The Arcadians is a musical comedy styled a "Fantastic Musical Play" in three acts by Mark Ambient and Alexander M. Thompson, lyrics by Arthur Wimperis, with music by Lionel Monckton and Howard Talbot. It was produced by Robert Courtneidge and opened at the Shaftsbury Theatre in London, on April 29, 1909 and ran for 809 performances, the third longest run for any musical theatre piece up to that time.
The development of aviation and flying in the early years of the 20th century captivated the public's attention. Writers fantasized about the strange adventures that might befall those who ventured to travel by the new-fangled aeroplane. A forced landing, perhaps, in some long-forgotten land where time has stood still. These stories laid the basis for The Arcadians. "The Pipes of Pan", "Charming Weather" and "Back your Fancy" are key numbers. This musical was popular for decades. Unlike other contemporary shows that often had racially offensive scenes and characters or other issues that date them too much, The Arcadians still plays well and receives occasional performances.
The Arcadians is widely regarded as the finest musical comedy of the Edwardian era. Arcadia was a legendary site of rural perfection, first described by the Ancient Greeks, that was a popular setting for writers of the 19th century, notably W. S. Gilbert (in Happy Arcadia and Iolanthe). Both historically and dramatically, The Arcadians sits between the fading world of British comic opera, like the Gilbert and Sullivan works, and the later styles of musical comedy. The innocent Arcadians represent the older style, and the brash Londoners embody the new. This contrast between simplicity and cynicism drive the plot and its humour, a contrast personified in the character of Smith, who is magically transformed during the piece.
Sombra is troubled by reports of a place beyond the sea where ‘monsters’ live in cages of brick and stone and never tell the truth – a place called London. The Arcadians beg Father Time to bring them a Londoner. He reluctantly agrees and causes James Smith, an ageing London restauranteur with passions for airplanes and philandering, to crash land in Arcadia, where no-one tells lies or grows older, where money is unheard of and unemployment a permanent attraction. The Arcadians and Smith exchange stories, and Smith attempts to seduce Sombra by telling a lie. Far from impressed, the Arcadians immerse him in the Well of Truth, from which he emerges transformed as a young man in the scanty costume of Arcadia, with a luxuriant head of hair but minus his mutton-chop whiskers. They christen him "Simplicitas", and he will remain young until he tells a lie. His hosts dispatch him, with missionary zeal and two agelessly beautiful Arcadian nymphs, Sombra and her sister, Chrysea, to London to "set up the truth in England for ever more, and banish the lie."
They begin their crusade at Askwood races, where it is Cup Day. They cause considerable curiosity, being still clothed in the costumes of Arcady (everyone else is dressed up formally in this scene, anticipating the similar scene in My Fair Lady 50 years later). But instead of improving the Londoners, the Arcadians adopt some of their wicked ways, including betting on the races. Here Simplicitas meets his wife Mrs. Smith, who, not recognising her husband, proceeds to fall in love with the young stranger. Simplicitas flirts with her and agrees to help her open up an Arcadian restaurant in London. Then comes an opportunity for Simplicitas to distinguish himself. Jack Meadows, a jockey who was to have ridden the tempermental horse "The Deuce" has been been thrown by the ill-tempered animal, and the replacement jockey has also been injured by "The Deuce. Sombra arranges that Simplicitas shall take his mount, as the Arcadians have the gift of speech with animals, and the brute becomes as gentle as a 1amb. Simplicitas (while sound asleep) and "The Deuce" win the race, to the great satisfaction of its owner. Romantic complications ensue between Meadows and Eileen Cavanagh, a young Irish woman.
Back in London, Smith's Arcadian Restaurant, has become the rage of London, and the diet is that of the simple life. Smith, however, is not living the simple life, but rather is having "the time of his life." Mrs. Smith becomes suspicious of Simplicitas, and in endeavouring to explain the reason for an all-night absence, he tells another lie. He falls into the ornamental well in the restaurant and emerges as his former self, with his bald head and shaggy whiskers, to the astonishment and somewhat to the confusion of his wife. Sombra and Chrysea, realising that their mission to make all London tell the truth has failed, return to Arcadia – but they do leave two happy couples behind.