East Norfolk Operatic Society

Affiliated to the National Operatic and Dramatic Association

Thespis History

Illustration 1872
Illustrated London News 1872

Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old, is an operatic extravaganza that was the first collaboration between dramatist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan. No musical score of Thespis was ever published, and most of the music has been lost.

Thespis premièred in London at the Gaiety Theatre on 26 December 1871. Like many productions at that theatre, it was written in a broad, burlesque style, considerably different from Gilbert and Sullivan's later works. It was a success, for a Christmas entertainment of the time, and closed on 8 March 1872, after a run of 63 performances. It was advertised as "An entirely original Grotesque Opera in Two Acts".

Impresario and author John Hollingshead, the lessee of London's Gaiety Theatre since 1868, had produced a number of successful musical burlesques and operettas there. Indeed, Hollingshead "boasted that he kept alight 'the sacred lamp of burlesque'". Gilbert and Sullivan were each well acquainted with the Gaiety and its house artistes.

How and when the pair came to collaborate on Thespis is uncertain. Gilbert was a logical choice for the assignment. With seven operas and plays premièring that year and over a dozen other burlesques, farces and extravaganzas under his belt, he was well known to London theatregoers as a comic dramatist. Sullivan, however, was at this point mainly known for his serious music. His completed music that year included the choral cantata On Shore and Sea, a suite of incidental music for Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, and numerous hymns, including "Onward, Christian Soldiers". He did have two comic operas to his credit, Cox and Box (1866) and The Contrabandista (1867), but the latter was four years in the past and had been unsuccessful. In September 1871, Sullivan had been engaged to conduct at The Royal National Opera, but it failed abruptly, leaving him unexpectedly without commitments. Hollingshead's offer of a role to his brother, Fred Sullivan, may have encouraged him to write the music for Thespis.

Both Gilbert and Sullivan recalled that Thespis was written in some haste. Sullivan recalled, simply, that "both music and libretto were very hurriedly written". In his 1883 autobiography, Gilbert wrote: "Soon after the production of Pygmalion and Galatea I wrote the first of many libretti, in collaboration with Mr Arthur Sullivan. This was called Thespis; or, the Gods Grown Old. It was put together in less than three weeks, and was produced at the Gaiety theatre after a week's rehearsal. It ran eighty nights, but it was a crude and ineffective work, as might be expected, taking into consideration the circumstances of its rapid composition."

Despite the short time available for rehearsals, Sullivan recalled that Gilbert insisted that the chorus play a major role, as it would do in their later Savoy operas: "Until Gilbert took the matter in hand choruses were dummy concerns, and were practically nothing more than a part of the stage setting. It was in 'Thespis' that Gilbert began to carry out his expressed determination to get the chorus to play its proper part in the performance. At this moment it seems difficult to realise that the idea of the chorus being anything more than a sort of stage audience was, at that time, a tremendous novelty. In consequence of this innovation, some of the incidents at the rehearsal of 'Thespis' were rather amusing. I remember that, on one occasion, one of the principals became quite indignant and said, 'Really, Mr. Gilbert, why should I stand here? I am not a chorus-girl!' to which Gilbert replied curtly, 'No, madam, your voice is not strong enough, or no doubt you would be.' "

The production "aroused a great deal of interest and speculation". Ironically, it had "probably the largest audience" of any Gilbert and Sullivan première, as the Gaiety was the largest of the five London theatres at which their joint works premièred.

Many writers in the early 20th century perpetuated a myth that Thespis ran only a month and was considered a failure. In fact, it remained open until 8 March. Of the nine London pantomimes that appeared during the 1871–72 holiday season, five closed before Thespis did. By its nature, the genre did not lend itself to long runs, and all nine had closed by the end of March. Moreover, the Gaiety normally only ran productions for two or three weeks; the run of Thespis was extraordinary for the theatre.

After the production of Thespis, Gilbert and Sullivan went their separate ways, reuniting three years later, with Richard D'Oyly Carte as their manager, to produce Trial by Jury in 1875.

Only three musical passages from Thespis are known to survive: the ballad "Little maid of Arcadee", the chorus "Climbing over rocky mountain", and the ballet music. The fate of Sullivan's score has long been a subject for speculation. In 1978, Isaac Asimov wrote a time travel story, "Fair Exchange?", which focused on a character travelling back to 1871 to rescue the score to Thespis before Sullivan could destroy it. But Sullivan is not known to have destroyed it, and the ballet, at least, was still available to be reused in 1897.

Seasonal works like Thespis were not normally expected to endure, and apart from a benefit performance shortly after the original staging, Thespis was not performed again during its creators' lifetimes. A renewed interest in the piece began in the 1950s, and numerous productions have been performed since, either with music taken from Sullivan's other works, or with original music.

Thespis Synopsis

Original Programme
Original Programme

Act I

Scene: A Ruined Temple on the Summit of Mount Olympus

On Mount Olympus, the elderly deities complain of feeling old and lament their waning influence on Earth. Mercury complains that the older gods are lazy and leave all their duties to him, while he gets no credit for all his drudgery. Jupiter says that matters have reached a crisis, but he is unsure what can be done about it. Just then, the gods see a swarm of mortals ascending the mountain and withdraw to observe them from a distance.

Thespis's acting company enters for a picnic celebrating the marriage of two of its members, Sparkeion and Nicemis. The actors, being cheap, have failed to contribute substantial food items to the picnic. Sparkeion flirts with his former fiancée, Daphne, which annoys Nicemis. In retaliation, Nicemis flirts with her old suitor, Thespis, but he declines to flirt back. Thespis explains to his troupe that a successful manager must be aloof from those he manages, or he will lose his authority.

Jupiter, Mars and Apollo enter. All of the actors flee in terror, except for Thespis. Jupiter asks Thespis whether he is impressed with the father of the gods. Thespis replies that the gods are unimpressive and suggests that they go down to earth in disguise to "mingle" and judge for themselves what people think of them. They agree to invest the actors with their powers, as they take a merry holiday below on Earth. Thespis agrees that he and his company will keep things running on Mount Olympus during the gods' absence. Each actor takes the place of one of the gods, with Thespis himself replacing Jupiter. Mercury stays behind to offer any advice the actors may need.

Act II

The Same Scene, One Year Later, with the Ruins Restored

Under Thespis's direction, Olympus has been restored to its former splendour, and the Thespians enjoy ambrosia and nectar. Thespis's rule is very liberal, and he has advised his troupe not to "be hampered by routine and red tape and precedent". The celestial assignments, however, have caused some difficulties, as the romantic entanglements of the actors in real life conflict with those of the gods that they are playing. Venus, played by Pretteia, is supposed to be married to Mars, but the actor playing Mars is her father. A possible solution is discovered in Venus having actually married Vulcan, but Vulcan is her grandfather. Sparkeion, who took on the role of Apollo, accompanies his wife, Nicemis, who plays Diana, on her nightly duties, so that the sun is up during the night.

Mercury informs Thespis that the substitute gods have received many complaints from mortals because some are not performing their functions, and others' ill-judged experiments have wreaked havoc in the world below. For instance, Timidon, the replacement for Mars, is a pacifist and a coward; the substitute for Hymen refuses to marry anyone; and the ersatz Pluto is too tenderhearted to let anyone die. Daphne, who plays the muse Calliope, comes to Thespis and claims, based on a bowdlerised edition of the Greek myths, that Calliope was married to Apollo. She points out that Apollo, played by Sparkeion, is the brother of Diana (played by Sparkeion's wife, Nicemis). Thespis decides that Sparkeion is married to Daphne while they are gods, but his marriage to Nicemis will resume when they are mortals once again.

When the gods return, they are furious and tell Thespis that he has "deranged the whole scheme of society". Thespis says that they should calm down, as the list of mortals' complaints is about to be read. The gods watch incognito as Mercury presents the complaints: The actors have ruined the weather; caused strife among the nations; and there is no wine, since Bacchus is a teetotaller. After listening to these grievances, the gods angrily shed their disguises. The actors beg to stay on Olympus, but Jupiter punishes them for their folly by sending them back to earth cursed as "eminent tragedians, whom no one ever goes to see".

Last Updated
June 04 2017