The most important British dramatist of the late Victorian era, William Schwenck Gilbert (1836-1911) trained as a lawyer, but his brief stint in the practice of law was mainly an excuse to give him somewhere to sit while cranking out stories, verse and woodcut drawings for London’s flourishing humorous press. He was particularly associated with Fun, a lowbrow publication for which Gilbert contributed everything from drawings and dramatic criticism to political commentary and light verse. It was the light verse that caught on, and his collected Fun pieces, published as The Bab Ballads in 1868, became a sensation; a second collection appeared in 1872.
By that time, however, Gilbert had moved on to his real interest, the theater. During his college days at Kings College London, he had become a leader of the school’s Engineering Society and spurred its transformation into the Shakespearean Dramatic and Reading Society—a transformation which lasted until Gilbert’s graduation, after which it once again became the Engineering Society.
Gilbert’s foot in the theatrical door came as a gag man for pantomimes, the fantastical Christmas shows which were, and are, a staple of English popular culture. From there he moved to burlesque, which was little more than pantomime performed at times of the year other than Christmas and, instead of the traditional “panto” fairy-tale plots, utilizing parodies of operas, Shakespeare and, occasionally, classical ballets, epic poetry and the like. The general tone of burlesque can be gathered from the title of Gilbert’s first hit, a spoof of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore (1832) entitled Dulcamara: Or, the Little Duck and the Great Quack (1866). Burlesque was a comedian-centered form which asked its writers for little more than sketchy scenarios, parodies of popular arias and a coruscating blizzard of puns, but it was professional theater and a good way for a young man on the make to figure out what worked and what didn’t. Gilbert continued to make most of his money writing for Fun, but increasingly his pieces were about the theater and, often, about the frustrations of being a writer for burlesque.
Gilbert’s love for puns lasted to the end of his life, but his aspirations reached far beyond the burlesque stage—in which, as a writer, he could never hope to be a dominant figure. (And Gilbert was a man who liked to be a dominant figure: Tall, muscular and commanding in appearance, he had gotten his way with the Engineering Society and would get his way with most other things for the next half-century.)
In 1869 he began to write (and to direct) for Thomas German Reed’s Royal Gallery of Illustration, an association that would last until 1875. Reed’s Royal Gallery was essentially a cleaned-up burlesque theater catering to a higher-class audience than frequented the rowdy halls of burlesque. The shows that Gilbert and others wrote for Reed were genre parodies, like burlesque, and had their share of puns; but they were meticulously staged, tastefully produced and performed without double entendre or other suggestive elements, and they featured original songs, rather than parodies of existing ones. The Royal Gallery was half the size of the Savoy Theatre to come, and its shows were performed to piano accompaniment rather than with an orchestra, but its aesthetic was not unlike that of Gilbert & Sullivan, and indeed several of the six plays Gilbert wrote for Reed would later emerge, in drastically revised form, on the stage of the Savoy.
It was backstage at the Royal Gallery, during rehearsals for a play called Ages Ago (1869) that had book and lyrics by Gilbert and music by Frederic Clay, that Gilbert was introduced to a friend of Clay’s, the prominent young composer Arthur Sullivan.
Today Gilbert is best known as a lyricist, and from his early days in burlesque to his final opera in the early 20th century he would always be drawn to musical theater, but it is important to realize that his initial fame came first as a humorous poet (with The Bab Ballads) and then as a straight dramatist: His most profitable work in his own lifetime was not any of the Savoy operas (whose royalties had to be split with Sullivan), but rather the verse drama Pygmalion and Galatea (1871).
This play, which enjoyed several London revivals and remained popular into the 20th century, was one of a series of “fairy comedies” that Gilbert wrote for the Haymarket Theatre during the same years that he was writing operettas for the Royal Gallery of Illustration. The others were The Palace of Truth (1870), The Wicked World (1873) and Broken Hearts (1875). Along with the popular romantic drama Sweethearts (1874) and the witty comedy Engaged (1877), they ensured that, until the phenomenal success of H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), Gilbert would be best known as a straight dramatist who happened to dabble in comic opera with a variety of collaborators, including three outings with Arthur Sullivan.
By the time Gilbert and Sullivan collaborated on their first joint effort, Thespis (1871), Gilbert’s tastes, personality and working methods were well established. He was his own director (a job which he saw as an extension of writing: Except for his earliest works, he would direct everything he ever wrote, but would never attempt to stage a play by any other author), and was known for the rigorous discipline he expected from his actors, technical crews and, yes, collaborators. Whether at the Royal Gallery, the Haymarket, the Opera Comique or the Savoy, Gilbert knew what he wanted and he expected to get it. He was rarely disappointed.
Thespis was a success, but not on the level of The Palace of Truth or Pygmalion and Galatea, and it was several years more before the flourishing playwright and the acclaimed composer reunited for Trial by Jury (1875), hastily written as a curtain raiser for the Royalty Theatre’s production of Offenbach’s La Perichole (1868)—which doubtless pleased Gilbert, a lifelong Offenbach devotee. It succeeded well enough that its producer, Richard D’Oyly Carte, thought that there would be a market for more Gilbert & Sullivan shows. He formed the Comedy Opera Company and leased the Opera Comique, where he produced The Sorcerer (1876) and H.M.S. Pinafore. Gilbert was committed to the enterprise, but by no means exclusively. He was happy to write for the Opera Comique, but also for the Royal Gallery and the Haymarket and a variety of other theaters. His strain of dramatic invention seemed inexhaustible, and his work with Sullivan was nothing more than one part of that creative torrent.
H.M.S. Pinafore changed that. Its phenomenal success, both in England and abroad, changed everything. Not only was it spectacularly lucrative, but it made Gilbert famous to many people who previously had never heard of him—and famous as an author of comic-opera libretti. For the remainder of a career that stretched until 1911, Gilbert would find it hard to be accepted in any of the other fields in which previously he had worked. The career of W.S. Gilbert was swamped by that of Gilbert & Sullivan.
In response to these realities, Gilbert curtailed his work outside of the partnership with Sullivan. In the 10 years before H.M.S. Pinafore, he had written 26 plays, only three of them with Sullivan; in the next 10 years, he would write 11, eight of them with Sullivan—and none of the other three would be notably successful.
Once a major battle between Carte and his partners over the production rights to H.M.S. Pinafore was resolved (it would include a literal battle, a brawl backstage between the stage crew and a competing crew that was attempting to carry off the scenery during a performance), Gilbert found himself in a position enjoyed by few if any playwrights in British history, before or since. Carte founded his own company, the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, and handed it to Gilbert & Sullivan along with a virtually literal blank check (Carte blanche, if you prefer): They could write anything they wanted, hire anyone they wanted and spend as much as they chose in producing their operas.
Moreover, in addition to complete artistic control, they were given a remarkable financial deal that made both men wealthy virtually overnight: Not only would they be well paid for their operas in advance, but they each would receive 1/3 of the profits, under an arrangement in which they and Carte were equal partners. In a theatrical world which revolved around celebrity actors (Sir Henry Irving had similar control of his Lyceum Theatre, but he didn’t write his own plays), the Opera Comique—and its successor, the Savoy Theatre, which Carte built especially for Gilbert & Sullivan and according to their specifications—would be a realm ruled by its writers.
And while Gilbert as writer/director and Sullivan as composer/music director were theoretical equals, Gilbert’s domineering personality (and Sullivan’s accommodating one) ensured that he would be first among equals. Writing book and lyrics, directing every show, designing (or supervising those hired to design) choreography, sets, costumes and even programs and promotional materials, he was finally able to give free rein to his controlling personality—and he did. For the next 12 years, Gilbert would run the artistic operations of the Savoy as if it were the scale model of the theater which he kept in his study as an aid to his staging. He consulted with Sullivan and gave great weight to the composer’s opinions; nobody else’s carried any weight at all.
This autocratic rule would not have been possible if the resulting operas hadn’t been extravagant successes, but they were. The two “failures” during this period, Princess Ida (1884) and Ruddigore (1887), each ran longer than The Sorcerer (1877) had, and were more profitable; they failed only in that they didn’t live up to the ridiculous expectations prompted by the success of H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance (1879), The Mikado (1885) and The Gondoliers (1889). Actors, designers, production crew and office staff put up with Gilbert’s iron hand because the runaway success of the operas (they ran for years, at a time when hits ran for months) proved that he knew what he was talking about.
When the Savoy’s golden age ended, it was not—as many had predicted—because eventually Sullivan couldn’t put up with Gilbert any longer. Instead, it was the result of a quarrel between Gilbert and Carte. It was instigated by Gilbert, who felt that Carte was unfairly charging the triple partnership with expenses that rightfully should come out of his own pocket as the owner of the theater. Because the biggest single item was the replacement of carpets in the auditorium, it became known as the “carpet quarrel.”
The quarrel began with an exchange of letters in early 1890, and escalated slowly but surely to legal action pitting Gilbert against Carte. Forced to testify, Sullivan largely sided with Carte. The real damage, however, came from the trial’s airing of the production company’s finances: The revelation that Gilbert, Sullivan and Carte had each made the enormous sum of £70,000 from the partnership made the sight of them arguing over £150 for carpets risible, and commentators and cartoonists had a field day. The court ultimately found in Gilbert’s favor, and Carte was obliged to pay him (and Sullivan) a few thousand pounds, but the ill will resulting from the whole episode never entirely dissipated.
When Utopia Ltd. (1893) came to be, it was under a new arrangement in which Carte and Sullivan were full partners, with Gilbert working on a straight royalty basis pegged to give him the amount of money he would have received under the old arrangement. It was a difference that made no difference, but as a means of avoiding further conflict between Gilbert and Carte, it was something that had to be done.
It was too late to bring the magic back, though. After two years of skirmishing, both Gilbert and Sullivan were sick to death of quarreling, and each man bent over backward to avoid offending the other—and, in the process, avoided the kind of meticulous critiquing and editing that had made their earlier work so great. The result was two operas—Utopia, Ltd. and The Grand Duke (1896)—that were longer than any previous Gilbert & Sullivan opera and full of redundancies and weaknesses which in the 1880s would have been ruthless pruned but in the 1890s were ignored. Utopia Ltd. was only a modest success, and The Grand Duke was an outright failure.
Neither man broke up the collaboration—it was simply that neither saw any reason to continue it. Both continued to work, with Gilbert writing three more plays and one more opera (with music by Edward German, who also had completed Sullivan’s final opera, The Emerald Isle). He continued to direct revivals of the Gilbert & Sullivan operas at the Savoy, occasionally meeting with Sullivan for that reason, but none of his new works lived up to the allure of the revivals, which provided the majority of his income. In 1907 he was knighted, and took special pride in the fact that he was the first playwright ever to be knighted for writing plays—though, characteristically, he caviled at the word “playwright,” preferring “dramatist.”
His last play was the short drama The Hooligan (1911), produced shortly before Gilbert’s accidental death on May 29, 1911. He died of a heart attack suffered while trying to rescue a young woman who had gotten in over her head in the lake on his estate.