Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old, is an operatic extravaganza that was the first collaboration between dramatist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan. It was never published, and most of the music is now lost. However, Gilbert and Sullivan would go on to become one of the most famous and successful partnerships in Victorian England, creating a string of comic opera hits, including H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado, that continue to be popular.
Thespis premièred in London at the Gaiety Theatre on 26 December 1871. Like many productions at that theatre, it was written in a broad, burlesque style, considerably different from Gilbert and Sullivan's later works. It was a modest success—for a Christmas entertainment of the time—and closed on 8 March 1872, after a run of 63 performances. It was advertised as "An entirely original Grotesque Opera in Two Acts
The story follows an acting troupe headed by Thespis, the legendary Greek father of the drama, who temporarily trade places with the now elderly gods on Mount Olympus. The actors turn out to be comically inept rulers. Having seen the ensuing mayhem down below, the angry gods return, sending the actors back to Earth as "eminent tragedians, whom no one ever goes to see." Gilbert would return to this theme twenty-five years later in his last opera with Sullivan, The Grand Duke, in which a theatre company temporarily replace the ruler of a small country and decide to "revive the classic memories of Athens at its best."
Seasonal works like Thespis were not normally expected to endure, and aside from a benefit performance shortly after the original staging, Thespis was not performed again during its creators' lifetimes. A renewed interest in the piece began in the 1950s, and numerous productions have been performed since, either with music taken from Sullivan's other works, or with original music.
Scene: A Ruined Temple on the Summit of Mount Olympus
On Mount Olympus, the elderly deities complain of feeling old and lament their waning influence on Earth. Mercury complains that the older gods are lazy and leave all their duties to him, while he gets no credit for all his drudgery. Jupiter says that matters have reached a crisis, but he is unsure what can be done about it. Just then, the gods see a swarm of mortals ascending the mountain and withdraw to observe them from a distance.
Thespis's acting company enters for a picnic celebrating the marriage of two of its members, Sparkeion and Nicemis. The actors, being cheap, have failed to contribute substantial food items to the picnic. Sparkeion flirts with his former fiancée, Daphne, which annoys Nicemis. In retaliation, Nicemis flirts with her old suitor, Thespis, but he declines to flirt back. Thespis explains to his troupe that a successful manager must be aloof from those he manages, or he will lose his authority.
Jupiter, Mars and Apollo enter. All of the actors flee in terror, except for Thespis. Jupiter asks Thespis whether he is impressed with the father of the gods. Thespis replies that the gods are unimpressive and suggests that they go down to earth in disguise to "mingle" and judge for themselves what people think of them. They agree to invest the actors with their powers, as they take a merry holiday below on Earth. Thespis agrees that he and his company will keep things running on Mount Olympus during the gods' absence. Each actor takes the place of one of the gods, with Thespis himself replacing Jupiter. Mercury stays behind to offer any advice the actors may need.
The Same Scene, One Year Later, with the Ruins Restored
Under Thespis's direction, Olympus has been restored to its former splendour, and the Thespians enjoy ambrosia and nectar. Thespis's rule is very liberal, and he has advised his troupe not to "be hampered by routine and red tape and precedent". The celestial assignments, however, have caused some difficulties, as the romantic entanglements of the actors in real life conflict with those of the gods that they are playing. Venus, played by Pretteia, is supposed to be married to Mars, but the actor playing Mars is her father. A possible solution is discovered in Venus having actually married Vulcan, but Vulcan is her grandfather. Sparkeion, who took on the role of Apollo, accompanies his wife, Nicemis, who plays Diana, on her nightly duties, so that the sun is up during the night.
Mercury informs Thespis that the substitute gods have received many complaints from mortals because some are not performing their functions, and others' ill-judged experiments have wreaked havoc in the world below. For instance, Timidon, the replacement for Mars, is a pacifist and a coward; the substitute for Hymen refuses to marry anyone; and the ersatz Pluto is too tenderhearted to let anyone die. Daphne, who plays the muse Calliope, comes to Thespis and claims, based on a bowdlerised edition of the Greek myths, that Calliope was married to Apollo. She points out that Apollo, played by Sparkeion, is the brother of Diana (played by Sparkeion's wife, Nicemis). Thespis decides that Sparkeion is married to Daphne while they are gods, but his marriage to Nicemis will resume when they are mortals once again.
When the gods return, they are furious and tell Thespis that he has "deranged the whole scheme of society." Thespis says that they should calm down, as the list of mortals' complaints is about to be read. The gods watch incognito as Mercury presents the complaints: The actors have ruined the weather; caused strife among the nations; and there is no wine, since Bacchus is a teetotaler. After listening to these grievances, the gods angrily shed their disguises. The actors beg to stay on Olympus, but Jupiter punishes them for their folly by sending them back to earth cursed as "eminent tragedians, whom no one ever goes to see."
The first performance was conducted by Arthur Sullivan. Subsequent performances were conducted by Meyer Lutz, the theatre's musical director. In addition to playing Tipseion, the theatre's stage manager, Robert Soutar stage managed the piece. The Ballet Master was W. H. Payne
How and when the pair came to collaborate on Thespis is uncertain. Gilbert was a logical choice for the assignment. With seven operas and plays premièring that year and over a dozen other burlesques, farces and extravaganzas under his belt, he was well known to London theatregoers as a comic dramatist. Sullivan, however, was at this point mainly known for his serious music. His completed music that year included the choral cantata On Shore and Sea, a suite of incidental music for Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, and numerous hymns, including "Onward, Christian Soldiers." He did have two comic operas to his credit, Cox and Box (1866) and The Contrabandista (1867), but the latter was four years in the past and had been unsuccessful. In September 1871, Sullivan had been engaged to conduct at The Royal National Opera, but it failed abruptly, leaving him unexpectedly without commitments. Hollingshead's offer of a role to his brother, Fred Sullivan, may have encouraged him to write the music for Thespis.
The production "aroused a great deal of interest and speculation. Ironically, it had "probably the largest audience" of any Gilbert and Sullivan première, as the Gaiety was the largest of the five London theatres at which their joint works premièred.
Both Gilbert and Sullivan recalled that Thespis was written in some haste. Sullivan recalled, simply, that "...both music and libretto were very hurriedly written. In his 1883 autobiography, Gilbert wrote:
By 1902, Gilbert's recollection of the time frame had expanded to five weeks:
Gilbert's five-week estimate is "in conflict with other apparently incontrovertible facts. Sullivan's nephew, Herbert Sullivan, wrote that the libretto was already in existence before his uncle became involved in the project: "Gilbert showed [Hollingshead] the libretto of an operatic Extravaganza Thespis, and Hollingshead forthwith sent it to Sullivan to set. But Gilbert generally did not write a libretto until he had a firm commitment to produce it, and the libretto appears to have been "published and circulated" during the pre-Christmas period, which is consistent with the date of 14 December, when Gilbert first read it to the cast.
At the very least, a "rough draft of the plot" must have existed by 30 October, in light of a letter on that date from Gilbert's agent to R. M. Field of the Boston Museum Theatre, which reads: Gilbert did, in fact, conclude an agreement with Field, and the first published libretto advised: "Caution to American Pirates.—The Copyright of the Dialogue and Music of this Piece, for the United States and Canada, has been assigned to Mr. Field, of the Boston Museum, by agreement, dated 7th December, 1871." If Field mounted the work, however, the production has not been traced. Gilbert's concern about American pirates foreshadowed the difficulties he and Sullivan would later encounter with unauthorized "pirated" productions of H.M.S. Pinafore, The Mikado and their other popular works.
Despite the short time available for rehearsals, Sullivan recalled that Gilbert insisted that the chorus play a major role, as it would do in their later Savoy operas:
Clement Scott, writing in the Daily Telegraph, had a mostly favourable reaction:
As they would do with all their operas, Gilbert and Sullivan made cuts and alterations after the first performance. Two days after the opening, Sullivan wrote to his mother, "I have rarely seen anything so beautiful put upon the stage. The first night I had a great reception, but the music went badly, and the singer sang half a tone sharp, so that the enthusiasm of the audience did not sustain itself towards me. Last night I cut out the song, the music went very well, and consequently I had a hearty call before the curtain at the end of Act II. The piece eventually settled into a respectable state, and later critics were much more enthusiastic than those on opening night.
By the third night, the London Figaro could report: "I must say that not a single hitch in the performance is now to be perceived, and that the applause and evident delight of the audience from beginning to end, the piece occupying a space of time within two hours." On 6 January 1872, the Penny Illustrated Paper commented that "Mr. Gilbert's Gaiety extravaganza grows in public favour and deservedly so...." On 9 January, the Daily Telegraph reported a visit by His Royal Highness, the Duke of Edinburgh. By 27 January, the Illustrated Times noted that "a chance playgoer will certainly not find a seat at the Gaiety.... Thespis can, after all, boast the success which was predicted...." Land and Water reported on 3 February that "Thespis is now in capital working order.
Performances of Thespis were interrupted on 14 February 1872, Ash Wednesday, since London theatres refrained from presenting costumed performances out of respect for the religious holiday. Instead, a "miscellaneous entertainment" was given at the Gaiety, consisting of ventriloquists, performing dogs and, coincidentally, a sketch parodying a penny reading by the young George Grossmith, who, several years later, became Gilbert and Sullivan's principal comedian.
On 17 February, Henry Sutherland Edwards wrote in the Musical World: "In almost all conjunctions of music and words, there is a sacrifice of one to the other; but in Thespis... Sufficient opportunities have been given for music; and the music serves only to adorn the piece." Similar reports continued to appear through early March, when Thespis closed. The final performance during the authors' lifetimes was given less than two months later, on 27 April, at a matinée for the benefit of Mlle. Clary, the original Sparkeion. On such an occasion, a performer would normally choose a piece likely to sell well, as the beneficiary was entitled to the income (after expenses), and tickets were generally offered at "inflated prices. The actress was a Gaiety favourite, "not only in respect of her voice but also her delicious French accent and, of course, her figure. Others recalled "the charm of Mlle. Clary, with her pretty face and piquant broken English. She had been particularly successful as Sparkeion, and her song in Act II, "Little Maid of Arcadee," was the only one chosen for publication.
After the production of Thespis, Gilbert and Sullivan went their separate ways, reuniting three years later, with Richard D'Oyly Carte as their manager, to produce Trial by Jury in 1875. When that work was a surprise success, there were discussions of quickly reviving Thespis for the 1875 Christmas season. Gilbert wrote to Sullivan: The proposed revival was mentioned in several more letters throughout the fall of 1875, until on 23 November Gilbert wrote, "I have heard no more about Thespis. It is astonishing how quickly these capitalists dry up under the magic influence of the words 'cash down'. In 1895, with Richard D'Oyly Carte struggling to rediscover success at the Savoy, he once again proposed a revival of Thespis, but the idea was not pursued.
The reasons why Thespis went unrevived are not known. Some commentators assert that Sullivan used the music in his other operas. If this was true, then "for this reason alone a revival would have become impossible." However, evidence that Sullivan did so has eluded discovery. Another possible explanation is that they came to regard Thespis, with its "brazen girls in tights and short skirts," and broad burlesque-style humour, as "the kind of work they wished to avoid."
In 1879, Sullivan, Gilbert and Carte were in the midst of a legal battle with the former directors of the Comedy Opera Company, which had produced H.M.S. Pinafore. Sullivan wrote to Hollingshead, saying: "You once settled a precedent for me which may just at present be of great importance to me. I asked you for the band parts of the Merry Wives of Windsor... and [you] said, 'They are yours, as our run is over....' Now will you please let me have them, and the parts of Thespis also at once. I am detaining the parts of Pinafore, so that the directors shall not take them away from the Comique tomorrow, and I base my claim on the precedent you set.
Thespis productions in 2008 included a Sullivan-based score (with some Offenbach added) arranged by Timothy Henty, with Gilbert's libretto adapted by Anthony Baker, performed by a professional cast at the Normansfield Theatre in Teddington, Middlesex, England in March, and an original score by Thomas Z. Shepard was performed in concert in June by the Blue Hill Troupe in New York City.
Thespis was an advance on the types of burlesques to which Gaiety audiences were accustomed. François Cellier recalled much later:
Several critics suggested that the piece may have been too sophisticated for its audience—or at least, the audience that greeted its first performance on Boxing Night. The Times wrote: "The dialogue throughout is superior in ability and point to that with which ordinary burlesque and extravaganza have familiarized us; so much so, in fact, that it was a daring experiment to produce such a piece on such a night. It met, however, with an excellent reception, and on any other occasion than Boxing Night the numerous merits of the piece cannot fail to secure for it in the public estimation a high place among the novelties of the season. Other reviews of the first night took up a similar theme: Sporting Life suggested that "It may be that they looked for something less polished than Mr. Gilbert's verse, and went for something broader and coarser than that delightful author's humour. It may be, too, that Thespis was a little—I only say, just a little—'over their heads'." The Orchestra carried a similar sentiment: "In fact, both music and idea were somewhat over the heads of the audience.
The plot of Thespis, with its elderly gods tired of their life in Olympus, is similar to some of Offenbach's operas, notably Orphée aux Enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld). In Orphée aux Enfers, like Thespis, classical mythology, particularly the Olympian gods, are ruthlessly parodied. In Thespis, the gods swap places with the actors and descend to Earth; in Orphée aux Enfers, the gods head to hell for a pleasant holiday away from too much boring perfection. Offenbach's plot – for although Crémieux and Halévy wrote the libretto, the idea was Offenbach's – places Orpheus, the great musician, in the centre; however, Gilbert's plot focuses on Thespis, the Father of the Drama. While this may be a coincidence, it could also be seen as a response to Offenbach, as his plot places music at the centre of his operetta, but Gilbert's elevates the dramatist.
The libretto has been praised by several biographers and historians. One said that "The dialogue contains many an authentic Gilbertian touch. Another found it "a gay, sparkling libretto. Sidney Dark and Rowland Gray wrote that "the book of Thespis is genuine Gilbert, the Gilbert whom nowadays all the world loves.... Thespis once more emphasizes the fact that Gilbert's artistry was hardly affected with the passing of the years. Many of its songs might well have appeared in the later operas." They point out Mercury's "I'm the celestial drudge," which anticipates Giuseppe's "Rising early in the morning" in The Gondoliers, and find the "real brand of Gilbertian topsy-turvydom" in the song about the former head of a railway company, "I once knew a chap who discharged a function. Isaac Goldberg thought that "Thespis looks forward far more often than it glances backward. It forecasts the characteristic methods, and now and then a character, of the later series. Its dialogue is comical, and, if anything, somewhat above the heads of the Gaiety audiences of 1871.
Goldberg wrote in 1929 that the libretto "seems to have no specific ancestry.... neither in his burlesques nor in his ballads... had Gilbert played with the gods and goddesses of Greek mythology. However, Gilbert did write a series of humorous sketches parodying the Greek myths, mainly the heroes of the Iliad, for the illustrated magazine Fun in 1864, and Pygmalion and Galatea, which he produced just before Thespis, was a more serious treatment of Greek mythology. Jane W. Stedman points out that Thespis "looks backward to French opéra bouffe," but it is "fundamentally a Gilbertian invasion plot in which outsiders penetrate and affect a given society, often for the worse." She compares the theatrical company in Thespis to the politicians that remodel fairyland in Gilbert's 1873 play The Happy Land and the Englishmen who reform the island nation of Utopia in Utopia, Limited (1893). Elements of Thespis also appear in Gilbert and Sullivan's last opera together, The Grand Duke (1896).
Clement Scott in the Daily Telegraph found the opera "not marred by ambitious music." But he added, "Tuneful throughout, always pretty, frequently suggestive, the songs and dances are quite in character with the author's design.... Some of the numbers will certainly live, and the impression caused by the music as a whole is that it will have far more than a passing interest."
Many critics praised the originality of the title character's song in the first act about the head of a railway company, which may have been a joke about the Duke of Sutherland, "who was fond of running railway engines. Scott called the song a "ludicrous ballad," but "quite in the spirit of the well-known compositions of 'Bab,' and, as it has been fitted with a lively tune and a rattling chorus, a hearty encore was inevitable. Though the ditty was long, the audience would have been well content to hear it all over again." The Pall Mall Gazette found the orchestration "very novel, including, as it does, the employment of a railway bell, a railway whistle, and some new instrument of music imitating the agreeable sound of a train in motion." Similarly The Sunday Times noted, "The entire company join in the chorus, the music of which admirably expresses the whirl and thunder of a railway train at express speed." The Era called it "a screaming, whistling and shouting chorus [that] fairly brings down the house."
The similarity to French models was much commented upon. Vanity Fair thought that "the music in the piece itself is charming throughout, and promises for the first time a rival to Offenbach.... Thespis is quite as good as Orphée aux Enfers. Another wrote:
The Morning Advertiser thought that "There is an evident attempt to copy the creations of a foreign composer who is so popular at the present time, and who has written some charming music for the gods and goddesses en bouffes." Others accused Sullivan of blatant copying. The Athenaeum wrote that the music "was arranged and composed by Mr A. S. Sullivan (the first verb was not in the bills as it ought to have been)...." One critic thought that the duet for Sparkeion and Nicemis, "Here far away from all the world," was one of the "single best items of the piece." In 1873, the arranger Joseph Rummell (who had arranged Sullivan's Merchant of Venice score for the piano) wrote to Sullivan, asking about the song, with a view to publication. The composer replied, "Thespis is not published but if you like I will send you the Full Score of the Duet in question, but nothing came of it.
The separately published version had several significant wording differences from the theatrical version, owing to "the contrast between the Gaiety Theatre's suggestiveness and the prudery expected in the drawing room." In the drawing room version, the song's little maid sat by Cousin Robin's knee, not on it. Rather than weary of his lover's play, he became fickle as the month of May. And rather than Cousin Richard came to woo, it was till another came to woo.
"Climbing over rocky mountain" is the best known piece from Thespis, as it was transplanted in 1879 into one of Gilbert and Sullivan's most successful operas, The Pirates of Penzance. In 1902, Gilbert told a correspondent that this had happened accidentally. He and Sullivan had arrived in New York to produce the new opera, but the composer discovered that he had left his sketches behind in England. Fortunately, the entrance chorus from Thespis fitted the situation almost exactly, so it was substituted instead.
Several scholars have doubted that explanation. In Sullivan's autograph score for the later work, the first part of "Climbing over rocky mountain" is actually taken from a Thespis copyist score, with the Thespis words cancelled and the new words written in, which raises the question of why Sullivan had a Thespis score to hand, if not for that purpose.
Some suggest that other music from Thespis could have been used in Pirates. Goldberg suggests that "It is reasonable to believe that Sullivan made generous use of his Thespis music in other operettas: perhaps owing to the circumstances under which The Pirates of Penzance was written, it contains more than one unacknowledged borrowing from the unlucky firstling of the lucky pair." Reginald Allen says that "it seems certain" from its "rhythmic structure," that part of the Act I finale of Thespis, "Here's a pretty tale for future Iliads and Odysseys" became the original Act II finale in Pirates, "At length we are provided with unusual felicity" (which was later deleted). Tillett and Spencer propose that most of Act I of Pirates was taken from Thespis. However, there is only circumstantial evidence for these suggestions. Except for "Climbing over rocky mountain," neither author admitted to borrowing from Thespis for later works.
In 1990, Roderick Spencer and Selwyn Tillett discovered the ballet from Act II of Thespis. Two of the five movements, in the same hand that had copied the score of "Climbing over rocky mountain", were found together with the surviving performance materials for Sullivan's 1864 ballet, L'Île Enchantée. Another section was found in the material for his 1897 ballet, Victoria and Merrie England. The page numbering of the surviving three sections gave approximate lengths for the missing pieces, and a contemporary engraving, seen at left, along with other circumstantial evidence, allowed plausible identifications of the two remaining movements: A dragon costume, used nowhere in the libretto, is presumably from the ballet, and the harp visible in the orchestra pit was an unusual instrument for the Gaiety's orchestra. Movements of appropriate length that made sense of these oddities were found in Sullivan's other ballets, and the reconstructed ballet has been recorded twice on CD.
Sullivan tended to re-use his ballet music. Of the five movements that Tillett and Spencer identified, only one (the Waltz, No. 3) is not known to have been used in any other work. Three of the movements had previously been used in L'Île Enchantée. Two of those, and one other, were eventually re-used in Victoria and Merrie England. One was also used in his incidental music to Macbeth. Sullivan was asked in 1889 to supply a ballet for a French-language production of The Mikado in Brussels, which he duly did. Tillett suggests that the Thespis ballet was almost certainly the music that Sullivan provided, given that it was the only ballet that he wrote for use in an opera, and that three weeks after producing The Gondoliers he is unlikely to have written something original.
The surviving libretto is not the version heard by audiences at the Gaiety Theatre. There are numerous discrepancies between the original libretto and what was described as happening on stage, and reviewers repeatedly quoted dialogue that has no equivalent in the published libretto. At least one song is missing, and an entire character, Venus, is mentioned in at least five reviews as stout, elderly, and heavily made-up, but does not appear in either the programme or the libretto. Stage directions in the original are slip-shod: characters reappear without an entrance being noted, or enter twice in quick succession, without having exited. In addition, Sullivan told his mother that at least one song was cut after opening night, and there must certainly have been other cuts, given the undue length of the first performance. But the text of the libretto, as published, remained "virtually unchanged" between December 1871 and March 1872.
In a letter to Percy Strzelecki on 23 April 1890, Gilbert apologized for the condition of the libretto. He wrote, "I was in the United States when it was published & I had no opportunity of correcting proofs. This will explain the presence of innumerable typographical & other errors." But several scholars conclude that Gilbert must have been remembering a trip the following year, as in the fall of 1871 it "would have been impossible for Gilbert to travel to America and back in time for rehearsals of Thespis. Even after the first printing, there does not seem to have been any effort to correct the errors: There were four separate issues of the libretto between December and March, but no corrections were made.
Gilbert's final disposition of the libretto came in 1911, when it was included in the fourth volume of his Original Plays. However, Gilbert died before he could correct proofs for that edition, and so it reprinted the 1871 text, correcting only a few spelling mistakes.
As most of the music to Thespis is lost, there is no complete recording of the original score. The ballet, as reconstructed by Spencer and Tillett, has been issued twice on CD:
A recording of the Rees/Morton version of Thespis was issued on LP records, which included the original "Little maid of Arcadee" and "Climbing over rocky mountain":
"Little maid of Arcadee" has been included in two Sullivan anthologies: