or "The Peer and the Peri"

Potted Plot | History | First Night Critics | Did You Know? | Behind the Scenes | Original Cast

Picture of first night programme

First performed at the Savoy Theatre, London on the 25th Nov 1882

An Arcadian scene.

A bunch of fairies discuss that it is 25 years since Iolanthe, "the life and soul of Fairyland", was banished by the Fairy Queen for having committed the sin of marrying a mortal.

Iolanthe is pardoned and after she rises from the stream where she has been working out her sentence of penal servitude she tells that she has a son, Strephon, a half fairy, who is in love with Phyllis, a ward in Chancery.

All the lords, including the Lord Chancellor himself, are in love with Phyllis. She tells them that she is betrothed to Strephon. The peers are horrified.

In talking to his young Mother, Strephon is spotted by Phyllis and the lords. Because Iolanthe is so young looking Phyllis thinks he his having an affair and vows to now marry one of the peers.

The Fairy Queen intercedes. She tells everyone that Iolanthe is his Mother and threatens to make Strephon a member of Parliament.

"In the Parliamentary hive,
Liberal or Conservative -
Whig or Tory - I don't know -
But into Parliament you shall go!"

Act 2 is set at the Palace Yard, Westminster.

The fairies are entertained and the Peers are discomforted by Strephon's Parliamentary activities. However, secretly the fairies seem to be rather attracted to the robed Peers but they are upbraided by the Fairy Queen who thinks it's weakness on their part - although she confessors to being decidedly impressed by the sentry on duty, Private Willis.

Strephon and Phyllis are in low spirits until he explains that the reason for his mother's youth is that she is a fairy and that he himself is a fairy down to the waist. They decide that they must marry without delay.

Iolanthe gives them both her blessing and reveals that the Lord Chancellor is her husband and Strephon's father.

To bring the Operetta to a satisfactory conclusion and to stop the entire cast from dying on the spot the Lord Chancellor suggests they change the law slightly with the addition of a single word: "Every fairy shall die who doesn't marry a mortal."

Wings sprout from all the shoulders of all the Peers and off they go to fairyland.

Click here for a complete libretto to Iolanthe

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Gilbert and Sullivan were now very very rich. Each enjoyed a salary of over £10,000 a year, or twice as much as the Prime Minister, Mr Gladstone.

Sullivan spent freely om entertaining, race-horses, the casino, travel. Gilbert was overseeing the building of a large mansion in Kensington, equipped with such amenities as central heating and four bathrooms.

Patience Theatre Poster

Whilst Sullivan was travelling the world Gilbert was at his desk struggling with the libretto that was to bring fairyland to Westminster.

They intended to have the new opera ready by November, 1882. As usual the music was late. Sullivan had composed very little of Act 1 when Gilbert put Act 2 into rehearsal at the end of September.

Thanks to Gilbert's strict preparedness with rehearsals, when Patience ended its long run on November 22nd Iolanthe was ready to open only three nights later.

Sullivan left the music so late that he had to write to Alfred Cellier in America and ask him to compose an overture for the American production. Sullivan's overture for the London production was ready just three days before the first performance.

To help fight against pirated productions in the U.S.A. they rehearsed the new opera under a false name - 'Perola' - which appeared in the printed libretti used at rehearsals. At the final dress rehearsal Sullivan asked the cast to change the name Perola to Iolanthe throughout. The cast were concerned - what if they forgot the name? Sullivan told them to use any name they wished. "Nobody in the audience will be any the wiser, except Mr. Gilbert - and he won't be there."

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First night critics



"The procession of the Peers 'gloriously clad', in their robes and coronets, as Knights of the Garter, of the Thistle, and of St. Patrick, and K.C.B.'s."


"Nothing could be better of its kind than the pompous blustering mock-heroic march that ushers in the procession...The state costumes of Messrs. Ede & Son, court robe-makers to Her Majesty, are alone worth a visit to see. "


"The Second Act opens with a most beautiful and remarkable scene of Palace Yard, Westminster. There was great applause at the rising of the curtain, as the scene realised the actual spot with a fidelity rare even in these realistic days."


"The self-lighting fairies with electricity stored somewhere about the smalls of their backs (are) the last thing in Savoy innovations. (In the second act) the Fairy Queen and her three chief attendants wear each an electric star in their hair. The effect of this brilliant spark of electricity is wonderful."


"Mr. George Grossmith as the Lord Chancellor, brings all his comic talent and skill to bear upon one of the drollest impersonations imaginable. Mr. Rutland Barrington and Mr. Durward Lely acquitted themselves well."


"Miss Jessie Bond, as Iolanthe, may...be credited with all the grace, delicacy, and fascination we should expect from a fairy mother, and her singing of the really exquisite melody in the last scene was one of the most successful items in the entire opera."

Daily Telegraph

"The composer has risen to his opportunity and we are disposed to account Iolanthe his best effort in all the Gilbertian series."

Bell's Life

"It seems to me that (Gilbert) starts primarily with the object of bringing Truth and Friendship into contempt as we are taught the devil does...I have much pleasure in bidding adieu to Mr. Gilbert's unwholesome feeling and in calling the attention of my readers to an interesting exhibition of pictures of Venice now on view at the rooms of the Fine Arts Society, New Bond Street."

Click here to check out the reviews for the first Australian production.

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Did you know?

Gilbert told the male chorus that he wanted the peers clean-shaven. For the good of the play they must sacrifice the luxuriant moustaches in which they took considerable manly pride. Their first response was blunt refusal, but Gilbert demanded and persuaded until almost all gave way. Only one held fast to his principles and whiskers, with the inevitable result. 'In this case,' George Grossmith recalled, 'the moustache stayed on, but he did not'.

London, had recently, been witness to the first production there of Wagner's Ring cycle. (Sullivan had attended a performance of Götterdämmerung and got a splitting headache!) Gilbert seized on the topicality of these performances to make the Queen of the Fairies into a caricature of Brünnhilde with breastplate, winged helmet, and spear.

In the second Act of Iolanthe sky-borders were discarded for the first time on any stage either in London or the Continent. Sky-borders are flat lengths of painted cloths which are stretched overhead across the stage, from left to right, forming the upper frame-work of the set. Often from over use these are, sometimes, frayed and yellow with age. To the gallery the removal of these create a vast visual improvement.

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Behind the scenes

In the morning of the opening performance of Iolanthe Sullivan received some devastating news.
When the composer mounted the rostrum to the cheers of the audience little did they realise that Sullivan was almost penniless.
His brokers had gone bankrupt. Most of his savings were lost. Close on £7,000.
He gave no sign of the disaster throughout the evening and he and Gilbert were cheered at the end of the performance.
When he got home that night he wrote in his diary that he felt 'very low'.

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