William S. Gilbert was known for being a strict and demanding director—a martinet, in fact. But he was respected by the actors who worked for him. One awed member of his chorus noted, “He’s the only man I ever met who could swear straight on for five minutes without stopping to think or repeating himself.”
Also, many of the women he worked with really liked him. He defended the ladies of his chorus against “stage-door johnnies” and “mashers” who thought actresses were loose women. He hated the Victorian double-standard of behavior that punished women for the same actions that men were praised for, and wrote a couple of plays to point out this inequity.
But as far as we know, only one lady of the chorus took her admiration farther than that. While Gilbert was in America for the premiere of The Pirates of Penzance, he received a letter from a chorus member who signed herself “Cynisca.”
She wrote in part:
“How it started God only knows, I flattered myself I was fascinated by your ability…. If you for a moment think I have a sinful thought connected with you, you have sadly mistaken me, my feeling for you is of the head alone…Think of me with respect for I deserve it, there is no shame in the feeling I bear you—Good by.”
Jane Stedman, in her biography of Gilbert, adds that the letter was dated 1880, and was written on cheap lined paper. The author also told Gilbert that she had never loved before, even though she was married to a husband whom she’d left after the American Civil War. “From that time, I encased myself in cast iron,” she wrote, until she met Gilbert. She’d fallen in love with him, and the thought that he would be returning to England was “worse than death.”
Poor Cynisca! Her letter is clearly not an invitation to Gilbert, but rather a farewell. It seems unlikely that Gilbert knew about her feelings until this letter arrived.
Gilbert’s successful play of 1871, called Pygmalion and Galatea, might have been where his anonymous admirer got her name. In that play, the sculptor was married to Cynisca. She’s a strong female character who is most upset when she returns from a trip to find he’s brought his sculpture to life (George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion wasn’t produced until 1913).
History doesn’t reveal who this letter-writing Cynisca was, or how Gilbert felt about it, or even if he knew who she was. He seems to have been a sentimental man and not a Lothario. However, the fact is that Gilbert usually destroyed all his personal correspondence and this letter, for whatever reason, survives.
What do you think? Would you ever write a letter like the one Cynisca wrote to W.S. Gilbert? Who would you write it to? Let me know in the comments.