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Gilbert and Sullivan

Playwright/lyricist William S. Gilbert (1836-1911) and composer Arthur S. Sullivan (1842-1900) defined operetta in Victorian England with a series of their internationally successful and timeless works known as the Savoy operas.

Their first collaboration was Thespis (1871). At the time, W. S. Gilbert was widely known for the Bab Ballads, a popular series of doggerel verse that explored the farthest reaches of tupsy-turvydom, such as the ballad of Captain Reece, whose "sisters, cousins aunts and niece" sailed on the H.M.S. Mantelpiece. He was a successful man of the London theatrical scene, with a string of sketches, comedies, pantomimes, burlesques and musicals which were accounted successful by the standards of the day. Arthur Sullivan was the most popular musician in England and regarded as the bright young hope of serious British music. He was much in demand as a conductor and composer of oratorios, anthems and hymns. He was also earning a considerable income by churning out popular ballads, the Victorian equivalent of Top Forty hits.

Thespis was an extravaganza in which the gods of the classical world, now become elderly, were temporarily replaced by a troupe of Nineteenth Century actors and actresses. In concept, the piece was consistent with the Offenbachian Orpheus in the Underworld and The Beautiful Helen which (in translation) then dominated the English musical stage. Thespis had a run estimated at between 64 and 80 performances at the small and not especially attractive Opera Comique Theatre . It was successful as such things were then measured, even moderately profitable, but perceived by no one at the time as the beginning of a great collaboration. The musical score was never published and, except for one song and one chorus, has entirely perished.

Gilbert and Sullivan's first major hit was Trial by Jury (1875). Impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte had hit on the idea of creating an English national opera. He asked W. S. Gilbert for a one-act work to serve as an afterpiece for Offenbach's popular but short La Perichole. Gilbert had already written just such a short piece on commission from another producer, whose unexpected death had left Gilbert's work an orphan. He extracted the libretto of Trial by Jury from his pocket and handed it to Carte. Carte was delighted with it. He suggested that it be set to music by Sullivan and he brought the two men together. Sullivan was equally delighted. Trial by Jury, with Sullivan's brother, Fred, as the Learned Judge, was added to the bill with La Perichole and proved itself to be even more popular than Offenbach's work. Trial by Jury ran for 135 performances, a new record for an English musical, far outdistancing the former record holder, The Beggar's Opera (1728).

The Sorcerer (1877) is the first full-length example of what came to be known as the Savoy operas (although the Savoy Theatre had yet to be built.) D'Oyly Carte asked Gilbert for a comic opera that would serve as the centerpiece for an evening's entertainment. Gilbert rummaged around in his published comic verse and hit on the tale of a respectable Cockney businessman who happened to be a sorcerer, a purveyer of blessings (not much called for) and curses (very popular).

With The Socerer, the D'Oyly Carte repertory and production system came into being. Until this time, Gilbert had been forced to contend with casts built around one or two established stars, as had been the case with Thespis, a casually collected group of supporting players and a pick-up band of musicians. From The Sorcerer onwards, Gilbert would no longer hire stars, he would create them. Gilbert hired the performers, subject to veto from Sullivan on purely musical grounds. He oversaw the designs of sets and costumes. He directed the performers on stage. Sullivan oversaw musical preparation.

The result of all this was a wholly new crispness and polish in English musical theater. A side-effect was that all subsequent Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas, with the exception of The Gondoliers, would have interchangeable casts. The repertory system insured that the comic patter man who would perform the role of the sorcerous John Wellington Wells, would go from his desk to be ruler of the Queen's navy as Sir Joseph Porter, then join the army as Major General Stanley and so on. Lady Sangazure would transform into Little Buttercup, then Ruth, the piratical maid-of-all-work . . . Two relative unknowns hired by Gilbert for The Sorcerer would stay with his opera company for many years to become great stars of the Victorian stage, George Grossmith, a comic patter man, and Rutland Barrington , baritone and character actor. Gilbert was a tireless taskmaster, seeing to it that The Sorcerer opened as a fully polished show--in marked contrast to the under-rehearsed Thespis.

Their first world-wide smash hit was HMS Pinafore (1878), satirizing the Royal Navy and the British obsession with social status. The Pirates of Penzance (1879), written in a fit of pique at American copyright pirates, also poked fun at romantic melodrama, sense of duty, family obligation, and the relevance of a liberal education. Patience (1881) satirized the aesthetic movement in general and the poet and aesthete Oscar Wilde in particular. Iolanthe (1882) pokes fun at English law and at the House of Lords. Ruddigore (1887) is a topsy-turvy take on the Victorian Melodrama, and viciously satirizes that entire genre. The Yeomen of the Guard (1888), their only joint work with a tragic ending, concerns a strolling jester who finds himself embroiled in a risky intrigue at the Tower of London. The Gondoliers (1889) pokes fun at the plot devices of opera in the setting of a kingdom ruled by a pair of gondoliers who try to run it in a spirit of "republican equality". Trial By Jury is rather self-evident, but is unique because it was the only operetta with no spoken dialogue. Their most popular work was The Mikado (1885), where English bureaucracy was made fun of in a Japanese setting.

Gilbert's plots remain perfect examples of "topsy-turvydom," in which primeval fairies rub elbows with English lords, gondoliers ascend to the monarchy and pirates reconcile with majors general. Gilbert's lyrics employ double (and triple) rhyming and punning, and served as the very model for such 20th century Broadway lyricists as Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, and Lorenz Hart. Sullivan, a classically trained musician who devoted much of his career to religious hymns and grand opera, contributed catchy melodies which were also emotionally moving. As seamless as their onstage collaboration was, Gilbert and Sullivan were temperamentally incompatible, and their partnership was frequently ruptured. Their last joint work, The Grand Duke, opened in 1896, and the sickly Sullivan died four years later.

Their works were originally produced by British impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte, considered by some to be the third member of this partnership, who built the Savoy Theatre in London to present their operettas, and formed the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company , which would perform the Savoy Operettas with exacting detail until 1982. The Gilbert and Sullivan operettas were even more popular abroad, and many American cities saw amateur and professional Gilbert and Sullivan performing groups. This trend has continued to the present day, and it can be argued that these operettas and The Mikado in particular were instrumental in giving the particular shape to American musical of the 20th century.

Moreover, many cultural movements saw the influence of Gilbert and Sullvan. For instance, aestheticism, the cultural movement characterized by Oscar Wilde and satirized in Patience, was actually brought to the United States by Richard D'Oyly Carte so that Americans could understand the operetta. In terms of humor, the idea of extending a joke throughout a piece of literature and/or comedy work is prevalent in the Savoy Operas.

The 1999 Mike Leigh film Topsy-Turvy presents the most recent acclaimed film depiction of the team and their creation of their most popular operetta, The Mikado .

The works of Gilbert and Sullivan are frequently parodied or pastiched; a notable example of this is Tom Lehrer's performance of the "Major General's Song" (from the operetta The Pirates of Penzance), with the chemical periodic table of elements set to Sullivan's original music. (see Elements song) The popular TV series Family Guy drew from Gilbert and Sullivan with a parody of the "Captain's Song" from H.M.S. Pinafore. Larry David's show Curb Your Enthusiasm uses "Three Little Maids" from The Mikado as background music.



Well-Known Gilbert & Sullivan Actors

  • Rutland Barrington
  • Jessie Bond
  • Leonora Braham
  • W.H. Denny
  • Martyn Green
  • George Grossmith
  • Marion Hood
  • Durward Lely
  • Henry Lytton
  • Walter Passmore
  • Courice Pounds
  • Peter Pratt
  • John Reed
  • Thomas Round
  • Frederick Sullivan
  • Richard Temple
  • C.H. Workman

Other Links

External links


Lelie Bailey, The Gilbert and Sullivan Book, 3rd ed, London. 1953. John Lane, The Life of Jessie Bond, London, 1927. Arthur Lawrence, Sir Arthur Sullivan, London, 1899. Deems Taylor (preface), Plays and Poems of W. S. Gilbert, New York, 1932.

Last updated: 05-07-2005 16:36:17
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04