Trial by Jury is a comic opera in one act, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert. It premiered on March 25, 1875 in London at the Royalty Theatre, where it initially ran for 131 performances.
The opera came four years after Gilbert and Sullivan's only previous collaboration (Thespis, an 1871–72 Christmas season entertainment). In the intervening years, the author and composer each became even more eminent in his field. Trial was a hit, and numerous revivals followed. Its success launched the series of Gilbert and Sullivan operas (twelve more after Trial) that came to be known as the Savoy Operas, named for the theatre that Carte later built for them.
Trial is the only Gilbert and Sullivan opera played in one act, and the only one with no spoken dialogue. As it is only about 30 minutes long, it is usually coupled with another work — often one of the shorter two-act Savoy Operas, such as The Sorcerer or H.M.S. Pinafore, or presented as a triple bill with Cox and Box and The Zoo. As with all the G&S operas, the plot of Trial is ludicrous, but by behaving as if everything were perfectly reasonable, the characters in this satire of the legal system (a favorite target of Gilbert's, who had a brief legal career) reveal truths about common foibles and follies of men, women and society at large.
In 1868, Gilbert had published one of his Bab Ballads, entitled Trial by Jury: An Operetta. This was a single-page comic skit, in verse. It described a trial for "breach of promise" (a man’s failure to marry the woman to whom he is engaged). This piece was one of Gilbert’s humorous spoofs of the law and the legal profession, based on his brief experience as a barrister. The skit ends with the impatient Judge resolving the lawsuit by marrying the comely plaintiff himself.
In 1873, Gilbert arranged with the theatrical manager and composer, Carl Rosa, to expand the piece into a one-act libretto. Rosa was to write the music, and his wife was to sing the role of the plaintiff, as part of a season of English opera that Rosa planned to present at the Drury Lane Theatre. Rosa's wife died in childbirth in 1874, and the project was dropped.
Later in 1874, Gilbert offered the libretto to impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte, but Carte as yet had no venue where the piece would be suitable. By early 1875, Carte was managing the Royalty Theatre, and he needed a short opera to be played as an afterpiece to Offenbach's La Périchole. He remembered Trial by Jury, and, having seen Thespis, Carte suggested that Sullivan was the man to set the new piece. Sullivan was enthusiastic, and Trial by Jury was composed in a matter of weeks. The result was a witty, tuneful and very "English" piece that became an immediate hit in London and on tour throughout the provinces.
The curtain rises on the Court of the Exchequer, where a jury and the public assemble to hear a case of breach of promise of marriage ("Hark, the Hour of Ten is Sounding"). It soon becomes clear that the jurymen's sympathies are with the plaintiff, Angelina. They greet the defendant, Edwin, with hostility. He tries to persuade them that his position is reasonable ("When First my Old, Old Love I Knew"), but as they are respectable gentlemen, they refuse to make any allowances for the fickleness of youth ("Oh, I was Like That When a Lad").
The Judge enters with great pomp ("All Hail, Great Judge"), and starts the proceedings by describing how he rose to his position ("When I, Good Friends, was Called to the Bar"). Preliminaries dispensed with, the jury is sworn in and the plaintiff summoned into court: she arrives in full wedding dress, accompanied by all her bridesmaids ("Comes the Broken Flower"), and instantly captures the heart of both the jury and the Judge. Counsel for the plaintiff makes a moving speech detailing Edwin's betrayal ("With a Sense of Deep Emotion"). Angelina sobs, first in the arms of the foreman of the jury, and then the Judge.
Edwin suggests that he will marry both women ("Oh Gentlemen, Listen, I Pray"), but the counsel points out that this would be "burglaree". Perplexed, everyone in court ponders the difficulty of the situation ("A Nice Dilemma We Have Here"). Angelina says that she still loves Edwin, and deplores the loss of his love ("I love him, I love him"), and so substantial damages should be awarded to her. But Edwin says that he is a smoker, a drunkard, and a bully, and that she would surely have been unhappy with him, and so the damages should be small. The Judge suggests making Edwin tipsy to see if he would really "thrash and kick" the plaintiff, but everyone except Edwin objects. Impatient at the lack of progess, the Judge resolves the case by proposing to marry Angelina himself. This is quite satisfactory, and the opera is concluded "With Joy Unbounded".
After the premiere of Trial by Jury in 1875, operetta companies in London and in the provinces picked it up rapidly, usually playing it as a forepiece or an afterpiece to French operettas. The first American productions were at the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia on October 22, 1875, and the Eagle Theatre in New York on November 15, 1875.
After Gilbert and Sullivan became established with Richard D'Oyly Carte, Trial was usually played as a companion piece to The Sorcerer or H.M.S. Pinafore. From 1894, the year when the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company established a year-long touring company that had most of the Gilbert and Sullivan works in its repertory, Trial was always included, except for 1901–1904, and then again from 1943–46, when the company played a reduced repertory during World War II. It was eliminated in 1976, as a cost-saving measure.
The following table summarises the main London productions of Trial by Jury during Gilbert's and Sullivan's lifetimes:
The following tables show the casts of the principal original productions and D'Oyly Carte Opera Company touring repertory at various times through to the 1975 centenary season:
Starting in 1877, Trial by Jury was often given at benefit performances, usually for an actor or actress who had fallen on hard times, but occasionally for other causes. These were glittering affairs, with various celebrities appearing in principal roles or as part of the chorus. W. S. Gilbert himself played the silent role of the Associate on at least four occasions. Arthur Sullivan conducted the 1877 benefit for actor Henry Compton. The Ellen Terry benefit in 1906 was a particularly well attended affair, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle numbered among the jury. Burgess (1997, pp. 56–61) reproduces the programmes for several of these benefits in facsimile. Others are listed in Gänzl (1986, pp. 95–98).