Gilbert and Sullivan Archive



Bill Snyder: ... One of my sopranos is married to a lawyer, who found the show, and I quote, "one big, offensive lawyer joke set to music!"

Andrew Taines: Yes, and isn't it wonderful!!

Jeff DeMarco: Speaking as a lawyer, I can definitely say it is!! Lawyers usually come up with the best lawyer jokes, and Gilbert is certainly at the head of his class in that regard. So many of the operettas turn on a topsy-turvy interpretation of the law, which is not far from what many practitioners do on a day to day basis. There is no right or wrong answer to any legal question, but rather a majority or minority opinion!

Jeff DeMarco: Another example of pointed legal satire. For a recent example of throwing dust in a juryman's eyes or hoodwinking a judge who is not overwise, we have the criminal trial of O.J. Simpson.

Most of Gilbert's legal satire plays just as well (if not better) today, as these techniques are still used.

Douglas Whaley: In a prior post someone mentioned that Iolanthe in one long legal joke. It is certainly true that Gilbert, himself a barrister, put more legal humor into Iolanthe than any other of the operas (though Trial By Jury, of course, is a close second).

The Lord Chancellor is the highest judicial official in Britain and the House of Lords (judicial branch) is the highest court in the land. By a tradition going back over 600 years, the Lord Chancellor does indeed sit on a stack stuffed with wool (the primary source of wealth when Britain really ruled the waves)---Martyn Green in his Treasury confesses that he once managed to sneak in a quick sit on it when visiting the Court of Chancery. Iolanthe is filled with legal references such as "arrest of judgment" (an order postponing a legal order), affidavits, and a quick discussion of the law of hearsay ("you mustn't tell us what she told you---it's not evidence"), which, with certain exceptions, forbids testimony about what other people once said (they should take the stand and testify themselves). The line "Because his attorney has sent me a brief") refers to the British system that divides legal tasks between attorneys (solicitors) who initially prepare a case and the barrister who then takes this preparation (the "brief") to court and actually argues the case.

Finally, for the sake of the archives, I reprise this post from last year in which I commented on the meaning of "an old Equity draftsman." I wrote the post because the Lamplighter's then production of Iolanthe had a program that contained a mistake. Here is the relevant portion of that post:

The program contains a helpful glossary of possibly unfamiliar terms from the show (I did not know, for example, that "canaille" is French for "the mob"), but when it comes to "equity draughtsman" we get this: "Equity is that part of the law which finds its origin in previous decisions of the courts. Thus an Equity Draughtsman would be skilled in drawing up pleadings, etc., based on precedent rather than statute law." This is simply wrong. Permit me, I'll endeavour to explain.

Asimov in his annotated G&S says that equity means fairness and that the Lord Chancellor is simply struggling for more fairness than ordinary law allows. Ian Bradley comes closer to being right in his annotated G&S, stating that an equity draughtsman is the name given to barristers practicing in the Court of Chancery. Harry Benford, in his G&S Lexicon, gives the best explanation, stating that "Equity is a body of laws based largely on general principles of justice to correct flaws in common law" and that an equity draughtsman is someone skilled in drawing up documents involving the subtleties of equity law.

Here's what it all means. By the seventeenth century the law courts in Great Britain had become clogged with technical rules that prevented many litigants from achieving justice. The courts of law, for example, felt that the only relief they could grant was an award of money damages, and if the litigant wanted some other form of relief (an injunction, for example, or an order requiring someone to turn over property or to perform a contractual agreement), the courts of law denied relief.

Enter the king. Litigants wanting extraordinary relief simply appealed to the monarch, through his chancellors, and, of course, the king could issue whatever orders seemed appropriate to achieve "equity." The courts of chancery were therefore called courts of "equity" (as opposed to courts of "law"). There is a fascinating history of the jurisdictional battle between the courts of law and those of equity, but in the end we come to this: when lawyers are seeking relief other than an award of money damages, they go to a court of equity. In the United States, most jurisdictions no longer have separate courts of law and equity, but American judges still draw major distinctions along these lines depending on the type of relief the plaintiff is seeking (I have no knowledge of the current workings of British courts as to this).

The laws of fairyland in Iolanthe do not seek monetary relief ("Any fairy who marries a mortal shall pay damages"), but demand an extraordinary remedy (death), so one needs an expert at fashioning equitable relief in order to alter the law. Of course, no court of equity is likely to enforce a death decree for an injudicious marriage, but apparently the Fairy Queen has her own methods of enforcement. Willahalah! Willaloo!

Chris M. Wain: Jeff DeMarco wrote: "Iolanthe is filled with legal references such as a quick discussion of the law of hearsay ("you mustn't tell us what she told you---it's not evidence"), "

This is, of course, a reference back to Dickens - Pickwick Papers, in which the judge says to Sam Weller - an obstructively loquacious witness - "You mustn't tell us what the soldier said, it isn't evidence!"

Re the courts of equity - I thought they dated back before the 17C, to the late Middle Ages? But haven't checked.

Andrew Crowther: I know _Punch_ objected to the line in _Iolanthe_ on the grounds that it was nicked from _Pickwick_, but surely it's simply that both writers are making fun of the same legal principle? (Different jokes, as I recall.) I.e. they're both drawing from the same well, but one isn't stealing from the other.

Chris M. Wain: Punch _objected_, did it? I have always looked on it as a parody, an in-joke for the cultured middle-class Victorian, rather than plagiarism.

Andrew Crowther: And now I reply again:

This is what _Punch_ said: "The first-night audience roared with laughter at the _Lord Chancellor_ informing _Strephon_ that the latter must not tell him 'what Nature has said, as it was not evidence,' just as if they had never heard of _Sam Weller_ being rebuked by _Mr. Justice Starleigh_...." (Punch, December 9, 1882, p269) This sounds like a rebuke to Gilbert as well as to the audience. The reviewer also notes that "Said I to myself, said I" is "not exactly a new and original refrain", and quotes a song going: "Says I to myself as I walked by myself,/And myself says again to me". As if this were not enough, the reviewer adds that the Nightmare song reminded him of a song by Planche, "I'm in such a flutter I scarcely can utter". In short, this is _Punch_ putting the boot in pretty thoroughly. Myself, I can't see anything in this more reprehensible than the kind of "echo" which I believe occurs in all literature.

On second thoughts, maybe the "evidence" gag _is_ a deliberate passing echo of Dickens, but as I say it's a different joke, and nothing to get so excited about. And why _shouldn't_ the audience laugh at a joke which contains an incidental reference to Dickens?

(Just to remind everyone: _Punch_ was, I believe, edited by F.C. Burnand at this time, the man who had written the lyrics for _Cox and Box_: Burnand seems to have resented Gilbert's success with Sullivan, and for this and other reasons there was always visible animosity between Gilbert and Mr. Punch.)

Arthur Robinson: If I remember correctly, Burnand often accused WSG of plagiarism. Interesting, in view of the fact that I seem to recall Burnand's 1894 THE CHIEFTAIN containing some familiar lines, such as "Making astrology/ 'Lectro-biology, / And demonology pay." Not an exact copy, but people who live in glass houses shouldn't call the kettle black.

Updated 28 November 1997