Burnand was a contributor to Punch for 45 years and its editor from 1880 until 1906. He was also a prolific humorist and writer, creating almost 200 burlesques, farces, pantomimes and other works. He was knighted in 1902 for his work on Punch.
While still in school, Burnand submitted some illustrations to Punch, one or two of which were published. In the early 1860s, he edited the journal The Glow-Worm. He then joined the staff of Fun, but when that magazine rejected his proposed 1863 literary burlesque of serialized as Mokeanna, or the White Witness, he moved to Punch. A later literary burlesque published in Punch was Strapmore, parodying Ouida's Strathmore. He contributed to Punch for 45 years, serving as its editor for 26 years. He took over the editor job from Tom Taylor in 1880 and retired in 1906 when he was succeeded by Sir Owen Seaman.
Burnand banned Punch's early attacks on Catholicism, but he was unable to remove antisemitic jokes. Burnand's later contributions became increasingly wordy and anecdotal, relying on far-fetched puns, but he was a good judge of talent, and under him the paper prospered. In 1888, he acted as publisher of The Diary of a Nobody George Grossmith and his brother Weedon Grossmith, which is still in print.
In 1860, Burnand married Cecilia Victoria Ranoe (1841–1870), an actress. The couple produced five sons and two daughters. He then married her sister, Rosina Payson Jones (d. 1924), a widow, in 1874. They had two sons and four daughters. Burnand lived for much of his life in Ramsgate and was a member of the Garrick Club in London.
Burnand began to write farces while a teenager at Eton, acting in his plays under the name Tom Pierce. His first professional production was called Dido, a burlesque played at the St. James's Theatre in 1860. This was followed by The Iles of St. Tropez (1860); Fair Rosamond (1862); and The Deal Boatman (1863) among many others. His most memorable early success was Ixion, or the Man at the Wheel (1863), a musical spoof that found audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Other notable early works included an opéra bouffe, Windsor Castle (1865), with music by Frank Musgrave, and punny burlesques, including the very successful The Latest Edition of Black Eyed Susan (which ran for 800 performances and was revived and toured extensively) and Helen, or, Taken from the Greek, both in 1866. Burnand also translated several of Jacques Offenbach's early hits for the London stage.
In 1866, Burnand wrote the comic opera Cox and Box, collaborating with Arthur Sullivan. The opera was based on the farce Box and Cox, written by John Maddison Morton. Cox and Box became a hit and was frequently revived, later becoming a staple companion piece for the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company and retaining popularity today. Its initial success encouraged its authors to write the two-act opera, The Contrabandista (1867), revised and expanded as The Chieftain (1894), but it did not achieve great popularity in either version. Burnand and Sullivan also collaborated on The Miller and his Men, at Christmas 1870, an extravaganza for amateurs. More burlesques followed in 1868, including Fowl Play, or, A Story of Chicken Hazard and The Rise and Fall of Richard III, or, A New Front to an Old Dicky. In 1869, Burnand wrote The Turn of the Tide, which was a success at Queen's Theatre. Dozens of works followed in the 1870s, including Poll and Partner Joe, (1871), Artful Cards, (1877), Proof (1878), Dora and Diplunacy (1878, a burlesque of Clement Scott's Diplomacy, an adaptation of Sardou's Dora), The Forty Thieves (1878), Our Club (1878) and another frequently-revived hit, Betsy (1879). He provided a burlesque of Robbing Roy to the Gaiety Theatre in 1979.
One of Burnand's biggest successes was the satire of the aesthetic movement, which Punch was then attacking, called The Colonel (1881), based on The Serious Family, a play by Morris Barnett. The production ran for an extraordinary 550 performances and toured extensively. It made so much money for actor-manager Edgar Bruce that he was able to build the Prince of Wales Theatre). The Colonel beat Gilbert and Sullivan's similarly-themed comic opera, Patience, to the stage by several months, but Patience ran even longer than The Colonel. Oscar Wilde, no fan of Burnand's farces, wrote, in anticipation of seeing Patience, "With Gilbert and Sullivan I am sure we will have something better than the dull farce of The Colonel....
For the Gaiety Theatre, London, Burnand wrote a burlesque on The Tempest entitled Ariel in 1883, with music by Meyer Lutz, starring Nellie Farren and Arthur Williams. In 1884, he wrote Paw Claudian, a burlesque of the 1883 costume (Byzantine) drama 'Claudian' by Henry Herman and W. G. Wills, starring J. L. Toole, presented at Toole's Theatre. He wrote several works around 1889 and 1890 with Edward Solomon.
In 1890, Burnand wrote Captain Therèse, followed in 1891 by a very successful English-language version of Edmond Audran's operetta, La cigale et la fourmi (the grasshopper and the ant) retitled La Cigale, with additional music by Ivan Caryll. In 1891, he produced an English-language version of Audran's Miss Helyett, retitled as Miss Decima. Burnand's The Saucy Sally, premiered in 1892, and Mrs. Ponderbury’s Past, debuted in 1895. Burnand's 1897 comic opera, His Majesty, with music by Alexander Mackenzie, did not catch on despite the contributions of lyricist Adrian Ross and a Savoy Theatre cast including Ilka Palmay, George Grossmith and Walter Passmore. He collaborated with J. Hickory Wood, at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1905, on a pantomime of Cinderella, and he was partly responsible for a pantomime of Aladdin for the same theatre in 1909.
Burnand was jealous of rival playwright, W. S. Gilbert, as he felt that he, rather than Gilbert, should have been Arthur Sullivan's collaborator. Burnand used his position as the editor of Punch to publish antagonistic reviews of the plays of Gilbert and refused to give the Savoy Operas reviews in the magazine.
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