Gilbert and Sullivan Archive



PAUL McSHANE: It is interesting to try to date the Murgatroyd dynasty. We know that Sir Roderic, the twenty-first baronet, died ten years before the date in which the opera is set - say, 1800 or thereabouts. Maybe Gilbert's papers have something to say on the dating of the Murgatroyd line, and/or maybe some of the more aristocratic of our Savoynetters (who bank with Coutts, perhaps) can speak learnedly on primogeniture in the succession of baronets, as distinct from kings. But in the absence of any such dissertations (at this stage), I have tentatively assumed that each baronet's tenure was about the same as the English monarch of the day - approximately 20-25 years, on average.

This assumption puts the named Murgatroyds into the royal timelines as follows:

Sir Roderic (21st baronet) George III
Sir Mervyn (20th baronet) George II
Sir Gilbert (18th baronet) Queen Anne (culture's palmiest day)
Sir Desmond (16th baronet) James II (see "burglaree")
Sir Conrad (12th baronet) Good Queen Bess
Sir Lionel (6th baronet) Edward IV
Sir Jasper (3rd baronet) Henry IV
Sir Rupert (1st baronet) Edward III, who reigned 1327-1377

Persecution of witches in Europe started in about the tenth century, and continued until the seventeenth. However, the mid-14th century was the period of the Black Death in England, and the period of Edward III's reign would have been a high time for Sir Rupert to indulge in witch-baiting.

All of this has some significance in costuming the ghosts. While the foregoing parallel with English monarchy dates Sir Rupert in the middle of the fourteenth century, it would not be stretching credibility too far to put him one century either earlier (a crusader, perhaps?) or later.

And an intriguing thought: If the Murgatroyd line had continued, would Despard's painting have been hung in the gallery?

CHRIS WAIN: Baronets were only created from the time of James I (about 1610 if I remember) so the family had only been going a relatively short time. To reach the number that WSG says they had, we must assume they got tired of sinning relatively quickly (after about 8 years on average), so they got through them much more quickly than the typical monarch.

The European witch-craze (as opposed to isolated prosecutions for doing harm by witchcraft) was from c.1480 to the late 17C, and was at its height in the early 17C. James I had strong views on the subject and wrote a book about it. So this also ties the first baronet of Ruddigore to his reign.

PHILIP STERNENBERG: Chris's facts and line of reasoning are both correct. They agree with the setting of the beginning of Act 2 as stated in the libretto: "The walls are covered with full-length portraits of the Baronets of Ruddigore from the time of James I - the first being that of Sir Rupert, etc."

ARTHUR ROBINSON: As I recall Gilbert just says the opera is set in the first half of the 18th century or something, but as I recall, Richard Dauntless refers to Lord Nelson, which would make it later than 1800 (I think - but there are no reference books in this computer cluster, or even G&S libretti, for some reason).

But English monarchs presumably lasted longer than Baronets of Ruddigore, as they didn't perish in inconceivable agonies on the spot if they went a whole day without committing a crime. (Or did they? Again, I need a reference book that would tell me that.)

MICHAEL NASH: The libretto says: "Time: early in the nineteenth century". The Gawsworth Hall production directed by Geoffrey Shovelton set it round about 1805. In "The Ruddigore Dichotomy", I set the events of the opera in 1825.

KEN KRANTZ: Dick says of Rose that she is "fit to marry Lord Nelson." Nelson died at Trafalgar on October 21, 1805. The news reached England by ship soon after. If taken literally this would place the action no later than late 1805.

However, it may not be necessary to take it literally:

(1) At the most obvious level, neither Rose nor anyone else could marry Lord Nelson because he was already married. His estranged wife survived him, and they had been married since before he was ennobled, so there was never a time when he would have been referred to as "Lord Nelson" when he was free to marry (to the great discomfiture of himself and Lady Hamilton). Of course, even though he was not free to marry, a woman might be praised as fit to marry him.

(2) Even after the first viscount's death there was still a Lord Nelson. Horatio died without legitimate issue so I believe his oldest living brother succeeded to the title. He was a man of little distinction and no naval connection, so I think we can safely discard any idea that Dick is referring to him. Whether living or dead, it is the Hero of Trafalgar of whom Dick is speaking.

(3) It can be taken as a deliberate anachronism, like the preserved Australian beef in Thespis or the telephone in Pinafore;

(4) It may be, in keeping with Dick's general tendency to high-flown nautical rhetoric, a poetical tribute not meant to be grounded in reality. To say of a woman that she is a fit consort for a legendary national hero can be taken as a mere florid compliment.

If you take the action as after Nelson's death, I think Michael is on the right track to make it substantially after. In the mood of national grief immediately after Trafalgar Dick's remark would be distastefully ghoulish. It is an aside reflecting his private thoughts, but even so it would be out of character for a bluff and hearty English bluejacket to think in such terms (in the present tense, no less. Not "she would have been fit to marry Lord Nelson.") A generation or more after Trafalgar shock and grief would gradually have given way to storybook legend status. A man in 1825 might say of a beautiful woman that she was fit to marry Hercules, or Alexander the Great. An American of the era might say "fit to marry George Washington." Or, an English sailor might say "fit to marry Lord Nelson."

My personal preference is for the pre-Trafalgar dating. There is one line about Nelson, but there is a whole song about naval hostilities with France. That strongly implies the Napoleonic era. The only major European war of the next half century was the Crimean War, in which Britain and France were allies. Barring the occasional localized colonial squabble, I don't believe they came to blows again after Waterloo.

As a practical matter I doubt the issue of dating Ruddigore matters to the audience as long as the costuming gives the general feel of the approximate period. Most productions I have seen or been in put the bucks and blades in Regency costume rather than the knee breeches appropriate to Nelson's lifetime. It is, I daresay, a rare audience member who is sufficiently familiar with both naval history and fashion history to note a discrepancy.

LARRY BYLER: I guess I would weigh in for "some time later". Otherwise, what are we to make of Robin's lyrics: "From Ovid and Horace to Swinburne and Morris..." a contemporary of Gilbert.

ALEX FELDMAN: Maybe we're over-analyzing here. When he speaks of the Admiral of the Fleet, he's not speaking of Nelson, since Nelson never made it that far (he died Vice-admiral of the White). He got the special title "Commander in Chief", but that was it. I doubt if an Admiral of the Fleet ever saw action after achieving that rank, but I don't know.

I don't know the timetable, but it may be in fact that the rank "Admiral of the Fleet" was created after Nelson's ennoblement. It certainly didn't exist in the eighteenth century.

Page created 4 October 1997