|Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
Trial by Jury
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GENERAL THOUGHTS (Continued)
ANDREW CROWTHER: A few months ago, someone (I can't remember who, I'm ashamed to say) pointed out that the original staging of Trial had a far from realistic ending. It was a kind of transformation scene, with plaster cupids and red fire. This staging is obviously in conflict with Gilbert's often stated ideas of surface realism of staging, and I've been puzzling a bit over what this means with regard to Trial as a whole.
Trial by Jury is something apart from the other operas. I often find, when thinking about the G&S operas, I forget to allow for Trial unfairly, given its very high quality. It was a one off, first produced before D'Oyly Carte put together the regular company, including Grossmith and Barrington. It is in one act. It contains no dialogue. (There I think that gets the blindingly obvious out of the way.)
I believe the absence of dialogue means Trial follows different conventions from the other operas. There is no sense of moving from "ordinary" dialogue to the heightened state of singing all the characters are in that heightened state throughout. When the characters sing, they reveal their true natures. Bias, selfishness, and corruption are laid bare to us without even the partial disguise of "Gilbertian" dialogue. Trial by Jury takes place in Gilbert's Palace of Truth.
MICHAEL WALTERS: Surely it was originally described as a "Dramatic Cantata" and surely it is absolutely typical of a cantata, except that it is staged?
ANDREW CROWTHER: Max Keith Sutton, in his book on Gilbert, pointed out a connection with a piece Gilbert had published in The Graphic on January 16, 1875 (Trial was premiered two months later). The piece is called "A Consistent Pantomime", and outlines a "reformed" pantomime Harlequinade in which Harlequin would commit all the cartoon crimes traditional to him, but would then have to pay for them. The piece would end with a trial scene before a jury of "twelve men picked from the most ignorant, narrow minded, opinionated, intolerant and dishonest class of civilised beings in London".
Harlequin would create havoc in the court by using his wand to cause "the judge on the bench to change places with the prisoner in the dock." Then "He might cover the judge with confusion by causing annoying placards to appear on the walls, such as, 'This gentleman was raised to the Bench for voting with his Party,' or by hanging inscriptions on the necks of the jury, describing the various adulterations they habitually introduce into the wares in which they deal."
This is a very interesting passage for all sorts of reasons, but the parallel with Trial is very obvious. The Judge's Song might be seen as an equivalent of that annoying placard, the difference being that we no longer need Harlequin to reveal the tawdry reality. The Judge is condemned out of his own mouth.
The original ending of Trial, the "transformation" scene, suggests that Gilbert wanted to make the connection with the Harlequinade explicit.
MICHAEL WALTERS: Hasn't this always been accepted?
ANDREW CROWTHER: This is not ordinary life, but a deeper, more extravagant reality which is being depicted the reality below the surface. Perhaps the over the top, extravagant staging is meant as a signal to the audience that this is a heightened reality.
But maybe I'm going too far here. I suspect I'm reading into the piece too many serious overtones. The Judge is a likeable man a "rogue", rather than a villain. Trial is much more good humoured than what I have just been saying would imply. Sullivan's music plays a major role in creating this amiable atmosphere, but isn't it also implied in Gilbert's libretto? At this point my train of thought reaches its terminus, and I can go no further.
CHRIS WEBSTER: Thank you for your enjoyable analysis of Trial. I shall certainly be keeping this in my files.
I hope that this does indeed bring us back on track and away from the ridiculous subject which seems to be dominating our OOTW.
[See Be Firm, be Firm...]
ANDREW CROWTHER: What happens in Trial by Jury? A woman takes a man to court for having gone back on a promise to marry. Throughout the case everyone Usher, Jury, Judge is blatantly prejudiced against the Defendant. Why? Because he is too much like them ("Oh, I was like that when a lad"), and so they are all the more harsh towards him in the attempt to disguise the fact. They are just as blatantly prejudiced in favour of the Plaintiff, for the most transparently sexual reasons ("We've but one word, my lord, and that is Rapture!"). Throughout the libretto we are reminded again and again of the hypocrisy of the system, as when the Judge, after having told us that he jilted a woman in the cause of his career, adds: "And now, if you please, I'm ready to try/This Breach of Promise of Marriage!"
Things only start to move in the Defendant's favour when he finally is able to put his case ("Oh, gentlemen, listen, I pray"), and is able to press home his spiritual kinship with the Judge and Jury. At this moment it is only the inconvenient law of Burglaree that gets in the way. The "nice dilemma" arises because the Defendant has at least made the Court less anxious for the Plaintiff to win outright but there is no solution which will avoid a verdict of guilty. If there were two of the Defendant, instead of one, everything would be fine, but....
Which leads naturally to the solution. The Judge and the Defendant are as bad as each other, and when it comes to sexual morality there is nothing to choose between them. What more natural than that the Judge should take the Defendant's place and marry the Plaintiff?
The libretto persistently and mercilessly demolishes the idea that a court of law has anything to do with Justice. It is cynical in all its attitudes, including its attitudes to love. We are left in very little doubt that the relationship between Edwin and Angelina has nothing to do with romantic love and everything to do with sex. (But of course much of the humour comes from the fact that no one will admit this.) Even in the Finale, when the Defendant sings: "I wonder whether/They'll live together/In marriage tether/In manner true?", the conventions of romantic love and happy endings are deliberately denied.
Sorry to analyse in such detail. I know much of what I've just said is very obvious. But the discussion of Trial seems to have been sidetracked by the Defendant's use of the endlessly hilarious word "pecker", and I wanted to remind everyone that this is not necessarily the libretto's most interesting or challenging feature.
RICA MENDES: This is a general theme in G&S, isn't it the absurdity of what is called "love"?
Heck, it's hard to find characters who know what love is in G&S. Off the top of my head...
Again, this is just MHO, but Trial by Jury doesn't stand out as more unjust in this regard than any of the other operas...
ANDREW CROWTHER: I agree with what you say... up to a point. Gilbert often couldn't resist a laugh at the expense of romantic love, e.g. some of the Strephon/Phyllis dialogue, even though the love between them is supposed to be perfectly genuine. I suppose the best way of expressing what I mean is by saying that every G&S opera, except Trial, has a love song or love duet in it. The song's "conceit" may be humorous f'rinstance, "Were you not to KoKo plighted" but it expresses genuine emotion. There is nothing like such a song in Trial. That means something, I think.
MARC SHEPHERD: There is a fine line between cynicism, satire, and things that are just plain funny. I really do not find much cynicism in Trial by Jury, notwithstanding that all of it is exceedingly funny.
True cynicism, I think, is to be found in "Fold your flapping wings" and "The hours creep on apace". There, Mr. Gilbert sheds the satiric mask and speaks with some bitterness about awful injustice he perceives in Society.
Trial by Jury, in contrast, seems to me a lighthearted romp that has fun by lampooning institutions that are accustomed to be treated with respect (i.e., the classic comedy trick of giving the audience exactly the opposite of what it expects).
I also agree with Rica that the G&S operas are FULL of examples of characters who display utter indifference about who they marry. ("If you'd rather change... My goodness; this indeed is simple rudeness... I've no preference whatever... Listen to him: well, I never.")
Page updated 13 November 2004