THE "RUN OF THE PIECE."
THEATRICAL quarrels have commonly more interest for the public than most disputes which have 'so do with private concerns, and if ever a lawsuit was made amusing by its subject-matter, it is the case of " Gilbert r. the Comedy Opera
• Company." The point to be decided by this action was nothing less than the right to perform ILlf.S. Pinafore —the right, that is to say, to give English-speaking men and women as large a quantity of amusement as the
combined labours of authors, composers, and actors have often been enabled to afford them. It is almost painful to think of Pisinpre in connection with affidavits, cross- examinations, and all the other incidents of a modern Chancery suit. Those, however, who have to look at it as a source not of amusement, but of profit, must be excused, if they are a little over-zealous in maintaining their several claims. To have or not to have the right of performing an opera of such immense popularity is an issue of too great moment to be decided by an appeal to chance, or by allowing the most obsti- nate of the contending parties to have his own way. It is difficult, however, to understand how the result of the case could ' at any time have seemed doubtful. Generally speaking, an action of this kind is made confusing by a conflict of evidence: The professional army seems to be divided into two hostile and equal camps upon the meaning of every word employed in the documents, and the bearing of every professional custom appealed to. In this case, the evidence seems to have been all on one side. The point in dispute was in itself an ex- tremely simple ono, and for a wonder, it was not in the least obscured by the testimony of the witnesses. Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Sullivan originally made over the right to perform Pinafore to the Comedy Opera Company, for so long a time as the run of the piece should continue, on condition of receiving half the profits. The success of Pinafore proved to be so great that the author and composer may naturally have thought that if the arrangement had to be concluded over again, they might make better terms for themselves. From this point of view, the exact construc- tion of the words "the run of the piece" became of great moment, because whatever was the term intended by this phrase was also the term for which Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Sullivan had leased their interest in the opera. Pinafore was brought out at the Opera Comique in the spring of 1878, and was performed nightly until December 24th. The theatre was then closed until February. 1879, for repairs, and for improvements in the drainage. on its re- opening, the Comedy Opera Company applied for permission
to perform the opera again, which was given, not on the old terms, but on payment of eight guineas for each perform- ance. Notice was subsequently given to the Company that this permission would be withdrawn after July 31st, 1879, at which date the company ceased to be lessees of the Opera Comique. The company contended that as the run of the piece had not been broken, they had a right to go on per- forming it at other theatres, and it was acocrdingly performed by them at the Olympic. Proceedings in Chancery were thereupon taken by Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Sullivan, and the case came on for hearing on Tuesday.
Upwards of fifty affidavits by actors and dramatic authors had been filed on behalf of the plaintiffs, and the proceed- ings in court consisted almost wholly of the cross-examination of certain of the deponents by the defendant's counsel. It was contended, on behalf of the Company, that the "run of the piece" had not been broken by the necessary closing of the theatre for repairs, Unfortunately for this view of the case, the meaning of technical words like these can only be determined by the evidence of experts, and the evidence of experts went all one way. The only ex- ception was the affidavit of Mr. John Hollingshead, but oven this, when it came to be looked into, did the defendants no service. He had said in his affidavit that if a theatre is closed "by the visitation of God," the run of a piece is not broken ; and the defendants' counsel, not unnaturally, sought to infer from this that the occurrence of an accidental fire would not break the run of the piece. If this could have been sustained, it would then probably have been argued that unforeseen de- fects in the drainage, which it was imperatively necessary to put right, would be as much due to "the visitation of God" as an accidental fire. But when Mr. Hollingshead came to be cross-examined, it turned out that he used the phrase "the visitation of God" in a sense which, we venture to think, is peculiar to himself. In his mouth, it is equivalent to the visita- tion of the Lord Chamberlain, and ordinarily means the coming round of the fixed days, sue.h as Christmas Day and Good Friday, on which the theatres are closed by the Lord Chamberlain's order, As to a fire, Mr. Hollingshead was of opinion that even if a manager had spent £1,500 in bringing out a piece, and on the third night a fire made it necessary to suspend the performances for one night only, his legal right to continue the performances would be at an end, as the run of the piece would have been broken. Mr. Bancroft thought that an earthquake might " possibly " break a run ; but that, if a manager knew his business, no amount of accidents to individual performers could have this effect. There is always some other actor ready to take over the part, and "when you come to the very worst, the prompter comes on with the book and reads the part." Yet, though Mr. Bancroft was so confident that no disturbance of the company could break a run, he was equally clear that any accident which olosed the theatre would have this effect. A run he defined Lobe the continuous performance of a piece in the particular building in which it is produced. Mr. Palgrave Simpson said that "if a run is stopped, it is stopped. It may be a misfortune for the manager or for the author, but it is at an end." The author and the manager may, of course, make what arrangements they please to qualify this interpretation, but in the absence of any such arrangement, an intermission even for a single night would put an end to any agreement they might have made. Mr. Irving was not quite so positive upon this point. He did not think that the withdrawal of the piece for one night, owing to unavoidable circumstances, would terminate the run, though if the withdrawal lasted two nights, the run, "strictly speaking," would be over. But this concession did the defen- dants no good, because Mr. Irving had no doubt whatever that if the theatre had to be closed for the repair of the drains, unless perhaps an order to that effect had been given by the Lord Cham- berlain, the run would be broken. A run, Mr. Irving said posi- tively, did not mean the time for which the piece is a success. If he were to withdraw the Corsican Brothers and begin it again in a month's time, the run would be over. Upon this testimony, Mr. Justice Fry had no difficulty in coming to a decision. "The evidence of the professional witnesses clearly shows," he said, "that the run of a piece is the time during which it is played in consecutive nights, except when the theatres are closed by order of the Lord Chamberlain." The great con- troversy on the right to please mankind by performing Pina- fore is now concluded. It is to Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Sullivan, and to them only, that we must turn, when we want to be again under the command of Sir Joseph Porter.