On January 31, 1871, William S. Gilbert (half a year before he began his famous operatic collaborations with Arthur Sullivan) produced the musical melodrama, A Sensation Novel: a musical play in 3 volumes, which satirized the gothic and romantic novels so popular during the Victorian era such as The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins and Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.
Although a long-time fan of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas – my husband, Barry Talley, had directed all of them at one time or another -- I’d never heard of A Sensation Novel and was excited to be invited to see a recent revival in Baltimore, directed by Michael Blum, one of my husband’s former student players and now an actor/writer/director of some note.
As a fan of early detective fiction – such as Woman in White, The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Great Expectations – and as a mystery author, there was much about the production to amuse and delight me.
Anticipating by fifty years Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921) Gilbert cleverly brings his stock characters to life, allowing them to ridicule and try to thwart the absurd plot their author has forced upon them.
Divided into “volumes” rather than acts, the first volume finds the author suffering from writer's block, so he calls upon his muse, “The Spirit of Romance:”
AUTHOR: Help, I have just finished the first volume of my novel - and I don't know how to begin the second. By our compact, I had leave to summon you whenever I found myself in a difficulty, and you promised to help me out of it.
SPIRIT: Have you employed the characters I have lent you? - the virtuous governess, the unemployed young Sunday School teacher, the sensation detective, the wicked baronet, the beautiful fiend with the yellow hair and the panther-like movement?
AUTHOR: I have!
SPIRIT: You have made the virtuous governess in love with the Sunday School teacher? You have made her persecuted by the wicked baronet?
SPIRIT: The yellow-haired fiend with the panther-like movement is his accomplice?
AUTHOR: She is!
SPIRIT: Have you made her fall in love with the Sunday School teacher?
AUTHOR: Head and ears.
SPIRIT: And he treats her with disdain?
AUTHOR: He does!
SPIRIT: Humph! Have you obeyed my advice as to diet and eaten nothing but pork chops and cold plum pudding?
AUTHOR: Nothing! Look at me.
SPIRIT: You have slept with your head lower than your body?
AUTHOR: Every night.
SPIRIT: You have read the "Illustrated Police News"?
Ha! When my muse deserts me, I try hot and sour soup from the Hong Kong buffet or dark chocolate-covered caramels from Trader Joes, so I just had to laugh at The Spirit's prescription.
While in the novel, the characters are all miserable, of course. The can find happiness only during the few hours each night when the author lays down his pen, thereby freeing them from the constraints of the foolish and stuffy scenes they’ve been written into:
HERBERT: My Rockalda! At last we meet!
ROCKALDA: Tell me when - oh, when do you return from Central Africa?
HERBERT: Alas! Not for several chapters.
ROCKALDA: This is indeed hard. I don't like this novel at all.
HERBERT: It's shameful! The publisher told the Author that I was getting so confoundedly insipid that no reader would stand me, and he must get rid of me somehow, so he sent me to Central Africa for seven years. I'm there now, and I am very much afraid I shall not return till the last chapter.
I once sent Hannah's husband off on a sailing expedition because I knew he'd meddle with her investigation. It never once occurred to me that Paul might mind.
Eventually the characters are joined in their schemes against the author by Gripper, the novel's useless detective, who apologizes for arriving late.
GRIPPER: Well, I'm afraid I am; but then I am a sensation detective, and sensation detectives always are late. The reason's obvious enough. If the detective of a sensation novel were not always just too late, the novel would come to an end long before its time. If I bring to justice all the villains of the novel in the course of the first volume, what's to prevent the virtuous governess marrying the good young curate at once, and if she does that there's an end of everything.
We're well into the third volume by now, and the characters are understandably fed up.
ALICE: Now, look here, I propose we don't stand this - I propose we rebel. Let's summon the Author and have it out with him. Let's insist that the novel shall end as we like.
HERBERT: We will!
ALL: Author! Author!! Author!!!
When the author finally appears, Alice insists on marrying Sir Ruthven. Unfortunately, he’s just been beheaded. But Alice is unswayed.
ALICE: I don't care; I hate mild and amiable men! I like a handsome rover, a scapegrace, a moral brigand, who sets all law at defiance. Do you suppose I'm going to marry that person? I insist on marrying Sir Ruthven, and, as a first step, he must be restored to life.
AUTHOR: But I've chopped his head off; I can't stick it on again.
ALICE: Science can do anything. Invent a process if you have it not, and if any of the critics doubt its operation, offer to prove its efficacy upon any one of them.
Naturally it all ends happily, and Gripper, the detective, turns out to be Sir Ruthven’s abandoned granddaughter. (Don’t ask. This is W.S. Gilbert, after all!)
If you’re in the Baltimore area, the production runs until October 4 at the Spotlighters Theatre. Here I am, posing on the set with three of my favorite novels.