Tom Cobb

Last updated

Engraving by D. H. Friston of the opening of Act III: Tom Cobb smokes on the balcony while the intense, romantic Effingham family form a group inside. Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 15 May 1875 Tom Cobb.png
Engraving by D. H. Friston of the opening of Act III: Tom Cobb smokes on the balcony while the intense, romantic Effingham family form a group inside. Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News , 15 May 1875

Tom Cobb or, Fortune's Toy is a farce in three-acts (styled "An Entirely Original Farcical Comedy") by W. S. Gilbert. The story concerns Tom, a young debtor who pretends to be a recently deceased man to avoid his debts. A family claims to inherit the dead man's fortune and pays Tom a pound a week to continue to live under an assumed name and keep quiet. He is claimed in marriage by the well-born Caroline Effingham who was jilted by the man whose name he has assumed. After further complications, Tom turns out, in actuality, to be the heir of the deceased and wealthy miser and happily marries Caroline.


The play opened at the St. James's Theatre on 24 April 1875. Although it was praised by the critics, the original production of the play ran for only 53 performances. [1] Arthur Sullivan's The Zoo played as an afterpiece to Tom Cobb.


Gilbert and Sullivan had already produced their hit one-act comic opera Trial by Jury by the time Tom Cobb was written, but both Gilbert and Sullivan were still producing a considerable amount of work separately.

Several plot elements from Tom Cobb reappear in Gilbert and Sullivan's last opera, The Grand Duke (1896). This full-length romantic farce was a departure by Gilbert from his earlier farces, which had generally been short works in one act. [2]

Gilbert claimed, in a 1903 story article called "My Last Client", that the idea for the play came to him when he attended the funeral of T. W. Robertson in 1871 and a man in the crowd reminded him of Robertson. [3] However, Gilbert based Tom Cobb on a short story that he had written in 1871 called "Tom Poulton's Joke", in which the title character attends his own "funeral", as in the story told by Gilbert in "My Last Client". [4] In Tom Cobb there is no such incident. [5] Arthur Sullivan and F. C. Burnand had earlier written Cox and Box , in which a man describes how he "killed himself" yet remains alive.

Roles and original cast

Colonel O'Fipp An Irish Adventurer – Clifford Cooper
Tom Cobb
Young SurgeonsE. W. Royce and Edgar Bruce
Matilda O'Fipp The Colonel's Daughter – Edith Challis
Mr. Effingham
Mrs. Effingham
Bulstrode Effingham
Caroline Effingham
Members of a Romantic Family – Mr. De Vere, Mrs. Chippendale, W. J. Hill, Marie Litton
Biddy  – Miss E. Doyne
Footman  – E. A. Russell


Act I: A shabby but pretentious sitting-room in Colonel O'Fipp's house.

Matilda, the Colonel's daughter, is engaged to Tom Cobb, a penniless young surgeon. Tom rents a room at O'Fipp's house. He is in debt to a moneylender and has lent the money to O'Fipp in exchange for some worthless I.O.U.s. The money-lender has just signed judgement against Tom, so Tom is in bad financial straits as the play opens.

Whipple, a successful young surgeon, also wishes to marry Matilda. He proposes to her, but she says she prefers Tom. She notes, however, that if Tom hasn't married her in another month, she'll talk to Whipple again. Tom tells Whipple about his financial difficulties. Whipple notes that one of his old patients has just died. The deceased had had no name of his own, so Whipple had called him Tom Cobb as a joke. Whipple suggests that Tom make people think the dead man is young Tom Cobb, lie low for a few months, and come back to life with a new name and a clean slate. Tom adopts the suggestion and leaves immediately, Whipple giving him £25 to tide him over.

Caroline Effingham, an old school-friend of Matilda's, is a very romantic young woman. She tells Matilda that she fell in love with a "poet-soldier" with whom she has corresponded with but never met. However, he hasn't responded to her letters for some time, and when she finds him she will sue him for breach of promise.

Before Tom "died", he scribbled a joke "will" in which he left his worldly goods to Matilda. O'Fipp angrily crumples this up and throws it away. Whipple arrives with the news that the old pauper Tom Cobb was not a pauper at all, but a miser with a hoard of gold under his hearth but without any friends or relations. O'Fipp, retrieving the "will", lays claim to the money.

Act II: The same room, but now handsomely furnished.

Three months have passed, and Whipple is engaged to Matilda. The wealthy O'Fipps are happy, thanks to the "death" of Tom Cobb, and they agree that if he should decide to return from the dead, he will find it difficult to convince anyone of his identity.

Tom reappears looking "very seedy and dirty". His money has run out. Much to his bewilderment, O'Fipp, Matilda and Whipple all deny that he is Tom Cobb. O'Fipp suggests he assume another name, selecting one at random from the Times newspaper: Major-General Arthur Fitzpatrick. Tom accepts from O'Fipp a pound a week for as long as he keeps that name. "I'm so hungry, and seedy, and wretched," Tom says, "that I'd agree to anything."

Caroline Effingham and her family appear, and O'Fipp introduces Tom to them as Major-General Arthur Fitzpatrick. It turns out that this was the name of the "poet-soldier" who had jilted Caroline. To avoid being sued for breach of promise of marriage, Tom agrees to marry Caroline.

Act III: A drawing-room, shabbily furnished, in Mr. Effingham's house.

Three more months have passed, and Tom, engaged to Caroline, has grown his hair long and centre-parted, he wears a floppy Byronic collar, and he talks solemn poetic rubbish. He is now a poet-soldier. He does not wish to deceive Caroline, but he is afraid to tell her who he really is.

Docket & Tape, Solicitors, have been advertising in the papers for information about him, and he fears that they are after him for forging the will of old Tom Cobb. O'Fipp refuses to pay Tom his pound a week any more, because he believes that Tom's fear of prosecution for forgery will be enough to keep him quiet. Finally, Tom writes a letter to Docket & Tape, confessing everything. It turns out, however, that they have discovered that Tom was, in actuality, the grandson of the old miser, Tom Cobb. Therefore, he is a very wealthy man. Matilda now seeks to marry Tom, but he decides to marry Caroline.


  1. Moss, Simon. "Tom Cobb" at Gilbert & Sullivan: a selling exhibition of memorabilia,, accessed 16 November 2009
  2. Murray, Stephen. "The Short Play in Nineteenth-Century Britain". Universidad Anahuac del Sur. Archived from the original on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 23 November 2007.
  3. Gilbert, W. S. "My Last Client", The Free Lance: A Popular Society and Critical Journal, 10 October 1903, reprinted in W. S. Gilbert Society Journal, vol. 3, issue 23, Summer 2008, pp. 726–29
  4. Gilbert, W. S. "Tom Poulton's Joke", Dark Blue, 17 March 1871
  5. Crowther, Andrew. "'My Last Client': Afterword", W. S. Gilbert Society Journal, vol. 3, issue 23, Summer 2008, p. 731

Related Research Articles

<i>The Yeomen of the Guard</i> 1888 comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan

The Yeomen of the Guard; or, The Merryman and His Maid, is a Savoy Opera, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert. It premiered at the Savoy Theatre on 3 October 1888 and ran for 423 performances. This was the eleventh collaboration of fourteen between Gilbert and Sullivan.

<i>The Sorcerer</i> 1877 comic opera by Gilbert & Sullivan

The Sorcerer is a two-act comic opera, with a libretto by W. S. Gilbert and music by Arthur Sullivan. It was the British duo's third operatic collaboration. The plot of The Sorcerer is based on a Christmas story, An Elixir of Love, that Gilbert wrote for The Graphic magazine in 1876. A young man, Alexis, is obsessed with the idea of love levelling all ranks and social distinctions. To promote his beliefs, he invites the proprietor of J. W. Wells & Co., Family Sorcerers, to brew a love potion. This causes everyone in the village to fall in love with the first person they see and results in the pairing of comically mismatched couples. In the end, Wells must sacrifice his life to break the spell.

<i>Princess Ida</i> 1884 comic opera by Gilbert & Sullivan

Princess Ida; or, Castle Adamant is a comic opera with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert. It was their eighth operatic collaboration of fourteen. Princess Ida opened at the Savoy Theatre on 5 January 1884, for a run of 246 performances. The piece concerns a princess who founds a women's university and teaches that women are superior to men and should rule in their stead. The prince to whom she had been married in infancy sneaks into the university, together with two friends, with the aim of collecting his bride. They disguise themselves as women students, but are discovered, and all soon face a literal war between the sexes.

<i>The Grand Duke</i>

The Grand Duke; or, The Statutory Duel, is the final Savoy Opera written by librettist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan, their fourteenth and last opera together. It premiered at the Savoy Theatre on 7 March 1896, and ran for 123 performances. Despite a successful opening night, the production had a relatively short run and was the partnership's only financial failure, and the two men never worked together again. In recent decades, the opera has been revived professionally, first in the US and then in the UK.

<i>The Miser</i>

The Miser is a five-act comedy in prose by the French playwright Molière. It was first performed on September 9, 1668, in the theatre of the Palais-Royal in Paris.

F. C. Burnand British comic writer and dramatist

Sir Francis Cowley Burnand, usually known as F. C. Burnand, was an English comic writer and prolific playwright, best known today as the librettist of Arthur Sullivan's opera Cox and Box.

<i>The Zoo</i>

The Zoo is a one-act comic opera, with music by Arthur Sullivan and a libretto by B. C. Stephenson, writing under the pen name of Bolton Rowe. It premiered on 5 June 1875 at the St. James's Theatre in London, concluding its run five weeks later, on 10 July 1875, at the Haymarket Theatre. There were brief revivals in late 1875, and again in 1879, before the opera was shelved.

<i>Engaged</i> (play)

Engaged is a three-act farcical comic play by W. S. Gilbert. The plot revolves around a rich young man, his search for a wife, and the attempts – from mercenary motives – by his uncle to encourage his marriage and by his best friend to prevent it. After frantic complications and changes of allegiance, all the main characters end up paired off, more or less to their satisfaction.

<i>His Excellency</i> (opera)

His Excellency is a two-act comic opera with a libretto by W. S. Gilbert and music by F. Osmond Carr. The piece concerns a practical-joking governor whose pranks threaten to make everyone miserable, until the Prince Regent kindly foils the governor's plans. Towards the end of the Gilbert and Sullivan partnership, Arthur Sullivan declined to write the music for this piece after Gilbert insisted on casting his protege, Nancy McIntosh, in the lead role; Sullivan and producer Richard D'Oyly Carte, proprietor of the Savoy Theatre, did not feel that McIntosh was adequate.

<i>No Cards</i>

No Cards is a "musical piece in one act" for four characters, written by W. S. Gilbert, with music composed and arranged by German Reed. It was first produced at the Royal Gallery of Illustration, Lower Regent Street, London, under the management of German Reed, opening on 29 March 1869 and closing on 21 November 1869. The work is a domestic farce of mistaken identities and inept disguises, as two men desperately compete to marry a wealthy young lady. One is young and poor, and the other is a rich miser. Each disguises himself as her guardian.

Broken Hearts is a blank verse play by W. S. Gilbert in three acts styled "An entirely original fairy play". It opened at the Royal Court Theatre in London on 9 December 1875, running for three months, and toured the provinces in 1876. It was revived at the Savoy Theatre in 1882. Julia Gwynne played Melthusine. It was revived again in 1883, and yet again in 1888 starring Marion Terry in February and Julia Neilson in May, and also at Crystal Palace that year. There was also a New York City production at the Madison Square Theatre.

W. S. Gilbert English dramatist, librettist, poet and illustrator (1836–1911)

Sir William Schwenck Gilbert was an English dramatist, librettist, poet and illustrator best known for his collaboration with composer Arthur Sullivan, which produced fourteen comic operas. The most famous of these include H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and one of the most frequently performed works in the history of musical theatre, The Mikado. The popularity of these works was supported for over a century by year-round performances of them, in Britain and abroad, by the repertory company that Gilbert, Sullivan and their producer Richard D'Oyly Carte founded, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. These Savoy operas are still frequently performed in the English-speaking world and beyond.

<i>Danl Druce, Blacksmith</i>

Dan'l Druce, Blacksmith is a play by W. S. Gilbert, styled "A Three-Act Drama of Puritan times". It opened at the Haymarket Theatre in London on 11 September 1876, starring Hermann Vezin, Johnston Forbes-Robertson and Marion Terry. The play was a success, running for about 100 performances and enjoying tours and several revivals. It was popular enough to be burlesqued in a contemporary work, Dan'l Tra-Duced, Tinker, at the Strand Theatre. In an 1894 revival, Nancy McIntosh played Dorothy.

<i>Creatures of Impulse</i> Play with songs written by W. S. Gilbert

Creatures of Impulse is a stage play by the English dramatist W. S. Gilbert, with music by the composer-conductor Alberto Randegger, which Gilbert adapted from his own short story. Both the play and the short story concern an unwanted and ill-tempered old fairy who enchants people to behave in a manner opposite to their natures, with farcical results.

<i>Foggertys Fairy</i>

Foggerty's Fairy, subtitled "An Entirely Original Fairy Farce", is a three-act farce by W.S. Gilbert based loosely on Gilbert's short story, "The Story of a Twelfth Cake", which was published in the Christmas Number of The Graphic in 1874, and elements of other Gilbert plays. The story concerns a man who, with the help of a fairy, changes a small event in his past to try to save his engagement to the girl he loves. This leads to profound changes in his present, and he finds that matters are even worse than before.

Gretchen is a tragic four-act play, in blank verse, written by W. S. Gilbert in 1878–79 based on Goethe's version of part of the Faust legend.

The Ne'er-do-Weel is a three-act drama written by the English dramatist W. S. Gilbert. It is the second of three plays that he wrote at the request of the actor Edward Sothern. The story concerns Jeffery Rollestone, a gentleman who becomes a vagabond after Maud, the girl he loves, leaves him. He meets Gerard, an old school chum who arranges for him to have a good post. Jeffery returns the favour by sacrificing to try to help Gerard marry Maud, even though Jeffery and Maud still love each other.

An Old Score is an 1869 three-act comedy-drama written by English dramatist W. S. Gilbert based partly on his 1867 short story, Diamonds, and partly on episodes in the lives of William Dargan, an Irish engineer and railway contractor, and John Sadleir, a banker who committed suicide. It was written before any of his Savoy Operas with Arthur Sullivan. Despite an encouraging review in The Times, the piece was a failure. It was revived in 1872 and rewritten as Quits, but it fared no better.

<i>Marry the Girl</i> (play)

Marry the Girl is a farce by George Arthurs and Arthur Miller. It was one of the series of Aldwych farces that ran at the Aldwych Theatre in London nearly continuously from 1923 to 1933. The play centres on a breach of promise case brought before a British court of justice.

Marie Litton English actress and theatre manager

Marie Litton was the stage name of Mary Jessie Lowe, an English actress and theatre manager. After beginning a stage career in 1868, Litton became an actor-manager in 1871, producing plays for four years at the Court Theatre, including several by W. S. Gilbert. She also appeared in, and sometimes managed, other West End theatres. In the late 1870s, Litton managed the theatre at the Royal Aquarium, where she had some of her biggest acting successes, including as Lady Teazle in The School for Scandal (1877), Lydia Languish in The Rivals (1878), Miss Hardcastle in She Stoops to Conquer and Rosalind in As You Like It.