Between the Whiffs

Henry Herman (1832-1894) knew Wilkie as stage manager for the revival of The New Magdalen in 1875 and then prepared Miss Gwilt for its first production at the Alexandra Theatre (shown above in 1870) on 9 December 1875. Wilkie wrote to him on 8 November “I can only leave it to your knowledge and experience – in which I have perfect confidence – to prepare the piece for production. I hope to attend all the later rehearsals myself.” Wilkie did so arriving in Liverpool on 6 December and leaving on 11th.  After this Herman managed more Wilkie plays and they corresponded up to the late 1870s.

Herman collected anecdotes from his literary and theatrical life in an exceedingly rare book published towards the end of his life Between the Whiffs.

When Wilkie Collins’s Miss Gwilt was rehearsed for the first time on any stage, at the Alexandra Theatre, Liverpool, it contained a part omitted at its production – namely that of the old gardener, Abraham Sage. The rôle was allotted to a young man who was then the second comedian of the theatre, and who has since made a name for himself both in England and the Colonies. The aspirant for stage honours was dissatisfied with his part – a very short one – and at one of the final rehearsals he interlarded his principal speech with a copious admixture of the word “sir.” When he had got through, Wilkie Collins looked at him over his spectacles and said sternly: “Young man, I have written the word ‘sir’ four times. You have used it thirteen times. Please understand that I want my words spoken as I wrote them.”  “I am very sorry, Mr. Collins,” replied the young comedian; but, you see, the part’s such a poor one, and I wanted to give it character.”

“Thank you,” Wilkie Collins replied quietly;” I will look into this.”

When the rehearsal of the act was finished, Wilkie Collins turned to Miss Cavendish’s stage manager, who had charge of the production, and asked him for a pencil.

I think, Mr. --------,” he said “if we put our heads together, we may do without Abraham Sage,” and in the result every line of the gardener’s part was struck out of the piece.

When the Alexandra Theatre Company, including Edmund and Robert Lyons. A. W. Pinero, and others, were engaged for the London production, that young comedian regretted his inconsiderate speech, and three years elapsed before he found a London engagement. He has made up for it since.

Henry Herman, Between the Whiffs, Bristol, [1890], pp. 108-109. Quoted in Broadbent, Annals of the Liverpool Stage, 1908 p. 313.

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