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...
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