Eyes and No Eyes

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Eyes and No Eyes, or The Art of Seeing is a one-act musical entertainment with a libretto by W. S. Gilbert and music originally by Thomas German Reed that premiered on 5 July 1875 at St. George's Hall in London and ran for only a month. The original music was lost, and twenty years later new music was composed by "Florian Pascal" (a pseudonym for Joseph Williams, Jr. (1847–1923), a music publisher who acquired the copyright to the show) and published but not then performed.[1] The piece is still occasionally played by amateur societies and was presented at the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in 2006. Light Opera of New York presented it on 15 October 2008 in New York City.[2]


This work is the last in a series of six one-act musical plays written by Gilbert for Thomas German Reed and his wife Priscilla between 1869 and 1875. The German Reeds presented respectable, family-friendly musical entertainments beginning in 1855, at a time when the theatre in Britain had gained a poor reputation as an unsavoury institution and was not attended by much of the middle class. Shakespeare was played, but most of the entertainments consisted of poorly translated French operettas, risqué Victorian burlesques and incomprehensible broad farces.[3]

Alfred Reed, the son of Thomas German Reed

Gilbert took his title from a children's story, "Eyes and No Eyes; or, The Art of Seeing", in the 1799 collection of early children's literature, Evenings at Home.[4] The plot is loosely based on Hans Andersen's 1837 story, "The Emperor's New Clothes". Gilbert wrote in a programme note: "Hans Andersen has a tale in which two persons, for reasons of their own, pretend that an imaginary and non-existent garment is visible only to true and faithful men. As a natural consequence every one pretends that he can see it. On this hint the piece is founded."[5] Both stories would have been familiar to Gilbert's audience. As the theatrical newspaper The Era commented, "Everyone must remember the nursery story of 'Eyes and No Eyes', but how few there are who appear to profit by the lesson it teaches!"[6]

Although written before Gilbert and Sullivan's 1875 opera Trial by Jury, this work was not staged until after Trial had become a hit. During this period, both Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan were still producing a considerable amount of work separately. Sullivan's The Zoo also premiered in 1875. At the première, Eyes and No Eyes was played in a triple bill with Corney Grain's musical sketch, R.S.V.P., and the play Very Catching by F. C. Burnand.[5] After the original run, Eyes and No Eyes was revived by Reed in October 1875.[7]

Eyes and No Eyes is the most tightly written of Gilbert's libretti for the German Reed Entertainments.[8] The story uses characters from the Harlequinade. The opening scene of the piece reveals Clochette alone, singing as she sits at the spinning wheel. Gilbert and Sullivan would reuse this idea in the opening scene of their 1888 opera, The Yeomen of the Guard.[9] Like Gilbert's 1871 entertainment, A Sensation Novel, the work was rescored by Pascal two decades later in a style reminiscent of early Debussy, but unlike his score for A Sensation Novel, it seems to fit this work well.[8]


Note, some of the character names are those of the stock characters of the Harlequinade. Others suggest French romances.


The story is built on symmetry: There are two pairs of young lovers and one pair of old dotards. During the first half, there is a non-existent cloak said to be visible only to true lovers. In the second half there is a real cloak supposedly visible only to the eyes of flirts.

Twin brothers, Arlequin and Pierrot, love Columbine and Clochette (although they love them equally and have not decided which belongs to which). Columbine has lost the cloak that she has just bought for her uncle, Cassandre, and the girls fear his anger when he finds the money gone and no cloak. The girls observe that their uncle and the others are all very flirtatious. They decide to pretend that the non-existent cloak is "visible only to true lovers, and absolutely invisible to flirts of every degree". They pretend to admire it on each other and convince the boys that it is real. Uncle Cassandre is engaged to Nicolette, who is an "acquired taste". He has spent thirty years acquiring a taste for all her odious attributes. Columbine convinces them, too, that she has acquired a magic cloak visible to only true lovers.

Just then, however, Clochette finds the original cloak that the girls had purchased. Columbine is afraid that their uncle will beat her when he hears of the deception. Clochette has a bright thought: "Tell him you made a mistake, and that it’s visible to flirts and coquettes but invisible to true lovers." This they do, and sure enough, Cassandre and Nicolette pretend not to be able to see the cloak. The brothers now return, having "reformed" and are overjoyed to be able to see the cloak. Now the brothers and the older pair both demand to know what is the true nature of the magic. Thinking fast, the girls reply, "Well, uncle, in a kind of way you’re both right. It’s visible to true lovers under thirty, and invisible to true lovers over thirty." Everyone is very satisfied by this, and the uncle now offers the girls to the boys. He flips a coin to decide which boy gets which girl. Once assigned, the boys complain that each loves the other girl, and the girls feel the same. They surreptitiously switch back, and all ends happily.

Musical numbers[edit]

  • Introduction
  • No. 1. "As I at My Wheel Sit Spinning" (Clochette)
  • No. 2. "Yes, Yes, I Am That Miserable Beauty" (Nicolette)
  • No. 3. "Of Our Parents Each Child is the Son" (Clochette, Pierrot, and Arlequin)
  • No. 4. "Well, Here's a Very Pretty State of Things" (Clochette, Columbine, Pierrot and Arlequin)
  • No. 5. "When You Were Eight and Twenty" (Cassandre and Nicolette)
  • No. 6. "As I Was Going Along the Road" (Columbine) (DELETED)
  • No. 6. "Now, Columbine, the Magic Cloak Produce" (Cassandre, Nicolette, Columbine, and Clochette)
  • No. 7. Finale — "Agony and Fell Despair"


Reviews of the piece were mixed. The Era said, "The entertainment is certainly not equal to many other efforts of the same accomplished author, but it furnished considerable amusement to the audience."[5] The Graphic devoted only 74 words to its review, but it praised the piece as "eminently amusing" and commented that the music was "as usual extremely lively."[11] The Observer wrote, "It is ... disappointing to find the development of the little story marked by barrenness of incident and monotony of humour. The musical illustrations ... are not in Mr. German Reed's happiest or most original vein."[12]


  1. ^ See Florian Pascal profile at the Gilbert and Sullivan Archive; "A Thirty-ninth Garland of British Light Music Composers" at MusicWeb International; and Songs by Florian Pascal
  2. ^ "Eyes and No Eyes" 2008 LOONY website, accessed 10 June 2009
  3. ^ Bond, Jessie and Ethel Macgeorge. Introduction to The Life and Reminiscences of Jessie Bond, John Lane (1930). Reprinted at The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
  4. ^ Aikin, John and Anna Laetitia Barbauld. "Eyes and No Eyes; or, The Art of Seeing", The Internet Archive, accessed 24 November 2009
  5. ^ a b c The Era, 11 July 1875, p. 10
  6. ^ The Era, 7 July 1839, p. 488
  7. ^ The Observer, 26 September 1875, p. 3
  8. ^ a b Eyes and No Eyes at A Gilbert and Sullivan Discography
  9. ^ Ainger, p. 110
  10. ^ Gänzl, Kurt. The British Musical Theatre, Vol. 1 1865–1914, p. 98, Basingstoke, The Macmillan Press, 1986
  11. ^ The Graphic, 10 July 1875, p. 31
  12. ^ The Observer, 11 July 1875, p. 3


  • Ainger, Michael (2002). Gilbert and Sullivan – A Dual Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-514769-3. 
  • Bond, Jessie (1930). The Life and Reminiscences of Jessie Bond, the Old Savoyard (as told to Ethel MacGeorge). London: John Lane. 
  • Crowther, Andrew (2000). Contradiction Contradicted – The Plays of W. S. Gilbert. Associated University Presses. ISBN 978-0-8386-3839-2. 
  • Stedman, Jane W. (1996). W. S. Gilbert, A Classic Victorian & His Theatre. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-816174-5. 
  • 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)

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