The play is a burlesque of romantic drama and is written in the "topsy-turvy" satiric style of many of Gilbert's Bab Ballads and the Savoy Operas: one character pledges his love, in the most poetic and romantic language possible, to every single woman in the play; the innocent Scottish rustics are revealed to be making a living through throwing trains off the lines and then charging the passengers for services, and, in general, romance is gladly thrown over in favour of monetary gain.
Gilbert, who directed his own plays (which was unusual for the time), instructed his cast as follows in a note that he provided with their copies of the script: "It is absolutely essential to the success of this piece that it should be played with the most perfect earnestness and gravity throughout. There should be no exaggeration in costume, make-up, or demeanour; and the characters, one and all, should appear to believe, throughout, in the perfect sincerity of their words and actions. Directly the actors show that they are conscious of the absurdity of the utterances the piece begins to drag."
A passage from Engaged, a speech by the character Cheviot Hill, reflects a Gilbertian notion of marriage:
"Marriage is a very risky thing; it's like Chancery, once in it you can't get out of it, and the costs are enormous. There you are – fixed. Fifty years hence, if we're both alive, there we shall both be – fixed. That's the devil of it. It's an unreasonably long time to be responsible for another person's expenses. I don't see the use of making it for as long as that. It seems greedy to take up half a century of another person's attention. Besides – one never knows – one might come across somebody else one liked better – that uncommonly nice girl I met in Scotland, for instance". (Engaged
, Act II)
Engaged was first produced at the Haymarket Theatre in London on 3 October 1877 with success, running for about 110 performances. It starred George Honey, Kyrle Bellew, Marion Terry, Lucy Buckstone and Julia Stewart. It was toured in the British provinces and revived at the Royal Court Theatre on 30 November 1881 (starring H. J. Byron, Bellew, W. H. Denny, and Terry), and again at the Haymarket on 17 February 1886 (starring Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Maurice Barrymore, Charles Brookfield and Helen Maud Holt). American productions beginning in 1879 were also very successful, earning thousands of pounds for Gilbert. Productions of the play continue. A musical version of Engaged by George Rowell and Kenneth Mobbs (adapting music by Sullivan and other Gilbert collaborators) was produced a number of times in the 1960s and 1970s by professional companies. The National Theatre of Great Britain produced Engaged in 1975 at the Old Vic. The cast included Cheryl Campbell, Pauline Collins, Peter Egan, Reginald Marsh and Jonathan Pryce.
Among the more recent professional productions are the following: Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond on Thames, produced the piece from November 2002 to January 2003. Pitlochry Festival Theatre in Pitlochry, Scotland, mounted a production from April to October 2004. In New York, it was seen Off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in 2004, and the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company produced the play in July and August 2009. A production by Irish Classical Theatre Company played from April to May 2010 in Buffalo, New York It also continues to be produced by amateur companies and has recently been seen at the International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival among other venues.
In 2007 a recording was released of a second musical adaptation of the play, entitled Topsy Turvy Loves, using music from the Gilbert and Sullivan operas but cutting much of the dialogue, and an Equity Showcase production of the adaptation was mounted in October 2009 by the Wings Theatre Company in New York City.Cheviot Hill (a young man of property) – George Honey
Belvawney (his friend) – Harold Kyrle
Mr. Symperson – Henry Howe
Angus Macalister (a lowland peasant lad) – Fred Dewar
Major McGillicuddy – Mr. Weathersby
Belinda Trehern – Marion Terry
Minnie Symperson (Symperson's daughter) – Lucy Buckstone
Mrs. Macfarlane – Emily Thorne
Maggie Macfarlane (a lowland lassie) – Julia Stewart
Parker (Minnie's maid) – Julia Roselle
In the garden of a humble but picturesque Scottish cottage, Angus Macalister is courting Maggie Macfarlane. He has just asked for and been granted her hand in marriage. Maggie's widowed mother arrives. Learning of the engagement, she blesses their union, although she wonders whether young Angus will be able to provide a decent living for her only daughter.
Angus is adept at placing obstacles on railroad tracks. Whenever a train derails, the passengers must alight and look for refreshment (and possibly overnight accommodations) until repairs can be made. Such provisions are gladly offered by Angus and the Macfarlanes. The two ladies leave, after hearing that Angus is eager for the impending arrival of a train whose line he has just blocked. He does not have to wait long, as two agitated passengers arrive. One is a young lady, Belinda Treherne. With her is Belvawney, a young man who speaks to her in terms of obvious endearment. She is fond of him too, but is presently in great fear that they will soon be overtaken by a certain Major McGillicuddy, who had believed Belinda would marry him that very morning. She has escaped for now, but if he finds her with Belvawney, he will surely shoot the pair of them.
To put an end to Belinda's worries about the Major, Belvawney suddenly asks her to become his wife. They declare undying love for each other. However, she admits to being curious about his "pecuniary position." Belvawney then explains his somewhat strange source of income. He has a friend, Cheviot Hill, who is secure financially but remarkably stingy. Cheviot has a most unfortunate habit of proposing marriage to every young woman he meets. Cheviot's father, recognising the Belvawney's influence on Cheviot, provides Belvawney with £1000 yearly so long as Cheviot remains single. Should Cheviot die or marry, the money becomes the property of Cheviot's uncle, Symperson, who coincidentally was travelling with Cheviot on the same train that carried Belinda and Belvawney. Belinda is decidedly displeased with what she perceives as an impermanent financial arrangement and rejects his marriage proposal. Belvawney does not give up easily. He recalls something he has heard about Scottish customs: if two people declare their willingness to be wed, then, in Scotland, they are indeed man and wife. Belvawney questions Maggie about what constitutes a Scottish marriage and she confirms his understanding of the simplicity of the process.
The amorous, rich and attractive Cheviot Hill and his uncle Symperson arrive, both looking dishevelled from the train accident. Cheviot, true to his parsimonious nature, bemoans the ruination of his hat and gloves. Symperson is much more concerned about the £1000 annuity he will receive if Cheviot marries. He suggests his daughter Minnie as an excellent choice for matrimony. To this, his nephew agrees, making Symperson delighted and anxious for a wedding date to be set. Symperson's good fortune would, to be sure, rob Belvawney of his own yearly salary. Cheviot warns his uncle not to tell his friend of the dire change in his future wealth. He also reminds Symperson that Belvawney's eyes exercise a strange, hypnotic power over his own will. Under their influence, Cheviot must carry out whatever schemes Belvawney may concoct. Symperson vows silence, rejoicing at his good fortune.
Left alone, Cheviot contemplates the joys he will experience when Minnie becomes his wife. Belvawney, who overhears, is naturally dismayed to learn of his friend's approaching marriage. Cheviot declares that even Belvawney's powerful eyes shall no longer control him. His love for Minnie will overcome all obstacles to wed her. He orders Belvawney out. Maggie comes in, and he cannot resist her. He puts his arm around her waist, steals a kiss, then implores her to become his wife. Maggie refuses, since she is engaged already. Cheviot, in a rage, asks to know the fellow's name, that he may curse him. Angus's arrival makes this unnecessary, for he embraces Maggie tenderly, and they both weep. Cheviot is deeply touched; forgetting to curse Angus, he extols the virtues of his own position and tries desperately to convince them that marriage to him would bring eternal happiness to Maggie. To prove his sincerity, Cheviot offers money to Angus. After many protestations, the ante is set at £2. Maggie asserts she will never be worth that much to poor Angus, so he, crying openly, hands her over and pockets the coins. They enter the cottage.
Alone again, Cheviot prides himself on winning Maggie, for she is not only pretty, but he feels certain she will never be extravagant. As he is singing her praises, Belinda walks by. Fickle as always, Cheviot is drawn to her obvious charms. He asks why she is sad and suggests a gift of cash if this would cheer her. When she declines to accept it, he is infatuated by her well-bred modesty. In a gush of emotion, Cheviot proposes to Belinda, but she is already promised to his friend Belvawney. This enrages Cheviot. He vows to cut off Belvawney's annual income by marrying Minnie Symperson. Belinda implores him, for her sake, to remain forever single.
Suddenly Belvawney appears, greatly alarmed. Major McGillicuddy has tracked them down and demands a confrontation with his erstwhile bride, Belinda. Cheviot proves master of the situation. Pushing Belvawney aside, he convinces Belinda to put her arms around his neck. The Major, armed with pistols, rushes in, ordering them to separate at once. But Belinda and Cheviot declare themselves to be man and wife. Maggie and Angus show up and hear the entire episode. She falls sobbing on his shoulders, the Major sobs uncontrollably, and Belvawney tears his hair.
Three months later, in the drawing room of Symperson's London home, Minnie's wedding is about to take place. Her maid, Parker, assures Minnie that she is indeed beautiful and will be exceedingly happy as the wife of Cheviot Hill. Symperson enters, dressed in his best suit. He tells his daughter that, although he hates to lose her, he'll enjoy having £1000 a year as consolation. He then gives Minnie advice about how to handle a husband. They agree that, although Cheviot has so far had his own way in decision-making, this will end abruptly as soon as Minnie becomes Mrs. Hill. She then leaves, and Belinda arrives, dressed as if for a funeral. When she sees Symperson, she believes him to be a servant and asks him to fetch Minnie.
The two girls meet and rush into each other's arms, since they have been friends since childhood. Belinda had not known this was to be Minnie's wedding day. She then reviews her own strange encounter with the married state. Fleeing from a man she hated, she met a young, wealthy stranger. On his advice, she declared herself to be his wife. Although she has not seen him since that day, Belinda knows that, according to a quaint Scottish law, they are indeed married. Minnie finds this predicament amusing. Belinda, horrified by it, agrees to go home and dress herself in clothing appropriate to the occasion, shedding the black she has worn ever since her ill-fated "marriage" took place. The girls go out together.
Cheviot enters, dressed for his wedding, pondering the step he is about to take. He sees Parker, the maid, and, true to his nature, finds her adorable. Soon his arm is around her waist, although he constantly reminds himself that this is unseemly conduct for a bridegroom. Fortunately, Minnie interrupts before Cheviot proposes to Parker. The maid leaves, disgusted that she hasn't been given any coins. Now the young couple discuss the nuptial arrangements and make plans for their life to come. Cheviot's miserliness is proven by his sharp cutting of corners for the bridal cake and his ideas of an ideal marital situation: Minnie shall prepare absurdly simple economical meals and sew all the suits her husband requires. He does, however, tell her that he is hiring servants to look after her father. She believes Cheviot to be the soul of goodness and leaves in a state of bliss. He stays behind, thinking for a moment of the "tall girl" he met in Scotland, but soon talks himself out of this reverie.
Belvawney appears, feeling awful: he is deeply in love with Belinda, but she insists she is already wed, thanks to the custom of Scotland, although she does not know her husband. Cheviot tries to console his friend. Suddenly, Belvawney realises there is one possible solution: if the cottage where the vows were spoken is in England, no marriage exists. If it is in Scotland, they are man and wife. He has decided to write to the owner of the house to ascertain the truth. Cheviot confesses that this is to be his wedding day. Belvawney is near panic at this disclosure, as it means loss of his yearly stipend. To ruin Cheviot's pleasure, Belvawney denounces him, saying there will be no wedding because Cheviot is already a married man. On bended knee, Cheviot begs Belvawney not to spoil the nuptials, especially since money has already been spent. Belvawney decides to play his trump card: he fixes Cheviot in the glare of his magnetic eyes. Laughing fiendishly, he says that he can prove Cheviot's marriage to Belinda because he is the only witness left. Declaring that the cottage has since been torn down and its occupants have left the country, Belvawney exits in triumph. Cheviot is desolate until he realises that his bride has been missing for months, the cottage has been pulled down, and those who lived there are far away. Belvawney, therefore, isn't capable of proving anything. Cheviot determines to proceed with his marriage to Minnie.
Angus and the Macfarlanes appear. They are the rustics hired by Cheviot to serve Symperson. Although they don't recognise Cheviot, he knows immediately who they are and asks them to go away. Suddenly Maggie remembers: this is the man who asked for her hand and gave Angus money to relinquish her. Desperate again, Cheviot confides to them his weakness: he always proposes marriage to every pretty girl he meets. As they grope to understand this predicament, Minnie and her father come in. Cheviot covers his chagrin by pretending Mrs. Macfarlane is a washerwoman who has presented him with an exorbitant bill. Maggie, however, becomes hysterical and tells the truth to the Sympersons: Cheviot proposed to her three months ago. She further asserts that she witnessed his marriage to yet a different beautiful lady at that time. Minnie and her father are confused and enraged, even though Cheviot hotly denies having wed a woman whose name he doesn't even know.
Symperson, fearing the loss of his promised stipend, demands an explanation, but Cheviot cannot give him one. Belvawney enters, assuring everyone that he was present when Cheviot and a certain lady declared themselves to be man and wife several months earlier on the border of England and Scotland. Symperson accepts this, telling his daughter to find herself another husband, and Belvawney to find some other source of income. Not to be so easily dismissed, Belvawney reveals the puzzling fact that no one can be sure exactly where the cottage stood. Finally Belinda enters, now dressed prettily for Minnie's wedding. Belinda and Cheviot recognise each other, and rush into a rapturous embrace. Belvawney staggers back, Minnie faints, and Maggie sobs.
Three days later, back at Symperson's London house, Belvawney is singing at the piano to entertain Belinda and Minnie. The girls pay him lavish compliments, saying the weary days of waiting have passed pleasantly, thanks to his songs, riddles and conjuring tricks. The reason for the delay is that Cheviot has gone to Scotland to determine the exact location of the fateful cottage. Much depends, both romantically and financially, on what he shall discover. Belvawney suggests that whichever girl loses Cheviot shall, if she agrees, marry him instead. He then goes out.
Cheviot arrives, and the ladies are bursting with questions. Alas, he cannot resolve the puzzle, for those who own the cottage have left the country and are on their way to Central Africa. Belinda and Minnie are inconsolable. Cheviot advises patience; until further information can be discovered, he is engaged to them both and will divide his affection equally. He is jealous when he learns how little they missed him during his absence, thanks to Belvawney's charms. The girls remind Cheviot that Maggie is also involved in this mess. He would, of course, gladly marry all three of them if the law would allow it. He leaves.
Symperson enters with two letters. One is from the cottage's owner, written before he went to Africa. Symperson reads that the cottage is "certainly in England". Belinda faints, realising she has lost Cheviot. The other letter is from Belvawney. It says that the Indestructible Bank has stopped payment on Cheviot's shares and they are worthless. When she hears this, Minnie voices her decision to leave Cheviot and flounces away. Her father is crestfallen. Now he won't get his annual stipend, and he bemoans the horrid materialism of the human race.
Cheviot comes in, even more unhappy than before. None of his three darlings can ever become his wife. He and his uncle both feel that the only way out is for Cheviot to end his life. Symperson shakes his nephew's hand, believing him ready to die, and goes out. Cheviot thinks of Belinda: could she ever possibly love him for himself alone? He resolves to find out. Belvawney arrives and tells Cheviot that he's too late: Belinda has already given her hand and her heart to himself. This is the last straw for Cheviot who draws a pistol from his pocket to end his misery. Belvawney, greatly upset, offers to surrender Belinda if Cheviot will reconsider. He then confesses he wrote the bank statement himself to gain her love. Cheviot's anger subsides when he believes he will have both money and the girl he adores.
Symperson enters, attired in black: he has come to see Cheviot die. When he discovers the young man's change of heart, he gleefully declares he has just seen Belvawney and Belinda leaving together in a cab, affectionately entwined. Cheviot is duped again. He vows revenge and swears he will marry anyone. Why not Minnie? Overjoyed, Symperson goes to find his daughter. She shows up, and Cheviot proposes. But when he becomes aware of her mercenary attitude toward his wealth, he renounces her. In desperation, he sends for Maggie Macfarlane. When she arrives, accompanied by her mother and Angus, Cheviot offers marriage to Maggie. She sobs bitterly: she has just filed an action against him for breach of promise. It is already in the hands of her solicitor. Cheviot feels cursed. Mrs. Macfarlane even suggests he might marry her, but he draws the line at this, depressed though he is.
Belinda and Belvawney return, followed by Minnie and Symperson. Cheviot's fears are well-grounded, for Belinda and Belvawney are now married. Cheviot draws his gun again, but before he can end his life, Symperson decides to reread the letter concerning the property's location. He sees that the owner has instructed that the page be turned over. Lo and behold, although the cottage is in England, the garden is in Scotland – and Cheviot married Belinda in the garden. An ecstatic Cheviot embraces an equally euphoric Belinda; Belvawney turns to Minnie for comfort, Angus gives solace to Maggie, and Mrs. Macfarlane reposes on the bosom of Symperson.
The Era reported that Engaged "is one of those clever, fanciful, comical, satirical bits of extravagance in the way of stage work which might be expected from the pen of Mr Gilbert, but hardly from that of any other living author.... A decidedly favourable impression was made by Miss Julia Stewart, who... bewitched all present by her pretty face, her artless, winning style, her dainty treatment of the Scotch dialect, and the thorough freshness and naturalness of her acting throughout. This was one of the pleasantest performances we have seen for many a day". Calling the play "smart, witty ... humorous ... brilliant" and Gilbert's "most Gilbertian" work, H. Savile Clarke wrote in The Theatre that "assuredly no writer has ever laid bare with a keener scalpel the sham and pretension that underlies the society of today."
In a later assessment, T. Edgar Pemberton called the piece "whimsically conceived and wittily written" and opined that it was "a gem of the first water, with its every facet cut and polished to the point of resplendency. Good as was the acting of George Honey as Cheviot Hill, Fred Dewar as Angus Macalister, Harold Kyrle (Kyrle Bellew) as Belvawney, Henry Howe as Mr. Symperson, Lucy Buckstone as Miss Symperson, Emily Thorne as Mrs. Macfarlane, and Julia Stewart as... Maggie Macfarlane, the Belinda Treherne of Marion Terry capped them one and all. It was, indeed, an impersonation as humorous as it was original."