Benford's G&S Lexicon Entries for Thespis

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About the Opera


Gilbert and Sullivan’s first collaboration, Thespis, was written at the instigation of an imaginative London showman named John Hollingshead. Londoners in those days were fond of frothy theatrical shows that traditionally opened during the Christmas holidays and continued for several weeks thereafter. Thespis was commissioned as such a “Christmas operatic extravaganza,” and ran for 63 performances following its opening on December 26, 1871. That was a long run for such a seasonal production, particularly when one considers that the show was slapped together in a hurry and was seriously under-rehearsed.

Sad to relate, nearly all of the music has been lost, although amateur operatic groups occasionally produce their own versions of the opera using Gilbert’s words and Sullivan’s music from other works or, perhaps, Sullivanesque music of their own composition.

The story concerns a troupe of actors who climb Mount Olympus on a picnic and discover the Roman gods, grown old and ineffectual. The actors agree to take over matters on Olympus while the gods go down to mingle with ordinary mortals to learn what they (the gods) can do to regain their old influence and prestige. Upon their return a year later the gods discover that the thespians, in their impractical way, have made a botch of things. They have, for example, given the Athenians a foggy Friday in November for six months–– and now propose to make up for it with “a blazing Tuesday in July for the next twelve.” Jupiter, in his wrath, sends the thespians back to earth and condemns them all to become “eminent tragedians, whom no one ever goes to see.”

The libretto used for this chapter is that edited by Rees (252).



In Roman mythology, the king of the gods, equivalent to the Greek Zeus.


Greek and Roman god of the sun. Also god of prophecy, song, music, manly youth, and beauty (75). Most of the stories about Apollo center on his lusty affairs with women of high or low degree.

Sketch of Mars as Senior Citizen

Roman god of war, equivalent to the Greek Ares.


Roman goddess of the moon, equivalent to the Greek Artemis. A virgin, a huntress, and the twin sister of Apollo. Her private life was altogether in contrast to that of her twin.

Sketch of Venus

Roman goddess of love and beauty, equivalent to the Greek Aphrodite.


In Roman mythology the messenger of the gods, equivalent to the Greek Hermes. He was sometimes considered the patron of thieves, among his many duties.


Actors and actresses. The word comes from the Athenian dramatist Thespis (sixth century B.C.), who is believed to have originated the tragic form of the drama.

Sparkeion and Nicemis

Pronunciation: SPARKee-un, NICE miss

These are the young lovers and require no definitions; but there is some debate about how their names should be pronounced. Most directors assume Gilbert was making puns, so Sparkeion should be pronounced SPARKee-un (something like Sparky one) and Nicemiss as NICE miss. Arthur Robinson (256) argues that the correct Greek pronunciations would be Spar-KEI-on and Ni-KAY-mis. He may be right, but I think we owe it to our audiences to go along with Gilbert’s apparent intent and wink at the correct Greek pronunciations. As Shepherd (263) and Walters (302) point out, Englishmen in Gilbert’s day almost always Anglicized foreign words. Younger readers should be made aware that “spark” once meant flirt.

Stupidas and Tipseion

Pronunciation: Stupid ass or Stupidous, Tipsy one or Tipsy ‘un

Gilbert has given most of the actors artificial names appropriate to their roles, and they should be pronounced with that in mind.

Act I


A filter, or mask, worn over the face for warming or purifying the air breathed in.


What Americans call “galoshes”: rubber overshoes. Not the dainty footwear one would expect to find on the feet of a goddess. See also The Grand Duke.

Smoking cap

A pill box shaped ornamental cap formerly worn at home by male smokers (75). They were Turkish in origin, and often came to Britain as souvenirs of eighteenth century grand tours to Vienna and Istanbul (43).

Blow me up

To scold me (229).

Life Pills

Rees (251) provides this definition: “Small, tasteless, and most probably useless placebos; they were sold for the treatment of vague disorders and were usually consumed by people who felt that it was a long time since they had taken any medicine.”

Peruke [An invisible peruke]

A peruke is a wig. An invisible peruke is one so skillfully fitted that only your wigmaker knows.

Chignon [A full-bottomed chignon]

A hairpiece in the form of a rolled-up bun at the back of the neck. Very fashionable at that time.

Auricomous fluid

Pronunciation: awe-RICK-oh-muss

A hair dye that was advertised as producing “that rich golden colour so much admired in ladies and children.” Auric pertains to gold, comous to hair.


Face powder. English ladies in the nineteenth century tried to remain pale because tanned skin was associated with a working-class existence. Recall, for example, Ralph Rackstraw’s “honest brown right hand.” In Pride and Prejudice (20) the snobbish Miss Bingley criticizes the heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, by remarking, “She has grown brown and coarse!” Pearly white or gray powder was most effective in covering any such signs of exposure to the sun (251). You will now understand why the Mikado’s threat to darken ladies’ faces with permanent walnut juice was so frightening.

Hare’s foot

A powder puff shaped rather like a hare’s foot (251). Stedman (274) mentions that originally they truly were made from hares’ feet.


The Corps of Commissionaires was organized in Victorian times to find jobs for former military men of good character. They had their own uniform and could be hired for light duty such as doorkeepers, hall porters, and messengers (162).


Pronunciation: parish beadle

A minor parochial official, or other liveried flunky; sometimes a watchman. Often presented as personifying stupid officiousness (43).


Garbage man or trash collector.

Christmas boxes [Your Christmas boxes ought to be something considerable]

Gifts of cash, food, or anything else given to servants, mail carriers, trash collectors, paper carriers, and the like, on Boxing Day (the first weekday after Christmas). In bygone days the gifts were collected in boxes, which explains the term (58, 107, 229, 245, 257).


Poems intended to be sung, or lyric poems of exalted tone.


The Greek god of marriage.


In Roman mythology the god of love, equivalent to the Greek Eros. He was supposedly the son of Mercury and Venus, but his mother’s personal life was such that one could never be sure as to his sire. He is generally portrayed as a winged infant with bow and arrow, and is most in demand around Valentine’s Day.

Celestial [I’m the celestial drudge]

Pertaining to the heavens.

Ranked [I’m ranked for it]

Mercury is implying that his services rank him at the bottom of the celestial hierarchy (11).

Noodles [Though noodles are baroned and earled]