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Review from The Daily News
Saturday, March 27, 1875

In whimsical invention end eccentric humour Mr. W. S, Gilbert has no living rival among our dramatic writers, and never has his peculiar vein of drollery and satire been more conspicuous than in a little piece entitled Trial by Jury, produced at the Royalty Theatre on Thursday evening. On this occasion the dramatist and the musical composer have worked together; and so completely is each imbued with the same spirit that it would be as difficult to conceive the existence of Mr. Gilbert's verses without Mr. Sullivan's music, as of Mr. Sullivan's music without Mr. Gilbert's verses, Each gives each a double charm, and yet the piece bears so distinctly the impress of Mr. Gilbert's faculty of combining extravagance with design, and above all of his rare gift of creating new forms of humour, that there can be little doubt that the librettist is the master spirit of the work.

The whole performance occupied less than an hour; it came after La Perichole, the more substantial item in the programme, in which the chief male singer, Mr. Fisher, had unfortunately exerted himself too much to have any voice left for Mr. Sullivan's service. But no disadvantages could mar its effect. Laughter more frequent or more hearty was never heard in any theatre than that which more than once brought the action of the "dramatic cantata" on Thursday evening to a temporary standstill.

It would not, perhaps, occur to many minds that the proceedings in an English court of law could be made capable of musical illustration, much less that they could be treated throughout in a lyrical spirit, so that the very oath to the jury – idealised, it is true, for the occasion – should be administered in rhyme, and sung in the form of recitative. But this is not all that is attempted in Trial by Jury. The jurymen express themselves in chorus; the usher proclaims silence and invokes a patient hearing in the same melodious fashion. The defendant himself, gaily dressed and with a guitar bedecked with ribbons, tells his own story in a characteristic song; the counsel pleads; the fair plaintiff in bridal attire (for breach of promise is the burthen of the pleadings) makes eloquent appeal; the judge discourses and kindly volunteers a sketch of his own career; the bridesmaids who introduce the plaintiff take their turn in the chorus; strophe and antistrophe succeed in orthodox fashion; solos are sung, and concerted pieces worked up with overflowing humour and yet with remarkable musical skill; and all this while no word is merely spoken, and the laws which govern the lyrical drama are strictly observed.

Mere extravagance of humour in such a case might prove abundantly amusing, and so furnish its own justification. But there is more than one ingenious idea which runs through the little piece adding to its amusing characteristics and giving it a claim to higher rank. It may be regarded as a reductio ad absurdum of operatic drama, and so Mr. Sullivan, judging from his occasional travestie of familiar opera situations, seems to have regarded it. And really there is no more reason why a judge should not sing his charge to the jury, or indulge in a little ballad or so about his briefless days, than there is against scores of things with which we are familiar enough on the lyrical stage. Even a defendant who trusts to the aid of a guitar in giving effect to a personal appeal to a jury; even a jury who come down from the box to sing a chorus with marvellous and most amusing uniformity of action, all of a row in front of the footlights, is after all not a whit less absurd in itself than plenty of scenes in which tenors and sopranos of high reputation have been accustomed to enchant us. And it is really curious to observe how little the mere incongruities of things, even in this wild parody, disturb the mind of the spectator under the influence of dialogue in which no word, uttered as words are uttered in daily life, is allowed to jar upon the ear. So far, perhaps, the satire may be said to miss its effect; and it will assuredly have little influence upon the ideal world of the operatic composer and librettist. But it is the vein of satire upon men and forms running throughout, and that substratum of truth that audiences are so quick to recognise, which gives to the piece the true Aristophanic stamp.

In these days, when contempt of Court is a doctrine somewhat vaguely defined, we are almost afraid to hint how much of truth there may be in that sympathy with fair plaintiffs and prepossessing witnesses which rages in the breasts of Mr. Gilbert's judge and jury; nor would we like to say whether the naif recklessness with which this sympathy is displayed all round, or the Judge's touching frankness in telling how he rose at the Bar and thence to the Bench by

  Falling in love with a rich attorney’s
Elderly, ugly daughter,

add to or detract from the reprehensible nature of matters which, when they exist, are generally more or less concealed under a veil of decorum.

But there is really neither "contempt" nor ill-nature in the piece. The overflowing fun, the perpetually odd rhymes and unexpected association of ideas, and the humorous characteristic music and the ingenious handling of the orchestra, shield the mind of the spectator from all such evil influences, until the Judge, with the full approbation of the Jury – acting as chorus after strictly classical models – solves the knot of the difficulty by descending from the Bench and offering himself as the bridegroom, while two plaster cupids in Bar wigs descend from above, and red fire burning at the wings gives a roseate tint, charmingly impossible and delightfully absurd, to the scene, on which the curtain falls.

Mr. Arthur Sullivan conducted on the occasion in person. Miss Nellie Bromley, as the Bride, sings with more taste than voice; and the same remark applies, under the circumstances already mentioned, to Mr. Walter Fisher, as the Defendant; but both in their acting entered fully into the spirit of the piece. Something more may be said for Mr. Frederick (sic) Sullivan as the Judge, and Mr. Hollingsworth as the Counsel for the Plaintiff. The performance bears marks of painstaking preparation and very careful study of details. It is worth noting that Mr. Gilbert does not condescend to provoke laughter by extravagance of costume or by any of those incongruities of clothing which are the common resource of mere burlesque writers. Bridal attire may be unusual for a plaintiff in court; but still, in this instance, it is bridal attire. Judge, jury, and spectators are indeed rigidly confined to the sober possibilities of dress; and even Mr. Fisher's guitar, though absurd, it is true, when regarded us an instrument of forensic persuasion, is neither exaggerated into a double-bass viol nor diminished to a dancing-masters toy. Mr. Gilbert was himself an extravaganza writer in his early days, but he has learnt to put away these childish things.

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