W.S. Gilbert and ‘An Old Score’

Samantha PillingHistory

savoy operas

Following the success of his recent opera burlesques, W.S. Gilbert wrote his first full-length prose – ‘An Old Score’.  Described as a 3-act comedy-drama, it was based in part, on his previous 1967 short story, ‘Diamonds’ and on episodes in the lives of Irish engineer and railway contractor William Dargan, and banker John Sadlier.

‘An Old Score’ opened at the Gaiety Theatre on 26th July 1869. At 2 hours long, it was second on a triple bill – typical of that time – between an operetta and a new opera bouffe.

Following opening night, The Times published a favourable review, describing the dialogue as ‘consistent and to the purpose’ and commenting on the reception it received from the audience: ‘it [was] followed by every symptom of success’. 

However, it was unfortunately, not a success. The Times review had remarked that if it wasn’t successful, this could be down to the fact it was ‘too great a comedy to suit the taste of the age.’ It did however, mark a major shift in W.S. Gilbert’s work, from that of humourist to dramatist – and ‘An Old Score’ was his most straightforward play.

And this seemed to be where the problem lay. Even the Gaiety Theatre manager was originally impressed by the ‘clever dialogue’ – but after its failure, described it as ‘Too true to nature – a disagreeable nature’. He lamented that it was not served with enough ‘make believe sauce’ and pointing out that, in the play a son argues with his father – something that was unacceptable at the time.

‘An Old Score’ ran for only 24 performances. It was briefly revived in 1872 and rewritten as ‘Quits’, but it failed to fare any better.

It was later in 1969, that Gilbert was to join Thomas German Reed and his wife Priscilla, leading figures in theatrical reform at the time. This would enable him to further develop his personal style, including the topsy-turvy that was to become the norm for his plays.

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