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Actors and Authors by W S Gilbert


Sir William Schwenk Gilbert (1836-1911) is today best remembered for his collaboration with Sir Arthur Sullivan which gave us the wonderful and quintessentially English Operas which bear their joint names. Recently, a souvenir brochure for a benefit matinee which was held at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on May 11th 1909, in aid of the Queen Alexandra Sanatorium at Davos, came to light. The show starred many of the great entertainers of the day, including Harry Lauder, Harry Tate, Ellen Terry and Weedon Grossmith. The brochure contained a section, containing illustrations, prose and drama, provided by authors and entertainers who did not appear on the day. Amongst these was this piece by Gilbert. In it he ponders, with his wit undiminished, the relationship between the author and the actors who bring his work before the public.

Actors and AuthorsBy Sir W. S. GilbertHE relation that exists between actors and authors is very imperfectly understood by the great body of playgoers. The general impression appears to be that the author hands his manuscript to the manager, that the manager places it in the hands of the clever people to whom he has allotted the various parts, and that those talented ladies and gentlemen lay their heads together in order to settle among themselves how the author’s work may be most effectively placed before the public. This may possibly be something like what takes place n the case of an absolutely new and untried author who is not qualified to cast and stage-manage his own work, and who is, consequently, properly grateful to the people of experience who undertake to do for him that which he ought to be able to do for himself. But even in this case there is always a stage-manager (probably the actual manager of the theatre) who directs the stage, and decides finally what is to be done upon it. Of course, when the manager is also an actor, as he is in nine cases out of ten, he takes the entire control of the stage, and is generally careful that his own part will not suffer be being kept unduly in the background.This vague and imperfect view of the relation of the author to the actor is the natural outcome of the fact that the author, unless his name is a household word among the paying public, is generally regarded by them (when they think of him at all) as a minor official, who ranks with, but after, the prompter. His active collaboration in the production of the play may be conceivably be insignificant, but if he can boast of even moderate experience he is a man who is assuredly to be reckoned with; whereas if he stands in the front or second rank of dramatists he becomes a very important personage indeed. Even the most inexperienced author of a play that possesses any claim to originality is entitled to be consulted as to his views and intentions, and to have those views and intentions carried into effect, unless they are obviously inconsistent with what an experienced stage-manager knows to be practicable and effective. In such a case the novice, unless he is a very conceited and self-opinionated novice, will be grateful for the advice tendered to him by a man of experience in stage production, and will gladly subordinate his own views to those of his adviser.W S Gilbert
The author of wide experience and acknowledged position has frequently a very delicate duty to discharge, and one that calls for the exercise of infinite tact and discretion. He knows exactly what he wants, and he means to get it; but in order to do so he must handle the principal actor and actresses with diplomatic courtesy, or unpleasant and unrehearsed scenes may ensue. Of course no actor of acknowledged position would submit to be “coached” by an imperious author, however distinguished that author might be; for, theoretically, the actor’s duty is simply to ascertain exactly the author’s intentions, and then to carry them out in his own way. But in practise the actor, if he is actuated by any sincere belief in the author’s ability, is only too anxious to ascertain exactly what is wanted of him -even to the extent of consulting him on points of costume and make-up -and to carry out the author’s exact wishes to the very best of his ability. This is an attitude on the actor’s part which no author has a right to insist upon (I am speaking now of leading actors), but which every actor is heartily willing to concede. That, at least, is my experience. In the whole course of my dramatic career, extending over forty-three years and involving the production of about eighty plays of every description, I can only recall one instance of an actor taking his own course in preference to mine.But in order to achieve his end the author had to exercise great care and self-control. When he finds anything that stands in need of correction, that correction should be made in the form of a suggestion, which the actor may or may not care to adopt. The author may have to admit that there is a good deal to be said in favour of the actor’s reading of a speech, but that possibly the reading that the author has to suggest may be even more effective. I do not mean to say that it is necessary that this rather delicate and Agag-like form of approach should invariably be adopted. Authors who are on friendly or intimate terms with the leading members of their companies may presume on that friendship, and suggestions conveyed much more abruptly will be received in perfect good-humour, but that is, to a great extent a question of camaraderie. The author’s greatest difficulty lies in the necessity of directing an actor’s attention to an obvious mispronunciation -a feat that must be achieved without humiliating the actor in the presence of his professional brethren.Many years ago I was engaged in rehearsing a burlesque, and a very clever young lady had to sing the couplet -Indubitably if you do
It will be the worse for you.The clever young lady whose pronunciation was not always beyond reproach, delivered the lines thus -Indubitubly if you do
It will be the worse for you.This, of course, would not do, so I determined to alter the word to “inevitably”. The young lady agreed that the alteration greatly improved the verse, but she was not to be deprived of her “tub,” so she sang it -Inevitubly if you do
It will be the worse for you.This was just as bad, so I made it “unquestionably,” and, of course, it came out -Unquestionubly if you do
It will be the worse for you.I could think of no other word that would answer the purpose, so, as a last resort, I said to her-
“Do you think it is advisable to give the word its French accent?”
“How do you mean ?”
“Why ‘unquestionubly’ – that’s the way it is pronounced in Paris. In addressing and English audience perhaps the simple English version of the word would be better. Try it at all events, ‘unquestionably’ – a instead of u. ‘Unquestionubly’ would be all very well for the stalls, but the gallery wouldn’t understand it.”
“Of course,” said she, “the English accent would certainly be more appropriate.”
And she sang it “unquestionably,” like the good girl that she was.Such instances could be multiplied indefinitely, for they are within the experience of every dramatist who stage-manages his own plays.Another difficulty arises when two highly accomplished ladies who are at mortal enmity with each other have to play the parts of two affectionate and devoted sisters, as they had in a blank-verse play of mine, forty years since. In this case I was necessarily the conduit-pipe of communication between them, and something like the following scene took place:-Miss A: “Mr Gilbert, will you kindly ask Miss B. to be so good as to yield herself, to some extent, to the painful exigencies of the scene? It is my duty to embrace her fondly, but I cannot carry out that stage-direction if she persists in keeping me at arm’s length.”Miss B: “I will do my best Mr. Gilbert; but Miss A. has, apparently, been lunching on peppermint lozenges, and peppermint always has an unpleasant effect on me.”Miss A. (quivering with resentment): “I must ask you, Mr. Gilbert, to remind Miss B. that it is possible to lunch on stronger refreshment than peppermint lozenges, Mr. Gilbert.”Miss B. (shivering with hostility): “Am I to understand, Mr. Gilbert, that Miss A. presumes to suggest that I have taken spirituous liquor with my luncheon?”Mr. Gilbert (very hot and uncomfortable): “I am sure Miss A. only meant to suggest that, in selecting peppermint lozenges for her refreshment, she imposed a reasonable and proper restraint on her appetite, Miss B.”Miss B.: “Very good, I accept that explanation, and if Miss A. will present her forehead, I will do my best to kiss it, Mr. Gilbert; though I need hardly say that the process will be far from agreeable to me.”Miss A.: “You may assure Miss B., Mr. Gilbert, that though Miss B. and I have very little in common, yet in that respect we are fellow-sufferers.”And Miss A. presented here forehead to Miss B. as though she were about to butt her, and Miss B. gave it a perfunctory peck. And so it was throughout their scenes; but it must be admitted that “at night” and under the influence of an admiring audience, both ladies behaved as though they had but one sentiment in their minds -a mutual affection whose delirium knew no bounds.