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Engaged by WS Gilbert

The first New York performance of Engaged was in Feb. 1879. (It had opened in London in 1877).  The production first described in these letters was the Feb. 1886 Actor's Fund benefit performance in New York..

An "experimental comedy" by WS Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame).  "It has been Gilbert's singular fate to have become associated with the operettas produced in collaboration with Sir Arthur Sullivan ... His considerable significance in the history of the Victorian theatre as a whole has been ignored ...Engaged [is] unquestionably the finest and funniest English comedy between Bulwer- Lytton's Money and Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, (1895) which it directly inspired". [Makers]

Daly's Wallack's and the Madison Square were the three leading New York theatre companies of that time.  According to the NY Times three plays were performed as an Actor's Fund benefit, each act traveling to a different theater.  "Mrs. Phillips a capital Mrs. MacFarlane in Engaged." 

Tickets were $2 and good at any theatre.  Act I of Engaged began at 2 PM at the Madison Square Theatre, while Act II was played at 3 in Wallack's and the last act at 4 in Daly's AM Palmer addressed the audience at Wallack's, Wallack at Daly's and Daly at the Madison Square.

New York,  Feby 7th 1886 I had to have a carriage to & from on Wednesday night, cost me $2.  Thursday was also very cold & stormy but I battled through it twice - commencing in the afternoon at our own shop thence to Wallack, then to Daly's and back to Madison Square. Of course we had carriages but they only conveyed us to the different theatres.  The storm injured the Matinees - $1400 and some odd, being the amt taken at the 3 Theatres. 

The New York  Times review (Feb. 9, 1886, 5:1) said "The threefold Actors' Fund benefit, arrangement by Mr. Augustin Daly, with the cooperation of Messrs Lester Wallack and Albert M. Palmer, took place yesterday afternoon" but laments that "actors and others who make their living by the stage were conspicuously absent ... The bitterly cold weather and almost impassable thoroughfares had their effect on the general public, and as the Broadway cars did not run until late in the afternoon, many persons who started from their homes to go to one of the theatres may have turned back dismayed ... the theaters were warm and comfortable, and the acting was keenly enjoyed.  No benefit performance given here in many years has been marked by such spirited and effective acting as that which distinguished the performances of "The Rivals", "Love on Crutches" and "Engaged".  

The NY Times review (Feb 24, 1886) called it an "elaborate burlesque" and noted that "the laughter was almost incessant", Maud Harrison was "properly artless and childlike as an artful and designing Minnie Symperson" and  "Messrs  Flockton, LeMoyne and Frank Drew , Mrs. Phillips and Marie Greenwald supported the other parts with the right spirit".  

Odell notes that performance of Engaged [by WS Gilbert] was obviously a tryout in that Gilbert and Sullivan season.  At any rate, it entered the regular bills on Feb 23rd with the glorious Agnes Booth as Belinda, tarts and all, with Maud Harrison as a delightful Minnie, Annie Russell as a perfect Maggie McFarlane, seemingly demure and inwardly selfish and self-seeking. Mrs. Phillips as Mrs. McFarlane, Kelcey as a surprisingly good Cheviot Hill, LeMoyne  as an unctuous Mr. Symperson, Flockton,  as Belvawney, Frank Drew as McGillicuddy, Massen as Angus Macalister, and Marie Greenwald as Parker. Not for anything conceivable would I give up my memory of that priceless performance, the women of the cast being as near perfection as anything on the stage can be.  

New York, Feb. 23, 1886  We closed the run of S[aints] and S[inners] last night to a big house. Tonight Engaged and I think the latter will run to close of season. 

New York, Feb. 25, 1886  Engaged a big success.  I said to AM [Palmer] last night "I suppose it will run to the end of the season."   He said "Oh no, I think not.  We will have to do one other play."  But as yet we do not know what "the other" play is.  The fear I have now is dressing another part for this season's only nine weeks more!
          
New York, March 9, 1886  Engaged has caught on and looks as if it might hold the boards until the end of the season.  I will send your allowance in my next.  Rent, Gas &c makes me short today. 

New York, Mar. 29, 1886 Tonight ends the run of Engaged.  I do not play tomorrow night & not until further notice.  A new comedy is underlined but the parts are not yet given out - and we play it before we go to Boston.  [Our Society?]

New York, May 2, 1886  We leave Grand Central Depot at 4:30 PM for Boston.  Open tomorrow night in Engaged.  It will be easy work for me and I am glad of it.  My part in Our Society is a hard working part. 

next: Boston May 4, 1886 We opened last night with Engaged. House good but not full.  We play the same tonight, tomorrow night and Sat Mat. 

The influence of Engaged on Oscar Wilde's Importance of  Being Earnest is striking,  and the play much superior to the only other contemporary one I've seen (Dion Boucicault's "The Shanghraun" in Boston 1998,  with lots of singing, dancing and drinking, seemed to me to be the 19th century equivalent of a sitcom).

In the summer of 2002 I saw a performance of Engaged by the Sudbury Savoyards http://www.sudburysavoyards.org/shows/index.html  in Sudbury, Massachusetts.  I shared a pre-web version of these letters with Director Charles Berney who had found an undated Engaged poster in the Harvard Theatre Collection.  Since the poster refers to Gilbert as the author of the Mikado (which premiered in 1885) it seems to have been designed for the 1886 American production, which opened in New York and traveled to Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Denver and other cities.  It depicts the end of the first act, when "pistol-packing Major McGillicuddy confronts Cheviot and the straying Belinda Treherne. While his two henchman look on, Belvawney reacts and behind them all are Angus, Mrs. MacFarlane [EJ Phillips in 1886] and Maggie MacFarlane [Annie Russell in 1886]. There is also a drawing of Symperson [LeMoyne in the 1886 production] encouraging Cheviot to commit suicide."  Mr. Berney notes the resemblances between the pictures I sent him and the faces on the poster.  

Bibliography
Script of Engaged http://diamond.boisestate.edu/gas/gilbert/plays/engaged/engaged.pdf
Engaged, Gilbert & Sullivan Archive http://math.boisestate.edu/gas/gilbert/plays/engaged/index.html

Last updated Feb 17, 2011

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