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Charles DIBDIN (1745-1814)
The Wags (1790)
Simon Butteriss (baritone), Stephen Higgins (piano)
rec. November 2019, Richard Burnett Heritage Collection, Royal Tunbridge Wells
Texts included

Charles Dibdin – he of Tom Bowling fame (he wrote it for his brother) – developed the ‘Table Entertainment’ in 1787. It was, in essence, a one-man show with piano accompaniment. These three-act pieces, or Entertainments Sans-Souci – which refers to the name of the theatre he built in 1795 in London – continued for fully twenty years. Dibdin would have the words written but carried the music in his head. Readings and Music and The Whim of the Moment, or, Nature in Little inaugurated his entertainments and then came The Oddities, performed at the Lyceum before in 1790 he produced The Wags or, The Camp of Pleasure, performed at the Grand Saloon in the Lyceum. A ‘wag’ was a ‘merry droll’ according to Dr Johnson’s dictionary and with this work Dibdin hit gold. It remained his greatest commercial success and he performed it no fewer than 108 times during the 1790 season.

A show about the ‘ludicrously mischievous’ caught the zeitgeist and no one caught the zeitgeist better than Dibdin. The Bastille had just fallen and Dibdin very publicly sided with Edmund Burke when Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France. As well as opportunities for stock humour – the jolly tar, the idiot Irishman, the huntsman – there are also barely concealed appeals to patriotism and to nautical values in The Wags. Allied to which is the form of these pieces. There is a long, spoken narrative followed by a song and yet, often with entwining characters in the narratives these passages are rendered quasi-novelistic. They are also thunderously witty.

Dibdin was a composer as well as a poet, a performer and impresario, and he was writing a compound theatrical entertainment. He published the music but not his readings, so it is fortunate that much of the material from The Wags survives in the British Library and it’s this that’s allowed the entertainment to be recreated here. Only the third part is sketchy so the reconstruction here is shorter. In any case Dibdin undoubtedly substituted other songs during runs of his shows, the form being amenable to this kind of thing. The form was a kind of musical jocular symposium in which jokes and japes are swapped, and vocal impersonations abound in a thoroughly intimate way.

Didbin sang in a baritone voice and was known to use falsetto. A contemporary who heard his Entertainments wrote that his voice was ‘of no great power or compass, but of a sweet and mellow quality’ noting that when he sang and played he wore ‘a blue coat, white waistcoat, and black silk breeches and stockings; and he wore his hair, in the fashion of the day, fully dressed and profusely powdered.’ His music is essentially straightforward, his harmonies uncomplicated, couched very often in ballad form. There are short piano introductions and some postludes, encasing strophic settings.

And what settings they are. One vivacious tune follows another introduced by the drollery, raillery and Smollett-like vernacular of the day. The conceit is that the eccentrics meet at a Camp of Pleasure near London, eat, drink, get merry and that a succession of ‘Probationers’ is introduced and then sing their suitable songs. The narrative is powered by one Brigadier Bumper whose sallies with the Irishman O’Gig form a running gag throughout.

Dibdin is impersonated by Simon Butteriss. For all I know he recorded the work dressed in jeans and a hoodie, but he sounds as if he is in a blue coat, white waistcoat and black silk breeches and stockings. He has a certain genius for this kind of thing and years spent singing G & S and researching George Grossmith have given him a masterful way with badinage. The songs, though quite simple, as noted – Dibdin had to play the piano and sing - vary in subject matter. Most of the tunes are gloriously catchy. Some offer stout nautical backbone such as Jack in his Element whilst we also find genial digs at the contemporary fashion for Italian opera in the Irish Italian Song – Dibdin was a galant to his fingertips and didn’t much care for foreign ways. Some of his most famous songs can be found here; The Soldier’s Adieu and The Auctioneer among them.

Butteriss is simply magnificent throughout – zesty, wry, witty, naughty - but even he can’t sing and play the 1801 Broadwood piano at the same time, a felicitous choice of instrument for the project. Stephen Higgins does the honours in immaculate style and helps to ensure the success of this engaging slice of late eighteenth-century entertainment.

Talking of which, it’s to the huge credit of the Retrospect Opera team that this recording is so attractive. David Chandler edited the spoken text and the music and lyrics were edited by John Cunningham. The music was realised by Higgins.

A glossary of some of the more obscure words and phrases is provided. Some words in the glossary have survived the centuries – buck, codger, lubber – whilst others certainly haven’t fared so well; bub (booze), hunks (miser) and trampers (shoes) amongst them.

The booklet is a joint work by Chandler and Cunningham. The texts and songs are printed in full and the booklet illustrations are delightfully reproduced.

This is a class act. It’s also a recreation, based on all surviving material, of a particular moment in English entertainment, when verbal wit and genial song-making proved a huge draw, and when by force of character and skill – like a proto-Dickens – Charles Dibdin ‘ran on sprightly and with nearly a laughing face, like a friend who enters hastily to impart to you some good news.’

Jonathan Woolf

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