n 11 April 1868 in Fun, a London magazine of humour, W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) published the sketch entitled Trial by Jury. Richard D'Oyly Carte (1844-1901), manager of the Royalty Theatre, then accepted Trial by Jury as a complement to his production of Jacques Offenbach's La Perichole and a wild farce entitled "Cryptoconchoid Syphonostomata," with the proviso that then-Dr. Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900), who had already accepted commissions from the Royalty, score the libretto. Thus, D'Oyly Carte is often credited with inventing the theatrical team of Gilbert and Sullivan, whose comic operettas would surpass in popularity even those of the Cologne-born Offenbach (1819-1880), whose style and whimsical humour they imitated. Trial by Jury ran at The Royalty until 18 December 1875, and thereafter at the Opera Comique, The Strand, with another season at The Royal Strand Theatre in the spring of 1877. Ian Bradley gives the number of performances over that initial two-year period as about 300. For the musical team Carte built the Savoy Theatre in 1881; hence, the term "Savoyard" for devotee of G & S operettas. Trial by Jury differs from the other G & S operettas in its brevity and its lack of dialogue, but like the others derides a British institution and juxtaposes patter songs and romantic arias while providing the chorus with a central role.
A formulaic, expostulation and reply (contrapuntal) piece for soloist and chorus, "The Judge's Song" is the first in a series of memorable "patter-songs" in which socially prominent G & S characters reveal themselves to a group on stage, the chorus's identity varying with the circumstances of the dramatic situation; here, logically, the male chorus is the jurymen, the female chorus Angelina's bridesmaids. Each patter-song is a dazzling rhetorical exercise in dramatic irony as the principal makes a virtue of his dubious rise to power and catalogues as triumphs what are in fact accidents, indiscretions, and evidence of corruption. Thus, the former "barrister" reveals to us not merely how he became a magistrate but how venial and corrupt Victorian Britain's much-vaunted legal system really was (W. S. Gilbert as a failed lawyer writes from personal experience here). Such an autobiographical interjection is, of course, quite at odds with the extreme formality of the judicial proceedings, but the Pythonesque improbability renders to Judge's self-revelation all the more amusing. That he readily reveals a somewhat sordid record (although he presents this record as evidence of his virtuous and enterprising nature) reminds one of Browning's Duke of Ferrara in "My Last Duchess" (1842) disclosing the fate of his previous wife to Envoy entrusted by his master the Count with arranging for another to take her place.
The great irony of this song is, of course, that having jilted "a rich attorney's elderly ugly daughter" (lines 126-27) after building a highly successful legal practice with her father's patronage and the successful defence of common "thieves"), the Judge has been promoted to the bench. The Judge's building of a successful legal practice with the ill-gotten gains of the criminal class implied in "Many a burglar I've restored / to his friends and his relations" [lines 144-5] reminds one of the lucrative practice of the criminal attorney Jaggers in Dickens's Great Expectations, published seven years prior to Gilbert's writing the sketch. "It was managed [i. e., surreptitiously effected] by a job" (line 165), the Judge confides, implying that he provided bribes or other benefits to those in power; certainly he did not rise on sheer ability alone. In fact, one may argue that he engaged in criminal activity himself in order to rise. And now, as the crowning piece of situational irony, he will be presiding over a case of "Breach of Promise of Marriage" (i.e., breaking a matrimonial contract). Presumably he was sufficiently able as a legal practitioner to avoid such a charge himself.
The plaintiff, Angelina (i. e., "Little Angel"), may well be at least 25 years of age, if Census figures for the period are reliable, there being 16 marriages for every thousand adults annually. She and the defendant, Edwin, are probably named after the couple who were the subjects of a humourous series of epistolary articles entitled Letters from a Young Married Lady, which ran in Fun during the 1860's. Ultimately the names may be traced back to a poem by Oliver Goldsmith, "The Hermit, or Edwin and Angelina Brown" (1864). Under Victorian matrimonial law, which permitted civil as well as church weddings from 1836, the prospective bride was entitled to financial compensation if the "contract" (i.e., the engagement) were breached (broken off) by the prospective groom. While the jilted bride could pursue restitution for outlay of funds for the approaching ceremony (such as the gown, bridesmaids' dresses, flowers, church rental, trousseau, reception, and so on) through the Common Law Courts, a groom in a similar position would have to seek redress outside of the courts. The most celebrated literary breach of promise action is that of Bardell versus Pickwick in Charles Dickens's Pickwick Papers (1836), which concludes with the protagonist's paying the plaintiff 750 pounds.
- "The Judge's Song" from Trial By Jury
- The Social Context of W. S. Gilbert's Trial by Jury
- Links to Gilbert & Sullivan Lyrics and Tunes at Boise State
25 March 2005