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Gilbert's "musical play", with score by Frederic Clay, opened at the Charing Cross Theatre on 26 May 1870. Clay had previously provided the music to Gilbert's Ages Ago, but his score for The Gentleman in Black. reportedly in an Offenbachian style, is now lost. The piece ran for 26 performances.

Gilbert's plot is a dramatic variation of the pseudo-German supernatural tale, such as Dicken's 'The Baron of Grogswig' or his own 'The Triumph of Vice'. The eponymous gentleman in black is the king of the gnomes, who has the power to transfer souls. The souls of the wicked baron and a simple peasant are transferred into each other's body for a month:

Otto's body, grim and droll,
Shrine young Han's simple soul;
Otto's soul, of moral shoddy,
Occupy young Hans's body.

Later, it is learned that the baron and the peasant had been exchanged at the age of three weeks: the peasant really being the baron and the baron the peasant. That the baron appears twenty years older than the peasant is explained by the baron admitting he has lived a "fast life". Eventually Hans and Baron Otto revert to their original selves when the calendar reform of the sixteenth century prematurely ends their month of exchange.

George Thorne states in his autobiography, 'Jots' (pp. 43-44) that Gilbert originally offered the part of "the funereal gentleman" to him but circumstances prevented him from accepting the role.

Review

The other production of the kind during the past season has been “The Gentleman in Black,” represented for the first time in May last at the Charing Cross Theatre. More of a farcical comedy, perhaps, than a burlesque, it yet possesses many of the characteristics of the latter. The libretto, written by Mr. Gilbert, is of a most whimsical and humorous description. The subject of the story — the exchange, by means of the Gentleman in Black, of the soul of a peasant into the body of a baron, and vice-versâ, — enables Mr. Gilbert to introduce some highly amusing writing. The dialogue is interspersed with some capital original music by Mr. Frederick Clay, and the whole forms a most diverting entertainment. [“The Rectangular Review,” vol. 1 no. 2, Oct. 1870, p. 206 ]


  • Text of The Gentleman in Black as a Word file [133Kb] or PDF [155Kb].
  • Review from the "Sunday Times".
  • Review from "The Athenaeum"
  • Review from "The Era".
  • Letter from Gilbert to "The Era" repudiating the charge of plagiarism.

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