Gilbert and Sullivan’s first collaboration, Thespis, was written at the instigation of an imaginative London showman named John Hollingshead. Londoners in those days were fond of frothy theatrical shows that traditionally opened during the Christmas holidays and continued for several weeks thereafter. Thespis was commissioned as such a “Christmas operatic extravaganza,” and ran for 63 performances following its opening on December 26, 1871. That was a long run for such a seasonal production, particularly when one considers that the show was slapped together in a hurry and was seriously under-rehearsed.
Sad to relate, nearly all of the music has been lost, although amateur operatic groups occasionally produce their own versions of the opera using Gilbert’s words and Sullivan’s music from other works or, perhaps, Sullivanesque music of their own composition.
The story concerns a troupe of actors who climb Mount Olympus on a picnic and discover the Roman gods, grown old and ineffectual. The actors agree to take over matters on Olympus while the gods go down to mingle with ordinary mortals to learn what they (the gods) can do to regain their old influence and prestige. Upon their return a year later the gods discover that the thespians, in their impractical way, have made a botch of things. They have, for example, given the Athenians a foggy Friday in November for six months–– and now propose to make up for it with “a blazing Tuesday in July for the next twelve.” Jupiter, in his wrath, sends the thespians back to earth and condemns them all to become “eminent tragedians, whom no one ever goes to see.”
The libretto used for this chapter is that edited by Rees (252).