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Critical Moments

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It is my fervent hope that members of the cast of the company that last Spring gave a series of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in New York were not among the audience at the Martin Beck Theatre last night when the D’Oyly Carte Company of London opened its season with a revival of “The Gondoliers.” The idea is almost too cruel to contemplate.

The voices, the acting, the costumes, even the staging so far surpass the efforts of the American company that to make a comparison would be unkind. Why this English company should be so superior over that of the American troupe is not difficult to guess.

As you know D’Oyly Carte was the original producer of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Their success inspired him to form a permanent company whose sole object was the presentation of the work of these two English gentlemen. For years they have kept active, giving G & S revivals at the Savoy Theatre in London. From time to time replacements of personnel were made but the basic unit remained intact. The company became as permanent as any well established mercantile house. After D’Oyly Carte died the company carried on and the troupe now playing at the Martin Beck is the legitimate child of the parent company that was born in London in 1887. According to the press announcement the present engagement is its first in New York.


In opening its season with “The Gondoliers” the producers made a wise choice. It has been some years since that delightful, merry and kind operetta has been seen in America. Most of the revival companies started off with such sure-fire hits as “The Mikado” or “Iolanthe” and only went to the lesser known works as a last resort. Hence New Yorkers recovering from the recent series can now see a Gilbert and Sullivan work that will strike them as nearly new. Anyway, its brightness is still very much in evidence.


“The Gondoliers” was written during the most turbulent period in the relationship between Gilbert and Sullivan; as a matter of fact they were on the very verge of splitting, and after its presentation they did no work together for nearly five years. In addition there was trouble, as Dr. Isaac Goldberg in his book “The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan” points out, among members of the D’Oyly Carte Company. Some of the leading players became imbued with the idea that the success of the company was due entirely to their acting and some of them began to make demands for more attention and higher salaries, even suggesting changes in the score and script. Gilbert was furious and finally exploded with a vow that he would show these budding stars their place. He added, “We’ll have an opera in which there shall be no principal parts.” The result was “The Gondoliers” in which even the leading role is shared by two players.

Fortunately, so skillfully was this done that the public was never any the wiser and “The Gondoliers” remains one of the most tuneful and enjoyable of the operettas. For locale and plot Gilbert went to Plautus’ “Menaechmi” and Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors,” to say nothing of a small nibble of “Don Quixote” and Gilbert’s own “Bab Ballads,” a source of constant replenishments for his lyrics.

“The Gondoliers” might be called a farce of errors. It concerns typical comic opera twins, gentlemen of great beauty whom the ladies in Venice pursued tenaciously. All the girls want to marry these singing fellows and, to decide who the lucky lasses shall be, a game of blindman’s bluff is played. Of course this plot would be much too simple for Gilbert and he manages to complicate it until everyone but G. & S. fans who know his methods, are confused.


Unlike many of the other operettas “The Gondolier” contains little of the familiar biting satire. It is a jovial, gay, fast moving piece, filled with some of Sullivan’s most delightful music and Gilbert’s brightest lyrics. The Carte actors play their parts with a verve and spirit that is exhilarating. If you wish to see this production you must go either tonight or tomorrow matinee or evening because beginning Thursday “Cox and Box,” one of Sullivan’s earlier works, and “The Pirates of Penzance,” will be the attraction.

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