Ages Ago

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A scene from Ages Ago, The Illustrated London News, 15 January 1870

Ages Ago is a musical entertainment with a libretto by W. S. Gilbert and music by Frederic Clay that premiered on 22 November 1869 at the Royal Gallery of Illustration. It marked the beginning of a seven-year collaboration between Gilbert and Clay. The piece was revived many times, including at St. George's Hall, London in 1870 and 1874, and in New York in 1880.


By the 1850s, the London stage had fallen into disrepute. Shakespeare's plays were staged, but most of the entertainments consisted of poorly translated French operettas, risque Victorian burlesques and vulgar broad farces.[1] To bring family-friendly entertainment back to the theatre, Thomas German Reed and his wife Priscilla opened their Gallery of Illustration in 1855 and brought in Gilbert in 1869 as one of their many playwrights. The Gallery of Illustration was a 500-seat theatre with a small stage that only allowed for four or five characters with accompaniment by a piano, harmonium and sometimes a harp.


After Gilbert's first offering for the Gallery of Illustration – No Cards, with music by Reed, Gilbert paired with Clay on Ages Ago, the first of a successful series of collaborations between the author and composer that would continue for the next seven years. In the eight months between the productions of No Cards, and Ages Ago, Gilbert's dramatic style had developed. Ages Ago, with its double-layered plot and its complex relationships among the characters, is more sophisticated than No Cards, which was a simple farce. In addition, the lyrics move the plot forward more than in the earlier work.[2]

Ages Ago earned praise from the critics, outran its companion piece, the popular Cox and Box, and was frequently revived over the next decade. It was Gilbert's and the Gallery's greatest success to that date, running for 350 performances in 1869.[3] It was revived several times thereafter and is still performed occasionally. At the 1874 revival, Mrs. German Reed, Leonora Braham, Alfred Reed, Stanley Betjeman, Corney Grain, and the piece itself all received warm praise from the Era's critic.[4] New York's reopened Broadway Opera House was inaugurated in 1880 with a double bill of Ages Ago and Charity Begins at Home.[5]

Gilbert produced four more pieces for Reed, including A Sensation Novel in 1871 and Eyes and No Eyes in 1875. He also wrote several comic operas with Clay, the last of which was Princess Toto in 1876. Thomas German Reed played Ebenezer Tare, while his wife played Mrs. MacMotherly. The piece also introduced Fanny Holland, who would play in many pieces for the German Reeds for years to come.

At a rehearsal for Ages Ago, Clay formally introduced the composer Arthur Sullivan to Gilbert.[6] The two later collaborated on fourteen comic operas that became the most enduring pieces of musical theatre from the Victorian era. Gilbert would later reuse many ideas and plot elements from these earlier works in the Gilbert and Sullivan operas.


W.S. Gilbert in about 1870

In the haunted Scottish Castle of Glen Cockaleekie, where the title deed to the castle, much like Brigadoon, is only found once every hundred years, Ebenezer Tare has decided that, as "possession is nine-tenths of the law," he might as well be in possession of it until such time as the deed shows up again. Being the type of a Victorian money-grubbing elderly relative, he refuses to let his niece Rosa marry her poor suitor, Columbus Hebblethwaite, who is staying for the night. The Scottish housekeeper, Mrs. MacMotherly, has second sight. She tells a tale of the original wicked Sir Roger Bohun (similarly to Dame Hannah's tale in Gilbert and Sullivan's later Ruddigore).

That night, the paintings of the castle's former owners come to life and step out of their frames (as would happen again in Ruddigore). However, a problem ensues: They were all painted at different ages, so Lord Carnaby, painted at age 65, lusts after his grandmother (Lady Maud), painted at age 17. Eventually, though, and after some wrangling, Dame Cherry and Lord Carnaby settle into middle-aged affection, while the "old" young people pair off romantically and get a painting of a solicitor to marry them. At daybreak, they return to their frames, leaving the deed behind, which gives the property to Hebblethwaite, the poor suitor. He strikes a deal whereby Tare is allowed to stay on if he permits Rosa to marry Hebblethwaite, and all ends happily.


  • Sir Ebenezer Tare of the firm of Tare and Tret, Alderman and Tallow Chandler, later Lord Carnaby Poppytop (baritone) – Thomas German Reed[7]
  • Rosa (his niece), later Lady Maud (soprano) – Fanny Holland
  • Mrs. MacMotherly, later Dame Cherry Maybud (contralto) – Priscilla German Reed
  • Mr. Columbus Hebblethwaite, later Sir Cecil Blount (tenor) – Arthur Cecil
  • Steward later Brown (bass)
  • Lady Maud de Bohun, Born 1445
    • Came into possession 1469 (Edward IV)
    • Painted by Leonardo da Vinci 1472 (Aged 17)
    • Died 1473 (Louis XI)
  • Sir Cecil Blount, Born 1540 (Elizabeth I)
    • Painted by Michael Angelo 1560 (Aged 20)
    • Came into possession 1569 (Henry II to IV)
    • Died 1579
  • Lord Carnaby Poppytop, Born 1648
    • Came into possession 1669 (Queen Anne)
    • Painted by Godfrey Kneller 1713 (Aged 65)
    • Died 1720
  • Dame Cherry Maybud, Born 1730
    • Came into possession 1769 (George III)
    • Painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds 1785 (Aged 55)
  • Lady Maud – Picture Costume tenth year of Edward IV
  • Sir Cecil – Picture Costume second year of Elizabeth I
  • Lord Carnaby – Last year of Queen Anne's reign
  • Dame Cherry – Twenty-fifth year of George III
  • Brown – Late 19th century Cockney Dress.

Musical numbers[edit]

The numbering of the songs follows that in the vocal score. The printed libretto does not include the songs through number 4, and numbers the song labelled as song 5 below as song 1. Thus, to determine the number given to a song in the printed libretto, subtract 4 from the number assigned to that song below.

  • No. 1, " Prelude"
  • No. 2, Goodbye, Goodbye
  • No. 3, When nature sleeps
  • No. 4, Eh! What is that ye say
  • No. 5, Ha! What was that
  • No. 6, It does perplex, annoy and vex
  • No. 7, We fly to fields of fancy
  • No. 8, Entr'acte and Recit: I breathe, I live
  • No. 9, Moments so fleeting
  • No. 10, Would you know that maiden fair
  • No. 11, In pity tell, O Lady mine
  • No. 12, I stand on my authority
  • No. 13, At twenty-three Lord Carnaby
  • No. 14, 'Tis Done, the spell is broken
  • No. 15, The subject drop (Finale)


  1. ^ Introduction to Ages Ago, The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive. accessed 2 December 2011
  2. ^ Crowther, Andrew. Analysis of Ages Ago, The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
  3. ^ Information about Ages Ago
  4. ^ St Georges Hall, ArthurLloyd theatre website
  5. ^ "The Drama in America", The Era, 28 March 1880, p. 4
  6. ^ William Archer. Real Conversations, pp. 124–25 (1904)
  7. ^ Gänzl, p. 19, gives cast information


  • Ainger, Michael (2002). Gilbert and Sullivan, a Dual Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-514769-3.  Chapter 6.
  • Crowther, Andrew (2000). Contradiction Contradicted – The Plays of W. S. Gilbert. Associated University Presses. ISBN 0-8386-3839-2. 
  • Gänzl, Kurt. The British Musical Theatre, Vol.1 1865–1914, Basingstoke, The Macmillan Press, 1986 ISBN 0-333-39839-4
  • Stedman, Jane W. (1996). W. S. Gilbert, A Classic Victorian & His Theatre. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-816174-3. 
  • Stedman, Jane W., Ed. (1969). Six comic plays by W. S. Gilbert. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd.  (with an introduction by Stedman)

External links[edit]