Opera: Iolanthe – Sir Arthur Sullivan

“Iolanthe,” or “The Peer and the Peri,” is a comic opera in two acts, with music by Sir Arthur Sullivan and text by W. S. Gilbert. It was produced at the Savoy Theatre, London, Nov. 25, 1882.


Strephon. The Earl of Mount Ararat. The Earl of Tolloller. Private Willis. The train-bearer. The Lord Chancellor. Iolanthe. The Fairy Queen. Celia. Leila. Fleta. Phyllis. Chorus of peers. Chorus of fairies.

The first act is played in Arcady. The queen of the fairies and her court appear and lament the absence of Iolanthe, who married a mortal. In fairy-land that is a sin punishable by death but the queen, in this case, had commuted the sentence to desertion of her husband and penal servitude for life. This punishment Iolanthe has chosen to undergo at the bottom of a stream so as to be near her son Strephon who is twenty-four years of age and of whom his father knows nothing. The Queen decides to recall the banished fairy and forgive her. As Iolanthe is immortal, she still looks about seventeen and it is difficult to believe that she is the mother of the full-grown Arcadian shepherd, who appears playing on a flageolet. It develops that Strephon is fairy to the waist and that his legs are mortal, a situation fraught with difficulty, It also appears that he loves Phyllis, a ward in chancery, and that the match is seriously opposed by the Lord Chancellor, who has a liking for her himself. But the young people have decided to be married in spite of his opposition.

While they are expressing their approval of each other, a procession of peers, headed by Lords Ararat and Tolloller with the Lord Chancellor as an impressive finale, comes in, each of the Lords proclaiming his own merits.

Phyllis is persuaded to present herself and her case before the bar of the House. Lord Tolloller generously announces that he would be glad to have her even if her origin is rather lowly, since he has ” birth and position in plenty and grammar and spelling for two.” But Phyllis prefers to share a lowly cot with Strephon. The Lord Chancellor declares such a thing can never be, as Strephon has disobeyed an order of the Court of Chancery. Iolanthe tries to dissipate her son’s dejection by reminding him that the Queen of the fairies has promised him special protection. Her words are partially overheard by Lord Tolloller, who draws Phyllis’ attention to the affectionate interview between her lover and a pretty girl. When Phyllis scolds him, he avers that it was only his mother, which statement gives rise to general mirth. Strephon insists that what is more she is and has been his mother ever since his birth. Phyllis will not believe such a flimsy tale and, in pique, tells the Lord that any one of them may have her.

The Queen of the fairies realizes that the time for her assistance has arrived. To the dismay of the peers, she announces that Strephon shall discard his crooks and pipes and go into Parliament, and that,

Every bill and every measure That may gratify his pleasure, Though your fury it arouses, Shall be passed by both your Houses.

Private Willis opens the second act, which is played in the palace yard at Westminster. He has a musical soliloquy about Parliament and then the fairies trip in followed by the peers, from whose conversation it may be gathered that Strephon has entered Parliament and is creating havoc ” running amuck of all abuses.” It also appears that the fairies are beginning to become enamored of the peers. Phyllis has an affecting scene with the two peers to whom she is engaged, Lord Ararat and Lord Tolloller.

As it is a tradition in both families always to kill successful rivals, which tradition they have sworn on affidavit to respect, the situation is delicate. To settle the matter, Phyllis is resigned by them to the smitten Lord Chancellor, who seems in a fair way to take possession of her. Iolanthe, however, who knows that Strephon and Phyllis would like to make up, reveals herself as the Lord Chancellor’s wife who so mysteriously disappeared and pleads his son’s cause, to which he cannot refuse to listen.

The Queen discovers now that all her ladies are betrothed to peers. She reminds them of the penalty but the Lord Chancellor exerts the ” subtleties of a legal mind ” and suggests the insertion of a single word which will change the law to mean that any fairy shall die who doesn’t marry a mortal. This is highly satisfactory to everybody. The Queen chooses Private Willis and Iolanthe is restored to the Lord Chancellor. It occurs to somebody that since the House is to be recruited from persons of intelligence, there can be no use for the members in question. So all become fairies, with wings springing from their shoulders, and exchange the House of Peers for the House of Peris.

This harmless and unmalicious burlesque on the dignity of peers and the British constitution contains the following among its numbers : Strephon’s song, “Good morrow, good mother ; ” the duet of Phyllis and Strephon, “None shall part us from each other ; ” the Lord Chancellor’s song, “When I went to the Bar;” Private Willis’ song, “When all night long a chap remains ; ” the Lord Chancellor’s patter song, “When you’re lying awake with a dismal headache” and Iolanthe’s song, “He loves ! if in the bygone years.”