A Sensation Novel is a comic musical play in three acts (or volumes) written by the dramatist W. S. Gilbert, with music composed by Thomas German Reed. It was first performed on 31 January 1871 at the Royal Gallery of Illustration. New music was later composed by "Florian Pascal" (a pseudonym for Joseph Williams, Jr., 1847–1923), and only four of German Reed's songs survive. The story concerns an author suffering from writer's block who finds that the characters in his novel are dissatisfied.
The piece satirises the sensation novels popular as pulp detective fiction in the Victorian era. Later in his career, when Gilbert wrote the famous series of Savoy operas with Arthur Sullivan, he reused elements of A Sensation Novel in their opera Ruddigore.
A Sensation Novel is the fourth in a series of six short musical entertainments written by Gilbert for Thomas German Reed and his wife Priscilla between 1869 and 1875. The German Reeds presented respectable, family-friendly musical entertainments at their Gallery of Illustration beginning in 1855, at a time when the theatre in Britain had gained a poor reputation as an unsavoury institution and was not attended by much of the middle class. Shakespeare was played, but most of the entertainments available in theatres consisted of poorly translated French operettas, risqué burlesques and incomprehensible broad farces. The Gallery of Illustration was a 500-seat theatre with a small stage that only allowed for four or five characters with accompaniment by a piano, harmonium and sometimes a harp. Pascal's new score, written more than twenty years later, sounds like early Debussy. It serves to bring the work to the stage, but has been criticised as sounding out of period for this 1871 work.
A Sensation Novel satirises the sensation novels popular as pulp detective fiction in the Victorian era. The play concerns stock melodrama characters who take on a life of their own and comment negatively on the absurd plot their author forces them into. Music is a continual and essential element of the dramatic action throughout the piece. As scholar Jane W. Stedman observes in her book Gilbert Before Sullivan, this play anticipates Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. Fans of Gilbert and Sullivan will notice that Sir Ruthven Glenaloon prefigures Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd, Baronet of Ruddigore; Alice Grey, the virtuous heroine, is a foundling like Rose Maybud in Ruddigore; and that other elements of the piece anticipate the Savoy Operas, including babies switched at birth and a self-decapitation. Gilbert's casting of the large, ungainly Richard Corney Grain as the "spirit of romance" was a joke that foreshadowed his casting of the rather large Rutland Barrington as the image of perfect manly beauty in Patience.
Like some of Gilbert's other pieces for German Reed, most of the original score of A Sensation Novel is lost – four songs survive – although there have been re-settings by other composers. One such re-setting, by Mike Nash (including some Sullivan pastiche), with a libretto edited by director Mike Blum, is being produced in 2015 at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland.Author/Sir Ruthven Glenaloon (baritone) – Thomas German Reed
The Spirit of Romance/Gripper (bass) – R. Corney Grain
Herbert de Browne (tenor) – Arthur Cecil
Alice Grey (soprano) – Fanny Holland
Lady Rockalda (contralto) – Priscilla German Reed
In the first "volume", an author of sensation novels, despite having entered into a supernatural contract with the Spirit of Romance, is suffering from writer's block. Frustrated, he summons the Spirit, who informs him that the five characters he is using – the mild-mannered hero, the pure heroine, the villain and villainess, and the detective – are possessions that the Spirit has merely lent to him, and that they have lives of their own outside the text. The Spirit explains that the characters are all sinners who, as punishment for the crimes of their lives, must spend eternity playing a character that is the exact opposite to their true selves. Upon learning that his characters will come to life at the end of the first and second volume of his book, and before the final chapter of the third, the author, nervously reflecting that he has just finished the first volume, leaves his home before they appear, claiming to have an important meeting he had suddenly remembered.
When the characters do appear, it is apparent that they are quite different from the way they appear in the book. The sexy young vixen of the novel, Lady Rockalda (who loves the hero of the novel), is a world-weary and overindulgent mother of five unruly boys in life. Sir Ruthven, the villainous baronet, is a very kind-hearted, timid and shy individual. Not only are their personalities quite different outside the novel, but so are their love interests. The hero and heroine are quite bored with each other's insipidity: Herbert, the good, noble, pure and bland hero of the novel (who is a beer swilling, womanising, music hall frequenting young rover outside it), hates Rockalda in the novel but is in love with Rockalda outside it, while Alice Grey, the pure, virginal heroine, who hates Ruthven in the novel, is confident, aggressive, independent and in love with Sir Ruthven outside it. In life, Alice hates Herbert and Herbert hates Alice.
While they are in the novel, the characters are all miserable. Only during the few hours they get each night, free from the constraints of the authors' will, can they find even a little happiness. Therefore, they plot to work out how to prolong their time together and how to thwart the authors' schemes. The characters ridicule the trite, foolish and stuffy scenes they are forced to perform as part of the novel. Soon they are joined by Gripper, the novel's useless detective, who apologises for arriving late. He explains, however, that it is part of his job to be forever late – if he caught villains and stopped evil plots in a timely manner, no sensation novel would advance past the first volume. The characters realise that if Gripper were ever to be on time, their novel would be forced into its "happy" conclusion, with Alice and Herbert's marriage, a prospect that horrifies them all. Soon after this realisation, their time is up and they must return to their script.
The characters reassemble in Act II, the second volume. Herbert has been sent by the author to Central Africa for almost the whole remainder of the book, since he was "getting so confoundedly insipid no reader could stand [him]." Thus far, however, Herbert and Alice's marriage has been delayed, since Ruthven stopped the train that was to have taken her to Africa with him. The convoluted plot that they are enmeshed in seems to indicate that Alice is the rightful daughter of a Duke, whose place was deviously stolen by Rockalda, but Ruthven thinks she may actually be his long-lost granddaughter – which would be quite disappointing, as it would end any hope of their marriage. Rockalda and Alice get into an argument about who is really the Duke's daughter, but they are interrupted by Gripper's late appearance. He tells the assembled characters that he believes himself to be Ruthven's long-lost granddaughter. Their time is soon up, and they reluctantly return to their book.
At the start of Act III, which takes place just before the final chapter of the third volume, Herbert and Alice both enter, both in wedding dress and both depressed about what seems to be their inevitable end. Rockalda also comes to meet them, but Ruthven is nowhere to be found. Reading the manuscript, the characters discover that Ruthven has decapitated himself. They angrily call the author and inform him that they will rebel until he brings Ruthven back, and for good measure demand that he marry them to the characters they actually love. The author at first protests that it is impossible, but eventually gives in. Gripper rushes in, late as always, and refuses to be Sir Ruthven's granddaughter. The author, bullied into submission, agrees to bring Ruthven back, marry him to Alice, allow Herbert and Rockalda to marry, and reveal Gripper to be Sherlock Holmes in disguise. All ends happily.Note on the Ending:
This synopsis is based on the version of the libretto published in Jane W. Stedman's Gilbert Before Sullivan
. Since Sherlock Holmes had not yet appeared in print in 1871, this ending must have been introduced in a later re-printing of the text. Stedman states that she relied on a 1912 edition of the libretto (Stedman, p. 229), and she does not report how the original version ended.
1. Music for curtain
2. "Take of best quill pens a score" (Author)
3a. "In half a minute they'll be here!" (Spirit and Author)
4. "Like a motherly old lady" (Lady Rockalda)
5. Melodrame (enter Ruthven)
6a. Melodrame (enter Herbert)
6b. Melodrame (enter Alice)
7. "Goodness gracious!" (Lady Rockalda, Alice, Sir Ruthven, Herbert)
8. Melodrame (enter Gripper)
9. "Increase my woes" (Ensemble)
10. Introduction, melodrame (enter Lady Rockalda and Sir Ruthven)
11a. "No father's care, that I'm aware"* (Alice)
11b. "Well, once upon a time" (Sir Ruthven)
11c. Melodrame (enter Lady Rockalda)
12a. "With rage infuriate I burn!"* (Alice and Lady Rockalda)
12b. Melodrame (enter Gripper)
13. "When information I receive that Jones has been a-forging"* (Gripper)
14. "We must depart, our masters call us" (Ensemble)
15a. Introduction (enter Herbert)
15b. "Oh, agony! and oh, despair!"* (Herbert)
16. Melodrame (enter Rockalda)
17. Melodrame (enter Gripper)
18. "I'm delighted; I'm delighted" (Ensemble)
The songs for which settings composed by German Reed still survive are marked with an asterisk (*).