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Theatre / Iolanthe

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Iolanthe is the seventh operetta co-written by Gilbert and Sullivan, with their usual blend of "topsy-turvy" and political satire, in this case directed primarily at the House of Lords.

The title character is a fairy who was banished by the Queen of the Fairies for marrying a mortal; when the Queen decides she has suffered enough and recalls her, Iolanthe reveals that her marriage produced a Half-Human Hybrid son, Strephon, who is an Arcadian shepherd and in love with shepherdess Phyllis, a ward of the Lord Chancellor. The Lord Chancellor forbids their marriage, ostensibly because he thinks Strephon is not a suitable match for Phyllis, particularly compared to the many members of the House of Lords who also seek her hand, but privately because he wants to marry her himself.


When Phyllis sees a broken Strephon being consoled by his much younger-looking mother, she gets the wrong idea and breaks off their engagement in favour of two of the Peers, the Earl of Mountararat and Earl Tolloller; Strephon tries calling the fairies to his aid, but when the Lord Chancellor and the Peers insult them, they respond by installing Strephon in the House of Commons to make life very difficult for the Peers. Strephon and Phyllis reconcile just as the Lord Chancellor decides that he himself should marry her. However, Iolanthe has a surprising revelation that turns the romantic entanglements on their heads...

Not to be confused with Iolanta, a Tchaikovsky opera.


This work provides examples of:

  • Arcadia: The "Arcadian Shepherds" trope is parodied mercilessly with Phyllis and Strephon.
  • Blue Blood: All the peers. Lord Tolloller even gets a song about it, "Spurn Not the Nobly Born."
  • Blessed With Suck: Strephon who is half a fairy. He's a fairy down to the waist, but his legs are mortal, and will eventually grow old and die.
  • British Royal Guards: Private Willis is one of these, and he sings a solo while no one's looking.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Most of the chorus of peers and the chorus of fairies.
  • Cool and Unusual Punishment: The Fairy Queen responds to the Peers' intransigence by threatening to make Strephon a member of Parliament, where he will institute sweeping policy changes such as rearranging Parliament's schedule so the House of Lords will be in session during grouse hunting season. Note, however, that the Fairy Queen's final threatened policy change—opening the Peerage's traditionally birthright titles to competitive examination—completely averts this trope because the threat is genuinely fearsome, raising as it does the prospect that most of the Peers will eventually be stripped of their titles.note 
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  • Eating the Eye Candy: The Fairy Queen takes a bit of a shine to Private Willis.
  • The Fair Folk: The fairies, of course.
  • Fairy Sexy: All the fairies look like winsome teenage girls of 17 years or thereabouts.
  • Forgot I Could Change the Rules: The Lord Chancellor's old job as "Equity Draughtsman"note  is parodied: in equity, a document may have to be redrafted to reflect as much of the authors' intent as possible, while making it consistent with law, justice, or public policy. The Lord Chancellor proposes a one-word alteration which completely reverses the meaning and intent of the relevant fairy law.
  • Friend Versus Lover: Tolloller and Mountararat are torn between their friendship and their unrequited love triangle with Phyllis. This nearly leads to a duel between the two friends, until Phyllis reminds them of what's important and what's not.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: The half-fairy Strephon, the romantic lead. His top half is an immortal fairy, but below the waist he's a human as mortal as any other.
  • Have a Gay Old Time:
    • "Tripping hither, tripping thither!"
    • "A fairy Member! That would be delightful!" note 
  • Hope Spot: When Strephon learns that his father—Iolanthe's husband—is of noble birth, Phyllis suggests that they need but tell him and all objections to her marrying Strephon will be at once removed. Iolanthe must then explain why Phyllis' simple and logical proposal is unworkable: Strephon's father believes Iolanthe to have died childless, and she is bound under penalty of death not to undeceive him.
  • Hurricane of Aphorisms: The song, "If You Go In, You're Sure To Win" is little more than a collection of old proverbs.
    Nothing venture, nothing win
    Blood is thick, but water's thin
    In for a penny, in for a pound
    It's Love that makes the world go round!
  • "I Am" Song: "The Law is the True Embodiment", marking the Lord Chancellor's first appearance.
    The law is the true embodiment
    Of everything that's excellent.
    It has no kind of fault or flaw,
    And I, my Lords, embody the Law.
  • Leitmotif: Surprisingly, the Lord Chancellor has one, a short theme that plays every time he enters.
  • Luke, I Am Your Father: Strephon learns that one of the major antagonists is his father.
  • Mood Whiplash: The second half of Act 2. The Lord Chancellor sings a gloomy recitative which leads into the surreal Nightmare Song. He, Tolloller and Mountararat then have a funny dialogue and an upbeat song. Then Strephon enters "in low spirits" (the whiplash is even more pronounced if his darkly satirical Cut Song is included) but then reconciles with Phyllis and they sing a happy duet. They ask Iolanthe to persuade the Lord Chancellor to let them marry.

    The whiplashings culminates in a completely non-comic scene absolutely Played for Drama: Iolanthe reveals to Strephon and Phyllis that she married the Lord Chancellor years ago, but now must never see again on pain of death. The Lord Chancellor enters, determined to marry Phyllis. Iolanthe pleads with him incognito in a beautiful, heart-rending song, reminding him of his own dead wife from his youth. After momentary indecision, he steels himself and informs this unknown lady that Phyllis is his own promised bride. Iolanthe reveals herself, prepared to sacrifice her life for his son's happiness. The Fairy Queen enters to execute her. Then the whole thing is resolved with an absurd, typically Gilbertian plot twist.
  • Murphy's Bed: The first verse of the Lord Chancellor's "nightmare" song is devoted to this trope, and how the anxiety of hopeless love can make every lump in the pillow and every prickle in the blankets seem much worse than it is.
  • Not What It Looks Like: Strephon's mother looks about 17. His fiancée catches the two of them embracing and jumps to a reasonable if erroneous conclusion that drives the Act II plot. Later on, Strephon reminds Phyllis that all his aunts look just as young. Phyllis understands:
    Phyllis: Whenever I see you kissing a very young lady, I shall know it's an elderly relative.
    Strephon: You will? Then, Phyllis, I think we shall be very happy!
  • Older Than They Look: All the fairies are Really 700 Years Old, but appear to be attractive teenage girls.
  • One-Word Title: Secondary Character Title
  • Opening Chorus: "Tripping Hither, Tripping Thither."
  • Patter Song: The Nightmare Song, a.k.a. "When You're Lying Awake" is easily the toughest such song in the whole canon, not least because it's the longest. note 
  • The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: The House of Lords, and proudly so. As Mountararat sings in "When Britain Really Ruled the Waves", British Peers have distinguished themselves throughout their nation's most glorious historical victories by... not so much as lifting a finger.
    When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte,
    As every child can tell,
    The House of Peers, throughout the war,
    Did nothing in particular,
    And did it very well.
  • Playing Gertrude: Justified in any production, as Strephon's mother and aunts are supposed to all look noticeably younger than him, and one of the jokes is the need for him to explain to people (such as his intended bride) why teenage girls are seen hugging and kissing him.
  • Power of Friendship: Parodied with Lords Tolloller and Mountararat, with heavy doses of both Jerkass and What an Idiot!, not to mention so much Have a Gay Old Time, it verges on Ho Yay.
    Tolloller: We were boys together! Or at least, I was.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: The Lord Chancellor prides himself on never letting his good heart interfere with the rulings he makes as a judge.
  • Purple Prose: Satirized in this particularly purpurescent speech:
    Strephon: My Lord, I know no Courts of Chancery; I go by Nature's Acts of Parliament. The bees — the breeze — the seas — the rooks — the brooks — the gales — the vales — the fountains and the mountains cry, "You love this maiden — take her, we command you!" 'Tis writ in heaven by the bright barbed dart that leaps forth into lurid light from each grim thundercloud. The very rain pours forth her sad and sodden sympathy! When chorused Nature bids me take my love, shall I reply, "Nay, but a certain Chancellor forbids it"? Sir, you are England's Lord High Chancellor, but are you Chancellor of birds and trees, King of the winds and Prince of thunderclouds?
    Lord Chancellor: No. It's a nice point. I don't know that I ever met it before. But my difficulty is that at present there's no evidence before the Court that chorused Nature has interested herself in the matter...
  • Relative Error: Justified quite well, as Strephon's mother (as an immortal fairy) is Really 700 Years Old but looks to be about seventeen. Phyllis is understandably skeptical when she sees them embracing, and promptly breaks off her engagement. Eventually resolved in the hilarious lines:
    Phyllis: Whenever I see you kissing a very young lady, I shall know it's an elderly relative.
    Strephon: You will? Then, Phyllis, I think we shall be very happy!
  • Saying Sound Effects Out Loud: The chorus of Peers mimics the sound of brass and percussion: "Tantantara, Tzing, Boom!"
  • Secondary Character Title
  • Supernaturally Young Parent: Fairies are unaging, and Stephron has a hard time explaining to his beloved that these nubile women he is seen embracing are, in fact, his mother and his aunts, all of whom look younger than him.
    I wouldn't say a word that could be reckoned as injurious
    But to find a mother younger than her son is very curious
  • Tsundere: In "In Vain to Us You Plead", the fairies are clearly of two minds concerning the Peers:
    It's true we sigh,
    But don't suppose
    A tearful eye
    Forgiveness shows.
    We're very cross indeed... Don't go!
  • Unwanted Harem: The Lord Chancellor, the Earls of Mountararat and Tolloller, and the entire Chorus of Peers are all in love with Phyllis, who wants none of them.
  • Wife Husbandry: The Lord Chancellor is as smitten with his ward, Phyllis, as all the other Lords, and decides to marry her himself after Lords Mountararat and Tolloller convince him that it would not be improper to do so.


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