The Happy Land is a play with music written in 1873 by W. S. Gilbert (under the pseudonym F. Latour Tomline) and Gilbert Arthur à Beckett. The musical play burlesques Gilbert's earlier play, The Wicked World. The blank verse piece opened at the Royal Court Theatre on 3 March 1873 and ran for an extremely successful 222 performances.
The play created a scandal by breaking regulations against the portrayal of public characters, parodying William Gladstone, Robert Lowe, and Acton Smee Ayrton, respectively the Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and First Commissioner of Works. Three characters were made up to look like the caricatures of Gladstone, Lowe and Ayrton that had appeared in ‘‘Vanity Fair’’. The characters were described in the cast list as Mr. G., Mr. L., and Mr. A. The scandal was great enough to be included in the Annual Register's "Chronicle of Remarkable Occurrences."
The Happy Land also anticipated some of the themes in the political satire seen in the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, including unqualified people in positions of authority, like Sir Joseph in H.M.S. Pinafore, selecting government by "competitive examination" as in Iolanthe, and especially the importation of English exemplars to "improve" a naive civilisation, as in Utopia, Limited.
As I consider that I am quite as well qualified to judge of what is fit for the ears of a theatrical audience as [the Licencer of Plays] can be, I have systematically declined to take the slightest notice of his instructions| | |W.S. Gilbert in The Era, 1872.
As in The Wicked World, the play concerns chaos that is wreaked in Fairyland when an element of life in the mortal world is imported. In The Wicked World, this element is “mortal love”, while in The Happy Land, it is “popular government,” which is delivered to Fairyland by Gladstone, Lowe and Ayrton. Gladstone's government is portrayed as mean and uncaring of Britain’s national interests, degrading British prestige abroad. The three men are seen to lack substance and taste. The daring political attack was almost unprecedented on the English stage. The opening night response was described by Edward Righton, who played "Mr. A.":
Edward, Prince of Wales, attended the play on opening night. Appalled at this attack on the government of which his mother the Queen was the (at least titular) head, he notified the Lord Chamberlain about the nature of the play. The Lord Chamberlain revoked the play's performance license on March 6th, while a public inquiry was made. This found that "the piece licensed and the piece acted were virtually different productions, unwarrantable alterations and enlargements having been introduced at the rehearsals, which the Lord Chamberlain would never have authorised."
Comparing the license copy, which he had approved, with the prompt copy, which was performed, the Lord Chamberlain claimed in a "Memorandum" that "in the prompter's copy there were eighteen quarto pages of additions, interpolations, and deviations from the original licensed text; and that in the original [manuscript] there was no indication whatsoever to point the allusions to individuals.... The manager expressed regret at what had occurred, and begged that the piece might be allowed to be performed as originally licensed, promising to adhere verbatim to the text, and to avoid anything which should convert the general allusions into personalities" include the make up of the actors. The theatre was only dark for two or three nights before the play was allowed to reopen. However, Miss Litton, the manageress, claimed that the eighteen pages were merely the number that contained a modification of some sort, and that she believed it was acceptable as it was being done elsewhere. She also published the script as it was originally performed - with the cut sections written in all capital letters, and posted a notice that read:
Meanwhile, Gilbert was having some trouble keeping up the pseudonym. Shirley Brooks may have thought F. Tomline was Henry Labouchère but others were beginning to link him with Gilbert. Worse, Gilbert's friend and collaborator Frederic Clay began vigorously defending him against the absolutely true allegations, forcing Gilbert to quietly take him into his confidence.
The scandal generated widespread publicity for the play, and, even without the makeup, everyone knew who was really being portrayed. It became one of the big hits of the season and enjoyed a lengthy provincial tour thereafter. However, for the Lord Chamberlain, it was a fiasco: questions about why only the stage should be subject to censorship began to be asked, one parliamentarian, Sir Lawrence Palk, MP for East Devon threatened to bring it up in the House of Commons, and some suggested that the Lord Chamberlain was demonstrating political bias in his censorship of the play.
It proved such a fiasco for the Lord Chamberlain that when Gilbert returned later that year with The Realm of Joy, set in the lobby of a theatre performing The Happy Land, rehashing aspects of the scandal, and even going so far to attack the Lord Chamberlain himself, referring to him as "The Lord High Disinfectant", he had no choice but to order it to be licensed, with only the "usual changes", much to the Licenser's shock and indignation.
The three mortal statesmen arrive - Mr. G., Mr. L. and Mr. A - declaring, "Oh, we are three most popular men! We want to know who'll turn us out!" At first, Fairyland is not to their liking, as it is decorated with "ridiculous extravagance", but they change their minds as soon as they find themselves surrounded by the female fairies. At the fairies' request, they explain how "popular government" works. The fairies decide to introduce popular government into Fairyland. The fairies are divided into Government and Opposition, and the members of the Opposition are sent away grumbling. Then, ministerial posts are allocated after a competitive examination in which those who show that they are the least fitted for the particular duties are appointed to fill them. For example, the fairy who asks what a ship may be is appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. All the fairies want to be Prime Minister, but, following precedent, Selene is so appointed. Act II The fairies' experiment in "popular government" is a disaster. Penny-pinching and shabbiness rule the state, the military is in disarray, and the Chinese may soon invade. Leila and the other Opposition fairies revolt, and all the Government ministers resign. Selene appeals to Mr. A., who suggests that "patriotism is the ladder by which the rising statesman ascends to the pinnacle of place," and "place is the pinnacle seated upon which the risen statesman kicks away the ladder of patriotism." Selene replies, "Sisters, I've done with office, give me a peerage and let me end my days in respectability and peace." Mr. G. advises that even in this situation, she should not consider resigning or apologising; but Selene ultimately rejects this, although she has feelings for Mr. G.
The three mortal honourables return to earth, and soon the three male fairies return with news from the Fairy King: they may enjoy the privilege of "popular government." Selene rejects this with horror. The fairies will "Leave such blessings to a happy land."
Gilbert followed The Happy Land with The Realm of Joy, set in the lobby of a theatre performing a thinly-disguised The Happy Land, which directly parodies the scandal, even describing the costumes used. In The Happy Land, The Realm of Joy (1873) and Charity (1874), Gilbert stretched the boundaries of how far social commentary could go in the Victorian theatre. The Realm of Joy poked many jokes at the Lord Chamberlain. Charity critiqued of the contrasting ways in which Victorian society treated men and women who had sex outside of marriage, which anticipated the 'problem plays' of Shaw and Ibsen.
Several of W. S. Gilbert's other early plays were also staged at the Royal Court Theatre, including Randall's Thumb, Creatures of Impulse (with music by Alberto Randegger), Great Expectations (adapted from the Dickens novel), and On Guard (all in 1871); The Wedding March, translated from Un Chapeau de Paille d'Italie by Eugène Marin Labiche (1873); The Blue-Legged Lady, translated from La Dame aux Jambes d'Azur by Labiche and Marc-Michel (1874); and Broken Hearts (1875).