Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Thirty Five Years of Gilbert & Sullivan: Henry A. Lytton.

I came across this short essay by the D’Oly Carte singer and actor Henry A. Lytton (1865-1936). It had been published in October 1925 under editorship of Percy Pitt [1].  It is a good personal insight into life with D’Oly Carte and also his relationship with W.S.  Gilbert. I have included a few footnotes and have made some slight edits to the text.

Thirty Five years is a long time to have played the same parts, and I am sometimes asked whether I am not tired of them? Probably I should be if they belonged to anything else except the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. But I never tire of these. They are so perfect from every point of view; they are such a wonderful blend of everything that should be there, that they seem to have eternal freshness and the capacity to keep one's interest constantly alive.
The public takes very much the same view. One might imagine that the enthusiasm shown for these operas in years past could not be exceeded. The D' Oyly Carte Company, in its travels,
visits a particular town and breaks its previous records there; the limit appears to have been reached. Yet when the town is revisited records are broken again. So it goes on all over the country.
The older people who have been listening to the operas for thirty or forty years flock to the theatres as if taking part in a yearly ritual; the younger ones go to see if all the fuss is justified, and quickly become as enthusiastic as their elders. Many people keep a record of their attendances. Often enough, while making my way through crowds at the stage-door,
someone has shouted to me: ‘Good old Lytton! This is my fortieth time at The Mikado.’
I know a man at Liverpool who books two stalls for every performance during our season here. He invites a friend to dinner and theatre each evening.
One night, unfortunately, he found the odd man who does not like Gilbert and Sullivan. The opera was Patience, and when I came on as Bunthorne he asked what my part was. ‘That is Bunthorne, a poet,’ he was told. Then Grosvenor entered. ‘Who is he?’ was his next
question. ‘He is another poet,’ was the reply. What, two poets in one opera?’ he exclaimed. ‘I've had enough of this!’ and out he went.
Perhaps Irish audiences are the most demonstrative of all. They do not merely applaud, but shout and cheer at the top of their voices, and simply insist upon I had not been on the stage more than a few minutes before I felt glad that he encore after encore. But the enthusiasm
everywhere is tremendous. We members of the company always feel that our audiences and ourselves belong to one big family: that there is an atmosphere of friendliness in front and that even if we do make a slight slip we shall be forgiven
More than one actor has found a decided change on leaving to join another company. He misses immediately the Gilbert and Sullivan ‘goodwill’ if I may give it that name; the constantly crowded houses, and the never-failing appreciation.
I remember that when I left the company many years ago, to take part in the new production of The Earl and the Girl [2] at the Adelphi, Walter Passmore [3] said on the opening night:
‘Let me say a friendly word to you. Don't lose heart if you don't find the usual enthusiasm. You've really got to start all over again here. You won't begin with a friendly atmosphere; you'll have to manufacture it.’

I had not been on the stage more than a few minutes before I felt glad that he had spoken to me. How different from the infectious enthusiasm of a Gilbert and Sullivan audience! The piece was a big success, but I have never forgotten the chilly ordeal of the first few nights.
It is all a great tribute to the Savoy operas. The goodwill of the public has not been won without reason: only a combination of circumstances of the rarest kind could have brought it into existence. It is late in the day to heap fresh praises upon the extraordinarily perfect blend of music and libretto, but perhaps I may speak of the great personal care which Gilbert bestowed upon the production of the operas.

His knowledge of stagecraft was remarkable, and this stood him in excellent stead. He has sometimes been spoken of as a martinet. I knew him for many years, and never found him anything but a perfect. English gentleman, kindly and considerate in every action. As an example of his thoughtfulness, he always arranged, if it were humanly possible, that an actor's entrances and exits should be on the side of the stage nearest to his dressing-room.
What that means in the course of an evening only an actor knows. Yet he could be satirical to a degree when it suited him, as all the principals of the company at the time knew. I had an
experience of it during a rehearsal of Ruddigore.
My part was that of Robin Oakapple, a nephew whom his uncle tells at a certain point to leave. I wondered how I should make my exit, and, turning to Gilbert, asked him how he thought it should be done.
“Oh, exit like a nephew," he said, without a smile. I had asked a rather silly question, and Gilbert gave me what he considered a suitable reply.
The late George Grossmith [4] once suggested to him that if certain ‘business’ were introduced it would make the audience laugh.
“So it would if you sat down on a pork pie," was the dry reply.
Gilbert knew exactly what he wanted, and insisted upon having it. The operas are still presented as he directed, and so they will continue to be.
Musical Masterpieces, October 1925

[1] Percy Pitt (1870-1932) English organist, composer and conductor.  From 1926 to 1930 he was General Musical Director of the BBC.
[2] The Earl and the Girl is a musical comedy in two acts by Seymour Hicks, with lyrics by Percy Greenbank and music by Ivan Caryll. It was produced by William Greet and opened at the Adelphi Theatre in London on 10 December 1903. It transferred to the Lyric Theatre on 12 September 1904, running for a total of 371 performances. (Wikipedia accessed 17/3/12)
[3] Walter Henry Passmore (10 May 1867 – 29 August 1946) was an English singer and actor best known as the first successor to George Grossmith in the comic baritone roles in Gilbert and Sullivan operas with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. (Wikipedia accessed 17/3/12)
[4] George Grossmith (9 December 1847 – 1 March 1912) was an English comedian, writer, composer, actor, and singer. His performing career spanned more than four decades. As a writer and composer, he created 18 comic operas, nearly 100 musical sketches, some 600 songs and piano pieces, three books and both serious and comic pieces for newspapers and magazines. (Wikipedia accessed 17/3/12)

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