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Musical of the Month

Musical of the Month: Dorothy


A guest post by Tracy C. Davis, Barber Professor of Performing Arts — Northwestern University.

Extracted from the preface to Dorothy in Tracy C. Davis, ed., The Broadview Anthology of Nineteenth-Century British Performance (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2012). The full text of the book and lyrics (based on the British Library's manuscript) appears for the first time in this volume.

Florence Dysart as Lydia in a scene from DorothyFlorence Dysart as Lydia
[Victoria & Albert Museum]
Dorothy premiered in 1886 it was billed as a comic opera; it has been classed as a musical comedy only in retrospect. In the mid-1880s, lyric comic forms tended toward the sexually suggestive, and much of the fare produced in London (originating in Paris or Vienna) consisted of "leg shows" trading on the appeal of revealing female costumes. Dorothy, in common with Gilbert and Sullivan's works, reversed the trend by offering something in verse as "perfectly pure" as it was thoroughly English (Lloyd's Weekly, 26 September 1886). Significantly, however, even The Mikado and H.M.S. Pinafore were burlesques (in the parodic, not musical sense) of the comic opera form.

Dorothy looks forward to the development of musical comedy while also reaching backward, not only to earlier comedies but also to the social practice of the bal masqué (a thematic costume ball). On 6 June 1845, for example, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert hosted a bal masqué at Buckingham Palace, the "1745 Fancy Ball," which harked back to fashions of a hundred years before. The Queen and the Prince sported white wigs and specially made antiquated costumes, as did their assembled guests. This suggested a time before revolutions tore at the social fabric of France and when courtly activity still dominated the social hierarchy of England. Setting Dorothy in 1740, among commoners, allowed audiences to enjoy the spectacle of antique clothes and manners purely as dress-up, an homage to noble authority that had long since faded in potency. Squire Bantam's eagerness to accommodate the Duke of Berkshire (a fictitious title taken by someone bent on felonious action) passes without commentary, but in terms of 1886, the Squire's self-deception was naïve and quaintly old-fashioned. One might be neighbourly to a distressed traveler of any station in life, but to then give them the benefit of the doubt on money matters was an action worthy only of the stage. Both the pastoral and courtly settings of Dorothy registered as long, long ago, yet they provided attractive backdrops to the parallel romantic and comic plots. When critics commented on the deficiencies of Stephenson's plot, they implicitly noted its failure to challenge late-Victorian sensibilities; however, they also registered its triumph in pleasing playgoers who did not go to the theatre to be challenged.

Marie Tempest, Digital ID th-55300, New York Public LibraryFlorence Dysart and Marion Hood in a
scene from "Dorothy"
[From The Victoria & Albert Museum]
While Dorothy draws upon earlier stage repertoire and the courtly entertainment of the bal masqué, it also utilizes several other forms of social revelry and ritual. Indeed, these constitute the pretexts for the spectacles of acts 1 and 3, and are crucial to the comic opera's impression of creating integrated music and action. The hop-pole celebration and harvest feast of act 1 might be regarded as mere backdrops to introducing the courting quartet except that these rites of country life establish Dorothy and Lydia's aliases as the country lasses Dorcas and Abigail. Wilder and Sherwood's flirtations gain ground (and greater tension) when city collides with country, and gentlemen think they pursue serving wenches of the lower classes. Without the rituals of country life, the women's pretence for disguise would have neither credibility nor forward momentum. In act 3, the framing rite is the marriage of Phyllis and Tom, true country folk, celebrated by their entire village. Somewhat improbably, this occurs in a wooded coppice in order to double locations with the duel between Percy Dasher (seconded by Tilbury Slocomb) — actually Dorothy and Lydia — and Wilder (seconded by Sherwood). The beginning and end of this bit of plot are framed by a country dance by the bridal party and a song urging everyone to be content with their lot. These framing devices make music, song, and dance diegetic — justified within the logic of the plot — rather than merely incidental. They ground the story of the marriage (and the betrothals of the quartet) as the form of musical comedy.

Stephenson's integration of public rituals into Dorothy underscores the waning dependence upon theatrical sources (the mode of much burlesque) and highlights the growing importance of other kinds of entertainment in the public's acceptance of the new genre of the musical. This leaves three factors that account for Dorothy's novelty: the catchiness of the tunes, the performances by starring principal performers, and the moment-by-moment gorgeousness of the unfolding mise en scène. Like so much nineteenth-century fare, Dorothy coheres as a recognizable piece of stage work through its masterful recombination of elements rather than as a breakthrough innovation in any part. While it does not warrant the status of "inventing" musical comedy, Dorothy helped to establish the popularity of elements that became an enduring performance genre, and its financial success encouraged other creative teams to work in its generic mould. Thus it is recognizable, in retrospect, as near the vanguard of a trend without being so decisive a break with tradition as to constitute a watershed.

A note on the text from Doug

The following electronic texts are based on an edition by Tracy C. Davis sent to me as a Word file.  I converted this file to TEI and used the result to produce the other forms.  Any errors in formatting are therefore my own.

File type What it's for
ePub eBook readers (except Kindle)
Mobi Kindle
PDF Adobe Acrobat
HTML Web browsers
Plain Text Just about anything
TEI Digital Humanities Geeks



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