, when he had no more done so than the little canary who walks the tight-rope on a barrow, fires a gun, or drives a tandem drawn by a couple of sparrows.
One of these little lads, besides his wages, received extra presents of shillings and half-crowns that in the course of a week amounted, most likely, to the limited salary given to the chorus man who had devoted the greater part of his life to his vocation, and who had a wife and large family to support out of it.
A propos of the chorus, they are picked from hundreds who first sing before Mr. D’Oyly Carte on approval. They generally have some daily occupation or situation. Some of them sing and act so well in the groups that they have been retained from the very commencement of the operas.
When Iolanthe was produced, Gilbert decided that the peers should all have the upper lip shaven, and wear “mutton-chop” whiskers, and a little tuft under the lower lip. They were also to wear wigs bald at the top of the head. The effect was ultimately most successful; but there was a semblance of a “strike” beforehand, owing to the objection of some of the gentlemen to shave off the moustache.
These were called, for the purpose of giving their reasons for objecting to comply with the order. Some of the excuses were most amusing. One said he was a town traveller; and if he took off his moustache, he would look so young that shop owners would not listen to him. Another said he was a “spirit leveller,” and it was most unusual (I am not sure he did not say unprecedented) for a “spirit leveller” not to have a moustache. The excuse for another gentlemen was, that he was paying his addresses to a young lady who was not much impressed with his personal appearance; and if he took off his moustache, his hopes would be completely blighted. In the end, however, they all consented to obliterate the ornament, with the exception of one, who absolutely declined. In his case the moustache stayed on, but he did not.
I never remember, before the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, to have seen an entire chorus shaved. The peers looked wonderfully characteristic when they first appeared over the bridge, and their entrance brought down the house. Again, what could be more effective than the shaven faces in The Mikado?
The most amusing incident with regard to shaving was during the run of Ruddygore. A rather good-looking young fellow, a new comer, was requested to shave (the others being already shaven) a fortnight before the production of the piece, in order that his photograph in costume might be taken by Messrs. Barraud. The portraits that hung in the picture gallery of Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd were painted from the photographs previously taken of all the chorus gentlemen. This new recruit, whom we will call Mr. X., was a concert singer, who, like many others, finding that “concert singing is not what it was,” accepted the offer made to him to join the ranks of the Savoyards as a chorister, and make sure of a certain income. Mr. D’Oyly Carte met him one day, and said: “Have you been to Barraud’s,
“No, sir; I go to-morrow morning. I have shaved.”
“So I observe,” said Carte.
Two days after, Carte saw him with his moustache on again; but, taking no particular notice, said: “Let me see, have you been to Barraud’s?”
Mr. X. said: “Yes, sir; I went yesterday.”
D’Oyly Carte thought it seemed rather odd, for he made sure he had seen Mr. X. two days previously without the moustache. Now he had a full-grown one, with the regular platform singer’s waxed ends.
D’Oyly Carte, being a busy man, walked away, and was soon thinking of other matters.
The first dress rehearsal took place, and Mr. X. had no moustache. Mr. Carte met him the next day in the street, and, lo and behold! there was the moustache on again. Actors are frequently in the habit of “soaping” down their moustaches; but such a one as Mr. X. supported could not be soaped down. Carte was so puzzled that he said to Mr. X.:
“I thought you had shaved your moustache?”
Mr. X. replied: “So I have, sir; but when I sing at concerts, or ‘do’ Bond Street, I stick on one for a little while. Nobody would notice it was not my own, and I look so much better with a moustache.”
“Do you make yourself up, Mr. Grossmith?”
As this question is so frequently asked of me, I will satisfy the curious by saying that I always do. No one has ever touched my face but myself. I select my own colours, powders, rouges, and try several effects of complexions, before finally deciding on one. I have a little dressing-room to myself – the only one who has at the Savoy. Being short-sighted, I make up with a hand-glass in my left hand. My dressing-table is very high, and I have several bright electric lights thrown on my face. I do not think the painted lines on the face should ever be seen, even from the stalls. I think no make-up should be detected from the front, and I have no hesitation in saying that the ghastly white faces, pink cheeks, and scarlet lips indulged in, even by the ladies of our theatre, are simply hideous.
Mr. Barrington has often come into my room just as I am going on the stage, and chaffingly said, “Why don’t you make up?” I regard this rather as a compliment than otherwise.
I want to look like a First Lord, a fleshly poet, Major-General, or Japanese, not to show how I look like one.
The walls of my dressing-room are covered with prints, engravings, and sketches, of no particular value, but of interest to myself and many who visit me.
A capital pen-and-ink sketch, from memory, by Mr. Heather Bigg, of Corney Grain and myself playing a duet on the piano, amuses those who see it. A slight sketch by Frank Holl, R.A. (a great and esteemed friend of mine), of myself, fishing in the daytime and doing the Lord Chancellor’s dance at night, is, of course, interesting.
There is also a water-colour sketch of myself in the costume of King Gama, minus the heavy cloak and wig, and the tunic preserved by a lawn-tennis jacket. I used to sit in this comfortable way during a long wait of one hour and forty minutes; and my appearance so tickled the fancy of Viscount Hardinge that he painted his impression of it, and sent it to me.
There is also an admirable sketch, by Alfred Bryan, of John Parry; a signed photograph of Mrs. Howard Paul; full-page drawings in the Graphic, &c., from my brother’s pictures exhibited in the Royal Academy; some old playbills, in which my uncle figures prominently; clever sketches of singers, by Harper Pennington; and, what is more useful than any of the above, a comfortable couch, on which I can throw myself after having been encored two or three times in some extravagant dance.
The rules behind the scenes at the Savoy are very strict. No visitors, thank goodness, are allowed to be hanging about the stage or standing at the wings. There are separate staircases for the ladies and gentlemen. We are all a very happy family; jealous feeling and spirit are conspicuous by their absence; and the “understudies” experience no difficulty in getting every help and support, if required, from the principals whose parts are to be played in case of absence or illness.
There are no mashers waiting at the stage-door. Presents and love-letters are few and far between; in fact, during the ten years I have been on the stage I have only received one. I confess I am a little hurt by the notion; but, perhaps it is just as well. The letter referred to was not well worded, and the spelling certainly might have been better. The lady, I am sure, was quite sincere in her expressed adoration of me, and I appreciated her candid confession that she had no prejudice against my “calling”; but the postscript was certainly disappointing. It ran thus: “P.S. Next Sunday is my Sunday out.”
Before engaging anybody at the theatre, Mr. D’Oyly Carte hears them sing, or “tries their voice.” It is a standing joke between him and myself that I never kept the appointments made by him to “hear my voice.”
At one of our pleasant annual theatre suppers, at which both gentlemen of the orchestra and chorus are present, in returning thanks for having my health proposed, I said I attributed the pleasure of being associated with them to the fact that, in the first instance, I would not let Mr. Carte have the opportunity of testing my vocal powers; for, if I had done so, I should never have effected my present engagement.
During D’Oyly Carte’s visits to America, Mr. Michael Gunn, the lessee of the Dublin Theatre, and a great friend of both Carte and myself, used to act as our manager.
On one occasion Mr. Gunn had to try the voices of some candidates for the chorus. One gentleman, who called himself Signor Concertini, or some such name, sang all right; but he spoke with an affected broken-English accent, which I have found quite common amongst English foreign singers.
Mr. R. Barker, a kind but rather brusque stage-manager, addressing Signor Concertini, said: “Look here, my boy, that accent won’t do for sailors or pirates. Just give us a little less Mediterranean and a little more Whitechapel.”
Mr. Gunn turned to the man and said: “What nationality are you? You don’t sound Italian.”
Signor Concertini suddenly dropped his accent, and, addressing Mr. Gunn in a broad Irish brogue, said: “Sure, Mr. Gunn, I’m from the same country as yourself.”
If any of the members of the chorus are absent through illness, they are supposed to bring a doctor’s certificate the next day; but their word is usually taken.
One of the chorus gentlemen, a tenor, who had not distinguished himself by any great ability, but deemed his presence of infinite importance, sent a telegram to the stage manager: “Suffering from hoarseness; cannot appear to-night.” I ascertained that he had informed several of his colleagues, confidentially, that he was the future Sims Reeves. I must confess, with the exception of the above telegram, I had detected no resemblance to the great tenor.
During the revival of H.M.S. Pinafore at the Savoy, I received a dreadful snub from one of the “Marines.” The Marines were what is theatrically known as “extra-gentlemen.” They are not engaged to sing, and therefore do not hold such a good position as the chorus. If they have voices and can sing, they look forward naturally to promotion. One of them asked me if I would hear him sing the “Ruler of the Queen’s Navee.” I made an appointment with him to sing at my house. After he finished the song, I said: “I presume you desire me to recommend you to Mr. Carte for the chorus?”
“Oh no, sir,” he replied. “Mr. Carte has heard me, and says I’m not good enough for the chorus; so I thought you could recommend me to him to play your parts on tour.”
Singers, prima donnas especially, are, I believe, renowned for little airs and graces; but these have little weight with Gilbert and Sullivan. Conventionality is not recognised by them. One of the many Josephines, during the first run of Pinafore, objected to standing anywhere but in the centre of the stage, assuring Mr. Gilbert that she had played in Italian opera, and was accustomed to occupy that position and no other.
Gilbert said, most persuasively: “Oh! but this is not Italian opera; this is only a low burlesque of the worst possible kind.”
Gilbert says this sort of thing in such a quiet and serious way that one scarcely knows whether he is joking or not.
During the revival of The Mikado, he was directing the dress-rehearsal from the middle of the stalls, as is his wont, and suddenly called out: “There is a gentleman in the left group not holding his fan correctly.”
The stage manager, with his prompt-book and tall hat, immediately appeared on the stage at the left side, and, calling to Mr. Gilbert, said: “One gentleman is absent through illness, sir.”
“Ah!” said Gilbert, perfectly seriously, “that is not the gentleman I am referring to.”
Yet another instance. The second act of The Pirates of Penzance represents the interior of a ruined abbey by moonlight. Near the end of the play General Stanley’s daughters run on to the stage in peignoir and with lighted candles. This is the cue for turning up the footlights and boarders.
Mr. Gilbert (from the stalls): Mr. Seymour – Mr. Seymour!
Seymour (the stage manager, appearing at the wings): Yes, sir.
Mr. Gilbert : Don’t let them turn the lights on the back cloth!
Seymour: We have turned up all the lights, sir.
Mr. Gilbert : Then don’t do so. As much light in the front as you like. Candles on the stage have a wonderful effect, I know. They would light up the abbey, no doubt; but even stage candles wouldn’t light up the heavens beyond.
A great objection was taken, both by the press and a large section of the public, to the title of Ruddygore, and the opera itself was not favourably criticised. About a week after its production, Gilbert turned up at the Savoy and said: “I propose altering the title of the piece, and calling it Kensington Gore; or, Not so Good as The Mikado.”
Gilbert very properly objects to any business being interpolated without his sanction, especially if its sole object is merely to raise a laugh, and thereby stop the action of the piece. In The Mikado, Miss Jessie Bond and I were kneeling side by side, with our heads on the floor, and she used to give me a push, and I accordingly rolled completely over. Gilbert asked me if I would mind omitting that action on my part.
I replied: “Certainly, if you wish it; but I get an enormous laugh by it.”
“So you would if you sat on a pork-pie,” replied he.
It is a very easy thing to get a laugh on the stage, and a very difficult thing to sacrifice it. It has amused me intensely when some of the gentlemen who play my parts on the country tour inform me of certain laughs which they get when they play. Some of them have even kindly advised me of “new business” which they have inserted.
I quite agree with Mr. Gilbert in reference to the “pork-pie” method of obtaining laughter; and I have often stated that my ambition is, to play in a farce in which there is a bandbox placed carefully on an arm-chair, and that the curtain should finally fall without my having sat on the box in question.
I have no intention of dwelling on the incidents attending the production of each of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, but mine has been rather an odd career. I have been on the stage over ten years, and have only played regularly nine parts, including the Judge in Trial by Jury. At a great benefit matinée, I have sometimes taken some small part, but that I count as nothing: but of the above I have, in one or two of the pieces, played the same part night after night, and two performances on Saturday, for a year and a half; while Sir Joseph Porter in H.M.S. Pinafore, I played incessantly for nearly two years.
I have been asked if long runs affect the nerves. I do not think they affect the nerves so much as they affect the performance. Constant repetition begets mechanism, and that is a dreadful enemy to contend against. I try hard to fight against it personally, and believe I succeed. There is one thing I always do – I always play my best to a bad house; for I think it a monstrous thing that an actor should slur through his work because the stalls are empty, and thereby punish those who have come for the fault of those who have not.
Mrs. Howard Paul impressed so strongly upon me the importance and the justness of playing one’s best to a poor house, that I not only have never forgotten her injunction, but have endeavoured to abide by it.
To act without recognition, by applause, laughter, or tears, from an audience is galling to an actor; but, fortunately, I have had a good training in this respect in the private-house engagements, and have got used to it.
In town, my audiences have sometimes displayed a want of enthusiasm, which has been easily understood by everybody but myself; and in my earlier days in the country I used to console myself with the fact that if my entertainments did not go, the audience did, which was a comfort and a relief.
I wonder if my friend Frank Thornton will be offended if I repeat an oft-told story about him? I had the pleasure of knowing him in my early entertaining days, and he himself was remarkably clever in short sketches in character.
When I was first engaged at the Opéra Comique to appear in The Sorcerer, F. Thornton was “specially retained” to understudy me. I believe he was very nearly engaged himself to play the part. Fortunately for me, he was not.
During the first week he used to come to me each night, and ask how I was. On my replying that I was “all right – never better,” it appeared to me that he departed with a disappointed look. His kind enquiries were repeated, as I thought with extra anxiety; but still I kept well, and showed no signs of fatigue. Then he began to insist that I was not looking well; and I replied that, looks or no looks, I felt perfectly well. Finally he came to me with a pill, which he was certain would do for me. I was also certain that it would “do for me,” and declined to take it; I played nearly two hundred consecutive nights of The Sorcerer, and nearly seven hundred of H.M.S. Pinafore, without missing a single performance.
About the third week of the subsequent piece, The Pirates of Penzance, I was called away from the theatre through a domestic affliction; and Frank Thornton, at literally a moment’s notice, had to don the Major-General’s uniform and play my part. It goes without saying that his was an excellent performance, as those who saw his excessively funny impersonation of the cramped old æsthete in Patience will easily understand.
The domestic affliction referred to was the sudden death of my father on April 24th, 1880. At the beginning of this book I stated that I should not deal with the shadows of my life. Nor shall I, beyond stating that the shock to me was so terrible that I often wonder now whether I have quite recovered it. My poor darling mother never did, and she followed him in a year and ten months after.
There was scarcely a paper in Great Britain and Ireland that did not refer to him in the most affectionate terms. If his loss was felt so much by people who knew him only slightly, what must it have been to his two sons, who idolised the very ground he walked upon? His last lecture was on “Dickens and his Works” (Dickens was his favourite subject), and was delivered at Wrexham on April 22nd, two days before his decease; and the kind clergyman who entertained him on the occasion wrote one of the first and sweetest letters of sympathy that I received.
I should like to say that my father was more than astonished at the result of my appearances in The Sorcerer, Pinafore, and Pirates, and was extremely proud of my stage appearances. He was easily pleased, no doubt; but it was a great source of comfort to me to know he was pleased.
Soon after the first production of The Sorcerer in 1877, I had occasion to go one morning to Maidenhead by train. I occupied a carriage with a lady and three gentlemen, all of one party. The conversation, which I could not help hearing – and unfortunately listeners never hear good of themselves – turned on Gilbert and Sullivan’s new and original form of opera. Suddenly, one of the three gentlemen began to criticise my performance in no complimentary terms. The lady, to my joy, differed with my critic, and it appeared for a moment as if all would end happily. Not a bit of it. The two other gentlemen joined in, and began to find fault with my personal appearance as well as my voice (or want of it). The lady still gallantly defended me, but in doing so she only added fuel to the fire; and judging from the tone and manner in which the two last-named gentlemen contradicted her, I could only come to the conclusion that they were her brothers. I suppose I ought to have stopped them; but for the life of me I could not think of a method of doing so. The train, however, began to pull up at Slough; so I determined to change carriages. I took out my card-case, and wrote in pencil on one of my cards, “Thanks awfully,” and placed it on the seat beside the two gentlemen previously to making my exit from the compartment. My only regret is, I am not in a position to describe what followed.
This incident reminds me of another, an occasion on which I indirectly denied myself. In 1878, when H.M.S. Pinafore was first produced at the Opéra Comique, I always used to give a musical sketch at the piano at the Saturday afternoon performances after the opera. I had some appointment at Kensington, and went to the Temple Station at the conclusion of the performance and got into a first-class carriage of the Underground Railway. Opposite to me sat a middle-aged gentleman with a good-looking lad. The gentleman stared at me hard, and I saw at once that he had recognised me – an easy matter, considering my sketches were, and still are, always given in propriâ personâ. He whispered to the boy, and the boy’s eyes also became riveted on me. I felt like one of Madame Tussaud’s waxworks; although, from the manner in which the gentleman and the boy sat still and stared, they really resembled the effigies more than I did. At last the gentleman moved. He took from his pocket the book of the libretto of Pinafore and peered into it, taking good care to hold the outside cover with title towards me, so that I might see what he was reading. Of course, I took not the slightest notice of his actions; but I had great difficulty in restraining a smile as the boy began to whistle the air of “The Ruler of the Queen’s Navee.” The gentleman was not to be defeated: he handed me the book, and the following conversation took place between the Gentleman and the Clown:
Gent .: I beg your pardon ; I fancy you must be well acquainted with that play?
Clown (turning over leaves of book casually): Oh! yes. I know it very well.
Gent .: Well, if you do not know it well, I should like to know who does?
Clown (handing back book): I do not quite follow you?
Gent .: I should have thought you knew it backwards.
Clown : That I certainly do not.
Gent .: You’ve heard it often enough?
Clown : One cannot help that. It is on all the street bands.
Gent .: And seen it too?
Clown : No; I am going to see it next Wednesday. [There was to be a morning performance of one of Mr. D’Oyly Carte’s country companies.]
Gent .: Well, that’s very odd. You’ll excuse me, you are exactly like George Grossmith.
Clown : I knew you were going to say that. Do you know nearly everybody takes me for Mr. Grossmith?
Gent .: I am very sorry. I meant no offence.
Clown : Pray don’t mention it. I regard it as a great compliment.
Gent .: Oh, I’m very glad!
Railway Porter (in distance): Sloane Square! Sloane Square!!
Gent .: We get out here. Good afternoon.
Clown : Good afternoon. (Exeunt Gentleman and Juvenile by the carriage-door, prompt side. Clown, in spite of the printed warning in front of him, proceeded to place his feet on the opposite cushions.)
A friend of mine, who is (or at all events was) a member of the Scottish Club, mistook Mr. W. S. Penley, the popular actor, for me once on the platform of Waterloo Station. My enthusiastic friend slapped the “Rev. Mr. Spalding” on the back and said: “Hulloa, Grossmith! How are you? Come and sup after the play next Saturday at Dover Street?”
Penley replied in the clerical tone characteristic of him: “I beg your pardon, I’m not Grossmith; but I shall be very pleased to have supper with you.”
Another railway recognition story. I was coming up with a party of friends from Ascot, by one of those delightful trains on the S. W. Railway which not only stop at every station, but between each station as well. We stayed at one place a particularly long time; and as a serious-looking station-master faced the window of the carriage in which we were, one of the ladies begged of me to “chaff” him about the slowness of the train. Chaffing is a vulgar habit; but, unfortunately, it is a habit to which I am occasionally addicted. We all have our amusements; and it is not my fault that I do not possess the brave spirit which induces a man to hunt across country and torture a beautiful creature like a deer until, through sheer fright, it takes a leap through the window of a railway station. I prefer to torture one of my own fellow-creatures; for he often stands a fair chance of getting the best of it. The deer never does!
I saw that the serious and stolid station-master was a good subject for chaff; but, as a matter of fact, the whim was not on me. But in deference to the general wish of my friendly travellers, I addressed the station-master as follows: “I say, station-master, you ought to be ashamed of this line.”
The serious official replied: “So I am.”
This scored the first laugh against me. Some of the ladies encouraged me, and said, “Go on, go on;” “Get a rise out of him,” &c. I tried again, and this time observed weakly: “Why don’t you get something better to do?”
My victim, never changing his serious aspect, replied: “You mean, why don’t you get me something better to do.”
This was a real knock-down blow. I came up staggering and a little dazed. My victim, seeing his chance, led the attack: “Anything more to say?”
I feebly answered: “No. Have you?”
He said: “No – except that you act a good deal better here than you do at the Savoy”
The next day I thought of fifty good things I might have said. Alas! how easily things go wrong!
In taking leave of my readers on the subject of my theatrical career, I feel I ought, in justice to myself, to state that all my first appearances are completely marred by uncontrollable nervousness – I am more than nervous I am absolutely ill.
The first night .of The Mikado I shall never forget the longest day I live. It must have appeared to all that I was doing my best to spoil the piece. But what with my own want of physical strength, prostration through the numerous and very long rehearsals, my anxiety to satisfy the author, the rows of critics (oh, please do not be hard on me!), rendered blasé by the modern custom of half a dozen ridiculous and senseless matinées a week, I lose my voice, the little there is of it, my confidence and, what, I maintain, is most valuable of all to me, my own individuality. In fact, I plead guilty to being what Mr. Richard Barker declared me to be on these occasions, “a lamentable spectacle.”
In concluding this chapter, let me offer my hearty thanks to Sir Arthur Sullivan for having thought of me, to D’Oyly Carte for having engaged me, to W. S. Gilbert for having advised me, and last, but not least, to the generous public for having tolerated me.
Page modified 20 November, 2007 Copyright © 2007, The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive. All rights Reserved.