Further Critical Evaluation of the Work
TRIAL BY JURY was the first successful collaboration by the team of playwright W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan. An earlier collaboration, THESPIS, had been a total failure. Gilbert wrote this text for another occasion, but was persuaded to offer it to Sullivan by Richard D’Oyly Carte, a theater manager who later became virtually the third member of the team, producing almost all their works. The D’Oyly Carte company today is still the foremost producer of Gilbert and Sullivan opera. Though Gilbert was an established writer, Sullivan was the more famous, and the work was first advertised as a “dramatic cantata” by Arthur Sullivan. In fact, it is Gilbert’s most independent contribution among their team efforts, and it is a model of compact and economical literary structure. In performance it lasts only forty minutes.
The setting of the play was the contemporary world of the audience, and the ingredients of the plot are all realistic: judge, jury, plaintiff, and defendant. Gilbert had himself served as a barrister in his early years. Yet the play develops an utterly absurd world, with its own bizarre logic, a humorous situation only heightened by its juxtaposition to the normal setting. It is a comedy that ranges from puns and facetious exaggeration to serious satire, all of which is presented in a text that sparkles with wit, while retaining absolute clarity of expression, necessary if the text is to be understood when sung. The play is full of what later became typical Gilbert and Sullivan types: the judge who sings a patter-song describing his rise to high position in spite of utter incompetence, the maiden who lyrically laments her misfortune, and the chorus, which avidly follows the action, commenting and taking part in the madness. A good part of the fun is created by Sullivan’s score, combining lovely ballads and spritely songs with grand parodies of the more serious musical styles of Italian opera then in vogue.