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Essay: Gilbert and Sullivan

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  • Published: 6 November 2022*
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Gilbert and Sullivan refers to the Victorian era partnership of librettist W. S. Gilbert (1836–1911) and composer Arthur Sullivan (1842–1900). The collaboration of the two men gave us the fourteen comic operas they wrote, with H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado being the most well known, all being written between 1871 and 1896.

Gilbert, who wrote the words, created fanciful topsy-turvy worlds for these operas, creating a world where each absurdity is taken to its logical conclusion—fairies rub elbows with British lords, flirting is a capital offense, gondoliers ascend to the monarchy, and pirates turn out to be noblemen who have gone wrong. This collaboration created a feeling of bizzare reality, where the bizarre and macabre happened, and the world was turned on its head.

Sullivan, seven years younger than Gilbert, composed the music, contributing memorable melodies that could convey both humor and pathos. Born before Gilbert, Sullivan came from a military family, and by the time he was 8, was sufficient with all of the instruments within the band. By 1856, he had taken up composing, by 1870, he had began to build a reputation as a promising composer, including composing the Overture di Ballo in 1870.

Producer Richard D’Oyly Carte brought Gilbert and Sullivan together and nurtured their collaboration. He built the Savoy Theatre in 1881, to present their joint works—which came to be known as the Savoy Operas—and he founded the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, which performed and promoted their works for over a century. Gilbert and Sullivan’s first collaboration gave little indication of the success that was to come their way. Entitled Thespis, the show was negatively received, with the audience booing and the actors overworked. As a consequence of the poorly rehearsed play, lines were forgotten, and the overworked actors struggled to remember their lines. As a consequence, the play was received negatively, and the audience reacted poorly to the hour long show. Despite the audiences negative response, the musical showed elements common in future Gilbert and Sullivan plays, particularly the ridiculous premise (in this case, the classic Greek and Roman deities go on vacation, leaving a troupe of actors in charge of Mount Olympus). Despite the fact that the show starred two big names of the time, J.L. Toole and Nellie Farren, it opened to mixed reviews; however, it did manage a modest ten-week run.

The two were first paired in 1871, when the pair were commissioned for the production of a musical burlesque show. The manager of the Gaiety Theatre in the Aldwych, John Hollingshead, commissioned the pair, and Gilbert and Sullivan would not be paired together for another three years, until Trial By Jury became a reality.

Gilbert wrote a short libretto on commission in 1874, with producer-compose Carl Rosa, whose wife would have played the leading role, but her death in childbirth canceled the project. This left the libretto an orphan, and changed the direction of the play all together, meaning the story itself was based on Gilbert’s short life as a barrister.

Not long afterwards, a short opera was to be played by Richard D’Oyly Carte who was managing the Royalty Theatre. The piece was required to be played as an after piece to Offenbach’s La Périchole, which Gilbert already had available. Said libretto had written for Rosa, and Carte suggested that Sullivan write the score. The composer was delighted with it, and Trial by Jury was composed in a matter of weeks. The piece is one of Gilbert’s humorous spoofs of the law and the legal profession. It concerns a breach of promise of marriage suit. The defendant argues that damages should be slight, since “he is such a very bad lot,” while the plaintiff argues that she loves the defendant fervently and seeks “substantial damages.” The judge resolves the case by marrying the lovely plaintiff himself, after much argument.

Fred, Sullivan’s brother, was cast as the Learned Judge, and the opera was a runaway hit, outlasting the run of La Périchole. Provincial tours and productions at other theaters quickly followed. Gilbert and Sullivan were suddenly in demand after the success of Trial by Jury, and continued to write more operas together.Richard D’Oyly Carte was one of several theatrical managers who negotiated over the next two years with the team, whom were unable to come to terms. Carte also proposed a revival of Thespis for the 1875 Christmas season, which Gilbert and Sullivan would have revised, but he was unable to obtain financing for the project.

Gilbert and Sullivan have pervasively influenced popular culture in the past 125 years, with the English-speaking world, and lines and quotations from the Gilbert and Sullivan operas becoming part of the English language (even if not originated by Gilbert), such as, “let the punishment fit the crime” and “A policeman’s lot is not a happy one.” The operas have influenced political style and discourse, literature, film, and television, have been widely parodied by humorists, and have been quoted in legal rulings.

The American and British musical owes a tremendous debt to Gilbert and Sullivan, who were admired and copied by early authors and composers such as: Ivan Caryll, Adrian Ross, Lionel Monckton, P.G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, Victor Herbert, and Ivor Novello, and later Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Gilbert’s lyrics served as a model for such twentieth century Broadway lyricists as Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, and Lorenz Hart.

Noel Coward wrote: I was born into a generation that still took light music seriously. The lyrics and melodies of Gilbert and Sullivan were hummed and strummed into my consciousness at an early age. My father sang them, my mother played them, my nurse, Emma, breathed them through her teeth while she was washing me, dressing me and undressing me and putting me to bed. My aunts and uncles, who were legion, sang them singly and in unison at the slightest provocation.

The works of Gilbert and Sullivan are themselves frequently satirized.Gilbert and Sullivan’s work provides a rich cultural resource outside of their influence upon musicals. Well known examples of this include Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements,” Allan Sherman’s, The Two Ronnies, and Anna Russell’s famous routines, as well as the animated TV series Animaniacs’ HMS Yakko episode. Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas are commonly referenced in literature, film, and television—such as the 1998 film, Star Trek: Insurrection—in various ways that include extensive use of Sullivan’s music or where action occurs during a performance of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. There are also a number of Gilbert and Sullivan biopics, such as Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy.

The only cultural form to show the influence of Gilbert and Sullivan is not, of course, the musical. Even more direct heirs are those witty and satirical songwriters found on both sides of the Atlantic in the twentieth century like Michael Flanders and Donald Swann in the United Kingdom and Tom Lehrer in the United States. The influence of Gilbert is discernible in a vein of British comedy that runs through John Betjeman’s verse via Monty Python and Private Eye, to television series like Yes, Minister… where the emphasis is on wit, irony, and poking fun at the establishment from within it in a way which manages to be both disrespectful of authority and yet cosily comfortable and urbane.

Given the focus of Gilbert on politics, it is not surprising, that politicians and political observers have often found inspiration in these works. U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist added gold stripes to his judicial robes after seeing them used by the Lord Chancellor in a production of Iolanthe. Alternatively, Lord Chancellor Charles Falconer is recorded as objecting so strongly to Iolanthe’s comic portrayal of Lord Chancellors that he supported moves to disband the office. British politicians, beyond quoting some of the more famous lines, have delivered speeches in the form of Gilbert and Sullivan pastiches. These include Conservative Peter Lilley’s speech mimicking the form of “I’ve got a little list” from The Mikado, listing those he was against, including “sponging socialists” and “young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing queue.” Political humor based on Gilbert and Sullivan’s style and characters continues to be written.

In conclusion, although a century old, Gilbert and Sullivan have had a major impact on theatre in modern times. The combination of the two artists has been praised by many, including G.K Chesterson. The fact that their plays were based on real life situations made their portrayals of everyday life relatable, and their humorous way of portraying characters led to the licence of their works to be given to other professional companies, including the J.C. Williamson Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Company, and to other troupes. Until the other copyrights ended, the D’Oyly Opera Company influenced productions of the operas worldwide, creating a ‘performance tradition’, still referred to by many directors, both professional and amateur. This influence and amateur theatre is still apparent today, with many companies calling upon the influence of these two charismatic men.


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