Critical Evaluation

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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...

(The entire section contains 529 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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.

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 romantic jest.

Behind the jest, Gilbert’s satire applies not only to the House of Lords but also to the notion of a privileged class. The Peers announce their arrival (“Loudly Let the Trumpets Bray”) with the contemptuous salutation: “Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes . . . ye tradesmen, bow ye masses!” The powerful Lord Chancellor, who argues that the law is the “true embodiment of everything that’s excellent,” cynically changes the law to suit himself and ensure that every fairy shall die who does not marry a mortal. In “Spurn Not the Nobly Born,” Lord Tolloller insists that high rank “involves no shame,” so women should never withhold affection from “Blue Bloods.” Finally, Lord Mountararat, in “When Britain Really Ruled the Waves,” looks backward to the good old days of Queen Bess, when the House of Peers “made no pretence to intellectual eminence or scholarship sublime.” By their own merry words, the Peers indict themselves as a class of drones, bores, and fools. Gilbert, not disposed to press the point, permits the Lords to grow wings to fly off to a fairyland blessedly distant from the responsibilities of office.

Illustration of PDF document

Download Iolanthe Study Guide

Subscribe Now