Gilbert and Sullivan Archive

The Setting

3.1 Character Names

Sarah Mankowski raised the question: I would like to know why Gilbert used Latin names, instead of the Greek. The only reason that I can think of is that since he was going with the pseudo-Latin names for the thespians, he decided to go with the Latin names for the gods. I realize that it's common for students of Latin to invent pseudo-Latin phrases and names. Perhaps students of Greek don't do that.

Michael Walters suggested: I think it was because these names were more familiar to audiences. You'll find that Offenbach's librettists did the same thing.

Arthur Robinson opined learnedly: Gilbert knew Greek as well as Latin, but I suspect most Victorians would have been more familiar with the Roman names of the Gods--as indeed most people are today. (Note the Disney movie is "Hercules," not "Heracles.")

[Philip Sternenberg concurred: I agree with those people who say that Latin names are more familiar nowadays than Greek ones, and that the Thespians' names are more pseudo-Greek than pseudo-Latin.]

Actually the Thespians' names are more pseudo-Greek (except Thespis, which is a real name) than pseudo-Latin. "Preposteros" is Greek (the Latin would end in -us, e.g., Aeschylus' name ended in -os in Greek); so is Stupidas (some Greek masculine names ended in -as, one of my favorite being someone named Bias*); -on is a common Greek masculine ending (Sillimon, Timidon, Tipseion, Sparkeion, Cymon). Most Greek women had names ending in either -a, -e, or -is (Pretteia, Daphne, Nicemis).

By the way (I mentioned this in a mini-article that has found its way into the G&S Archive), the correct pronunciation of the names Sparkeion and Nicemis is Spar-KEI-on and Ni-KAY-miss, each with the stress on the second syllable. This is clear not only from the rules of Greek pronunciation, but from the lyrics in which these name appear; all the recordings I have heard have pronounced these names differently, and have had to distort the metre of the lyrics.

[Philip Sternenberg added: I've agreed completely with the second-syllable stresses for a long time. All of the lyrics containing these names scan properly only when the accents are on the second syllables. The only difference in my own choice of pronunciation is to say an Anglicized "nye-SEE-miss," but you're correct from a classical viewpoint.]

*Among my other favorite classical names (these are Latin): Nympho (Mel Brooks uses it in History of the World Part I for the lustful empress played by Madeleine Kahn, but there WERE real Romans named Nympho-though it was actually a man's name); and (though this was fictional--in an epic poem) a prophet named Bogus. Some of our modern names apparently come from the ancient world as well; for example, Lena is the Latin word for "procuress" (I hope there aren't any Lenas on Savoynet whom I have offended). Jay Leno's last name, by the way, is the masculine equivalent, i.e., "pimp".

Ronald Orenstein put in: Of course, let's not forget A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, with a procurer named Lycas, a nervous slave named Hysterium, and other inventions mixed with real names from the Roman theatre (the show is based on Plautus) like Senex and Miles Gloriosus.

Mitchell Scott Gillett remarked: Actually, since the show is riddled with pun names, and general low comedy, I believe her name would in performance be pronounced "Nice Miss".

Arthur Robinson mused: I think you're right about the pun; and this has puzzled me, since it seems to be a visual pun (for those who see the name written), and thus wasted on those who hear the name spoken on stage. I don't think Gilbert would have hesitated to mispronounce a name, but if you pronounce the name as two syllables, it ruins the metre in two songs:

The lamp of night--the lamp of night,
Nicemis plays, to her delight.

[Ronald Orenstein pointed out: Which only works if "Nicemis" has three syllables, though I prefer the less Greek "Ni-SEE-mis" (which is closer to the pun) to the more pedantic "Nee-KAY-mis.

Mitchell Scott Gillett concluded: Well, I suppose it should be something more like "nice-a-miss", and would work better in the rhyme scheme of the finale. :-) and the "identity" song in Act II.

Any solutions? Or other examples of Gilbert using names that were puns to those who read them but not to those who heard them (in his theatre pieces; his Bab Ballads, of course, were written to be read, not heard)?

Ted Rice provided this list:

John Atkinson noted: It wouldn't be surprising if WSG had intended a play on Nicemis-Nice Miss. Brits fighting wars abroad and building an empire made it almost a point of honour to mispronounce non-English names and place names. For instance, Dick Dauntless gets Cape Finisterre to rhyme with Mounseer and if you know the Hornblower books, the quietly cultured Hornblower ponders the delight his faithful friend Bush takes in mispronouncing 'Les Deux Freres' as 'Dukeses Freers' whilst they blockade the darned mounseers.

Morgan O'Day entered the cultural debate: Surely Stupidas was an eyebrow-raiser in its day!

Peter Zavon demurred: I disagree. I think it would have been received as a Greek (or Latin) ending tacked onto the word "Stupid." Only modern readers would receive it as "stupid ass."

In performance, I would expect it to be pronounced with the accent on the first syllable, with the last syllable being almost a schwa (that nondescript vowel which the dictionaries indicate as an upside-down lower case letter "e".

Now, if someone wanted to use a Greco-Latin second syllable accent, the modern slur would be detected by many. But why bother with a less natural pronunciation (for a modern performer) when it only provides the same information about the character but in a somewhat more refined fashion?

[What IS the name for the process of having a character's name reflect an aspect of the character? I can't remember.]

Marc Shepherd sided with Morgan: No, I think Morgan O'Day has it right. In Princess Ida, Gilbert writes:

A man is but an ass
Who fights in a cuirass

So, that meaning of the word did exist in Gilbert's time. It is no great stretch to assume that the audience would have figured out the double entendre resulting from the addition of a single letter.

Ronald Orenstein concurred: And don't forget Dickens' "The law is an ass" - or to go back further, the following exchange from Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing:

Dogberry: God's my life, where's the Sexton? Let him write down the Prince's officer coxcomb. Come, bind them. Thou naughty varlet!

Conrad: Away, you are an ass, you are an ass.

Dogberry: Dost thou not suspect my place? Dost thou not suspect my years? O that he were here to write me down an ass! But masters, remember that I am an ass. Though it be not written down, yet forget not that I am an ass. No, thou villain, thou art full of piety, as shall be proved upon thee by good witness. I am a wise fellow, and which is more, an officer, and which is more, a householder, and which is more, as pretty a piece of flesh as any is in Messina, and one that knows the law, go to, and a rich fellow enough, go to, and a

fellow that hath had losses, and one that hath two gowns, and everything handsome about him. Bring him away. O that I had been writ down an ass!


David Duffey played it safe: I must steer the middle course: I think in performance the accent would be on the middle syllable, but the whole audience would appreciate it as a 'sight joke'.

My father used the following Latin tag very frequently: "Foras se Sto Pondero ver".

Bruce Miller contributed an aside on asses: Sullivan, when he began his career, signed his works "Arthur S. Sullivan," but by the time he wrote Trial by Jury he had dropped the middle initial S. due to the resulting ancronym "A.S.S.". (One of his student chums in Leipzig actual drew some donkeys for him as a "souvenir", indicating his initials inspired it.)

Philip Sternenberg summed up: First of all, the only place the audience could find any double entendre would be in the program, as Stupidas's name is (unless I've overlooked something) never spoken or sung.

Now, my UK friends are welcome to correct me on the following, as they know their own level of acceptance of slang far better than I do. (My American friends may chime in as well.)

The word "ass" has two slang meanings that provide for two levels of vulgarity. These meanings are "idiot" and "buttocks." It is only the first meaning that Gilbert ever used in print. I don't even know whether or not the second meaning existed before this century.

"Ass" = "idiot" should, in itself, not be considered profane at any level, unless one is overly sensitive to being called "stupid." It's equivalent to calling someone "jackass" or "donkey," the latter of which Lady Psyche equates to Man. To this extent, even if a Victorian heard "stupid ass," I don't see how he should have found it offensive. Would "stupid donkey" have bothered him?

The problem, it appears to me, is the "buttocks" definition. Since it does exist nowadays, people who hear "ass" may also "hear" the "buttocks" definition whether or not it really applies. Hence any use of "ass" may, deservedly or not, send up a red flag.

Incidentally, if US TV is a good measure of acceptance, it has only been within the last few years that "ass" in the "buttocks" sense has become acceptable on free TV (but never with "hole"). It's a little (but not much) easier to find it used in the "idiot" sense further back. "Jackass" is a lot safer to use, though.

John Atkinson plunged headlong into things: Right, in England Stupidas, if thus pronounced ,would have been very easily understood. In England:

Ass =[Donkey, Mule] Fool, Idiot, Clod, Oaf etc... At the risk of starting another 'pecker' debate,

(Editor's note: See the Trial by Jury archive) for the US, the Amerispeak -Ass[hole] translates into the Britspeak-Arse[hole],Bum[hole], Bottom, Backside, Jacksy, Gunga, Ring, Bottle [as in bottle and glass-arse, rhyming slang] etc. Happy hunting for such bawdy references; remember WSG could swear for 10 minutes without repeating himself, was brought up near Covent Garden Market and defended the locals at Clerkenwell.

Clive Woods pointed out: In England (today, anyway), the ONLY meaning that "Ass" has is "Donkey", or by extension, someone stupid. Other meanings given by our North American cousins are distinguishable by different spelling and pronunciation here.

Peter Zavon persisted: Agreed, but that is a use of the single word "ass" alone. It is a reference to the animal, not the part of the human anatomy, and in this context goes back to the ancient Romans, if not earlier. However, the two word phrase "stupid ass" seems to me to have a more modern ring, and it is THAT which causes me to question its relevance to the humor of Gilbert's use of the name "Stupidas."

Andrew Crowther stated: P.G. Wodehouse, that most clean of writers, populated his world with dazed innocents who called themselves and each other "silly ass". I'm positive that he used this word in the sense of "fool/donkey", rather than as the word which in Britain is spelt "arse".

3.2 Anachronisms

Sarah Mankowski told us: My favorite anachronism is Apollo's line to Mercury: "Your Christmas boxes ought to be something considerable." In any event, I believe that Thespis lived about 500 B.C..

Philip Sternenberg mused: I think Gilbert intended Thespis to have a contemporary setting. In other words, what would the gods of ancient Greco-Roman culture have become in 1871? "The Gods Grown Old," of course. That would explain all of the anachronisms but introduce a new one concerning when the title character lived. That could be explained by making the title character a descendant of the original Thespis, or someone unrelated who chose "Thespis" as a stage name.

Arthur Robinson added: I agree. I think I've quoted this before, but it reminds me of the notes underneath the "dramatis personae" of the Burt Shevelove-Stephen Sondheim adaptation of The Frogs of Aristophanes:

"The TIME is the present. The PLACE is Ancient Greece."

I have just reread (well, skimmed) the Rees Thespis book I've been recommending, and found some interesting things there. Re the discussion of when Thespis is supposed to take place, in ancient Greece or the present (i.e. 1871): the TIMES reviewer of the first night performance records a reference (Rees p. 54) to the Tichborne trial, which was then going on (and on, and on--something like O.J. Simpson's, I gather), which would suggest a "contemporary" Thespis. But I suspect this line, which is not in the (admittedly incomplete) libretto, may have been a gag. (Rees later admits this possibility, on p. 98.)

3.3 Costumes

Andrew Crowther remarked: A few days ago, someone suggested that Thespis was supposed to be taking place in the present day (or 1871), rather than in Ancient Greek times. So I looked at the illustrations reproduced in Terence Rees's "Thespis: A Gilbert and Sullivan Enigma" - contemporary drawings of the original production - to try and see what Gilbert's original policy on this might have been. And I confess I'm baffled.

The best illustration of the Thespians' costumes - Plate 3, from "Illustrated London News", 6 January 1872 - shows Thespis in a highly bizarre costume: hair in thick plaits round his shoulders, and wearing a small fez-type hat, some sort of tunic or jacket, skirts, and sandals/shoes with laces round the legs almost up to the calf. (The upper half of this costume is confirmed in Plate 2, from the "Penny Illustrated Paper", 30 December 1871.)

Two other Thespians are also sketched fairly clearly in Plate 3. A man with a thick mane of black hair round his shoulders and a Mephistophelean beard and moustache stands with his arms folded broodingly - I assume this is Preposteros. He also wears a fez, and has a jacket with big spots on it, also skirts and sandals/shoes similar to Thespis's. Also another character dressed on broadly similar lines, but with a huge conical hat on his head. (Is this Stupidas?)

None of this looks to me as if it were intended to be Ancient Greek costume. I suppose it is more like the Greeks of 1871, though I don't know about these things. What it does not look like is the typical burlesque costume of the day. (Rees prints a wonderful photograph of J.L. Toole in a costume from another production, as "Paw Claudian" - Ancient Greek costume, but crowned with a white top hat worn at a rakish angle). I suspect that Gilbert insisted on these strange costumes as being "authentic" in some way.

But all this is guesswork. Can any shed light on what the heck might have been going on in this production?

Ronald Orenstein suggested: I believe that this is, in fact, an approximation of modern Greek "traditional" costume; you can see somewhat similar outfits worn by Greek folk-dancing troupes today. Our St Pat's production tried for an approximation of this, though the men had trouble getting used to the skirts! Thespis, though, wore a 19th-century-style business suit.

Paul McShane agreed: Greece was annexed into the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century, and remained under Turkish control until the 1820-1830's, only about 40 years prior to the premiere of Thespis. So, supporting Andrew's conclusion, it is reasonable to assume that the fez-type hat was still part of the standard costume of 1870's Greece.

Updated 1 Jan 1998