Theatre: The Grand Duke

The last collaboration of Gilbert and Sullivan, and one of the least known, The Grand Duke; or, The Statutory Duel pokes fun at impoverished rulers and German words, among other things. After its initial run of only 123 performances, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company did not revive it for almost 90 years.

The story is set in the year 1750, in pre-unification Germany. A theatre troupe is plotting to overthrow the titular Grand Duke of Pfennig Halbpfennig note , a miserly man who is in chronically poor health from years of living as cheaply as possible.

Among the curious and plot-relevant laws of this tiny Grand Duchy are:
  1. a sunset provision under which laws expire after 100 years unless renewed; and
  2. the Statutory duel, a nonlethal successor to old-fashioned sword/pistol duels in which the antagonists duel with playing cards. (No, this isn't an anime.) The loser is physically unharmed, of course, but is considered dead for all legal purposes.

Naturally, Hilarity Ensues.

Tropes appearing in The Grand Duke include:

  • Arranged Marriage:
    • The winner of a Statutory duel assumes not only the loser's position in society, but also all of the loser's obligations—including, as it turns out, marriage commitments.
    • Grand Duke Rudolph is party to an unwanted marriage arrangement with the Princess of Monte Carlo, but that arrangement has a sunset provision he hopes to exploit.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: The winner of a Statutory duel assumes the loser's obligations as well as his place in society, so it behooves a prospective duelist to know what those potential obligations are.
  • Either/Or Title: As with most of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, the secondary title ("The Statutory Duel") is more descriptive than the primary.
  • Klingon Promotion: Ludwig supplants his boss Ernest as head of the theatre company by defeating him in a Statutory duel, because the winner of such a duel takes the loser's place—with all its obligations. Both men expect the Statutory Duel law to expire the next day, and neither considers the possibility of an unexpected renewal...
  • Legally Dead: The Statutory duel is meant to be a duel to the death without the bloodshed, so the loser is considered dead for all legal purposes.
  • Painful Rhyme: One of the more oft-criticised aspects of Gilbert's libretto is its perceived reliance on these, but Gilbert was aware of the problems inherent in painful rhymes, so "About a century since" in Act I features an in-universe acknowledgement:
    Notary: By this ingenious law, if any two shall quarrel
    They may not fight with falchions bright which seemed to him immoral
    But each a card shall draw, and he who draws the lowest
    Shall (so 'twas said) be henceforth dead, in fact a legal ghoest!
    (When exigence of rhyme compels
    Orthography forgoes her spells
    And "ghost" is written "ghoest".)
    Ludwig, Lisa, Ernest, Julia: With what an emphasis he dwells
    Upon orthography and spells
    That kind of fun's the lowest!
  • Quarreling Song: A staged "devil of a quarrel", sung in duet with chorus, kicks off the finale to Act I. This sets up an equally staged Statutory duel that in turn sets the stage for the events of Act II.
  • Ruritania: The fictional Grand Duchy of Pfennig Halbpfennig is one of the dozens of tiny nation-states that were united with Prussia in 1871 to form what is now Germany.
  • Translation Convention: Although the story is set in a German-speaking nation-state, the characters all speak perfect English. Gilbert lampshaded this by having the only English character, Julia Jellicoe, speak in a comically bad German accent, at one point even complaining that German is a difficult language to master.note 
  • Tying Up Romantic Loose Ends: When it comes to light that a misreading of the Statutory Duel law renders the results invalid, Ludwig's Unwanted Harem evaporates and everyone is free to marry the person they'd rather marry - mostly. Ludwig is free to marry Lisa and only Lisa, and Ernest is free to marry Julia, but Rudolph ends up having to go through with his marriage to the Princess of Monte Carlo, while her father, the Prince, ends up marrying Caroline von Krakenfeldt.note 
  • Unwanted Harem: Ludwig ascends to power by winning multiple Statutory duels, but finds himself an unwitting party to multiple marriage commitments as a result.
  • You Kill It, You Bought It: The winner of a Statutory duel takes the loserís place in society, with all attached obligations.