The Ecphorizer

Memories of an American Savoyard
Paul W. Healy

Issue #42 (February 1985)



Last month the postman delivered a two-cassette offering from the Musical Heritage Society: "D'OYLY CARTE-The Last Night: An Evening of Excerpts from Gilbert and Sullivan Operas." The tapes do indeed contain excerpts from all thirteen operas by Gilbert and Sullivan, plus their cantata Trial by Jury and an additional Sullivan work, Cox and Box (the book is by F.C. [quoteright'/>Burnand). The tapes, which were made live from the D'Oyly Carte's final performance on February 27, 1982, brought back many fond and pleasant memories.

The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company began its American tour at the Central City (Colorado) Opera House in the summer of 1955. The Central City Festival, an annual event since the opera house was refurbished and reopened in 1932, imported performing companies to stage grand opera, light opera, ballet, and plays. I had heard months earlier that the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company was to spend two weeks in performance as the season opener and I could hardly wait to hear them. I was then the proud possessor of a set of old Victor Red Seal records (78 rpm, of course) of all the operas the company had recorded-eight complete ones, excerpts from The Sorcerer, and all of Trial by Jury. The experience of hearing the D'Oyly Carte in person was a never-to-be-forgotten one even if marred somewhat, I admit, by the fact that the audience seemed to consist mainly of local ranchers and wives who knew nothing of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas and seemed to care less. They applauded in the middle of songs but failed to applaud at the end, so we missed out on nearly all the wonderful encores for which the company was so famous. When I attended later performances in San Francisco, the audiences had been trained by the wonderful local company, The Lamplighters, and the encores were delivered to thundering applause.

I said above that the Heritage Society tapes contained music from all the operas; yet readers of any Gilbert or Sullivan biography quickly learn that the entire score of the first G&S collaboration, Thespis or The Gods Grown Old, was lost and has never been found-so how could it be included? It could not, of course, save for one interesting fact: the song the daughters of General Stanley sing when they enter the "rocky sea-shore on the coast of Cornwall," as stage directions in The Pirates of Penzance say, was lifted bodily from Thespis. The reason for the insertion of a piece from Thespis into Pirates is rather interesting. Sullivan put it in at Gilbert's suggestion because he had forgotten to bring his notes for the first act music of Pirates with him from London to New York. [see sidebar'/> He could remember all the music, except this entering chorus, and the New York opening night was upon them. Hence the suggestion to use the entrance of the Thespians, both words and music (SuUivan remembered that music). So the program notes indicate that this piece is from Thespis, but add, "Transferred to The Pirates of Penzance."

After the demise of the badly rehearsed and poorly received Thespis there surely was no one in England who thought Gilbert and Sullivan had any future together -except one man: Richard D'Oyly Carte. He was presenting a rather short operetta, La Perichole, by Offenbach, at the Royalty theater in London, and since there was no mob storming the doors each night he decided to add an afterpiece, a short dramatic cantata, and he remembered Thespis. He persuaded Gilbert to meet with him and Sullivan, and Trial by Jury was the result. Soon the house was filled each evening, and it was apparent that it was the afterpiece that was filling it. D'Oyly Carte knew a good thing when he saw it, and he was able to keep the partnership going for twenty-one years (1875-1896).

William Schwenck Gilbert (1836-1911) had one of the keenest wits of his day, and not just in writing. He also excelled in repartee, as these examples show.

Mrs. Gilbert often went to rehearsals with her husband. One day, when she had preceded him to the theater, Gilbert entered from the rear, and, seeing her nowhere in the auditorium, asked of a stagehand, "Where is Mrs. Gilbert?" "Oh, she's 'round behind," came the response. "I know that," replied Gilbert, "but where is she?"

Standing one day before the entrance to his men's club, Gilbert was mistaken for the doorman by a newcomer, who addressed him, "Sir, call me a cab." Gilbert looked him over scornfully, then replied, "Very well. You're a four-wheeler." "I beg your pardon!" said the man angrily. "Well," said Gilbert, "you told me to call you a cab, and I certainly couldn't call you hansom."

When Ruddigore opened (January 22, 1887), some members of the audience actually booed. Never too popular, partly because the title reminded the English of bloody (a swear word), it was sometimes referred to as "Bloodygore." One day a friend said to Gilbert, "How's Bloodygore going?" "You mean Ruddigore," said Gilbert. "Same thing," was the casual response. "Indeed!" said Gilbert. "Then if I say I admire your ruddy countenance (which I do), it means I like your bloody cheek (which I don’t).”

Sir Arthur Sullivan (he was knighted by Victoria; Gilbert had to wait for the same honor until Edward VII ascended the throne) was noted not only for his remarkable musical talent but also for having perfect pitch. One day he and a companion were about to visit a friend who lived in one of the row houses on a long London street. Sullivan knew the block but had forgotten the house number. "Never mind," he said to his companion, "we'll find it." He then proceeded to walk up the few steps to each house-front and scrape his boot on the boot scraper. After a number of tries, he stopped, turned to his companion, and said, "Ah, C-sharp. This is the place."

Any true Savoyard (the name comes from the Savoy Theatre, which D'Oyly Carte built as a home for the G&S operas) is intrigued by the changes made in the text of the songs by both the D'Oyly Carte Company and others. Some are dictated by changing sensitivities of the times. In the original text of The Mikado for example, Ko-Ko's "little list" (of people who never would be missed) contains the words "nigger serenader," and The Mikado's "Let the punishment fit the crime" number refers to the lady who is "blacked like a nigger, with permanent walnut juice." Understandably, these phrases have been changed to "banjo serenader" and "painted with vigor and permanent walnut juice"-the latter making little sense; as Martyn Green once complained, "What color is 'vigor?'" Sometimes a word is altered because it is not considered topical. The Mikado speaks of "that singular anomaly, the lady novelist." In all the D'Oyly Carte recordings she becomes "prohibitionist"-yet the definitive production of The Mikado for television (Brent Walker Productions, recorded in England) restores the "lady novelist," now no more an anomaly than the prohibitionist! This latest British production, which uses William Conrad as a rather unmusical Mikado, has Nanki-Poo going to Tipperary instead of Knightsbridge. In Gilbert's day there was a Japanese village in Knightsbridge as part of the Japanese Exposition, so the line got a big laugh. Later, when touring, the D'Oyly Carte company would substitute some local name - I seem to recall Carmel as the spot chosen when they played in San Francisco. But why, oh, why, a change to an Irish location, unless because it is, at least, "abroad," which Knightsbridge clearly is not? In The Pirates of Penzance the Major General deplores his lack of military knowledge concerning modern weapons and mentions a "chassepot rifle." This rifle was invented by Antonie A. Chassepot and was used by the French army in 1870. In actual performance, it was replaced by "Mauser rifle," which surely is no more familiar to modern audiences than a chassepot rifle.

For many years San Francisco has rejoiced in the presence of one of the best G&S companies in the world, The Lamplighters. The late Anthony Boucher rated some of its principals (June Wilkins in particular) as better than anyone in the D'Oyly Carte company. Occasionally The Lamplighters have even attempted to "improve" on the traditional performances. Gilbert had abandoned, after the first few weeks, the practice of having all the ancestors in the picture gallery restored to life at the end of Act II in Ruddigore; the last act was revised to have only Sir Roderic restored to life, and the D'Oyly Carte company always plays it that way. The Lamplighters also restore the original spelling, Ruddygore, a change that makes the remark of Gilbert's friend (?) about "Bloodygore" a little more understandable.

There is no joint memorial to Gilbert and Sullivan in England, but on the Victoria Embankment, a few blocks from the Savoy, is a bronze bust of Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan. Against the pedestal is a bronze figure of Grief with a broken lyre; carved on the base is a fragment of Fairfax's song from The Yeomen of the Guard:

Is life a boon?
If so, it must befall
That Death, whene'er he call,
Must call too soon.

It is England's only monument to an English composer of the 19th century. A short distance away, set in the wall of the Embankment, is a bas-relief of Gilbert. Beneath his profile is the epitaph of Anthony Hope Hawkins:

His foe was folly, and his weapon wit

But now, after the quarreling partners have been three-quarters of a century in their graves, there is sometimes a joint memorial. It is displayed outside the theaters where the greatest of all comic operas are performed:

Gilbert and Sullivan
Standing Room Only 

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Paul Healy




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