This Day in History – December 26th, 1871

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. Gilbert and Sullivan went on to become the most famous and successful artistic partnership in Victorian England, creating a string of comic opera hits, including H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado, which continue to be popular.


Illustration of Thespis by D. H. Friston from The Illustrated London News, 1872, shows Apollo, Mars, Jupiter, Thespis and Mercury (r.)

Thespis premièred in London at the Gaiety Theatre on December 26th, 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”.

The story follows an acting troupe headed by Thespis, the legendary Greek father of the drama, who temporarily trade places with the gods on Mount Olympus, who have grown elderly and ignored. The actors turn out to be comically inept rulers. Having seen the ensuing mayhem down below, the angry gods return, sending the actors back to Earth as “eminent tragedians, whom no one ever goes to see”. Gilbert would return to this theme twenty-five years later in his last opera with Sullivan, The Grand Duke, in which a theatre company temporarily replaces the ruler of a small country and decides to “revive the classic memories of Athens at its best”.

Gilbert & Sullivan

Gilbert & Sullivan

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.

Flourish 3

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