Benford's G&S Lexicon Entries for Iolanthe

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About the Opera


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.


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.


Pronunciation: Rhymes with cheery

In Persian mythology, a race of beautiful fairy-like creatures descended from fallen angels and excluded from paradise until their penance is accomplished. A second meaning is a lovely, graceful person (250). Stedman (274) says the word was synonymous with fairy in Gilbert's day. In one of the Philadelphia art museums there is a statue of a peri; she looks just like an angel, wings and all, but is strikingly bare breasted.

Lord Chancellor

In Britain the Lord Chancellor is the highest judicial authority. He is about equivalent to the Chief Justice of the United States (commonly called the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court). He is the Keeper of the Great Seal and, more to the point, is Speaker of the House of Lords. Brewer (56) states that the Lord Chancellor "ranks above all peers except princes of the blood and the Archbishop of Canterbury." Duffy (260) informs us that chancellor derives from cancella, the screen from behind which political deliberations were carried out.


A play on words on the Biblical Mount Ararat, resting place of Noah's ark.


Tol-lol means just so-so (115) or languid (274) and those terms are presumably a reflection on Tolloller's character.

Grenadier Guards

An infantryman specially recruited because of fine physique and height (75). The term is derived from grenade, which is French for "pomegranate." See also The Sorcerer.


Stock name for a rustic lover

Arcadian [Strephon is an Arcadian shepherd]

Refers to Arcadia, a region of Greece associated with simple, rustic pleasures and a peaceful existence.

Ward in Chancery [Phyllis is also a Ward in Chancery]

A minor under the protection of the Court of Chancery (75).

Dukes, Marquises, Earls, Viscounts, and Barons

These are the five ranks, in order, of the British peerage. "British dukes rank next to princes and princesses of the blood royal, the two archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Lord Chancellor &c, but beyond this precedence they have no special privileges which are not shared by peers of lower rank" (103). All peers (the word means "equal") enjoy the right of audience with the reigning monarch, and freedom from arrest in civil cases. English peers are automatically entitled to vote in the House of Lords once they reach their twenty-first year. Although most of their titles are hereditary and their children are granted titles of courtesy, those children (other than the eldest son) are essentially commoners and have never formed a privileged caste" (105). Ranking below the peers are baronets and knights. A baronet's title is hereditary, a knight's is not. Members of the British nobility (other than the royal family) receive no income from the government. They are expected to survive on the rents derived from the property granted their ancestors or from charging the public to tramp through their estates. They may even find gainful employment. While on the subject of noble titles, we might as well consider what Brewer (56) has to say under the heading "Courtesy Titles." These are titles granted by social custom, but are of no legal value. The courtesy title of the eldest son of a duke is marquis; of a marquis: earl; of an earl: viscount. Younger sons of peers can affix Lord to their names, while daughters affix Lady.

Palace Yard

The courtyard beside the Houses of Parliament. Terry (286) points out that Private Willis was out of place there, that territory coming under the protection of the metropolitan police.

Act I

Fairy ring [Round about our fairy ring]

Folklore has it that rings in lawns show evidence of fairy dances. The rings are actually caused by the growth of fungi below the surface. The spawn extends outward at a uniform rate and produces nitrogen, which results in dark rings in the grass (55). Sorry to disillusion you.

Vagaries [We indulge in our vagaries]

Capricious ideas or actions.

Compunction [We reply without compunction]

Without hesitation or remorse.

Lover [That we almost live on lover!]

Leila summarizes her song by singing that fairies could not live without the activity of human lovers (72). I suspect Gilbert would like Leila to swallow the final syllable. Sullivan may have had that in mind; his music makes it easy to do so. On the other hand, Kravetz (181) suggests that the fairies "are in the habit of buzzing around people in love the way horseflies -- you get the idea. Besides, it's a rather nice play on words."

Commuted [commuted her sentence]


Penal servitude

In English common law the term means imprisonment together with hard labor. Under the circumstances of the story, there was no hard labor required, just exile.

On her head

A common Victorian catch-phrase meaning "with ease" (298).

Gambol [to gambol upon gossamer]

To leap about in play

Sketch of Gossamer

Any filmy substance, such as a cobweb, floating in the air or spread on bushes or grass.

Behest [To thy behest, offended Queen, I bow!]



A small crown.


A small fipple flute resembling the treble recorder but having usually four finger holes and two thumb holes and a cylindrical mouthpiece (307). Dr. Daly (The Sorcerer) was a past master of that delicately modulated instrument, if you'll recall.

Arcadee [songs of Arcadee]


Bar [At first he seemed amused, so did the Bar]

A collective reference to those assembled at a court of law. See Trial By Jury for the derivation of the term. When the American Bar Association scheduled a convention in London some years ago, our British friends thought they were to receive a collection of barkeepers. Gilbert could have made something of that.

Bade [bade me get out]

Pronunciation: bad


Servile [A servile usher]

Obsequious, slavish, submissive, and fawning.


A doorkeeper, messenger, and keeper of order in a court of law.

Crumpled bands and rusty bombazine

The bands are the wide, falling collars worn with clerical, legal, or academic robes. Bombazine is a twilled or corded material made of various combinations of silk, cotton, and wool. It may also refer to a robe of the same material. We may take the "rusty" to imply that the servile usher's robe was past its prime. Black fabric often turns brown with age. Goodman (141) informs us that the bands are a remnant of the links between the law and the Church, while Bradley (48) says that ushers generally do not wear bands.