Trial by Jury

by W. S. Gilbert

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1142

First produced: 1875

First published: 1875

Type of work: Comic opera

Type of plot: Humorous romance

Time of work: Nineteenth century

Locale: England

Principal Characters:

The Learned Judge

Angelina, the plaintiff

Edwin, the defendant

Counsel For The Plaintiff

Foreman Of The Jury

First Bridesmaid


A gentle satire on the due processes of law, TRIAL BY JURY is a short and delightful play by the Gilbert half of the famous team of Gilbert and Sullivan. It was the second operetta on which these two talented men collaborated, the forerunner of many more well-known and well-loved musicals. It is the only Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera without spoken dialogue.

The Story:

The court was assembled, waiting for the learned Judge, the plaintiff, and the defendant. The jurymen were warned that they must set aside all prejudice and view the case in a judicial state of mind. The usher, who warned them to be fair, went into raptures over the beauty and the heartbreak of the plaintiff, ending each bit of praise, however, with the reminder to be free of bias.

When Edwin, the defendant, entered, the jurymen chanted to him to beware their fury. The defendant thought this a very strange proceeding and begged them to hear his story. The jury, after consultation, agreed that they should hear his plea. Then the defendant told how his heart had leaped with joy when he first knew his old love. He had laid his heart and his riches at her feet. He had moped and sighed just like a lovesick boy. But then the joy had turned to boredom. The flame of love had burned out, and so one morning he had awakened to be another's lovesick boy.

The jurymen then confessed that when they were young lads they had behaved in much the same fashion and acted as regular cads. Now that they were respectable men, they had not a scrap of sympathy for the defendant.

The learned Judge entered, but before he would hear the case he felt obliged to tell the court how he had become judge. When he was first called to the bar, he was, like most barristers, an impecunious lad, and he had almost despaired of ever trying a case before an English jury. Tiring at last of this third-class living, he had married a rich attorney's old and ugly daughter. The rich attorney had rewarded him for his sacrifice, after assuring him that he would soon grow used to his bride's looks. Cases then came fast to the young attorney and he restored many thieves and burglars to freedom. At last he became rich enough to throw over his elderly, ugly bride. Now he was a judge, and a good judge too, ready to hear this case of breach of promise.

The jurymen, sworn in, promised to weigh the case carefully. Angelina, the plaintiff, was then called in, preceded by her bridesmaids. The Judge took an immediate fancy to the first bridesmaid and sent her a note, which she kissed and placed in her bosom. But when the plaintiff entered, the learned Judge, transferring his affection to Angelina, had the note taken from the first bridesmaid and given to the plaintiff. She too kissed it and placed it in her bosom as the Judge and the jurymen took turns praising the plaintiff.

The plaintiff stated her case. She had been basely deceived by the defendant, who had wooed her without ceasing. When she had tried to name a day for their wedding, however, he had framed excuses and at last deserted her. His act...

(This entire section contains 1142 words.)

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was doubly criminal because she had already bought her trousseau. The plaintiff reeled, and the foreman of the jury and the Judge vied with each other to support her. At last Angelina fell sobbing on the Judge's chest. The jurymen shook their fists at the defendant and warned him again to dread their fury.

Edwin, although admitting that he had trifled with the lady, held himself blameless. No one should be censured for changing appetites. To atone, however, he would marry this lady today, his other love tomorrow. The Judge thought that a reasonable proposition, but the Counsel submitted that such a deed would be Burglaree. The Judge considered this a fine dilemma, calling for all their wits.

The plaintiff went to the defendant and embraced him, vowing that she loved him with unceasing fervor. She reminded the jury to remember her great loss when they assessed the damages the defendant must pay. The defendant then extolled his vices, stating that she could not abide him for a day. They should remember that when they assessed the damages.

The Judge, tossing aside his books and papers, said that he could not stay there all day. He would marry the lady himself. As he embraced her the others agreed that he was indeed a good judge—of beauty.

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.