J. M. Gordon

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J. M. Gordon

John McRobbie Gordon (1857 – 22 February 1944) was an English singer, actor, stage manager and director, best known as the influential long-time director of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company after the death of W. S. Gilbert.

Life and career[edit]

Gordon was born in Aberdeen, Scotland. Early in his career, he sang with the Dan Godfrey Quartet in Bournemouth.[1]

Gordon joined the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in 1883 on tour in Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience as a member of the chorus. In 1884, he played the part of Colonel Calverley in Patience on tour. He remained with D'Oyly Carte until 1890, playing Piscator in The Carp (a one-act curtain raiser) when it accompanied Ruddigore, and Mr. Harrington Jarramie in Mrs. Jarramie's Genie (another curtain raiser), when it accompanied The Yeomen of the Guard, in each case at the Savoy Theatre in London. He was also in the choruses of Princess Ida, Trial by Jury, The Sorcerer, The Mikado, Ruddigore, Yeomen and The Gondoliers at the Savoy.[1] In the 1890s, Gordon managed, and acted in, his own touring company of four performers, playing a series of short pieces including Mock Turtles.[2] He also ran his own band. By the early 1900s, he was working as a freelance conductor and director for British amateur operatic societies. Among other works that he directed were Sullivan's The Emerald Isle, Planquette's Les cloches de Corneville, Cellier's Dorothy, Gilbert and Cellier's The Mountebanks and Gilbert's play Sweethearts.[3]

In 1907, Gordon returned to D'Oyly Carte as a stage manager. He appears to have left the company for a time but returned by 1911. Following the death of W. S. Gilbert earlier in 1911, Rupert D'Oyly Carte sought a stage manager who could maintain the company's production standards and preserve Gilbert's traditions and style. Gordon's skills, experience with the company directly under Gilbert, attention to detail, and tenacity were exactly what Carte desired. Gordon stage managed and then directed D'Oyly Carte productions for the next twenty-eight years. He coached new artists on the blocking, dances, and line readings for each part, and maintained strict quality control over the productions. He was named Stage Director for the company in 1922 and served in that capacity until his retirement in 1939. He was responsible for making the textual revisions to Ruddigore when that opera was restaged in December 1921, as well as the extensive revision (with music director Harry Norris) to create the Savoy Edition of Cox and Box, and he approved any changes to stage business, such as Darrell Fancourt's introduction of the Mikado's famous laugh.[1]

A photograph of Gordon and D'Oyly Carte colleagues with the huge recording horn used in the acoustic recording process can be seen here. Gordon's daughter Lilian preserved many of his papers with information about the company's productions. His memoirs were transcribed by his great niece Elizabeth Benney and published by Pitcairn-Knowles in 2014.[3]

Gordon died in Brighton at age 87.[1]

Anecdotes about Gordon[edit]

Many members of D'Oyly Carte wrote anecdotes about Gordon's dedication and the value of his instruction, including Martyn Green, in his Treasury. Derek Oldham described Gordon as:

a tiger for knowing and getting what he wanted! He was only really happy when he was rehearsing. He loved rehearsing.... He was the everlasting secret joke of the Company... and there were some funny tales.... But he had that company on its toes. It is sometimes said that the vintage years of [the company] were from 1919 and the six years following. Well, they were all due to old man Gordon.... Later, as he became older and tired, it showed itself in the fact that he was not so flexible. He became a martinet in tiny little things of "business" and tradition, and would not allow the individuality of the actor to colour a part, as he used to in my time ... making for a dull uniformity. But what a producer when at his best.... Gordon gave me diction, much solid stage technique, and nursed the passion and sincerity for my job.[4]

Viola Wilson, who was a soprano with the company near the end of Gordon's career, wrote this typical description in her memoir:

He worshipped Gilbert and this was reflected in his own productions. Although a stickler for tradition, he believed first and foremost in building up an intelligent performance. Short and slight, James Gordon kept a small step ladder [to see over the heads of the chorus] near the prompt corner so he could stand on it, peer through his pince-nez spectacles at us and not miss a single movement. He knew the exact spot where we should stand and no one dared be half an inch out of place. From the stage we could see his luminous pen jotting down notes which he later handed to us. Some of these I still have: "You took three steps too close to Strephon during the duet." "Keep your arms steady during song and sing with more feeling" and so on.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e Stone, David. J.M. Gordon, Who Was Who in the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, 17 July 2014, accessed 21 April 2015
  2. ^ "The Era, 14 August 1897, p. 12
  3. ^ a b Gordon, J. M. and Elizabeth Benney. The Memoirs of J M Gordon 1856-1944: Stage Director D'oyly Carte Opera Company, Richard Pitcairn-Knowles (2014), pp. 59, 60 and 62 ISBN 095585914X
  4. ^ Taylor, Roy (ed). "Derek Oldham Remembers", at the Memories of the D'Oyly Carte website, accessed 21 December 2009


  • Ayre, Leslie (1972). The Gilbert & Sullivan Companion. London: W.H. Allen & Co Ltd.  Introduction by Martyn Green.
  • Green, Martyn (1961). Martyn Green's Treasury of Gilbert & Sullivan. New York: Simon & Schuster.  (Includes Green's annotations on the operas, including a few anecdotes concerning Gordon)

External links[edit]