Thespis (partially found score to Gilbert and Sullivan opera; 1871)

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400px-Thespis - Illustrated London News Jan 6 1872.png

Illustration of the opera by D. H. Friston, as published in an 1872 issue of The Illustrated London News.

Status: Partially Found

Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old, was the very first collaboration between the legendary opera duo, W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. The opera premièred in London at the Gaiety Theatre on 26 December 1871 and like many productions at that theatre, it was written in a broad, burlesque style, considerably different from Gilbert and Sullivan's later works. It was a success, for a Christmas entertainment of the time.[1] The opera ran for 63 performances and closed down the next year.[2]

The opera survives only in the form of a libretto, allowing details of the plot and dialogue to be known. The plot involved an acting troupe traveling to Greece and switching places with the gods on Mt. Olympus. Proving to be quite the inept rulers, a bunch of cosmic hilarity ensues.[3] According to reviews, the audience was left roaring with laughter throughout the opera's running time.[4]


Most of the opera's music is now completely lost. No sheet music was widely distributed, and no sound recordings survive. There are a few exceptions, though. Two of the opera's songs, "Climbing Over Rocky Mountain" (a chorus with solos) and "Little Maid of Arcadee" are known to exist. A short ballet from the production was discovered in the 1990s and had a couple of performances, none of which were recorded.

Isaac Asimov, famous science fiction writer and lifelong G&S devotee, wrote a short story, "Fair Exchange?", about a man who travels back in time to "rescue" the opera from being lost (with unintended consequences).[5] Many recreation efforts have been attempted, but the music has yet to surface in any form.


  1. Walters, Michael. "Thespis: a reply", W. S. Gilbert Society Journal, Vol. 4, part 3, Issue 29. Summer 2011.
  2. The length of the run is given as 64 performances in some sources. According to Rees (p. 78, n. 7), that is because they fail to take into account that there was no performance of Thespis on Ash Wednesday.
  3. Allen, Reginald (1975). The First Night Gilbert and Sullivan (Centennial ed.). London: Chappell & Co. Ltd. p. 2
  4. The Observer, 31 December 1871
  5. Asimov, Isaac. "Fair Exchange?", Asimov's Science Fiction Adventure Magazine, Davis Publications, Inc., Fall 1978, pp. 56–65. Also in Asimov, Isaac (1981). Three by Asimov. New York: Targ Editions. Also in Asimov, Isaac (1983). The Winds of Change and Other Stories. New York: Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-18099-3.

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