Gilbert And Sullivan
rating: +1+x

Reginald cursed himself as he sped across the Savoy's lobby. He had let himself be so distracted by the ridiculous patter singer on stage that he didn't notice the Count leave his box until it was too late. He burst out of the theater just in time to see the Count's carriage rattling away into the fog.

Looking wildly about, Reginald saw a fellow in an overcoat pacing back and forth in front of the theater. "Hi, you!" Reginald said. "Call me a cab!"

The fellow took a cigar out of his mouth and eyed Reginald severely. "You, sir, are a four-wheeler;" he said. "I am afraid I cannot call you hansom!" And then he walked away.

By this time Dawson had caught up to Reginald. "Did you hear that?" Reginald said. "The cheek of the man! Have you ever seen such an impudent doorman?"

Dawson laughed. "That's no doorman, Reggie old man! That's Gilbert!"

Basic Information

The artistic team of librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan created some of the most sparkling theater of the 19th Century and in some respects can be said to have written the soundtrack for the Victorian Era.

William Schwenk Gilbert was born on November 18 1836, the son of a naval surgeon. As a child, he traveled Europe with his parents.. At the age of two, he was stolen by bandits in Naples and was ransomed for £25, resulting in numerous future plots involving stolen babies. After graduating from King's College London in 1856, he intended to take a commission in the Royal Artillery, hoping to make a career in the Army; but with the end of the Crimean War that year, the competitive examinations for the openings were canceled. Instead, Gilbert went into the Law.

Gilbert's career as a barrister was less than successful, but the writing he did to supplement his income was much more remunerative. He wrote light humorous verse for the magazine Fun, under the pseudonym of "Bab", (his childhood nickname). His "Bab Ballads" not only gave him a degree of fame, but also served as a source of ideas for his later operettas.

He moved from comic verse to the theater, writing his first play, Dulcamara; or The Little Duck and the Great Quack, in 1866. The play was successful enough to lead to others. He wrote several "entertainments" for Thomas German Reed, an impresario whose "Gallery of Illustration" sought to provide a family-friendly alternative to the theater of the day, which suffered too much from racy burlesques and badly-translated French operettas. (Reed called his shows "entertainments" because "plays" were considered disreputable). It was about this point when he met Sullivan.

Arthur S. Sullivan was born on May 13, 1842 in London's Lambeth district, the son of a military bandmaster and music teacher. Young Arthur quickly showed himself to be a musical prodigy, winning the prestigious Mendelssohn Scholarship in 1856 at the age of fourteen. He studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music and also at the Leipzig Conservatoire. His graduation piece, written in 1861, was a set of incidental music for Shakespeare's The Tempest. He wrote a symphony, a concerto and several overtures, but was drawn to choral music, composing dramatic oratorios, chorals and theatrical music. He also wrote the music for some 72 hymns in his career, most famously "Onward, Christian Soldiers."

In 1869, a mutual friend, composer Frederick Clay, introduced Sullivan to Gilbert. Sullivan by this time had written music for a couple short operettas, "Cox and Box" and "The Contrabandista"; and Gilbert was already an established playwright. They didn't exactly hit it off; but a couple years later, however, in 1871, producer John Hollingshead brought them together to write and entertainment to run in the Gaiety Theater.

The play, Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old, was a burlesque modeled after the French operettas then in vogue. In it a troupe of actors stumble upon the abode of the gods on Mount Olympus. The gods have grown old and decrepit and so agree to pass on their duties to the actors, with silly results. The play ran for only 63 performances; not a flop, but not exactly a rousing success either. The score for the operetta was never published, and has since been lost; therefore it is the only Gilbert and Sullivan operetta that has never been revived.

In 1874, impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte asked Gilbert to provide a one-act piece to fill out the bill for an Offenbach operetta he was staging. Gilbert had an unused skit about a breach-of promise lawsuit, inspired by his own brief legal career. Carte recommended Sullivan to write the music, and Sullivan's brother, Fred, was cast as the Judge; ("And a good judge, too!"). The play was a tremendous success and actually outlasted the Offenbach operetta at the top of the bill.

Most music and especially musical theater in England at that time consisted of imported French and Italian operas. Carte wanted to create a purely British theater and recognized Gilbert and Sullivan as the talents who could do it.

The two men had vastly different personalities. Gilbert was prickly, bull-headed and argumentative; quick to take offense, but kind-hearted towards his friends. He ran his rehearsals like a drill-sergeant and maintained his actors with a strict discipline. He had a model made of the stage and he would plan out the movements of the cast with a set of blocks of different sizes and colors to represent the different voices.

He had a quick, acidic wit and was notorious for his snappy rejoinders. Once in rehearsal, he told an actor to "lean pensively" on a piece of scenery. The scenery had not been secured and collapsed under the actor's considerable weight. "No," Gilbert responded, "that's ex-pensively."

He was jealously protective of his script. He insisted that all his actors be able to enunciate his words clearly, and vehemently banned all ad-libs that had not been cleared with him first. George Grossmith once suggested a piece of comic business that Gilbert vetoed. When Grossmith insisted that the gag would get a laugh, Gilbert replied, "Yes, but so they would if you sat down on a pork pie!"

Oddly enough, Gilbert could never bear to sit and watch his plays on opening night. He always spent the performance prowling outside the theater, entering it only at the very end to take his bow on stage with Sullivan.

Sullivan was more easy-going and enjoyed living the high life with his wealthy and titled friends. He was a consummate flirt and it has long been speculated that his close friend Mary Frances ("Fanny") Ronalds was actually his lover. He enjoyed gambling and when not involved with his music, spent much of his time at the racetrack and at the card tables of Monte Carlo. For much of his life, Sullivan suffered from recurring kidney disease, and in fact wrote some of his most airy, delightful music while he himself was wracked with excruciating agony.

Carte formed a company to mount new Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. The first, The Sorcerer, was a modest success and introduced George Grossmith, a lively character actor for whom Gilbert wrote scads of tricky patter songs.

Tragedy struck in 1877 when Fred Sullivan, who had starred in all three operettas to date, died of tuberculosis. In memory of his brother, Sullivan wrote a musical setting for "The Lost Chord", a sentimental poem of the day.

In 1878 Gilbert followed up Trial by Jury with The H.M.S. Pinafore, a nautical comedy satirizing class distinctions. Gilbert was a stickler for authenticity and visited the H.M.S. Victory in Portsmouth harbor to make reference sketches of an actual Man-O'-War so that the stage and costume design would be as accurate as possible. The play sold poorly at first; the hot summer drove the public away from theaters that season; but Sullivan earned a gig directing a series of summer concerts which he used to promote Pinafore by performing musical selections from the operetta. Carte's investors, however, wanted to pull out and at one point hired a group of thugs to try to seize the costumes and scenery — while a performance was actually going on stage!

Pinafore went on to become Gilbert and Sullivan's first big box office smash. Hurdy-gurdies all over London were playing "I'm Called Little Buttercup" and the line, "What, never?" "Hardly ever!" became a national catch phrase. To Gilbert's annoyance, the play was an international sensation too, as dozens of unauthorized pirate versions of Pinafore popped up over the United States. There was no copyright agreement between the U.S. and Britain at that time, and so apart from sending their own production to America, there was little Gilbert and Sullivan could do.

To combat the American pirates, Gilbert decided that their next operetta would premiere in America, with a simultaneous performance in England to secure copyrights in both places. The Pirates of Penzance premiered on New Year's Eve, 1879, in New York City, and became one of their best-loved operettas. On the ocean voyage to America, Sullivan discovered that he had left the musical score for Pirates back home and so had to re-write the overture from memory.

In 1880, Sullivan wrote a cantata entitled The Martyr of Antioch, based on an epic poem by Henry Hart Milman adapted by Gilbert. The cantata was performed at the Leeds Music Festival and was the only "serious" collaboration the two worked on.

Pirates was followed by Patience, a satire of the aesthetic movement, led by artists and poets such as Algernon Charles Swinburne, James McNeill Whistler, and Oscar Wilde. Carte was managing Wilde at the time and arranged for the poet to go on a speaking tour of the United States, so that when the touring company of Patience arrived, the Americans would get the jokes.

During production of Patience, Carte built a new theater, the Savoy, to be the permanent home for the partnership. Since then, the works of Gilbert and Sullivan have become known as "The Savoy Operas", even those which premiered before the Savoy was built. The Savoy was the first building in London to be completely illuminated by electricity (although opera-goers were assured that the theater was equipped with gas lighting as well, just to be safe).

The first opera to open at the Savoy was Iolanthe (1882), a fantasy about a group of fairies invading the stuffy House of Peers. It was during Iolanthe's run, in 1883, that Sullivan was knighted by Queen Victoria for his contributions to English music. This caused no little conflict between the two collaborators because although Sullivan was knighted, Gilbert was not. Many friends and music critics felt that with his elevation in rank, Sir Arthur Sullivan ought to direct his attention away from frivolous entertainments and towards more serious musical works.

Sullivan often complained that he was wasting his music on inferior material. Gilbert, however, insisted that the music and the words in an operetta ought to be of equal importance and complained that Sullivan's grand music was obscuring his lyrics. The two men also disagreed on plots. Gilbert enjoyed fantastic plots in which the normal rules of society were turned topsy-turvy and liked to use magical gimmicks such as love potions and spells. Sullivan felt these gimmicks were hackneyed and repetitive.

When Princess Ida (1884) closed early after a disappointing run, and Gilbert suggested a new opera about a Magic Lozenge that altered people's personalities, Sullivan rebelled and insisted he could not work with the plot. According to legend, while they were at this impasse, an ornamental Samurai sword that Gilbert had hanging on his wall happened to fall to the floor, inspiring Gilbert to write a Japanese play. A Japanese Exhibition had recently opened in the London suburb of Knightsbridge, launching a popular fad for Japanese art and clothing. The resulting operetta, The Mikado (1885), became the pair's greatest success.

After the success of Mikado, their next play, Ruddigore (1887), a deliciously creepy spoof on Victorian Melodrama, was something of a disappointment. In The Yeoman of the Guard (1888), Gilbert tackled a more serious story with a semi-tragic ending. The following year, the two wrote The Gondoliers (1889), a satire on egalitarian politics, which many critics regard as their finest work and was their last big success. Queen Victoria requested a command performance of the work at Windsor Castle. To Gilbert's annoyance, his name was left out of the program and the operetta was credited solely to "Sir Arthur Sullivan".

During the run of Gondoliers, Gilbert found what he felt were some irregularities in the company's finances. Most notably, Carte had installed new carpeting in the Savoy's lobby and charged it to the production of the Gondoliers when Gilbert felt the cost of it should have come out of Carte's own pocket. Sullivan sided with Carte, who was building a new theater which he hoped to house a national British opera company. Gilbert sued his two partners, and the partnership broke up. It took four years for the two to get back together.

In the intervening time, Sullivan achieved his ambition of writing a grand opera: Ivanhoe, based on the Sir Walter Scott novel, opened at Carte's new Royal English Opera House on January 31, 1891. Although the opera itself was well-received, Carte's experiment in a national opera company was doomed to failure, having only one opera in its repertoire. Once Ivanhoe's run ended, he had nothing to replace it with; and the project collapsed.

About this time, friends of the two men finally persuaded them to reconcile, but much of the magic was gone. In 1893 they produced Utopia, Limited to limited success, and their final operetta, The Grand Duke (1896) was a flop.

Sullivan died on November 22, 1900 of a heart attack following a severe case of bronchitis. Gilbert mostly retired from the stage, although he did write a few more plays including an opera, Fallen Fairies, based on an earlier play of his, The Wicked World, and returned frequently to the Savoy to supervise revivals of his and Sullivan's operettas. He received a knighthood of his own in 1907 for his contributions to English drama.

On May 29, 1911, Gilbert died while trying to help a young woman who was swimming in the lake at his country house. He suffered a heart attack while coming to her aid and drowned.


4. Movie: Topsy-Turvy (1999) — dramatization of the events surrounding the production of The Mikado

Game and Story Use

  • Tunes from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas or popular catch phrases can provide useful atmosphere in a Victorian Era campaign.
  • Part of an adventure might take place at the Savoy Opera House, perhaps during a performance.
    • The PC's discover a plot to assassinate the Prince of Wales during a performance at the Savoy. Can the PC's stop it?
    • A member of the Savoy chorus has a secret which, if Gilbert finds out, could ruin her career. Now a mysterious person is blackmailing her and she comes to the PCs for help!
  • Sullivan had many rich and titled friends and might be encountered at the races, or at fashionable salons.
    • Sullivan's lavish lifestyle and romantic entanglements might leave him open to blackmail. Can the PC's help save his reputation?
  • Gilbert might be encountered at the theater, or at upper-middle class social occasions such as dinner parties.
  • A silly campaign might actually use plots from the Savoy Operas. They would be pretty silly, though.
  • In an Alternate History, the score of Thespis might have survived and that play revived.
    • If you have any Savoyards in your group, having some action occur during a production of Thespis would be a cute in-joke for them. If you don't, well, maybe in an alternate universe you do.
    • In a time travel campaign: the party's first clue that they're in the wrong timeline is a theatrical poster advertising a production of Thespis.
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License