Gilbert and Sullivan Archive


General Thoughts about the Opera (Continued)

1.1.7 Chronology of the Pirates Manuscript Libretti
1.1.8 The Chronology of the License Copy

1.1.7 Chronology of the Pirates Manuscript Libretti

With our discussion of the two manuscript libretto sources out of the way, we can now construct a chronology of when they likely were written. Neither libretto is dated, but using dates we "do" know, it is a simple matter to fill in the details.

Gilbert and Sullivan arrived in New York on November 5, 1879, the rest of the D'Oyly Carte cast arrived November 11, and HMS Pinafore opened at the Fifth Avenue Theatre on December 1. At this point, we must assume Sullivan had not yet realized that he had left his Act I sketches behind. In a letter to his mother a day or two after Pinafore opened, Sullivan is a-glow about what he then believes is a success, and he doesn't mention the missing sketches. In his December 10 letter, he mentions the missing sketches for the first time and says that he "would have telegraphed for them, but they would not have arrived in time." When Pinafore first opened, Sullivan was under no time pressure, for he and Gilbert could not yet have known that Pinafore would do badly.

Jacobs reports that the fall-off in receipts at the Fifth Avenue Theatre was practically immediate. However, the partners would certainly have given it at least a few days, probably at least a week, before concluding the cause was lost. Let us suppose, I think reasonably, that they reached this conclusion on December 6th, five days after the opening.

On December 6th, Sullivan discovers he has left his Pirates Act I sketches behind, and moreover, time is now of the essence, and there is not time to send for them from England. Gilbert must now recreate all of Act I for him, and the result is the libretto I've called MD. Let's give Gilbert two days to complete this task, which takes us to December 8th.

Sullivan reports in his diary that the Company rehearsed the music of Act I on December 15th. Given that he was merely "recreating" the composition work he'd done in England, it is not unreasonable that he could have completed this effort in a week.

On December 17th, the BOTHNIA left for England with the score and libretto for the Paignton performance. Sullivan began scoring on December 18th, which we know he by habit only did when he believed most of the major musical changes were behind him.

To summarize this chronology, we have the following:

  • Late October Gilbert & Sullivan leave for New York
  • November 5 G&S arrive in NY
  • November 11 D'Oyly Carte Company arrive in NY
  • December 1 Pinafore opens in NY
  • *December 3 Sullivan's letter to his mother about how well the Pinafore opening went
  • *December 6 G, S, and D'OC decide to accelerate Pirates opening; Sullivan discovers his Act I sketches are missing
  • *December 8 Gilbert supplies the Act I manuscript libretto which I call here "MD"
  • December 10 Sullivan's letter to his mother in which he mentions the missing sketches
  • December 15 Act I rehearsed with the Company
  • December 17 BOTHNIA departs
  • December 18 Sullivan begins scoring
  • December 27 LC filed with the Lord Chamberlain's office
  • December 29 BOTHNIA arrives in England
  • December 30 Paignton performance
  • December 31 New York opening

The three dates shown with asterisks are based on inference; all the others are exact. My guesses of December 6th & 8th could be off by a day or two either way, but not more. Had Sullivan found his sketches missing much earlier than December 6th, he would have believed he still had time to send for them and would have done so. He cannot have discovered it later than December 10, since that's when he told his mother about it. Even that date seems late, since we must allow time for Gilbert to write MD and Sullivan to compose Act I in time for the December 15 rehearsal.

What's notably missing here is any mention of the LC text, or even a probable date when it might have been written. We know that LC predates MD, and as LC contains "Climbing over rocky mountain," then if the Happy Accident story is true, then LC must have been written after Sullivan discovered he had left his Act I sketches behind and that it was too late to send for them; this had to have been on or about December 6th

If we assume, for the sake of argument, that LC "was" written on or about December 6th, this leaves more than enough time for it to reach England and be filed with the Lord Chamberlain on December 27th. But, on this hypothesis, when was MD written? Sullivan's pencilled-in margin notes indicate he used MD early on in the composition process, which for Act I was completed by December 15. When is there enough time for Gilbert to write LC, for LC to evolve to the state found in MD, for Sullivan to compose Act I, and for the Company to rehearse it on December 15?

Inescapably, we conclude that there simply was not time for versions of the opera as different as LC and MD both to have been actively worked on in New York within a few days of each other. LC must have existed prior to December 1, and since it contains "Climbing over," the piece must have been included in Pirates by Original Intent, not by Happy Accident.

I presented the above chronology to Bruce Miller, knowing that he is severely sceptical of the Original Intent theory. I figured that if there was a hole in my reasoning, certainly Bruce would find it. Bruce feels that the error in my thinking is the assumption that LC and MD were sequential. His theory is that while Sullivan was working from MD, a copyist working independently could have been preparing LC. In the confusion of a very frantic month, the copyist could inadvertently have prepared a libretto containing elements older than MD, yet also containing "Climbing over rocky mountain." While I consider this too broad a leap of the imagination, I certainly agree with Bruce that it "could" have happened.

Bruce also points out that until someone compares LC and MD side by side, we cannot be truly certain that LC "clearly" precedes MD. I am relying on Allen, who could be mistaken. This is a fair point-- my conclusions here are based on Allen's description rather than an examination of MD itself.

(As an aside, since Gilbert and Sullivan always changed their operas up to the last minute, license copies were never an exact representation of what they intended to put on stage. These texts, therefore, are a fertile source of information about an opera's development and often contain passages found nowhere else. There is, however, no G&S opera whose license copy differs from the final version as much as Pirates .)

It is interesting to note that in the sequence of articles in which Original Intent was first proposed (GASBAG, 1979-80; THE SAVOYARD, 1981) MD's existence was not widely known. Several writers were satisfied that LC, by itself, was too distant from what we believe to have been the first night text to have evolved in the short time allotted. When MD is taken into account, I conclude Happy Accident requires us to find time for Gilbert to have worked on BOTH versions in New York. I am unable to construct any credible chronology where this is possible.

1.1.8 The Chronology of the License Copy

As I have observed, the license copy (LC) of was filed with the Lord Chamberlain on December 27, 1979, two days before the BOTHNIA arrived from America with materials used in the Paignton performance. "Climbing over rocky mountain" is in the license text, which leads us to only two possibilities:

1. Gilbert left a libretto behind in England, before he, Sullivan, and D'Oyly Carte left for America.

2. Gilbert and Sullivan made one or more earlier shipments from America to England that we don't know about.

We will observe at the outset that if #1 can be proved, then the Original Intent theory is proved, for if Gilbert put "Climbing over" in a version of the libretto written before his trip to America, then the borrowing from Thespis was no Happy Accident.

Reginald Allen says that "It is probable that the Act II music had been in England some weeks in advance," but he gives no basis for the statement. If Allen is right, then Sullivan probably left behind a copy of Act II as it then stood before leaving for America. Perhaps the partners would have wanted to preserve a backup copy of their work, in case their luggage were lost in transit. If this be the case, undoubtedly a libretto would have been left behind as well, which is wholly consistent with Original Intent.

It seems unlikely that Act II was shipped by itself from New York. Why would Gilbert and Sullivan send their new opera back to England in pieces, rather than all at once? The most likely reason would have been to allow the Paignton company to get a head start on rehearsing the new opera, but Allen "also" reports that the Paignton performance was given on only a single rehearsal, with the company reading from scripts and sheet-music throughout.

It is conceivable that there was an earlier shipment from New York of "just" the license copy. Undoubtedly, the Lord Chamberlain required deposit of the license copy a day or two in advance of performance, to allow him time to raise any objections to the text. (There is no recorded instance that the Chamberlain ever objected to a G&S text, but their operas had to be licensed all the same.) We can imagine that, as time grew short, the triumvirate decided to ship the libretto on its own, to ensure the Paignton performance could be licensed in time. If Happy Accident is true, then this must be the case.

Suppose LC was shipped from New York: was it shipped just a few days earlier than the Paignton materials that left on the 17th? If so, why would G&S have sent a libretto considerably older than what both Sullivan and the rest of the Company were working on? Was LC shipped well in advance? If so, why would they have done this, if it only needed to be filed with the Lord Chamberlain a few days before the Paignton performance. It is true that one can invent scenarios explaining why this would have happened, but it does not seem probable.

I concur, therefore, with Michael Walters's conclusion that Gilbert left the LC text behind in England before departing for America. Not only is this the most logical interpretation of the chronology, but the license copy seems simply too far removed from the final version of the opera to be a last-minute shipment from America.

Presumably, Gilbert and Sullivan originally expected to have the time to complete Pirates at their leisure. They naturally would have intended to send the license copy along with the performance materials for Paignton, but when it became clear the BOTHNIA would not arrive in time (remember, its late arrival caused the Paignton performance to slip by a day), they would have cabled Helen Lenoir and told her to file the copy of the libretto Gilbert had left behind.

Either alternative requires us to make some assumptions, but I believe that when all the facts surrounding the libretto are considered together, it is overwhelmingly likely that LC was written in England, before the pair left for New York.


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