On this day in 1871, the very first Gilbert and Sullivan production, Thespis, premiered. It was an “extravaganza.” The closest equivalent we have would be a revue: singing, dancing, and comedy more than a clear narrative. The production was savaged by the critics, but the writing was often admired. And it went on to run for three months, making it a modest success. Despite this, Gilbert and Sullivan didn’t work together again for four more years. What’s more, the opera was not saved. Only a couple of numbers survive.
I’m not a huge Gilbert and Sullivan fan. I admire them though. It’s just too much work to appreciate. And it does suffer from the Shakespeare disease. It has references to things that we don’t much understand anymore. And I think a lot of people affect a love of it when what they really love is the idea that they love it. But it’s still a good vehicle for Linda Ronstadt and Kevin Kline!
But I highlighted Gilbert and Sullivan because I really love the skit from That Mitchell and Webb Look. In it, the duo is unhappy about the failure of their last opera and decide to create HMS Pinafore 2 — the same story as the first one, but done in space. It turns out to be Star Trek. But the Victorian audience hates it, as well as their other modern ideas. Eventually, they find the secret, which is to give them a racist opera along the lines of The Mikado. It’s very funny.
Unfortunately, the owner of That Mitchell and Webb Look has cracked down on YouTube videos. So I’ve embedded the whole episode below. It starts at the first part of the skit. But you will have to watch the rest to see the other two parts. The truth is that the whole thing is worth watching. It was one of the greatest comedy shows ever.