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Adapted from the book "Tit-Willow or Notes and Jottings on Gilbert and Sullivan Operas" by Guy H. and Claude A. Walmisley (Privately Printed, Undated)
"IOLANTHE, or the Peer and the Peri", was produced at the Savoy Theatre on Saturday November 25, 1882, only three nights after the final performance of Patience at the same theatre.
On the following day there appeared the usual hostile criticisms condemning Gilbert, this time, for ridiculing the House of Lords, and Sullivan for writing unmelodius music.
It is difficult to conceive how any critic could possibly make such an accusation against Sullivan. However, to stop the American piracy of this piece the music was carefully locked away in the Savoy safes after each rehearsal, and as an additional precaution the opera was temporarily called Periola. The titles of three former operas started with the letter "P", Pinafore, Pirates of Penzance and Patience, a fact which was thought by some people to bring luck, though whether Gilbert was of the same opinion is doubtful. With the exception of Princess Ida which followed Iolanthe, he never used the letter "P" again in the title of any opera, except of course in the alternative title of this opera. So the name Periola would seem quite a natural choice; but this title was eventually changed to Iolanthe.
When this change took place the company became disturbed and protested to Sullivan that mistakes would occur; but with his usual tact he called them together and said "Never mind, so long as you sing the music. Use any name that happens to come first to you. Nobody in the audience will be any the wiser, except Mr. Gilbert and he won't be there." Sullivan was right, Gilbert was not there.
The story of the opera, taken partly from "The Fairy Curate" in the Bab Ballads, deals with Strephon, a young Arcadian shepherd, who is half a fairy as his Mother had married a mortal. This not unnaturally leads to complications when Phyllis, his inamorata, sees him fondly kissing a young and beautiful woman—for fairies never grow old—and at first she quite reasonably refuses to believe that her supposed rival is none other than Strephon's own Mother.
As already mentioned, the opera satirizes the House of Lords, where position and success depend upon birth rather than upon talent; and while referring to the Upper House it may be of interest to note that the robes worn by the Peers for the first production were made by Ravenscrofts, who are makers still to Royalty and the Peerage.
The music throughout the opera is superb; as in Ruddigore the music is ghostly in parts, so in Iolanthe it is dainty and fairylike. At times Sullivan soars to great heights, as in the invocation, "Iolanthe! from thy dark exile thou art summoned", which is considered on a par with grand opera.
Act I opens with an Arcadian Landscape scene, showing fairies dancing round their fairy ring. But they soon stop dancing and, sighing wearily, deplore the fact that their revels are dull since their Queen banished Iolanthe, who was the life and soul of Fairyland, for daring to marry a mortal. However the Queen herself also misses lolanthe, whom she greatly loves, and she quickly accedes to the fairies request that Iolanthe be pardoned and summoned back to Fairyland.
To everyone's surprise Iolanthe had spent the twenty-five years of her banishment at the bottom of a stream, but on hearing the Queen's summons she emerges from the water clad in water-weeds, which soon fall from her, and she appears clothed once again as a fairy with a diamond coronet on her head. She explains that her son Strephon, an Arcadian Shepherd now twenty-four years of age, is engaged to Phyllis, an Arcadian Shepherdess and Ward in Chancery. When Strephon appears a few moments later, he tells his mother that he intends to marry Phyllis despite the refusal of the Lord Chancellor to give his consent to the marriage, little knowing that the Lord Chancellor is his own father.
Strephon is a fairy down to the waist only, as his legs are mortal, a fact which he has concealed from Phyllis who thinks him completely human.
When the fairies have departed a chorus of Peers enters, magnificently dressed in the robes and coronets of their rank, followed by the Lord Chancellor, similarly robed, who tells the assembled noblemen that, at their request, he will bestow Phyllis upon whichever one of them she may think proper to select.
Phyllis is sent for and appears, but she politely refuses the proposals made to her by two of the noble Earls as her heart is already given to Strephon, who enters and takes her in his arms. The Peers are hurt by her attitude towards them and depart, with much dignity, followed by Phyllis. But they soon return with her and listen, unseen, to Iolanthe who is promising to aid Strephon with his marriage plans.
Phyllis is horrified at what she hears, mistaking Iolanthe for a rival, and when Strephon tries to explain to them that I olanthe is his mother they naturally refuse to believe that so young and beautiful a girl can possibly be the mother of a man of nearly five-and-twenty.
In anger at Strephon's supposed infidelity Phyllis decides to give herself to one of the two Earls, though she doesn't care which; but Strephon, in his predicament, calls upon the Fairy Queen to help him. The fairies come tripping in and the Queen confirms that Iolanthe is indeed Strephon's mother, but they disbelieve her and ridicule the idea that a mother can be younger than her son.
Angrily the Queen informs the Peers that Strephon shall go into Parliament and backed by their "Supreme authority, he'll command a large majority", while, to their horror, she warns them that they "shall sit, if he sees reason, through the grouse and salmon season".
At first the Peers pooh-pooh the threats of the Queen and her attendant fairies, but later they kneel and beg for mercy, and the Act ends with Phyllis imploring Strephon to relent, but he casts her from him and she falls fainting into the arms of the two Earls.
Act II opens with a scene showing Palace Yard, Westminster, by moonlight, with Privite Willis (of the Grenadier Guards) on sentry duty. Soon the fairies and Peers arrive and start discussing Strephon's success in Parliament where he carries every Bill with the greatest of ease.
Two of the fairies, Celia and Leila, then sing a very attractive duet, "In vain to us you plead"—the strings playing staccato and producing a most delightful effect: This is followed by the Fairy Queen's song, "Oh, foolish fay", which includes the words:
On the first night much merriment was caused as Alice Barnett, the Queen of the Fairies, addressed her song direct to Captain Shaw (afterwards Sir Eyre Massey Shaw), who was sitting in the stalls. Captain Shaw was head of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade at the time and was one of the most popular men in London Society.
To return to the story of the opera. Everyone seems to be miserable; the two lords cannot decide which one of them shall marry Phyllis and threaten to fight a duel over her. The Lord Chancellor, who is greatly attached to her, finds that unrequited love robs him of his rest; however, encouraged by the two Earls, he decides to try once more, and together they sing a fascinating waltz trio, "He who shies at such a prize" in which the Lord Chancellor subsequently dances so gaily. This air is repeated in the Finale.
Strephon, although brilliantly successful in Parliament, is broken-hearted over Phyllis, while she herself is still in love with him, though parted from him. However he eventually explains to her that his mother looks so young because she really is a fairy, and he himself is only half a mortal. They make up their quarrel and receive Iolanthe's blessing, after which she tells them, to their intense surprise, that the Lord Chancellor is her husband. She pleads with him on Strephon's behalf and begs him to grant his permission for her son's marriage to Phyllis, but the Lord Chancellor refuses as he intends to marry Phyllis himself. Iolanthe is then forced to break her fairy vow and reveals herself to him as the wife whom he thought had died childless many years before.
The Fairy Queen raises her spear and is about to mete out death to Iolanthe, for once again breaking her vows; when the fairies quickly inform the Queen that if Iolanthe dies so must they all as they have all become fairy peeresses. The Queen is in a quandary as, according to their law "every fairy must die who marries a mortal"; but the Lord Chancellor quickly overcomes her difficulty by suggesting that every fairy shall die who does not marry a mortal. The Queen consents and, to save herself, she decides to marry Private Willis, while the Peers all agree to exchange the House of Peers for the House of Peris; wings spring from the shoulders of all the assembled mortals and away they fly to Fairyland.
The first night of Iolanthe must ever have been memorable to Sullivan, for shortly before his arrival at the theatre to conduct the performance he had heard of a personal tragedy. The firm of stockbrokers with whom all his securities had been deposited went bankrupt, and all his savings, amounting to over £7000, had been lost. The following year, on 22 May, 1883, Sullivan was knighted by Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle.
This is always one of the most popular operas—when first produced it ran for over a year—and in it Gilbert makes great play with the fanciful position of the Lord High Chancellor of England that some slight knowledge of the Chancellor's duties and of the history of his high office adds greatly to the enjoyment of the opera. For centuries English justice has been the envy of the world and the pride of all true Englishmen. As a nation we have a passion for law and order which really dates from King Alfred, who inflicted most severe penalties for theft. It is only in comparatively recent years that hanging ceased to be the punishment in England for stealing anything of greater value than one shilling. To our minds nowadays it is unthinkable that an English judge could possibly be guilty of prejudice or favouritism and this has been achieved by making our judges as time went on more and more independent of the executive government until at the present time, when a High Court judge has once been appointed, he can only be removed from his office by the Sovereign on an address presented by both Houses of Parliament, which has never yet happened and in all probability never will.
Consider then the topsy-turvydom of the Lord Chancellor's position. He is the supreme head of the judiciary. He presides over the House of Lords when it hears appeals from inferior Courts, he is President of the Court of Appeal though he never has time to sit there, the Chancery Division takes its very name from him, and it is on his advice that the judges are appointed by the Crown. Clearly, if ever a man ought to be entirely separate from the executive government he is that man. In a manner only possible in England he is, therefore, the only one of the judges who is not merely allowed, but compelled to be a member of the executive government. He is, in fact, generally one of the most influential men in the cabinet of the government of the day and when the government is defeated he resigns with it. Was there ever such an illogical absurdity? No wonder it took Gilbert's fancy.
This position of the Lord Chancellor is all the more striking in view of the history of his office. Originally all justice emanated from the King. Soon the cases became too numerous for the King to deal with himself and he appointed others to carry out this duty for him. (For a short sketch of the history and gradual development of the English Courts of Law see the "Introduction" to Trial by Jury.) The rules of law in those early days were few and simple and not comprehensive enough to govern every type of case, so that cases frequently arose in which it would have been unfair to one of the parties to apply the law strictly. For instance, A and B had a quarrel and brought their case before the King; according to strict law A was entitled to what he claimed against B but, owing to some special circumstances in the case, it would be manifestly unfair to B, if the strict law was applied. So the King granted A what he asked only on condition, let us say, that A did so-and-so for B. It went "against the King's conscience" to give A all that he asked. This is known as applying the doctrine of "equity" or "fairism" and the Lord Chancellor is always known as the "Keeper of the King's Conscience" because, amongst other things, it is the branch of the law for which the Lord Chancellor has always been made responsible. As Dr. A. T. Carter, of Oxford, rather delightfully put it, "he kept the King's Seal and kept the King's soul".
At first, each individual Chancellor dealt with every case on its merits as he thought fit, with little, if any consideration of previous decisions given by his predecessors, so that it was at one time said that the rules of equity "varied with the length of the Chancellor's foot". Later the inconvenience of this was realised and the Chancellor endeavoured gradually to build up a set of equity rules or principles and until the Judicature Act of 1873 (see "Introduction to Trial by Jury) these principles were exclusively dispensed in the Court of Chancery which, as already mentioned, consequently took its name from the Chancellor whose Court it was. That is why we find in this opera that "Wards in Chancery" are under the Lord Chancellor's jurisdiction. He is carrying out the duty of the King as parens patriae (father of his country) to look after, where necessary, the affairs of those not yet of age and presumably, therefore, not yet capable of looking after themselves. In point of fact there is a risk that the rules governing Wards of Court, originally made for their protection, may become burdensome to them in these days because the mere issue of a writ which seeks the administration of property belonging to an infant (and an infant in the legal world is anyone under the age of 21) constitutes that infant a Ward of Court. Anyone, therefore, who wishes to cause annoyance to an infant, who may be a girl of 18 or 19 years of age, has only to settle a sum upon her and issue a writ to administer it and after the issue of the writ even if no further steps are taken in the proceedings for an indefinite time, the girl, by the mere issue of the writ, becomes a Ward of Court and cannot even go abroad for her summer holiday without the leave of the Court as this would be going out of the jurisdiction of the Court without leave, which is not permitted.
It may be of interest to add that in the very early days the Chancellor was a comparatively humble person, being the chief domestic chaplain of the King, who did the King's secretarial work and therefore issued the King's writs. For many years the Chancellors were generally ecclesiastics as being almost the only people who had sufficient knowledge of letters to be competent to fill the position. Gradually the power of the Chancellor increased. By the end of Edward Ill's reign his duties have become purely judicial and by Henry VIII's time, when Cardinal Wolsey was Chancellor, he has become the most important legal personage. Nowadays, in point of precedence in the Kingdom, the Lord Chancellor (as he has long been called) comes immediately after the Royal Family and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Here then in the topsy-turvy position of the Lord Chancellor as head of the judiciary and yet at the same time an important member of the executive government was splendid material for Gilbert's purpose, but that was by no means all. There seems little doubt that Gilbert had a particular Lord Chancellor in mind, namely John Scott, Lord Eldon, who, after two years as Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas, was Lord Chancellor from 1801-1806 and 1807-1827, some 25 years in all, the longest term of office of any Lord Chancellor of England. In those days there were no Lords of Appeal, legal peers appointed for life to sit and hear cases with the Lord Chancellor and ex-Lord Chancellors in the House of Lords, as is the case nowadays, so that a Lord Chancellor could only look to ex-Lord Chancellors to help him with the legal business in the House of Lords. The result of Lord Eldon's long term of office as Lord Chancellor was that he outlived all ex-Lord Chancellors and, with the exception of Lord Redesdale, ex-Lord Chancellor of Ireland, he could find no one to sit with him in the House of Lords, the United Kingdom's final Appeal Court. Lord Eldon, therefore, became a veritable legal "Pooh-Bah". He heard cases in the Court of Chancery where he was helped by the Master of the Rolls and, as the volume of business increased, by first one and finally three Vice-Chancellors but, with the exception of Lord Redesdale, who was not always available, Lord Eldon was the House of Lords and often used to sit there with one or two non-legal peers as dummies supporting him just for the look of the thing. And then Lord Eldon would quite frequently sit listening with great interest all by himself to appeals from his own judgements given when sitting in the Court of Chancery below. Moreover, if he thought it right, he would quite cheerfully reverse himself on appeal! This adds great point to a number of passages in the opera and especially perhaps to that where the Lord Chancellor is considering what his position would be if he fell in love with one of his Wards of Court —
Sullivan, as always, wonderfully captures the spirit of the opera, and nowhere perhaps better than in his introductory music on the first entrance of the Lord Chancellor, the greater part of which is, however, unfortunately almost invariably lost in the applause which greets the welcome appearance of this very popular character. It is, perhaps, fitting to conclude this introduction with a reference to Sir Henry A. Lytton, one of the most famous of the Lord Chancellors in Iolanthe .
On Tuesday, 21 October, 1930 a very distinguished company numbering about 500, as a mark of respect to Sir Henry Lytton, entertained him to luncheon at the Savoy Hotel. Sir Henry had then played in the operas for 46 years and had recently received the honour of Knighthood from His Majesty King George V. The toastmaster wore the costume of "Jack Point" in the Yeomen of the Guard, Sir Henry's favourite part, and the waiters were dressed as Pirates of Penzance or as Gondoliers. After speeches, Sir Henry Lytton further responded to the toast of his health by singing, with piano accompaniment from a small stage which had been put up in the hall "I can't think why", King Gama's song from Princess Ida and, in response to enthusiastic calls of "Encore", the Lord Chancellor's song from Iolanthe. Lord Sankey, the Lord Chancellor, sent the following telegram "The Lord Chancellor greatly regrets that he is unexpectedly prevented at the last moment from attending the Savoy luncheon to do honour to the most celebrated Lord Chancellor of our time. An ordinary Lord Chancellor goes and comes but Sir Henry Lytton goes on for ever. . . ."
Sir Henry Lytton was born in London on January 3, 1867, and died on 15 August, 1936.
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