Trial by Jury History
Trial by Jury is a comic opera in one act, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert. It was first produced on 25 March 1875, at London’s Royalty Theatre, where it initially ran for 131 performances and was considered a hit, receiving critical praise and outrunning its popular companion piece, Jacques Offenbach’s La Périchole. The story concerns a “breach of promise of marriage” lawsuit in which the judge and legal system are the objects of lighthearted satire. Gilbert based the libretto of Trial by Jury on an operetta parody that he had written in 1868.
The opera premiered more than three years after Gilbert and Sullivan’s only previous collaboration, Thespis, an 1871–72 Christmas season entertainment. In the intervening years, both the author and composer were busy with separate projects. Beginning in 1873, Gilbert tried several times to get the opera produced before the impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte suggested that he collaborate on it with Sullivan. Sullivan was pleased with the piece and promptly wrote the music.
As with most Gilbert and Sullivan operas, the plot of Trial by Jury is ludicrous, but the characters behave as if the events were perfectly reasonable. This narrative technique blunts some of the pointed barbs aimed at hypocrisy, especially of those in authority, and the sometimes base motives of supposedly respectable people and institutions. These themes became favourites of Gilbert through the rest of his collaborations with Sullivan. Critics and audiences praised how well Sullivan’s witty and good-humoured music complemented Gilbert’s satire. The success of Trial by Jury launched the famous series of 13 collaborative works between Gilbert and Sullivan that came to be known as the Savoy Operas.
After its original production in 1875, Trial by Jury toured widely in Britain and elsewhere and was frequently revived and recorded. It also became popular as a part of charity benefits. The work continues to be frequently played, especially as a companion piece to other short Gilbert and Sullivan operas or other works. According to theatre scholar Kurt Gänzl, it is “probably the most successful British one-act operetta of all time”.
Trial by Jury Synopsis
The curtain rises on the Court of the Exchequer, where a jury and the public assemble to hear a case of breach of promise of marriage.
Engraving of a quaint drawing showing the little round faces of jurymen protruding from a box with the word “Jury” on it in large letters. They gaze up at the usher with cowed expressions while he wags his finger at them.
The Usher introduces the proceedings by exhorting the jury to listen to the broken-hearted Plaintiff’s case but telling them that they “needn’t mind” what the “ruffianly defendant” has to say. He adds, however, that “From bias free of every kind, this trial must be tried!” The Defendant (Edwin) arrives, and the jurymen greet him with hostility, even though, as he points out, they have as yet no idea of the merits of his case. He tells them, with surprising candour, that he jilted the Plaintiff because she became a “bore intense” to him, and he then quickly took up with another woman. The jurymen recall their own wayward youth, but they are now respectable gentlemen and no longer have any sympathy for the Defendant.
The Judge enters with great pomp and describes how he rose to his position – by courting a rich attorney’s “elderly, ugly daughter”. The rich attorney then aided his prospective son-in-law’s legal career until “at length I became as rich as the Gurneys” and “threw over” the daughter. The jury and public are delighted with the judge, and ignore that he has just admitted to the same wrong of which the Defendant is accused.
The jury is then sworn in, and the Plaintiff (Angelina) is summoned. She is preceded into the courtroom by her bridesmaids, one of whom catches the eye of the judge. However, when Angelina herself arrives in full wedding dress, she instantly captures the heart of both Judge and jury. The Counsel for the Plaintiff makes a moving speech detailing Edwin’s betrayal. Angelina feigns distress and staggers, first into the arms of the Foreman of the Jury, and then of the Judge. Edwin counters, explaining that his change of heart is only natural:
Oh, gentlemen, listen, I pray,
Though I own that my heart has been ranging,
Of nature the laws I obey,
For nature is constantly changing.
The moon in her phases is found,
The time and the wind and the weather,
The months in succession come round,
And you don’t find two Mondays together.
He offers to marry both the Plaintiff and his new love, if that would satisfy everyone. The Judge at first finds this “a reasonable proposition”, but the Counsel argues that from the days of James II, it has been “a rather serious crime / To marry two wives at a time” (humorously, he labels the crime in question “burglary” rather than “bigamy”). Perplexed, everyone in court ponders the “nice dilemma” in a parody of Italian opera ensembles.
Angelina desperately embraces Edwin, demonstrating the depth of her love, and bemoans her loss – all in evidence of the large amount of damages that the jury should force Edwin to pay. Edwin, in turn, says he is a smoker, a drunkard, and a bully (when tipsy), and that the Plaintiff could not have endured him even for a day; thus the damages should be small. The Judge suggests making Edwin tipsy to see if he would really “thrash and kick” Angelina, but everyone else (except Edwin) objects to this experiment. Impatient at the lack of progress, the Judge resolves the case by offering to marry Angelina himself. This is found quite satisfactory, and the opera is concluded with “joy unbounded”.