You are here: Archive Home > W. S. Gilbert > A Visit to Sir William S. Gilbert
The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive   Gilbert Interviews

A Visit to Sir William S. Gilbert


SIR:  Little more than a year ago I was privileged to visit Sir William S. Gilbert at his home in Harrow Wealdand to hear him talk intimately of his dramatic effort and aims.  Some reminiscences of our conversation may be suggestive to those who have regarded Gilbert chiefly as the librettist of "Pinafore" and "The Mikado" and as the author of popular comedies.

Gilbert’s own interest lay primarily in his serious poetic dramas.  "Broken Hearts," "Gretchen," and "The Wicked World" were, he said, his own favorite plays.  As the talk turned on the question whether in "Gretchen" the heroine’s sudden yielding to sin was probable, I was forced to confess that there seemed to me no natural reason for the change of character.  I was quite taken aback at the answer:  "Just so.  The explanation is unnatural.  It is diabolical power—the Satanic spell that Gretchen cannot resist.  The Faust legend is sufficient authority for any improbabilities of dramatic action."  As Gilbert went on to press the point, he seemed to suggest a reason why his poetic dramas are often unconvincing.  He was content at times to let his characters escape irksome conformity to the laws of nature and to hold them accountable only to the lax laws of fairlyand.

Of Gilbert’s extraordinary sensitiveness to adverse criticism I had remarkable proof.  Though he was scrupulously faithful to the minutest detail of rehearsals, he confessed, to my amazement, that he had never dared to attend a single actual public performance of even the most popular of his dramatic or operatic successes.

"What, never!" I ventured.

"Well, hardly ever!" he replied, with a twinkle.  "In fact, really the sole exception that I recall was a production of "The Mikado" in German.  They persuaded me to go, and it was" — he leaned forward confidentially — "rotten."  Then he added:  "I have always been fearful of failure.  In the theatre there is always something that may go wrong.  The risk of seeing my own failure in public — no, I cannot brave that."

Other proofs of Gilbert’s peculiar sensitiveness were frequent.  He had just produced a new opera, "Fallen Fairies," based on his early poetic play, "The Wicked World," but the fairies had fallen upon somewhat stony ground.  That his expectations had not been met fully had evidently cut to the quick.  Again, I had just been reading the volume on Gilbert by Edith A. Browne in the series called Stars of the Stage.  As the author’s preface acknowledges a debt to Gilbert for biographical information, I ventured to ask his opinion of the work.  "Don’t ask me," he said.  "Part way through the book she said some things that I couldn’t bear about my poetic plays.  I never read the rest of it.  Usually, you know, Lady Gilbert is my press censor.  She reads all the press notices, but lets me see only those she thinks I will like.  I tremble at reviewers."  Still another evidence of Gilbert’s feeling came by merest chance.  I had been speaking of a successful amateur revival of his delightful extravaganza, "Engaged," and to his passing phrases about its whimsical absurdity I thoughtlessly rejoined that nothing in the play itself seemed to me so absurd as the criticism on it which interpreted it as a bitter and cruel caricature of mankind.  "Did somebody say that of ‘Engaged’?" queried Gilbert.  It was too late to retreat, and I had to tell of the pages in the book of Filon, the French critic, on "The English Stage," in which he finds something almost of Swift’s saeva indignatio underlying the playful topsy-turvydom of Gilbert’s fancy.  "And they call that dramatic criticism in France, do they?" said Gilbert gently.  "Could any one have misconceived ‘Engaged’ more perfectly?"

Another trait which Gilbert revealed was his attention to details.  The themes of many of his operas, he said, had come to him by chance.  A Japanese sword hanging on his library wall had suggested the picturesque setting of "The Mikado," a Venetian picture that of "The Gondoliers."  The chromo of a beef-eater placarded as an advertisement at a railway station had been sufficient hint for "The Yeomen of the Guard."  I remarked that such instances suggested intuition rather than accident.  "Well," said Gilbert, "I suppose there is a knack in observing trifles.  Most people are too busy to bother with petty details."

Since the advent of "Gilbert and Sullivan opera" the mirth-loving public has been loath to let its most delightful jester put aside cap-and-bells.  Doubtless this English Yorick was a fellow of infinite jest, yet if I essayed to pluck out the heart of his mystery, I should take a hint from one who interpreted the English humorists of an earlier age.  "Harlequin without his mask," says Thackeray, "is known to present a very sober countenance, … a man full of cares and perplexities like the rest of us, whose Self must always be serious to him, under whatever mask or disguise or uniform he presents it to the public."


Yale University, July 16.

Archive Home  |  W. S. Gilbert  |  Interviews

   Page modified 22 November, 2011 Copyright © 2011 The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive All Rights Reserved.