Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Visiting Column #5 -- Did I Have to Sit There?

So this is not about a challenging trip on a commercial flight, or anything remotely like that.  It is, however, a brief vignette from my life way back when, and yet another opportunity to go back and laugh at myself and invite others to do the same.  I can actually do that.

Many, many years ago, in the far-off land of Massachusetts, I was living in Boston and performing in comic operas for a living, or at least to supplement my living.  I had an actual day job back then, but this was adding to the fun in my life -- usually.

Naturally, as a performer of Gilbert and Sullivan productions, I had grown to admire the most famous performers of the genre, which at that time meant those associated with London's D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, which was actually founded 100 years or so earlier by the impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte, to produce those very operas as they were written.  Until 1982, when the Company closed, they were the place where the original direction of the author and composer were protected and faithfully performed.

Although the operas themselves have different settings, are set in several different countries and the stories are different, for the most part there are characters common across all of them -- the lead tenor and soprano, for example, who may or may not end up together at the end as they do in "HMS Pinafore" and "Pirates of Penzance" -- but don't in "Ruddigore" or "Patience."  There is a part in most all the operas for a large bass-baritone, and for a lower-voiced soprano with a flair for comedy.

And, of course, there is the "little man who dances around the stage and sings the patter song", as the British comedienne Anna Russell declared long ago in one of her routines.  Those not very familiar with the genre still know him as the "model of a modern major-general" or the First Lord of the Admiralty, who sings "When I Was a Lad ..." -- that guy.  And there's one of them in all the operas.

Naturally, over the years the performer in the D'Oyly Carte who played those roles, in any era, became the "star" of the Company.  John Reed, who performed the roles brilliantly for over 20 years until shortly before the Company closed, is the one that most people alive today would have seen, and certainly heard on the recordings done the last few decades of the Company.  I was privileged to have seen him in a number of performances during their USA tours.  We think of the eras of the Company in terms of who played those roles.

Martyn Green took that position on in 1934 and performed with the D'Oyly Carte for the better part of the next 20 years, with a break during the Second World War, until 1951.  He was certainly famous as a performer before and after that tenure, but it was as the comedian with the Company that he was best known.

I had read a book many years back which may have been about him directly, or perhaps in which he commented.  It might have been an article, actually -- I can't recall.  But I do remember that he was discussing W.S. Gilbert himself, and on being unable to answer a particular question, Green was quoted as saying "[I can't answer that], I only sat on Gilbert's knee once [as a small boy]".  Green was born in 1899, and Gilbert died in 1911, so the story makes sense.  For some reason, I recalled that.

In 1974, I was just beginning the first years of my performing career, such as it ever became.  Martyn Green, who had moved to the USA years before, was coincidentally performing on Cape Cod in a production of "HMS Pinafore" as a guest in a summer stock show.  He was just 75 at the time, and I was 23.  You figure, you have only one chance to see the Martyn Green, and it wasn't too far, so I went to see him and perhaps shake hands afterwards.

Now, understand that Green had lost one leg 20 years earlier in a horrific elevator accident, and made his way about on an artificial left leg.  So his performing did not include a lot of that "dancing around the stage" that Anna Russell had described, but you would simply have watched, had you not known that, and inferred simply that an older gentleman was no longer as spry and needed a cane to get around.  The performance was pretty good, but it didn't matter; we were there to see whatever version of Martyn Green was still there.

So afterwards, as is frequently done, the cast of the shows lined up outside for the audience to meet and greet, and at the end of the line Martyn Green sat and shook hands with people.  Naturally, I got in that line and, at my turn, approached him with a smile.  "You did sit on Gilbert's knee, correct?", I asked him.  He acknowledged that he had.

I couldn't help it.  "Would you mind if I sat on your knee for a second?", I asked.  He was a bit nonplussed, but readily said it was OK.  I'm a pretty small person to start with, and I only "sort of" sat on his knee, respecting his age, his mono-legged status and the relative propriety of the request.  I have to think that the friends I had gone with just shook their heads at me, because it was certainly something I would do.

Martyn Green died the following February at 75 years of age.  He once sat on W.S. Gilbert's knee, around 1904, and I sat on Martyn Green's knee in 1974.  The chain goes on.

You may stop laughing now.

Copyright 2019 by Robert Sutton
Like what you read here?  There are over 1,000 posts from Bob at, and after four years of writing a new one daily, he still posts thoughts once in a while as "visiting columns", no longer the "prolific essayist" he was through 2018, but still around.  Appearance, advertising, sponsorship and interview inquiries cheerfully welcomed at or on Twitter at @rmosutton

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