Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
Gilbert & Sullivan Opera
A History and a Comment
by H. M. Walbrook



Lord Chancellor dancing with two Lords

In the first place let me correct one or two small popular errors in regard to the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. They number in all not thirteen (as is frequently stated) but fourteen. They were not all produced at the Opéra Comique and the Savoy, for the first was originally acted at the old Gaiety Theatre and the second at the Royalty Theatre in Deanstreet. Finally, Cox and Box (which contains some of Sullivan's prettiest music) and Contrabandista are not Gilbert and Sullivan at all, but Burnand and Sullivan. The first collaborative work of William Schwenck Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan was the comic opera in two Acts called Thespis, or the Gods Grown Old, and it was first presented by M. John Hollingshead at the Gaiety on the night of December 23rd, 1871. Those were not the days of the Puff Preliminary as we know it now, when, for obvious reasons, the public often hear a great deal more about a play before it has been produced than they do after that fateful event. Yet there was a good deal of talk about Thespis beforehand; and one of the illustrated papers published an amusing drawing of a rehearsal of the piece with Hollingshead and Robert Soutar drilling the performers, and the author, with his silk hat tilted slightly forward and the "scrip" in his hand, watching the proceedings with ominous eyes. The piece was not a great success, but the night of its production was destined to mark an epoch. One of the most brilliant chapters in the annals of the British Theatre dates from it.

That old Gaiety Theatre stood a little to the west of the site of the present house, and was much less handsome, both internally and externally. The front entrance was in the Strand, and a few years later a crystal illumination over its porch was one of the cheerful symbols of London by night. Round the corner, in Wellington Street, over the classic facade of the Lyceum, another such illumination gleamed, from the eighties onward, and each of these embellishments had its thrilling associations for playgoers who were young then. That old Gaiety has vanished, so also has the old Lyceum, save its facade; but the art-form known as Gilbert-and-Sullivan Opera is with us still. Long may it continue!

There is nothing quite like it on the European stage. There have been other famous collaborations, notably in the French Theatre, but none has been at once so fruitful and so complete. None has so appealed to the universal taste, becoming thereby classic; and none has lived so long in undiminished vitality. People of all ranks, from the highest to the humblest, have at one time or another felt the charm of these works. Whenever and wherever they are performed in England half the audience seem to know the score and libretto by heart. Often has a player in them, forgetting his words, been prompted from stalls, pit and gallery!

In the old days at the Savoy it used to be very difficult to secure a seat for the first performance of one of the operas. There is a story of a member of the Sassoon family who was a personal friend of the composer, which is worth repeating here. He had discovered that all the seats in the house had been allocated for one of these exciting occasions. Accordingly he sought out his friend and entreated him by some means or other to get him a place in the auditorium. Sullivan's reply was: "It is impossible; but if you will change the first letter of your name to B, I will find room for you in the orchestra!”

In the catalogue of the British Museum Library no fewer than thirteen columns are devoted to the titles and particulars of books by or about Sir W. S. Gilbert. In Germany The Mikado has long been as popular with all classes as it is in England, and Der Mikado, oder Ein Tag in Titipu is always to be found on the programme of one or other of the theatres of that country. There is another German version of it in the United States, called Der Mikado, oder die Stadt Titipu, and I have heard that both versions make as free with the libretto as they do with the title, but respect the score most dutifully. A revival of H.M.S. Pinafore, on a colossal scale, with a vast chorus and orchestra and all sorts of scenic "effects," was the talk of New York some years before the Great War. Miles of newspaper articles have been written about them in the United States, and not a few books devoted to them. I was lately reading one of these latter. It was written by a Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy of Harvard University, and contained a great deal of honourable enthusiasm and wise criticism. It also contained a blunder or two. Of these, one of the worst was a reference to Henry Irving as having inaugurated his stage career in the character of Koko! I think one may say with some confidence that this is the worst "howler” ever encountered in a work of aesthetic criticism by a Doctor of Philosophy.

In England the editions of the books of words have been numerous, ranging from the usual libretti sold in the theatre with the words on the cover, "price one shilling net cash," to so splendid an edition as that which Mr. W. Russell Flint illustrated with pictures so dainty that they almost compensate for the want of the music, and to which Sir W. S. Gilbert himself contributed interesting Forewords to several of the plays. At the Opéra Comique and Savoy Theatres the lights in the auditorium used not to be lowered during the performance, with the result that a large percentage of the audience nightly purchased the shilling "book of words" and followed the proceedings, reading page after page. The rustle of leaves all over the house as a leaf was turned was a unique experience in a theatre. Nowadays the house darkens as the curtain rises, and a book of words becomes useless. Probably the change is for the better. After all, the study is the place for reading a play, not the theatre. Who would care to follow a worthy Shakespearean revival with his eyes on the text all the time?

Other signs of the popularity of the operas are the amateur performances continually taking place, and the frequency with which their characters appear at fancy dress balls and bazaars. In several cities and towns an annual "week" of Gilbert and Sullivan by amateurs comes round year by year with the regularity of a recurring decimal; and for years past no fancy dress dance has been complete without its Elsie Maynard and Jack Point, its Mikado and YumYum, its Patience and Bunthorne. Add to all this the innumerable and ever-welcome inclusions of selections from the music at our concerts, and the equally innumerable quotations from the libretti in our literature and journalism, and the demonstration of their remarkable vogue is complete.

They came at a psychological moment — an hour when English Comic Opera had practically ceased to exist. London had Offenbach, Lecocq, Audran, Hervé, Von Suppé, Planquette; and very cheerful and tuneful they were; but their necessarily bowdlerized libretti were generally crude and frequently unintelligible, while an admitted attraction of many of these continental importations lay in the suggestion that, in the matter of the ladies' dresses, the management had gone on the principle of "doing as little as possible and doing it well." In the place of all this foreign melody and meretricious charm, W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan gave us a genuine English article, satirical, but at the same time loyal to the average general English sentiment; witty beyond anything of the kind known here before; humorous, with the tear, here and there, not far removed from the laughter; clean to ear and eye, and set to the sort of music the English people most love and best understand, namely, that of the ballad, the madrigal and the dance.

Gilbert, who was born in London, and who received his knighthood in 1907, inherited his curious vein of dry subacid humour from his father, Mr. William Gilbert (a descendant of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, the great Elizabethan soldier and explorer), whose novels show many of the literary characteristics of the more famous son. His training in life before he took up authorship was varied and select, including the taking of the B.A. degree at London University, preparation for a commission in the Royal Artillery, four years' work in the Education department of the Privy Council office, and being called to the Bar and working on the Northern Circuit. Meanwhile, journalism had also attracted him, and when H. J. Byron edited the weekly comic paper, Fun, Gilbert promptly became one of its regular and most appreciated contributors. Afterwards, a period of service as dramatic critic on the Illustrated Times gave him an exceptional insight into theatrical matters, and no doubt fostered the growth of that subtle "sense of the theatre" which was to be such a feature of his writings for the stage.

Sullivan also was born in London, but was the son of an Irish father, Thomas Sullivan, a well known bandmaster and teacher of music, and of a mother who had Italian blood in her veins. By the age of eight he could play every wind instrument in his father's band, and at fourteen he won the Mendelssohn scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music, where Sterndale Bennett became one of his masters. He was only twenty when his "Tempest" music was performed at the Crystal Palace, and twenty-seven when his oratorio, "The Prodigal Son," was first brought out at the Worcester Musical Festival and became the talk of the English musical world. He received his knighthood in 1883, and throughout his life his social success was as great as his artistic. His taste was broad and, notwithstanding his devotion to the music of Schubert, Schumann, and Mendelssohn, he was one of the first to introduce that of Wagner into England. He was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral amid a remarkable demonstration of public sorrow.

The Sullivan Memorial in the Victoria Embankment Gardens

The death in 1900 of Sir Arthur Sullivan, and that in 1911 of Sir W. S. Gilbert, were mourned by the whole nation. To each there is a monument on the Thames Embankment. That to Sullivan is a bust on a pedestal, with his name and the years of his birth and death, 1842 — 1900, a beautiful figure of the Muse of Song and Harmony weeping for her loss, and on the west side of the pedestal the lines

Is life a boon ?
If so, it must befall
That death whene'er he call
Must call too soon.

from The Yeomen of The Guard. That to Gilbert is a tablet on the south wall of the Embankment, opposite Charing Cross station, containing a bust portrait of him in relief, the dates of his birth and death, 18361911, the words, "His foe was Folly and his weapon Wit," with statuettes of the Muses of Comedy and Tragedy, the description of him as "Poet and Playwright," and his coat of arms.

These two monuments, with the statue of Henry Irving on the north side of the National Portrait Gallery and the monument to Heminge and Condell in the graveyard of the church of St. Mary Aldermanbury, are among the few permanent commemorations of great theatrical figures to be found in London. In Paris there is scarcely a great French dramatist or composer of the past who has not his statue. Here in England, as a rule, if we order the statue of an eminent dramatist, or poet, or musician, or actor, we hide it away in a museum, a playhouse vestibule or a church. For that very reason the Gilbert and Sullivan monuments on the Embankment, where they may be seen by all, become the more significant.


Page created 14 March 1999