By Richard H. Trame, S.J., Ph.D.
Loyola Marymount University
Before the Parliament Act of 1911 practically stripped it of its legislative functions, the British House of Lords possessed a law-making capacity similar to that of the United States Senate. The House of Lords could initiate and debate legislation, and signed all approved bills into law.
At the time Iolanthe was composed and produced in 1882, Prime Minister William Gladstone, leader of the Liberal Party, had been exercising his second ministry for two years. British imperial policy and several areas of legislation between 1880 and 1885, most specifically, proposed Home Rule for Ireland and measures which led up to further Parliamentary reforms, created a substantial amount of political turmoil and engendered widespread popular resentment against the Lords. The political agitation built to a climax when Gladstone eventually intimated to Queen Victoria that unless she intervened in securing passage of the Reform Acts, the legislative existence of the House of Lords was clearly in jeopardy.
This contemporary situation offered William Gilbert ample leeway in the elaboration of his libretto for Iolanthe to poke some good natured, but mordant, fun at the pompous Peers and at the Parliamentary rivalry of the contending Liberal and Conservative Parties. Some of the particularly caustic ditties presented in the initial performance of the operetta on November 25, 1882 were subsequently excised from the score when they were determined to be exceedingly irreverent, aimed as they were directly at the dignity of Parliament and its members.
It is questionable, however, whether Isaac Goldberg's judgment in his Story of Gilbert and Sullivan fully reflected initial attitudes to Gilbert's satires: "There was reason among his contemporaries for finding Mr. Gilbert in Iolanthe somewhat too mortal below the waist ... This man could not be funny without hurting."
On the other hand, Gilbert's collaborator and musical director at the Savoy Theater, Francois Cellier in his published memoirs (Gilbert and Sullivan and their Operas, 1914) seems to belie Goldberg's view, at least respecting the premier reaction to Iolanthe:
"All the familiar features of a Gilbert and Sullivan premiere were in evidence, only more so than ever. The house, packed with an enormous audience, comprised a mixed assortment of patricians and plebeians. Every shade of politics was represented, but, unlike the assemblies in the greater playhouse in Westminster, here there was no spirit on controversy. Every act was passed without a division. M.P.'s - Unionist and Radical, Home Ruler and Socialist - alike hailed the appearance of the composer with greater and more spontaneous rapture than any with which they greeted a distinguished Front-bench orator. Sullivan's music soothed the angry breasts of politicians. Once again a greedy appetite for Gilbert's "words" was proved by the frou-frou swish of book-leaves turned over. Every pungent point of satire and ridicule was the signal for a volley of laughter. Every song was redemanded, everybody who had done anything to help the play was called before the curtain, and, in short, Gilbert and Sullivan had again captured the town."
On May 3, 1883, Gladstone informed Sullivan that Queen Victoria would bestow on him the honor of knighthood "in recognition of your distinguished talents as a composer and of the services which you have rendered to the promotion of the art of music generally in this country." Apparently, however, the Queen had not fully shared Gladstone's views of the operetta when he had expressed his thanks to Sullivan on December 6, 1882 for the privilege of witnessing so early-on Iolanthe. "Nothing," he wrote, "could be happier than the manner in which the comic strain of the piece was blended with its harmonies of sight and sound, so good in taste and so admirable in execution from beginning to end." William Gilbert had to wait until 1907 when King Edward VII conferred on him the knighthood.
In the sequence of the thirteen renowned operettas, Iolanthe falls after HMS Pinafore, Pirates of Penzance, and Patience and before Princess Ida and The Mikado. It retains its high rank among these creations. Iolanthe was the first of the operettas to be initially produced in D'Oyly Carte's new Savoy Theater, the first playhouse ever to be lighted electrically throughout. Furthermore, Cellier informs us, "for the first time on any stage electric lamps were adopted as ornaments by the actors. And so when the classically draped Peris tripped onto the stage, each irradiated a fairy-star in her hair and another at the point of her wand . . . " Iolanthe's innovative special effects did not stop there. It was the first operetta which eliminated skyborders, the permanent horizontal upper borders that framed the stage scenery, thus affording those in the rear of the auditorium or in the balcony an unobstructed view of the painted image of Big Ben atop Westminster's Victoria Tower in Act II.
Iolanthe was premiered simultaneously in London and New York. D'Oyly Carte utilized this stratagem to forestall the widespread American pirating of the operetta which had taken place at the time HMS Pinafore was produced.
Iolanthe and the Yeomen of the Guard are further distinguished for having overtures accepted as Sullivan's own that are fully worthy independent compositions in their own right. The overture in Iolanthe bears a striking resemblance to that of the opera Oberon, indicating a strong influence from Weber and Mendelssohn. Even though Punch noted that Iolanthe came "not within a mile of Pinafore or a patch of Patience,” the newspaper reviews as Cellier reports "were all but unanimous in profuse praise of the new opera." The sour notes in this chorus of praise, wrote Cellier, were some bumbleheaded observations by a music critic for a "leading sporting periodical!"
A man of such vast experience as famed American critic Deems Taylor asserted in 1941 in A Treasury of Gilbert and Sullivan: "The score seems to me one of the most spontaneous that Sullivan ever wrote, harmonically much more colorful than most of them and offering more rhythmic variety . .. Gilbert too is at his best in Iolanthe … Nowhere in the entire Savoy repertoire are Gilbert's lyrics defter in rhyme or more captivating in meter. "
Iolanthe, a fairy, transgresses the fairy realm's law by marrying a mortal. The Queen of the Fairies has generously commuted the required death penalty to penal servitude. The operetta opens with Iolanthe standing on her head in the middle of an Arcadian stream, a fitting position for one who has upturned the law. Fairy laments finally persuade the Queen to pardon Iolanthe provided she never again communicate with her mortal husband.
The progeny of this whimsical union is a son, Strephon, fairy from the waist up, mortal from the waist down. Such a condition aggravatingly inhibits Strephon from many of the normal activities of fairies who are uninhibited by restrictions of space and time. Where the torso would go, the waist and legs will not.
Strephon has fallen in love with Phyllis, an Arcadian shepherdess, fully mortal indeed. Upon seeing her twenty-four year-old lover in innocent converse with his seventeen year-old immortal mother, she draws the inevitable conclusion. The paradox of a mother's and son's ages confounds the two Peers, Earl Tolloller and the Earl of Mountararat, rivals with Strephon for Phyllis' affections. Mountararat arrives at the absurd but seemingly obvious conclusion that Iolanthe was minus eight years old at Strephon's birth. Fitting thinking for a Peer!
In her pique Phyllis becomes engaged indiscriminately to both worthies. Strephon then threatens to revenge himself on these Peers by calling upon promised aid by the Queen of the Fairies. He proposes to secure a seat in Parliament where, with his preternatural powers, he can secure passage of any bill however fanciful, especially one opening up conferral of peerage through competitive examination!
The Lord Chancellor, exercising his legal acumen, strives to work the law to favor his own suit for Phyllis' affections. He finally learns from Iolanthe that he is Strephon's father. Phyllis, accepting Iolanthe's true nature, now accepts Strephon.
Since all of the fairies have in turn fallen in love with mortal Peers, and the Queen herself is involved with the philosophically-oriented sentry Private Willis of the Grenadier Guards, the death penalty threatening all of them requires urgent emendation. The Lord Chancellor neatly alters fairy law by the deft insertion of the simple negative. Not to marry a mortal incurs the death penalty. All mortals so involved happily sprout wings and fly off to Fairyland.