Benford's Gilbert & Sullivan Lexicon

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About the Opera


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).

Trial By Jury

The theatrical entrepreneur Richard D’Oyly Carte was convinced that English audiences would pay to attend respectable, well-written and well-produced musical entertainments. He was also convinced that he knew who among his contemporaries were most likely to write the works he envisaged. Although Thespis had been a modest success, Carte was sure the team could do even better. He knew that Gilbert was the nation’s best-known wit and dramatist, and that Sullivan was England’s preeminent composer. Given the right encouragement, surely they could work together to produce first-class musical theater. Carte succeeded in effecting this collaboration when he commissioned them to write Trial by Jury. Gilbert had at hand a libretto based on one of his earlier ballads (in the form of a brief operatic sketch) and Sullivan quickly set it to music. The mini-opera was intended to fill out a program built around Offenbach’s La Périchole, and was first performed at the Royalty Theatre on March 25, 1875. Gilbert labeled it “A novel and entirely original dramatic cantata, in one act.” Trial soon became more of an attraction than La Périchole, and Carte knew he had been right in assessing the worth of Gilbert and Sullivan as a team. This view was emphasized by a reviewer for the Times, who wrote that Sullivan’s score fitted Gilbert’s words as though words and music had proceeded from the same brain. This turned out to be an astute observation that was frequently applied to all the pair’s joint operas (178, 275).

Trial by Jury ran for 131 consecutive performances, and still delights audiences everywhere. The plot is simplicity itself. The scene is a courtroom where a jilted bride is suing her former fiancé. After considerable argument –– much of it carried off in mock Italian/Handelian operatic style –– the judge determines to make everyone happy by marrying the plaintiff himself. Being himself a lawyer, Gilbert had no difficulty in poking this sort of fun at the British legal system. There are no spoken lines in the opera and the music sparkles from beginning to end.

The Sorcerer

Having shown what could be done with Trial by Jury, Carte found financial backers and organized the Comedy Opera Company to pursue his dream of English musical theater. He then contracted with Gilbert and Sullivan to write their first full-length comic opera: The Sorcerer, which opened at London’s Opera Comique on November 17, 1877. The opera was at least moderately successful and ran for 178 performances.

The Sorcerer is historically significant in that it set the pattern and style that made the succeeding operas so successful. Gilbert’s control over the acting company and his firm insistence on disciplined teamwork were innovations that were then badly needed in British theater. He also brought into the company such stalwart performers as George Grossmith, Rutland Barrington, and Richard Temple. These performers (and soon others) stayed with the company for many years, and Gilbert and Sullivan obligingly wrote many roles specifically to suit their talents.

The Sorcerer’s plot involves an engaged couple who want everyone to be as happy as they, and so the groom-to-be brings in a “family sorcerer” to administer a love potion to the entire village. As you might expect, the love potion works, but everyone falls in love with the wrong partner. All is made right in the end, however, as the sorcerer breaks the spell by the expedient of giving himself up to the powers of evil –– in an appropriate puff of smoke. (You will soon learn that the Gilbert and Sullivan operas do not hinge on strongly convincing conclusions.)

HMS Pinafore

Illustration for H.M.S. PinaforeH.M.S. Pinafore was Gilbert and Sullivan’s first great joint success, and it brought them outstanding fame on both sides of the Atlantic. The show opened at the Opera Comique on May 25, 1878. Although initially well received, an exceptionally hot summer kept audiences away until Sullivan started playing selections from the show at promenade concerts for which he was the musical director. That turned the tide; the opera went on to run for more than 570 performances, and it has been one of the most popular works on the musical stage ever since.

In H.M.S. Pinafore Gilbert satirizes British class consciousness and pokes fun at a First Lord of the Admiralty who knows little about ships –– which just happened to be true to life in England at the time. In Pinafore, too, Gilbert firmly established the style of producing humor by treating a thoroughly ridiculous situation in a thoroughly serious manner. He added to the effect by insisting on accurate settings and costumes, and by rigidly restraining actors who wanted to ham up his lines or engage in any sort of slapstick. H.M.S. Pinafore remains a joy as well as a landmark in the history of musical theater.


For his next libretto, Patience, Gilbert chose to poke fun at the "aesthetic" craze that had then been in vogue in England for a couple of decades. For full enjoyment of the work you should know something about the aesthetic movement. Its progenitors included William Morris (poet and designer), Edward Burne-Jones (painter), James Whistler (painter), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (poet and artist), and Algernon Swinburne (poet). They formed a closely-knit group with uniform convictions about the dreary constraints of Victorian art, design, and literature -- and the new direction in which they ought to steer it. They elevated the search for beauty above all other aims in life and thus came to be referred to collectively as "the aesthetes." The writers sought freedom from stuffiness and extreme respectability. The painters wanted to rescue art from the traditions of the Renaissance religious painter Raphael, whose style still influenced accepted artists of the day. They sought inspiration in earlier, romantic themes, often with story-telling composition enhanced with elaborate decorative detail. It was this harking back to earlier styles of art that gave them the popular name "Pre-Raphaelites," a designation that was often applied to the writers as well.

The aesthetes were unquestionably talented. Their free-thinking proclivities, however, often led to bizarre affectations in attire, speech, and life style. Moreover, they attracted a large following of admirers who mimicked their superficial behavior but lacked the talent to emulate their commendable works. Gilbert's jibes were not directed at the talented work of the aesthetes. Rather, they were directed at their eccentric affectations and, most of all, at their ranks of mindless admirers.

At the time Gilbert was writing the libretto, Oscar Wilde, a recent Oxford graduate, was determined to make a name for himself as an aesthete. He carried the bizarre features to new extremes and probably served in part as one of Gilbert's targets. His advocacy of knee breeches for men and Grecian costumes for women is still reflected in most productions of the opera. He became strongly identified with the opera, especially when D'Oyly Carte paid him to go on a lecture tour of North America so the American public would know what the fun was all about. Nevertheless, each of the aesthetic poets in Patience appears to bear characteristics attributable to several of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, as well as to Oscar Wilde.

You should also know that for a period during his work on the opera, Gilbert intended to feature two rival curates (based on his Bab Ballad The Rival Curates) rather than two rival poets (272). Traces of those clergymen are still to be found in the libretto.

For a nicely summarized explanation of the aesthetic movement and Patience, see Williamson (318). For more complete expositions see Fido (119), Ellmann (101), Beerbohm (32), Stedman (272), Forty (120), and Von Eckardt (297).

The opera opened at the Opera Comique on April 23, 1881. The following October 10 it was transferred to a new theater, the Savoy, which Carte had designed and built specifically for the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. This was the first theater to be illuminated throughout by electricity, although a gas-light system was also included just in case the new gadgetry should fail. (The theater still stands, and has recently been rebuilt after a disastrous fire.) Patience was well received and ran for 578 performances.

Although Patience was highly topical, it has remained popular because the affectations satirized in the opera live on today in the arts, in politics, and in nearly every walk of life. Gilbert's memorial on the Thames Embankment carries the words "His foe was folly and his weapon wit." That was never more true than when he wrote Patience.


When Patience completed its run at the Savoy, the triumvirate was ready with another delightful opera, Iolanthe, in which we find members of the House of Lords brought into conflict with a lovely company of fairies, led by a buxom fairy queen dressed and accoutered remarkably like Wagner's Brünnhilde. Iolanthe opened at the Savoy on November 25, 1882, and had a relatively modest run of 398 performances.

In the following year Sullivan was knighted -- not for his highly popular comic operas, but for his serious cantatas and other massive choral works that had won him much fame, but little cash. Under a profit-sharing agreement Gilbert, Sullivan, and Carte had become wealthy through their comic operas; but Sullivan now began to feel dissatisfied. He was convinced that he was meant for bigger things. He also began to resent some of Gilbert's less-than-diplomatic remarks. (The two were never close friends.) Gilbert made matters worse by proposing for their next opera the so-called lozenge plot, in which a magic pill or potion somehow effects major changes in everyone's character. Sullivan bridled at the artificiality of such make-believe and asked Gilbert to try to suggest something more believable and true to life. Iolanthe was Gilbert's compromise. Aside from the fairies, the characters in Iolanthe are fairly true to life, and once you accept fairies, their magic powers make all else believable. Nevertheless, The happy collaboration was beginning to show signs of impending rupture.

Princess Ida

In casting about for a plot that would satisfy Sullivan, Gilbert turned to one of his earlier dramatic works: a play titled The Princess, a gently satiric work based on a narrative poem by Tennyson. (Gilbert described his version as "a respectful per-version.") The story deals with a princess who eschews men and establishes a girls' college -- an innovation that was then still new in England, and not yet widely accepted. Gilbert reorganized his material, and Princess Ida was the outcome. Among the G&S operas, this one claims two distinctions: it is the only one written in blank verse, and it is the only one having three acts. (What is now the first act was originally a prologue followed by two acts.)

Princess Ida opened at the Savoy on January 5, 1884, and ran for 246 performances -- a disappointingly short duration, and one that caught Gilbert and Sullivan unprepared with a replacement. Carte accordingly revived Trial by Jury and The Sorcerer to keep the theater and the Company occupied while he tried to maintain his artistic friends in double harness. In addition to his growing distaste for Gilbertian libretti, Sullivan was suffering from a kidney ailment that was to plague him continually through the rest of his life. Fortunately for us, Carte succeeded in his delicate task -- as we shall later see.

Although Princess Ida ranks among the lesser known of the Savoy operas, it has a strong attraction for many Gilbert and Sullivan aficionados. Ida's three hulking brothers are among the funniest characters in all of comic opera; and musically, Ida's appeal to Minerva is as close as Sullivan ever came to setting Gilbert's words in grand operatic style. Ardent advocates of women's liberation may bridle at Gilbert's views, but his darts are gently tossed and draw little real blood.

The Mikado

All friction between Gilbert and Sullivan was dissolved -- at least for a time -- when Gilbert hit on the idea of setting the next opera in Japan, turning his back on topsy-turvydom and the magic lozenge -- also at least for a time. Although the setting was Japanese, the butt of Gilbert's wit was very much English, albeit kimono-clad. Everything about The Mikado fell perfectly into place. The story line is clever, the characters are nicely drawn, the lines are witty, and the music is of enduring beauty and perfectly suited to the words.

The Mikado opened at the Savoy on March 14, 1885, and ran for a record-breaking 672 performances. It remains the most popular of all the Savoy operas and may well claim to be the most-often-performed theatrical work in world history (182).


Owing perhaps to The Mikado's great success, Sullivan became more amenable to continuing his collaboration with Gilbert. The Mikado's long run gave the composer time to engage in what he considered his real forte: oratorios and other serious compositions. He also engaged in a good deal of travel and socializing with the upper crust. Gilbert found time to develop a non-lozengian libretto, a parody of old-time blood-and-thunder melodramas, which he titled Ruddygore. Melodramas have been defined as serious plays intended for undiscriminating audiences. In such works conflicts and calamities are more interesting than the characters, who tend to be stereotyped as either good or bad. Much like modern TV shows, one finds in melodramas passion, excitement and action in plenitude, but seldom much in way of motivation (214).

The new opera opened at the Savoy on January 22, 1887. Almost anything following The Mikado would suffer by comparison, and Ruddygore most certainly did. Audiences and critics were less than enthusiastic. Gilbert and Sullivan quickly effected some revisions, among which was to change the spelling of the title to Ruddigore -- considered less offensive to genteel English tastes. The opera then ran for 288 performances, which was not a bad record -- except in contrast to The Mikado's 672.

Ruddigore's place in the hearts of Gilbert and Sullivan devotees is akin to Princess Ida's. Although the opera is among the less well known, it bears repetition and will seemingly always be popular among more experienced Savoyards.


Gilbert gives the time as “Early in the nineteenth century.” For reasons to be explained later we can infer that the time should have been no later than 1805.

Ruthven [Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd]: This is an old Scottish family name that should be pronounced “Rivven,” except as noted at the start of the second act. The name has dark overtones. In 1566 William, fourth baron Ruthven, was involved in the murder of David Rizzio, Mary, Queen of Scots’s secretary and suspected lover. Worse yet, in 1600 the Earl of Gowrie, whose family name was Ruthven, kidnapped James VI of Scotland. In retribution, the Scottish Parliament passed an act stating “that the surname of Ruthven sall now and in all tyme cumming be extinguischit and aboleissit for euir.” The law was subsequently relaxed for one branch of the clan. For further details see “Gowrie Conspiracy” in The Encyclopædia Britannica (103).

Ruthven was also the name of the vampire in Polidori’s novel The Vampyre (1819) and two derivatives: Planché and Nodier’s play The Vampire (1820), and Marschner’s opera Der Vampyr (1828). Gilbert used that same name for the villain in one of his own early plays: A Sensation Novel (277).

The Yeomen of the Guard

Ruddigore’s disappointing reception accentuated Sullivan’s distaste for further collaboration with Gilbert. Hailed as the Mendelssohn of his day (for his serious compositions), Sir Arthur found greater attractions in hobnobbing with the nobility at soirees, racetracks, and gambling casinos. Always the driving force behind the pair, Gilbert tried in vain to reintroduce the lozenge plot. Sullivan refused, his back stiffened by Queen Victoria’s offhand suggestion that he write a grand opera. Carte, meanwhile, refloated H.M.S. Pinafore at the Savoy as he strained to hold his partners together. Then Gilbert hit on the idea of an opera set in the Tower of London during the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547). Gilbert conceived a romantic, adventuresome plot and an interesting cast of characters. Sullivan was pleased, and the two collaborators stepped back into harness. Carte kept the Company together with other revivals until October 3, 1888, when the Savoy’s curtain went up on The Yeomen of the Guard. Although the new opera was initially well received and ran for 423 performances, Gilbert, and more particularly Sullivan, were disappointed that it was not another Mikado in the public’s esteem.

The Yeomen of the Guard holds a special place in the Savoy canon, being unique in its mixture of comedy and pathos. The jester, Jack Point, contains a good deal of Gilbertian self-portraiture, and several of the other characters are recognizably human –– in contrast to so many of Gilbert’s farcical portraits. In their later years, both Gilbert and Sullivan counted Yeomen as their favorite collaboration (163, 318).

The Gondoliers

The period between The Yeomen of the Guard and its eventual successor, The Gondoliers, was an extremely trying one for the triumvirate. The Queen’s perhaps offhand remark about grand opera was taken to heart by Sullivan and Carte. Gilbert wisely declined their invitation to join in such a venture, but Carte was convinced that English opera would appeal to English audiences. He therefore planned and started building a large opera house and urged Sullivan to write a serious opera that would assure the venture’s success. While this was going on, Gilbert started work on a new comic opera. Sullivan was in Venice, and he, Gilbert, and Carte were burdening the mails with a series of increasingly troublesome letters. Sullivan clearly felt himself imposed upon and complained to Carte that “excepting during the vocal rehearsals and the two orchestral rehearsals I am a cipher in the theatre.” Carte was brave (or foolish) enough to show the letter to Gilbert, who thereupon stopped work on the new libretto and wrote a blistering yet flattering letter to Sullivan, which perhaps helped clear the air. Eventually Carte brought the two back together and Sullivan found himself composing serious opera and comic opera simultaneously. The new comic opera was The Gondoliers; it opened at the Savoy on December 7, 1889, and ran for 554 performances.

The Gondoliers reflects the reconciliation between the two artists. Sensitive to Sullivan’s desire for more emphasis on music, Gilbert provided a cornucopia of opportunities for musical invention, and Sullivan responded with some of the most joyous melodies in all of musical theater. Further reflection on their relationship is seen in the two kings who reign jointly “as one individual.” The Gondoliers will surely long remain a solid favorite with music lovers everywhere.

Utopia, Ltd.

Although The Gondoliers was completed in a period of happy reconciliation, the cordial relationship was soon shattered by a bitter quarrel. It started out between Gilbert and Carte, but Sullivan was forced to take sides and chose to ally himself with Carte. The fight was sparked by a bookkeeping question relating to new carpeting in the theater. Gilbert believed that Carte’s allocation of the expense was unfair to both Sullivan and himself in that it reduced their rightful share of the profits. That was the start, and it led to other accusations and personal attacks. Gilbert, who always loved a battle, took the matter to court and won his case. This acutely embarrassing public brawl was extremely distasteful to Sullivan. The partnership lay shattered, and the composer turned his undivided attention to the grand opera which his Queen had suggested. Ivanhoe opened in Carte’s new Royal English Opera House early in 1891. The opus was well-received and enjoyed a long run. Unfortunately, Carte had not commissioned a replacement, so Ivanhoe failed to generate a lasting demand for English opera. Ironically, although Queen Victoria had suggested a grand opera, when she wanted entertainment at Windsor Castle it was The Gondoliers, not Ivanhoe, that she specified. Sullivan now felt compelled by sheer economic necessity to rejoin Gilbert. The latter, meanwhile, had in all probability learned about Kaiulani, Drawing of Crown-Princess Kaiulani of Hawaii (1875-1899)a thirteen year old Hawaiian princess and heiress-elect to the Hawaiian throne, who in 1889 had been shipped off to England to be educated (37). The new opera, Utopia Limited, with its south sea island setting (and British-educated princess) opened at the Savoy on October 7, 1893. Although widely praised by the critics, the opera enjoyed only moderate success with the public and closed after 245 performances.

Utopia Limited satirizes many conventions of the Victorian age and, as such, is rather esoteric for American audiences. Worse yet, the wounds of the carpet quarrel were never completely healed, and the rapport between the two artists was awkward at best. The opera is rarely performed today; but given a few judicious cuts, imaginative direction, and a competent cast, Utopia Limited offers many delights.

The Grand Duke

Gilbert and Sullivan both tried other partners following their work on Utopia Limited. None met with much success, and so they made one more combined effort: The Grand Duke, which opened at the Savoy on March 7, 1896, and ran for a mere 123 performances. Neither partner, it appears, had put his heart into the effort. Some lines were cut after the initial performance, but stronger measures would have been appropriate.

The Grand Duke is a much neglected opera. Its principal shortcoming is that it is too long. Its principal virtue grows out of that very shortcoming: a competent director can omit songs, chop paragraphs of dialog, and come out with a jolly evening’s entertainment. Try it; you’ll see.

The Grand Duke was Gilbert and Sullivan’s last collaboration. In ever-failing health, Sullivan died on November 22, 1900, at the age of 58. Carte died the following April, aged 56. Gilbert lived on as a country squire and was finally knighted in 1907. He died on May 29, 1911, at the age of 74. The triumvirate left to posterity their delightfully crafted operas. Now, more than a century later, those operas are still admired and lovingly presented by hundreds of amateur performing groups all over the English-speaking world. How surprised and delighted Gilbert, Sullivan, and Carte would be if they could but know. True, Gilbert would growl about directors taking liberties with his lines; Sullivan would be distressed with some of the tempi accorded his scores; and Carte would lament his inability to collect continuing royalties. Still, on the whole, they would derive great satisfaction from the lively current Geeandessian scene.

The Pirates of Penzance

During the initial run of H.M.S. Pinafore, Carte clashed with his backers, and the Comedy Opera Company was dissolved –– with hard feelings on both sides. Carte formed a partnership with Gilbert and Sullivan and the triumvirate went on to produce The Pirates of Penzance. Ever since Pinafore, the company had been distressed by American entrepreneurs who had been producing unauthorized Gilbert and Sullivan operas without paying royalties. Carte decided the best way to solve that problem would be to open their new show in New York rather than London. So the trio came to New York and opened The Pirates of Penzance at the Fifth Avenue Theater on December 31, 1879. The opera opened in London’s Opera Comique the following spring and had a run of 363 performances –– considerably less well received than its predecessor but still a great success.

The story line satirizes the Victorian proclivity toward an excessive devotion to duty, even when such devotion leads to ridiculous actions. This illustrates another Gilbertian brand of humor: the ultimate result of carrying a good thing too far. Sullivan’s music is generally described as a parody of Italian opera, nowhere better illustrated than in the famous number where the pirates belt out “With cat-like tread, upon our prey we steal,” as they stomp across the stage.

Cox and Box

This mini-opera by Burnand and Sullivan is often given as a curtain raiser for Savoy operas. Based on John Maddison Morton’s 1847 farce Box and Cox, the musical version was put together by F. C. Burnand and Arthur Sullivan during a three-week period in 1866. That was for a private gathering; but the “triumviretta” was considered such a gem that it was given a public showing at a charitable performance in the Adelphi Theatre on May 11, 1867. A week later Cox and Box was given a second benefit performance, at another theater, and the reviewer for Fun magazine was none other than W. S. Gilbert, who was not to meet Arthur Sullivan face to face for another two or three years. (His astute comment on the music was to the effect that Sullivan’s notes were too good for the words.)

Cox and Box is a frothy bit of foolishness but it has its virtues, being simple to produce and full of sprightly music. Although out of place chronologically here, it seems appropriate as a brief curtain call.

My libretto is that published by Samuel French of London (undated).

The Zoo

The first thing you should know about The Zoo is that the words are not by Gilbert; they were written by B. C. Stephenson under the pen name Bolton Rowe. The sprightly, charming music is by Sullivan. The work was first performed on June 5, 1875. (That was less than three months after the opening of Trial by Jury, but about eight years after Cox and Box.) Like Trial by Jury, it has no spoken lines. The work is brief and in a single act. After long years of neglect, it is now taking its place alongside Trial by Jury and Cox and Box as a popular curtain raiser for some of the less extensive Savoy operas.

The piano/vocal score for the work is available from R. Clyde, 6 Whitelands Ave, Chorleywood, Rickmansworth, Herts WD3 5RD, United Kingdom.

In his Note on the Libretto Terence Rees adds a few details on how one major and several minor gaps in the libretto were filled by Roderick Spencer during preparation of the published vocal score.

Present-day interest in the opera traces back to Terence Rees’s initiative in acquiring the autograph score back in 1966. Here is how he describes how it all came about:

When I was a lad, The Zoo like Thespis was very much of a mystery. It had never been published, nobody around had heard so much as a dot of the music and it received only passing mention in books dealing with the composer. And then, one day (Monday, 13th June, 1966 to be precise) the autograph full score came up for sale by auction at Sotheby’s, the famous auction house in Bond Street, London. Also up for sale were the manuscripts of Trial, Pinafore, Pirates and many others. It was a memorable event and I was there (and where were you at the time?). Intending to bid for The Zoo, I had raised all the money I could, stretching my credit right, left and centre, and expecting a fine old battle. But what I never expected was that hardly anyone in the room had heard of the piece so there was consequently little bidding. In no time at all, perhaps just two or three tense, breathless minutes, the hammer fell and I became the new owner of The Zoo.

As soon as it was all over, I paid for and collected the score, walking with it in my arms down Bond Street and along Piccadilly, past Burlington Arcade and the Royal Academy to Piccadilly Circus underground station. From there I took a train home where for the rest of that day I lay on the mat, turning the pages and wondering how I might get somebody to perform it. In the event that proved to be easier than I thought. The production at Fulham by Max Miradin was very well received, the piece caught on and has since received more performances than it ever had in Sullivan’s lifetime.



In Roman mythology, the king of the gods, equivalent to the Greek Zeus.


The person who stands accused.


A person who is supposed to exercise supernatural powers through the aid of evil spirits (250).


His, or Her, Majesty’s Ship. Signifies a ship of the Royal Navy.

Dragoon Guards

Cavalry soldiers. According to the OED (229) the term is derived from dragon because the soldiers were originally equipped with an early form of musket that "breathed fire like a dragon." Another source (6) says the term arose because the pistol hammers were shaped something like dragons. In any event, when first formed, dragoon guards were infantrymen who did their fighting on foot, but rode horses for quick deployment. Bierce (39) defines a dragoon as "A soldier who combines dash and steadiness in so equal measure that he makes his advances on foot and his retreats on horseback." Like the Duke of Plaza-Toro. The Encyclopædia Britannica (103) explains that the scheme of alternating between horse and foot eventually developed into all-horseback operations, i.e., cavalry. Cavalry units were of three types: heavy, medium, and light, each suited to its own special duties. At one end of the scale large men on large horses formed the heavy cavalry and they were often called heavy dragoons, hence "Dragoon Guards." See also The Sorcerer.

Peer [The Peer and the Peri ]

A nobleman of the rank of baron or above and, in this case, a member of the House of Lords. See also HMS Pinafore, The Gondoliers, Utopia, Limited, and The Zoo.


A name taken from a character in old German romances, the oldest and wisest of the chiefs and, like Merlin, a magician as well (55).


An honorific title for the emperor of Japan. The word is made up of the Japanese words mi (honorable) and kado (gate -- of the imperial palace) (250). Knight (178) says the term is used in a spiritual, indirect sense, the spiritual emperor being held in such awe that a direct mention of his name would be impossible. More prosaically, we may mention that we have visited two towns that bear the name. One, in Michigan, was founded in 1885 but no official name was assigned until 1888, when the Assistant Postmaster General (apparently a noble G&S fan) chose to name it after the opera. The other, in Saskatchewan (Canada), was founded by expatriate Russian settlers. They chose that name as their way of thumbing their collective nose at the Tsar during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). In Michigan the natives pronounce it "muh KAY doe"; in Saskatchewan they call it "muh CAD oh."


An oak apple is a gall or swelling on oak leaves. May 29 is designated as Oak Apple Day in England, celebrating the Restoration (1660), that being the birthday of Charles II, who, after losing the Battle of Worcester, hid from Cromwell's Roundheads in an oak tree (140). That happens also to be the date of Gilbert's death (in 1911).


The Tower of London is a fortress dating back in part to William the Conqueror. Located on the north bank of the Thames, it occupies about eighteen acres and includes more than a dozen individual towers. Rich in history and bloodshed, the Tower is a centerpiece of British history (107).

Barataria [The King of Barataria ]

This is an imaginary island kingdom and the locale of the second act. The name is also well known as Sancho Panza’s island in Don Quixote, as well as from the real Barataria Bay in Louisiana, which was the mini-kingdom of the infamous pirate Jean Lafitte in the early 1800s. There is also a town of that name in Trinidad. The word comes from Spanish: barato: cheap.


This was the name of Sir Thomas More’s imaginary island with its ideal (in his eyes at least) social and political systems (215). The name in Greek means “no place” or “nowhere” (25) and has come to mean any ideal system governing human existence.

Grand Duke

In 1750, the time in which the opera is set, what is now Germany was a badly divided collection of autonomous states such as Brandenburg, Saxony, and Brunswick. Each of these little states was ruled over by its own prince. (A select number of these princes were titled “Electors” because of their nominal role in selecting the Holy Roman Emperor.) There were also smaller autonomous territories known as grand duchies, ruled over by grand dukes, who were next in rank to princes. One such grand duchy that is still extant is Luxembourg, a 99-square mile area between Germany, France, and Belgium, governed as a constitutional monarchy.


Even in Gilbert’s time this was a well-known resort town on the southwest tip of England, equivalent perhaps to America’s Cape Cod.