Benford's G&S Lexicon Entries for Trial By Jury

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About the Opera

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 person who stands accused.

Counsel [Counsel for the plaintiff]

This is the barrister who presents the accusations brought by the plaintiff against the defendant, who will plead his own case aided only by his guitar.


Person who asks the court for a remedy against another person.


The doorkeeper and messenger in a court of law, also charged with maintaining dignity and decorum. Knight (178) observes that Gilbert has expanded the fellow’s duties by having him swear the jury, a duty normally reserved for an associate.

Associate [A mime role listed among the Dramatis Personae]

Goodman (142) says “In this context it means the clerk of the court.” Prestige (154) notes that, “he sits robed beneath the judge and acts as a sort of note taker.” Stone (284) states that Gilbert himself played the role in at least six benefit performances. One such performance was on behalf of burlesque queen Nellie Farren (155).


A barrister is a professional trial advocate who until 1990 had the exclusive right to plead cases in the higher courts (both civil and criminal) in England and Wales. A citizen who had need of legal help would approach a solicitor, a pre-trial attorney. If the situation involved a pleading before a higher court, the solicitor would turn the case over to a barrister who specialized in the kind of law involved. Otherwise the solicitor might handle the case without benefit of barrister. Each barrister belonged to one of four independent “Inns of Court,” which had the sole right of licensing barristers to appear in the superior courts. What I describe above applies to the situation in Gilbert’s day (143, 243, 309). Since January 1990, however, the division of advocacy work between solicitors and barristers has been largely removed, although all other divisions of work remain.


Subpoena [Summoned by a stern subpoena]

Pronunciation: suh-PEEN-ah

A legal order to appear in court. Knight (178) points out that a defendant would be notified by a “writ,” but Gilbert needed a word to rhyme with Angelina.

Edwin … Angelina [Edwin, sued by Angelina]

This was a traditional pairing of names of faithful lovers (302). They were linked by Oliver Goldsmith in a ballad, The Hermit, or Edwin and Angelina, written in 1764 (28). The names were also linked in a long series of articles in the then-current periodical Fun (284).

Fortissimo [Usher sings fortissimo]

Real loud, like an elephant with a bull horn.

Condole [Condole with her distress of mind]

To join in grief.

Court of the Exchequer

This was a court of common law established to deal with financial disputes between the crown and ordinary citizens. Burgess (60) says it was established by Henry II (who reigned from 1154 to 1189), whereas Knight (178) credits Henry I (who reigned from 1100 to 1135). It was merged with the Queen’s Bench either in 1873 (60) or 1881 (178). Shipley (266) says the term relates to the checkered table and colored counters the king’s counselors used to calculate national revenue. But, why would a breach of promise case be tried there? Knight (178) explains that such a breach would render the injured party unable to pay her taxes to the Crown. A nice example of a legal fiction.

Pecker [Be firm, my pecker]

We can thank Queen Victoria herself for help here. In a letter to one of her daughters, she wrote that, “Keep up your pecker” means, “Keep up your spirits, and don’t be downhearted” (258). Despite the queen’s implied approval of the expression, American directors may want to effect some discreet substitution. They might try this:

Edwin: Is this the court of family cases? (alarmed) I see no smiles upon their faces!

Or, as suggested by Green (89): “It is, it is the Exchequer.”

Evil star [Your evil star’s in the ascendant]

Your astrological timing couldn’t be worse.

Damages [dread our damages]

Compensation paid to an injured person.

Pleadings [On the merits of my pleadings]

The formal written arguments between the parties in a law suit or action (178).


Simulated sound of a guitar, or whatever instrument Edwin chooses to play. The OED (229), in its characteristic style, pins it down thus: “Tink: A representation of the abrupt sound made by striking resonant metal with something hard and light. Often reduplicated in imitation of the repetition of such a sound, also with such variations as tink-tank, tink-a-tink, etc.” Kravetz (181) opines that tink-a-tank is too clumsy a sound for a guitar, more like a banjo. Green (145) would seem to agree. Knight, however, votes for a mandolin (178). One cannot be too meticulous in vital matters such as these.


An irresponsible fellow who toys with a young woman’s affections.


A low, vulgar fellow (56).

Cloy [And love, unchanged will cloy]
Sketch of Oh, I was like that when a lad

Become too much, or too sweet, for pleasure. In his Bab Ballad, “Peter the Wag” (127), Gilbert uses it to describe a jam of people: “And flocking crowds completely cloyed the mazes of Soho.”

Reversed in banc [And never be reversed in banc]

A judgment overturned by a superior court employing a full bench of judges. In those days in England that was the only way of reversing a ruling.

Breach of Promise

Until 1970 in England breaking a marital engagement (normally by a man) was treated as a breach of legal contract and left the man vulnerable to legal action (24).

Called to the bar [When I, good friends, was called to the bar]

As explained under “Barristers” above, anyone aspiring to such a career must take training at one of London’s four “Inns of Court.” These are ancient institutions fulfilling the role of colleges of legal education for barristers and for maintaining professional standards. In addition to offices, apartments and a dining hall, each institution has a meeting hall, which originally featured a barrier or partition, “the bar,” separating the candidates from the fully-qualified members. When the senior members were satisfied with a candidate’s level of knowledge, that individual would be “called to the bar” to join the privileged members on the other side (54, 106, 178, 245). In short, “to be called to the bar” means to become accepted as a fully qualified barrister. The bar, incidentally, is also a collective term for the entire profession of barristers.

Impecunious [An impecunious party]

Short of money.

Swallow-tail coat

A coat the back of which is split in two halves that hang down about to the knees, while the front terminates at the waist. Goodman (142) says they are called “morning coats” and are still considered proper court dress for those upper-level barristers known as Queen’s Counsel. On the other hand, for a newly qualified barrister, such attire might have seemed hopelessly old-fashioned (302), and perhaps that “beautiful blue” was too gaudy (257).

Brief [A brief which I bought of a booby]

The papers summarizing a court case, prepared by a solicitor for the benefit of a barrister. A brief summarizes the history of the case, the witnesses and what they will testify, and facts for cross examination (177).


Brewer (54) defines a booby as “A spiritless fool, who suffers himself to be imposed upon.” A few have even been known to write lexicons.

Collar [A couple of shirts and a collar or two]

At the time the opera was written men’s dress shirts were likely to have detachable collars, which were held in place by two little rivets (“collar buttons”) front and back. This allowed the easily soiled collars to be laundered more often than the rest of the shirt.

Westminster Hall

A part of the Palace of Westminster adjacent to the Houses of Parliament. It was used as the High Court of Justice from 1755 to 1883 (60) or 1884 (142).

Semi-despondent fury [I danced a dance like a semi-despondent fury]

In classical mythology, furies were female divinities who punished crimes at the instigation of the victims (250). The term “semi-despondent fury” should not be taken literally. It is, rather, an example of Gilbert’s fondness for wringing humor from the shotgun wedding of incongruous words.