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"She’d Meet Him After Dark Inside St James Park And Give Him One!"
Iolanthe (or The Peer And The Peri: Gilbert and Sullivan

by Alan D. Craxford


Illustration for the original Iolanthe 1882

Iolanthe (1)

Illustration for the original Fairy Queen 1882

Fairy Queen (2)

The operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan are much loved and treasured musical gems from a bygone era. They remain as popular now as they ever were when written over a century ago - as can be seen by the clamour for tickets, the enthusiasm of audiences and the dedication of amateur societies in London, the provinces and around the world. “Iolanthe” is one of the more popular five (along with “The Mikado”, “The Gondoliers”, “Pirates of Penzance” and “HMS Pinafore”). Themes from these operas still have the effect of getting toes tapping and promoting whistling whenever they are played.

“Iolanthe” is a fairy tale, set partly in the mythical world of Arcady. It’s staging has always been one of bright and contrasting colours, costumes, scenery and themes. There are the delicate fairies (forever “tripping hither, tripping thither, no-one knows the why or whither”) bedecked in pastel shades. There are the Lords – Peers of Highest Station (demanding “Bow, bow ye lower middle classes, bow, bow ye tradesmen, bow ye masses”) dressed in their silks and ermines and robes of state. There is the embodiment of legislative power (the Lord Chancellor) and of magic (the Fairy Queen). There are the bonds of parental love (Iolanthe and Strephon) and true love (Strephon and Phyllis).

The plot

This is another comic opera that features the plot twists and paradoxes that gave rise to the expression “Topsy-Turvey” that is applied to so much of Gilbert’s work. We are presented with an interface between the real and unreal world. The curtain rises on a chorus of fairies who are bored and lamenting the continued absence of one of their sisters - Iolanthe. A quarter of a century before, she had been banished by the Fairy Queen for marrying a mortal. She must never reveal who she was or talk to that mortal again on fear of death. On hearing their pleas the Fairy Queen finally relents, summons Iolanthe from the bottom of the stream and gives her a pardon. Enter Strephon, a country lad, who is Iolanthe’s son. He is in love with Phyllis and wants to marry her without delay. Unfortunately Phyllis happens to be a ward of court and marriage without the consent of the Lord Chancellor carries a punishment of penal servitude for life. Strephon’s condition is also complicated by being a fairy from the waist up (immortal) but a mortal from the waist down and therefore aging every day.

The entry of the Lords

Strephon and the fairies (left); The entry of the Lords (right) (3)

Iolanthe and the Lord Chancellor: Carl Rosa Opera Company, 2000

Iolanthe and the Lord Chancellor (4)

Phyllis has also attracted the attention of the peers of the House of Lords and the Lord Chancellor himself (he “is such a susceptible chancellor”). The Lords enter to the sound of a triumphal march. The order of the day is to decide Phyllis’ future. Strephon comes forward to press his suite but is not acceptable in his lowly shepherd status. Strephon seeks his mother’s advice but their encounter is overheard by Phyllis and two of the Lords (Tolloller and Mountararat) who mistakenly believe that there is an affair going on (he is twenty five, she only appears to be seventeen!). Phyllis is heartbroken and tells the two Lords that she will marry one of them but they will have to decide which it is to be between them. The Fairy Queen and the other fairies reappear to teach the Lord Chancellor and the Peers a lesson. By fairy magic they make Strephon a member of parliament and guarantee that every bill he puts forward will be passed by an absolute majority. They will even open the peerage to competitive examination!

Act II takes place outside the place of Westminster and opens with the Sentry’s song from Private Willis. The peers are at their wits end with Strephon dominating politics (“He’s a parliamentary Pickford’s – he carries everything”). The fairies are becoming increasingly infatuated with the peers. They have got no further with sorting out the problem with Phyllis either. Tolloller and Mountararat even try to persuade the Lord Chancellor to marry her himself (which leads to his Nightmare song).

Ultimately Strephon explains who he really is to Phyllis and that Iolanthe really is his mother. They plead with Iolanthe to interceded with the Lord Chancellor. At this point, Iolanthe reveals that the Lord Chancellor is her husband and that he is Strephon’s father. She approaches the Lord Chancellor who recognises who she is at the same time that the Fairy Queen reappears. The Queen has no alternative but to condemn Iolanthe to death for violating the fairy law. As she raises her spear the fairy chorus enters with the peers and declare that they will all have to be killed as they have been recently married. Not wanting to kill everybody, the Fairy Queen agrees to the Lord Chancellor’s plan to rewrite (slightly) the law to state that “every fairy shall die who does NOT marry a mortal”. The Fairy Queen now has to marry to save her own life and proposes to Private Willis. They all fly off the fairyland and live happily ever after.

Gilbert and Sullivan history

By the time the opera “Patience” came to the end of its run of 578 performances, the D’Oyly Carte organisation had transferred to the new Savoy Theatre in the Strand in London. With seating for nearly 1300 patrons it was the first public building to be lit by electricity. Gilbert took a long time in formulating the plot of the sequel. It is said that he wrote and rewrote it several times. It may also have been the popularity of the author Hans Christian Anderson at that time that awakened the ideas. Gilbert had penned an early story “The Fairy Curate” – a half-human half-fairy hero as part of his Bab’s Ballads. He had also written a play about politicians and peris (“The Happy Land”). However, Sullivan had no problems with the musical and lyrical sides of the new opera.

The opera opened on November 25th 1882 and ran for 400 performances. The Prime Minister of the day (William Gladstone) was in the audience. Gilbert had excelled himself with innovative costumes and stage directions. He had replica gowns made for the peers chorus from the Queens Court robe maker. The fairy costumes were woven with tiny lights powered by batteries held on belts around their waist. The chorus of peers made their entrance headed by the band of the Grenadier Guards.

On opening night, Sullivan learned that his stockbroker had gone bankrupt taking almost all of his life savings with him. Although at a very low ebb, the audience reaction to “Iolanthe” cheered him up, and the receipts soon restored his bank balance!

The background

Gilbert always had a target in mind for his wit and satire. In “Iolanthe” it is the Legislative system of the United Kingdom. There were controversies surrounding the House of Lords even then and the Lord Chancellor was ever a target of satire and lampoon. Here he is portrayed as having a weakness (susceptibility) to young women – sitting at the Court of Chancery presiding over their futures. The House of Commons was seen as populated by dullard Members of Parliament who have ‘got to leave that brain outside and vote just as their leaders tell ‘em too’. Gilbert has his Lord Mountararat say “With a House of Peers composed exclusively of people of intellect, what’s to become of the House of Commons?”

Prophecies from 120 years ago? Abolition of hereditary peerages – elected House of Lords – massive majorities and questionable accountability – that wallpaper!?

The songs

Iolanthe: an illustration from the Gilbert and Sullivan Archive

"Iolanthe" (the Gilbert & Sullivan Archive)

The overture is a much more staid piece and has a more reflective opening than the rumbustuous torrents of sound and catchy tunes that audience had come to expect from earlier works. There are overtones here of Mendelssohn (Sullivan had won the Mendelssohn Scholarship at the Royal College of Music at the age of fourteen) and Wagner. It progressively gathers pace over its seven and a half minutes length. The overture’s main theme is a reflection of “Oh foolish fay”. Perhaps surprisingly the two main chorus themes are not represented.

The following songs are particularly noteworthy:

“Tripping Hither, Tripping Thither” – The Chorus of the Fairies
““Loudly Let The Trumpets Bray” (or “Taran-tan-ta-ra”) – The Chorus of the Peers
“The Law Is The True Embodiment” – The Lord Chancellor
“Went I Went To The Bar” (“Said I To Myself - Said I”) – The Lord Chancellor
“When All Night Long A Chap Remains” – Private Willis
“Oh Foolish Fay” – Fairy Queen
“Love Unrequited Robs Me Of My Rest” (“When You’re Lying Awake With A Dismal Headache”) – The Lord Chancellor
“If You Go In” – Lords Chancellor, Tolloller and Mountararat

The words and music of these songs are to be found on the Web Opera Pages of the Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
(Clicking on the midi file on that page should open your media player and start the melody. To return here close the media player and then press the [BACK] button of your browser)

Continued in column 2...

Stage performances

D'Oyly Carte Opera Company Tour Programme 1997
Scenes from D'Oyly Carte Company Tour 1997
D'Oyly Carte 2002: Savoy Theatre  February to April 2002
Iolanthe: Carl Rosa Opera Company tour Autumn Season 2006

(Left and left centre)D'Oyly Carte production 1997; (right centre) D'Oyly Carte 2002; (right) Carl Rosa 2006

I have seen “Iolanthe” performed twice by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. Both occasions were colourful, tuneful and memorable. The first occasion was part of the nationwide tour in 1997 played at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle upon Tyne. Gillian Knight was in the cast as the Fairy Queen. As is often the case the fairy chorus are portrayed as rather portly ladies.

I also went to see a matinee performance at the Savoy Theatre, London in the Spring of 2002. Jill Pert (another long time Savoyard – I’ve seen her as ”Katisha” in ‘The Mikado’) played the Fairy Queen. If anything the fairy chorus were even more portly.

Along with 'Patience', 'The Sorcerer' and 'Trial By Jury', 'Iolanthe' is scheduled as part of the Carl Rosa Opera Company's Autumn Season Tour 2006. I'm presuming that they will be in Newcastle for their customary bare week. I wonder which we will be offered!

“Iolanthe” is almost (but not quite) my overall favourite work. Historically it was also the only major title which my grandfather, George Cook, did not perform.

Other resources

'Iolanthe' cover from the D'Oyly Carte CD collection

The CD

Gillian Knight

Gillian Knight (5)

This two-disc box set is perhaps the best of the whole of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company series. The orchestral sound is bright and sparkling. The solo voices are excellent and John Reed excels as the Lord Chancellor. He has more than his fair share of patter songs (above) and the Nightmare Song is both fast and long. There is more than enough alliteration to trip up the most nimble of tongue. The two choruses are used to extremely good effect and their respective anthems hold sway and counterpoint throughout the work.

This is a complete recording of the opera (including the spoken libretto). The two discs play in total for a few seconds shy of two hours.

A Gilbert & Sullivan Libretto. 'Iolanthe'


IOLANTHE - Gilbert & Sullivan (1960)

The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company
The New Symphony Orchestra of London: Conducted by Isidore Godfrey.
The Band of the Grenadier Guards

Soloists: John Reed (The Lord Chancellor); Strephon (Alan Styler)
Donald Adams (Earl of Mountararat); Yvonne Newman (Iolanthe)
Gillian Knight (Fairy Queen); Thomas Round (Lord Tolloller)
Kenneth Sandford (Private Willis) Mary Sansom (Phyllis)
CD: LONDON 414145-2


“Iolanthe” or “The Peer And The Peri”
International Music Publications Ltd. £ 4.99


'Iolanthe' from The BBC DVD collection


This version is taken from a full series of specially staged productions (originally by the BBC in 1982) which is offered both a single DVDs and as a boxed set from Amazon (America). These are currently available only as Region 1 discs. As far as I am aware there is no other complete set of performances.

Derek Hammond-Stroud as Lord Chancellor

Derek Hammond-Stroud

This is another workman-like effort, using fairly simple cut-out and overlay techniques to produce a quasi-theatre feeling that does spill over into a television environment. Derek Hammond-Stroud is a serviceable Lord Chancellor (although cannot compete with John Reed in the lingual dexterity stakes). Alexander Oliver (Strephon) and Kate Flowers (Phyllis) are excellent as the young lovers. Richard Van Allen does well with Sergeant Willis’ soliloquy. Anne Collins is a suitable heavyweight Fairy Queen. As is often the case, the fairy troupe are presented as rather gauche and clumsy in their dancing.

As with the rest of the series each act is introduced by Douglas Fairbanks Junior. There is also a “Life and Times Of Gilbert and Sullivan” storyboard on the DVD.

“IOLANTHE” (2002) Acorn Media DVD AMP8536

G&S trivia spot

Captain Shaw

Capt Shaw (6)

In this operetta Gilbert unusually names a contemporary worthy in one of the arias. The Queen of the Fairies addresses the Chief of the London Fire Brigade, Captain Shaw, asking whether ‘thy Brigade with cold cascade quench my great love – I wonder’. This caused particular surprise on the opening night as Captain Shaw was himself in the stalls.

THE TITLE. POSTSCRIPT 1: For those of my local compatriots who have read this far, the title is a line from the libretto and refers to the Park in London opposite Buckingham Palace and not a certain football stadium. The full line reads: "I heard the minx remark she'd meet him after dark inside St James's Park and give him one". The line is given by Lord Tolloller who misheard Iolanthe talking to Strephon. She really said: “When tempests wreck thy bark and all is drear and dark if thou shouldst need an ark I’ll give thee one!”

THE TITLE. POSTSCRIPT 2: At the time I originally wrote this review Derry Irving was the Lord Chancellor. I suppose I am a little disappointed with Gilbert that he didn’t provide me a line such as “Sing derry down derry! It’s evident, very, our tastes are one!” to use here. Unfortunately that had to wait until “There is beauty in the bellow of the blast” in “The Mikado”!!


The first version of this article originally appeared on CIAO on April 2nd 2003. You can see what other CIAO readers thought about it on the following page:
COMMENTS on 'Iolanthe'


1. Original costume design for Iolanthe by Wilhelm: The Gilbert & Sullivan Archive
2. Original costume design for the Fairy Queen by Wilhelm: The Gilbert & Sullivan Archive
3. Scenes from Iolanthe (2002): The Bournemouth Gilbert & Sullivan Operatic Society
4. Sarah Sweeting and Richard Suart; Iolanthe (2000): The Carl Rosa Opera Company
5. Gillian Knight as the Queen of the Fairies (1997): D'Oyly Carte Opera Company Programme
6. Captain Shaw: Chief of the London Fire Brigade: D'Oyly Carte Opera Company Programme

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Page added - December 1st 2005
Last updated - April 14th 2012

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