The Zoo History
The Zoo is a one-act comic opera, with music by Arthur Sullivan and a libretto by B. C. Stephenson, writing under the pen name of Bolton Rowe. It premiered on 5 June 1875 at the St. James’s Theatre in London (as an afterpiece to W. S. Gilbert’s Tom Cobb), concluding its run five weeks later, on 9 July 1875, at the Haymarket Theatre. There were brief revivals in late 1875, and again in 1879, before the opera was shelved.
The farcical story concerns two pairs of lovers. First, a nobleman, who goes to the zoo to woo the girl who sells snacks there. He tries to impress her by buying and eating all of the food. The other couple is a young chemist who believes that he has poisoned his beloved by mixing up her father’s prescription with peppermint that he had meant for her.
The score was not published in Sullivan’s lifetime, and it lay dormant until Terence Rees purchased the composer’s autograph at auction in 1966 and arranged for publication. The opera is in one act without spoken dialogue, running about 40 minutes. Like Trial by Jury and Cox and Box, it has been staged as a curtain-raiser to the shorter Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Triple-bills of Sullivan’s three one-act operas have also proved successful.
The Zoo Synopsis
At a zoological gardens, the proud and opinionated British Public gather to look at the animals. Æsculapius Carboy is discovered standing on a chair with a rope around his neck. The chorus insist that if he is going to commit suicide, he must first tell them the reason why. Carboy happily obliges. He had wooed Lætitia Grinder, the daughter of a prosperous grocer. Her father, Mr. Grinder, disapproved of their relationship, but Carboy, an apothecary (pharmacist), was able to communicate with her “in prescriptions.” But one day, the labels for a dose of peppermint for Lætitia and a lotion for her father’s back were mixed up. Carboy, believing that he has killed his love, has despaired of all hope. He intends to kill himself, but Eliza Smith, the no-nonsense keeper of the refreshment stall at the zoo, forbids it.
Eliza’s beau, Thomas Brown, appears, and they spend a romantic moment. Thomas begins to purchase and rapidly eat an astonishing amount of Eliza’s refreshments. Lætitia enters, looking for Carboy. He is surprised to find her alive, but she explains that she did not drink the lotion as he had feared. They too describe their everlasting love and then combine with Thomas and Eliza as Eliza lists the remarkable catalogue of the food that Thomas has just eaten. Thomas explains that he has eaten all of her wares to prove his affection for her.
Thomas then faints, and the male zoogoers argue with their wives about how to revive him. Carboy, explaining that he is a physician, asks the crowd to stand back and steps in to help. After making a quick examination, he writes a prescription, which Eliza takes to be filled. Thomas now revives briefly, and before passing out again, makes a delirious comment that implies tha he is of noble birth. Carboy unfastens his patient’s jacket, and the crowd are shocked to find that Thomas is a Knight of the Garter. Thomas revives, and it turns out that he is the Duke of Islington (a joke reference, since Islington was then a working-class Cockney neighbourhood). He had disguised himself as a commoner so that he could search for a humble, virtuous wife without revealing his true rank. Now that his secret is discovered, Thomas makes a garbled but well-received speech and, taking the perceptive crowd’s advice, resolves to propose marriage to Eliza as soon as he can change into his “native guise.” He exits.
Mr. Grinder arrives looking for Carboy and Lætitia, but the no one will help him. Eliza returns and is upset to find that Thomas has disappeared. The amused crowd tell her, mysteriously, that he will return soon. Still upset, Eliza laments that she is a simple little child who cannot understand why wealthy men have always showered her with gifts and invitations. Grinder returns, confronting his disobedient daughter and her beloved apothecary. Lætitia begs her father to let her marry Carboy, but Grinder once again refuses. Hearing this, Carboy asks the crowd for a rope with which to hang himself. Failing at that, and after bidding Lætitia a lengthy farewell, he heads for the bear pit in the hopes of being killed by the fearsome creatures.
Thomas Brown re-enters, now dressed as befits the Duke of Islington, and he grandly proposes to make Eliza his Duchess. She bursts into tears, reluctant to leave her beloved animals behind, but Lord Thomas tells her not to worry: he has bought them all! Carboy now returns. His suicide attempt has failed, this time because the bear pit is being renovated, and the bears have been moved. He vows to head for the lion’s den, but the Duke stops him. Thomas has reached a financial settlement with Mr. Grinder, who is now willing to accept Carboy as his son-in-law. The two pairs of lovers are united, and all ends happily, with the public proudly declaring that “Britons never, never will be slaves!”