Gilbert and Sullivan Archive


Part 4 - Setting

Paul McShane: The date and place for the setting of Princess Ida were left delightfully vague by Gilbert (and, I imagine, by Tennyson before him, although I don't have access to Tennyson's work, and could well be contradicted). So let us see what can be done to narrow things down.

First, the date.

One of the first problems we encounter is the fact that, regardless of which date is chosen, Princess Ida is riddled with anachronisms - although this may not have been the case with Tennyson's "Princess" or even with Gilbert's earlier parody. On the one hand, the type of armour worn by the three brothers came into being around the mid-14th century, and was discarded by the late-16th century as the development of gunpowder meant that the now-unreliable protection offered by even plate armour was not worth the encumbrance of the full armour. On the other hand, allusions in Princess Ida to people such as Bowdler (1754-1825), Darwin (1809-1882) and Wagner (1813-1883), not to mention Swan & Edgar, Gask & Gask and so on, are quite incompatible with the armour-wearing days.

I believe that Tennyson set his poem in medieval times, and it seems that the ancient allusions in Princess Ida (e.g Arac's Act III number) are more significant than the more modern ones. Thus, logic supports tradition in the practice of costuming Ida in the Middle Ages and treating the 18th and 19th century references as anachronistic, rather than setting the play in Gilbert's era and overlooking the medieval references - although it would be hard to be too critical of a director who experimented with the opposite approach.

If we are to be traditional, it would be best to minimise the time errors by setting the opera after the development of gunpowder ("villainous saltpetre", etc.) but while armour-wearing was still prevalent. We are still left with many anachronisms - as well as those quoted above, we have safety matches (a 19th century invention), the phrase "send a wire", the reference to a toilet club, German bands and hurdy-gurds (18th century earliest) and perhaps others. However, we are on a firmer footing with references such as "pops of Sillery" (all bubbly from Champagne was called Sillery in the Middle Ages) and cigars (mentioned twice in the opera - they were introduced into Europe in the mid-16th century). Gunpowder was introduced into Europe as early as the 14th century, but to cover the cigars, a late-16th century setting would be nice - Elizabethan times.

Second, the location. Where are Castles Hildebrand and Adamant? Both Bruce Walton and Tom Shepard have alluded to Hungary, but left it tentatively at that. What do we know about late-16th century Hungary?

Hungary reached its zenith in the late 15th century. It occupied all of modern-day Slavonia, Slovakia and Croatia, and part of what is now Romania, the Czech republic (Moravia), Poland (Silesia), Serbia and Moldavia; it had a frontier on the Adriatic, bringing it into conflict with Venice, and had wrested control of Vienna from the Hapsburgs. At this time, the Ottoman Turks had advanced into Europe, and had a frontier with Hungary along the line of the Danube.

Then two things happened. First, the country lost a great ruler, and the barons took control, leading to civil strife, and the loss of influence to the west and north. Second, the Turks under Suleiman the Magnificent conquered Belgrade and all of what was recently Yugoslavia, and crashed into Hungary, capturing modern-day Budapest in 1526, and with it about 60% of modern Hungary. The Hapsburgs saw their chance and seized the western part of what had become a defunct kingdom. Much later, the Turks were finally driven out in the 1680's, but Hapsburg rule in Hungary continued until the 18th century. Thus, from the early 16th century, the Sons of Hungary had no kingdom.

And so, unfortunately, I think we must consign the cigars to the anachronism heap, and move back a little to set Princess Ida in the late 15th century, perhaps when Richard III (a Gama-prototype, see Alex Feldman's comments part 2.6, Gama.) ruled England. Then, the Sons of Hungary ruled not only Hungary, but Moravia, Silesia and Translyvania - take your pick. I must say that Transylvania would be a fascinating place to set the opera; the famous Vlad the Impaler (regarded as the inspiration for Dracula) ruled in Transylvania in the 15th century - now that would make a great connection!

Michael Walters: Why is this a problem? Shakespeare has anachronisms, but it doesn't seem to bother anyone.

Gene Leonardi: Don't forget that, as the chorus reminds us right off the bat in Act One, Ida should have been arriving on the scene from "cross the water." So. What water? The Danube? The English Channel? The Shining-Big-Sea? Water? Just another little quirk for inquiring minds to resolve. I also think the concept of a Transylvanian Ida is deliciously mind-boggling:-)

Paul McShane: Gene - an excellent point about "cross the water". Every little bit of nuance helps to pin down this elusive setting.

Of course, there are a number of rivers in what is now central Romania, separating Transylvania from Dracula's province of Wallacia . . . . The thread continues!

Gene Leonardi: O.K. Assuming Ida is from Wallacia and Hilarion from Transylvania:

Beginning addition of new music for very new Ida.
And when the prince of Transylvania asked to meet her, that baby bride that he was longing for,
Said to him, she's scampered!
She's scarpered!
She's scooted!
She's taken all her classmates,
And she thinks you are an ass, mate.
And we're
Sorry kid, but yooooooou
Blew it!

Eugenia Horne: Just set Ida during the height of the Victorian "gothic revival" (circa 1840) where the social events of the day where the Eglinton Tournament (1839) and the Bal Costume (1842) thrown by Victoria (dressed as Queen Philipa) and Albert (dressed as Edward III). The anachronisms would fit in too.

See The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman for details. While Prince Albert was never sighted actually wearing the full suit of armor, his cousin (Ferdinand, King Consort of Portugal) and his uncle (Leopold I, King of the Belgians) were, at another costume ball and a tournament held during the Congress of Vienna respectively.

The Prussian outfits mentioned elsewhere (especially if they were the ones with the skull and crossbones badges) must have looked quite impressive, and during the 19th century there were numerous military units which had spectacular dress uniforms, some with metal helmets and breast plates. (Hungarian and Transylvania court dress was also really elaborate at this time.)

Henry A. Stephens: BUT . . . isn't Princess Ida supposed to be set in Hungary? In the last act, they chant the name of their nation, "Oh Hungary!"

So I would put this in medieval Hungary and leave those nostalgic Englishmen for another play . . .

Eugenia Horne: But what was that debate about "The Mikado"? The one about the story really dealing with 19th century English society and the Japanese setting was just a bit of colour?

Anyway, it was just a suggestion for dealing with the anachronisms in a fairly logical manner should one think about setting it in an era almost contemporary to when it was written.

J. Derrick McClure: The amateur Ida which sticks most firmly in my mind, even though it was many years ago, was shifted forward in time to the nineteenth century, with the characters in Habsburg and Hohenzollern court attire. The three warriors entering in Prussian uniform, complete with spiked helmets and black cloaks lined with scarlet, made quite an a, as the actor played the part (almost "straight", even to the extent that he wasn't particularly crooked physically - a sharp-tongued, spiteful old tyrant, accustomed to putting lesser mortals in their place) seemed to suit the military dress very well!

Page created 10 May 1998