PRINCESS IDA was the daughter of King Gama, and when but twelve-months’ old, she had been betrothed to Prince Hilarion, the two-year-old son of King Hildebrand. The opening scene presents King Hildebrand and his courtiers awaiting the arrival of King Gama and Princess Ida for the celebration of the nuptials in accordance with the marriage contract. Some doubt exists as to whether this will be honoured, for Prince Hilarion has heard that his bride has “forsworn the world.” It is presently announced that Gama and his train are approaching. His appearance is preceded by that of three bearded warriors clad in armour, who declare that they are “Sons of Gama Rex,” and naïvely add, “Like most sons are we, masculine in sex.” They are followed by Gama, who fits in appearance Hildebrand’s description of him as “a twisted monster -all awry.” In a three-verse song Gama describes his own character in detail, each verse ending :
“Yet everybody thinks I’m such a disagreeable man And I can’t think why.”
Gama proceeds to justify the universal opinion by his venomous remarks to Hildebrand’s courtiers, and when Hildebrand demands the reason for Ida’s absence, he becomes insulting. Later, he relates that Ida has established and rules a Woman’s University in Castle Adamant, from which all males are excluded. Gama tells Hilarion that if he addresses the lady most politely she may deign to look on him. Hildebrand bids Hilarion to go to Castle Adamant and claim Ida as his wife, but adds that if she refuses, his soldiers will “storm the lady.” King Gama is detained as hostage, with the warning that “should Hilarion disappear, we will hang you, never fear, most politely, most politely.” Gama and his three sons are then marched off to their prison cell.
In the second act, we are transported to Castle Adamant, and behold, in the gardens, Lady Psyche surrounded by girl graduates. Lady Blanche arrives, and reads to them the Princess Ida’s list of punishments. One student is expelled for bringing in a set of chessmen, while another is punished for having sketched a perambulator. Then Princess Ida herself enters, and is hailed by the students as a “mighty maiden with a mission.” Her address to the students is intended to demonstrate woman’s superiority over man. Then Lady Blanche, in announcing a lecture by herself on abstract philosophy, reveals that the exclusion of the male sex from the university has not banished jealousy. Ida and the students enter the castle. Hardly have they gone, when Hilarion, accompanied by Cyril and Florian are seen climbing the garden wall. They don some collegiate robes which they discover, and are appropriately jocular regarding their transformation into “three lovely undergraduates.” Surprised by the entry of Princess Ida, they determine to present themselves as would-be students, and she promises them that “if all you say is true, you’ll spend with us a happy, happy time.” The Princess leaves them alone, but as she goes Lady Psyche enters unobserved. She overhears their conversation, and is amazed by it, but not more so than Florian when he finds that Lady Psyche is his sister. The men entrust her with their secret. She warns them that discovery may mean death, and sings them a song which sums up the Princess Ida’s teaching to the effect that man “at best is only a monkey shaved.”
Melissa now enters. She learns that the visitors are men and loyally promises secrecy. Whilst they are heartily enjoying themselves Lady Blanche, who is the mother of Melissa, has observed them, and as all five are leaving the gardens, she calls Melissa and taxes her with the facts. Melissa explains the situation, and persuades her mother to assist Hilarion’s plan.
In the next scene the Princess Ida and the students are seen at an alfresco luncheon. Cyril becomes tipsy, discloses the secret of the intruders, and scandalises the princess by singing an “old kissing song” :
“Would you know the kind of maid
Sets my heart aflame – a?”
In her excitement at this revelation the Princess falls into the stream which flows through the gardens. Hilarion rescues her, but this gallant feat does not shake the lady’s resolution, and she orders their arrest.
As they are marched away Melissa brings news of an armed band without the castle. Speedily Hildebrand, at the head of his soldiers, confronts Ida. The three sons of Gama, still clad in armour, warn her that refusal to yield means death. Hildebrand gives Ida until the next day to “decide to pocket your pride and let Hilarion claim his bride.” The curtain falls upon the Princess hurling defiance at Hildebrand.
When the curtain rises for the third time, we discover that the outer walls and courtyard of Castle Adamant are held by Princess Ida’s students, who are armed with battle-axes, and who sing of “Death to the invader.” The Princess comes attended by Blanche and Psyche, and warns them that “we have to meet stern bearded warriors in fight to-day.” She bids them remember that they have to show that they “can meet Man face to face on his own ground, and beat him there.” But as she reviews her forces, she meets with disappointment. The lady surgeon declares that, although she has often cut off legs and arms in theory, she won’t cut off “real live legs and arms.” The armourer explains that the rifles have been left in the armoury “for fear . . . they might go off.” The band-mistress excuses the absence of the band who “can’t come out to-day.” Contemptuously, Ida bids them depart. Lamenting the failure of her plan, she is surprised by the arrival of her father, who announces that he is to give a message from Hildebrand, and then return to “black captivity.” The message is that, being loth to war with women, Hildebrand wishes Ida to consent to the disposal of her hand being settled by combat between her three brothers and three of Hildebrand’s knights. Ida demands of her father what possesses him that he should convey such an offer. Gama replies: “He tortures me with torments worse than death,” and in pity she yields to the proposal.
While the girls mount the battlements, Hildebrand and his soldiers enter, and there is a fight between Gama’s sons and Hilarion, Cyril and Florian. The latter are victorious. Seeing her brothers lying wounded, Ida cries “Hold – we yield ourselves to you,” and resigns the headship of the University to Lady Blanche. Sadly Ida admits the failure of her scheme. She had hoped to band all women together to adjure tyrannic man. To Hildebrand she says that if her scheme had been successful “at my exalted name posterity would bow.” Hildebrand retorts, “If you enlist all women in your cause – how is this posterity to be provided?” Ida turns to Hilarion, admitting her error to him, and the opera ends with the company declaring :
“It were profanity for poor humanity
To treat as vanity the sway of love.
In no locality or principality
Is our mortality its sway above.”