The Ghosts’ High Noon: Supernatural Elements in the Operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan

In late Victorian England, the world of operetta was dominated by the comic works of writer W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan. Their shows were some of the most popular of both their time and ours, and were literary and musical masterpieces, often with a heavy dose of satire. Across twenty-five years and fourteen original shows (though the music to their first, Thespis, is now lost), they satirized the government, the military, etiquette, culture, the class system, and controversial issues of the times like evolution and feminism.

Their stories and characters are quintessentially Victorian, even those set in Japan, Venice, or the Middle Ages, or those which involved elements of the otherworldly.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s third collaboration was The Sorcerer, which revolves around the actions of one John Wellington Wells (of J. W. Wells & Co., Family Sorcerers) and a magic potion that makes everyone fall in love with the first person they see. The potion was originally called for to illustrate that things like class and wealth should have no bearings on love, but of course, things did not go entirely according to plan and everyone ended up terribly mismatched. Gilbert later considered reusing the gimmick of a magic potion or object, though nothing came of this.

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The supernatural elements of the show were well-received by both the public and critics. “In a work full of droll originality there is nothing more original than the figure of the Sorcerer himself,” said an early review in The Pall Mall Gazette. It also praised the acting of George Grossmith, who would become a Gilbert and Sullivan regular. Grossmith, who played the titular sorcerer, was called “grotesque and wizard-like enough”, and his portrayal was described as having “a strange effect, like some of Hoffmann’s tales, in which the most ordinary incidents of every-day life are closely interwoven with ideas and apparitions from another world.”

Some successful years later they premiered Iolanthe, which used the supernatural for satire to the greatest extent out of all their shows. Young Strephon, in order to win back the favour of his beloved, enlists the help of the Queen of the Fairies and her court. Strephon’s mother is Iolanthe herself, and as such he is half fairy (his upper half). The fairies decide that Strephon will run for parliament, and surely with their assistance will command a majority and win back his girl. Soon the House of Lords and the fairy court are at the brink of war, before the conflict is resolved by a trifle and everyone happily married.

The presentation of the House of Lords as a collection of rich, incompetent fools bested by a group of fairies drew some criticism, as noted in the Ipswich Journal shortly after the show’s opening: “Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan will pursue no further this particular line. The collaborators have practically exhausted their whimsical vein of humour.”

Nonetheless, the show was quite popular and is regarded by many as one of their finest. The role of the fairies was also celebrated, as by The Pall Mall Gazette: “no difficulty attends their presence as witnesses in Chancery nor their ultimate marriage into the English peerage. That a directly satirical purpose underlies the extravagant conjunction Mr. Gilbert shows may be surmised.”

Gilbert and Sullivan’s final show featuring the supernatural was 1887’s Ruddigore; or, the Witch’s Curse. While The Sorcerer and Iolanthe are fantasy, Ruddigore is horror, to the extent that Vincent Price performed in a 1982 film version.

Ruddigore involves the Murgatroyds, who have been cursed for centuries by a witch whom Rupert Murgatroyd had burnt at the stake. The terms of the curse state that every Murgatroyd who holds the title of Baronet of Ruddigore must commit a crime every day or suffer a terrible fate at the ghostly hands of his predecessors. The current “bad baronet”, Sir Despard, only has the title because of his elder brother Ruthven’s unfortunate demise, but over the course of Act I it is revealed that Ruthven has been alive and living under an alias the whole time.

In Act II Ruthven, now Baronet of Ruddigore, lurks in the portrait gallery of his ancestors and is visited by their ghosts, who remind him of his criminal duty (false income-tax returns are not valid, because “everybody does that” ). But as always, a last-minute realization lifts the curse.

Ruddigore’s opening night was not received as well as Gilbert and Sullivan’s other shows, but the show was still praised, especially after some alterations were made to the plot (for one, it originally ended with the chorus of ghosts restored to life, which was subsequently changed). Early reviews praised much of the acting, singing, set, and costumes of the original run, as well as the first act. The melodramatic characters and rather jovial ghosts were appreciated by a Victorian public that was at the time very interested in the occult.

 -contributed by Risa Ian de Rege


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