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From The Times, Tuesday, May 30, 1911, p. 11.

The whole English-speaking world will hear with deep regret of the death of Sir W. S. Gilbert. He was one of the very few really original figures in our recent dramatic history; and partly through his own genius, and partly through the fortunate accident of his finding a perfect musical collaborator and exponent in Sir Arthur Sullivan, he long ago secured a position in the public consciousness which has been obtained by no other dramatist for many a long year. We do not forget the constructive power of Sir Arthur Pinero, or the satirical paradoxes of Mr. Bernard Shaw, or the varied gifts of the authors of The Little Minister and Lady Frederick and The Man from Blankney’s. Clever and successful as all these have been, none of them had quite the charm of the best things of Gilbert, when those best things were sung to Sullivan’s music.

The partners produced at least four works which instantly became and have remained classics – Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, Patience, and The Mikado. If the successors of these did not quite achieve the same success, it was because the authors had to compete with the most dangerous of possible rivals, themselves. Only because those four plays are so supremely good are we disposed to forget the earlier Sorcerer and Trial by Jury, and the later Gondoliers, The Yeomen of the Guard, and some of their successors.

We ought not to forget them, or those plays in which Gilbert had no Sullivan to help him; the keenly satirical Palace of Truth, or the Pygmalion and Galatea, which would have set everybody thinking and admiring, even if the heroine had been rendered by some one less perfectly lovely than the Miss Mary Anderson of those days.

Then, again, who can forget “The Bab Ballads,” which emerged from the obscurity of a penny comic paper to become the chosen companion of all who care for topsy-turvy humour, clothed in admirable verse? All Gilbert is in “The Bab Ballads” as all the flower is in the bud. Here, as in the musical comedies, to quote the words of the biography which we print elsewhere, everything is seen upside down, and “yet everything is severely logical.”

It is to be hoped that some record has been kept of Gilbert outside his published plays and verses. Wit like his is rare – rarer, perhaps, in England than in some other countries. The few stories of him that have gained currency show him as at once preternaturally ready and curiously fastidious as to form. He would no more utter a hackneyed witticism than he would publish a clumsy rhyme. Everything came fresh from his mint. Nor, though he is classed with the satirists, was he always satirical. Patience is, perhaps, the only one of his operas which has a definitely satirical theme, and there the excellent fooling is perfectly good-natured. The “æsthetic movement” lent itself, perhaps better than any other phase of public folly that our generation has seen, to such a comic travesty as Patience offered; and yet Gilbert and Sullivan, on the one hand, and Du Maurier on the other, killed it very painlessly.

It is commonly said that in conversation Gilbert was not amiable in his treatment of the follies of his contemporaries, and yet certainly, in his ballads and plays, our modern embodiment of the comic spirit was as genial as Molière. For that reason, and because of the beauty and appropriateness of his collaborator’s music, his best works will live perhaps longer than any other plays of the Victorian era. In these days, when events and their interpretations follow one another with a swiftness such as has never been known before, it is foolish to predict immortality for any work or any reputation; but if originality, humour, and wide outlook, and the gift of happy expression count for anything, the name of W. S. Gilbert ought long to remain, unsubmerged by the waters of oblivion.

We record with much regret that Sir William Schwenck Gilbert, the poet and dramatic author, died suddenly yesterday afternoon of a heart affection while bathing at his home at Harrow Weald.

He was in London in the morning, and returned home about 4 o’clock, accompanied by two lady friends. On arrival at his residence, Grimsdyke, he said he should take his customary bath in an ornamental lake in the grounds. He subsequently dived into the water, and as it was some time before he reappeared on the surface his friends, who were on the bank, became alarmed. Going closer they saw he was in some difficulty. One of the ladies tried to give him some assistance, while the other rushed off for help. By this time Sir William sank again. Ultimately some menservants arrived, and succeeded in recovering the body. It was examined by a doctor, who pronounced life to be extinct.

It is believed that death was caused by a syncope, brought about by undue exertion in diving into the water. The lake is about 6ft. deep.


Sir William Gilbert was born at 17, Southampton-street, Strand, on November 18, 1836. On his mother’s side he was Scotch; his father was descended from the Devon Gilberts, who married a sister of Sir Walter Raleigh. While he was still an infant his parents left London to travel in Germany and Italy; he returned so beautiful a child that Sir David Wilkie, seeing him coming out of church, insisted on painting his portrait. At the age of seven he went to school at Boulogne; from ten to 13 he was a pupil at the Western Grammar School, Brompton, and from 13 to 16 at the Great Ealing School, where he took prizes in English, Greek, and Latin verse, spent much time in drawing, though without lessons, and wrote a number of plays for performance by his schoolfellows, painting his own scenery and taking a part himself. The woodcuts in the original sixpenny quarto edition of the “Bab Ballads” proves him a delightful, if entirely self-taught artist; and no one who has had the good fortune to see his rare appearances on the stage in the cause of charity will need to be reminded how clever an actor he was.

At 16 he entered the University of London, and, having taken his B.A. degree at 19, began to read for the Royal Artillery. Meanwhile, however, the Crimean War had come to an end; no more officers were wanted, and the next examination was deferred to a date at which Gilbert would have been over age. Thereafter his military career was limited to the Militia. He became a captain in the Royal Aberdeenshire Highlanders (now the 3rd Batt. Gordon Highlanders) in 1868, and retired with the honorary rank of major in 1883.

The army being closed to him he turned to the Bar, and became a student in the Inner Temple; from 1857 to 1862 he held a clerkship in the Privy Council Office, and in 1864 was called to the Bar and began to practise on the Northern Circuit; might be found, in fact, “working mildly at the Bar, After a touch at two or three professions.” At one of those professions he did more than touch; he was writing plays all the time. Before he was 24 he had written 15 dramatic pieces, most of them farces and burlesques. Not one was accepted.


At this time he was living in Clement’s Inn, in rooms which have since been destroyed, reading a great deal, especially Dickens and Thackeray, and writing for the Cornhill Magazine, London Society, and, most important of all, the comic paper Fun, then edited by H. J. Byron. It was the columns of this journal that first enshrined, or buried, the immortal “Bab Ballads,” which contained the germs of all his later work.


In 1866 came his first chance of having a play produced. Tom Robertson had promised Miss Herbert a Christmas piece for the St. James’s Theatre. Being too busy to write it, he engaged Gilbert to supply his place. The result was Dulcamara, written in ten days, rehearsed in a week, and played for 120 nights. Then followed rapidly a number of amusing and successful but unimportant burlesques; and it is said that for 24 years – from the production of La Vivandière (with J. L. Toole in the cast) at the Queen’s Theatre, Long-acre, to the end of the run fo The Gondoliers at the Savoy – Gilbert’s name was never out of the London play-bills. From 1868 to 1870 he acted as dramatic critic of the Observer and the Illustrated Times.
The year 1870 may be taken as marking the commencement of Gilbert’s second period. Hitherto he had been known as a writer of burlesques and extravaganzas; he now began to make his name as a writer of “serious” plays. The Palace of Truth, adapted from a story by Mme. De Genlis, was produced by Buckstone at the Haymarket Theatre in November, 1870, and ran for 270 nights. It is the first of the series which contained such plays as The Wicked World, Pygmalion and Galatea, and Broken Hearts. They are written in blank verse; the root idea of each is fantastic – some piece of magic, like the spell over the Palace of Truth which obliges everyone to speak precisely what he thinks while he fancies that he is uttering the usual conventional lie; or some direct intervention of supernatural power; in Pygmalion and Galatea the gods’, in very many of Gilbert’s plays, the fairies’.

The satire in these plays bites sharper than that in the Savoy operas; the author was younger and less inclined to be merciful; he sneers where he later laughed. At the same time, the satirist who spared the feelings of his fellow-men so little had an exceedingly tender heart where life, and especially animal life, was concerned. Galatea’s outcry at the murder of the fawn and the satire on Luiceppe who murdered it may be taken as a faithful expression of the views of Gilbert, who forbade all taking of life in sport on his property at Grim’s Dyke, Harrow Weald.

But, brilliant cynic though he shows himself in these earlier plays, he is not heartless. He contrives to be what we should now call sentimental without an approach to mawkishness, except, perhaps, in one instance, the character of Vavir in Broken Hearts. It is hard, now, not to feel annoyed with a young person who knows she is to die young without any specific reason to show for her conviction. But at the same time, Broken Hearts is just the play that contains the finest imaginative poetry Gilbert ever wrote.

These “serious,” romantic, fantastic, satiric plays were all produced within five years from 1870-1875 – The Palace of Truth, Pygmalion and Galatea, and The Wicked World by Buckstone at the Haymarket, Broken Hearts by Hare at the old Court Theatre. Gilbert was then 35-39. Contemporary with them, and a little later, came Charity, a social play (produced by Buckstone at the Haymarket), which was even more in advance of the times than the others, and was condemned as immoral; the still popular Sweethearts, produced by Miss Marie Wilton (Lady Bancroft) at the Prince of Wales’s; Dan’l Druce, a romantic play partly founded on “Silas Marner” (played by Mr. Hermann Vezin at the Haymarket), and a couple of excellent farces, Engaged and Tom Cobb, or Fortune’s Toy. All these are in prose, and with the mention of them we may close Gilbert’s second period.


Before entering on the third we must go back a step. It must have been about 1869 or 1870 (for he had just finished The Palace of Truth) that Gilbert first met Sullivan. The meeting (every detail of it is worth chronicling) took place at the old Gallery of Illustration in Regent-street, then occupied by the German Reeds. Gilbert knew no note of music, but he had been getting up a few points for his own use. The first remark he addressed to the musician was a plea for guidance on a highly technical question concerning “the simple tetrachord of Mercury, that knew no diatonic intervals, and the elaborate dis-diapason” and the rest of it, which had all been found in the “Encyclopedia Britannica” and transferred to Act I of The Palace of Truth.

Sullivan wisely promised to look the matter up – and never replied. Fortunately he was not fightened away; the acquaintance was continued, and five or six years later came the first blossom on an immortal tree, Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old, which was produced at the Gaiety in 1875 (sic) with Mr. Toole in the cast. Thespis was never printed, and is all but completely forgotten. Its successor, Trial by Jury (1876) (sic), is one of the most characteristic things we possess. Its lightening sarcasm, the extraordinary freedom and finesse of its versification, the choice of our legal profession as a mark for the author’s satire, and the exquisite absurdity of the whole treatment make it only describable by the word which has enriched our language for the purpose. “Gilbertian”.

In 1877 Mr. D’Oyly Carte produced The Sorcerer at the Opera Comique; some six months later came H.M.S. Pinafore at the same theatre, and its two years’ run established the fortunes of the most extraordinary combination of talent that English opera, that any opera, serious or comic, has ever seen. The most extraordinary combination; there have been greater writers, though possibly none more individual than Gilbert, and greater musicians than Sir Arthur Sullivan; there has never been regular collaboration between a poet and musician who could play so unerringly into each other’s hands. The “lyrics,” unlike those of our later librettists, were always written first, and the music fitted to them afterwards, usually without advice or interference from the author; but it may be questioned whether any composer but Sir Arthur Sullivan could have fitted it so well. He had a fertility, an ease, and a melody which matched those of Gilbert. He had, too, a musical humour of his own that could reinforce Gilbert’s poetical humour, could actually increase it effect, without ever straining or superseding it, and a musical pathos, if the phrase may be allowed, which exactly hit the tone of the rare but beautiful elegiac or love songs. If “Oh, foolish fay,” or the Judge’s song from Trial by Jury, or “Is life a boon?” or “He loves, if in the bygone years” give exquisite pleasure in themselves, they give still more when heard or remembered to the music from which it is now almost impossible to dissociate them.


The names of the “Savoy operas” as they are called (though it was not until 1882 (sic), during the run of Patience, that the Savoy Theatre was opened) are too familiar and their subjects too well known to need recapitulation here. They followed each other without interval until The Gondoliers of 1889, and were revived for a brief space with Utopia Limited; or The Flowers of Progress (Gilbert’s sub-titles are usually delicious) and The Grand Duke.

Some are better than others; they are all unlike anything else that ever was written. They contain the fine flower of Gilbertianism. Nearly all the ideas they handle may be found in the “Bab Ballads,” lightly sketched with extraordinary fougue, as painters have it, a riotous freedom of absurdity; in the operas the absurdity is tamed, polished, and reasoned out, while the fertility of invention and the suppleness and freedom of versification remain unimpaired. It is a mad world, and at the same time an absolutely sane world. The most fearful catastrophes happen, and are reversed as easily as they occurred; the characters all move in a palace of truth, revealing themselves to the core, and no one is the least surprised. You find a tradesman dealing in spells with a horoscope at three and six that he can guarantee; a shepherd who is a fairy down to the waist, but whose legs are mortal; a king who turns company promoter, and a smug slave of duty bound apprentice to a pirate. Everything is seen upside down, and yet everything is severely logical. Mad world as it is, it moves by exact rule, from premiss to conclusion; but the author has settled the premiss. No better vehicle for satire could be imagined. It enabled the author to keep up the appearance, so to speak, of a bland innocence. It was not this world he was writing of, he might claim, but one of his own invention; and thus he remained free to put his finger on weak spots in women, Parliament, the law, the Army, the æsthetic fashion of the day, anything and everything he chose. His satire in these operas is, on the whole, very kindly; it is the satire of a gentleman – winged and barbed, but never thrown unfairly or with ill-nature. Perhaps, after all, the differentia of Gilbert’s method, both in his plays and operas, is the relating of his whimsicalities to life.


With regard to the literary quality of his work, he may be compared to his own Strephon; he was a fairy down to the waist, but his legs were mortal – and too often he wrote his prose with his legs. There is humour in it, but it is apt to be crushed under a load of long words and involved sentences. Now and then it was characteristically whimsical but for the most part it was built on traditional and turgid lines. In his verse he was all fairy. It has been well said that for lyrical quality he can only be compared to Shelley. He was absolutely at home in song-writing, and only then. It is as well to claim for him definitely and at once the title of poet, which could only be denied him from want of reflection or from an idea that poetry and fun are incompatible. If his poetry is nearly all humorous, it is none the less exquisitely musical, easy, and perfect in form. With no more than the usual classical attainments of a gentleman, he not only did in his patter-songs what no one had done since Aristophanes and his parodoi, but he attained to a classical perfection of form that few English poets have ever equalled. The nicest refinements of metre seemed to come natural to him; the late Canon Ainger was fond of quoting as examples of metrical mastery the lines –

I took and bound that promising boy
  Apprentice to a pirate.

It is not often given to a poet to combine such a spring of humorous ideas with such skill in humorous expression. Like his predecessors in point of time, Reece, Farnie, or Byron, he could make puns with the best, if he wanted to; but his own merely verbal wit is on a far higher scale. In the “Bab Ballads” or the Savoy operas the actual juxtaposition and play of the words would rouse laughter of themselves; when used to express such humorous ideas as Gilbert’s they are irresistible.

It may be added that he was master of another art, that of stage-management. He himself credited Tom Robertson with the invention of the art, but its development was greatly advanced by his own care. Every play was rehearsed in his study by means of a model stage and figures, and every group and movement settled in the author’s mind before the rehearsals which he always conducted in person, were begun. He had a clever company (now, alas! dispersed to less classic fields) to work for him; but most of the finish and unity of those delightful performances was due to his own forethought and his very stern and right determination that nothing should be said or done, even on the 300th night, except precisely as he had written and planned it.

His latest years were not productive of much drama, though within the last few weeks there was seen on the variety stage a very grim un-Gilbertian little sketch of criminal life. In dealing with such a subject, as in his treatment of the law in earlier plays and operas, Sir W. S. Gilbert was writing of what he knew. He was a J. P. and D. L. for Middlesex, and took his magisterial duties seriously, devoting to them much time and trouble. In 1907 he was knighted. In 1867 he married Lucy Agnes, daughter of the late Captain Thomas Metcalf Blois Turner, Bombay Engineers, and Lady Gilbert survives him. A well-known figure in clubland, he was a member of the Garrick, Beefsteak, Junior Carlton, and Royal Automobile Clubs.

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