Engaged has been W. S. Gilbert's most popular stage work aside from the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas. A The New York Times' review (dated February 24, 1886) of an 1886 production of Engaged called it an "elaborate burlesque" and noted that "the laughter was almost incessant." Makers wrote: "Engaged [is] unquestionably the finest and funniest English comedy between Bulwer-Lytton's Money and Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, (1895) which it directly inspired". Engaged may also have inspired George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man.
A passage from Engaged, a speech by the character Cheviot Hill, reflects a gilbertian notion of marriage:
Engaged was first produced at the Haymarket Theatre in London on October 3 1877 with success. It starred Marion Terry, George Honey and Lucy Buckstone. American productions beginning in 1879 were also very successful, earning thousands of pounds for Gilbert. A musical version of Engaged by George Rowell and Kenneth Mobbs (adapting music by Sullivan) was produced a number of times in the 1960s and 1970s by professional companies. It continues to be produced by amateur companies and has recently been seen at the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival among other venues.
Angus is adept at placing obstacles on railroad tracks. Whenever a train derails, the passengers must alight and look for refreshment (possibly even overnight accommodations) until repairs can be made. Such provisions are gladly offered by Angus and the Macfarlanes. The two ladies then leave the stage, having heard Angus promise he is eager for the impending arrival of a train whose line he has just blocked.
He does not have to wait long, as two agitated passengers arrive. One is a young lady, Miss Belinda Treherne. With her is Belvawney, a young man who speaks to her in terms of obvious endearment. She is fond of him too, but is presently in great fear that they will soon be overtaken by a certain Major McGillicuddy, who had believed Belinda would marry him that very morning. She has escaped for now, but if he finds her with Belvawney, he will surely shoot the pair of them.
To put an end to Belinda's worries about the Major, Belvawney suddenly asks her to become his wife. They declare undying love for each other. However, she admits to being curious about his "pecuniary position." Belvawney then explains a somewhat strange condition under which he is placed. He has a friend, Cheviot Hill, who is secure financially, but remarkably stingy. Cheviot has a most unfortunate habit of proposing marriage to every young woman he meets. Cheviot's father, recognizing the Belvawney's influence on Cheviot, provides Belvawney with £1000 yearly so long as Cheviot remains single. Should Cheviot die or marry, the money becomes the property of his Uncle Symperson, who coincidentally was traveling with Cheviot on the same train that carried Belinda and Belvawney. Belinda is decidedly displeased with what she perceives as an impermanent financial arrangement, and rejects his marriage proposal.
Belvawney does not give up easily. He recalls something he has heard about Scottish customs: if two people declare their willingness to be wed, then, in Scotland, they are indeed man and wife. Belvawney questions Maggie about what constitutes a Scottish marriage and she confirms his understanding of the simplicity of the process.
The amorous, rich, and attractive Cheviot Hill and his Uncle Symperson come in, both looking disheveled from the train accident. Cheviot, true to his parsimonious nature, bemoans the ruination of his hat and gloves.
Symperson is much more concerned about the £1000 annuity he will receive if Cheviot marries. He suggests his daughter Minnie as an excellent choice for matrimony. To this, his nephew agrees, making Symperson delighted and anxious for a wedding date to be set. Symperson's good fortune will, to be sure, rob Belvawney of his own yearly salary. Cheviot warns his uncle not to tell his friend of the dire change in his future wealth. He also reminds Symperson that Belvawney's eyes exercise a strange, hypnotic power over his own will. Under their influence, Cheviot must carry out whatever schemes Belvawney may concoct. Symperson vows silence, rejoicing at his good fortune.
Left alone, Cheviot contemplates the joys he'll experience when Minnie becomes his wife. Belvawney, who overhears, is naturally dismayed to learn of his friend's approaching marriage. Cheviot declares that even Belvawney's powerful eyes shall no longer control him. His love for Minnie will overcome all obstacles to wed her. He orders Belvawney out.
Maggie comes in, and he cannot resist her. He puts his arm around her waist, steals a kiss, then implores her to become his wife. Maggie refuses, since she is engaged already. Cheviot, in a rage, asks to know the fellow's name, that he may curse him. Angus's arrival makes this unnecessary, for he embraces Maggie tenderly, and they both weep. Cheviot is deeply touched; forgetting to curse Angus, he extols the virtues of his own position, and tries desperately to convince them that marriage to him would bring eternal happiness to Maggie. To prove his sincerity, Cheviot offers money to Angus. After many protestations, the ante is set at £2. Maggie asserts she will never be worth that much to poor Angus, so he, crying openly, hands her over and pockets the coins. They enter the cottage.
Once more alone, Cheviot prides himself on winning such a girl as Maggie, for she is not only pretty, but he feels certain she never be extravagant. As he is singing her praises, Belinda walks by. Fickle as always, Cheviot is drawn to her obvious charms. She is sad, however, and he is curious as to the reason. He even suggests a gift of cash if this would cheer her. When she declines to accept it, he is infatuated by her well-bred modesty. In a gush of emotion, Cheviot proposes to Belinda, but she is already promised to his friend Belvawney. This enrages Cheviot. He vows to cut off Belvawney's annual income by himself marrying Minnie Symperson. Belinda implores him, for her sake, to remain forever single.
Suddenly Belvawney appears, greatly alarmed. Major McGillicuddy has tracked them down and demands a confrontation with his erstwhile bride, Belinda. Cheviot proves master of the situation. Pushing Belvawney aside, he convinces Belinda to put her arms around his neck. The Major, armed with pistols, rushes in, ordering them to separate at once. But he is too late: Belinda and Cheviot declare themselves to be man and wife. Maggie and Angus show up and hear the entire episode. She falls sobbing on his shoulders, the Major sobs uncontrollably, Belvawney tears his hair, and the curtain falls.
The two girls meet and rush into each other's arms, since they have been friends since childhood. Belinda had not known this was to be Minnie's wedding day. She then reviews her own strange encounter with the married state. Fleeing from a man she hated, she met a young, wealthy stranger. On his advice, she declared herself to be his wife. Although she has not seen him since that day, Belinda knows that, according to a quaint Scottish law, they are indeed married. Minnie finds this predicament amusing. Belinda, horrified by it, agrees to go home and dress herself in clothing appropriate to the occasion, shedding the black she has worn ever since her ill- fated "marriage" took place. The girls go out together.
Cheviot enters, dressed for his wedding, pondering upon the step he is about to take. He sees Parker, the maid, and, true to his nature, finds her adorable. Soon his arm is around her waist, although he constantly reminds himself that this is unseemly conduct for a bridegroom-to-be. Fortunately, Minnie interrupts before Cheviot proposes to Parker. The maid leaves, disgusted that she hasn't been given a few coins. Now the young couple discuss the nuptial arrangements and make plans for their life to come. Cheviot's miserliness is proven by his sharp cutting of corners for the bridal cake and his ideas of an ideal marital situation: Minnie shall prepare absurdly simple economical meals and sew all the suits her husband requires. He does, however, tell her that he is hiring servants to look after her father. She believes Cheviot to be the soul of goodness and leaves in a state of bliss. He stays behind, thinking for a moment of the "tall girl" he met in Scotland, but soon talks himself out of this reverie.
Belvawney appears, feeling awful: he is deeply in love with Belinda, but she insists she is already wed, thanks to the custom of Scotland, although she does not know her husband. Cheviot tries to console his friend. Suddenly, Belvawney realizes there is one possible solution: if the cottage where the vows were spoken is in England, no marriage exists. If it is in Scotland, they are man and wife. He has decided to write to the owner of the house to ascertain the truth. Both young men declare the situation immoral. In the heat of their anguish, Cheviot confesses this is to be his wedding day. Belvawney is near panic at this disclosure, as it means loss of his yearly stipend. To ruin Cheviot's pleasure, Belvawney denounces him, saying there will be no wedding because Cheviot is already a married man. On bended knee, Cheviot begs Belvawney not to spoil the nuptials, especially since money has already been spent.
Now Belvawney decides to play his trump card: he fixes Cheviot in the glare of his magnetic eyes. Laughing fiendishly, he says that he can prove Cheviot's marriage to Belinda because he is the only witness left. Declaring that the cottage has since been torn down and its occupants have left the country, Belvawney exits in triumph. Poor Cheviot is desolate until he realizes that his bride has been missing for months, the cottage has been pulled down, and those who lived there are far away. Belvawney, therefore, isn't capable of proving anything. Cheviot makes up his mind to proceed with his marriage to Minnie.
Angus and the Macfarlanes appear. They are the rustics hired by Cheviot to serve Symperson. Although they don't recognize Cheviot, he knows immediately who they are and asks them to go away. Suddenly Maggie remembers: this is the man who asked for her hand and gave Angus money to relinquish her. Desperate again, Cheviot confides to them his weakness: he always proposes marriage to every pretty girl he meets. As they grope to understand this predicament, Minnie and her father come in. Cheviot covers his chagrin by pretending Mrs. Macfarlane is a washerwoman who has presented him with an exorbitant bill. Maggie, however, becomes hysterical and tells the truth to the Sympersons: Cheviot proposed to her three months ago. She further asserts that she witnessed his marriage to yet a different beautiful lady at that time. Minnie and her father are confused and enraged, even though Cheviot hotly denies having wed a woman whose name he doesn't even know.
Symperson, fearing the loss of his promised stipend, demands an explanation, but Cheviot cannot give him one. Belvawney enters, assuring the assembled company that he was present when Cheviot and a certain lady declared themselves to be man and wife several months earlier on the border of England and Scotland. Symperson accepts this, telling his daughter to find herself another husband, and Belvawney to find some other source of income. Not to be so easily dismissed, Belvawney reveals the puzzling fact that no one can be sure exactly where the cottage stood.
Cheviot's mysterious bride is still missing until Belinda enters, now dressed prettily for Minnie's wedding. Belinda and Cheviot recognize each other, and rush into a rapturous embrace. Belvawney staggers back, Minnie faints, Maggie sobs, and the curtain falls.
Belvawney suggests that whichever girl loses Cheviot shall, if she agrees, marry him instead. He then goes out, Cheviot enters; the ladies are bursting with questions. Alas, he cannot resolve the puzzle, for those who own the cottage have left the country and are on their way to Central Africa. Belinda and Minnie are inconsolable. Cheviot advises patience; until further information can be received, he is engaged to them both and will divide his affection equally. He is jealous when he learns how little they missed him during his absence, thanks to Belvawney's charms. In the ensuing discussion, the girls remind Cheviot that Maggie is also involved in this mess. He would, of course, gladly marry all three of them if the law would allow it.
Symperson then enters with two letters. One is from the cottage's owner, written before he went to Africa. Ripping it open, he reads that the cottage is "certainly in England". Belinda faints, realizing she has lost Cheviot. Symperson then reads the other letter: it is from Belvawney. According to him, the Indestructible Bank has stopped payment on Cheviot's shares and they are worthless. When she hears this, Minnie voices her decision to leave Cheviot and flounces away. Her father is indeed crestfallen. Now he won't get his annual stipend, and he bemoans the horrid materialism of the human race.
Cheviot comes in, more unhappy than before. None of his three darlings can ever become his own. He commiserates with his uncle. They both feel that the only way out is for Cheviot to end his life. Symperson shakes his nephew's hand, believing him ready to die, and goes out. Left alone, Cheviot thinks of Belinda: could she ever possibly love him for himself alone? He resolves to find out once and for all. Belvawney arrives and tells Cheviot that he's too late: Belinda has already given her hand and her heart to himself. This is the last straw for poor Cheviot who draws a pistol from his pocket to end his misery.
Belvawney, greatly upset, offers to surrender Belinda if Cheviot will reconsider. He then confesses he wrote the bank statement himself to gain her love. Cheviot's anger subsides when he believes he will have both money and the girl he adores. Symperson enters, attired in black: he has come to see Cheviot die. When he discovers the young man's change of heart, he gleefully declares he has just seen Belvawney and Belinda leaving together in a cab, affectionately entwined. Cheviot is duped again. He vows revenge and swears he will marry anyone. Why not Minnie? Overjoyed, Symperson goes to find his daughter. She shows up and Cheviot proposes. But when he becomes aware of her mercenary attitude toward his wealth, he renounces her. In desperation, he sends for Maggie Macfarlane.
When she arrives, accompanied by her mother and Angus, Cheviot offers marriage to Maggie. She sobs bitterly: she has just filed an action against him for breach of promise. It is already in the hands of her solicitor. Cheviot feels cursed. Mrs. Macfarlane even suggests he might marry her, but he draws the line at this, depressed though he is.
Belinda and Belvawney return, followed by Minnie and Symperson. Cheviot's fears are well-grounded, for Belinda and Belvawney are now married. Once again, Cheviot draws his gun, but before he can end his life, Symperson decides to reread the letter concerning the property's location. He sees that the owner has instructed that the page be turned over. Lo and behold, although the cottage is in England, the garden is in Scotland—and Cheviot married Belinda in the garden. An ecstatic Cheviot embraces an equally euphoric Belinda; Belvawney turns to Minnie for comfort, Angus gives solace to Maggie, and Mrs. Macfarlane reposes on the bosom of Symperson.