Secrets of a Savoyard
LEADERS OF THE SAVOY.
Memories of Gilbert - His instinct for stagecraft - Stories of rehearsals - Jack Point's unanswered conundrum - The craze for the Up-to-Date - Gilbert's experiments on a miniature stage - Nanki-Poo's address - The Japanese colony at Knightsbridge -The geniality of Sullivan - A magician of the orchestra - The cause of an unhappy separation - Only a carpet - Impressions of D'Oyly Carte - Merited rebukes and generous praise - D'Oyly Carte and I rehearse a love scene - A wonderful business woman - Mrs. Carte's part in the Savoy successes - Our leader to-day.
SIR WILLIAM GILBERT I shall always regard as a pattern of the fine old English gentleman. Of that breed we have only too few survivors to-day. Some who know him superficially have pictured him as a martinet, but while this may have been true of him under the stress of his theatrical work, it fails to do justice to the innate gentleness and courtesy which were his great and distinguishing qualities. Upright and honourable himself, one could never imagine that he could ever do a mean, ungenerous action to anyone, nor had any man a truer genius for friendship.
Gilbert, it is true, had sometimes a satirical tongue, but these little shafts of ridicule of his seldom left any sting. The bons mots credited to him are innumerable, but while many may be authentic there are others that are legendary. He was a devoted lover of the classics, and to this may be attributed his command of such beautiful English. Nimble-witted as he was, he would spend days in shaping and re-shaping some witty fancy into phrases that satisfied his meticulous taste, and days and weeks would be given to polishing and re-polishing some lyrical gem. But when a new opera was due for rehearsal, the libretto was all finished and copied, and everything was in readiness.
Few men have had so rare an instinct for stagecraft. Few men could approach him in such perfect technique of the footlights. Up at Grim's Dyke, his beautiful home near Harrow, he had a wonderful miniature stage at which he would work arranging just where every character should enter, where he or she should stand or move after this number and that, and when and where eventually he or she should disappear. For each character he had a coloured block, and there were similar devices, of course, for the chorus. Thus, when he came down for rehearsals, he had everything in his mind's eye already, and he insisted that every detail should be carried out just as he had planned. "Your first entrance will be here," he would say, " and your second entrance there. 'Spurn not the nobly born' will be sung by Tolloller just there, and while he sings it Mountararat will stand there, Phyllis there," and so on.
When the company had become familiar with the broader outlines of the piece, he would concentrate attention upon the effects upon the audience that could be attained only by the aid of facial expression, gesture and ensemble arrangement. Not only did he lay down his wishes, but he insisted that they must be implicitly obeyed, and a principal who had not reached perfection in the part he was taking would be coached again and again. I remember once that, in one of those moods of weariness and dullness that occasionally steal over one at rehearsals, I did not grasp something he had been telling me, and I was indiscreet enough to blurt out, "But I haven't done that before, Sir William." "No," was his reply, "but I have." The rebuke to my dullness went home! It was Durward Lely, I think, whom he told once to sit down "in a pensive fashion." Lely thereupon unmindfully sat down rather heavily - and disturbed an elaborate piece of scenery. "No ! No !" was Gilbert's comment, "I said pensively, not ex-pensively." That quickness of wit was very typical.
George Grossmith once suggested that the introduction of certain business would make the audience laugh. Gilbert was quite unsympathetic. "Yes!" he responded in his dryest vein, "but so they would if you sat down on a pork pie!" Grossmith it was, too, who had become so wearied practising a certain gesture that I heard him declare he "had rehearsed this confounded business until I feel a perfect fool." "Ah ! so now we can talk on equal terms" was the dramatist's instant retort. And the next moment he administered another rebuke. "I beg your pardon," said the comedian, rather bored, in reference to some instructions he had not quite understood. "I accept the apology," was the reply "Now let's get on with the rehearsal."
You will remember that in "The Yeomen" poor Jack Point puts his riddle, "Why is a cook's brainpan like an overwound clock?" The Lieutenant interposes abruptly with "A truce to this fooling," and the poor Merry-man saunters off exclaiming "Just my luck: my best conundrum wasted." Like many in the audience, I have often wondered what the answer to that conundrum is, and one day I put a question about it to Gilbert. With a smile he said he couldn't tell me then, but he would leave me the answer in his will. I'm sorry to say that it was not found there - maybe because there was really no answer to the riddle, or perhaps because he had forgotten to bequeath to the world this interesting legacy.
Sir William not only studied the entrances and exits beforehand but he came with clear-cut ideas as to the colour schemes which would produce the best effect in the scenery, laid down the methods with which the lighting was to be handled, and arranged that no heavy dresses had to be worn by those who had dances to perform. No alterations of any kind could be made without his authority, and thus it comes about that the operas as presented to-day are just as he left them, without the change of a word, and long may they so remain!
I ought, perhaps, to answer criticisms which are often laid against me when, as Ko-Ko in "The Mikado," I do not follow the text by saying that Nanki-Poo's address is "Knightsbridge." I admit I substitute the name of some locality more familiar to the audience before whom we are playing. Well, it is not generally known that Knightsbridge is named in the opera because, just before it was written, a small Japanese colony had settled in that inner suburb of London, and a very great deal of curiosity the appearance of those little people in their native costumes aroused in the Metropolis. Gilbert, therefore, in his search for "local colour" for his forthcoming opera, had not to travel to Tokio, but found it almost on his own doorstep near his home, then in South Kensington. A Japanese male-dancer and a Geisha, moreover, were allowed to come from the colony to teach the company how to run or dance in tiny steps with their toes turned in, how to spread or snap their fans to indicate annoyance or delight, and how to arrange their hair and line their faces in order to introduce the Oriental touch into their "make-up." This realism was very effective, and it had a great deal to do with the instantaneous success of what is still regarded as the Gilbert and Sullivan masterpiece.
But to return to the point about Knightsbridge. When "The Mikado" was produced at the Savoy, the significance of the reference to a London audience was obvious and amusing enough, but it was a different matter when the opera was sent into the provinces. Gilbert accordingly gave instructions that the place was to be localised, and there was and always is something very diverting to, say, a Liverpool audience in the unexpected announcement that Nanki-Poo, the great Mikado's son, is living at "Wigan." In the case of Manchester it might be "Oldham" or in that of Birmingham "Small Heath." What I want to make clear is that, so far from any liberty being taken on my part, this little variation is fully authorised, and it is the only instance of the kind in the whole of the operas.
Sir Arthur Sullivan I knew least of the famous triumvirate at the Savoy. I was under him, of course, at rehearsals, and we had pleasant little talks from time to time, but my relations with him were neither so frequent nor so intimate as they were with the other two partners. We had a mutual friend in Francois Cellier, about whose work as conductor I shall have more to say, and it was through him that I learned much about the fine personal and musical qualities of the composer.
Certainly Sullivan was a great man, intensely devoted to his art, and fame and fortune never spoilt a man less. A warm-hearted Irishman, he was always ready to do a good turn for anyone, and it was wonderful how the geniality of his nature was never clouded by almost life-long physical suffering. Sullivan lived and died a bachelor, and I believe there was never a more affectionate tie than that which existed between him and his mother, a very witty old lady, and one who took an exceptional pride in her son's accomplishments. Nor is it generally known that he took upon himself all the obligations for the welfare and upbringing of his dead brother's family. It was to Herbert Sullivan, his favourite nephew, that his fortune was bequeathed.
Of Sullivan the musician I cannot very well speak. I have already owned that I have little real musical knowledge. But at the same time he always seemed to me to be something of a magician. Not only could he play an instrument, but he knew exactly what any instrument could be made to do to introduce some delightful, quaint effect into the general orchestral design. "No! No!" he would say at a rehearsal to the double bass, "I don't want it like that. I want a lazy, drawn-out sound like this." And, taking the bow in his fingers, he would produce some deliciously droll effect from the strings. "Oh, no! not that way," he would say to the flutes, and a flute being handed up to him, he would show how the notes on the score were to be made lightsome and caressing. Then it would be the turn of the violins.
At the earlier rehearsals it was often difficult for the principals to get the tune of their songs. The stumbling block was the trickiness of rhythm which was one of the composer's greatest gifts. Now, although I cannot read a line of music, my sense of rhythm has always been very strong, and this has helped me enormously both in my songs and my dancing. Once when Sir Arthur was rehearsing us, and we simply could not get our songs right, I asked him to "la la" the rhythm to me, and I then got the measure so well that he exclaimed "That's splendid Lytton. If you're not a musician, I wish there were others, too, who were not."
One story about Sullivan - I admit it is not a new one - well deserves telling. Standing one night at the back of the dress-circle, he commenced in a contemplative fashion to hum the melody of a song that was being rendered on the stage. "Look here," declared a sensitive old gentleman, turning round sharply to the composer, "I've paid my money to hear Sullivan's music - not yours." And whenever Sir Arthur told this story against himself he always confessed that he well deserved the rebuke.
Gilbert and Sullivan were collaborators for exactly twenty-five years. It was in 1871 that they wrote "Thespis," a very funny little piece of its kind that was produced at the Gaiety, and it was this success that induced Mr. Richard D'Oyly Carte to invite them to associate again in the writing of a curtain-raiser destined to be known as "Trial by Jury." From that time until 1889 they worked in double harness without a break, and it was in that latter year, after the most successful production of "The Gondoliers" that there came the unfortunate "separation." It lasted four years. When, in 1893, the two men re-united their talents, they gave us that delightfully funny play, "Utopia Limited." But with "The Grand Duke" in 1896 - and the superstitious will not overlook that this was the thirteenth piece they had written together - the curtain finally came down upon the partnership.
It may be expected of me that I should say something about the cause of the famous "separation." It is a matter I should prefer to ignore, partly because the consequences of it were so very unfortunate to the cause of dramatic and musical art, and partly because the reason of it was trivial to a degree. Slight "tiffs" there may have been between the two from time to time - that was inevitable under the strain of rehearsals - but these minor differences were mended within a day or a night. What caused the rift was - would you believe it ? - a carpet! This Mr. Carte, who under the contract was responsible for furnishings, had bought for £140, as a means of adding to the comfort, as he believed, of the patrons of the Savoy. Seeing this item in the accounts, Mr. Gilbert objected to it as a sheer waste of money, arguing that it would not bring an extra sixpence into the exchequer. The dispute was a mere "breeze" to begin with, but Gilbert and Carte had each a will of his own, and soon the "breeze" had developed into a "gale." And that miserable carpet led at last to the break-up of the partnership.
Sullivan, whether he agreed with the purchase or not, did his best to put an end to the quarrel, but as in the end he had to adhere to one side or the other, he linked himself with Mr. Carte. This, then, was the sole cause of the breach, and by none was it more regretted than by the principals. Gilbert, I know, felt the severance from his old friend very acutely, though in our many talks in after years he was always inclined to be a little reticent as to this subject. Sullivan, too, though he went on composing, was not at all fortunate in his choice of lyrical writers, none of whom had the deftness and quaint turn of fancy of the playwright with whom he had worked so long and so successfully.
Before I leave Sullivan, I think students of music will be interested to hear what Cellier once told me as to the composer's methods in writing his beautiful songs. With Gilbert's words before him, he set out first to decide, not what should be the tune, but the rhythm. It was this method of finding exactly what metre best suited the sentiment of the lyric that gave his music such originality. Later, having decided what the rhythm should be, he went on to sketch out the melody, but it was seldom that he set to work on the orchestration until the rehearsals were well under way. In the meanwhile the principals practised their songs to an accompaniment which he vamped on the pianoforte. Sullivan, who could score very quickly, had a mind running riot with musical ideas, and he could always pick out the idea for a given number that fitted it like the proverbial glove. "I have a song to sing O!" he regarded, I have been told, as the most difficult conundrum Gilbert ever set him, and musicians tell me that, in sheer constructive ingenuity, it is one of the cleverest numbers in "The Yeomen of the Guard."
Now I must turn to Mr. D'Oyly Carte. From time to time in this book I have given indications as to the manner of man that he was, but although much is known about his capacity as a business manager, the world knows very little indeed of his kindly generosity. It was impossible, of course, for him to take into the company every poor actor who was down on his luck, but certain it is that he never sent him empty away. Seldom did he leave his office without seeing that his pockets were well laden with sovereigns. Out in the Strand, as he knew, there would be some waif of our profession waiting for him, always sure that under cover of a handshake, Mr. Carte would press a golden coin upon him with a cheery "see you get yourself a good lunch," or "a good supper."
Mr Carte, as I have said before, was a man of few words and of a rather taciturn humour, but it would be wrong to think that he was not fond of his joke. First, however, let me tell the story of a small youthful folly of mine, in "The Mikado." It happened in the second act where Ko-Ko, Pooh Bah and Pitti Sing are prostrate on the floor in the presence of the Emperor. We three had to do our well-known "roll-over" act in which I, like Pitti Sing herself, had to bear the weight of the 20-stone of dear old Fred Billington. Well, an imp of mischief led me one night to conceal a bladder under my costume, and when Fred rolled over it exploded with a terrible "bang." Billington had the fright of his life. "What's happened Harry?" he whispered anxiously, his nose still to the floor, "What have I done?"
I am afraid that in those days I had an incurable weakness for practical joking. One night I went for dinner into a well-known hotel in the Strand. Soon after I had entered the restaurant I was roughly grasped by one would-be diner, who was obviously in a very bad temper, and who demanded to know why no one had been to take the order for himself and his guests. Well, if I was to be mistaken for a waiter, it would be just as well to play the part. "Pardon, monsieur !" I exclaimed, dropping at once into a most deferential attitude, and immediately getting ready to write down his order on the back of a menu-card that was handy. The diner, still in the worst of humours, recited the courses he had selected. "And wine, monsieur?" I asked. Yes, he wanted wine as well, and that order also was faithfully booked. Then I went to the far end of the room to join my own party of friends. What degree of heat the diner developed when he found that his wishes were still unattended to, and what verbal avalanche the real waiter had to endure when he had to ask that the order should be repeated, are matters upon which no light can be thrown - by myself ! But to return to the story of the "explosion" in "The Mikado."
My little bit of devilment was duly reported to the management. Mr. Carte summoned me before him and looked very grave. Unauthorised diversions of this kind would never do - and certainly not when perpetrated by a leading principal. "I think it is about time you stopped your school-boy pranks," was his rebuke.
But a different side of Mr. Carte was seen in connection with a certain incident at the Savoy. The point to remember is that it had reference to something that did not involve any liberties with the performance, and this fact put it, in his eyes, in an entirely different category. We had in the company a man who was always telling tales about the rest to the stage manager. So one night some of us got hold of him, ducked his head in a bucket of dirty water, and kept it there as long as we dare. Naturally he reported us, and in due course we were summoned to attend and explain our conduct to Mr. Carte. We were bidden to enter his room one by one. I, as one of the ring-leaders, was the first to go in. "This is very serious," said Mr. Carte, but having heard my explanation of the incident, and still looking exceedingly severe, he warned me that this sort of thing must not happen again." Then, as a smile stole over his face, he added "All the same I might have done it myself !"
With that he told me, when I went out of the room, to put one hand on my temple and, with the other stretched out in the air, to exclaim " Oh! it's terrible - terrible." What the effect of this melodramatic posture was on those anxiously waiting outside may well be imagined. It could only mean instant dismissal for all of us. Then Mr. Carte had another culprit before him, and having formally rebuked him, commanded him to make his exit in much the same way. It was an excellent joke - except for those at the end of the queue.
It was Mr. D'Oyly Carte, by the way, who once did me the compliment of saying, "My dear Lytton, you have given me the finest performance I have ever seen of any part on any stage." Strange as it may seem today, the rôle which I was playing then, and which drew those most cordial words from one whose praise was always so measured and restrained, was that of Shadbolt in the 1897 London revivals of "The Yeomen of the Guard." It was impossible for a small man to play the part just as the big men had played it, and so my interpretation of it was that of a creeping, cringing little dwarf who in manner, in method and in mood was not unlike Uriah Heep. This seemed to me to be consistent with the historical figure from which the part was drawn. Gilbert, it is not generally known, took him from a wicked, wizened little wretch who, in the sixteenth century, so legend says, haunted the Tower when an execution was due, and offered the unhappy felon a handful of dust, which was, he said, "a powder that will save you from pain." For reward he claimed the victim's valuables.
When, by the way, Mr. Carte told me that mine was the best performance he had ever seen on any stage, I was so flattered by the compliment that I asked him if he would write his opinion down for me, and he readily promised to do so. Within a day or two I received a letter containing those words over his signature, and it remains amongst my treasured possessions.
Only once did I know him to be guilty of forgetfulness, and that was when, meeting me in London, he said : "Oh ! I think I can offer you an engagement, Lytton." I had to point out to him that I was actually playing in one of his companies. We were, I think, at Greenwich at the time, and I was making a flying visit to London.
Mr. Carte was a great stage manager. He could take in the details of a scene with one sweep of his eagle eye and say unerringly just what was wrong. Shortly before I was leaving town for a provincial tour he noticed that Ko-Ko's love scene with Katisha might be improved, and so we went together for an extra rehearsal into the pit bar at the Savoy. Mr. Carte said he would be Katisha and I, of course, was to be Ko-Ko. Now, to make love to a bearded man, and a man who was one's manager into the bargain, was rather a task, but we both entered heartily into the spirit of the thing. "Just act as you would if you were on the stage," was his advice, "though you needn't actually kiss me, you know!" For this scene we had an audience of one. Little Rupert D'Oyly Carte was there, and before the rehearsal commenced I lifted him on to the bar counter, where he sat and simply held his sides with laughter watching me making earnest love to his father! I imagine he remembers that incident still.
That "eye" for stagecraft, which in Mr. Richard D'Oyly Carte amounted to genius, has been inherited in a quite remarkable degree by his son, Mr. Rupert D'Oyly Carte. He, too, has the gift of taking in the details of a scene at a glance, and knowing instinctively just what must be corrected in order to make the colours blend most effectively, the action move most perfectly, and the stage arrangement generally to be in balance and proportion. I need not say that in all this he most faithfully observes all the traditions which have stood so well the test of time.
So far I have given in this chapter my random reminiscences of the chief three figures - the triumvirate, as I have called them - at the Savoy. But there was also a fourth, and it would be a grave omission were I not to mention one who, in my judgment, was as wonderful as any of them. I refer to Miss Helen Lenoir, who, after acting for some years as private secretary to Mr. Carte, became his wife. There was hardly a department of this great enterprise which did not benefit, little though the wider public knew it, from Mrs Carte's remarkable genius. It was not alone that her's was the woman's hand that lent an added tastefulness to the dressing of the productions. She was a born business woman with an outstanding gift for organisation. No financial statement was too intricate for her, and no contract too abstruse. Once, when I had to put one of her letters to me before my legal adviser, though not, I need hardly say, with any litigious intent, he declared firmly "this letter must have been written by a solicitor." He would not admit that any woman could draw up a document so cleverly guarded with qualifications.
Mrs. Carte, besides her natural business talent, had fine artistic taste and was a sound judge, too, of the capabilities of those who came to the theatre in search of engagements. The New York productions of the operas were often placed in her charge. Naturally enough, the American managers did not welcome the "invasion" any too heartily, and her responsibilities over there must have been a supreme test of her tact and powers of organisation. Yet the success of these transatlantic ventures could not be gainsaid.
When her husband died Mrs. Carte took the reins of management entirely into her keeping, and it was one of her most remarkable achievements that, not-withstanding constant pain and declining health, this wonderful woman should have carried the operas through a period when, owing to the natural reaction of time, they were suffering a temporary eclipse. Long before she died in 1913 they had entered upon a new lease of life, and to-day we find them once more on the flood tide of prosperity, loved alike by those who are loyal to their favourites of other days and no less by those of the younger generation who have been captivated by all their joyous charm of wit and melody.
Our leader to-day is Mr. Rupert D'Oyly Carte. Of him I find it difficult to speak, as is bound to be the case when one is working in constant association with one who has the same cause at heart, and sharing with him the earnest intention that the great tradition of these operas shall be worthily and faithfully upheld. Upon Rupert D'Oyly Carte's shoulders has fallen the mantle of a splendid heritage. Speaking as the oldest member of his company, and no less as one who may, claim also to be a friend, I can assure him that the happy family of artistes who serve under his banner, and who play in these pieces night by night with all the more zest because they love them for their own freshness and grace, will always do their part under him in keeping alight the "sacred lamp" of real English comedy that was first kindled into undying fires within the portals of the Savoy.
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