Gilbert and Sullivan Archive


Part 1 - The Plot

1.1 - General Comments

Andrew Crowther: Princess Ida is one of my least favourite of the operas - not because it has no good bits (many of the songs are wonderful), but because so many of the elements fall below the high standard we expect of G&S. We have to make so many allowances.

I've read all the arguments about Ida not being an anti-feminist piece after all, but I can't honestly accept this. The butt of the joke is surely women's education per se.

I'm not saying this because I want to: as a good rabid Gilbertian, I'm naturally inclined to argue that he was right in all things. But I honestly believe the above to be true, though unpleasant to admit.

The blank verse is another liability. This is odd, in a way, because this was the style Gilbert used in his most serious plays - the ones where he most had an eye on posterity. But these are the pieces which have dated most severely, and it is his "ephemeral", vulgar, frivolous pieces like Patience which have survived, despite the topical references.

As to why he turned back to his old play The Princess instead of finding something new, I think his creativity was drying up a little at this stage. He had a period of amazing inventiveness in the 1870s, but now in the 1880s he relied more and more on going back to his old ideas and refashioning them in a much more sophisticated style. He had a genuine fondness for his "fairy comedies", and he obviously thought there was still a lot of mileage in The Princess. I think I'd have preferred even the Lozenge Plot to Ida, but what's the use of repining?

For me, Gama just about saves the piece.

Arthur Robinson: I've always felt that the problem with Princess Ida was Gilbert's adapting The Princess, which he'd written long before, and which I believe was not a huge success to begin with. Although I like the medieval setting, I've always considered Ida the most "dated" of the G&S operas, not too interesting dramatically (I'd better don my asbestos armor); and the dialogue, most of it lifted bodily from The Princess, is typical pre-Sullivan Gilbert - some funny lines, but many more that aren't. So the "old stuff" from The Princess doesn't seem to me to work.

The "new stuff" - the score - is another matter. Gilbert & Sullivan were both at their height(s); the music is wonderful, and many of the lyrics are Gilbert at his best. When we had a thread some months ago on favorite/best G&S songs, I was surprised how many of those I considered were from Ida (both of Gama's songs, the two trios for Ida's brothers, "Darwinian man," "Now hearken to my stern command"; Ida's three songs all have beautiful music, and the Act II finale is terrific, the best part of the opera dramatically IMO and with many funny parts - I don't know why Hildebrand's " I rather think I dare, but never mind" always makes me crack up; maybe it makes me think of Gilda Radner).

Princess Ida is not the G&S opera I'd recommend to someone new to G&S whom I was trying to convert (though I'd enjoy seeing it myself; I've only seen it once myself - in a college production directed by my sister, which [in my biased opinion] was terrific, even though the college paper described it as "a sappy but happy musical"), but the score is vintage G&S.

Robert Jones: Gilbert's wholesale lifting of dialogue from his earlier work could indicate laziness. Perhaps he felt he could rest on his laurels a bit since "Gilbert and Sullivan" had become an institution and people would pay to see any show bearing those names. But it may instead indicate that he felt, being successful, he could safely expose the public to a work (or a facet of his ability) which had not gained the recognition he thought it deserved. This may have happened later (and more successfully) in Yeomen.

Is the blank verse poor, or is it just jarring to an audience that doesn't expect it? The very classical/baroque nature of the music suggests that Sullivan was able to comprehend the intent, and I can't recall reading of any libretto-music arguments between G&S during its creation. I do recall reading that Sullivan complained that all his Savoy music had started to sound the same. This strikes me as odd, because Ida has a very distinct musical style of its own, while Mikado sounds very much like all the old operas (very polished, but nothing new).

To ineptly summarise, I like Ida. But not all of it.

Gerry Howe: I love Ida; the glorious topicality - females getting education, indeed! - the splendidly Handelian score, the marvelous by-play between the bass brothers.

Structurally, too, it is light, strong, balanced. A delightful piece which ought to be heard far more often.

Neil Ellenoff: Princess Ida is my favorite G&S opera. Unfortunately, that doesn't make it more successful. The number of performances does.

Marc Shepherd: Neil's and Gerry's views are not necessarily at odds. Ida is a lot like Ruddigore - far more popular with the G&S "in" crowd than with the public at large. Speaking objectively, and never minding one's personal favorites, Ida is one of the least successful of the series.

Bob and Jackie Richards: On the subject of Princess Ida, we just have to put in our oar. We performed Princess Ida in 1995, Bob as Gama and Jackie as Princess Ida. It became our favourite opera after seeing Plymouth Gilbert & Sullivan Fellowship perform it superbly some years ago - an Alistair Donkin production.

Tim Devlin: In the Ida discussions so far, there seems to be general agreement that the blank verse dialogue is a problem. I have been trying to work out why.

The iambic rhythm of the dialogue is not the problem; iambic rhythm is the most natural-sounding in English. The fact that the iambics come in pentameter lines is not the problem; blank verse has been used to some advantage elsewhere in English drama. The problem seems to be in the quality of Gilbert's blank verse. For an extended example, take Ida's opening speech in Act II, beginning Women of Adamant . . . . This speech runs 44 lines; in 34 (at least) of those lines, the sense and/or punctuation requires a break at the end of the line. The effect of this is that movement is interrupted as the thought and the rhythm come together in chunks.

There is another factor here as well. Some writers of blank verse use a number of variations within the line, particularly shifting the stresses and adding syllables. Gilbert does very little of this. So his lines, as a rule, are repeatedly regular. When you combine the end-stopping with the lack of metrical variety, you get (at its worst) an effect of lumpy monotony. (Yes, good delivery will help; but all that good delivery is doing here is attempting to disguise something present in the lines.)

Now certainly not all of the Ida dialogue is equally flawed. For example, the dialogue after Gama's first entrance has variety and pace and character and vitriol . . . but it goes on a little longer than necessary. And this is true elsewhere in Ida; there is an unnecessary wordiness that retards the pace without adding anything of substance. But this problem in Gilbert's dialogue is not exclusive to his blank verse nor to Ida.

There is also the fact that the dialogue, as verse, cannot hope to compete with the quality of the lyrics.

J. Derrick McClure: Does anybody share my impression that one of the unusual things about the Ida libretto is a number of lyrics where Gilbert is trying, and managing with unusual success, to write poetry as distinct from brilliantly clever verse? "At this my call" (remember that this is always sung with the verses in the wrong order), "Whom thou hast chained", "I built upon a rock" - those could be specimens of minor Victorian lyric poetry, as good as some of the pieces in the Golden Treasury. In most of the operas you can find one or two lyrics of poetic merit ("To a garden full of posies", "Brightly dawns our wedding day", etc.), but Ida strikes me as having more than most.

Thomas Drucker: It seems to have become a tradition for an early contribution to the discussion of each opera to include an explanation of why it is such a failure (thereby furnishing the opera's advocates with the opportunity to point out its excellence in detail). If one is looking for an explanation of the lack of success of Princess Ida, could one find it in a mismatch (singular among the Savoy operas) of Gilbert's and Sullivan's accomplishments? There is plenty of good Gilbert in the songs and Sullivan's musical contributions are not all that below his best. The problem seems to be that they seldom get their acts together, from which the opera and audience suffer. (The situation is unlike Grand Duke, where one can argue that Gilbert is not at his wittiest.)

I noticed this mismatch in going through the score for the sake of answering Paul McShane's question about identifying favourite and least favourite songs. Time and again either the music or the words would fall short of what the other supplied. I am sure that advocates of Ida will step forward to point out the counterexamples to my contention (and I have to admit that "A Lady fair of lineage high" is bound to be attractive to the historian of evolution). My own experience is just that the songs of Ida are less memorable than those of Iolanthe (its predecessor) or the Mikado (its successor) and it was hard for me to find examples where music and words were at the top of both Sullivan's and Gilbert's forms.

Louis Wernick: But didn't many claim that the undue length of Act I of Ruddigore as well as alleged lack of congruence between Gilbert and Sullivan in the section of Act II around "Away Remorse" is equally responsible for Ruddigore being of more interest to the cognoscenti than to the ticket-buying public or to the community/college theater performers?

Updated 10 May 1998