The Story Behind the Show

Princess Ida

     Gilbert and Sullivan’s seventh operetta, Iolanthe, had barely started its triumphant run at the newly built Savoy theatre when British prime minister Gladstone attended at Sullivan’s invitation. It gave him “great pleasure” Gladstone wrote, and it was no surprise when Sullivan was knighted by Queen Victoria just nine days after his forty-first birthday. Gilbert had not been idle himself, having just built a home in Kensington fitted out with such luxuries as electric light, central heating, a telephone, and “a bathroom on each floor”

     As usual, Gilbert took the lead in planning for a new production. He had already adapted Tennyson’s narrative poem, The Princess, as a play. Now he proposed to recast that tale of a heroic princess who forswears an arranged marriage and opens a university where men are forbidden to enter as the next Savoy opera. The plot was a satire on the Women’s Rights Movement, one of the disturbing and absorbing questions of the time. Gilbert made the brave decision to retain the feel of Tennyson’s blank verse, and Sullivan contributed some of the most lyrical music written for any of the canon. Princess Ida was also the only one of their fourteen shows to be written in three acts, which has proven a problem for technical directors ever since.

Gama and Sons arrested.

     Rehearsals did not go entirely smoothly. Henry (later Sir Henry) Lytton made his first appearance in the company at such a young age that when he took a few days off from school without permission to marry one of the chorus ladies, he received a painful chiding from his Headmaster upon his return. Another of the actors, troubled by the poetic language, complained to Gilbert, “Look here, Sir, I will not be bullied. I know my lines!”. “That may be,” was the author/director’s retort, “but you don’t know mine!”.

     The night before the opening on January 5, 1884, Sullivan, who had been stressed by the pressures of rehearsal, was taken seriously ill and had to be given morphine to get him through the ordeal of conducting the first performance. As he noted in his diary later, “Brilliant success! After the performance I turned very faint and could not stand.”

     The media seemed to share the opinion that Sullivan’s ambitious score was the highpoint of the evening, but Gilbert’s contributions should not be dismissed so easily. In the finale to Act II is what may be the most beautiful and serious poem Gilbert ever wrote, sung by Prince Hilarion to his promised bride:

The University Students at Lunch

     “Whom thou has chained must wear his chain,
      Thou canst not set him free.
      He wrestles with his bonds in vain
      Who lives by loving thee!

      If heart of stone for heart of fire,
      Be all thou hast to give,
      If dead to me my heart’s desire
      Why should I wish to live?”

     Determined to devote more time to his serious music, Sullivan told Gilbert that he would write no more comic operas. Of course we know that temper did not last long, for their most beloved and successful show would be soon forthcoming…but, like Scheherezade, for now we must leave you in suspense.