Gilbert and Sullivan Archive


1.1 Introduction

Paul McShane set the ball rolling: Many Savoynetters, like me, have not heard a bar of Thespis music (Sullivan's or otherwise) apart from "Climbing over Rocky Mountain" - or at least, in my case, until I heard the recently found ballet music. So we'll be relying more than usual on the connoisseur element of our SavoyNet band to help the discussion along, and I fully expect that most of us will come out of the experience learning a few things about the opera that we hadn't known before.

Most of the music is lost, but:

a. "Climbing over Rocky Mountain" was transferred into The Pirates of Penzance, albeit with some changes in the lyrics necessitated by a change in venue from a mountain to the seashore.

[Ronald Orenstein added: Plus the replacement of a four-part mixed chorus with a unison female chorus, involving some musical recasting. The manuscript score up to the first solo entry is Thespis music with the vocal lines crossed out and rewritten - the biggest difference is at the words "Threading long and leafy mazes / dotted with unnumbered daisies" in which the Thespis original had the chorus singing a chordal accompaniment to the orchestral tune - obviously not a satisfactory procedure when the chorus is reduced to a unison line, so Sullivan has the girls in Pirates singing along with the orchestra at this point instead. The big question is why the score was entirely rewritten from the point of the first solo entry. Was it a matter of registers, or did Sullivan recompose the rest of the piece too extensively for simple alterations of the ms to work? In other words, did the Thespis cast really sing "Fill the cup and tread the measure" to the same tune as the one now used for "Let us gaily tread the measure"?]

b. Sparkeion's Act II song "Little Maid of Arcadee" survived in print as a Victorian drawing-room ballad, and
c. Recently, some pieces of ballet music from Thespis came to light in circumstances which were discussed earlier this year.

Some questions for discussion:

A. How does the libretto of Thespis compare to those of the other operas?

[Arthur Robinson opined: It's not one of the great libretti, but I find much of it funny, though it's uneven, like some of Gilbert's other early plays. In fact, Gilbert's early musical pieces (e.g. Sensation Novel, Gentlemen in Black) generally have better (or at least funnier) dialogue than lyrics; I think Thespis may have been a turning point in his lyric-writing career (well, if not a turning point, certainly the best lyrics he'd written to date).]

B. Does Thespis have any of the "stock" characters that appear in later operas?

[Arthur Robinson responded: The later operas were written for an existing company; Thespis was not (at least not for Barrington-Grossmith-Bond etc.; I believe Terence Rees--whose book "Thespis: A Gilbert and Sullivan Enigma" I highly recommend--discussed whether they were matched to the Gaiety performers). Rees theorises that Venus (a part that doesn't exist in extant libretti) was the predecessor of the Katisha types; he quotes some relevant reviews, but without Gilbert's dialogue for this character, it's hard to be sure. (I have wondered whether Gilbert even wrote this part; could John Hollingshead or someone have added the part? Probably not; I doubt Gilbert would have allowed it!)]

C. There is an interesting stage direction at the opening of Act II, viz. "gods and goddesses....are discovered....about the stage, eating, drinking and smoking, and singing the following verses:" Smoking??? In between lines of song??? Any comments?

[Ronald Orenstein puffed: Not in either of the productions I was in!

Arthur Robinson commented: Most songs (patter songs excepted) have spaces for breathing. In this case, it would be spaces for coughing:

"Of all symposia (cough)

The best by half (hack, hack, gasp)..."

Sarah Mankowski ventured: Well, Hermes, excuse me, Mercury, could always fly across the Atlantic and steal some tobacco from the New World. Or some god or goddess may have turned one of those unfortunate nymphs into a tobacco plant. (Turning nymphs into plants seems to have been a common occurrence.)]

D. Are there any pieces of dialogue that should be altered today - e.g. the "don't know yah!" bits seem blah in print, and the antipodean-baiting reference to preserved Australian beef could be replaced by reference to mad cows (UK) or hamburgers (US).

[Arthur Robinson proudly submitted: When I first read it I thought "TV dinners" would be a good updating (at least in America). Later, I actually heard that used in a U.S. production. (Mediocre minds think alike.)

Ronald Orenstein revealed: "Tins of Spam" (1972, Comic Opera Guild); "Edible oil products" (St. Pat's)!]

E. How does the running time of Thespis compare to that of the other operas?

[Arthur Robinson answered helpfully: "I wasn't there."]

1.2 Overview

Andrew Crowther (who had been waiting over six months to make this posting): Well, I suppose this is journey's end, barring the special case of Cox and Box. God knows how many weeks ago, we started off with an opera about a group of actors who become temporary rulers, clad in Ancient Greek dress, and... well, here we are again! A strange symmetry.

(Editor's note: The OOTW series began early in 1997 with The Grand Duke, and in true topsy-turvydom tradition worked its way backwards through the G&S canon, finishing with the first opera, Thespis.)

Thespis stands apart from the other G&S operas - much slighter in structure than the later pieces, and also rather broader. The tone is less certain, though of course there are plenty of good Gilbertian touches. But the scene near the beginning of Act 1 between Sparkeion and Nicemis seems to me too obviously the obligatory romantic scene (the kind of thing Zeppo and some milk-and-water heroine bored everyone to death with in the Marx Bros. films).

The piece is clearly tailored to fit the original performers, e.g. the brothers Payne, pantomimists whom Gilbert had already celebrated in his Bab Ballad The Bishop of Rum-ti-foo, and who played Preposteros and Stupidas. All cast members seem to be given scope to do their "turn".

It's clear that the script we have is simply a kind of working script, which was probably much embellished in performance, e.g. the direction "Business of introduction" implies an extended comic routine. Terence Rees has unearthed allusions in reviews to several scenes (and, if I remember, at least one song) that the script simply doesn't mention. I imagine that was a good deal of ad-libbing, despite Gilbert's efforts. The loose construction of the plot is suggested by the fact that the celebrated ballet music, now rediscovered, seems to have had difficulties finding a permanent home, being sometimes performed in the first act, sometimes in the second.

If the opera had ever been revived by D'Oyly Carte, there's no doubt G&S would have extensively revised it, to make it more consistent, to re-tailor it for the D'OC gang, to update topical allusions, to make it more sophisticated generally. But the time passed for that....

No doubt, if we had all the performing materials for Thespis we would find a rather ramshackle piece, rough-and-ready perhaps but also, I'm convinced, full of raw life. It would have little to do with the G&S conventions we are so familiar with, but it would be fun to do, and more amenable to larking-about than its more tightly constructed companions - an opportunity for a G&S Society to let its hair down a little.

Now all we have to do is find the score.

Neil Ellenoff explained: The whole thing began during the period when for a long time Gilbert used to go to bed early. Before retiring, he would smoke a lozenge. The whole cycle of G and S came to him as in a dream. The clue to this is that The Grand Duke was originally called Thespis Recaptured. For this reason I have always believed that G and S operas should be done as one long opera. Preferably, in Beyreuth. And at least partly in German. I also don't believe that any Thespis music is lost. It is simply Sullivan's experiment with minimalism.

Michael Walters put in: May I start by squashing the oft-repeated story that Thespis was a failure because it had a shorter run than other G&S collaborations. This is to misunderstand the nature of the Gaiety Theatre and Hollingshead's policy there. The Gaiety was the Victorian equivalent of a TV channel, and the shows put on the Victorian equivalent of soaps and sitcoms. Many patrons would go to the theatre once a week, and of course the very last thing they wanted was to see the same show week after week, month after month. Thus, it was Hollingshead's policy that, however well a show was doing, it would be taken off after no more than two or three weeks, and replaced with something new. Since an evening's programme typically consisted of about three different plays, one of these would be changed each week (or oftener if not a success) so that patrons could see something new each time they came to the theatre. Given this situation, Thespis could not possibly have run any longer than it did. Moreover, Gaiety shows were not expected to be of literary or musical quality; I think it is true to say that not a single show from the Old Gaiety has ever entered the general repertoire. Forgive me, those readers who know all this already!

Arthur Robinson replied: Thanks for the information! Also, if the Gaiety Theatre were so large, wouldn't this also tend to limit runs? Presumably a lot more people would attend a single performance than at the Savoy.

I think Terence Rees also commented that after the original run of Thespis, one of the actors was allowed to choose a piece to present one day for a benefit matinee (I probably have the terms wrong) and chose Thespis--and as Rees points out, the whole point of choosing a piece for such a performance would be to choose the one that would be expected to make the most money.

1.3 Rees

Ian Bond commented: Dr. Rees had of course, well and truly researched Thespis. He proved that Thespis had not been a failure (as it was written especially as a seasonal entertainment), and discovered evidence of dialogue and musical numbers which were missing from the printed text. He also gave us back that first Gilbert and Sullivan elderly, ugly lady - Venus. He also revealed that, had D'Oyly Carte had his way, the new Comedy Opera Company would have commenced its performance history with a revised Thespis in 1876, had not his fellow directors insisted on something new for their money. The results of his studies were published in his book - "Thespis - A Gilbert and Sullivan Enigma" - alas, no longer in print.

Arthur Robinson (the culprit):

"Who is the wretch who hath contrived this?

Let him stand forth!"

"'Twas I!"

Back around 1977 or 1978, I ordered Dr. Rees's book, and received it with a note that I had obtained the last copy and it was now out of print.

But all may not be lost. C.D. Paramor, a book dealer in England, was for some years selling copies of this book (paperback, presumably remaindered) for 1 pound each (I got one for a friend--a bargain). The last I recall, this book was still listed in his catalog, though for a higher price; I'll try to remember to search for his latest catalog and see if it's still available (if I forget and some Savoynetter is interested, please remind me). I highly recommend the book--the best book on Thespis ever written.

(P.S. I just checked Whitaker's (the British BOOKS IN PRINT) and found that it is listed as being in print in the paperback edition for 6 pounds. Of course, BOOKS IN PRINT in America is notorious for including books that have been out of print for ten years, and Whitaker's may be the same. I'll try to check whether C.D. Paramor still has copies available for 1 pound (I doubt it), so Thespis fans may not want to order this yet.)

Jeff DeMarco noted: The book is apparently available from the Internet Bookshop (I think it is I ordered it yesterday and got back the confirmation. The price is 6 pounds (unfortunately, the shipping to the US is 7 pounds!) I look forward to reading it.

Updated 16 August, 2011