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by Arthur Robinson

Gilbert's comic opera His Excellency, with music by Frank Osmond Carr, was first performed on October 27, 1894, with a cast including such familiar faces from the Savoy as George Grossmith (as Griffenfeld), Rutland Barrington (as the Regent), and Jessie Bond. Most of the reviews praised Gilbert's libretto, but Carr's music was less popular, and the opera had a relatively short run.

His Excellency is set in Denmark — to be exact, in Elsinore (Hamlet's home town). The major characters are:

  • George Griffenfeld, governor of Elsinore, a notorious practical joker
  • His daughters:
    • Nanna
    • Thora
  • Their impecunious suitors:
    • Erling Sykke the sculptor
    • Dr. Tortenssen the physician
    • Mats Munck, the Syndic
  • Dame Hecla Cortlandt, who is engaged to Griffenfeld (against his will)
  • Christina, a ballad singer
  • Harold, a corporal
  • The Prince Regent of Denmark.

ACT I

As the play begins, the people of Elsinore are gathered around a newly-completed statue of the Prince Regent, congratulating the sculptor, Erling, on his recently-announced appointment as Sculptor Extraordinary to the Royal Family. Erling's friend, Dr. Tortenssen, has also had good news: he has heard that he has been appointed Personal Physician to the king. The two friends are especially pleased with their appointments because they are in love with Nanna and Thora, the two daughters of Governor Griffenfeld, and they hope that now the women they love will be less scornful. Nanna and Thora appear and agree to marry their wooers as soon as they assume their positions at the royal court. But as soon as the two men leave, the women laugh at their gullibility: the prestigious appointments are a sham, another practical joke concocted by Griffenfeld.

More of the Governor's victims now enter: a corps of Hussars, forced to dance like ballet-girls. Harold, the corporal, complains to Griffenfeld when he arrives that his men are tired of this. The Governor rebukes them for having no sense of humour. He then reveals to Harold that he has problems of his own: one of his jokes has backfired on him, and he now finds himself engaged to Dame Hecla Cortlandt, an elderly woman with a dangerous temper. When she arrives, Griffenfeld tries to sound her out by asking what she would do if she learned he had proposed to her only as a joke. The results are not encouraging. She describes what she'd do graphically in a patter-song ("Your heart I'd tear from its loathsome lair — I'd pluck out your eyes and your tongue likewise"). Griffenfeld plots with his daughters to make Mats Munck, the local Syndic, believe that the wealthy Dame Cortlandt is in love with him. The Griffenfeld family sings a trio about the joy of jokes "that pain and trouble brew for every one but you."

As they leave, a man "dressed picturesquely as a tattered vagabond" (that's what the stage directions say) arrives. He is none other than the Prince Regent of Denmark, who has disguised himself as a strolling player, taking the name of Nils Egilsson, to ascertain for himself whether the complaints about Governor Griffenfeld's jokes are justifiedy. As he admires the statue of himself in the market place, he is joined by another admirer — Christina, a ballad singer who has fallen in love with the statue. So far her love seems to be unrequited, since the statue is "strangely reticent." She is startled by the strolling player's likeness to the statue, but the Regent persuades her that any resemblance is purely coincidental. After she leaves, Griffenfeld returns, and is similarly struck by the similarity, which he immediately decides to use for another malicious joke. He bribes the stranger to pose as the Regent and dispense honors on all the locals, whose disappointment when they learn the truth he expects to find amusing.

Meanwhile, Dame Cortlandt keeps an appointment with Mats Munck, in his capacity as solicitor ("How — how rich she looks, to be sure!" he observes lovingly when she enters), during which they speak at cross purposes. She wants to make arrangements to settle her wealth on her future husband (i.e., Griffenfeld), but Munck believes she is talking about him, and his attempts at flirtation convince her that he is intoxicated.

The plot continues to thicken. Erling and Tortenssen discover at last that their "royal honors" are fraudulent, and Nanna and Thora spurn their advances. The two men assemble the chorus to reveal the Governor's cruel hoax, and are joined by Dame Cortlandt, who has also realized what is going on and urges the others to go on with her to Copenhagen and complain to the Regent in person. Griffenfeld arrives and, learning of the townspeople's intentions, informs them that the Regent himself has just arrived in Elsinore. The others sing of their hopes for vengeance, while Griffenfeld and his daughters pretend to beg for mercy as the first act ends.


ACT II

Act II begins with the people waiting for an audience with the Regent. He appears, and Harold and the Hussars, as evidence of the indignities they have suffered, dance a ballet for him. The Regent proceeds to confirm the honours that Erling and Tortenssen had been led to expect, ennobling them (thus enabling them to marry Nanna and Thora). He also promotes Corporal Harold to Colonel and Mats Munck to Governor, and demotes Griffenfeld to the ranks. After the others leave, the Regent hints to the ex-Governor that perhaps verbal humor would be safer than practical jokes, which "have such a tendency to recoil on the heads of their perpetrators." Griffenfeld claims to have played such jokes with impunity for forty-five years (apparently forgetting his problems with Dame Cortlandt), and insists that verbal humor is impossible because "every joke that's possible has long ago been made," as he sings in the score's most famous song, "The Played-Out Humorist" (which, incidentally, is cited twice in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations).

The recipients of the Regent's generosity, in the meantime, are dealing with the changes in their lives. Harold and his fiancée decide to write a novel based on their experiences. Mats Munck decides that, as governor, he need not stoop to marrying Dame Cortlandt; she, for some reason, has decided she wants to marry him after all, and points out that she got engaged to the Governor of Elsinore, and now Munck is the Governor. Erling and Tortenssen decide that, now that they have been made a Count and Baron, they should be more stand-offish toward Nanna and Thora; but when the Governor's daughters enter and pretend to cry, the two suitors are soon on their knees, trying to console them. As the men go off to prepare for the wedding, Nanna and Thora finally express remorse for the way they've behaved and a wish that "it was all real".

Everyone assembles for a multiple wedding ceremony, but Griffenfeld gleefully announces that the Regent is not the Regent, but a vagabond impersonating him. His joy diminishes when he discovers that the vagabond he hired to impersonate the Regent is in fact the Regent impersonating a vagabond (or, to be exact, the Regent impersonating a vagabond impersonating the Regent). The Regent informs Griffenfeld that all the "Promotions, appointments, and marriage arrangements" announced as part of the prank will indeed take effect, as will "the best and wisest of your suggestions — your permanent degradation to the ranks." Christina begins to weep because she has lost Nils Egilsson, but the Regent offers to remain a strolling player if she wishes. The opera ends with all celebrating (except for Griffenfeld).


This article appeared in Issue 42 (May 1995) of Precious Nonsense, the newsletter of the Midwestern Gilbert & Sullivan Society. Posted by permission of Sarah Cole, Society Secretary/Archivist. For information on Society membership write to: The Midwestern Gilbert & Sullivan Society, c/o Miss Sarah Cole, 613 W. State St., North Aurora, IL 60542-1538.

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