Gilbert and Sullivan Archive



By Cliff Coles

Like many of Sydney Grundy's dramas, The Vicar of Bray is not entirely original. He chose two very well known sources for the materials of this opera.

The title is taken from a song of unknown authorship that dates from the eighteenth century dealing with the survival of a resourceful clergyman through the reigns and religious practices of five British monarchs. Each verse ends with the following refrain:

And this is law that I'll maintain
Until my dying day, Sir,
That whatsoever King may reign,
I'll be the Vicar of Bray, Sir.

In addition, Grundy used Thomas Day's children's tale The History of Sandford and Merton for material. Day's tale, published in three parts (1783, 1787, and 1789), "consists of a succession of episodes in which the rich and objectionable Tommy Merton is contrasted with the virtuous Harry Sandford, a farmer's son, and the moral is drawn by the Rev. Mr. Barlow their tutor."

The Vicar of Bray was originally produced in 1882 at the Globe Theatre, where it had a very meager run. The public apparently was not amused at the clergy being made the subject of ridicule. Revisions and a revival after a summer break didn't help maintain public interest.

Producer Carte, however, had faith in composer Solomon. The year before, Solomon had provided the music for The Nautch Girl at the Savoy. This was remarkable inasmuch as the Savoy of all London theatres was probably the most sainted and untouched by controversy, whereas Solomon had been involved in a very public scandal. In 1885 he married American soprano Lillian Russell. The marriage turned out to be bigamous on his part, and he was arrested in 1886. Since then, his career had been at a low ebb until The Nautch Girl.

Carte had been aware of Solomon's talents for at least a decade. Solomon's comic opera Claude Duval (1881) joined the D'Oyly Carte Opera's touring company, playing outside London in 1882. In 1893, Billee Taylor (1880) also joined the D'Oyly Carte repertoire.

The Vicar of Bray's Savoy production was probably intended as little more than a stop-gap while Haddon Hall was being prepared. After all, it was a revival and not an original production, combining the talents of the composer of The Nautch Girl and the author of Haddon Hall, the presentation of which was delayed because of Sullivan's health.

Among the familiar Savoyards in the cast were Rutland Barrington as the Vicar, Rosina Brandram as Mrs. Merton, Courtice Pounds as Sandford, and W.H. Denny as Bedford Rowe. Richard Green, who played Tommy Merton, had been a soloist in Sullivan's Ivanhoe, and would create the role of Sir George Vernon in Haddon Hall. Soprano Leonore Snyder (Winifred) had played the title role in The Nautch Girl, but this would be her last role for the Savoy.

For a fuller discussion of The Vicar of Bray, its original production at the Globe Theatre, its mounting at the Savoy, variations in the text, and other matters, see the article by Selwyn Tillett in the Sir Arthur Sullivan Society booklet celebrating the centenary of Haddon Hall.

Page created 11 Nov 1996