Gilbert and Sullivan Archive


by W.S. Gilbert

[Published in Hood's Comic Annual, 1873; reprinted, with some minor changes, in Foggerty's Fairy and Other Tales, 1890. The version which follows is the earlier one. AJC.]

Most men, whatever their occupation may be, are accustomed to study mankind exclusively from their own points of view. A man who passes his life behind a tavern bar is apt to divide the human race into those who habitually refresh themselves in public houses, and those who do not. A policeman classes society under two great heads--prosecutors and prisoners. In a footman's eyes, his fellow-men are either visitors or servants; in an author's, they are publishers or reviewers. Now, it is conceivable that a man may be at once a prosecutor, a visitor, and a publisher; but a policeman will take no heed of him in the two latter capacities; a footman will care nothing that he is a prosecutor and a publisher; and an author will in no way be concerned that he is a prosecutor (unless, indeed, he is prosecuting the author), or that he is a visitor, unless the visit be paid in his capacity as a publisher. Each man allows his immediate surroundings to interfere between himself and the world at large. He sees mankind, not through a distorting medium, but through a medium so circumscribed that it permits only one feature of the object looked at to be seen at one time. In short, he examines mankind, not through a field-glass, but through a microscope.

A theatre, examined through the powerful medium employed by a person whose occupation is intimately associated with theatres, is as unlike a theatre, as it appears in the eyes of the outside public, as a drop of magnified Thames water is unlike the apparently inorganic liquid that enters into the composition of almost everything we drink. Not one person in a thousand who sit in the auditorium of a theatre has any definite idea of the complicated process by which the untidy, badly-scrawled, interleaved, and interlineated manuscript of the author is transmuted into the close, crisp, bright, interesting entertainment that, in the eyes of the spectator, represents the value of the shilling he has paid for admittance. Still less does he know of the complicated mental process by which that manuscript (supposing it to have a genuine claim to the title "original") has been put together. Let us trace the progress of a modern three-act comedy from the blank paper stage to completion, and from completion to production.

We will assume that the author, Mr. Horace Facile, has such a recognised position in his profession as to justify a manager in saying to him, "Facile, I want a three-act comedy-drama from you, with parts for Jones and Brown and Robinson. Name your own terms, and get it ready, if you can, by this day two months."

Facile's engagements allow of him accepting the commission, and he sets to work on it as soon as may be.

In the first place, a "general idea" must be fixed upon, and in selecting it, Facile is guided, to a certain extent, by the resources of the company he is to write for. Jones is an excellent light comedian, with a recognised talent for eccentric parts; Brown is the leading "old man" of the establishment; Robinson is the handsome lover or "jeune premier;" and Miss Smith plays the interesting young ladies whose fortunes or misfortunes constitute the sentimental interest of every piece in which she plays. Probably one or more of these talented artists must be "exploited," and the nature of the "general idea" will depend on the powers or peculiarities of the actor or actress who is principally entitled to consideration. The motif of the comedy having been determined upon (we will suppose that it is to arise from the unnecessary and unchristian antagonism existing between the Theatre and the Church), Facile casts about for a story in which this motif can be effectually displayed. In selecting a story, Facile will probably be guided by the peculiarities of the company he is writing for. Brown (the "old man") has never played an Archbishop of Canterbury, and Facile believes that such a part would afford that excellent comedian a chance of distinguishing himself in a new line of character; so the story must be put together in such a manner as to admit of an Archbishop of Canterbury taking a prominent part in it. It has often occurred to Facile that Robinson, the jeune premier, could make a great deal of the part of a professional Harlequin, who, under the influence of love or some equally potent agency, has "taken orders," notwithstanding that, at the time of his doing so, he is under an engagement to play Harlequin in a forthcoming pantomime. So the story must admit, not only of an Archbishop, but also of a serious Harlequin; and, moreover, the interests of the Archbishop and the Harlequin must be interwoven in an interesting and yet sufficiently probable manner. However, the fact that there is a clerical side to the Harlequin's character, renders this exceedingly easy. The Harlequin loves the Archbishop's daughter; but the Archbishop (a very haughty ecclesiastic of the Thomas a Becket type) objects to Harlequins on principle, and determines that his daughter shall marry into the Church. Here is at once the necessary association of the Archbishop and the Harlequin, and here, moreover, is an excellent reason for the Harlequin's taking holy orders. The Archbishop admits him, in ignorance of his other profession, and places no obstacle in the way of his courting his daughter. But a good deal of the interest of the lover's part should obviously depend on the contrast between his duties as a clergyman and his duties as a Harlequin (for an obdurate manager declines to release him from his engagement in the latter capacity), and Facile sets to work to see how the two professions can be contrasted to the best advantage. This requires some consideration, but he sees his way to it at last. The Archbishop (a bitter enemy to the stage, which he denounces whenever an opportunity of doing so presents itself) happens to be the freeholder of the very theatre in which the Harlequin is engaged; and happening to call on the manager one evening, with the double object of collecting his quarter's rent and endeavouring to wean the manager from a godless profession, he meets his daughter's lover in Harlequin costume. Here is an opportunity for a scene of haughty recrimination--the Archbishop reproaching the curate for combining the pulpit with the stage (by-the-bye, here is the title for the piece--"The Pulpit and the Stage"), and the curate reproaching the Archbishop with his hypocritical denunciation of an institution from which he derives, in the shape of rent, an income of say four thousand a year. At this juncture the Archbishop's daughter must be introduced. It will be difficult to account, with anything like probability, for her presence behind the scenes during the performance of a pantomime; but with a little ingenuity even this may be accomplished. For instance, she may have come with a view of proselytizing the ballet; and a scene on the stage in which she is seen proselytizing the ballet, who can't get away from her because they are all hanging on irons, ready for the transformation scene, might precede the arrival of the Archbishop. The act (the second) must end with the struggle (on the daughter's part) between filial respect for her venerable father, and her love for the Harlequin, resulting, of course, in her declaring for the Harlequin, and the Archbishop's renunciation of her "for ever."

This will fill two acts. The third act must show the Harlequin (now a curate) married to the Archbishop's daughter, and living in the humblest circumstances somewhere in Lambeth. They are happy, although they are extremely poor. They have many friends--some clerical, some theatrical--but all on the best of terms with each other, through the benevolent agency of the ex-Harlequin. Deans drop in from Convocation at Westminster--actors and actresses from rehearsal at Astley's; and it is shown, beyond the possibility of doubt, that the two professions have many points in common (here is an opportunity for introducing hits at High Church mummeries, with imitations of popular preachers by Wilkinson, the low comedian). Now to introduce the Archbishop. Since his renunciation of his daughter he has become a changed man. Too haughty to admit his error frankly, and take her and her husband to his Heart and Palace, he is nevertheless painfully conscious that he has acted harshly; and, in a spirit of secret self-humiliation, he disguises himself as one of the undignified clergy, and in that capacity goes through a course of house-to-house visitation. The natural course of this duty brings him to the humble abode of his daughter and son-in-law. He enters unperceived (of course in ignorance of the fact that it is their abode) during Wilkinson's imitations, and overhears a touching scene, in which his daughter indignantly rebukes Wilkinson for giving an imitation of her Right Reverend father's pulpit peculiarities. The old man, utterly softened by this unexpected touch of filial affection, comes forward, and, in broken accents, admits both the correctness of the imitation, and the filial respect that induced his daughter to check it, folds her and her husband to his heart, and gives him the next presentation to a valuable living--the present incumbent (who is present) being an aged man who cannot, in the course of nature, expect to survive many months. On this touching scene the curtain descends.

Here is an outline of a plot which Facile believes will answer every purpose. The Archbishop, the daughter, and the Harlequin will afford three excellent acting parts. The manager will be a bit of "character" for Jones, the eccentric comedian; the actor who gives imitations of popular preachers will fit Wilkinson's powers of mimicry to a T; the tottering old incumbent, to whose living the ex-Harlequin is to succeed, will afford Tompkins an opportunity of introducing one of his celebrated "cabinet pictures" of pathetic old men; and for the other members of the company small effective parts, arising naturally from the exigencies of the story, will readily be found.

The next thing Facile does is to arrange striking situations for the end of each act. The first act must end with an announcement from the Harlequin that he has just taken holy orders; the happiness of the bishop's daughter at the information, and the entrance of the manager, who tells the Harlequin that he shall nevertheless hold him to his engagement for the forthcoming pantomime. The second act must end with the renunciation of his daughter by the Archbishop, and the last with the general reconciliation. Facile then sets to work to write the dialogue. As a rule, this is not written straight off. He first tries his hand upon bits of dialogue that arise from suggestive situations--perhaps the first interview between the Archbishop's daughter and himself in Lambeth Palace. Then perhaps he will write the proselytizing scene in the second act; then the dialogue that leads to the situation at the end of Act I.; and so on. After he has "settled" half a dozen little scenes of this description, he feels that it is time to arrange how the piece is to begin. The first act takes place in the Archbishop's library in Lambeth Palace. Shall the Archbishop and his daughter be "discovered" at breakfast? No; both the Archbishop and his daughter (that is to say, the actor and actress who are to play those parts) object to be "discovered." They want an "entrance," that they may receive special and individual "receptions," and they don't like to begin a piece, as in that case they are liable to constant interruption from the arrival of such of the audience as are not in their places when the curtain rises. Perhaps Jones (the manager) won't mind beginning, as his part is likely to be a particularly good one: he might call on the Archbishop about the rent of the theatre. But in this case there must be a servant to receive him. Well, Facile tries this: Servant discovered (dusting, of course); soliloquy (this gives the manager an entrance); knock; servant don't answer it on principle until several times repeated; eventually admits manager; treats manager contemptuously (or, better still, as he is an Archbishop's servant, with a grave and pitying air, as who should say, "Poor worldly sheep! we--that is to say, the Archbishop and I--despise you, but we don't hate you"); servant leaves to inform Archbishop; sarcastic soliloquy by manager; enter Archbishop; thunders of applause at Archbishop's "make-up"; and so on. Probably Facile writes and re-writes this scene half a dozen times--it gives him more trouble than all the rest of the act put together; for there are so many ways of beginning a piece, and it is so difficult to find sufficient reason for selecting one and rejecting all the rest. However, Facile is eventually satisfied; the scenes that he has already written are tacked together with dialogue of a more commonplace order, and Act I. is completed.

At this point Facile is apt to pause and to take breath. Perhaps he will run over to Paris, or go to the sea-side for a month, "to collect his thoughts." His thoughts collected, he will make a tremendous effort to begin the second act; but here all the difficulty that he experienced in beginning Act I. crops up again tenfold. We protest, from practical experience, that there is nothing in the dramatist's profession that presents so many distasteful difficulties as the commencing the second act of a three-act comedy. His first act is short, sharp, crisp, and to the point--"totus teres atque rotundus"--perfectly satisfactory in itself--artistically put together, and telling the audience all they require to know in order to understand what follows, but nothing more. The thread of interest is broken at an exciting point, and it has now to be taken up again in such a way as not to anticipate secrets and "situations" that require time to develope. If, in commencing the first act, Facile was bothered with the choice of five hundred "openings," he is ten times as much bothered now from the fact that he has only two or three, and none of them likely to be effective when reduced to dialogue. However, a letter from the management probably wakes him up at this point. With a desperate effort he sets to work, writing detached scenes as before, and writing the opening dialogue last as before; and, in process of time, Act II. is completed. His work is now practically at an end. Act III. is a simple matter enough. He has laid the train in Acts I. and II., and all that remains is to bring about the catastrophe in the quickest possible manner consistent with the story he has to tell. By the time that he has finished Act II., he has cleared away all his difficulties. The different peculiarities of his principal characters have not only been irrevocably determined on, but he has, by this time, become thoroughly saturated with their spirit; and he has no difficulty whatever in bringing the last act shortly and sharply to an effective conclusion. Facile, who knows his work pretty well, has a theory that no piece has ever yet been written which deserves to arrest the attention of an audience for more than two hours at a time, and he has not the vanity to believe that any piece of his is likely to prove an exception to the rule.

The piece, duly completed, is sent to the manager who is to produce it. That gentleman has sufficient faith in Facile to justify him in handing it over at once to his prompter, who proceeds to make a fair copy for his own use, and another for the Lord Chamberlain's inspection. He also copies the "parts" from which the actors and actresses are to study, and which contain simply the words that the actor for whom it is intended has to speak, the stage directions that concern him, and the last three or four words of every speech that immediately precedes his own. As soon as the parts are fairly copied, a "reading" is called--that is to say, the members of the company are summoned to hear the piece read by the author in the green-room. This is an ordeal that Facile particularly dreads. He reads abominably--all authors do--and he knows it. He begins well: he reads slowly and emphatically, with all the proper pauses duly marked; and he indicates the stage directions with just the right modulation of voice. All is quite satisfactory until--say on page 9--he comes to a "point" on which he relies for a hearty laugh. He makes his point, and dwells for a moment upon it. Nobody notices it except the stage-manager, who thinks he has paused because he is hoarse, and kindly pours him out a glass of water. Much abashed by this, Facile pounds through the rest of the manuscript at an astounding pace--hurrying intentionally over all the "good things" as if he were ashamed of them--which, for the moment, he is--and slurring over stirring passages as if they were merely incidental to the general purpose of the scene--as though, in fact, the scene had not been originally constructed in order to introduce them. As he approaches the end of the second act, he becomes quite unconscious of the fact he is reading at all until recalled by an enforced pause occasioned by the accident of a misplaced leaf, or the opening or shutting of the green-room door. As he commences the third act, he finds himself wandering into falsetto every now and then; he becomes husky and out of tune; he takes a copious drink of water, and the words immediately begin to babble into each other in a manner altogether incomprehensible. He falls into his old habit of slurring over important passages, but endeavours to compensate for this by laying such exceptional stress upon sentences of no ultimate importance, that his audience begin to wish they had paid more attention to the earlier passages of the play, that they might understand more clearly the force of the old clergyman's remark about the weather, or the subtlety of the ex-harlequin's invitation to the low comedian to sit down and make himself comfortable. Facile finds the "imitations" in the third act seem to make no impression, which is not to be wondered at, considering that he reads them "off the reel" without any modification of voice at all. At length, very much to his own surprise, he finds himself at the last page--which is always a tremendously long page to read: you never seem to get to the bottom of it--and, with his heart thumping away in his mouth, he pronounces the word "curtain," and closes the manuscript with--"There, that's over!" and proceeds at once to talk, with great volubility, about the sort of day that it is--the bad business they've been doing at the "Folly"--or the horrible report that Mrs. Miggleton, the wife of Miggleton, the first surgeon of the day, never "shows" in society, because her husband has, at different times and in the interests of science, cut away so much of her, by way of experiment, that only the vital portions are left--about anything, in short, except the piece he has just been reading. The stage-manager distributes the "parts," and the author hurries away--in order to avoid that row with Miss Smith--after appointing a day and hour for "comparing parts."

In the course of this process--a very dismal one indeed--the members of the company who are engaged in the piece endeavour to decipher the parts and to ascertain the context. The copyist's errors are corrected, and everyone begins to have some idea of his or her position with reference to the other persons engaged. It is usually a long and tedious process, and eminently calculated to reduce Facile's self-esteem to vanishing-point. After this preliminary canter is over, Facile thinks he may as--well look up Mr. Flatting, the scene painter, who has been at work for the last fortnight on the Archbishop's library, and who is about to begin the "behind the scenes" scene in the second act. Facile climbs into the tall, narrow, dingy shed called by courtesy a painting-room, and finds Flatting describing the "model" to the carpenter and machinist, who will have a good deal to do with it, as it is a set of a rather complicated description. Facile settles matters with Flatting, and goes home to dine, sleep, wake at eleven o'clock, and set to work till three in the morning, altering this scene, polishing up that dialogue, making it crisper here, and filling it out with business there, as the experience of the morning may have suggested. The next day is the first rehearsal proper. A table and three chairs are set in the middle of the stage against the footlights. One of these is for the stage manager, one for the prompter, and one for the author. Very often the stage manager and prompter are one and the same individual, but the three chairs (one on the "prompt side" of the table and two on the "opposite prompt") are always there. Facile knows something of stage management, and invariably stage-manages his own pieces--an exceptional thing in England, but the common custom in France. He is nothing of an actor, and when he endeavours to show what he wants his actors to do, he makes himself rather ridiculous, and there is a good deal of tittering at the wings; but he contrives, nevertheless, to make himself understood, and takes particularly good care that whatever his wishes are, they shall be carried out to the letter, unless good cause is shown to the contrary. He has his own way; and if the piece is a success, he feels that he has contributed more than the mere words that are spoken. At the same time, if Facile is not a self-sufficient donkey, he is only too glad to avail himself of valuable suggestions offered by persons who have ten times his experience in the details of stage management. And so the piece flounders through rehearsal--the dingy theatre lighted by a T-piece in front of the stage, which has no perceptible effect at the back; the performers usually (at all events during the first two or three rehearsals) standing in a row with their backs to the auditorium, that the light may fall on crabbed manuscripts they are reading from; the author endeavouring, but in vain, to arrange effective exits and entrances, because nobody can leave the T-piece; the stage manager or prompter (who follows the performers) calling a halt from time to time that he may correct an overlooked error in his manuscript or insert a stage direction. The actors themselves pause from time to time for the same reason. Every one has (or should have) a pencil in hand; all errors are corrected and insertions made on the spot; every important change of position is carefully marked; every "cross" indicated as the piece proceeds; and as alterations in dialogue and business are made up to the last moment--all of which have to be hurriedly recorded at the time--it will be understood that the "parts" are in rather a dilapidated condition before the rehearsals are concluded.

Eventually the piece is ready for representation--three weeks' preparation is supposed to be a liberal allowance--and with one imperfect scene rehearsal, and no dress rehearsal at all, the piece is presented to the public. It probably passes muster on the first night, whatever its merits may be; in a week or ten days actors begin to "do something" with their parts; and in a fortnight the piece is probably at its best.

There is much, very much, fault to be found (so Facile says) with the system--or rather the want of system--that prevails at rehearsals in this country. In the first place, every actor and every person engaged in the piece should have a perfect copy of the piece, and that copy should be printed, not written. It costs from five to six pounds to print a three-act comedy, and in return for this trifling outlay much valuable time and an infinity of trouble would be saved, not only to the prompter, but to the actors and the author.* It is absolutely necessary that every actor should have the context of his scenes before his eyes as he studies them. He also says (does Facile) that it is a monstrous shame and an unheard-of injustice to place three-act pieces on the stage with fewer than thirty rehearsals, in ten of which the scenes should be set as they will be set at night, and in five of which every soul engaged should be dressed and made up as they will be dressed and made up at night. As it is now, Jones, who is always fearfully nervous on "first nights," is embarrassed to find himself called upon to repeat his scarcely-learnt words in a spacious and handsomely furnished apartment, blazing with gas and gold-foil, instead of the cold, dark, empty stage on which he has been rehearsing them. This is of itself enough to drive the words out of the head of Jones. Then Jones, who has practised several scenes with Brown (on the stage an "old man," but in private life an airy, dressy gentleman of thirty summers), finds himself called upon to speak his words, not to the dressy Brown, but to a white-headed and generally venerable ecclesiastic, in gold spectacles and knee-breeches--that is to say, Brown, the Archbishop. These surprises (for to a nervous man they are surprises) are enough to unhinge Jones altogether. He makes a mess of his part for a night or two, picks up again after that, and in a fortnight is the talk of the town. Now, if Jones had had an opportunity of rehearsing with Brown the Archbishop, instead of with Brown the Swell, and if he had rehearsed his scenes in the Archbishop's Library, and not on the empty stage, Jones might have become the talk of the town from the first. In first-class French theatres this system is adopted. Parts are distributed, learnt perfectly, and then rehearsed for six weeks or two months, sometimes for three or four months. Scene rehearsals and dress rehearsals occupy the last week of preparations. Actors and actresses act at rehearsal: they have been taught and required to do so from the first; and the consequence is that a bad actor becomes a reasonably good actor, and a reasonably good actor becomes an admirable actor, by sheer dint of the microscopic investigation that his acting receives from the stage-manager and from the author. And until this system is in force in England; until the necessity for longer periods of preparation, for rehearsals that are rehearsals in fact, and not merely in name--rehearsals with scenery, dresses, and "make-up," as they are to be at night; earnest rehearsals, with every expression given as it is to be given at night, every gesture marked as it is to be marked at night; until the necessity for such preparation as this is recognized in England, the English stage will never take the position to which the intelligence of its actors and actresses, the enterprise of its managers, and the talent of its authors, would otherwise entitle it. At least, so says Facile.


*By-the-bye, here is an invaluable hint to Messieurs the Unacted. Never send a manuscript to a manager. Always print your play before you send it in. It will be read; and if rejected, it will be for a good and genuine reason. There are thumping prizes in dramatic literature; and the five-pound outlay will be returned to you a thousandfold, if your piece happens to turn up trumps

This article was contributed to the Gilbert & Sullivan Archive by Andrew Crowther.

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