The Hooligan by W.S. Gilbert

Samantha PillingEntertainment, History


Produced just four months before W.S. Gilbert’s death, this one-act play was a grim, yet powerful play. It was a study of a young condemned murderer, waiting in a prison cell for his execution and was inspired by the celebrated Crippen murder trial of 1910.

One of Gilbert’s most successful serious dramas

Gilbert focused on showing sympathy for the villain, illustrating, as he’d done on previous plays, how a hard life can lead people down a criminal path. He was of the firm belief that nurture, rather than nature, was often the cause of criminal behaviour. In this play, his protagonist was the son of a thief, bought up among other thieves, who then went on to kill his girlfriend, pleading his case for leniency on the grounds that he only meant to cut her, not kill her.

The Hooligan was seen by experts as one of Gilbert’s most successful serious dramas, one that also demonstrated his emerging new style – a mix of irony, grubby realism and social themes. He researched his topic thoroughly, even visiting Pentonville Prison to question the governor about procedures and taking his scenic designer with him.

An important time in music hall theatre history

This play came at an important time in music hall theatre history. The Theatre Managers’ Association had banned dramas from being presented in music halls, but the manager of the Coliseum, Oswald Stoll, challenged that. The ban was finally lifted, when the Association agreed that dramas of up to 30 minutes and with no more than 6 speaking characters, could be shown.

Gilbert, known for directing his own plays, was the first important dramatist to write for a music hall, but he nearly cancelled the production. Leading actor James Welch kept making changes to the script and, it was only after a letter of apology, that Gilbert agreed to go ahead.

Critical acclaim

In ‘The Hooligan’, Gilbert successfully creates a three-dimensional character, complete with flaws and humanity. There is no plot mechanism to interfere with the character, showing how skilled Gilbert was at creating pure character-writing. Not only does this play have a surprise ending, it also shows sympathy for a character that didn’t ever get the chance to get out of the gutter. So powerful was this play, author, editor, journalist, photographer and illustrator, Mrs Alec Tweedie reported women in the audience were going out fainting!

James Welch as Nat Solly -

James Welch as Nat Solly

Journalist, writer and publisher, Holbrook Jackson, reported ‘The theme is so painful as to be almost unbearable. I have seen people walk out… but those who remained in the grip of the horror… those who remained laughed every now and then at the humour of it. Some things may be too deep for tears, but nothing is too deep for laughter.’

In a rather sad side fact, the main character Solly, died of a heart attack in ‘The Hooligan’ – with Gilbert suffering the same fate, only a few short months later.

Main Image: The Criminal Prisons of London by Henry Mayhew

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