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Tom Cobb

Described as "An Entirely Original Farcical Comedy in Three Acts", Tom Cobb was first performed at the St. James's Theatre, 24th April 1875.


Andrew Crowther

This is one of Gilbert's funniest "straight" plays, an exercise in mad farce. In some of his theatrical criticism he had ridiculed the absurdities of "stage law", but this play contains an outrageous example of this, in the way everyone accepts without question the validity of Tom's joke will. (One of Gilbert's little jokes, I fancy.) Several ideas from this play reappear in The Grand Duke (1896), and there are also one or two interesting verbal similarities.


The scene is a "shabby but pretentious sitting-room" in the house of Colonel O'Fipp, an Irish rogue whose daughter, Matilda, is engaged to Tom Cobb, a penniless young surgeon. Tom is a lodger at O'Fipp's house, and is in debt to a moneylender, Ben Isaacs. O'Fipp has borrowed from Tom the money he got from Ben Isaacs, giving him a bundle of worthless I.O.U.s in return. Isaacs has just signed judgement against Tom. In short he is in sore financial straits as the play begins.

He has a professional rival, Whipple, a successful surgeon. They were at Medical College together, and Tom had actually done Whipple's Botany papers for him. (Everyone takes advantage of Tom.) But now Whipple is, as Tom says, "rolling in fever patients — literally rolling in fever patients, — while I haven't one to my back!" And it seems that Whipple is also his rival for Matilda's hand in marriage. Tom, penniless as he is, is in no position to marry her as things stand. Whipple proposes to her, but she says she prefers Tom. She does, however, say that if Tom hasn't married her in another month, she'll talk to Whipple again. Whipple resolves to get Tom out of the way, leaving the way free for him.

Tom tells Whipple about his financial difficulties. He is in absolute despair, and threatens suicide. But Whipple has a suggestion to make. One of Whipple's old pauper patients has just died — the man had had no name of his own, so Whipple had called him Tom Cobb as a joke. Now, says Whipple, Tom Cobb's dead — so there's an end to all Tom Cobb's problems. All he has to do is make people think it's young Tom Cobb who has died, lie low for a few months, and come back to life with a new name and a clean slate. Tom seizes the opportunity and leaves immediately, Whipple giving him £25 to tide him over.

We briefly meet Caroline Effingham, an old school-friend of Matilda's. Caroline, an intensely romantic woman, tells Matilda that she fell in love with a"poet-soldier", whom she has corresponded with but never met. However, he hasn't responded to her letters for some time and when she finds him she will sue him for breach of promise.

Before Tom "died", he scribbled a joke will in which he left his worldly goods to Matilda. O'Fipp, enraged, crumples this up and throws it away — but at this moment Whipple storms in with the news that the old pauper Tom Cobb wasn't a pauper at all, but a miser with a hoard of gold under his hearth. And he without a friend or relation in the world! O'Fipp, retrieving the will, lays claim to the money, and on that bombshell the act ends.


Scene from Tom Cobb at the Prince of Wales's Theatre from the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News,
15th May 1875
Click on picture to enlarge

Three months have passed, and the room we saw in Act One is now much better
furnished. Whipple is engaged to Matilda, and the O'Fipps are rich. Everyone is happy, thanks to the "death" of Tom Cobb, and they agree that if he should decide to return from the dead, he will find it difficult to convince anyone of his identity.

And, indeed, Tom now enters, "very seedy and dirty", his money having run out, and tries to convince the others that he is Tom Cobb. Much to his bewilderment, O'Fipp, Matilda and Whipple all deny it, and in the end he cries out: "I'm in that state of mental confusion, that I declare I don't know who I am." O'Fipp suggests he assumes another name, and chooses one at random from the Times newspaper: Major-General Arthur Fitzpatrick. For want of anything better, Tom agrees to this, and accepts from O'Fipp a pound a week for as long as he keeps that name. "I'm so hungry, and seedy, and wretched," Tom says, "that I'd agree to anything."

Now the Effingham family suddenly appears: a collection of humbugs who have a way with the "profound" phrase. We have already met Caroline Effingham in Act One, and when O'Fipp introduces Tom to them as Major-General Arthur Fitzpatrick, it turns out, of course, that that was the name of the "poet-soldier" who had jilted Caroline. Panicked by the turn of events, and by the writ for breach of promise which he suddenly finds in his hands, Tom agrees to marry Caroline.


The scene changes to the drawing-room of the Effinghams' house. Three more months have passed. Tom has transformed himself, with great effort, into a poet-soldier: his hair is long and centre-parted, he wears a floppy Byronic collar, and he talks solemn rubbish. He is, of course, still engaged to Caroline. He doesn't like to deceive her, but he is afraid of telling her who he really is because Docket & Tape, Solicitors, have been advertising in the papers for information about him. He thinks they are after him for forging the will of old Tom Cobb.

Whipple arrives and tells Tom that O'Fipp refuses to pay him his pound a week any more, because he believes that the threat of prosecution for forgery will be enough to keep Tom quiet. However, Tom is a desperate man, and writes a letter to Docket & Tape, confessing everything. But it turns out that they weren't after him for forgery, after all: they have discovered that Tom was, really and truly, the grandson of the old miser Tom Cobb: he is a fabulously wealthy man. Tom is disgusted at the mercenary behaviour of Matilda, his old fiancée, and decides to marry Caroline.

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