December 26, 1871: Thespis premieres at the Gaiety Theatre in London. Also called The Gods Grown Old, it was an operatic extravaganza as well as the first time WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan worked together. No score was ever published and most of the music has been lost. The theater was used to host many different types of works created in the burlesque style. Thespis was a moderate success as a Christmas entertainment and ran until March 8, 1872 after 63 performances. It was advertised as “An entirely original Grotesque Opera in Two Acts”.
The work referenced ancient Greek gods when Thespis, the father of drama, traded places with the gods on Mount Olympus. The gods had grown old and were ignored and when they returned to Earth, they were unimpressed with the way life on earth had turned out. The now inept leaders were disgusted with their lot and returned to Mount Olympus and sent Thespis and his group of actors back down to Earth. There are three pieces of music which remain today. Little maid of Arcadee was one of four numbers to receive an encore on this date. The song enjoyed popularity even after the demise of the play.
The play was under rehearsed and many critics noted it was in serious need of shortening. Carriages were to be called for at 11 PM but the play was still running at midnight. It did not receive good reviews for these and other reasons. All was not lost. There were nine such entertainments offered that year as holiday entertainment and of those nine, five closed before Thespis did. Gaiety usually ran seasonal performances for only a few weeks and this was offered for months – an extraordinary run for the venue. The opera was altered after the first performance, something Gilbert and Sullivan would do for many of their offerings in the coming years. By the third night of the run, a critic reported that not a single hitch in the performance remained.
Gilbert and Sullivan were one of the most famous Victorian era theatrical partnerships. Librettist Gilbert teamed up with composer Sullivan on fourteen comic operas between this date and 1896. HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado were their most famous. After Thespis, the two did not work together again for four years but each worked separately and became famous in his own right in the interim. Their next work together seemed to have been designed by fate. Gilbert had written a short libretto on order but the woman who was to play the lead died in childbirth and the project was abandoned. Then Richard D’Oyly Carte needed a short piece to fill a bill and since Gilbert already had the libretto, it was decided to ask Sullivan to write the score. Thus, Trial by Jury was ready in just weeks.
Soon after the production of Pygmalion and Galatea I wrote the first of many libretti, in collaboration with Mr Arthur Sullivan. This was called Thespis; or, the Gods Grown Old. It was put together in less than three weeks, and was produced at the Gaiety theatre after a week’s rehearsal. – WS Gilbert
Until Gilbert took the matter in hand choruses were dummy concerns, and were practically nothing more than a part of the stage setting. It was in Thespis that Gilbert began to carry out his expressed determination to get the chorus to play its proper part in the performance. – Arthur Sullivan
It is terribly severe on Mr. W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, the joint authors of Thespis, that their work was produced in such a crude and unsatisfactory state. Thespis on its own merits—merits of literary worth, merits of fun, merits of song writing deserves to succeed; but the management has crippled a good play by insufficiency of rehearsals and a want of that requisite polish and aplomb without which these merry operas are useless. – The Illustrated Times review
I must say that not a single hitch in the performance is now to be perceived, and that the applause and evident delight of the audience from beginning to end, the piece occupying a space of time within two hours. – London Figaro review of the third performance
Also on this day: Kwanzaa – in 1966 the first Kwanzaa was celebrated.
Searching – In 1986, Search for Tomorrow went off the air after more than 35 years.
Zounds! Sounds! – In 1933, a patent was granted for FM radio.
Storming Scandinavia – In 2011, Cyclone Dagmar made landfall.