Potted History

"Take all the remarkable people in history, Rattle them off to a popular tune."


1875 - 1879

1875: Richard D'Oyly Carte, manager of the Royalty Theatre in Soho, wanting a short one acter to fill out an evening's entertainment invites the pair to collaborate. The result is Trial by Jury. This opens on March 25th.

Trial by Jury Dances

1875: A volume of Gilbert's plays are published which includes the text of Trial By Jury.

1875: Gilbert's comedy Tom Cobb, or Fortune's Toy opens, for a successful run, at the St. James's Theatre on April 24th.

For a complete transcript of this play click here

1875: Sullivan's comic opera The Zoo is first performed at the St. James's Theatre on June 5th. This ran for 18 days on the same bill as Gilbert's Tom Cobb before transfering to the Theatre Royal, Haymarket.

London's Zoo

1875: Gilbert's Eyes and No Eyes opens at St. George's Hall on July 5th. This is the last of six plays written for the German Reed Company and for Arthur Cecil, a tenor who plays comic roles with considerable flair.

1875: Gilbert's blank verse drama Broken Hearts opens at the Court theatre on December 9th. It runs for 89 nights.

1876: Sullivan is awarded the honorary Mus. Doc. by Trinity College, Cambridge.

1876: Gilbert's comic-opera Princess Toto opens in Nottingham on June 24th. The music is by Frederic Clay.

Kate Santley as Princess Toto

1876: Carte's operetta Happy Hampstead opens in Liverpool on August 2nd.

1876: Gilbert's drama Dan'l Druce, Blacksmith opens on September 11th.

Herman Vezin in the title role Geoffrey Wyngard as Forbes Robertson

1876: Gilbert writes the comedy Engaged. It opens on October 3rd and runs for 105 performances.

Historic Note:
Throughout this play, all the characters say openly what would ordinarily be hidden and admit what, in Victorian society, would be inadmissable. This particularly Gilbertian technique had begun in The Palace of Truth.

1877: Sullivan's brother, Frederic, dies of pneumonia. Fred was playing the Judge in Trial by Jury. The opera ends after 123 performances.

Fred Sullivan

1877: Sullivan writes The Lost Chord and does not write a single note of music for several months.

1877: Gilbert's farcical comedy On Bail opens on February 3rd at the Criterion Theatre.

1877: Sullivan writes incidental music to Henry VIII for the Theatre Royal, Manchester. This opens on August 29th.

Historic Note:
Thomas Edison, while experimenting in his laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, accidentally discovers the recording properties of a strip of tinfoil when passed beneath a stylus. He contructs the first cylinder phonograph and applies for a patent.

from 100 Years of EMI. A Gramophone publication.

1877: Gilbert's Three-act farcical comedy Engaged opens on Oct 3rd at the Haymarket Theatre.

1877: Gilbert and Sullivan's The Sorcerer opens at the Opéra Comique on November 17th. It runs 175 performances.

The Sorcerer

Check out original costumes from this production.

Historic Note:
A non professional was offered a role in The Sorcerer. He was George Grossmith. Grossmith had appeared in working men's institutes, the YMCA, and other organisations. 'I should have thought you required a fine man with a fine voice,' the nervous Grossmith said. 'No, that is just what we don't want,' answered Gilbert.

1878: Gilbert joins Robert Reece, F. C. Burnand and Lord Byron, in writing a pantomime-burlesque, The Forty Thieves. He appears, himself, in the role of Harlequin and trips and leaps around the stage - no mean feat for a man of 6 feet. The work is performed at the Gaiety on February 13th and earns £700 for the Royal Theatrical Fund.

Historic Note:
The pantomine was given twice more, at Brighton on March 9th and again at the Gaiety on April 10th to benefit the wives and children of the seamen killed in the sinking of the H.M.S. Eurydice.

1878: Gilbert's The Ne'er-Do-Weel opens on February 25th at the Olympic Theatre. It has a disasterous run of less than a week.

Historic Note:
With its title changed to The Vagabond, the revised play was back on stage on March 25th. The first performance went magnificently but that was only because Gilbert had planted friends in the stalls and a lot of the house was 'papered' with free seats. Although receiving favourable reviews the play still did not have much of a run.

1878: Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore opens on May 25th. In runs for 700 performances.

HMS Pinafore Poster

Check out original costumes from this production.

1878: H.M.S. Pinafore receives its first performance in America. The more-or-less faithful to the original production opens at the Boston Museum on November 25th.

1879: Gilbert's Four-act verse tragedy Gretchen is produced on March 24th at the Olympic Theatre, London. It has a very short run.

1879: H.M.S. Pinafore reaches Australia. The first unauthorized production opens at the School of Arts, Sydney, on the 3rd of May. This is presented by the Kelly and Leon Minstrel Troupe.

1879: Sullivan is awarded an honorary D. Mus. by Oxford University.

1879: On November 5th Gilbert and Sullivan land in the U.S.A. Eight unauthorized productions of Pinafore were running in New York. Their plan was to produce an authorized H.M.S. Pinafore.

1879: The definitive production of H.M.S. Pinafore opens at the Theatre Royal, Sydney, on November 15th. (read review)

1879: The children's production of Pinafore opens at the matinee performance on December 16th. The revised vocal and orchestral arrangements were by François Cellier.

Letter of interest:
"It occurs when the captain utters the oath 'Dammn me!' and forthwith a bevy of sweet innocent-looking girls sing, with bright and happy looks, the chorus 'He said, Damn me! He said, Damn me!' I cannot find words to convey to the reader the pain I felt in seeing these dear children taught to utter such words to amuse ears grown callous to their ghastly meaning. Put the two ideas side by side - Hell (no matter whether you believe in it or not; millions do) and those pure young lips thus sporting with its horrors - and then find what fun in it you can! How Mr Gilbert could have stooped to write, or Arthur Sullivan could have prostituted his noble art set to music, such vile trash, it passes my skill to understand."
Lewis Carroll

1879: On December 30th the copyrighting performance of The Pirates of Penzance is performed at Paignton,in South Devon. The cast included Mr. F. Federici, as the Pirate King. Federici went on to great fame in Australia. He died, sadly, during a production of Faust. Also in the cast was Fred Billington as the Police Sergeant. Fred played in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas for thirty five years.

Historic Note:
Fred Billington was a great singer and comedian. He only appeared at the Savoy Theatre intermittently as he spent much of his time with the D'Oyly Carte touring companies. He had a potly frame, a dry sense of humour and perfect diction.

Fred Billington


1879: The Pirates of Penzance opens in New York on December 31st.

Pirates programme. Click here to see larger image
Pirates Quadrille

On to the next Decade To the Operas