This article was first published in the March 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine
At the beginning of March 1885, London was a city in shock. Only a few weeks earlier, the murder of General Gordon by the Mahdist insurgents in Khartoum had horrified Victorian society. That the shocking news from the Sudan came just two days after Irish terrorists had bombed the Tower of London and Westminster Hall – while William Gladstone’s government tottered towards defeat – only confirmed the sense that British power, so often thought impregnable, was in retreat.
For one of the titans of Victorian London, however, March 1885 posed a very different challenge. The first stage rehearsal of WS Gilbert’s new operetta at the Savoy theatre had been a “depressing affair”, the first dress rehearsal a “disappointing business”. On the evening of 13 March, the night before the play opened to the public, Gilbert decided it was time for radical surgery.
After the last dress rehearsal, he and his collaborator, the composer Arthur Sullivan, took aside the bass-baritone Richard Temple and told him that his song would be cut. The problem was not his performance, they assured him, but Gilbert’s words, which they now thought “extremely poor”. But no sooner had Temple agreed, Gilbert recalled, than “half a dozen gentlemen, press men and others who had witnessed the rehearsal, came to us in a body and begged us to restore the excised ‘number’”. Gilbert and Sullivan gave way. “As we were leaving the theatre, a few minutes later,” the former remembered, “we heard three ringing cheers from the chorus dressing-rooms.”
Though Gilbert and Sullivan are remembered today as the cultural pillars of the Victorian age, they had never been under greater pressure than they were that night in March 1885. Their previous effort, Princess Ida, had been a flop, running at the Savoy for only nine months. Gilbert came up with a new idea for a play about a ‘magic lozenge’, but Sullivan thought it ridiculous and even tried to call off their association.
Desperately casting around for inspiration, Gilbert caught sight of “a Japanese executioner’s sword hanging on the wall of my library”. This was an age of deep fascination with the far east; only a few months later, more than 250,000 people flocked to a groundbreaking Japanese exhibition in Knightsbridge. “A Japanese piece would afford opportunities for picturesque scenery and costumes,” Gilbert recalled, “and, moreover, nothing of the kind had ever been attempted in England.”
The result was The Mikado, by far the most popular of all Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas. And when the crowds poured in to the luxurious Savoy theatre on the night of 14 March, cramming into the plush red boxes and blue velvet seats, many still marvelling at the electric lighting, all Gilbert’s fears evaporated.
As The Athenaeum pointed out, the appeal of the piece was not so much its enthusiasm for Japanese culture, but its use of the oriental setting to satirise “our home political and social life”. The Athenaeum’s reviewer worried that such “cynical topsyturvydom” would soon seem out of date. But as The Times’s critic noted, the popularity of Gilbert and Sullivan had now “reached the point where success depends no longer on intrinsic merit”. In any case, he thought, The Mikado’s premiere had been “as near perfection as a first performance can be… Thanks to the author and composer, the ensemble was without flaw or hesitation.”
More than a century on, Gilbert’s doubts seem even more misguided. The Mikado is one of the most regularly revived musical plays ever written, as well as one of the most lasting and influential products of Victorian popular culture. Many of its songs, such as A Wand’ring Minstrel I, Three Little Maids and I’ve Got A Little List, are immediately familiar even to people who have no interest in Gilbert and Sullivan at all.
Two of Gilbert’s phrases – ‘A short sharp shock’ and ‘Let the punishment fit the crime’ – have entered the language, often being wheeled out during media panics about law and order. And quotations from The Mikado crop up where you least expect it: incongruously, two of the letters from the so-called Zodiac Killer, who murdered at least five people in California in the late 1960s, contained references to Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic.