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The Chorus of Fairies in the burlesque Ariel

May 24, 2013

the chorus of fairies in the burlesque Ariel, Gaiety Theatre, London, 8 October 1883
(photo: unknown, London, 1883)

F.C. Burnand’s burlesque fairy drama Ariel, based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, was produced at the Gaiety Theatre, London, on 8 October 1883. Nellie Farren undertook the title role and Arthur Williams appeared as Prospero.

‘To criticize Ariel at the Gaiety adversely, to pretend to say it was not the most brilliant production of this or any other age, to dare to hint that the loss of Mr. Edward Terry is most acutely felt, or that the Gaiety company is not what it was, would be to draw down on our devoted heads sarcastic advertisements in the daily Press [probably a reference to John Hollingshead, manager of the Gaiety and former journalist, who was an inveterate advertiser], the scorn of the leading comic paper, and the studied impertinence of the popular sporting oracles. To say that Ariel is written down to the intelligence of the typical masher is sufficient to say that it could not contain any definite sign of the merry geniality and robust humour of its author. It is not at all likely that the Johnnies and Chappies of the Gaiety brigade take the slightest interest in the art that The Theatre endeavours to foster and encourage, and it is mot certain that the directors and sympathizers with The Theatre differ toto cœlo from the Gaiety brigade. The world is wide enough to hold partisans of either school. It has been said, and unfairly said, that it takes a very heavy hammer to force a joke into a Scotchman’s head. The author of Ariel evidently thinks that the masher’s cranium is harder still, so he refuses to take the trouble to force a smile upon the sheep’s faces of an uninteresting crowd. To say that a burlesque is written for the special patrons of the Gaiety is enough to say that it is pap foot for overgrown infants of amiable temperaments and blameless exterior. The author of a criticism of Ariel in a comic paper, mainly devoted to ridiculing all who do not consider Ariel the most side-splitting and hilarious entertainment ever produced, professes himself as objecting to “gush.” Probably he omitted to revise the proofs of his article, for he does not practise what he preaches. Incidentally, however, he touches on a subject on which must has been said from time to time in these columns. He writes as follows:-
‘“Objecting to ‘gush’ as we do, we could wish that in the interest of true criticism the critics’ night were everywhere postponed until the third performance of any new piece.” We wonder if that opinion would have been changed if the “gush” had been ladled out pretty freely within a few hours of the first performance. As we have repeatedly pointed out, the production of a new burlesque or any other play is considered as news of the day, and treated accordingly by the conductors of newspapers. This is an implied compliment to the drama of every degree. If things go on as they are going on now, it is quite certain that the newspaper-reading public will no longer allow the news of the world to be postponed in favour of the recorded history of the latest melodrama or the newest burlesque. Newspaper space is valuable, and the burlesque that can wait three days to be criticized, may well wait for three weeks or any indefinite period. It is either news or the reverse; and it is surely a false policy to demand that recognition in the daily press of the country should be removed from what is now generally recognized. If the mashers like Ariel, if the management is satisfied, if the author is pleased and looks upon the production with pride, why, of course it must be good. Let the author take a leaf out of the book of Augustus Harris [manager of Drury Lane Theatre], and boldly advertise “By far the best burlesque I have ever been associated with!” An inelegant sentence, but in strict accord with managerial modesty. Cela va sans dire! There is no more to be said about it. But it is not beyond the regions of probability that even Miss [Nellie] Farren and her clever companions have from time to time given more favourable specimens of their art, although their popularity was never more strongly pronounced. The Gaiety is popular, Mr. [F.C.] Burnand is deservedly popular, the company is equally popular; but critics are not necessarily idiots because they consider the pubic time is occasionally wasted, or because they deplore the existence in the stalls of a steady contempt for all humour, a wretched hankering after the childish in art, and an inert materialism that is necessarily the opponent of fancy and imagination.’
(The Theatre, London, Monday, 1 November 1883, pp.271 and 272)

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