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Theatre / The Grand Duke

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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. In the 21st century it has become a bit more popular with amateur performers, and there have been a handful of professional productions, but it's still one of G&S's most rarely performed works.

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.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The grand duchy is called Pfennig Halbpfenig, German for "Penny Ha'penny".
  • Book Ends: The finale is a reprise of the opening number.
  • Card Game: The Statutory Duel is decided by a game of cards, albeit literally the simplest possible game of High Card Wins.
  • Cheaters Never Prosper: In each Statutory Duel, characters cheat by hiding an ace up their sleeves. As it turns out, according to the official rules, the ace is the lowest card.
  • Either/Or Title: As with most of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, the secondary title ("The Statutory Duel") is more descriptive than the primary.
  • Exposition Cut: When Rudolph and Ludwig announce their intention to have a Statutory Duel in the Act I finale, the Notary says "verbum sat"meaning  to skip over repetitive explanation, because the audience has already had the concept of a Statutory Duel explained to them in "About a Century Since".
  • Fixing the Game: In both cases, the Statutory Duel is fixed by characters hiding cards up their sleeves.
  • Gold Digger:
    • Julia agrees to marry Ernest even though she hates him, because she wants to be Grand Duchess. When Ludwig becomes Grand Duke instead she insists on marrying him.
    • Rudolph and Caroline are an unusual example - they're mutual gold-diggers. Each is a rich miser who wants to marry the other in order to become even richer. They are quite frank with each other about this, and while they actually are affectionate to each other, it's clear that this is only because of the money.
  • 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.
  • Leg Focus: Discussed in song as one of an actress's demands on a theatrical company:
    And G must show herself in tights
    For two convincing reasons –
    Two very well-shaped reasons!
  • The Magic Poker Equation: The cards drawn in the Statutory Duel are a king for the loser and an ace for the winner. However, this is because of cheating to rig the game beforehand, and since Cheaters Never Prosper, it turns out the ace is officially the lowest card.
  • 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!
  • Playing Card Motifs: The central plot device is a game of cards. Many productions run with this, using the cards as design elements as well.
    How strange a thing!
    He's drawn a King!
    An excellent card – his chance it aids –
    Sing Hearts and Diamonds, Spades and Clubs –
    Sing Diamonds, Hearts and Clubs and Spades!
  • Pair the Spares: At the end, the protagonists marry their respective love interests and the Grand Duke marries one of his two fiancées, the Princess of Monte Carlo, leaving the other, the Baroness von Krakenfeldt, out in the cold. She hooks up with the Princess's father for his money.
  • 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.
  • Secret Handshake: Spoofed. The conspirators' secret sign is to eat a sausage roll. Unluckily, Ludwig assumes that anyone who eats a sausage roll must be a co-conspirator, causing him to spill the details of their plot when the Grand Duke's private detective responds to his "sign" by eating three sausage rolls "with obvious relish". The actual conspirators say that he should have known better: you should be able to tell any real member of the conspiracy because by now they are all completely sick of having to eat sausage rolls.
  • 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 (which, now that she's rich, is fine by him), 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.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: Songs and words occur in at least four different languages, including Latin, Greek, Italian, and German. Words used in song lyrics include "hyporchematic", "Dithyramb", "Corybantian", "Diergeticon", "periphrastic", "choreutæ", "choregus", "drachmæ", "ariston", and "trepestai pros ton poton". Whew.
  • You Kill It, You Bought It: The winner of a Statutory Duel takes the loser's place in society, with all attached obligations.
  • You Look Like You've Seen a Ghost: When Ernest reappears in act two, Lisa enters, sees him and flees in horror. Ernest says, "One would think she saw a ghost!" Since Ernest is at this time Legally Dead, technically she did.