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.
The play opened at the Haymarket Theatre in London on 3 October 1877, the year before Gilbert’s first great success with the composer Arthur Sullivan in their comic operaH.M.S. Pinafore. Engaged was well received on the London stage and then in the British provinces, the US, Australia and New Zealand. It was subsequently revived many times and has continued to be produced during the 20th and 21st centuries.
The play has been called “unquestionably the finest and funniest English comedy between Bulwer-Lytton’sMoney  and Wilde’sThe Importance of Being Earnest  which it directly inspired”, although some critics found it heartless. Other plays considered by critics to be influenced by Engaged are Bernard Shaw‘s Arms and the Man and Man and Superman. Later playwrights whose works have been seen as drawing on Engaged are Noël Coward and Joe Orton.
By 1877, Gilbert, now forty years old, was established as a dramatist. After his early burlesques of the 1860s he had turned to writing comic opera libretti and non-musical plays, both comic and serious. His musical successes included Ages Ago (music by Frederic Clay, 1869) and Trial by Jury (music by Arthur Sullivan (1875).[n 1] His serious and comic non-musical plays included Pygmalion and Galatea (1871),The Wicked World (1873),Sweethearts (1874) and several others that played for well over 100 performances – good runs by the standards of the time.
Engaged is written in the “topsy-turvy” satiric style of many of Gilbert’s earlier Bab Ballads and his later Savoy Operas. A New York Times reviewer called it “human nature … reversed – giving language to one series of emotions and acting another.” Gilbert’s previous play had been the drama Dan’l Druce (1876), in which he had sought to portray serious human emotions. It was a moderate success, but for Engaged he returned to his usual absurdist approach, inventing a cast of characters whose motivation is not love but money. Possibly to underline the contrast, in the new play he cast in the mercenary female lead role Marion Terry, who in Dan’l Druce had played a sentimental part. He also wrote a scene for the new play that appeared to parody one in its predecessor. A passage from Engaged, a speech by the central 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)
Once he was in a position to do so, Gilbert directed productions of his own works.[n 2] In a note to his cast, reproduced in the published text, he set out the manner in which the play should be performed:
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.