Sir William Schwenck Gilbert (18 November 1836 – 29 May 1911) was an English dramatist, librettist, poet and illustrator best known for his fourteen comic operas produced in collaboration with the composer Sir Arthur Sullivan, of which the most famous include H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and one of the most frequently performed works in the history of musical theatre, The Mikado. These, as well as most of their other Savoy operas, continue to be performed regularly throughout the English-speaking world and beyond by opera companies, repertory companies, schools and community theatre groups. Lines from these works have become part of the English language, such as "short, sharp shock", "What never? Well, hardly ever!", and "Let the punishment fit the crime".
Gilbert also wrote the Bab Ballads, an extensive collection of light verse accompanied by his own comical drawings. His creative output included over 75 plays and libretti, numerous stories, poems, lyrics and various other comic and serious pieces. His plays and realistic style of stage direction inspired other dramatists, including Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. According to The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Gilbert's "lyrical facility and his mastery of metre raised the poetical quality of comic opera to a position that it had never reached before and has not reached since."
|"No sooner had the learned judge pronounced this sentence than the poor soul stooped down, and taking off a heavy boot, flung it at my head, as a reward for my eloquence on her behalf; accompanying the assault with a torrent of invective against my abilities as a counsel, and my line of defence."|
|- My Maiden Brief. (Gilbert claimed this incident was autobiographical.)|
Gilbert was born at 17 Southampton Street, Strand, London. His father, also named William, was a naval surgeon who later became a writer of novels and short stories, some of which were illustrated by his son. Gilbert's mother was the former Ann Mary Bye Morris (1812-88), the daughter of Dr. Thomas Morris. Gilbert's parents were distant and stern, and he did not have a particularly close relationship with either of them. Following the break-up of their marriage in 1876, his relationships with them, especially his mother, became even more strained. Gilbert had three younger sisters: Jane Morris, who married Alfred Weigall, a miniature painter; Maude and Florence, neither of whom married. Gilbert was nicknamed "Bab" as a baby, and then "Schwenck", after his father's godparents.
As a child, Gilbert travelled in Europe with his parents (they finally settled in London in 1849). He was educated at Boulogne, France from the age of seven (he later kept his diary in French so that the servants could not read it), then Western Grammar School, Brompton, London, and then at the Great Ealing School, where he became head boy and wrote plays for school performances and painted scenery. He then attended King's College London, graduating in 1856. He applied for a military commission in the Gordon Highlanders, but, with the unexpected end of the Crimean War, fewer recruits were needed, and only a line commission was available to Gilbert. He served instead in the Civil Service for four years and hated it. In 1859 he joined the newly formed Volunteer Army, with which he remained until 1878 (in between writing and other work), reaching the rank of Captain. In 1863 he received a bequest of £300 that he used to leave the civil service and take up a brief career as a barrister (he had already entered the Inner Temple as a student), but his legal practice was not successful, averaging just five clients a year.
To supplement his income from 1861 on, Gilbert wrote a variety of stories, comic rants, grotesque illustrations, theatre reviews (many in the form of a parody of the play being reviewed), and, under the pseudonym "Bab" (his childhood nickname), illustrated poems for several comic magazines, primarily Fun, started in 1861 by H. J. Byron. He published stories, articles, and reviews in papers such as the Cornhill Magazine, London Society, Tinsley's Magazine, and Temple Bar. In addition, Gilbert was the London correspondent for L'Invalide Russe and a drama critic for the Illustrated London Times. In the 1860s he also contributed to Tom Hood's Christmas annuals, to Saturday Night, the Comic News, and the Savage Club Papers. The Observer newspaper in 1870 sent him to France as a war correspondent reporting on the Franco-Prussian War.
The poems, illustrated humorously by Gilbert, proved immensely popular and were reprinted in book form as the Bab Ballads. He would later return to many of these as source material for his plays and comic operas. Gilbert and his colleagues from Fun, including Tom Robertson, Tom Hood, Clement Scott and F. C. Burnand (who defected to Punch in 1862) frequented the Arundel Club, the Savage Club, and especially Evans's café, where they had a table in competition with the Punch 'Round table'.
Gilbert married Lucy Agnes Turner, whom he called "Kitty", in 1867; she was 11 years his junior. He wrote many affectionate letters to her over the years. Gilbert and Lucy were socially active both in London and later at Grim's Dyke, often holding dinner parties and being invited to others' homes for dinner, in contrast to the picture painted by fictionalisations such as the film Topsy-Turvy. The Gilberts had no children, but they had many pets, including some exotic ones.
Gilbert wrote and directed a number of plays at school, but his first professionally produced play was Uncle Baby, which ran for seven weeks in the autumn of 1863. In 1865–66 he collaborated with Charles Millward on several pantomimes, including one called Hush-a-Bye, Baby, On the Tree Top, or, Harlequin Fortunia, King Frog of Frog Island, and the Magic Toys of Lowther Arcade (1866). Gilbert's first solo success, however, came a few days after Hush-a-Bye Baby premiered. His friend Tom Robertson was asked to write a pantomime but did not think he could do it in the two weeks available, and so he recommended Gilbert instead. Written and rushed to the stage in 10 days, Dulcamara, or the Little Duck and the Great Quack, a burlesque of Gaetano Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore, proved extremely popular. This led to a long series of further Gilbert opera burlesques, pantomimes and farces, full of awful puns (traditional in burlesques of the period), though showing, at times, signs of the satire that would later be a defining part of Gilbert's work. For instance:
That men were monkeys once—to that I bow;
(looking at Lord Margate) I know one who's less man than monkey, now;
That monkeys once were men, peers, statesmen, flunkies—
That's rather hard on unoffending monkeys!
This was followed by the last of Gilbert's operatic parodies, Robert the Devil, a burlesque of Giacomo Meyerbeer's opera, Robert le diable, which was part of a triple bill that opened the Gaiety Theatre, London in 1868. The piece was Gilbert's biggest success to date, running for over 100 nights and being frequently revived and played continuously in the provinces for three years thereafter.
In Victorian theatre, "[to degrade] high and beautiful themes... had been the regular proceeding in burlesque, and the age almost expected it...." However, Gilbert's burlesques were considered unusually tasteful compared to the others on the London stage, and he would depart even further from the burlesque style from about 1869 with plays containing original plots and fewer puns.
|CHRYSAL: This hound abused me!
ZORAM: He insulted me;|
BOTH: Our honour must be satisfied!
(They cross swords.)
GÉLANOR: No, no—
ZORAM: With pleasure. (Shaking hands with Chrysal.)
|- The Palace of Truth, 1870|
From 1869 to 1875, Gilbert joined with one of the leading figures in theatrical reform, Thomas German Reed (and his wife Priscilla), whose Gallery of Illustration sought to regain some of theatre's lost respectability by offering family entertainments in London. Three months before the opening of Gilbert's last burlesque (The Pretty Druidess), the first of his pieces for the Gallery of Illustration, No Cards, was produced. Gilbert created six musical entertainments for the German Reeds, some with music composed by Thomas German Reed himself.
The environment of the German Reeds' intimate theatre allowed Gilbert quickly to develop a personal style and freedom to control all aspects of production, including set, costumes, direction and stage management. These works were a success, with Gilbert's first big hit at the Gallery of Illustration, Ages Ago, opening in 1869. Ages Ago was also the beginning of a collaboration with the composer Frederic Clay that would last seven years and produce four works. It was at a rehearsal for Ages Ago that Clay formally introduced Gilbert to his friend, Arthur Sullivan. The Bab Ballads and Gilbert's many early musical works gave him much practice as a lyricist even before his collaboration with Sullivan.
Many of the plot elements of the German Reed Entertainments (as well as some from his earlier plays and Bab Ballads) would be reused by Gilbert later in the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. These elements include paintings coming to life (Ages Ago, used again in Ruddigore), a deaf nursemaid binding a respectable man's son to a "pirate" instead of to a "pilot" by mistake (Our Island Home, 1870, reused in The Pirates of Penzance), and the forceful mature lady who is "an acquired taste" (Eyes and No Eyes, 1875, reused in The Mikado). During this time, Gilbert perfected the 'topsy-turvy' style that he had been developing in his Bab Ballads, where the humour was derived by setting up a ridiculous premise and working out its logical consequences, however absurd. Mike Leigh describes the "Gilbertian" style as follows: "With great fluidity and freedom, [Gilbert] continually challenges our natural expectations. First, within the framework of the story, he makes bizarre things happen, and turns the world on its head. Thus the Learned Judge marries the Plaintiff, the soldiers metamorphose into aesthetes, and so on, and nearly every opera is resolved by a deft moving of the goalposts.... His genius is to fuse opposites with an imperceptible sleight of hand, to blend the surreal with the real, and the caricature with the natural. In other words, to tell a perfectly outrageous story in a completely deadpan way."
At the same time, Gilbert created several 'fairy comedies' at the Haymarket Theatre. This series of plays was founded upon the idea of self-revelation by characters under the influence of some magic or some supernatural interference. The first was The Palace of Truth (1870), based on a story by Madame de Genlis. In 1871, with Pygmalion and Galatea, one of seven plays that he produced that year, Gilbert scored his greatest hit to date. Together, these plays and their successors such as The Wicked World (1873), Sweethearts (1874), and Broken Hearts (1875), did for Gilbert on the dramatic stage what the German Reed entertainments had done for him on the musical stage: they established that his capabilities extended far beyond burlesque, won him artistic credentials, and demonstrated that he was a writer of wide range, as comfortable with human drama as with farcical humour. The success of these plays, especially Pygmalion and Galatea, gave Gilbert a prestige that would be crucial to his later collaboration with as respected a musician as Sullivan.
Though dated, these works demonstrate Gilbert's desire to give respectable and well-educated theatre audiences comedies that were more refined and tasteful than the usual farces and burlesques playing in London. On the other hand, during the same period, Gilbert pushed the boundaries of how far satire could go in the theatre. He collaborated with Gilbert Arthur à Beckett on The Happy Land (1873), a political satire (in part, a parody of his own The Wicked World), which was briefly banned because of its unflattering caricatures of Gladstone and his ministers. Similarly, The Realm of Joy (1873) was set in the lobby of a theatre performing a scandalous play (implied to be the Happy Land), with many jokes at the expense of the Lord Chamberlain (the "Lord High Disinfectant", as he's referred to in the play). In Charity (1874), however, Gilbert uses the freedom of the stage in a different way: to provide a tightly-written critique of the contrasting ways in which Victorian society treated men and women who had sex outside of marriage, which anticipated the 'problem plays' of Shaw and Ibsen.
|"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, makeup 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 their utterances the piece begins to drag."|
|- Preface to Engaged|
Robertson "introduced Gilbert both to the revolutionary notion of disciplined rehearsals and to mise-en-scène or unity of style in the whole presentation - direction, design, music, acting." Like Robertson, Gilbert demanded discipline in his actors. He insisted that his actors know their words perfectly and obey his stage directions, which was something quite new to many actors of the day. "That Gilbert was a good director is not in doubt. He was able to extract from his actors natural, clear performances, which served the Gilbertian requirements of outrageousness delivered straight. Gilbert prepared meticulously for each new work, making models of the stage, actors and set pieces, and designing every action and bit of business in advance. Gilbert would not work with actors who challenged his authority. In addition, "Mr. Gilbert is a perfect autocrat, insisting that his words should be delivered, even to an inflection of the voice, as he dictates. He will stand on the stage beside the actor or actress, and repeat the words with appropriate action over and over again, until they are delivered as he desires them to be. Even during long runs and revivals, Gilbert closely supervised the performances of his plays, making sure that the actors did not make unauthorised additions, deletions or paraphrases. Gilbert was famous for demonstrating the action himself, even as he grew older. Gilbert himself went on stage in a number of productions throughout his lifetime, including several performances as the Associate in Trial by Jury, as substitute for an ailing actor in his play Broken Hearts, and in charity matinees of his one-act plays, such as King Claudius in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
It would be nearly four years after Thespis was produced before the two men worked together again. In 1868, Gilbert had published a short comedic sketch libretto in Fun magazine entitled "Trial by Jury: An Operetta". In 1873, Gilbert arranged with the theatrical manager and composer, Carl Rosa, to expand the piece into a one-act libretto. Rosa's wife was to sing the role of the plaintiff. However, Rosa's wife died in childbirth in 1874. Later in 1874 Gilbert offered the libretto to Richard D'Oyly Carte, but Carte could not use the piece at that time. By early 1875, Carte was managing the Royalty Theatre, and he needed a short opera to be played as an afterpiece to Offenbach's La Périchole. He contacted Gilbert, asked about the piece, and suggested Sullivan to set the work. Sullivan was enthusiastic, and Trial by Jury was composed in a matter of weeks. The little piece was a runaway hit, outlasting the run of La Périchole and being revived at another theatre.
Gilbert continued his quest to gain respect in and respectability for his profession. One thing that may have been holding dramatists back from respectability was that plays were not published in a form suitable for a "gentleman's library", as, at the time, they were generally cheaply and unattractively published for the use of actors rather than the home reader. To help rectify this, at least for himself, Gilbert arranged in late 1875 for publishers Chatto and Windus to print a volume of his plays in a format designed to appeal to the general reader, with an attractive binding and clear type, containing Gilbert's most respectable plays, including his most serious works, but mischievously capped off with Trial by Jury.
After the success of Trial by Jury, there were discussions towards reviving Thespis, but Gilbert and Sullivan were not able to agree on terms with Carte and his backers. The score to Thespis was never published, and most of the music is now lost. It took some time for Carte to gather funds for another Gilbert and Sullivan opera, and in this gap Gilbert produced several works including Tom Cobb (1875), Eyes and No Eyes (1875, his last German Reed Entertainment), and Princess Toto (1876), his last and most ambitious work with Clay, a three-act comic opera with full orchestra, as opposed to the shorter works for much reduced accompaniment that came before. Gilbert also wrote two serious works during this time, Broken Hearts (1875) and Dan'l Druce, Blacksmith (1876).
Also during this period, Gilbert wrote his most successful comic play, Engaged (1877), which inspired Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. Engaged is a parody of romantic drama written in the "topsy-turvy" satiric style of many of Gilbert's Bab Ballads and the Savoy Operas, with one character pledging his love, in the most poetic and romantic language possible, to every single woman in the play; the "innocent" Scottish rustics being revealed to be making a living through throwing trains off the lines and then charging the passengers for services, and, in general, romance being gladly thrown over in favour of monetary gain. Engaged continues to be performed today by both professional and amateur companies.
Carte finally assembled a syndicate in 1877 and formed the Comedy Opera Company to launch a series of original English comic operas, beginning with a third collaboration between Gilbert and Sullivan, The Sorcerer, in November 1877. This work was a modest success, and H.M.S. Pinafore followed in May 1878. Despite a slow start, mainly due to a scorching summer, Pinafore became a red-hot favourite by autumn. After a dispute with Carte over the division of profits, the other Comedy Opera Company partners hired thugs to storm the theatre one night to steal the sets and costumes, intending to mount a rival production. The attempt was repelled by stagehands and others at the theatre loyal to Carte, and Carte continued as sole impresario of the newly renamed D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. Indeed, Pinafore was so successful that over a hundred unauthorised productions sprang up in America alone. Gilbert, Sullivan and Carte tried for many years to control the American performance copyrights over their operas, without success.
For the next decade, the Savoy Operas (as the series came to be known, after the theatre Carte later built to house them) were Gilbert's principal activity. The successful comic operas with Sullivan continued to appear every year or two, several of them being among the longest-running productions up to that point in the history of the musical stage. After Pinafore came The Pirates of Penzance (1879), Patience (1881), Iolanthe (1882), Princess Ida (1884, based on Gilbert's earlier farce, The Princess), The Mikado (1885), Ruddigore (1887), The Yeomen of the Guard (1888), and The Gondoliers (1889). Gilbert not only directed and oversaw all aspects of production for these works, but he actually designed the costumes himself for Patience, Iolanthe, Princess Ida, and Ruddigore.
During this time, Gilbert and Sullivan also collaborated on one other major work, the oratorio The Martyr of Antioch, premiered at the Leeds music festival in October 1880. Gilbert arranged the original epic poem by Henry Hart Milman into a libretto suitable for the music, and it contains some original work. During this period, Gilbert occasionally wrote plays to be performed elsewhere – both serious dramas (for example The Ne'er-Do-Weel, 1878) and humorous works (for example Foggerty's Fairy, 1881). However, he no longer needed to turn out multiple plays each year, as he had done before. Indeed, during the more than nine years that separated The Pirates of Penzance and The Gondoliers, he wrote just three plays outside of the partnership with Sullivan. Only one of these works, Comedy and Tragedy, proved successful.
In 1878, Gilbert realized a life-long dream to play Harlequin, which he did at the Gaiety Theatre as part of an amateur charity production of The Forty Thieves, partly written by himself. Producer John Hollingshead later remembered, "...the gem of the performance was the grimly earnest and determined Harlequin of W. S. Gilbert. It gave me an idea of what Oliver Cromwell would have made of the character. Another member of the cast recalled that Gilbert was tirelessly enthusiastic about the piece and often invited the cast to his home for dinner extra rehearsals. "A pleasanter, more genial, or agreeable companion than he was it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to find. In 1882, Gilbert had a telephone installed in his home and at the prompt desk at the Savoy Theatre, so that he could monitor performances and rehearsals from his home study. Gilbert had referred to the new technology in Pinafore in 1878, only two years after the device was invented and before London even had telephone service.
Throughout their collaboration, Gilbert and Sullivan quarrelled several times over the choice of a subject. After both Princess Ida and Ruddigore, which were less successful than the seven other operas from H.M.S. Pinafore through The Gondoliers, Sullivan asked to leave the partnership, saying that he found Gilbert's plots repetitive and that the operas were not artistically satisfying to him. While the two artists worked out their differences, Carte kept the Savoy open with revivals of their earlier works. On each occasion, after a few months' pause, Gilbert responded with a libretto that met Sullivan's objections, and the partnership was able to continue successfully.
During the run of The Gondoliers, however, Gilbert challenged Carte over the expenses of the production. Carte had charged the cost of a new carpet for the Savoy Theatre lobby to the partnership. Gilbert believed that this was a maintenance expense that should be charged to Carte alone. As scholar Andrew Crowther has explained:
Sullivan sided with Carte, who was building a theatre in London for the production of new English grand operas, with Sullivan's Ivanhoe as the inaugural work. While the protracted quarrel worked itself out in the courts and in public, Gilbert wrote The Mountebanks with Alfred Cellier and the flop Haste to the Wedding with George Grossmith.
In 1891, after many failed attempts at reconciliation by the pair, Tom Chappell, the music publisher responsible for printing the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, stepped in to mediate between two of his most profitable artists, and within two weeks had succeeded. Two more operas resulted: Utopia, Limited (1893) and The Grand Duke (1896). Gilbert also offered a third libretto to Sullivan (His Excellency, 1894), but Gilbert's insistence on casting Nancy McIntosh, his protégée from Utopia, led to Sullivan's refusal. Utopia, concerning an attempt to "anglicise" a south Pacific island kingdom, was only a modest success, and The Grand Duke, in which a theatrical troupe, by means of a "statutory duel" and a conspiracy, takes political control of a grand duchy, was an outright failure. After that, the partnership ended for good. Sullivan continued to compose comic opera with other librettists but died four years later. In 1904, Gilbert would write, "...Savoy opera was snuffed out by the deplorable death of my distinguished collaborator, Sir Arthur Sullivan. When that event occurred, I saw no one with whom I felt that I could work with satisfaction and success, and so I discontinued to write libretti.
Although Gilbert announced a retirement from the theatre after the poor initial run of his last work with Sullivan, The Grand Duke (1896) and the poor reception of his 1897 play The Fortune-Hunter, he produced at least three more plays over the last dozen years of his life, including an unsuccessful opera, Fallen Fairies (1909), with Edward German. Gilbert also continued to supervise the various revivals of his works by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. His last play, The Hooligan, produced just four months before his death, is a study of a young condemned thug in a prison cell. The piece was so grim and powerful that, according to Mrs. Alec Tweedie, "women [in the audience] had gone out fainting". The Hooligan was one of Gilbert's most successful serious dramas, and experts conclude that, in those last months of Gilbert's life, he was developing a new style, a "mixture of irony, of social theme, and of grubby realism, to replace the old "Gilbertianism" that he had grown weary of.
Gilbert was knighted on 15 July 1907 in recognition of his contributions to drama. Sullivan had been knighted for his contributions to music almost a quarter of a century earlier, in 1883. Gilbert was, however, the first British writer ever to receive a knighthood for his plays alone—earlier dramatist knights, such as Sir William Davenant and Sir John Vanbrugh, were knighted for political and other services.
On 29 May 1911, Gilbert was giving swimming lessons to two young ladies in the lake of his home Grim's Dyke when one of them lost her footing and called for help. Gilbert dived in to save her, but suffered a heart attack in the middle of the lake and drowned. His ashes were buried at the Church of St. John the Evangelist, Stanmore. The inscription on Gilbert's memorial on the south wall of the Thames Embankment in London reads: "His Foe was Folly, and his Weapon Wit."
As the writings about Gilbert by husband and wife Seymour Hicks and Ellaline Terriss (frequent guests at his home) vividly illustrate, Gilbert's relationships with women were generally more successful than his relationships with men. Also, according to George Grossmith, Gilbert loved children:
During my dangerous illness, Mr. Gilbert never failed a day to come up and enquire after me... and kept me in roars of laughter the whole time.... But to see Gilbert at his best, is to see him at one of his juvenile parties. Though he has no children of his own, he loves them, and there is nothing he would not do to please them. I was never so astonished as when on one occasion he put off some of his own friends to come with Mrs. Gilbert to a juvenile party at my own house.
Gilbert's legacy, aside from building the Garrick Theatre and writing the Savoy Operas and other works that are still being performed or in print over a hundred and twenty-five years after their creation, is felt perhaps most strongly today through his influence on the American and British musical theatre. The innovations in content and form of the works that he and Sullivan developed, and in Gilbert's theories of acting and stage direction, directly influenced the development of the modern musical throughout the 20th century. Gilbert's lyrics employ punning, as well as complex internal and two and three-syllable rhyme schemes, and served as a model for such 20th century Broadway lyricists as P.G. Wodehouse, Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, and Lorenz Hart.
Gilbert's influence on the English language has also been marked, with well-known phrases such as "A policeman's lot is not a happy one", "short, sharp shock", "What never? Well, hardly ever!", and "let the punishment fit the crime" arising from his pen. In addition, biographies continue to be written about Gilbert's life and work, and his work is not only performed, but frequently parodied, pastiched, quoted and imitated in comedy routines, film, television and other popular media.