Normally The Grand Duke would have been the Durham Savoyards’ last production this year, but earlier this month TYG and I went to catch a special show, combining Gilbert and Sullivan’s first collaboration, THESPIS, or the Gods Grown Old with their second, a one-act called TRIAL BY JURY. The latter was their first work for D’Oyly Carte, who would go on to supervise their greatest works.
Sullivan’s score for THESPIS is lost, so the Savoyards’ music director wrote his own (not the first time someone’s done that). While not up to Sullivan’s best, he definitely caught the feel and rhythm of Sullivan’s music. The story itself starts with the Olympian gods (Roman, not Greek versions) feeling increasingly old, powerless and cranky. Hermes is the only one still capable of doing much, so the other deities force him to do most of their work. When a squabbling troupe of actors stumbles into Olympus, the gods appoint them as their replacements, then go off to explore the mortal world (Hermes is stuck behind, continuing as Olympus’ general dogsbody). As you can probably guess, things go horribly wrong, for example having a teetotaller (my friend Ada Milenkovic Brown) chosen to play Bacchus. As a result, grapes now produce nothing but ginger beer. The results were fun and the cast gave it their talented all, but it’s definitely not up to G&S’ D’Oyly Carte work. “He hates you and wants to take your life — now run along and get married.”
The difference is easy to see in TRIAL BY JURY (photo from an earlier Savoyard version, all rights remain with the current holder). The story concerns a young man dragged before a court for failing to honor his promise of marriage to the attractive young plaintiff. This is slightly ironic since the judge is at least as bad, having risen in the legal world by dating a lawyer’s ugly daughter, then throwing her over as soon he’d gained advancement. Switching to targeting British institutions worked much better for G&S than taking shots at the English gods, and I guess they knew it. In subsequent plays they mocked stage pirate dramas (Pirates of Penzance), stage Naval adventures (HMS Pinafore), British exceptionalism (Utopia Limited) and prominent British poets (Patience). Even The Mikado is more about Britain than Japan (Pooh-Bah represents the impoverished British aristocrats trying to monetize their name and title).
Next year the show will be Ruddigore, a delightful satire of British melodrama. TYG and I are looking forward to it.