Gilbert and Sullivan

Definition

Theater

  • The playwright and lyricist Sir William Schwenk Gilbert(1836 - 1911) and the composer Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan(1842 - 1900), who collaborated on a series of light operas between1871 and 1896.

    Gilbert, the son of a retired naval surgeon, claimed he hadbeen kidnapped as a child in Naples and ransomed for £25. As ayoung man he briefly practised law while becoming increasingly involvedin writing burlesques and extravaganzas for the theater. Gilbert'smore serious plays included The Palace of Truth (1870), Pygmalionand Galatea (1871), and Dan'l Druce, Blacksmith (1876).After his collaboration with Sullivan had made him rich, Gilbert investedsome of his profits in the building of the Garrick Theatre. Althoughhe wrote for other composers, only his libretti for Sullivan havesurvived.

    Gilbert's notorious rudeness is said to have kept Queen Victoriafrom knighting him at the same time as Sullivan; the honour was finallygranted after her death. Gilbert had a fascination with water andoften spoke of dying in his garden on a summer's day; on 29 May 1911,when a visiting girl found herself in trouble swimming in the lakebeside his house in Harrow Weald, on the outskirts of London, Gilbertgallantly plunged in to save her. Unfortunately the shock was toomuch for the 75-year-old man, who suffered a fatal heart attack.

    The son of a theater clarinettist, Sullivan was selected forthe Chapel Royal Choir and won a scholarship to the Royal Academyof Music. He later studied in Leipzig where he was a classmate ofGrieg's and also met Liszt and Schumann. Following a visit to Rossiniin Paris, Gilbert decided to compose for the stage. His first successcame with a version of Cox and Box, which was performed privatelyin London in 1866. He also composed 'Onward, Christian Soldiers!','The Lost Chord', and other familiar Victorian songs. Sullivan collaboratedwith several other dramatists before being introduced to Gilbert in1871.

    A warm host, gracious friend, and enthusiastic gambler atfashionable casinos, Sullivan was welcomed into London society. Inthis milieu he met Mary Ronalds, a beautiful, but married, Americanwho became his mistress for the last 24 years of his life.

    The relationship between the irritable Gilbert and the gentleSullivan was prolific and highly successful - it was not, however,without its tensions. Their first collaboration was in 1871 with Thespis;or, the gods Grown Old, an operatic extravaganza produced at theGaiety Theatre. It was only after the first of their light operas,Trial by Jury (1875), that Richard D'Oyly Carte commissionedfurther work. Their joint reputation was established by HMS Pinafore(1878) and consolidated by The Pirates of Penzance (1879).Patience (1881) was the first of the so-called Savoy Operaspresented at the purpose-built Savoy Theatre. It was followedby further successess including Iolanthe (1882), PrincessIda (1884), The Mikado (1885), Ruddigore (1887),The Yeoman of the Guard (1888), and The Gondoliers(1889).

    The adjective Gilbertian is often applied to any humorouslyconfused situation, such as those depicted in the Gilbert and Sullivan operas.

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