Gilbert and Sullivan Archive

The Passing of Gilbert


by H. L. Mencken

From the Baltimore Evening Sun, May 30, 1911.

How THE COMMON American conception of the English, as a stodgy and humorless folk, could so long withstand the fact of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas must ever remain one of the mysteries of international misunderstanding. Here, indeed, was wit that Aristophanes might have fathered; here was humor that Rabelais might have been proud to own. And yet it was the work of a thorough and unmitigated Englishman -- of William Schwenck Gilbert, to wit -- a man born in the heart of London, and one who seldom passed, in all his 75 years, out of hearing of Bow Bells.

Gilbert died yesterday -- perhaps 15 years too late. His career really ended in 1896, when he and Sir Arthur Sullivan wrote "The Grand Duke", their last joint work. They had quarreled before -- and made up. Now they quarreled for good. Sullivan, searching about for a new partner, found that there was but one Gilbert. Basil Hood, Comyns Carr and Arthur Wing Pinero tried their hands and failed. And Gilbert himself, seeking a new Sullivan, learned that a new Sullivan was not be found. Edward German came nearest -- but "The Emerald Isle" was still miles from "The Mikado."

The Gilbert and Sullivan partnership, in truth, was absolutely unique. One looks in vain for parallels. Beaumont and Fletcher, Meilhac and Halevy, the Goncourts -- these come to mind, but differences at once appear. Sullivan, without Gilbert, seemed to lose the gift of melody, and Gilbert, without Sullivan was parted from that exquisite humor which made him, even above Mark Twain, the merrymaker of his generation. The two men, working together for 15 years, found it impossible, after their separation, to work alone. Sullivan, cast adrift, took to the writing of oratorios and presently died. Gilbert settled down as a London magistrate and convulsed the world no longer.

The great quality of Gilbert's humor was its undying freshness, an apparent spontaneity which familiarity could not stale . . . "The Mikado" was given in Baltimore last year without the change of a line. Not one of Gilbert's jests of 1885 was omitted; not a single "local hit" was inserted to help out the comedians. And yet, after a quarter of a century, how delightfully brisk and breezy it seemed! How the crowds laughed once more at Pooh Bah's grotesque speeches and at the Mikado's incomparable song! And how Sullivan's tripping music tickled the ear!

The world will be a long while forgetting Gilbert and Sullivan. Every spring their great works will be revived. At this very moment "Pinafore", now 23 years old, is under way in New York. They made enormous contributions to the pleasure of the race. They left the world merrier than they found it. They were men whose lives were rich with honest striving and high achievement and useful service.

Updated 4 Feb 1997