Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 529

While Patience was still enjoying a long run at the Savoy Theatre, W. S. Gilbert prepared for his musical collaborator, Arthur Sullivan, the libretto for a new comic opera. Sullivan, as usual, was not wholly satisfied with the preliminary draft of the book, and at his urging Gilbert rewrote the first act. Gilbert had trouble with the title. His last three successful D’Oyly Carte productions had begun with the letter P—Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1879), and Patience (1881)—Gilbert thrashed about for another title beginning with the “lucky” initial. He considered and then rejected “Perola,” “Phyllis,” and “Princess Pearl” before he chose Iolanthe, with the acceptable subtitle The Peer and the Peri. This last matter settled, Gilbert and Sullivan’s “entirely new and original fairy opera” opened at the Savoy on the evening of November 25, 1882, and continued to hold the stage for a year and two months.

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No doubt Gilbert wished to emphasize the “fairy” elements of Iolanthe in order to soften any possible criticism of his spoof upon the House of Lords. In the course of Parliamentary debates in Victorian England, the House of Lords—a privileged and largely hereditary body lacking any democratic representation—was under constant fire as antiquated, unresponsive to the people, and ultraconservative. Almost every one of the era’s reform bills widened the franchise and diminished the powers of the Lords, who eventually lost most of their real authority to the House of Commons. Gilbert, clearly on the side of the liberals, wished to satirize the absurdity of the Peers but not so directly as to excite political controversy. For the framework of his plot, he reworked an old idea from one of his Bab Ballads concerning a hero who is half fairy and half human. Not even a crusty Tory could complain that the adventures of Strephon could possibly insult the dignities of a modern Lord. At the conclusion of Iolanthe , all the Peers marry the fairies, and the doughtiest Lord in Parliament would have to acquiesce in pleasure to Gilbert’s...

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