The Nun, The Dun and the Son of a Gun
A burlesque of Scribe and Meyerbeer's 'Robert the Devil', by W. S. Gilbert
W. S. Gilbert's theatrical ambitions predated by some years his successful,
if sometimes stormy, partnership with the composer Sir Arthur Sullivan in
the 'Savoy Operas'. Gilbert's first Sullivan collaboration, 'Thespis',
appeared in 1871. Their first major hit (apart from the one-act 'Trial by
Jury', 1875) was with 'HMS Pinafore' (1878). But in the years 1863-8 Gilbert
wrote a series of short farces, burlesques and extravaganzas whose word play
and humour prefigured his later more sophisticated style, although it is
admittedly difficult to acknowledge any literary (or any great
entertainment) value in them a century and a half later.
For a wealth of background on Gilbert, see
The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
, which contains many of Gilbert's
texts (but not alas the one we are concerned with here). And click here in
the unlikely event that you want to hear some
Gilbert and Sullivan in Yiddish
. After all, this site is dedicated
to Jewry in Music. (I recommend the sound-clip of 'Ich hob arayn geschribn'
- 'I've got them on my list').
Amongst Gilbert's apprentice work is a series of three opera parodies,
'Dulcamara, or the Little Duck and the Great Quack' (1866, parody of
Donizetti's 'L'Elisir d'amore'), 'La Vivandière, or True to the Corps'
(1867, parody of Donizetti's 'La Fille du Régiment') and Gilbert's last
effort in this vein, 'Robert the Devil, or The Nun, The Dun and the Son of a
Gun'. This version of Meyerbeer's sensational Grand Opera was premiered at
the Gaiety Theatre on 21st
December 1868, fitting in well with the
pantomime entertainments of the season. It is worth noting that the original
production dates of the operas parodied were 1832, 1840 and 1831
respectively; that the burlesques found apparently willing audiences thirty
or forty years after their premieres is a tribute to their popularity and
familiarity with London audiences. Although Gilbert gave up direct parodies
after 'Robert', his tilt at Grand Opera may have had a slight influence on
the Savoy Operas, as
reminiscences of Meyerbeer can be detected in the libretto for 'The Pirates
The text of Gilbert's 'Robert' was issued as a pamphlet (price sixpence),
complete with the advertisements for dentists, furniture, etc., which
normally accompanied such publications. It is based extremely loosely on
Scribe's libretto for Meyerbeer, and anyone with a copy of Kobbé can, if
they wish, compare Scribe's story-line with the edited summary I give below.
I was going to say, 'edited highlights', but I don't want to raise anyone's
expectations. I include a couple of the worst puns.
Scene 1 opens in the port of Palermo, where the crowd are watching Robert,
Duke of Normandy, consuming an enormous meal with his mysterious henchman,
Bertram. To the tune of Meyerbeer's opening brindisi (drinking song)
they express their doubts of Robert's creditworthiness -
Oh dear - oh dear - his soup is vermicelli
Oh dear - oh dear - and little sucking pigs -
and Albert (Prince of Granada in this version) comments -
Yes- he's still at it with his gloomy friend -
It seems Duke Robert's dinner'll never end -
He's smoking cigarettes, and has a tray for 'em -
I know they're precious dear - I hope he'll pay for 'em.
Robert in fact declines to pay, leaving the bill for the sinister Bertram
who now appears before the crowd:
Albert: Whoever are you tell me if you can?
Bertram: I'm a particularly wicked man (the crowd recoils)
…Town traveller for the Gentleman Below.....
It seems Bertram must 'secure one victim every day' - appealing to the crowd
It's getting late; I've collared none today!
Will anyone volunteer? I say,
Oblige me now…
But alas nobody does. The minstrel Rambaldo now appears, unaware of Robert's
Before I sing - my cap I circulate -
The colour of your gold I like to see.
In stirring verse the account I'll narrate
Of Robert Duke of Normandee
and there follows an account of Robert's misdeeds, at the end of which
Robert and Bertram 'appear very much annoyed'.
Robert: Well, have you finish'd?
Rambaldo: Yes, that's all the
But here's a work in verse, three volumes long,
About Duke Robert - his career's a Vandal's -
Accept it - it contains the latest scandals
After this imbroglio appears the saintly heroine Alice:
Robert: Stand off; the man who touches Alice dies;
She is my foster-sister, nothing less,
You see, I'm forced to 'ssist her in distress.
During scene 2 Bertram advises Robert that he can secure a magic branch
giving him great powers. All Robert has to do is sign an indenture for his
soul. This branch can be found in a terrifying location, which at the
opening of Scene 3 turns out to be the Chamber of Horrors in Madame
Tussaud's wax museum.
Here a chorus of wax figures (Richard III, etc.) sing, to the strains of 'A
fosco cielo' from Bellini's 'La Sonambula':
We're only wax-work
With hair of flax-work
And dressed in sack's work,
Artistic quack's work!
With clumsy rack's work
Our arms and backs work….etc. etc.
A conspiratorial trio of Robert, Bertram and 'Gobetto' (who has no
counterpart in the original) enter with a sinister lyric:
Oh animosity and villainous verbosity
Perpetual precocity and fabulous ferocity
And venomous velocity and any other -ocity
In planning an atrocity or conspiracy in crime…..
Before Robert can seize the branch:
Bertram: Stop! There's the contract first to seal and sign.
Robert: Oh, then I'll sign it now if you'll reveal it,
There is no lack of wax in reach to seal it:
They're all upon the floor, both reds and blacks
Bertram: That being so, they can't be sealing wax.
There follows a ballet of waxworks, paralleling the notorious ballet of
deceased nuns which created such a sensation in the original opera. Clearly
Gilbert's audience was supposed to be familiar with the latter: the stage
directions read 'In this scene, the usual business between Robert and the
Lady Abbess is gone through'.
When Robert then wishes to use the power of the branch to marry, against
Bertram's wishes -
Bertram: You must not marry - listen ere you slay me -
I am your father, and you must obey me!
Robert: My father? Then of course I must submit!
But are you sure?
Bertram: Of course - no doubt of it!
Your mother's note will show it in a trice.
Robert: My mother's note? Of course, the good advice! (reads it)
“Dear Robert - though wicked it may appear -
Beware of Bertram - he's your father, dear!”
At this point the wax-works reappear to drag Bertram, not down to Hell as in
the original, but to a worse fate, to join them on show. Bertram is not
surprisingly extremely reluctant, and makes a desperate plea:
You've lots of used up statues here, I see,
Can't you dress one of them, and say it's me?
Cardinal Pole - the Wizard of the North -
(bright idea) Here! - can't you fake me up with George the
But his appeals are in vain, as the final chorus makes clear:
Among the dead men down you go -
Down to the waxworks of Tussaud.
You can't do much more harm, you know,
Safe in the Walls of a waxwork show!