Benford's G&S Lexicon Entries for Trial By Jury

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About the Opera

Trial By Jury

The theatrical entrepreneur Richard D’Oyly Carte was convinced that English audiences would pay to attend respectable, well-written and well-produced musical entertainments. He was also convinced that he knew who among his contemporaries were most likely to write the works he envisaged. Although Thespis had been a modest success, Carte was sure the team could do even better. He knew that Gilbert was the nation’s best-known wit and dramatist, and that Sullivan was England’s preeminent composer. Given the right encouragement, surely they could work together to produce first-class musical theater. Carte succeeded in effecting this collaboration when he commissioned them to write Trial by Jury. Gilbert had at hand a libretto based on one of his earlier ballads (in the form of a brief operatic sketch) and Sullivan quickly set it to music. The mini-opera was intended to fill out a program built around Offenbach’s La Périchole, and was first performed at the Royalty Theatre on March 25, 1875. Gilbert labeled it “A novel and entirely original dramatic cantata, in one act.” Trial soon became more of an attraction than La Périchole, and Carte knew he had been right in assessing the worth of Gilbert and Sullivan as a team. This view was emphasized by a reviewer for the Times, who wrote that Sullivan’s score fitted Gilbert’s words as though words and music had proceeded from the same brain. This turned out to be an astute observation that was frequently applied to all the pair’s joint operas (178, 275).

Trial by Jury ran for 131 consecutive performances, and still delights audiences everywhere. The plot is simplicity itself. The scene is a courtroom where a jilted bride is suing her former fiancé. After considerable argument –– much of it carried off in mock Italian/Handelian operatic style –– the judge determines to make everyone happy by marrying the plaintiff himself. Being himself a lawyer, Gilbert had no difficulty in poking this sort of fun at the British legal system. There are no spoken lines in the opera and the music sparkles from beginning to end.



The person who stands accused.

Counsel [Counsel for the plaintiff]

This is the barrister who presents the accusations brought by the plaintiff against the defendant, who will plead his own case aided only by his guitar.


Person who asks the court for a remedy against another person.


The doorkeeper and messenger in a court of law, also charged with maintaining dignity and decorum. Knight (178) observes that Gilbert has expanded the fellow’s duties by having him swear the jury, a duty normally reserved for an associate.

Associate [A mime role listed among the Dramatis Personae]

Goodman (142) says “In this context it means the clerk of the court.” Prestige (154) notes that, “he sits robed beneath the judge and acts as a sort of note taker.” Stone (284) states that Gilbert himself played the role in at least six benefit performances. One such performance was on behalf of burlesque queen Nellie Farren (155).


A barrister is a professional trial advocate who until 1990 had the exclusive right to plead cases in the higher courts (both civil and criminal) in England and Wales. A citizen who had need of legal help would approach a solicitor, a pre-trial attorney. If the situation involved a pleading before a higher court, the solicitor would turn the case over to a barrister who specialized in the kind of law involved. Otherwise the solicitor might handle the case without benefit of barrister. Each barrister belonged to one of four independent “Inns of Court,” which had the sole right of licensing barristers to appear in the superior courts. What I describe above applies to the situation in Gilbert’s day (143, 243, 309). Since January 1990, however, the division of advocacy work between solicitors and barristers has been largely removed, although all other divisions of work remain.


Subpoena [Summoned by a stern subpoena]

Pronunciation: suh-PEEN-ah

A legal order to appear in court. Knight (178) points out that a defendant would be notified by a “writ,” but Gilbert needed a word to rhyme with Angelina.

Edwin … Angelina [Edwin, sued by Angelina]

This was a traditional pairing of names of faithful lovers (302). They were linked by Oliver Goldsmith in a ballad, The Hermit, or Edwin and Angelina, written in 1764 (28). The names were also linked in a long series of articles in the then-current periodical Fun (284).

Fortissimo [Usher sings fortissimo]

Real loud, like an elephant with a bull horn.

Condole [Condole with her distress of mind]

To join in grief.

Court of the Exchequer

This was a court of common law established to deal with financial disputes between the crown and ordinary citizens. Burgess (60) says it was established by Henry II (who reigned from 1154 to 1189), whereas Knight (178) credits Henry I (who reigned from 1100 to 1135). It was merged with the Queen’s Bench either in 1873 (60) or 1881 (178). Shipley (266) says the term relates to the checkered table and colored counters the king’s counselors used to calculate national revenue. But, why would a breach of promise case be tried there? Knight (178) explains that such a breach would render the injured party unable to pay her taxes to the Crown. A nice example of a legal fiction.

Pecker [Be firm, my pecker]

We can thank Queen Victoria herself for help here. In a letter to one of her daughters, she wrote that, “Keep up your pecker” means, “Keep up your spirits, and don’t be downhearted” (258). Despite the queen’s implied approval of the expression, American directors may want to effect some discreet substitution. They might try this:

Edwin: Is this the court of family cases? (alarmed) I see no smiles upon their faces!

Or, as suggested by Green (89): “It is, it is the Exchequer.”

Evil star [Your evil star’s in the ascendant]

Your astrological timing couldn’t be worse.

Damages [dread our damages]

Compensation paid to an injured person.

Pleadings [On the merits of my pleadings]

The formal written arguments between the parties in a law suit or action (178).


Simulated sound of a guitar, or whatever instrument Edwin chooses to play. The OED (229), in its characteristic style, pins it down thus: “Tink: A representation of the abrupt sound made by striking resonant metal with something hard and light. Often reduplicated in imitation of the repetition of such a sound, also with such variations as tink-tank, tink-a-tink, etc.” Kravetz (181) opines that tink-a-tank is too clumsy a sound for a guitar, more like a banjo. Green (145) would seem to agree. Knight, however, votes for a mandolin (178). One cannot be too meticulous in vital matters such as these.


An irresponsible fellow who toys with a young woman’s affections.


A low, vulgar fellow (56).

Cloy [And love, unchanged will cloy]
Sketch of Oh, I was like that when a lad

Become too much, or too sweet, for pleasure. In his Bab Ballad, “Peter the Wag” (127), Gilbert uses it to describe a jam of people: “And flocking crowds completely cloyed the mazes of Soho.”