Views of W. S. Gilbert

By Ellaline Terriss and Seymour Hicks

Note: Robert Morrison provided these excerpts from books by Ellaline Terriss and Seymour Hicks as companion pieces to his review of Charles Pemberton's A Disagreeable Man?

Between Ourselves

Seymour Hicks [Cassell & Co., London; 1930]
"Famous Wits," pp. 49-55

Of another type, but wittily devastating to a degree, was W. S. Gilbert, who had a strange personality if ever there was one. His small piercing eyes, which looked as if they had been long robbed of sleep, were generally fixed, maliciously, it must be truly said, on big people and seldom directed towards the smaller fry. He always gave me the impression that he got up in the morning to see with whom he could have a quarrel. I'm not sure this really was the case, for at heart he was a very kindly man, and above all things a very just one. Still, he seemed incapable of geniality, especially in the company of men, though being a great admirer of pretty women he took endless trouble to amuse them. But for the male species he seemed to trouble very little.

He was always extremely pleasant to me, but try as I would, I never got any further with him. He was full of harmless vanities and couldn't bear opposition of any kind, and I'm sure there were very few people, even his intimate friends, with whom he didn't, sooner or later, have misunderstandings. Most of the stories he told were of personal grievances, the battles they had caused, and the verbal victories that he had won, but I'm bound to say that the constant repetition of his passages-at-arms and the stock jokes he indulged in, while being amusing at first, became very like one of his own flashes when someone said to him, "Mrs. So-and-so was very pretty once," and he replied, "Yes, but not twice."

He was a local magistrate at Pinner, and nothing pleased him more than to be spoken to as "Judge." Those nearest to him always addressed him in this way, and it seemed amazing to me that so small a thing could thus tickle the vanity of one of the most critical men of his time. I should like to have heard the satirical lyric he would have written about an acquaintance if it had been told him that the gentleman was really proud of being a member of a small country tribunal. It would have been such a literary surgical operation that the patient would have died of ridicule. Yet this observer of observers couldn't see himself.

He was invariably listened to by everyone with great deference, partly because of his position, and also because I never met anyone who wasn't rather afraid of him. I think that often he had no intention of being unkind and perhaps did not realize how much his cutting wit hurt. Jests came to his lips like lightning, and were fired off on the instant.

To the secretary of an Amateur Dramatic Society, who, at the end of a performance of one of his plays given for charity, asked the author what he thought of the players of the club, he at once answered, "Oh, not so much a club as a bundle of sticks." No doubt the wretched man remembered that reply till the end of his days, but it was a Gilbertism and not meant to he taken seriously. Had the conversation continued, no doubt Gilbert would have found much to praise, for though a hard critic, being a master of stagecraft, he saw and readily forgave many a shortcoming if the endeavour was an earnest one.

I well remember him, some time before he received the honour of knighthood (which I rather gathered he felt he ought to have received at the same time as Arthur Sullivan) being particularly bitter. He finished his diatribe against the authorities, who, he said, handed out these things indiscriminately, by delivering himself of the following: "It is not so much for my friends who ought to have an honour that I really mind — what's worrying me is that the Government may make my butler a knight. He's a damn good fellow and I'm afraid it may upset him."

W. S. Gilbert

Six feet four, he delighted at the age of five-and-sixty to imitate Harlequin and, doing a pas bas, would often spin round and throw himself lightly into the third-position. I always felt that, as he invariably did this for the edification of his lady friends, the performance was given to impress upon them the fact that his youth had not deserted him in the slightest degree. An easily-to-be-forgiven weakness, perhaps, but one, had he seen it in others, he would have assuredly held up to merciless ridicule.

One of his greatest regrets in life was his failure to achieve success in serious dramatic literature. His strong play, Daniel Druce, with Herman Vezin in the leading part — an elocutionary type of histrion — pleased no one, but his own sense of humour helped him little in the disaster.

For its failure he was content to blame Vezin, the public and the Press, and indeed everyone connected with it but himself. He was extremely intolerant and, for a man of his enormous intellect, curiously childlike in being unable to see the other man's point of view.

He disliked George Edwardes intensely and only agreed to permit that most astute of musical comedy managers to produce a light opera of his, His Excellency by name, on the distinct understanding, why I don't know, that Edwardes had no partners or syndicate but was financing the venture entirely alone.

This Edwardes agreed to do, but Gilbert, finding out later that there were others interested with him in the undertaking, never forgave him, and his letters of protest, to Edwardes, from what I gathered from Mr. Gilbert, must have been written on a new kind of foolscap woven out of asbestos.

As a matter of fact, Edwardes had committed a very venial offence, and the breach should never have occurred, but Gilbert was vain, and Edwardes, at the time being in grave financial difficulties, was obliged to take a partner to help him in a very costly undertaking.

I myself, unfortunately, met his displeasure just before his death in the most innocent way possible. He sent for me one morning and said, "I hear that you and Charles Frohman are stuck for a play. You can have Ruddigore if you like, and I think, my dear Hicks, George Grossmith's part will suit you admirably."

Knowing that the play was an extremely expensive one to launch — the uniforms alone in the second act having cost a small fortune on the opera's original production — I made many polite excuses in an endeavour, after thanking him for the honour he had done me, to convince him that the undertaking was one which neither Mr. Frohman nor myself was in a position to embark upon. (As a matter of fact Mr. Frohman at this time did not know which way to turn for money.) Gilbert listened to my excuses and then, after a pause, said rather angrily, "Oh, you don't want to do the piece because I suppose you think it was a failure at the Savoy. Well, so it was — it was the only failure I ever had with Sullivan. We made £7,000." Very confused, I tried to explain that such a thought had never entered my mind and that it was only a question of ways and means, but it was no good. The great man turned on his heel and walked away. I met him at the Garrick Club many times afterwards, but he either looked over my head or, if he found himself opposite me, as he did on one occasion at luncheon, very pointedly talked to the men on either side of me as if he was unaware of my existence. For Gilbert to do this to someone so immeasurably his junior struck me as extremely foolish. But I don't think he could help these things, for he was always manufacturing affronts against himself, and was really more of a spoiled child than anything else.

One of his bêtes noires was a journalist called Harry How, the originator of illustrated interviews in the Strand Magazine. Gilbert always had the greatest contempt for critics and disliked journalists as a body intensely. On one occasion, How fell foul of Gilbert by gaining admission to "Grimsdyke," Gilbert's house at Pinner, and writing an article on the mansion and its owner.

For ever afterwards the name of How was like a red rag to a bull, and Gilbert, in holding forth about him, always finished up by saying, "And now what do you think this Mr. 'Arry 'Ow, as he called himself, does? He conducts sightseers through Pinner and makes a point of stopping at my gates and explaining to them that ' 'ere you see the residence of the ex-humorist, Mr. W. S. Gilbert.'"

There was a touch of introspective criticism in the invented words "ex-humorist," for Gilbert had parted company with Sullivan and for the first time in his life had tasted failure in light opera, his book of His Excellency being wedded to the music of Dr. Osmond Carr, who, though a sound musician, was not a Sullivan by many a thousand miles.

W. S. Gilbert was a cousin by marriage of my wife's and he christened her "the Tuneful Nine." The joke was rather far-fetched, his reason for the nickname being that as her name was "'Icks it should be spelt IX, which represented nine, and as she sang so sweetly, she must be called nothing else but "The Tuneful Nine."

His reply to a chorus girl whom he found in tears at rehearsal was as unanswerable as anything he ever said. "What's the matter, my dear?" said Gilbert. Between her sobs she blubbered out, "Oh, I've had a most terrible thing happen to me, Mr. Gilbert. Miss Smith says I'm no better than I ought to be." "Well, aren't you?" said Gilbert.

Arthur Sullivan was surely one of the most lovable men who ever lived. Unlike his giant partner, he was quite short. He had a gentle, kindly face and two merry eyes which looked out upon the world, one of them through an eyeglass, always searching for the sunshine. His complexion was sallow and his features were distinctly Jewish, though I don't know if he owed any of his genius to that artistic community; possibly he did, for many great artists have a brilliant Hebrew sitting somewhere amidst the branches of their family tree.

My wife and myself were boy and girl when we first met him, and he was always very kind to us during our early days at the Gaiety. It was at supper at his flat off Victoria Street that we had the honour of being presented by him to his late Majesty, then H.R.H. the Prince of Wales.

Arthur Sullivan was a great personal friend of many members of the Royal Family — the Prince in particular seeing him continually both abroad and in our own country.

His manuscripts were wonderful to look at and his voluminous scores, which are masterpieces in beautiful copperplate, are things to look at and revel in. I am lucky enough to have among my treasures the original manuscript of "Cook's Man," his setting to Rudyard Kipling's words written at the time of the Boer War.

Towards the end of his life he leaned somewhat heavily on a stout strong malacca cane and limped slightly. His health was extremely poor, and his nephew, Herbert Sullivan, told me that many of his happiest melodies were written when, in great pain, he lay stretched on a sofa in his London library.

He was the most modest of "masters," and time and again had been known to sit down after dinner at a friend's house and accompany some young lady or youthful amateur tenor in their songs at the piano. Often I have been told that these delightful assassins were quite unaware of the identity of the charming little man who played for them, and though they many a time murdered one of his own compositions, he remained only an ever gracious and never critical accompanist.

Naturally of an even temper, in his later days the agony of the internal complaint from which he suffered made him at times very irritable. Often he would attend a rehearsal in the morning and, unlike his real self, become very difficult. It was then that, realizing his ailment to be the cause of his intolerance, he would go to his room in the Savoy Theatre and seek relief from hypodermic injections. Returning to the stage temporarily freed from his suffering, he was once more the dear Arthur Sullivan who was without an enemy in the world.

Just a Little Bit of String

Ellaline Terriss [Hutchinson & Co., London; 1955]
"Curtain Up at the Gaiety," pp. 113-115

And as The Guv'nor's [George Edwardes'] new show, the first musical comedy, was not yet ready — he let me play in a comic opera, at the Lyric Theatre, called His Excellency. This was another thrill, for the libretto was by W. S. Gilbert. He was now parted from Sullivan, and his composer on this occasion was Osmond Carr. This was a really good Gilbert libretto, with all of his amazing twists, turns and paradoxes and his never-failing sense of comedy. I was rather scared of meeting him, for I had heard what a martinet he was at production, and what a scathing tongue he had when occasion served. But I found him the most kindly and charming of men. That was my luck again — I always seemed to see the best side of people. Maybe the fact that it was discovered that I was a distant relative of his helped a little. People are not usually fond of their relations, but this one was far enough away for distance to lend enchantment to the view. Anyhow, he was very kind to me indeed. He made a joke about me and that probably put him in a good humour right away. My name being Hicks — he called me IX — and then christened me 'The Tuneful Nine' — Hicks = Icks = IX = 9 — and being a singer, I was tuneful. It was a little far fetched but we were all very amused. Of course. There are hundreds of stories about Gilbert, but I feel it my duty to add one or two more. His wit was pungent. He could hit the nail on the head. But I may mention that I am glad he thought me tuneful or he might have said of me, as he once said of Rutland Barrington, when a friend remarked that the great comedian was singing in tune: "Don't worry about that, it's only first night nervousness." For dear old Rutland scarcely ever did sing in tune — but how grand he was. He has not a successor today.

Gilbert was a great producer — he knew all about it. He could show everybody exactly how he wanted a part played; it did not matter if they were male or female, he would give them the exact movement and intonation. And considering that he was a giant of a man, to show a young pretty girl how she was to move and speak — and to do it perfectly — was certainly something. Women liked him, men did not. And that was his way too. After a dinner, when the men lingered over their port and cigars, he would get up and join the ladies. Seymour and I often went to stay with him at his country house, Grims Dyke, near Pinner — which was completely rural then — and there he devoted himself to his hobby of photography. He had a dark room in the grounds. We had many laughs. He was not exactly a conversationalist but a teller of tales. He liked to control the talk and was not a very good listener. Before he got knighted he was more than a little bitter about the members of the Profession who had been so honoured. Once he said: "This indiscriminate flinging about of knighthoods is making me extremely nervous. It's quite possible they may give one to my butler. He is a very good fellow and I'm afraid it might upset him." Then he turned to Seymour and said, "Hicks, do you believe in actors receiving knighthoods?" Instantly Seymour answered, "Certainly, so long as they don't get them for acting." "Quite so," said Gilbert, "that would be far too great a strain on the limited intelligence of the people in Government departments who are paid to pretend they know something about anything." Later on, he got his knighthood.

It was during one of those visits that Gilbert supplied something which was to be of great moment to both Seymour and me and to my father as well. One day at breakfast he read out an account of the celebrated trial of Dreyfus in Paris. At the end he turned to Seymour and said: "There's a plot for you. Why don't you write a drama like it for your father-in-law and lay the scene in England?" Seymour jumped at the idea and the result was One of the Best, that military drama which was one of my father's greatest successes. When he had written it, he took it to George Edwardes, who agreed to put his name on it as part author. The Guv'nor knew nothing about it at all until Seymour showed it to him, but my husband's idea was that Edwardes's name on it would impress the Gattis — who owned and managed the Adelphi where my father played. So, very good-naturedly, he agreed. And the Gattis took it. Edwardes refused to take a penny in royalties — which was just like him, for he loved doing good turns. But at that time nobody could think of a good title — neither Seymour nor Edwardes the godfather. They asked friends, and inspiration came through a bookmaker who was a friend of The Guv'nor's (he was a great racing man), who said, "As Bill Terriss is to play the hero, why not call it One of the Best?" So One of the Best it became and 'One of the Best' it was for all concerned. Bernard Shaw, who was then a dramatic critic, gave it a bad notice. He proved to be wrong.

But to return to His Excellency. That was quite a success. It had a splendid cast with Rutland Barrington — I don't think he sang in tune on the first night, either — George Grossmith himself and Jessie Bond in the cast — all old Savoyards. But if Barrington was often out of tune he was never out of the picture. He had a beautifully clear diction and a marvellous sense of timing — and was one of the finest singers of the then popular topical songs that our stage ever knew. He was a big man — rather full of habit but also distinguished and he played with a minimum of exertion and such ease that one never noticed the machinery — but he never missed a point. One realized his worth when one saw others play the parts he had created.

I played Thora and the critics said I had made "a successful début in comic opera". After the production Mr. Gilbert gave me a beautiful Newfoundland dog. He said its name was Guelph. I thought it a strange name and asked why he called it that. "Well, when he barks he goes 'Gowlph-Gowlph'," said the great man; "it sounds like a royal bark, so I called him Guelph." Guelph was then the name of our Royal Family.

"Mainly Abouty People," pp. 135-136

I met so many people during those Circus Girl days. I had the honour of meeting Sir Arthur Sullivan. I already knew Gilbert but I had not met the twin pillar of those immortal British light operas. To me he seemed the simplest and most kindly of men, though I believe he could be — and was — as tough as his redoubtable colleague when occasion served. He did not look in the least bit like a musician and there was no artistic pose or nonsense about him at all. He seemed to radiate good humour — but then I have always seen the best side of people and therefore speak as I find. One night he came to see The Circus Girl and was good enough to come round after the play to my dressing-room. I was a little afraid that he might be contemptuous of our gay, light-hearted trifle, but no, not at all, he said he had been delighted with everything, the comedy, the charm, the setting — it is true that the play was beautifully mounted. Edwardes had caught the atmosphere of the circus ring and the last scene, "The Artists' Ball," was one of the finest The Guv'nor had ever staged. It got rounds of applause when the curtain went up, at every performance.

Sullivan was loud in his praises of the music, too — there was no criticism from him. And he expressed great pleasure in my own performance, going so far as to say that he hoped I would be able to create a part in one of his next works. Was I proud?

I was honoured to meet him — and to receive such praise, which one hoped one had earned, was wholly delightful. Sullivan had few, if any, enemies and was never the least bit conceited. It is said that when asked by an admirer the source of his melodies — he waved his hand to the copies of classical works which crowded his shelves and said, "From those."

We became friendly with him and visited his house, or rather his flat in Victoria Street. It was there I met — if I can use that word — His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales for the first time — before I sang to him at Mrs. Langtry's. Sullivan gave a big party, and the guests were the cream of our land. There was no stage but Seymour and I played a little sketch. In crossing the room, it was my misfortune to kick the Prince of Wales by no means lightly on the shin. His Royal Highness made a joke about it, but both Seymour and I — I especially — wished we could sink through the floor.

Sullivan's own manuscripts were quite works of art — they looked as if they were already engraved. It is my privilege to possess the original of "The Absent Minded Beggar," his setting of Kipling's poem written during the Boer War, the singing and reciting of which did much to help the morale of the nation at a dark time and to add thousands of pounds to help the dependants of those "gentlemen in khaki ordered South." It is my firm conviction that if every youth in this country were to commit that great poem "If" to memory, we should have much better manners than one finds today, more pride of race and certainly less juvenile delinquency. The manuscript I mention was given to me by Sullivan's nephew, Mr. Herbert Sullivan, a lifelong friend of ours.