In casting about for a plot that would satisfy Sullivan, Gilbert turned to one of his earlier dramatic works: a play titled The Princess, a gently satiric work based on a narrative poem by Tennyson. (Gilbert described his version as "a respectful per-version.") The story deals with a princess who eschews men and establishes a girls' college -- an innovation that was then still new in England, and not yet widely accepted. Gilbert reorganized his material, and Princess Ida was the outcome. Among the G&S operas, this one claims two distinctions: it is the only one written in blank verse, and it is the only one having three acts. (What is now the first act was originally a prologue followed by two acts.)
Princess Ida opened at the Savoy on January 5, 1884, and ran for 246 performances -- a disappointingly short duration, and one that caught Gilbert and Sullivan unprepared with a replacement. Carte accordingly revived Trial by Jury and The Sorcerer to keep the theater and the Company occupied while he tried to maintain his artistic friends in double harness. In addition to his growing distaste for Gilbertian libretti, Sullivan was suffering from a kidney ailment that was to plague him continually through the rest of his life. Fortunately for us, Carte succeeded in his delicate task -- as we shall later see.
Although Princess Ida ranks among the lesser known of the Savoy operas, it has a strong attraction for many Gilbert and Sullivan aficionados. Ida's three hulking brothers are among the funniest characters in all of comic opera; and musically, Ida's appeal to Minerva is as close as Sullivan ever came to setting Gilbert's words in grand operatic style. Ardent advocates of women's liberation may bridle at Gilbert's views, but his darts are gently tossed and draw little real blood.