Scene 4: 1883-1885 Princess Ida to The Mikado
(Two small office sets enter, one from each side, one with Gilbert and the other with Sullivan, they are seen at their desks composing letters to each other. The two take it in turns to be writing while reading their words aloud as they do, or read aloud a received letter. A spotlight picks out the individual currently writing and switches back and forth.)
Gilb (Writing) As you know, for our next piece I decided to revisit my play ‘The Princess’ which itself was a tribute to Lord Tennyson’s poem of the same name. I plan this as a respectful operatic version of the poem, with much of the dialogue coming directly from my play.
When I first read Act I out to you, you raised some reservations, but after six months of rewriting you agreed and in fact complimented the approach. When we then met at Eastbury we made alterations and modifications to which again you expressed yourself content. But you have of late indicated that there are further changes that you seek?
Sull (Writing) After my commitments in Leeds I returned with a fresh eye to my work on the ‘Princess’. I am concerned that this, our first three-act piece, will have two long intervals for scene-changes. I believe some judicious rearrangement is in order.
The first Act needs to end with more of a flourish, perhaps using ‘For the rum-tum-tum’ there? The piece it replaces, the more serene ‘O Dainty Triolet’, might be moved to the end of Act 3, where I believe it will be more appropriate.
Gilb (Writing) I have accepted your thoughts and reworked the libretto as you suggested. We are arranging costumes from Paris and the plans for the scenery are well-advanced. I should advise you that I have plans for ‘Princess Ida’ to engage a larger cast than is usual. While this will eat into our early profits I believe it important to the piece.
Sull (Writing) I do still entertain some doubts as to the currency of the subject of voting rights and education for women. Since the time of Tennyson’s poem Oxford has opened Girton and Newnham, and Cambridge both Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall. Has this not alleviated this matter? But I am very satisfied that the score will be our first that is more in the style of grand opera.
Gilb (Writing) The piece is based on another’s poem, and it is this which necessitates the three acts. These are unbalanced, Acts I and III if placed together would still be less than half the length of Act II.
Further the blank verse format does not allow me my normal freedom to elaborate and diverge along the route. I fear there are not enough jokes in the piece to keep the audience entertained. But I take a great deal of joy that with the unlikeable King Gama I have parodied my very self!
(The two office sets are dimmed, a spot picks up Bar as KING GAMA, he enters from Gilbert’s side of the stage, takes centre stage before the curtain and delivers his song.)
Princess Ida: King Gama’s song
CHORUS (from off stage): Oh, isn’t your life, etc.
CHORUS (from off stage): Oh, isn’t your life, etc.
CHORUS (from off stage): Oh, isn’t your life, etc.
(He bursts into tears and leaves the stage.)
(The office sets are illuminated in turn.)
Sull (Writing) I must apologise for further delays in completing the work on ‘Princess’. But over Christmas I received several personal setbacks. My sister-in-law has remarried and has decided to move to California, taking my brother Fred’s children with her, as you know I have felt responsible for them since his death, but how can I take care of them over there?
Also I have been much affected by precious old Freddy Clay’s series of strokes. I went to see him and while he appears bright and cheery he has lost his power of speech, it is just so awful. These two shocks have left me weak and poorly and my sickness has wasted no time in taking its cue to return.
Gilb (Writing) I am extremely concerned to be advised of a return of your illness.
Sull (Writing) I am afraid that I should have taken more notice of you, because having worked through New Year’s Eve and rehearsed much of New Year’s Day, I left the Savoy at 2:30 am to trudge through a snowstorm to my home. On arrival there I have to report that my body reached the end of its reserves and I collapsed. I cannot sleep. I have pain that even morphine cannot resolve. I fear in these circumstances that I may miss our opening night.
Gilb (Writing) I am disturbed by your news but will instruct Carte to have Cellier take your place on opening night. You need to rest and recover fully.
Sull (He reads the letter from Gilbert, is clearly in pain, but takes out his diary) 4th January 1884 – Resolved to conduct the first performance of the new Opera.
Gilb (Writing) When you insisted on conducting the opening night I found that I could not pursue my usual course of walking the streets, instead I sat in the Green Room and read the newspaper so that I would be on hand, though what I might do I know not. Your resolve is remarkable, but your body had the final say when you promptly collapsed after our curtain call. I really insist that you must begin to take more care of yourself!
Sull (Writing) I shall indeed be taking your advice with a long vacation in the winter sunshine of Monte Carlo. If I needed more urging, then the condition of poor Clay is most compelling, his career is over – at just 45 years old!
(He takes out his diary) 29th of January 1884 – Advised Carte of my decision not to write any more Savoy operas! Though presumptuously he appeared to think he might change my mind over a meal.
(While not illuminated Sullivan’s office set moves off and a terrace set moves in, a garden table and chair next to a large plant pot, while he changes in to casual clothes – for Monte Carlo.)
Gilb (Reading from a letter) Have you seen Carte’s letter of 22nd March announcing that ’Princess Ida’ is showing signs of dropping, therefore pursuant to our agreement he writes to give us six months’ notice of a new opera being required.
Sull (He is sat at the garden table, puts aside the two letters and writes) 28th March, Dear Carte, It is with regret that I write to say I would find it impossible to do another piece of the character of those already written. My reason for this decision I can give you verbally when we meet. When I return to town, I must of course talk the matter over with Gilbert and hear what his views on the subject are.
Gilb (Writing) I scarcely know how to deal with such an announcement, coming as it does through Carte, a third person. Must I remind you that we have an obligation to deliver a new opera within the six months’ notice or be responsible for Carte’s losses. Thus, I must express my unbounded surprise, I have invariably subordinated my views to your own.
You have often mentioned the thorough good feeling with which we have worked together for so many years, I have received no indication that you have changed this opinion so I am absolutely at a loss to account for this decision.
Particularly as I have made a start on the next piece and have sent you two letters containing some of the lyrics, without receiving any reply in the positive or to suggest I was wasting my time and effort on this work. I do trust that you will reconsider?
Sull (Still in terrace set, writing) You cannot appreciate the pressures that I am receiving, from all sides I am being urged by friends and royal personages that I must concentrate on oratorio or symphony. It was something of a shock when I came to realise that at Leeds I was being applauded as the conductor, not a composer. There had been talk of me producing a symphony for that Festival, but our collaboration on ‘Princess Ida’ took up all of my time.
Prior to this Carte and I had talked of a full-scale operatic work for Covent Garden, based upon Mary Queen of Scots, this too was overwhelmed by our work. I increasingly fear that I am not fulfilling my promise and obligation towards British music.
I will be quite frank, with ‘Princess Ida’ I have come to the end of my tether, the end of my capability in that class of piece. It has hitherto been word setting, I might almost say syllable setting, for I have looked upon the words everywhere of such importance that I have been continually keeping down the music in order that not one should be lost.
I should like the music to arise and speak for itself which requires a story that has a feeling of reality about it, a story of human interest and probability, where the humorous words would come in a humorous (not serious) situation, and where, if the situation were a tender or dramatic one, the words would be of similar character.
(Pauses and adds) But I hope with all of my heart that there may be no break in our chain of joint workmanship.
Gilb (Reading Sull’s letter) So, he no longer talks of halting our further collaboration, but his words require a full response.
(He puts down the letter and writes) To be told that the libretti I have supplied have forced you to produce work that you consider to be inferior, for a composer of your abilities, could hardly be expected to do other than cause me considerable pain. I cannot suppose that you intended to gall and wound me when you wrote of them as you did. I must assume that your letter was written hurriedly.
As to your desire that “the humorous words would come in a humorous situation”, that a “tender or dramatic situation” should be treated tenderly and dramatically, are you seeking to teach me the A-B-C of my profession?
It is inconceivable that any sane author should ever write otherwise, than as you propose I should write in future.
Sull (Writing in his diary) 7th April 1884 – Reviewed the revised material, it is the very same that was proposed and rejected two years before. Now based on the notion that by means of a charm (formerly a coin, now a lozenge) a person would really become the character he or she represented themselves to be.
(Writing a reply) It is I who feel hurt that you should put such a construction upon my words as to make them even seem to cast a reflection upon your works. I yield to no-one in my admiration of your matchless skill and genius and I am not compelled to set anything I don’t like. It is not very likely that I should have worked so long with you if I hadn’t done so with real pleasure.
However I believe we should write something in which there is no burlesque. Your current notion is too similar to ‘The Sorcerer’ and I cannot see myself setting this, we would be repeating ourselves. Now pray do not say again or think, that I cast reflection on the pieces you have already written. I have enjoyed doing them with you and know of no-one with whom I can write so sympathetically, but I don’t want my interest in our joint work to flag, and that is why I sincerely trust you will see your way to do something which will give me fresh vigour and energy.
(The terrace set is replaced by the office. Sullivan changes back in to London attire.)
Gilb (Writing) I look forward to your return to London when we can discuss this matter further. I do still firmly believe that we must pursue the tried and tested.
Sull (Writing in his diary) 10th April 1884 – Met with Gilbert for two hours. Long argument on his part. No concessions on either side. Complete deadlock, though quite friendly throughout.
Gilb (Writing) I am absolutely at a loss to know what it is that you want from me. I cannot give up my plot and cannot imagine producing the sort of plot that will satisfy your demands. You will understand how faintly I grasp your meaning when I tell you that your objections to my libretto really seem arbitrary and capricious. That they are nothing of the kind I am well persuaded, but for all that I can’t fathom them.
(Pauses, then adds) If Carte agrees, then perhaps the next libretto should be written by someone else?
Sull (Writing) I have discussed our situation with Carte and Helen and propose that you send me your sketch for Act II of the new opera. I will honestly give it due consideration but if I do not find the plot congenial I believe that you must then agree to come up with a fresh idea.
Gilb (Writing) I shall be ready to present this to you on April 26th.
Sull (Writing) I am sorry this has taken a week, but I am writing with regret to reject the revised proposal.
Gilb (Writing) I had understood by your lack of response that you were content with the idea and have therefore proceeded with it. Anxious as I am and have always been, to give all due weight to your suggestions the time has arrived when I must state, and I do so with great reluctance, that I cannot consent to construct another plot for the next opera.
Sull (Writing) The tone of your letter convinces me that your decision is final and therefore further discussion is useless. I regret it very much
Gilb (Writing) And so ends a literary and musical association of seven year’s standing, an association of exceptional reputation, an association unequalled in its monetary results, and hitherto undisturbed by a single jarring or discordant event.
I do not want to supply you with a series of pieces for your approval, although I recognise it is important that I must respect your wishes when constructing a plot. Rather than abandon our collaboration completely I suggest, if Carte approves, that you take a year off to write a grand opera. Although it will not be suitable for the Savoy I would be prepared to supply the libretto.
Sull (Writing) I should be humiliated and grieved if anything in my words or manner had ever indicated that I claimed to see your libretti on approval. I completely agree your description of our respective roles as author and composer, but I was uncomfortable about the subject you had proposed. If, as you say, our collaboration is to end, I am bound in self-defence to put on record my own view of the cause of the disaster.
Gilb (Writing) 8th May. Am I to understand that if I construct another plot in which no supernatural element occurs, you will undertake to set it? Of course I mean a consistent plot, free from any anachronisms, constructed in perfect good faith and to the best of my ability.
Sull (Writing) Your letter today was an inexpressible relief to me, as it clearly shows me that you, equally with myself, are loath to discontinue our collaboration which has been such a pleasure and advantage to us. I will gladly undertake to set it, without further discussing the matter, or asking what the subject is to be.
Gilb (Writing) Permit me a month to get the old plot out of my system, then I will be ready to work on a new one. (An ornamental samurai sword is hung on his office wall, Gilb walks over to inspect it thoughtfully.)
Sull (He opens his diary) 9th May 1884 – All unpleasantness at an end.
Gilb (In high spirits) In ‘Patience’ we parodied the aesthetes’ joy with all things Japanese. I have been inspired for this new sketch, enclosed, to take us directly into the Orient. I call it ‘Titipu’.
Sull (Writing) I think the subject excellent, funny! Carte has written to explain that the weather is so hot and the ‘Princess’ receipts are awful. He therefore plans a revival of the ‘Sorcerer’ and ‘Trial by Jury’ to fill the Savoy until we are ready. I will have the amended music ready for these pieces by the middle of August.
Gilb (Writing) Yes, Carte has asked me to advise on scenery and costume for these revivals. But I believe that we should agree to close the theatre for a month and then re-open with ‘The Sorcerer’.
Sull (Writing) This would mean going in to rehearsal immediately, I suggest we let him re-open with ‘Princess Ida’. I have already agreed to conduct on the occasion of the revivals a month later.
Gilb (Reading) They grow ever closer and increasingly feel able to make decisions and merely inform me after the fact.
(Shrugs this off and starts to write) I needed to draft and redraft the piece no fewer than twelve times, which I have renamed as ‘The Mikado’. I enclose several of the songs.
Sull (Reading the letter, comments) Perhaps the re-working is a direct result of it not being derived from an earlier Bab Ballad, for with those you had already worked through the subject before.
Gilb (Writing) I had almost completed Act I when I had the occasion to visit the Japanese Native Village exhibition at Albert Gate in Knightsbridge. You should arrange to visit it, this exhibition displays Japanese paintings, pottery and costumes but also allows a glimpse of Japanese people going about their everyday life, it has provided me with much inspiration for the staging and setting.
I have arranged to hire several of the geisha girls to teach our performers how to mirror their way of walking and bowing. I am confident that Liberty’s will be able to furnish us with suitable costumes.
Sull (Writing) You commented that you had written ‘Three Little Maids’ because of the stature of Leonora Braham, Jessie Bond and Sybil Grey. It was the image of these three that has helped me greatly in composing the piece.
(The two office sets move off and the curtain rises to the Mikado set. Enter procession of Yum-Yum’s schoolfellows, heralding Yum-Yum, Peep-Bo and Pitti-Sing.)
The Mikado: Three Little Maids
TRIO – (Yum-Yum, Peep-Bo, and Pitti-Sing with Chorus of Girls).
TRIO: (suddenly demure):
TRIO: (suddenly demure):
(Gilb walks on to the set with Sull in tow.)
Gilb (To the company) Very good indeed, but I have come down from the back of the gallery and there are one or two words that failed to reach me quite distinctly. Sullivan’s music is, of course, very beautiful and I heard every note without difficulty, but I think my words are not altogether without merit, and ought to be heard without undue effort.
Sull Please take a break.
Gilb (To Sull) It seems such a shame that Leonora Braham has taken to such injudicious drinking. She is talented but we may need to replace her.
Sull It is a concern, particularly as the company, after this dress rehearsal, has to go on and perform ‘Sorcerer’ and ‘Trial by Jury’ this evening! I too have other commitments tonight, I am conducting a Philharmonic concert, Beethoven’s Symphony in B flat, number 4.
(The Mikado and Chorus file on to the set)
Gilb You do appear to be fully recovered, with quite a social whirl again?
Sull I even found time to welcome Mrs Scott Russell to tea this week.
Gilb The mother who dismissed you as a suitable husband for her daughter? When was that, fifteen years ago?
Sull I met up with her daughter Alice, Madame Rausch as she is now. Her mother is in much straightened circumstances. She has fallen from her position as doyenne of an opulent home, cluttered with three talented and pretty daughters and a successful husband. Her husband died following the failure of his business, two of those daughters are dead, she now has a small apartment on the Isle of Wight and lives on a £90 per annum civil service pension.
Gilb Seeing the luxury of your Victoria Street dwelling must have been galling to her?
Sull If I had thought she might then I would not have invited her, she appears much affected by her life and very sanguine about her current circumstance.
Gilb (Quietly to Sullivan) George Grossmith appears to be sick with nerves, I wonder if we should cut the Mikado’s song, ‘My Object All Sublime’?
Sull That would be a crime (Then laughs when he realises quite what he has said), I cannot imagine what punishment that might deserve! (Walks to the podium and taps his baton to begin)
The Mikado: My object all sublime
My object all sublime
And make each prisoner pent
My object all sublime, etc
My object all sublime, etc.
(The set rotates to show the wings where Gilb is joined by Carte)
Carte Given the poor longevity achieved by ‘Princess Ida’ I thought I should alert you to the fact that I shall be giving the six months’ notice for a new piece to follow ‘The Mikado’ sooner rather than later.
Gilb This then prompts me to discuss with you the future decision-making process between us three. Despite our each having an equal share in the management of the Savoy, it appears that increasingly you appear to be content to make a decision with Sullivan alone and then merely inform me of it as a fait accompli!
Carte I do not accept that this is the case. I fully appreciate and respect that Sullivan and you have a veto on the engagement of any artists. Respect that you completely control the stage and orchestra during rehearsals. But our agreement awards me the sole right of performance of all the operas in London, and you should appreciate that while we three share in profits, any losses are mine alone.
Gilb While I do not contest your interpretation of our agreement, it is Sullivan and I that raised the theatre to its present position of exceptional prosperity and distinction. Yet you treat me like some ‘hack author’ employed to provide pieces on certain terms. While I accept that I remain bound by the agreement’s absolute and literal terms, you should be warned that the contract has only a few months to run.
Carte I am shocked. Must a dramatic author be considered a ‘hack’ author if he does not arrange the number of stalls in a theatre where his opera is played? Must a novelist or poet be considered a ‘hack’ author if he does not superintend the working of the bookstalls at which his books are sold? I am running not only the London theatre, but also the provincial tours and the American and Australian business. This is my raison d’être in the triumvirate.
Gilb Be careful that you do not kick away the ladder by which you have risen.
(He walks off)
(The stage rotates to show The Mikado set.)
The Mikado: A wandering minstrel I
(The stage rotates to the wings where Sull joins Gilb, both have changed – it is May 1885)
Sull This ‘D’ company still needs much effort before they will be ready for America.
Gilb I believe Carte is being very melodramatic, he has hired detectives in America to advise him of pirated performances, he reports that spies have been sent by American theatres to capture the libretto and score from here.
Sull Melodramatic? When Carte advises his detectives have recorded more than one hundred and fifty pirate ‘Mikado’ companies!
Gilb Yes, melodramatic, for he is arranging that he and the D company will travel aboard the ‘Aurania’ each listed secretly under assumed names, he has also booked passage on a tug out to the ship so that none will be recognised while boarding. They are then ordered to remain in their cabins for the duration of passage. He should be writing penny-dreadfuls!
Sull It appears that when he selected Stetson and the Fifth Avenue Theatre, the other bidder, Duff, declared he would himself present ‘The Mikado’ unofficially. Carte has asked me to prepare the legal ground while I am in America, assigning the rights in ‘The Mikado’ to a Boston lawyer to give us the basis for copyright over there.
Gilb (Under his breath) You two become ever closer!
Sull (does not hear or chooses not to hear this) I am to visit my brother Fred’s family in California. At the start of this year they lost their mother – she was just 43 years old. I am overdue to spend some time with them in Los Angeles, her new husband just cannot cope with the six of them and has left them to be raised by Charlotte’s brother. I am booked in June on the ‘Etruria’.
Gilb Will you conduct the first night in New York?
Sull Unlikely because I plan a holiday along the west coast with my family.
(The stage rotates to show The Mikado set.)
The Mikado: Behold the Lord High Executioner!
(Runs straight on into…)
The Mikado: I’ve got a little list
(The curtain drops and the two office sets move on with Gilb and Sull)
Gilb (Writing) While you were away Carte has given us the required six month’s notice to produce the next piece. I enclose a plot and four of the numbers for your consideration. Kitty and I are off to Egypt, I look forward to your thoughts on my return.
(While unlit Gilb’s office set moves off, it is replaced by the terrace set, this time with a palm tree. Gilb has changed in to casual attire suitable for Egypt.)
Sull (Writing) Carte is concerned that ‘The Mikado’ has become much tighter as the performance has settled and it is beginning to end far too early. To avoid this they are currently spinning out the interval. But Carte proposes that a more effective approach would be to add a curtain-raiser. He proposes that this be ‘The Carp’ by Desprez, with music by Arthur Cellier. They would start it at 7:45 and The Mikado at 8:30 – so that it would then finish at 11:00. I am inclined to agree?
Gilb (Reading) Another decision made between the two!
(He writes frantically) I object to this decision. If the piece is not abandoned then all friendly relations between us are at a definite end and no consideration whatever will induce me to set foot in the Savoy again.
Sull (Writing) It is common-practice to add a curtain-raiser after the first rush of an opera. I feel sure if you had been in England Carte would have consulted you, he spoke with me because I was here. Nonetheless Carte has agreed to do nothing on this matter until we have discussed it further.
Gilb (Writing) My view is that rather than rushing the new piece we should have a revival of ‘HMS Pinafore’ ready for when ‘The Mikado’ run ends, while we still have the original cast together.
Sull (Writing) Carte is keen, after the ‘Sorcerer’ revival experience, that we should leave the thought of revivals until after our final collaboration, whenever that might be. He has pointed out to me that the new piece should have been ready by last December, and has in no uncertain terms asked me not to begin my new work for Leeds before I have finished the new opera.
(The office and terrace sets move off, the curtain rises on the Mikado set.)
The Mikado: The sun whose rays