Ruddigore is essentially a satire on the "transpontine" (1) melodrama popular during the childhood of Gilbert and Sullivan's audiences. The passionate sailor, the wicked baronet, the sudden revelation of identity-- all are stock elements of this particular theatrical form. (2) Melodrama and satire both function through distortion to the extremes; Gilbert has fused the two into a high comedy of extreme characters and circumstances. So extreme are the roles which must be filled that the characters are painfully aware of the differences between expected behavior and their own intrinsic natures. Hence Despard atones for his evil deeds with magnanimous ones, Mad Margaret identifies the cause of her madness, and Old Adam must explain that his name changes to Gideon Crawle only because bad baronets must have stewards of that name.

Within this gap Gilbert has created some of his most complex characters and among his most cynical commentaries on human nature. The major characters divorce themselves from their unpleasant traits, blaming them on external objects-- a diffident nature, an etiquette book, an overly-personified heart. Robin, Rose and Richard sing of following the dictates of one's heart-- and conveniently each heart orders its possessor to do what is socially unacceptable but privately beneficial. The ensuing series of betrayals is balances by exceptional displays of loyalty and goodness by Despard, Margaret, Hannah, and Adam-- ironically those characters with the melodramatic labels of wicked, mad, ugly, or old.

Ruddigore opened on 22 January 1887, at a cost of 8000 pounds. At least 6000 pounds went to costumes-- principally for the "chorus of Bucks and Blades," which wore replica officer uniforms from twenty different Napoleonic War-era regiments. (Doubtless a considerable amount more was spent constructing Sullivan's electrically powered glowing platinum-wire baton for the ghost scene.) Gilbert's story seems to be based on several of his Bab Ballads and his play Ages Ago (3), although the references to Hamlet are apparent. Sullivan's score, excepting the darkly lyrical "ghost music," is reminiscent of English folk songs and dances.

Opening night met with mixed reviews. Ruddygore, the opera's original title, described as "not very happily selected," left the audience somewhat uncomfortable even before the curtain rose (4). Richard's entrance song, "I Shipped, D'ye See," nearly caused an international incident when Le Figaro's London correspondent (5) mistook this lampoon on sailor braggartry and British cowardice under fire as an insult to the French people. (A proposed duel for Gilbert was reportedly abandoned in favor of an evening's carousing with cigars and French diplomats.) The trouble for most audience members began in the second act. The technical effect of the portraits coming to life was not quite so astounding as the newspapers had promised, and the entire sequence was a bit too grisly for Victorian tastes. If the audience was somewhat offended by Margaret's revealing costume in the first act, it was much more so by her Salvation Army uniform for the second, and the religious connotations of that scene were thought in poor taste. While most of the audience was enthusiastic, for the first time there were boos heard in the Savoy and even shouts of "Bring back The Mikado!" (6)

In light of this reception, Gilbert and Sullivan set about to revise the opera. Returning to an earlier proposed title, "Kensington Gore, or, Robin and Richard were Two Pretty Men," was suggested, though Gilbert much preferred "Kensington Gore, or, Not Quite So Good as The Mikado." Eventually it was decided simply to replace the Y with an I. The second act was reduced and rewritten and seemed to fare better with audiences. The show enjoyed a moderately successful run thereafter and, though not revived until 1920, has become a favorite in the years since.

Recognizing that modern audiences have different tastes and that many of the original revisions were made more in the interests of shortening the second act than improving it, this evening's performance presents the opera in a form close to the original. Verses have been restored to "I Once Was as Meek," "Painted Emblems of a Race," and "Happily Coupled Are We;" some dialogue, recitative, and incidental music has been returned; "The Battle's Roar is Over," a duet frequently omitted in revivals, remains; and the original finale to Act Two has been reconstructed.

Douglas R. Miller
Historian, Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players

  1. "Transpontine" meaning literally "across bridge;" i.e. in the less fashionable theatres across the Thames.
  2. This element of the opera may pose some difficulty to modern audiences, to whom much of Gilbert and Sullivan will seem melodramatic. But note, for instance, the language used by Rose and Richard. Rose speaks in the pseudo-Elizabethan of the archetypal innocent maiden; Gilbert's written rendering of Richard's lines captures the peculiar and at-times-incomprehensible dialect of the standard overly-nautical sailor.
  3. A performance of which is believed to be the occasion for Gilbert and Sullivan's first meeting.
  4. "Ruddy" is a not-much-more-polite word for "bloody," a curse impolite in England even today and unspeakably rude in Victorian times. "Gore," while in this case referring to a small area of land, is also a synonym for "blood," making the original title mean essentially "bloody blood."
  5. The oddly named M Johnson.
  6. Which had closed the previous week while still playing to full houses.