Gilbert and Sullivan Archive

The Life of W.S. Gilbert

Andrew Crowther
[W. S. Gilbert]

William Schwenck Gilbert was born at 17 Southampton Street, Strand, London on the 18th of November, 1836, the son of William Gilbert (a retired naval surgeon) and Anne Gilbert. He had, or rather obtained, three younger sisters: Jane, Maud and Florence.

Much of the young William's youth was spent touring Europe with his parents; then, about the year 1849, they returned to London, and he settled down to an English education at the Great Ealing School. Both his parents were, we are told, highly prickly characters, stern and unyielding people who passed their inflexibility and inability to show affection on to their son. The relationship between father and mother became extremely strained in later years - they split up in 1876. It is clear from his correspondence at this time that Gilbert was fonder of his father than his mother: but we know nothing of his reaction to his father's death in 1890. In fact, we know very little indeed about his relationship with his parents in general. This makes a sharp contrast with Sullivan, for instance, who wrote commemorative music on the deaths of most of his close relatives. The single most consistent impression of Gilbert that comes out of his biographies is of his going blazing through the world like a forest fire, setting alight everything he touches but remaining himself untouched. For whatever happened to him in his life, whatever triumphs and reverses he experienced, he himself seems somehow detached from it all, experiencing it almost at one remove. This sense of detachment was, I suggest, his parents' most lasting legacy to him.

He seems to have been interested in the theatre from an early age - he later recalled the Haymarket being lit by wax candles in the mid-1840s. He completed his education at King's College, London, and forwent the possibility of going on to Oxford in the attempt to join the Army and fight in Crimea.

In the period 1857-66, he made abortive attempts at careers as Government clerk and barrister: however, he retreated out of both these professions as soon as he could. In 1861 or 1862 he started contributing drawings, prose and verse to the recently-established comic journal Fun. Among the products of this association were The Bab Ballads.

Uncle Baby was, as far as we know, his first professionally-performed play: it was produced at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in London on the 31st October 1863, but ran there for only seven weeks. David Eden suggests, without any concrete evidence to support the claim, that this play was written in collaboration with his father. His stage career went no further until December 1866, when both his burlesque Dulcamara and a pantomime, Hush-a-Bye Baby, were produced. In the next three years his name became familiar through association with these workmanlike burlesques, which were considered at the time unusually tasteful and intelligent, though the modern reader might find this difficult to believe. However, flashes of sharp satire are sometimes visible through the welter of puns. Burlesque was essentially spectacular theatre, and the artistic unity of the script was secondary to the demands of "star turns", ballet, and stage machinery. For the only time in his career, Gilbert the dramatist was not in control of how his plays were performed: the stars were stars, but he was a mere author.
Lucy Turner Gilbert
[Lucy Turner Gilbert (Mrs. W. S. Gilbert)]
On the 6th of August, 1867, Gilbert married Lucy Agnes Turner. Most of the biographies provide very little information by which her personality can be deduced, apart from the bare statement that she was soothing and conciliatory where he was abrasive and confrontational. The latest biography, by Jane Stedman, suggests something more: not as tough as a bone, but certainly with a will of her own. She seems to have ruled in the domestic sphere, and there are even hints that Gilbert may have feared her anger. We still know very little about her; but this is more than we have ever been told before.

Three months before the first performance of Gilbert's last burlesque, The Pretty Druidess (19th June 1869), the first of his pieces for the Gallery of Illustration, No Cards, was produced (29th March 1869). The environment of this small, civilised theatre was to allow him in the succeeding years to develop a personal style, without the excessive interference from stage-managers which he could expect in other theatres. His six musical plays for the Gallery show the quick emergence of Gilbert's unique tone of voice, and at least three of them are also supreme examples of his work.

At the same time, he was developing a more restrained style, which he displayed in some blank-verse "fairy comedies" at the Haymarket Theatre. These are, admittedly, rather dull to modern tastes, but they do demonstrate his desire to drag the English drama out of the trough in which everyone admitted it had been wallowing, and to give theatre audiences something rather more refined and tasteful than the usual run of farce and burlesque.

At the same time as all this, he was also learning from Tom Robertson the basics of stage direction. He began to direct his own plays and so to realise on the stage the things which he had imagined when scribbling at his desk. He directed Thespis in December 1871, and had also directed the Liverpool production of La Vivandiere in 1867. He was one of the first of that era to insist on the artistic integrity of dramatic production, allowing unheard-of subtleties to be developed in the presentation.

This was a time of great productivity for him: 1871 saw the premieres of no fewer than seven new Gilbert plays (though admittedly one of them was merely a dramatisation of Great Expectations). He was writing farces, operetta libretti, extravaganzas, fairy comedies, adaptations from novels, translations from the French, and even the occasional serious drama. It is no wonder that the pressure of work forced him to resign from Fun: he was rapidly making a reputation for himself as a leading light in modern drama, and he no longer had the time for mere ephemeral journalism.

In 1873 he collaborated with Gilbert a Beckett on probably the most audacious play of his career, The Happy Land, a political satire which was briefly banned because it portrayed caricatures of Gladstone and two of his ministers. In this and such other plays as The Realm of Joy and Charity, he deliberately challenged accepted opinion and picked at the boundaries of what could be said in the theatre.

It would be easy enough to call him an iconoclast and leave it at that; but of course the truth is not so simple. He was that by natural inclination; but by conscious decision he also wanted to be respected professionally - and that as a dramatist, which was at that time one of the least respected literary professions around. Throughout his life he strove to change this, and as a matter of fact he did much to prepare the ground upon which Wilde and Shaw were to tread so unreflectingly twenty years later.

One of the things which, it was felt, held a dramatist back from respectability was that plays were not published in a form suitable for existence in a gentleman's library: the great play-publishers of the seventies, Samuel French and Thomas Hailes Lacy, published their plays in the cheapest style possible, for the use of actors rather than the home reader: they were pamphlets rather than real books, not very carefully proofread and generally unattractive to the eye.

In late 1875 Chatto and Windus published a volume of Gilbert's plays, in a form designed to appeal to the general reader: it was attractively bound, the type was clear, and most of the stage jargon had been excised. Such a book of plays, designed for the "gentleman's library", was not a common thing at this time, and such examples as did appear tended to be the crowning symbol of respectability for long-established dramatists such as Tom Taylor or J.R. Planché. For a young(ish) and still controversial dramatist like Gilbert to produce such a volume was something of a novelty.

The plays in this volume were, for the most part, suitably decorous and tasteful - four "fairy comedies" and a serious prose play; but then Gilbert's capacity for mischief seems to broken out of all bounds, leading him to conclude the volume with the text of a little piece of nonsense which had recently scored a hit at the Royalty, entitled Trial by Jury. It really does look as if Gilbert, so adept at deflating the pretensions of others, simply could not resist the temptation to deflate his own.

Over the coming years and decades, Gilbert was to publish three more volumes of his "Original Plays", and was even to make a profit on them - which must surely be almost unique in such publications of that time.

I have mentioned the success of Trial by Jury. This was the first intimation that the collaboration of Gilbert with Sullivan could prove profitable. (Their first collaboration, Thespis, in 1871, was no great success, though no notable failure either.) Trial was also significant for bringing into Gilbert's life Richard D'Oyly Carte, the man who, even if he did not bring together Gilbert and Sullivan, was the main cause of their staying together for the next fifteen years.

1877 saw not only the third G & S collaboration, The Sorcerer, but also the culminating masterpiece of Gilbert's career to that date - Engaged. This presented a kind of definitively Gilbertian view of the world, aggressively cynical and ironic: it was provocative, ingenious, and extremely funny. Many critics condemned it as a debasement of the human spirit, an attack on civilised behaviour, a literally nauseating piece of work. But as the Sullivan collaboration began to dominate his life, this kind of outraged reaction was to give way to something much more good-humoured and indulgent. The cynical content did not change, but the public's reaction to it did - partly, I think, because of the softening influence of Sullivan's music, but also because the theatre-going public became used to his style and soon refused to be shocked by it.

The Sorcerer was moderately successful; but its success paled beside that of H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), which was both international in scope and almost rabid in intensity. The extraordinary number of pirate productions of the opera which sprang up in the United States (featuring unofficial orchestrations and even less official textual interpretations) provoked the authors and the D'Oyly Carte Company to cross the Atlantic and present New York with their own production of Pinafore: and they followed it up by presenting it with The Pirates of Penzance. The details of this bizarre episode are bound up in the chaos that was copyright law at that time, and are much too complex to detail here; but they are very readily available in any good book on the collaboration.

Gilbert was still writing non-Sullivan pieces, of course; but the fates which they met were not calculated to made him continue doing so. His serious drama The Ne'er-Do-Weel (1878) attracted dreadful reviews, and flopped even after he had rewritten it and renamed it The Vagabond. This was followed, three months later, by the sky-rocket of Pinafore. His blank-verse tragedy Gretchen (1879) closed after three weeks; this was followed, nine months later, by The Pirates of Penzance. After this came Patience (1881) - a Sullivan collaboration and therefore a success; and then a bizarre supernatural farce called Foggerty's Fairy (1881), which, being written apart from Sullivan, lasted three weeks. No wonder, then, that Gilbert decided to take the hint and devote his writing life to the collaboration. Of the eleven Gilbert premieres which occurred in the 1880s, seven had music by Sullivan.

This is, by modern standards, no small rate of productivity: but compare it to the thirty-seven plays he had produced in the 1870s, and remember the seven plays he had premiered in the year 1871 alone. The difference is, of course, striking, and reflects his comfortable financial position, as well as the much more careful and systematic working methods which he had now adopted, as described in an interview with him, conducted in 1885. The careful, laborious development of a plot, in consultation with Sullivan, in draft upon draft; the creation of a "skeleton" libretto, the actions of the piece conducted in the fewest words possible; the slow elaboration of this into songs and dialogue, all the time thinking, adding, polishing.... These methods, appropriate to one who need only produce one play per year, are in high contrast to those described in the article "A Stage Play" of 1873, which display a much greater willingness to trust to the first instincts of the creative process. Since these later techniques were to produce some of Gilbert's finest works, it is ridiculous to carp; but they are indicative of his increasing unwillingness to take risks in his work.

This period is ridiculously well-documented in any number of books on Gilbert-and-Sullivan: anyone requiring illumination on the events of these years should be referred to them. I am content merely to list the major works of the decade: Patience (1881), Foggerty's Fairy (1881), Iolanthe (1882), Princess Ida (1884), The Mikado (1885), Ruddigore (1887), The Yeomen of the Guard (1888), and The Gondoliers (1889). The only other significant events: midway through the run of Patience, the opera was transferred to the new Savoy Theatre, where Gilbert's personal company found a permanent home; and, shortly after the premiere of The Gondoliers, the collaboration split up in the acrimonious dispute known as The Carpet Quarrel.

The Gondoliers also contains the first indications of Gilbert's declining creative ability, with a slight tendency to verbosity muffling the incisive wit of his earlier work. This tendency was to show itself with much greater clarity in pieces like Utopia, Limited (1893) and The Grand Duke (1896). He was growing tired of his old style of writing and impatient of the public which forced him to continue in that vein. There is, as a result, a sense of strained humour in The Grand Duke; one is left with the distinct impression that it is nothing more than an imitation of the old formulas, almost a parody.

Gilbert in his Library at Grim's Dyke
Click on picture to see larger image (45K).
After The Grand Duke, Gilbert went into pretended retirement at his home in Grim's Dyke (52K picture), Harrow Weald (he had moved there in 1890). In 1893 he had been appointed a local JP, and this occupied part of his time for the rest of his life; and even after his "retirement" he continued to write, completing four more plays in his last fifteen years. These were: The Fortune Hunter (1897), a serious melodrama; The Fairy's Dilemma (1904), an uncertain attempt to return to his earlier light style; Fallen Fairies (1909), a reworking of The Wicked World, with music by Edward German; and his swan-song, The Hooligan (1911).

He wrote The Hooligan not because of financial or contractual pressures, but simply because he wanted to. It was produced just four months before his death: and this short dramatic sketch, a study of a young thug in a condemned cell, was so powerful that, according to Mrs Alec Tweedie, "women [in the audience] had gone out fainting". It can be argued that it was Gilbert's only really successful essay in serious drama. It seems that in those last months of his life, he was starting to develop a new style of writing to replace the old, "Gilbertian" style that no longer interested him - and that this style was just as shocking as the old one had been, before the public grew used to it. He had been knighted in 1907, the ultimate symbol of respectability: but he remained fiercely iconoclastic to the end.

This end came on the 29th of May, 1911. He was giving swimming lessons to two young women in his lake at Grim's Dyke, when one of the women, getting out of her depth, as she thought, called out for help. Gilbert dived in to help her, but died of heart failure in the middle of the lake.

This article has been cannibalised from the first chapter of an aborted study of Gilbert, The World Turned Right Side Up, which I wrote three or four years ago.

Andrew Crowther
January, 1997 (modified March 1997)

This article has been translated into Bellorussian by Bohdan Zograf.

Updated 17 May 2011.