Comic Opera of Gilbert and Sullivan – the Great English Comic Theme of People Pretending To Be Better Than They Really Are

On Saturday evening I enjoyed watching and listening to a concert by the Warwick & Kenilworth Choral Society given in Kenilworth School, during which the choir performed Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic opera Trial by Jury.

A scene from Trial By Jury as illustrated in the magazine Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News of 1 May 1875
A scene from Trial By Jury as illustrated in the magazine Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News of 1 May 1875

I have personal memories of Trial By Jury; during my childhood and teenage years I sang in a girls’ choir in Orpington, Kent. The Orpington Junior Singers, conducted by Sheila Mossman, were called upon to sing in The Chorus of Bridesmaids in Trial By Jury when it was performed by Sheila Mossman’s adult choir The Orpington Chorale (a choir which my father sang in, too, for several years).

It was such a joy on Saturday evening to sit in the audience on Saturday evening and watch the performance of this, the first collaboration between Gilbert & Sullivan (often regarded as the Victorian equivalent of Rice and Lloyd Webber).

As we watched the pompous insistence of the Judge on telling everyone how he came to be a judge, and how he himself cheated the rich attourney by jilting his elderly ugly daughter, (whose parents assured him she could very well pass for 43 in the dusk with the light behind her), and as we enjoyed the Defendant in his loud jacket offering to marry the jilted bride one day and his new girlfriend the next, I was reminded once again of the central comic theme which appears in every generation in English society: The theme of people trying to appear better than they are. Only in Gilbert & Sullivan part of the humour is that they openly reveal their true murky selves.

The Jury admits they were once irresponsible cads, just like the Defendant; but now of course they’ve given that all up and they “shine with a virtue resplendent”.

We delight in seeing these themes played out before us. It is such a recognizable “trope” and we love it. Jane Austen thrived on it and found in it a fertile source of irony.

Class consciousness is a constantly-renewable resource for English writers, and long has it been so.

Do you recognise this as a strong theme in any of your favourite writers? Please share in the comments!



Published by SC Skillman

I'm a writer of psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction. My latest book, 'Paranormal Warwickshire', was published by Amberley Publishing in November 2020. Find all my published books here:

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