Lighting up the stage


One of Gilbert & Sullivan’s lesser-known works, Patience, is being given a much deserved revival by English Touring Opera, and will be arriving at our theatre this spring. We look at the background of this nineteenth century comic gem.

Although it might be a lesser-known gem now, at the time it as written, Patience was one of Arthur Sullivan and WS Gilbert’s more popular works. The sixth of their fourteen collaborations, it ran for 578 performances after its opening, more than the now better-known earlier Gilbert and Sullivan work HMS Pinafore.

It was first performed in April 1881, at the Opera Comique in London, before transferring to the Savoy Theatre, opening on 10 October that year. This opening performance at the Savoy was the first theatrical production to be lit entirely by electric light.

The titular character of Patience is a simple milkmaid, with whom the aristocratic poet Bunthorne is in love, despite the many noble maidens sighing for him. Bunthorne has a rival for Patience’s affection, in the shape of another poet, Archibald Grosvenor. There are many romantic twists and turns before the romantic fates of the three main characters (and the sighing noble maidens) are resolved.

As well as the romantic plot, the opera also contains a satire of the late nineteenth century aesthetic movement. This was a Europe-wide movement, whose unofficial motto was ‘Art for Art’s sake’. Its name came from its adherents’ belief that aesthetic vales were more important than moral or social concerns to literature, art, and interior design. Famous followers of aestheticism include Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Oscar Wilde and Algernon Swinburne. The latter two have both been suggested as models for the poet Bunthorne in Patience.

The part played in the plot of Patience by the aesthetic movement may explain why it hasn’t become as widely known as other Gilbert & Sullivan works, despite its huge popularity at the time (its initial run was the second longest by a Gilbert & Sullivan work, eclipsed only by The Mikado). On its first London revival Gilbert had been concerned about how the work would be received by a modern audience. However, as Gilbert wrote to Sullivan after the premiere of this revival (which the composer was too ill to attend), “The old opera woke up splendidly.”

Now, English Touring Opera’s new production of this neglected classic looks set to wake it from its slumber once more. While aestheticism may be no more, a satire on a celebrity-led fad surely still has relevance. Add in some highly whistle-able Gilbert & Sullivan tunes, and it will surely be a winner.

Patience:  Friday 12 May. Book here.

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