The Arcadians – one of the first Great British Musicals

The Arcadians is the supreme Edwardian musical comedy.  Yet, prior to its opening at the Shaftesbury Theatre on 28 April 1909 only the producer, Robert Courtneidge had any faith in it.  His daughter Cicely commented that this was ‘the greatest gamble of his life’ – it was a gamble which he had decided to play on his own.  Fantasy was not a popular theme in musical comedy at the time – the Far East and the endless retellings of the Cinderella story under various guises was the stuff that audiences were lapping up – nor was Arcadia a novel subject for musical treatment since W S Gilbert had introduced it in Iolanthe a couple decades before.  And even earlier than that, in 1873, Gilbert, under the pseudonym of F Latour Tomline, had written a burlesque entitled The Happy Land which had a similar theme in which wiser fairies were transported to England.  However, the blend of a wonderful humorous and eventful plot, romantic interludes and a memorable score have retained its popularity to this day.  Courtneidge’s gamble had paid off – he had produced a show that had gelled to near perfection and, not surprisingly, it became a direct hit.

As well as the indirect relationship to Iolanthe there is a Gilbertian air about the piece in its satirical whimsy and cleverness.  The book was written by Mark Ambient, Alexander M Thompson and Robert Courtneidge.  Courtneidge and Thompson had collaborated on a number of previous projects ranging from pantomimes (Courtneidge was a major producer of these throughout the country) to the new musical comedies.  Ambient, whose musical comedy writing expertise was not quite so well advanced as Gilbert’s, had supplied the initial story line; Thompson was the one who developed it.  The lyricist, Arthur Wimperis, was another with Courtneidge connections, who in addition to musical comedies wrote for revue and penned popular topical songs.  Another Gilbertian connection was Wilhelm who designed the Arcadian costumes and accessories, he had been involved with a number of the Gilbert and Sullivan shows.

The score for The Arcadians was a dual effort between Lionel Monckton and Howard Talbot; Monckton’s top billing was simply the result of a toss of a coin.  Lionel Monckton, a barrister and former music critic of the Daily Telegraph, was associated with many ‘hit’ Edwardian shows and his scores for A Country Girl, Our Miss Gibbs and The Quaker Girl have all survived to this day and he should be considered Jerome Kern’s initial musical inspiration for Kern was learning his trade in London at the time.  Monckton was a great composer, as was Talbot, but Talbot was also a master orchestrator and a musical director.  Howard Talbot was of Irish descent, although American born.  He had first worked for Courtneidge on The Blue Moon and collaborated with Monckton on The Girl From Kay’s.  Other successes in which he either collaborated or wrote entirely included A Chinese Honeymoon, Belle of Britany and Courtneidge’s next project after The Arcadians, The Mousme.

Robert Courtneidge had been a successful provincial producer.  He first came to London under the banner of George Edwardes of Gaiety fame and had been in partnership with Edwardes at the Adelphi Theatre where he had directed the musical comedy The Duchess of Danzig.  He decided to go into management on his own in 1905 and in 1909 he leased the Shaftesbury Theatre and reconstructed the auditorium at the cost of twenty thousand pounds.

The Arcadians, which was billed as a ‘fantastic musical play’, reopened the theatre where it played for 805 performances.  The Arcadians became Courtneidge’s greatest money spinner.  Unfortunately, the original Shaftesbury Theatre was destroyed by bombing in 1941.

The Edwardian period was a ‘short life and a gay one’.  It was a reign that ended in spirit when the First World War commenced in 1914 even though Edward V1 had died in 1910.  If ever England had been close to being Arcadia then it was this period and as such it is not, perhaps, so surprising that The Arcadians was the most successful show of the period.  It is also a show that is timeless in spirit and one of the few that have not been effected by time.  This was shown by an excellent revival at the Northcott Theatre in Exeter in 1984.  On Broadway it played the Liberty Theatre in 1910 in a Charles Froman production that ran for a successful, at the time, 193 performances.  A silent film version was made in 1927 and the show has remained a firm favourite ever since with amateur companies.

Perhaps one day a London producer will recognise it as being worthy of a major revival.  It would look exquisite on the Lyttleton stage at the National!

Rexton S Bunnett                                                                                             Illustrations from the Overtures Archive