Perfectly Outrageous: The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan

William S. Gilbert (1836-1911) and Arthur S. Sullivan (1842-1900) first collaborated on the opera Thespis, as a holiday production at London’s Gaiety Theatre in 1871. Both were accomplished in their respective fields — Gilbert in writing and Sullivan in musical composition — before pairing up to form one of the most successful creative duos in history. Gilbert came to prominence for his contributions to the popular comedy journal Fun in the early 1860s. He frequently contributed dramatic criticism, satirical verse, and drawings, as well as a number of ballads, to journals of the day. Many of these early comic sketches would later form the basis for songs and storylines in his and Sullivan’s operettas. Gilbert was also a prolific playwright and experienced stage director known for his rigor. According to singer George Grossmith, who originated the role of the Major General in The Pirates of Penzance, “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.” Many of Gilbert’s seemingly authoritarian habits, including his exact planning of actors’ stage movements in advance of rehearsal with the use of a set model, are considered standard among stage directors today, though his practice of giving line readings to actors is generally avoided by directors rather than emulated.

Meanwhile, Sullivan had been developing his musical skills since childhood, when by the age of ten he had mastered a number of instruments. As a teenager he entered the Royal Academy of Music and continued his studies in Germany, developing as a composer and conductor. After his return to London, Sullivan received accolades for his orchestral suite of Shakespeare’s The Tempest at the Crystal Palace in 1862, and spent the following years distinguishing himself as a composer in a variety of musical genres. John Hollingshead, manager of the popular Gaiety Theatre, commissioned Sullivan in 1871 to pair with Gilbert to compose a comic opera for production. After the Gaiety Theatre premiered Thespis that Christmas, it would be another several years before impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte would ask Gilbert and Sullivan to collaborate on a short piece for a triple bill that included Jacques Offenbach’s La Perichole. Gilbert and Sullivan’s satirical one-act operetta Trial by Jury debuted at London’s Royalty Theatre in March of 1875, and outshone the Offenbach piece. The wheels of Gilbert and Sullivan’s fortunes were beginning to turn.

Several characteristics of Gilbert and Sullivan’s later works were exhibited in these first experiments, including social and political satire, and Gilbert’s trademark infusion of the ridiculous into the operetta’s plot. Mike Leigh, director and writer of the film Topsy-Turvy, describes it 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 [as in Trial by Jury], 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.

With this method of storytelling — using the deadpan to communicate the outrageous — Gilbert and Sullivan got away with brazen social commentary in the form of upbeat musical comedy. While much of Gilbert and Sullivan’s humor capitalizes on gender and ethnic stereotypes, their biting satire generally targets the folly of humankind and the capricious nature of social class and order. The continued popularity of their comic operas into the 21st century testifies to the continued relevance of Gilbert and Sullivan and their influence on other artists. Musical theatre today is still an unexpected and therefore effective platform for social commentary, often through its humorous, and therefore, disarming delivery of content. The collaboration of music, lyrics, and character development to tell a story and present a unified world view stands out among Gilbert and Sullivan’s contributions to the field of musical theatre.

They followed the success of Trial by Jury with The Sorcerer in 1877 for Richard D’Oyly Carte’s newly formed Comedy Opera Company, and the following year the company premiered Gilbert and Sullivan’s latest, H.M.S. Pinafore. Unfortunately business was slow in the summer heat, and disagreements arose between D’Oyly Carte and some of his investors who favored closing the unsuccessful show. Sullivan incorporated some of the Pinafore music into a separate program he was conducting at Covent Garden; interest in the musical grew as a result, and the production began to draw audiences. But with the new-found success of Pinafore came continued disagreements amongst investors regarding returns on the show. In an effort to combat D’Oyly Carte and mount their own money-making production of Pinafore, the investors orchestrated the attempted burglary of original Pinafore scenery and costumes during a performance. Fortunately for D’Oyly Carte, Gilbert, and Sullivan, the hired thieves were thwarted by stagehands after an hour-long backstage fracas. Having experienced this bout with pirates, the three men entered an exclusive partnership and started the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company in London. Without the protection of international copyright laws, the triumvirate experienced another bout with pirates when, at one point, more than one hundred unauthorized productions of H.M.S. Pinafore were running successfully in the United States. In fact, when the official Gilbert and Sullivan company finally arrived in New York, a number of pirate-Pinafore casts assembled to welcome them in an odd display of American hospitality.

To avoid such welcome parties with their next production, The Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert and Sullivan premiered the new show at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York City on New Year’s Eve of 1879, and secured the first international copyright by producing a scaled-down version almost simultaneously in England. After finding international success with H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert and Sullivan continued to make their mark in theatrical history with Patience (1881), Iolanthe (1882), Princess Ida (1884), The Mikado (1885), Ruddigore (1887), The Yeomen of the Guard (1888), and The Gondoliers (1889). As Gilbert and Sullivan’s twenty-five year partnership grew and evolved, so did their style of writing — from satirical operetta to something more akin to the modern musical.

Their creative process usually involved Gilbert penning the libretto (many of which are based on his earlier writings), and Sullivan composing the music after receiving Gilbert’s draft. The pair would revise as needed, and Gilbert would, with his infamous discipline, direct the production with an exacting attention to detail. In 1881 the D’Oyly Carte company moved into the custom- built Savoy Theatre, the first English theatre to use electricity. Henceforth, Gilbert and Sullivan’s works would often be referred to as “Savoy Operas.” After producing The Gondoliers in 1889, Gilbert and Sullivan parted ways over a dispute involving the purchase of new carpet in the Savoy Theatre, though the pair had long quarreled over artistic differences in their musicals. The pair reunited in 1893 for Utopia (Limited), and in 1896 for The Grand Duke, but each pursued independent work and new collaboration outside of the partnership.

Both William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan received knighthood for their many accomplishments, and after Sullivan’s death in 1900, Gilbert continued to write librettos and plays until his own passing in 1911. Richard D’Oyly Carte died in 1901, leaving his family in control of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, which has remained active into the 21st century, despite periods of financial difficulty. Also carrying on the tradition are countless Gilbert and Sullivan Societies and appreciation groups in major American cities and across the world who keep the musical duo in the news with performances, meetings, newsletters, scholarship, and lively discussion. Thanks to the quality of Sullivan’s composition and the eternal relevance of Gilbert’s satire, the duo’s works have steadily retained their popularity throughout the last hundred years and the dynamic partnership forged by two very different artists remains an inspiration to those setting out to revolutionize the theatre through music.

– Allison Horsley


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