Gilbert and Sullivan by John W. Barker
Now, as is so often the case with a pair of collaborators (e.g., opera composers and their librettists), each one had a distinct career of his own, both before and after the period of collaboration (if not also during). Yet, as with few other great collaborations, the totality was more than merely a sum of its two parts. As much as we may respect what each did separately, it was only in working together that each did his most memorable work. That special aptness of their matched talents has made them seem all but joined at the hip for eternity as “Gilbertandsullivan” or “G & S”. Yet, their separate as well as their joint activities require consideration if we are to appreciate their legacy.
Gilbert before Sullivan:
From my earliest childhood the ridiculous has thrust itself into every action of my life. I have been haunted through my whole existence by the absurd.
--- William Gilbert (father of W.S.), Memoirs of a Cynic
William Schwenck Gilbert was born in 1836. He was one of four children, and the only son of a naval officer, William Gilbert (1804-1890); and, indeed, matters maritime seem to have been in the future dramatist’s blood from the start-he claimed (on no firm evidence) as one of his paternal ancestors Sir Humphrey Gilbert, one of Elizabeth I’s great sea captains, and founder of the early English colony in Newfoundland (1583). The baby was given the second name of Schwenck after his godmother, a name by which his family often addressed him.
William Gilbert Senior had inherited a substantial fortune and retired at age twenty-five to pursue a range of interests including social issues and abnormal psychology as well as theater and opera. He produced a large number of books though, curiously, he did not begin actual publication until his son had begun to achieve some literary attention in his own late twenties. The elder Gilbert wrote widely, including several multi-volume novels. (To several of his books his talented son contributed original illustrations.) His style was turgid and his expression burdened with fiercely held opinions and prejudices, including a fervent hatred of Roman Catholicism. He had a fierce temper and eccentric ways-which are, in fact, accurately portrayed in one episode of Topsy-Turvy. His parents’ turbulent marriage and eventual separation had made for a very unhappy domestic environment.
The young William Schwenck Gilbert seemed fated to be gathering material for his stage plots from infancy. His parents brought him on numerous travels: at age two he was along for a journey to Naples where a pair of local con-men tricked his nursemaid into giving the lad into their care; thus abducted, he was held for ransom (twenty-five pounds, a good sum for the day). Absent-minded nursemaids and mishandled babies would turn up in several of the operettas to come.
After some early schooling in France, he was sent in his teens to study in the Great Ealing School, trainer of many an eminent Victorian. It was in this period that he began writing plays for student use. Going on to King’s College, London, he published verses in the school magazine. The raging of the Crimean War prompted him to study for examinations that would lead to a military commission, but the sudden end of that war terminated that direction. As an alternative to professional military service, Gilbert did serve for upwards of twenty years in militia units, eventually of the Gordon or Royal Aberdeenshire Highlanders-which allowed him to sport about in kilts, perfect his proficiency at the Highland reel, and obtain a reputation as a great wit and jokester. Such military experience produced a curious dichotomy in him: on the one hand a keen awareness of the posturings of military life and authority, while on the other a delight in the swagger of military display.
Meanwhile, having finished his B.A. at King’s, he took instead a clerkship in a government office, where he suffered for four unhappy years. From this he escaped into legal studies at the Inner Temple in London and in the middle 1860s he became a barrister-at-law, or practicing trial attorney. His new calling was a promising one, and gave him a knowledge of both the wonders and absurdity of the law upon which he would draw repeatedly in his theatrical writing and in his practical business dealings. He felt himself handicapped by nervousness and inadequacy as an advocate, however, and he did not prosper in the four years he was officially involved in this work. To fill in dull stretches and to augment his still-meager income, Gilbert almost immediately plunged into literary activity, producing verses and more plays. The creation of the humorous journal, Fun, drew him into the writing of comic articles, illustrated by his own drawings-for which he had shown talent equal to his literary skills. He became a regular contributor, perfecting his skills at witty and satirical writing. He even made a unique venture into political satire in a wickedly nasty verse piece pillorying the French Emperor Napoleon III- “Napoleon the Little”, as he called him-for hypocrisy and deviousness. Entitled The Lie of a Lifetime; or, The Modern Augustus, it was accompanied by his own savage caricature drawings. Gilbert extended his work to such other publications as Punch (with which, though, he developed a life-long feud for its early scorn for him), while also writing theatrical criticism for The Illustrated Times and even serving (1870) as a war-correspondent for The Observer. Meanwhile, the first of his plays to receive London production was staged at the end of 1866: entitled Dulcamara, or The Little Duck and the Great Quack, it was a riotous parody of the plot of Donizetti’s opera, L’elisir d’amore, and initiated Gilbert’s lifelong propensity for spoofing the operatic repertoire of his day.
In August of 1867 Gilbert signaled the gradual improvement in his condition by taking a wife. He had known Lucy Agnes Turner-daughter of an officer who had served in India-as a family neighbor for some years. He was then thirty-one, she only twenty, but her knowing and sympathetic and good-humored temperament was to make her a supportive partner for a long, warm (though childless) married life. (She never showed jealousy for his admiring but harmless cultivation of female friends or associates, and he remained enduringly affectionate with her.) He called her “Kitten” and then “Kits,” resulting in the nickname “Kitty” by which she came to be known in their circle. They settled into a series of rented households in Kensington, as Gilbert achieved growing recognition. A collection of his short stories (some of them later expanded into plays) was published in 1869.
The same year saw the launching of what became one of his most successful sidelines: comic verses illustrated by his own amusing drawings. As a child he had been known by the nickname of “Bab” (for “Baby”), and he used this signature for the drawings. These “Bab Ballads” attracted increasing attention, and so he made a series of collections of them for publication. The first set, The Bab Ballads, was issued in 1869, and was followed four years later by More Bab Ballads. He made a new selection taken from both the earlier collections, and prepared new illustrations, published in 1876 as Fifty Bab Ballads; and then, in 1898, he revised some of these verses anew, with yet new illustrations, mingling them with selected lyrics from the operettas, as the anthology Songs of a Savoyard. In various forms, the “Bab Ballads” were the first vehicle of Gilbert’s success and a continuing dimension of his popularity.
Along the way, however, Gilbert was establishing himself as a new force in London’s theatrical world. His initial ventures were in the form of burlesques-free-wheeling parodies of existing plays or operas, their texts written in verse. One of these was a dramatization (1870) of Tennyson’s poem The Princess, about a university for ladies, a subject to which he would return later. In another, La Vivandière (1868), Gilbert transferred the witty style of the “Bab Ballads” to scenes spoofing English chauvinism and insularity. And in 1870 Gilbert was at work on another parody, an adaptation of a French comedy to be called The Palace of Truth, when a composer named Frederic Clay, who was writing music for some of Gilbert’s plays, introduced him to one of Clay’s own friends, a budding young musician who had been contributing music to one of the same theaters they all served-a certain Arthur S. Sullivan. Puzzled over a technical question of musical theory he had to discuss in his new play, Gilbert on the spot asked Sullivan’s advice, phrasing the question with probably deliberate obscurity. The befuddled Sullivan was not sure how to answer and begged off. The encounter had not been a propitious one and when, a little later, Sullivan was asked to write music for an operetta text Gilbert was writing, he declined. Indeed, such was the good work that Gilbert was doing with Clay, it was only a failure of projects to materialize that prevented a Gilbertandclay pairing from heading off the Gilbertandsullivan of the future.
With his next important play, the romantic comedy Pygmalion and Galatea (1871), Gilbert began to make serious profits. A burst of writing and productions in 1871 included a dramatization of Dickens’s Great Expectations. But during the course of the year Gilbert’s path again intersected with that of Sullivan. The manager of the Gaiety Theatre, John Hollingshead, for whom both men had done work, got them together for a two-act piece to be part of a multiple bill. Gilbert wrote a farcical operetta text called Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old. Thespis was, in Greek tradition, actually the first dramatic poet; in this piece, he leads his dramatic troupe up the slopes of Mt. Olympus for a picnic. There they encounter the ageing gods and goddesses, and it is arranged that the two groups will exchange places and functions. But the arrangement works out badly, and the two chastened groups return to their original places. While there are hints of Offenbach in the spoofing of mythology, the text is full of anticipations of the mature Gilbertian wit. First presented on December 23, 1871, the show was a failure and, as a consequence, though Gilbert’s libretto survives, Sullivan’s music was lost or deliberately dismantled. What little we know of it is in a few identifiable recyclings Sullivan later made from it. Once again, the two men went their separate ways with no sense yet of future possibilities together.
On Gilbert’s way, the next great success was a comedy about fairies, The Wicked World, produced at the beginning of 1873. Such was its potential that Gilbert himself then participated in creating a parody of it (The Happy Land), a few months later. The original play, however, brought Gilbert back into the world of the law: when a critic denounced the play for immorality and indecency, Gilbert took him to court; the resulting trial became an exercise in hilarity in which the play was declared innocent but the critic was exonerated and Gilbert had to pay court costs. And early in 1874 Gilbert had his first serious failure: Charity, a “problem” prose-play which attempted, in superficially comic terms, to expose Victorian moral hypocrisy by dealing with a woman who has had an extramarital affair and spends the rest of her life redeeming her “sin” in self-sacrificing charitable works.
Gilbert’s softer side was in evidence over the next two years. One play of 1874, Sweethearts, was a prose comedy of datably Victorian sentimentality. Late in the following year, he returned to verse drama with Broken Hearts, a bittersweet fantasy about four broken-hearted ladies whose life of isolation on a desert island is disrupted by the arrival of a handsome young man. It was a play that Gilbert long cherished, describing it late in his life as “more of the real me...than in anything I have written”. For us in hindsight, however, more typical was a comic play, partly political satire, titled Topsyturvydom, first performed in March 1874. It portrayed a quasi-utopia where everything was the reverse or inversion of the normal: not only did its title contribute a label that was to cling to Gilbert’s world of imagination ever thereafter, but its ideas were to be re-used later.
As those plays came into being, Gilbert was working on one of his other innumerable stage ideas-like so many of them, originating in his humorous pieces for the journal Fun. Back in April 1868 he had published a single-page skit, in two columns, with his own illustrations. It was entitled Trial by Jury: An Operetta, and it sketched out in verse a comic vision of a trial for “breach of promise” (a man’s failure to marry the girl to whom he had become formally engaged). This was one more of Gilbert’s transformations of his experience with British courts into humorous spoofing of the law and the legal profession: it ends with the impatient Judge resolving the contest by marrying the comely plaintiff himself. The skit stuck in Gilbert’s mind and late in 1873 he arranged with the theatrical manager and composer, Carl Rosa, to expand it into a substantial one-act piece. Rosa was to write the music, and looked forward to featuring his wife as the plaintiff, all for a season of English opera Rosa planned to present at the Drury Lane Theatre. Unfortunately for that plan, Mme. Rosa died suddenly and the whole project was dropped.
Gilbert was determined, however, to salvage his new libretto. He seems to have had no immediate ideas about finding a composer to take up Rosa’s task. Finally, in January 1875, Gilbert took it to a young theater manager named Richard D’Oyly Carte (1844-1901), who was eager to find short pieces to include in composite bills. Carte was enthusiastic about the text and had an immediate suggestion for the composer to put it to music: Arthur Sullivan.
Sullivan before Gilbert:
In a characteristically trenchant essay-on “The True-Born Englishman”-Daniel Defoe observed that: “...speaking of Englishmen ab Origine, we are really all Foreigners ourselves.” The paradox of Arthur Sullivan is that while he appears on the roll of national worthies as a typical Englishman (or, at least, as a typical English composer) he was, ab origine, “all foreigner”. He had no English blood in his veins.
--- Percy Young
The paternal family name was, until the seventeenth century, O’Sullivan, deriving from a line of Irish gentry. From its less prosperous branches came Thomas Sullivan (1785-1838) who joined the British Army, serving during the Peninsular Wars and then in the detachment that guarded the fallen Napoleon on St. Helena, retiring with the rank of sergeant. One of his sons, also named Thomas (1805-1867), was trained as a musician. While an instructor at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, in 1838 he married Mary (or Maria) Clementina Coghlan (1811-1882), a young teacher at a ladies’ seminary: though apparently with a Jewish element in her family background, she was primarily of Italian extraction, and a devout Catholic. Seeking better income, Thomas moved to London, where he took a job as clarinettist in a theater orchestra. As children came, the family eked out a precarious living until 1845, when he returned to Sandhurst as the bandmaster, building a reputation for wide playing and teaching competence (strings, woodwind, brass), he was able in 1857 to win a prestigious post on the faculty of the Military School of Music. His excellent musicianship, together with the diversity of his resources, provided an extraordinary opportunity for his son to become thoroughly acquainted with instruments and instrumental writing from an early age.
The second of Thomas’s sons, Arthur Seymour Sullivan, was born on May 13, 1842. (In mature years, he discovered that the initials of all three names resulted in an unflattering anagram, and so he dropped “Seymour” from his usage, retaining only the first and last.) Despite the boy’s extended immersion in music from infancy, the father planned a “safe” career for him, placing him in a boarding school. But young Arthur was determined upon a life in music and overcame the initial opposition of his father-who worried about the risks and frustrations of most musical careers. Recognizing that his need for firm and comprehensive musical education could best be obtained through Anglican choral training, and blessed with a lovely singing voice, Sullivan and friendly sponsors aimed for the top. In 1852, barely ten, Arthur was admitted to the choir of the Chapel Royal, which served the court at St. James’s Palace in London. In that setting, the boy became a protégé of the eminent Sir George Smart, Composer to the Chapel Royal, who saw to his proper training and even personally conducted (in 1855) an anthem the boy had composed. In the course of his service, young Sullivan sang in ceremonies at court and at the new Crystal Palace, experiencing the rituals of the Victorian Establishment at their heart, while earning recognition in such circles from adolescence.
Sullivan’s early potential for composition was recognized and encouraged. In 1855 he even assembled a manuscript collection of his own “best” pieces (vocal and instrumental). He also absorbed the latest in musical experience that London had to offer, at a time when Germanic influence was at its peak-especially with the leadership of the Philharmonic Society’s conductor, William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1875). Bennett himself had been a protégé of Mendelssohn, who had become enormously popular in England. The great Leipzig master had died in 1847, and a program eventually had gotten under way to create in his memory a scholarship that would allow British students to take training in Leipzig. Given financial circumstances, it was not possible to sustain the study arrangements in Leipzig at first, but a scholarship could initially be settled for London’s Royal Academy of Music. In 1856, at age fourteen, Arthur Sullivan won the competition for the first such Mendelssohn Scholarship. For two years, he studied piano with Bennett and composition with John Goss. Along the way, he finished out his service with the Chapel Royal. In 1857 his father took up his post at the Royal Military School and the family returned to London. In the autumn of 1857, Arthur had his first experience organizing and conducting a little pit orchestra to serve a short-lived dramatic society in which Arthur’s older brother, Fred, was involved. And, in July 1858, an Overture in D minor he had composed in his RAM studies was performed in a public concert there.
Funding now made possible an extension of the Mendelssohn Scholarship to Leipzig itself, with Sullivan as the first beneficiary. Sullivan accordingly took up residence there in September 1858, with the expectation of a year’s residence. (At the time of his admission, other new student arrivals included the Norwegian Edvard Grieg and the American Dudley Buck.) He worked so hard and made such a profound impression that he was granted extension for two more years, until April 1861. In this leading musical capital, Sullivan was put in direct contact with the leading musicians and musical currents of the day (e.g., the “radical” Liszt, the young Brahms), though he was drawn essentially to the conservative Mendelssohnian traditions of the Leipzig Conservatory, with a further inclination to the music of Schumann. He studied with many of the outstanding musicians on its faculty, including the Mendelssohn disciple Julius Reitz, the great pedagogue Karl Reinecke, and the pianist Ignaz Moscheles. Sullivan produced some student compositions-among them a string quartet, and an Overture based on Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh. But he took an important step forward with a set of orchestral and vocal pieces designed as incidental music for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which was first performed in a Leipzig concert in early April 1861, to both public and critical approval.
Returned to London that spring, and still only nineteen, Sullivan secured a modest livelihood as organist at St. Michael’s Church on Chester Square, and from that base began building powerful and important contacts. One of these was the prominent critic, Henry Chorley. Another was the self-trained musical powerhouse, then Secretary of the Crystal Palace, George Grove (1820-1900), who became a lifelong friend. It was Grove who arranged that Sullivan’s music for The Tempest should be performed at the Crystal Palace on April 5, 1862. “This was the great day of my life!” Sullivan later recalled. The audience was enthusiastic, and the critics went wild. Suddenly, Sullivan was rocketed to national attention-barely at age twenty, acclaimed by commentators, senior colleagues, and promoters as the new hope of English music.
He dabbled with a few short-lived teaching positions, as his Tempest music began making the rounds and he was commissioned to write a Wedding March for the marriage of the Prince of Wales (future Edward VII) and Princess Alexandra in 1863. With the support of conductor-promoter Michael Costa, Sullivan took on another job as organist at Covent Garden, which allowed him to hear some of the leading singers of his day, as well as to study the scores of important operas. Meanwhile, his friendship with Henry Chorley yielded some texts to set. A projected opera, The Sapphire Necklace, proved abortive and survives only in fragments. Another stage work to a Chorley text, the masque Kenilworth (after Scott’s novel), proved a great disappointment when performed in 1864. Just weeks before that, a ballet, L’île enchantée, composed for Costa’s season at Covent Garden, was likewise received indifferently. But a journey to Ireland moved him profoundly and inspired his most ambitious orchestral venture to date-a full four-movement Symphony, in E major (which only later he openly titled “The Irish”). There was limited interest in performing it at first, until the influential backing of singer Jenny Lind and others secured its performance on March 10, 1866. A cordial reception renewed the sense of Sullivan’s place as the English composer to watch. A concert overture commissioned for the Norwich Festival that autumn became the channel for the deep grief brought by his father’s death that September, and so the new work, the Overture in C, was premiered the following month with the added title of In memoriam. And at the end of that November, again at the Crystal Palace, another demonstration of Sullivan’s command of “serious” classical forms was given with the debut of his Cello Concerto in D. Another concert overture, entitled Marmion after Scott was first played in June 1867.
At that time, Sullivan was able to switch his base-income job as organist from St. Michael’s to St, Peter’s, Cranley Gardens. But Sullivan was beginning to savor travel. In 1865 he had visited Paris where he met Dickens and was cordially received by the ageing Rossini. A year later, he traveled with Grove to the Isle of Wight to meet Tennyson, with whom he discussed the idea of collaboration on a song-cycle, The Window-eventually published in 1871, but without the illustrations by Sullivan’s friend, the artist John Millais, as planned. In 1867, however, Sullivan and Grove undertook their most exciting travel venture together: after a stop in Paris, their visit to Vienna allowed the Schubert-crazed Grove to turn up the long-neglected and previously unknown scores for that composer’s Fourth and Sixth Symphonies and the Rosamunde Incidental Music. The trip was concluded with a nostalgic if less-than-triumphant return to Leipzig, and a stop at Dresden to be disappointed by Wagner’s Rienzi.
But it was in the previous year that Sullivan moved into a realm that, without his recognizing it yet, would hold his true destiny: the musical stage. The London theatrical world had its background of light opera and various lyric entertainments, but the recent arrival of the exciting operettas of Offenbach had created new stimulation, to which London entrepreneurs were not slow to respond. One of these, a member of Sullivan’s widening social circles, was Francis C. Burnand (1836-1917), a humorist for the magazine Punch (of which he would later become editor) and an experienced writer for the theater (soon to become a bitter competitor to Gilbert). A local dramatic society had planned to give a private performance of Offenbach’s little one-act piece, Les deux aveugles (“The Two Blind Men”) and needed a second work to fill out the program. Burnand was invited to prepare an adaptation of a twenty-year-old farce by one J. Maddison Morton titled Cox and Box, about a room rented simultaneously to two different lodgers. Sullivan was, accordingly, invited to set the songs. This was first presented in a sponsor’s home on May 26, 1866. It was first given in a public theater a year later.
That “triumviretta in one act”, as it was pretentiously dubbed, was a way from G & S, but it already showed Sullivan’s capacity to learn from Offenbach and experiment with comic-theatrical style (complete with operatic spoofing). A success of the moment, it prompted a commission from the promoter and composer Thomas German Reed to Burnand and Sullivan of their two-act comedy about English tourists and Spanish smugglers, The Contrabandista, or The Law of the Ladrones. Its opening in December 1867, however, proved unsuccessful. To be sure, German Reed did revive the Burnand/Sullivan Cox and Box-ironically, at the same time as running an operetta by Gilbert for which German Reed wrote the music himself. But no further commissions were offered the pair. For better or worse, an extended partnership of Burnandandsullivan, one that would have precluded Gilbertandsullivan, was not to be.
Sullivan was aware that such theatrical ventures could be lucrative if properly managed, but he saw them still as but a distraction from his “serious” calling. In that pursuit, he produced a range of compositions in his late twenties. There were a number of small piano and chamber pieces, a number of short choral pieces, and a good many of his growing output of songs. There were two major choral works, his pretentious oratorio The Prodigal Son for the Worcester Festival (1869) and his cantata On Shore and Sea (1871); his only new orchestral piece was his Overtura di Ballo in E major (1870), still a popular concert work.
In this context, important changes were afoot. By now in his mid-twenties, Sullivan was a handsome and charming young fellow, despite his very short stature, and was well-established as an energetic ladies’ man, In 1867 he was caught up in a romantic crisis. John Scott Russell, one of Grove’s friends and a cordial supporter of Sullivan, had three daughters. While one of them was being successfully courted by Sullivan’s composer-friend Frederic Clay, another, named Rachel, became the focus of Sullivan’s attentions, even as Sullivan seems also to have flirted with a third. Sullivan’s attentions were well-received and apparently progressed to a considerable degree of intimacy with at least one, if not both. But Sullivan’s prospects (unlike those of the independently wealthy Clay) were deemed insufficient to allow for marriage, and Rachel’s mother make parental opposition quite clear, and the emotional ties soon withered.
Ironically, it was the very same Fred Clay who brought about the first formal meeting of Sullivan with Gilbert, in late 1870-although they were by then well aware of each other and may have had passing encounters. It was their joint employer, Thomas German Reed, who offered Sullivan the chance to set a libretto by Gilbert. If that opportunity was passed over, it merely forestalled what was-dare we say “inevitably”?-to come. To be sure, Gilbert was momentarily drawn in a different theatrical direction. In 1871 a producer in Manchester who had mounted a staging of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in 1864, using Sullivan’s incidental score, now commissioned the composer to write music for a new production of The Merchant of Venice, thereby adding another impressive stage score to Sullivan’s credit.
It was Sullivan’s friendship with John Hollingshead that first brought the composer to work with Gilbert. Hollingshead was manager of the Gaiety Theatre, which specialized in “burlesque” (meaning at that time light musical-theater extravaganza of a broad and simplistically entertaining nature, though not yet the bawdy degeneration later known in the USA). His opening production, in 1868, was a “burlesque” of Meyerbeer’s opera Robert le Diable, with a libretto by Gilbert entitled Robert the Devil, or the Nun, the Dun, and the Son of a Gun. Sullivan is known to have attended its opening night. Perhaps as a favor to Hollingshead, Sullivan agreed to write the music for Gilbert’s comedy, Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old. (Sullivan’s brother Fred was a member of the cast, playing Apollo.) Its failure after its opening in December 1871 must have been taken easily in stride by Sullivan, who dismantled the score and re-used some parts of it in his later operettas.
Far more typical of Sullivan’s activity in 1871, however, was the composition of the most famous of his many hymns, Onward Christian Soldiers. On a larger scale-and as an extension of his close contacts with, and favor from, the royal family-was his Festival Te Deum, a work of expansive scoring, composed to celebrate the recovery of the Prince of Wales from an illness and, by a rare privilege of its kind, dedicated to Queen Victoria herself. It was premiered in May 1872 at the Crystal Palace by some 2,000 performers. In its wake came Sullivan’s next oratorio, The Light of the World, a stiff setting of Bible texts, first performed at the Birmingham Festival in August 1873. He had a brush with Hollingshead’s Gaiety Theatre again at the end of 1874, if in more respectable terms: by providing his latest Shakespearean incidental score for a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, as revised by the poet Swinburne. A darling of society, coddled by elite patrons, while expanding his skills as conductor, Sullivan was establishing himself at the apex of England’s musical world.
By this time, too, Sullivan had developed his cultivated tastes for high living-good food and drink, elegant society, card-playing, and (with growing obsessiveness) gambling. (It should also be noted that by 1872 Sullivan suffered from kidney stone, placing him recurrently in pain for the remainder of his days.) Handsome and long a ladies’ man, he had never pursued any matrimonial ideas since the unhappy business with the Russell family, and was to remain unmarried to the end of his days. But he was typical of many Victorian gentlemen in pursuing a discretely covert but astoundingly voracious sexual life under the cover of propriety. From his diaries, we know that he had many intimate relationships, several of which led to clandestine abortions. Indeed, he even used a system of coding, not only to disguise the identity of his lady-friends with cryptic initials, but even to document the number of his orgasms and the quality of his frolics-the best of which he would label, in misspelled German, as a “Himmelische Nacht”. Most of these ties were apparently with lower-class women quite outside his social circles. But there was one exception, who became his intimate partner and mistress for the last quarter-century of his life.
This was Mary Frances Ronalds (1839-1916), known as Fanny. Born in Boston as Mary Frances Carter, she was one of the many female American adventuresses who descended upon England in the latter half of the nineteenth century to achieve social status-though in her case not matrimonial advancement. At age twenty she had married one Peter Lorillard Ronalds, a New York socialite. She bore him three children before they separated, but never divorced. Having close ties to the family of the wealthy Leonard Jerome-whose daughter, Jennie, was to marry Lord Randolph Churchill and become the mother of Winston-she moved with them in 1867 to Paris, where she was taken up in the court circles of the Empress Eugénie. Here she seems to have been introduced to Sullivan in 1868, during one of his visits to Paris. With the fall of Napoleon III in 1871, her opportunities there collapsed and she settled next with two of her children in London. There she flourished, becoming one of the numerous “friends” of the skirt-chasing Prince of Wales, and distinguishing herself in offering musical entertainments and elegant soirées. In her early thirties, and three years older than Sullivan, she was still a handsome woman, with a strong personality, and some talent-though not formally trained, she was an excellent and much-admired singer.
At exactly what point she and Sullivan became romantically involved is not clear, given the outward discretion they were required to retain, for the benefit of his family and society in general. (She was still married; and even were she divorced, that status would have precluded their marriage; which, given Sullivan’s temperament, he probably would not have wanted anyway.) Despite their closeness, Sullivan did not give up his liaisons with other women, which were extensive, and which often provoked bitter fights between Fanny and Sullivan. (She was apparently the one among his women, however, whom he identified in his diary codes as “L.W.”-presumably meaning “Little Woman”.) And such was the strength of his appetite that, during at least one of their visits together to Paris, Sullivan supplemented their intimacy by visits to local brothels. On the other hand, their times together could have their constraints: on one of their visits to the Continent she was accompanied by members of her family, and their lodgings allowed so little privacy that they went out into the shrubbery to make love.
Certainly he was the love of her life, and she was ultimately his true companion, in a relationship that deepened in the loneliness after the deaths of his brother Fred (1877) and his mother (1882). Sullivan became close to Fanny’s parents and children, eventually finding in them a surrogate family to replace his own lost one. Along the way, too, Fanny became particularly identified with the most famous of his many songs, The Lost Chord, which he composed in 1877-inspired, it was said, either by the illness or death of his brother. Mrs. Ronalds became its most famous interpreter, often with Sullivan himself accompanying her, singing it both in private and in public, to great admiration. (Not, however, as a new piece in 1885, as Topsy-Turvy would have it.) When Sullivan died, it was expected that he would leave her a considerable bequest of money: instead, his will assigned to her the autograph manuscript of that song, along with any others of his scores she would like. When she died 1916, the manuscript of The Lost Chord was buried with Fanny Ronalds, at her request.
But it is at this point that the careers of both Gilbert and Sullivan were to be set in a new direction. The agent of this rerouting was Richard D’Oyly Carte (1844-1901), who really became the third partner in the collaboration that became G & S. Sometime musician and composer, he had moved to managing. It was he, in fact, who contracted Offenbach himself to write and present that composer’s only English operetta, Whittington, in 1874. In that same year, he was hired as manager of a company that the actress Selina Dolaro had organized to present Offenbach at the Royalty Theatre, especially his La Périchole, with herself as the star. Along the way, Carte engaged an assistant: a young actress (then twenty-three) born Helen Couper-Black, but using the stage name of Helen Lenoir. Astute beyond her years, she was to become a vital partner in nurturing his nurturing of the G & S collaboration and his other enterprises.
The perceived need for some short items to enrich Dolaro’s programs was in Carte’s mind when, in the middle of January 1875, Gilbert dropped by a rehearsal and was prompted by Carte to show his libretto for Trial by Jury. Carte was delighted. He had recalled Thespis and was one of the few observers who sensed that Sullivan was the best possible musical partner to Gilbert’s writing. Accordingly, Carte urged Gilbert to contact the composer. It was not until early March that Gilbert made his way through a snowy morning to Sullivan’s lodgings and introduced his text. Sullivan later recalled the scene:
...He read it through, as it seemed to me, in a perturbed sort of way, with a gradual crescendo of indignation, in the manner of a man considerably disappointed with what he had written. As soon as he had come to the last word he closed up the manuscript violently, apparently unconscious of the fact that he had achieved his purpose so far as I was concerned, in as much as I was screaming with laughter the whole time. The music was written, and the rehearsals completed, within the space of three weeks’ time.
You are an adept in your profession, and I am an adept in mine. If we meet, it must be as master and master-not as master and servant.
-- Gilbert, Letter to Sullivan (March 19, 1889)
When Fred Clay introduced Gilbert and Sullivan to each other in late 1870, the playwright was thirty-four and the composer was twenty-eight. Nearly five years later, when Trial by Jury was first created, both were (lest we forget) still relatively young men by most standards, but already each was a hard-working leader in his field. Gilbert was the dominant figure of the London theater world, as both prolific writer and innovative director: his authoritarian and even belligerent style in dealing with his casts concealed considerable sensitivity and even a degree of personal insecurity. Sullivan had become the commanding talent in English music, from whom great things were expected, while he was discovering the intoxications of high society and the joys of high living. Each had the greatest prospects for individual careers. For each, their second collaboration was entered into with the same sense of ephemeral connection as the first. It was, indeed, the perception of Richard D’Oyly Carte that these two were made for each other which turned this new venture into a definitive beginning.
Trial by Jury is not a full operetta, even as a one-act piece. Subtitled “A Dramatic Cantata” (or, more precisely, it was headed “A Novel and Entirely Original Dramatic Cantata”, perhaps to stress that it was not a direct parody of anything). That is to say, it is a through-composed piece, an exclusively musical score, without spoken dialogue between numbers. Gilbert’s deliciously pungent legal humor and sense of the ridiculous was matched perfectly by Sullivan’s straight-forward lyrical style spiced with spoofing of the musical idioms of such idols as Handel, Bellini, and Verdi. It was given as an afterpiece to Offenbach’s La Périchole in the 1875 production. It featured Selina Dolaro herself as the Plaintiff, with Sullivan’s older brother Fred-by now an accomplished comic actor, but with only two more years to live-dazzling as the Learned Judge. Gilbert, whose skills Sullivan had come to respect greatly, was stage director, while Sullivan himself (whom Carte considered the greater box-office draw of the two) conducted.
The work was an instant success with audiences who were now bored by Offenbach but delighted by this new theatrical brew; indeed, the dawning of G & S led to the almost total obliteration of Offenbach in London theaters. Nevertheless, the two collaborators each had their own fish to fry. Respectively in 1875 and 1876 Gilbert brought out two new operettas with music by other composers, the second of them, Princess Toto, with Fred Clay in the latest of their collaborations. Other plays of that period included Dan’l Druce (1876) based partly on George Eliot’s Silas Marner, and the martial farce Engaged (1877). For his part, Sullivan was represented on the stage again in June 1875 by a one-act piece called The Zoo, with a libretto by “B. Rowe”. That was the pen-name for Benjamin Charles Stephenson, theatrical scribbler of the day, frequent collaborator with Sullivan’s friend Alfred Cellier. A through-composed piece without spoken dialogue, it has a clumsy text about awkward characters working out their fates at the London Zoological Gardens; there are some good musical moments, but the piece does not wear well and makes one appreciate Gilbert’s cleverness the more.
(Ironically, just as Sullivan’s ventures into comic opera were developing, he began receiving what would be a stream of honors. In 1876 he was given an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University; two years later, the same from Oxford; in between, he was made a Chevalier of France’s Légion d’Honneur.)
If he was not able to move dramatically to consolidate the G & S collaboration, Carte steered his way through the distractions the two had with the idea of capitalizing in some way upon the initial success-not the least motive being his goal of becoming an independent impresario. Through 1875 there were extended offerings of Trial by Jury, and even some discussion of reviving Thespis, of which nothing came. Carte also talked of the two doing another comic opera between them. Realizing the resources he would require, he marshaled supporters and in early 1877 he created the Comedy Opera Company, aimed broadly at creating a native English tradition of light opera, but immediately focused on producing new works by Gilbert and Sullivan. A theater (the Opéra Comique) was engaged and the two collaborators were formally contracted to create a new operetta. There was much dickering over defining the subject-matter, and deciding what parts of the resulting libretto would or would not be set. The two creators settled into patterns of argument and personality clashes, requiring Carte’s mediation, that would become recurrent in the years ahead. (Not for nothing was the impresario called “Oily Carte” by his professional associates.) Among his distractions (including reaction to his brother’s death, new family responsibilities, and his own weakening health), Sullivan had to compose his latest incidental score, for a production of the play Henry VIII attributed to Shakespeare, for production that summer.
In creating the new operetta, the collaborators also began to form the functioning company that would become their medium in the years ahead. Among the singers brought into the cast were George Grossmith (1847-1912), a comedian and song-writer who would create the G&S “patter songs”, and the two baritones, Rutland Barrington (1847-1912) and Richard Temple (1847-1922). The new work was based upon a story Gilbert had written a year earlier, involving a love-philtre-the kind of magical charm or spell that Gilbert liked all too well as a mechanism in his plots. The result was called The Sorcerer, the collaborators’ first full two-act creation (and its only one without a subtitle), with musical numbers amid spoken dialogue. On the opening night, November 17, 1877, Sullivan conducted while Gilbert, who had directed the production, nervously walked the streets, unable to face the show in person-a practice he followed in future first nights as well. The work was a genuine hit with both public and critics, and augured well for the collaboration’s future. The piece would, in fact, be heavily revised in a revival later, in 1884, but it set the pattern for future G & S operettas.
Carte now knew he had a solid money-making prospect in his two collaborators. Caught amid quarrels in the theatrical world that seriously undermined his own position, Gilbert was eager to cast in his fortunes with Sullivan. The latter was notably more hesitant now about “serious” composition, and glad to have new work to distract from his grief over his brother’s death. As the run of The Sorcerer continued into the winter, followed by filler productions, Gilbert began sketching a new libretto with a nautical theme, based on elements in several of his Bab Ballads, but also refining a satire of the current First Lord of the Admiralty into what became the character of Sir Joseph Porter. Gilbert interrupted his work to prepare another of his plays, The Ne’er-do-Weel. But in a trip to Portsmouth harbor he also researched details of ship design for inclusion in his set design, while Sullivan, now badly afflicted by his kidney complaint, struggled to write his music, and Carte fought with his backers to keep his budget afloat. The new operetta, titled HMS Pinafore, or The Lass that Loved a Sailor, went into rehearsal, with another future regular added to the cast, the young soprano Jessie Bond (1853-1942). The composer and conductor Alfred Cellier (and a sometime Gilbert collaborator), was brought in to assist his old friend Sullivan. Cellier was given the task of actually writing the Overture, setting another pattern for the future. (Also joining the team as house manager was one Richard Barker, to become another long-term regular.)
The reception of the new work was enthusiastic upon its opening May 25, 1878, and audiences were swollen as Sullivan used his connections to have local bands play selections from the score in their summer concerts. Soon Pinafore-mania swept England-allowing Carte to organize two companies to tour the country with it-and spread to American audiences as well. The collaborators now found themselves rich men. Gilbert celebrated by commissioning a yacht to be built for him; he also pursued a new theatrical venture of his own, producing his verse-play Gretchen, based on Goethe’s Faust, in March 1879, which proved a flop. For his part, Sullivan went on losing huge sums at gambling; but began to take in earnest the urgings from some quarters that he should return to “serious” composing. It took some pressure from Carte and Gilbert to bring him around to plan a new operetta.
Meanwhile, Carte was battling with his backers, who had taken the Comedy Opera Company away from him, had organized a rival Pinafore production, and were challenging his very rights to the operetta in England. Moreover, unauthorized and baldly pirated productions of Pinafore in the USA were depriving the collaborators of any profits from its popularity there. As a result, Carte negotiated a set of deals in America that would allow Sullivan some lucrative conducting engagements there, while the two collaborators were committed to completing their new operetta and supervising its premiere production in New York. In early November, therefore, Gilbert and Sullivan, together with Alfred Cellier, arrived in New York, where they joined Fred Clay (who was supervising a production of his collaboration with Gilbert, Princess Toto). Sullivan still faced a daunting job in finishing the music, and required the help of Cellier and Clay with assembling the Overture and completing the orchestration.
The new operetta was, of course, The Pirates of Penzance-appropriate to a work charted through the shark-infested waters of theatrical piracy. The collaborators not only had to worry about cashing in directly on their American successes, but they also had to attend to English legalities. In order to secure a proper copyright back home, it was arranged that a token premiere would be offered there on December 30, 1879, in a tiny theater in the Devon town of Paignton, where a piano-accompanied performance was given by a touring company in the area, with no sets (or Overture) and minimal costumes; with regular Richard Temple as Pirate King there. But then, the following evening, December 31, 1879, the official “world premiere” production was given in New York, in Gilbert’s staging, with Sullivan (though wretchedly ill) conducting, and such regulars as Jessie Bond augmented by an important regular-to-be, newcomer Rosina Brandram.
Pirates was a smash-hit, and the collaborators saw to the launching of American touring companies. Returning to England in March 1879, they plunged into mounting the new operetta in London, with their veteran stars re-assembled, to great public acclaim. But new progress was overshadowed by internal tensions among the trio. Backed by Sullivan, Gilbert was making veiled threats to abandon Carte and find a new manager of their own unless Carte greatly reduced his share of the profits. These tensions were resolved for the moment and planning turned to a new operetta, with the intention of having a second American premiere. Gilbert began sketching a new text, while Sullivan busied himself with a return to “serious” composition, writing his latest oratorio, The Martyr of Antioch, whose premiere he conducted in October 1880 at the Leeds Festival, of which he had now been made the permanent conductor. The oratorio proved to be one of Sullivan’s staples in intermittent revivals (in one of which, in 1898, it was actually staged, to Sullivan’s dismay.)
Work on the new operetta by both partners was dragging, so that fulfilling the contract for a premiere in America in November 1880 became impossible. Over the winter, however, the venture took shape. Starting with the premise of one of his Bab Ballads about two rival curates, Gilbert evolved a major piece of literary satire, spoofing opposing factions of the “aesthetic school of poets” and the artificialities of faddish artistic taste. The two opposing characters, Bunthorne and Grosvenor, were supposedly modeled on Oscar Wilde and Algernon Swinburne, respectively, though in fact a variety of contemporaneous examples were drawn upon. The title was Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride. Gilbert’s dazzling wit was particularly well-matched by Sullivan’s rousing music, and the constellation of cast regulars was augmented by another new arrival-the soprano Leonora Braham (1853-1931)-ultimately problematical for her recurrent alcoholism, but whose talent, acting skills, and charm allowed her to become the creator of the majority of the G & S soprano lead roles thereafter. The opening night, on April 23, 1881, was a brilliant one, with Oscar Wilde himself in attendance to savor his growing notoriety.
That summer, while Gilbert reveled in his new yacht, Sullivan was taken on a princely cruise by his royal friend, the Duke of Edinburgh. Among their stops was one at Kiel where the Prussian crown prince-the twenty-two-year-old grandson of Queen Victoria and the future Kaiser Wilhelm II of World War I infamy-greeted the composer by singing Sir Joseph Porter’s patter-song from Pinafore. Sullivan was, meanwhile, determined anew not to do another collaboration with Gilbert. This alarmed Carte, who, like Gilbert, saw a continuing output by the team as a secure prospect for future prosperity. Carte, moreover, was now committed to a bold new project: a bigger and better theater, a house all of his own, devoted to his permanent company’s activities, and with G & S operettas as their mainstay. The project had been set in motion in 1880, and progressed through the following year. The site was off the Strand, above the Thames Embankment, near the location of the old Savoy Palace: accordingly, after some shifts in choices, Carte decided to call it the Savoy Theatre. While retaining the lease on the Opéra Comique, where Richard Barker was to continue as manager, Carte decided to open the new house by transferring Patience to it from the old one, in the midst of its continuing initial run. This was accomplished on October 10, 1881, when Sullivan personally directed the performance that inaugurated the Savoy Theatre. Before the performance itself, Carte arranged a demonstration of the theater’s innovative feature, complete electrification of the lighting-the first such lighting system of any of London’s theaters. (Another of Carte’s innovations was to persuade his ticket-hungry public to line up in neat queues at the box office instead of mobbing it in unruly disorder-a discipline that soon became a generally accepted trait of English behavior.)
The Savoy was now the holy-of-holies for the burgeoning G & S cult, even as various touring or licensed companies under Carte’s supervision presented the operettas around England and the U.S.A. Indeed, the collaborators had always spoken of their works as “operas” (not operettas), and these works have come to be known generally as the “Savoy operas”, while adherents of the G & S literature have thus become known as “Savoyards”. To be sure, Carte did not see his empire ending here. His next project was a Savoy Hotel, adjacent to the Theatre, as a vast business investment; to be followed by a full-scale National Opera house-reflecting his sympathy with Sullivan’s ambitions in that idiom.
For now, however, the goal was the next product of the collaborators, who had been bound by a promise for another new work. Its starting-point was another of Gilbert’s Bab Ballads, called “The Fairy Curate”. But the writer soon saw its expansion as an opportunity to spoof British governmental institutions, as he had already done so wittily with the British navy (Pinafore) and the British army (Patience). Going through a series of sketches and title changes, it emerged as Iolanthe, or The Peer and the Peri. Its period of genesis was spiced by a cruise Sullivan took that spring to Egypt and then through Italy and Paris, followed by visit in August to a spa in Germany with Fanny Ronalds. In between these he was stunned by the death of his beloved mother-a blow that his relationship (still periodically tumultuous) with Fanny could not fully soften. Nevertheless, the project matured to fulfillment for the first premiere to be mounted at the new house, November 25, 1882. (It was also the first of the operettas for which Sullivan personally composed the Overture.)
Sullivan had by now undergone a series of financial setbacks that made him reconsider his desire to end the collaboration and return to “serious” composition: plainly, the operetta business was his guaranteed hope for recovered prosperity. For their part, Gilbert and Carte had no doubts about the logical course. On February 8, 1883, the three signed a five-year contract by which each was entitled to one-third of the net profits, after expenses. But Gilbert hardly required much inducement to move on speedily to the next product. This time, and for the only time, he turned to a pre-existing literary work for his material, and, also uniquely, to a play of his own, which happened to be an adaptation of that literary work. This was his 1870 play, The Princess, based on Tennyson’s poem of the same title. As the new text emerged, each of the two collaborators experienced landmarks in their lives. Gilbert undertook construction of an elaborate new home. For Sullivan that May came the award of his knighthood. That only he should receive this, and not Gilbert with him, was partly a snub of the latter, perhaps disfavored at court for his satirical jibes. Yet only forty-one, Sullivan was, of course, a darling of the court. But the award was almost certainly intended not just to honor his achievements to date but also to direct his future course to a higher level. And, indeed, commentators of the moment saw this as a further reminder of what was expected of him. Wrote one: “Some things that Mr. Arthur Sullivan may do, Sir Arthur Sullivan ought not to do”-clearly pointing to more “serious” activity instead of the pedestrian productivity with Gilbert.
Ready for rehearsal by late autumn, the new operetta was now titled Princess Ida, or Castle Adamant-with the further unique feature for the collaborators of a three-act format, in place of the usual two. One problem arose from an adventurous casting decision. Feeling that their principal soprano, Leonora Braham, was not up to the dramatic requirements of the title character, the collaborators decided to engage for it the American singer, Lillian Russell, then singing in London. But her casual attitude towards attending rehearsals outraged the strict Gilbert and she had to be dismissed; Braham was awarded the role in Russell’s place, confirming her monopoly on G & S soprano leads. The role of the bizarrely grouchy King Gama (often perceived as Gilbert’s secret self-portrait) was tailor-made for Grossmith. The premiere, on January 5, 1884, was a great success, but cost Sullivan’s health dearly. In a state of exhaustion and in great pain, he was not thought able to conduct the opening performance, as was his wont. By drugs and will-power, he managed to assume the podium after all, but following the curtain calls he collapsed.
The dramatic lapse in health frightened Sullivan, and prompted the latest crisis in the collaboration. Convinced he should devote what life he had left to him to his “serious” obligation, the composer informed Carte in late January that he would write no further “Savoy pieces”. During March and April, a round of communications and meetings among the three partners thrashed this out: Sullivan relented to the extent of saying that he would no longer compose the kind of pieces they had been doing, which was understandably taken by Gilbert as a reflection on the quality of his work. Recognizing that their contract bound them after all to carry on, Sullivan explicitly balked at Gilbert’s latest idea for a new plot, involving the “magic lozenge” and a story of characters falling in love against their wills, through the intrusion of a charm-a scheme not only reminiscent of The Sorcerer (and, as such, dangerously repetitious) but reflective of Gilbert’s delight in the other-worldly and the topsy-turvy. Sullivan wanted more honest dramatic situations, and he was fearful of being trapped into customary formulas of composition. Gilbert deplored what seemed to be an impasse in their working together, and even suggested that Sullivan take a year off to write an opera under other auspices. Sullivan relented to the extent of acknowledging their respective independence in their separate spheres of libretto and score, and admitted willingness to go on, once Gilbert had agreed to discard his proposed “lozenge” plot and to try something else.
That something else proved to be The Mikado, or The Town of Titipu. One report has it that Gilbert’s initial inspiration was sparked when a Japanese sword he had hanging on the wall of his study fell down. Beyond that, however, things Japanese were utterly in fashion at the time, especially among artists and aesthetes. (It is not true that Gilbert was further inspired by going with his wife to the “Japanese village” exhibition in the Knightsbridge region of London: it opened, in fact, only in early in 1885, but it did serve to stimulate further public interest into the resulting G & S confection that was to run concurrently with it.) Out of Gilbert’s dramatic imagination came a plot-richly improbable, despite Sullivan’s warnings-that could outwardly exploit that fashionable setting, with all its exotic trappings and allusions. Behind its transparent mask, of course, altogether British social mores and governmental institutions might then be satirized. By late May Gilbert had sent a sketch of the new plot to Sullivan, who expressed approval.
The collaboration was back on track again, after all. Each of the two had some activities of their own to pursue. And, with the run of Princess Ida winding down prematurely at the Savoy, the partnership crafted a new autumn season with new productions of The Sorcerer (in revised form) and Trial by Jury. Their success demonstrated the public’s readiness to accept the earlier operettas as old friends when revived. Over the winter, however, the new operetta took shape. Pulling back from the expanded roster used in Ida, Gilbert reverted to the smaller and tightly controlled group of familiar character types, played by the Savoy team at its peak: George Grossmith (Ko-Ko) and Rutland Barrington (Pooh-Bah) as the two comedians; soprano Leonora Braham (Yum-Yum) and tenor Durward Lely (Nanki-Poo) as the romantic couple; Rosina Brandram (Katisha) as the imposing contralto; and Richard Temple (Mikado) as the bass authority-figure. Sensitive to theatrical refinements, Gilbert had some participants of the Knightsbridge exhibition come to rehearsals to coach his performers in Japanese manners, while a former British attaché to the British Embassy in Japan gave advice on handling the fans. Sometimes, inspiration was provided by the character of the performers themselves: the fact that the singers for the three “schoolgirls”-Leonora Braham, Jesse Bond, and Sybil Grey-were all of the same short stature prompted Gilbert to treat them as a closely-linked trio as much as possible. And when, concerned about running time as well as quality, Gilbert proposed to cut the Mikado’s big solo number in Act II (“My object all sublime”), the cast made such a strong remonstrance en masse that the authoritarian Gilbert uncharacteristically relented.
If Gilbert, ever the tyrannical director, fussed over every detail down to the last minute, Sullivan was driven to new depths of exhaustion, amid his usual social whirls and commitments to conduct Brahms and Beethoven Symphonies with the London Philharmonic even as he was completing the score and conducting rehearsals. Grossmith was more than ever the bundle of nerves before the curtain and there were fears he might upset the show. Quite the contrary: the premiere on March 14, 1885 was a sensation, with many numbers encored (“Three little maids” three times!). As the Savoy run settled in the house was packed, and touring companies were soon organized to take the new piece on the road.
To the road also took two of the partners. Sullivan took ship in June 1885 for a journey that would take him across the U.S.A. with the eventual goal of visiting his nephews and nieces, children of his deceased brother Fred, who now lived in California. After a stop in New York, the trip took him through Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City (playing the organ at its Mormon Tabernacle), San Francisco, Los Angeles, Yosemite, and then Chicago again before reaching New York in early September. There he met Carte, who himself had come over in an elaborate scheme to fend off competition in presenting The Mikado in America. The scheme was only partly successful, but Sullivan conducted a special performance in New York on September 24, and attended another in Philadelphia on October 5. The tour had netted the partners a less clear profit than expected, and for Carte it had a sad price: only thirty-two, his wife Blanche died on August 21, while he was running his New York production.
Gilbert had been on a tour to Egypt during the autumn. When all three partners returned to London, Gilbert already had ideas for the next operetta, which Carte made clear he expected to materialize. But there were spats between him and Gilbert over recurrent issues of control over management decisions, with discussions of putting off a new operetta in favor of some revivals. Carte established the principle that revivals could be turned to as guaranteed money-raisers after the collaborators had finished their commitments to new operettas. As the new year began, Sullivan for his part was overwhelmed with other work that pre-empted new Savoy composition. He had agreed to compose a new cantata after Longfellow’s The Golden Legend for the Leeds Festival, while also accepting a commission to set a Tennyson poem for an exhibition opening; along the way attending races and squiring the aged Franz Liszt around on the latter’s final visit to London. Working through the summer Sullivan finally finished his cantata but then faced preparations for its performance. Accordingly, the partners were obliged to put off the next operetta for a year. (In the interim, when the New York touring troupe returned to London, Carte was able to send it off for a month’s run in June in Berlin-where its success initiated a continuing German interest in G & S.)
The first performance of The Golden Legend at Leeds on October 16, 1886. was enthusiastically received: Sir Arthur was plainly now fulfilling his duties. Performances in London during the remaining months of the year further restored his standing as a commanding figure in English music, while this work continued to receive regular performances in years ahead as one of his most respected “serious” works.
In the midst of all this, however, Gilbert was ready for him with the beginnings of the next operetta. For all his concern about improbability and the magical, Sullivan chose not to oppose the most far-fetched of Gilbert’s ideas-a spoof of Victorian melodrama, in fact, originally of vampire stories; with extremes of topsy-turvy reversals, a mad-lady parody (Jessie Bond’s new opportunity), family curses (borne by the sometime-villainous Barrington), a platoon of ghosts (led by the sepulchral Temple), and a fickle heroine hooked on etiquette (Braham in her last soprano lead); and all under the provocative title of Ruddygore, or The Witche’s Curse. (The word “ruddy” being considered a vulgar equivalent of the even more coarse “bloody”, Gilbert was soon persuaded to change the title to Ruddigore, as we now know it.) Curiously, Sullivan responded to this gloriously wacky libretto with his most advanced score to date, music full of fun, but also unusual beauty and great dramatic power.
After the phenomenal success of The Mikado, the London public was breathless with anticipation, and that much the more disappointed when the new operetta, premiered on January 22, 1887, did not seem to them to match the wit and vivacity of the previous one. Amid the acclamations, unaccustomed hisses were heard from the audience. Critical reactions were likewise mixed, with praise for the music but complaints about almost everything else. Some drastic doctoring was applied for the first run which, despite all the misgivings ran a respectable 288 performances (as compared, however, with Mikado’s 672.) And the touring company that had brought Mikado to the U.S.A. went back with Ruddigore, if without quite its previous success. Against the impression that the work was a total disaster, Gilbert himself quipped, “I could do with more such failures!” But it was to be the one operetta of the canon that Gilbert was never able to revive later on, and it still circulates in a corrupt revision of the 1920s, rather than as in the first run.
Sullivan devoted much of 1887 to a busy round of travel (especially to Germany, where he found his operetta gems highly popular), composing (including an Ode for Queen Victoria’s jubilee), and conducting (both his own and others’ music). His health again became recurrently precarious, and he moved to withdraw from his conducting commitments with the Philharmonic. A new operetta production was being considered, but in the interim the three partners mounted a revival of Pinafore at the Savoy. For the new operetta, Gilbert had wanted again to use the “lozenge” plot, to which Sullivan again objected. But by the autumn Gilbert had a new idea, sparked by spotting an advertisement for the Tower Furnishing Company. The thought of a setting at the Tower of London generated a flood of ideas-some of them borrowed, to be sure, from plot aspects of the popular English opera Maritana (1845) by Vincent Wallace (1812-1865), as well as from his own operetta, Ages Ago. Gilbert at first decided to fit these together under the title of “The Tower Warder”. While he was sketching this, he was confronted by a scheme proposed by Carte, who had become alarmed by the success of a rival company’s production (of Dorothy with libretto by Sullivan’s one-time collaborator, B. C. Stephenson, and music by Alfred Cellier). This proposal was that the partnership “make a fresh start” by building a new theater (suitable for the kind of opera to which Sullivan aspired), by letting out the Savoy, and by disbanding the present Savoy performing company. Gilbert was appalled. Despite his autocratic manners and imperious directing style, he had become close to the performers and realized that what Carte and Sullivan were leaning towards would be disastrous:
...We have the best theatre, the best company, the best composer, & (though I say it), the best librettist in England working together-we are as world-known & as much an institution as Westminster abbey-& to scatter this splendid organization because Dorothy has run 500 nights is, to my thinking, to give up a gold mine.
The scheme was thus headed off by Gilbert and, as new work continued, the company mounted its next revival, of Pirates, followed in due course by one of Mikado. In April, meanwhile, the development that had been in the making for some time was fulfilled: Carte and his trusty Helen Lenoir were married, with Sullivan standing as best man. Over the summer, the creation of the new operetta, eventually to be given the final title of The Yeomen of the Guard, or The Merryman and his Maid, went on apace. Perhaps sensitive to Sullivan’s desire to achieve a higher level of achievement, Gilbert contrived a more than usual subtle plot, with bittersweet comedy, beginning with a spinning-song (instead of the usual crowd scene) and a tragic ending for the patter-song comedian, Jack Point, and the unusually dark counter-comic figure of Wilfred Shadbolt. To convey the sixteenth-century time-period, Gilbert’s words took on a pseudo-archaic quality that could have become stilted but instead lifted the piece to a more serious tone than what conveyed the usual G & S nonsense. There was more work for the chorus, to whom Sullivan gave some particularly fine music, adding to the more elevated quality. And, with the Tower of London itself as not just a backdrop but as a veritable silent protagonist, the piece acquired a notably patriotic tone. Indeed, though no one seems willing to admit it, Yeomen of the Guard is the closest thing anyone has ever produced that could be called “the English national opera”.
The rehearsals were marked by an unusual volume of changes, cuts, and adjustments. And the cast reflected transition in the company: Grossmith was back to create his last G & S character (Point), Jessie Bond was given enlarged prominence (Phoebe), while other veterans included Brandram (Carruthers) and Temple (Meryll). But there were such newcomers as lead soprano Geraldine Ulmar (Rose), Courtice Pounds (Fairfax), and W. H. Denny (Shadbolt). For another rare time, Sullivan composed the Overture himself, worthy of the remarkably high quality of the score in general. At its opening on October 3, 1888, the public was highly enthusiastic, while many of the critics recognized the operetta as something different from its predecessors. Between them, Gilbert and Sullivan considered it their best stage collaboration. Whether they could remain on that high a level, however, was still to be seen.
By late 1888 the partners each had new fish to fry. Carte was now proceeding with the construction of both the “Savoy Mansions Hotel” and a new and larger theater. Gilbert’s disgust with the latter plan was overshadowed by the fact that he was himself building a theater of his own, the Garrick, which was to be both an investment and a vehicle for manipulating theatrical productions. Gilbert was clearly the dominant personality of London’s theater world, more now as a director and producer than as a playwright. But he still brought forth some new plays of his own from time to time: one, Brantinghame Hall, was a failure (November 1888), but he continued to do further writing for the benefit of favorite performers. For his part, Sullivan juggled various commitments and composed his latest set of incidental pieces, and his last Shakespeare score, for a revival of Macbeth at the year’s end. Amid Sullivan’s latest visit to the Continent, he and Gilbert exchanged thoughts on where they would go next. Sullivan was more determined than ever to write a grand opera, but Gilbert pointed out that he (Gilbert) was not suited for such work (in which the composer would have to dominate), that Yeoman was as serious as they could be, and that they were doing just fine together.
Each understood that Sullivan’s commitment to a stage work with the music as the priority left them at an impasse. Gilbert was even gracious enough to suggest a possible alternative collaborator as librettist for Sullivan’s operatic writing, the American-born Julian Russell Sturgis (1848-1904). But ill-feelings continued to fester, with Carte attempting to mediate. Gradually they came to the conclusion that there was a joint possibility: Sullivan could pursue a grand-opera project with someone else, and Carte now promised him a production of it at his New Theatre; but, before that, and on those terms, he and Gilbert could also produce another comic opera. And Sullivan himself in May 1889 suggested that Gilbert take up some ideas he had broached in the past about a “subject connected with Venice and Venetian life”. That suggestion was finally accepted and the impasse now seemed to dissolve.
By late spring 1889 the partnership was fully back in operation. To be sure, Sullivan had some conducting responsibilities to fulfill. And in late July he met with Julian Sturgis who already had worked out a scenario for what would become the long-projected grand opera, based on Scott’s Ivanhoe. But major energies were gradually focused upon the new operetta, The Gondoliers, or The King of Barataria. Despite all the earlier arguments about style and substance, Sullivan allowed Gilbert to revive his stock characters and rework stock situations, including the old gimmick of baby-substitutions and mixed identities resolved at the end. But the plot was cleverly laced with delicious variations of the old satirical spirit, and Sullivan responded to it all with one of his richest and most inventive comic scores-some of its gems contrived only through close interaction between the two, an interaction in which Gilbert bent over backwards to accommodate Sullivan’s wishes. The cast was the original Savoy troupe in its final maturity, with Ulmar, Bond, Brandram, Pounds, Barrington, and Denny among the leads-though Grossmith was notably replaced in the lead comic role. After intense preparations and adjustments, it was ready for its debut performance, on December 7, 1889. The Savoy Theatre was packed, and both audience and critics were delirious. Sullivan wrote in his diary: “Gilbert and I got a tremendous ovation-we never had such an enthusiastic house and such a brilliant first night.”
On the next day the two collaborators exchanged congratulations: “I must again thank you for the magnificent work you have put into the piece,” Gilbert wrote to Sullivan, adding prophetically, “It gives one a chance of shining right through the twentieth century with a reflected light.” Sullivan responded: “Don’t talk of reflected light. In such a perfect book as The Gondoliers you shine with an individual brilliancy which no other writer can hope to attain.”
Though it could not have been certain at the moment, it was to be their last episode of triumph as a pair, their last burst of collegial satisfaction. There would be, to be sure, two more operettas produced by their joint efforts, but, if not technically, certainly in spirit, their collaboration was now to end.
I have no desire to rake up old grievances, or to enter into a fresh discussion as to who was right and who wrong. So far as I am concerned, the past is no more thought of, and I am quite ready to let bygones be bygones, and to meet you at all times in the most friendly spirit, provided that the disagreeable events of the past eighteen months are never alluded to, or at least never discussed. I say this in good faith, and I hope you will meet me in the same spirit.
-- Sullivan to Gilbert, October 4, 1891
...It is perhaps unnecessary to assure you that all feeling of bitterness has long since passed from, my mind, but there remains a dull leaden feeling that I have been treated with inexplicable unfairness by an old and valued friend with whom I have been en rapport for many years, and with whose distinguished name I had had the good fortune to find my own indissolubly associated in a series of works which are known and valued wherever the English language is spoken. This is the present state of my mind as regards our relations towards each other, and if you can suggest any reasonable means whereby this cloud can be removed, it will give me infinite pleasure to adopt it.
-- Gilbert to Sullivan, October 5, 1891
...Let us meet and shake hands... We can dispel the clouds hanging over us by sending up a counter-irritant in the form of a cloud of [cigar] smoke.
-- Sullivan to Gilbert, October 6, 1891
...I think that if three such noble wrecks as Gilbert, D’Oyly & myself were to appear on the stage at the same time, it would create something more than a sensation... It wasn’t my intention to come to the first night of [the revival of] Patience, but if it would really please Gilbert to have me there & go on with him, I will come-not to conduct, of course, but to take the call with him (and D’Oyly too) if there should be one. Let us bury the hatchet, & smoke the pipe of peace. I have no doubt we can get both from the property room, and if the result is to relieve G. of some that awful gout, I shall be well pleased.
-- Sullivan to Helen Carte, November 2, 1900
Carte and Sullivan prepared the American touring company of The Gondoliers, Carte and his wife going off with it, while Sullivan returned to his Continental haunts of Paris and Monte Carlo. Gilbert and his wife set off on a tour to India. During their absence, Gilbert’s father died at the end of December 1889. (His mother had died the previous year but, because of his stubborn estrangement from her, he had taken no outward notice of it.) In India, Gilbert was intrigued to find that some of the partner’s operettas were being played there-though, he noted with frustration, without authorization controlled or royalties paid. Money was very much on Gilbert’s mind, too, when he and the Cartes returned to London in early spring.
Gilbert had long scrutinized the partnership’s finances with an eagle eye, determined to protect every farthing of his share of the profits. This attitude had created repeated bickering with Carte, who had found Gilbert’s explosive personality far less congenial than Sullivan’s more suave, refined, and easy-going manner. By this time, too, Carte was pursuing elaborate speculative ventures with his own money, but on a scale that made Gilbert suspect that some of the partnership’s funds were being improperly diverted. Another source of disagreement had been the contractual question of what particular Savoy expenses were properly to be covered before the calculation of net profits from income. Gilbert now became upset over the high costs of the Gondoliers production, while, among expenses Carte had incurred for maintenance of the Savoy Theatre was some new carpeting for its lobbies and staircases. Matters came to a head on April 21, 1890, in an ugly confrontation between Gilbert and the Cartes. Gilbert accused Carte of financial impropriety and slipped into a rage of insults and denunciations, prompting uncharacteristically angry response from the usually mild Carte. According to Helen Carte’s account of the episode, Gilbert threatened to withdraw from the creative partnership, and Carte was willing to agree, prompting Gilbert to renew old charges that Carte had not really done his share in the creative partnership, adding the nasty charge that Carte was now “kicking down the ladder by which [you] have risen”.
Gilbert immediately tried to enlist Sullivan on his side, demanding cooperation in redrafting the partnership’s contract. Though he expressed agreement on some points, Sullivan was hardly willing to take a firm stand against Carte, to whom he was too much beholden for the operatic project ahead. Through May a series of letters were exchanged among Gilbert, Sullivan, and Helen Carte, in the course of which Gilbert officially withdrew from participation in the Savoy partnership and initiated the first steps of legal action against the Cartes that soon culminated in a court case over the partnership’s finances. The newspapers quickly picked up the scent and announced to the world that the famous collaboration was ended.
Desperate to escape from this tumult, and fighting off attempts by both Gilbert and Carte to take a clearly partisan stance, Sullivan was anxious to get on with the composition of the long-delayed grand opera, Ivanhoe. As the legal action stretched on into the autumn, Gilbert actually tried to make some amends, and had prolonged discussion with Helen Carte in efforts to clear up details about the finances. (In the midst of this, Gilbert took up residence in what was to be his final home, the mansion called Grim’s Dyke, on which he would lavish prolonged refurbishing.) But the wounds were deep on all sides, and no true reconciliation seemed possible as Carte and Sullivan went their operatic way, while Gilbert was having difficulties getting a new collaborator, François (Frank) Cellier, to complete work on a new operetta that would mark Gilbert’s own new direction.
Ivanhoe was finally completed, and given its premiere on January 31, 1891, at Carte’s new theater, now called The Royal English Opera House. It was intended to be a landmark event in English cultural life, and so it seemed at the time. Members of the royal family attended, and Queen Victoria was assured that it had indeed been on her advice that Sullivan had undertaken this work, so worthy of his true talents. The audience was enthusiastic, the critics very positive, and a substantial run of 160 performances was inaugurated-though not sufficient to recoup the enormous expenses. Sullivan himself pronounced it “the most important work I have ever written-not only from its magnitude, but also from the strength of the musical work I have put into it.” And, indeed, there are fine things in the score, along with much that is uneven or inconsistent in its efforts to combine ballad-opera with elements of Verdi and Wagner. Among the many operatic treatments of Scott’s famous novel made during the nineteenth century, this was one of the few actually committed to embrace much of its narrative complexity, instead of just portions of the story. Sturgis’s libretto matches the pseudo-archaic language style Gilbert devised for Yeomen of the Guard, but without his sparkle. Sullivan revised it for a revival in 1895, and it made some intermittent re-appearances in the years ahead, but it has sunk into obscurity on its own defects, as well as by comparison with the Gilbert collaborations.
Still nourishing his resentments, Gilbert declined Sullivan’s invitation to attend the Ivanhoe premiere, and crept in to see it only in February. His operetta collaboration with F. Cellier went through more floundering, and Gilbert tried to bypass it by planning a different one, with no less than George Grossmith as his partner, though still with poor progress. Carte found he had to work renewed performances of Ivanhoe into a mixed repertoire to keep his new theater going. The effort was to prove inadequate and in the following year Carte gave up and sold his new opera house. (It became the Palace Theatre, a music hall, and is still in use-currently run by Andrew Lloyd Webber.) Meanwhile, The Gondoliers ran healthily at the Savoy, and on March 6, 1891, the entire company went out to Windsor Castle to present a command performance for Queen Victoria. (It might seem strange that Her Majesty would have wanted to see a show so filled with spoofing of constitutional monarchy; but she was a devoted admirer of Sullivan, and it is recorded that, definitely, she was amused.) Practical considerations would obviously be involved; but the fact that it was Gondoliers and not Ivanhoe that the Queen wanted to see, was a message of sorts. Sullivan himself-who was off to Monte Carlo with the Prince of Wales at the time-faced anew the realities of income needed to support his lavish way of life, recognizing what Gilbert had long understood: that their fortunes depended upon their Savoy collaborations and nothing else.
Accordingly, after an exchange of conciliatory communications, some of which are quoted above, the two met on October 12, 1891, talked comfortably for two hours, and effectively agreed that they might again collaborate. The question of timing was tricky, as both had new commitments of their own. Sullivan had now contracted with Carte to compose an operetta for the Savoy Theatre and company, but this time with the well-established playwright Sydney Grundy as his librettist, in place of Gilbert. Over the winter, too, Sullivan ground out a new incidental score, to serve a verse-play, The Foresters, that an American promoter had commissioned for a production (March 1892) in New York. Gilbert was finally on track with his operetta The Mountebanks, collaborator F. Cellier being replaced by Alfred Cellier. The sudden death of the latter delayed the opening to January 4, 1892, but the run was substantial. There was still more trouble over the collaboration with Grossmith, Haste to the Wedding, which opened in July and had only a brief run.
Sullivan completed his collaboration with Grundy, Haddon Hall, which, as an operetta (with spoken dialogue), received its premiere (September 24, 1892) at the Savoy Theatre rather than the new opera house. The cast included a number of the Savoy veterans (Brandram, Pounds, Barrington, Denny; Bonds declined). Billed as “an original English light opera”, it was meant to show that “Savoy opera” was a genre which did not have to depend upon Gilbert’s involvement. It was enthusiastically received by the public and critics (including George Bernard Shaw), and after over 200 performances in London Carte added it to his touring repertoire. Musically, it is far more coherent and of more even quality than Ivanhoe, and would not be unworthy of revival today. But, again, the libretto proved to be the problem: Grundy set the piece in the seventeenth century, and his ye-olde-Englishe style was no less stilted than Sturgis’s had been. It was, after all, the absence of Gilbert’s sparkle that helped this Sullivan-without-Gilbert work slip into neglect while those of the two collaborators have survived.
Resuming the collaboration, as projected, was still not an easy matter. Sullivan-who turned fifty in the middle of 1892-was heavily distracted by his duties as conductor of the Leeds Festival. And then the new contract for the partnership, which Gilbert thought he had worked out with Carte, threatened to come apart. In the autumn, Gilbert discovered that, while he was to have his one-third of the profits, the actual management of the company and its finances would be exclusively in the hands of Carte and Sullivan. After another unhappy round of letters exchanged, an understanding was finally negotiated by late November through Helen Carte, with supplemental assurances given Gilbert as to his voice in casting and production issues. At last work could begin on a new G & S collaboration. Gilbert worked out the scenario and the two discussed it to mutual satisfaction when he visited Sullivan in late January at a villa the latter had rented on the French Riviera.
The two met again in late May, in Sullivan’s first visit to Gilbert at Grim’s Dyke. The new operetta’s gestation ran through much of 1893, with the premiere at the Savoy taking place on October 7. Delighted to have the collaboration renewed, the audience gave it an enthusiastic reception: the two men took a curtain call together, shaking hands, and then joined Carte for a post-performance supper at the Savoy Hotel. The production ran for a total of 245 performances, with touring productions sent out thereafter, and so it seemed a genuine success at the time. For all the good omens, however, the results demonstrated that something had gone out of the collaboration since the “carpet affair” after all.
For Gilbert, Utopia Limited, or The Flowers of Progress, was a chance to indulge in rich satire of constitutional monarchy and on British social and institutional attitudes as transplanted into an “underdeveloped” culture. With an exotic setting and almost ruinously lavish décor, he could indulge in spectacle beyond previous degrees. His cast, too, was unusually large: it included a few steadfast veterans (Brandram, Barrington; Bond and Grossmith were present only in the audience). But it was not the old team of former days, and so Gilbert experimented, generally avoiding most of the old stock characters and involved a broader kind of comedy. For Sullivan, there were some fine opportunities, in both solo and choral numbers; but some of the best moments came when he was free of Gilbert’s unusually complex verses and could write orchestrally for the dance episodes. The collaborators were no longer fully in sync; they even had to resort to bringing back a character from Pinafore, music and all. It is a mistake to write off this operetta entirely, for it still can be made to work nicely. But it was not one of the collaborations that Gilbert revived for the later D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, and it has become one of the two G & S ugly ducklings.
Given the seeming success, however, Gilbert was ready to go forward and collaborate yet again. But Sullivan was not at all disposed to do so, intermittently making himself unavailable. In particular, Sullivan refused to cooperate if the cast would include a leading soprano over whom they had disagreed-the American Nancy McIntosh, a problematical protégée whom Gilbert was determined to foster. With material for more stage works, Gilbert tried vainly to arrange a different collaboration, with the all-purpose musician George (or Georg) Henschel, but he finally settled on the young Osmond Carr as composer for his operetta His Excellency, which opened October 27, 1894, its cast including some old Savoy veterans (Bond, Grossmith, Barrington, Temple). Meanwhile, with the Cartes experiencing reverses at the Savoy itself, Sullivan pitched in to help by persuading a figure from his past, Francis C. Burnand, with whom he had collaborated on The Contrabandista (1867), to agree to overhaul and drastically revise it for Carte’s use. This revision, retitled The Chieftain, opened on December 12, 1984, with its own gleaning of veteran Savoyards (Brandram, Pounds, plus an Utopia newcomer, Walter Passmore). Still busy, Sullivan wrote another incidental score, for the play King Arthur by J. R. Comyns Carr, which opened on January 12, 1895, in a production by Henry Irving, starring Ellen Terry.
Meanwhile, Gilbert was working on a new idea he had, a plot involving a legal fiction by which a man who was alive could be considered technically dead-just the kind of paradox that the ex-barrister always relished. With it he was meshing that other idea that he had entertained in the past, a plot about a theatrical troupe (cf. Thespis). These were to develop eventually into The Grand Duke, or The Statutory Duel, incorporating also a kind of Offenbachian spoofing of the small German principality. Gilbert’s negotiations to use this scheme in a different partnership dissolved and, with the dispute over the controversial singer resolved, Sullivan studied the new scenario and professed thorough satisfaction. Thus was the way cleared for the old triumvirate to plan yet another operetta. Immediate realization was not possible: Sullivan was busy with another Leeds Festival, and then would have to see to the German production of the revised Ivanhoe in Berlin. So Carte organized a revival at the Savoy of The Mikado. Bond, Brandram, and Barrington appeared in their original parts (along with newer Savoyards like Passmore and Florence Perry); Gilbert directed the rehearsals and Sullivan conducted on the opening night (November 6, 1895). It was like old times.
Over the winter the development of The Grand Duke was resumed, amid recurrent hassles over casting decisions. But a good cast was assembled: Passmore in the title role (a kind of degraded King Gama) was Grossmith’s true successor, while Barrington was still a riotous second comedian, and Brandram created one last G & S contralto character; as leading sopranos, Florence Perry played against a newcomer, the Hungarian Ilka von Palmay; and another novice, C. H. Workman, was to become a Savoy star thereafter. But splendid team performers were not enough. Gilbert’s plot was quite complex, and his verses more crabbed than usual, with absurdities unredeemed by any sympathetic characters or warmth of feelings. There are some clever and even attractive moments, and the piece can be entertaining still in a good production; but it no longer has the old G & S verve and wit. Sullivan apparently realized it was another ugly duckling, for, after taking first night bows (March 7, 1896), Sullivan fled to Monte Carlo, disavowing responsibility in comments to a friend.
With quickly diminishing public response, The Grand Duke was closed down by Carte after 123 performances. Ready for the setback, he put The Mikado back on the boards. When it passed the landmark of its 1,000th cumulative performance, a celebration was deferred because Gilbert and Sullivan were each off on foreign travels. (In the course of his, Sullivan is supposed to have made an unsuccessful proposal of marriage to a young lady of his circle, one Violet Beddington.) So it was only on October 31, 1896, on the occasion of the 1,037th performance, that a lavishly gala event was held. A large souvenir book was given everyone in the audience. Bond and Brandram yet remained of the original cast, with Florence Perry and Passmore demonstrating the talents of the newer Savoyard generation. Sullivan himself conducted. Though D’Oyly Carte himself was prevented from attending by ill health, at the end Gilbert and Sullivan took curtain calls. Whether or not anyone there fully understood it, this was the partners’ last hurrah.
Neither of the two had any immediate interest in any kind of renewed collaboration. Sullivan was, in fact, caught up in preparations for the celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. One contribution commissioned logically from him, in view of his long experience with the idiom, was a hymn (“O King of Kings, whose reign of old”) that would be sung in every church of the British Empire that June. As a more substantial contribution, however, he was to write a score for a patriotic and celebratory ballet, called Victoria and Merrie England. (As part of this, Sullivan recycled some music from his early ballet of 1864, L’île enchantée.) This new work was first danced on May 25, 1897, before a royalty-studded audience, Sullivan conducting and receiving renewed acclaim from the audience and the royal family. In the spirit of the day, the ballet then enjoyed a six-month performance run.
By this time, in need of renewed success at the Savoy, Carte revived The Yeomen of the Guard, which opened on May 5, Sullivan conducting.. The two collaborators were much involved, nurturing a cast that included Brandram and Temple from the original cast, and, among the newcomers, Henry Lytton (Shadbolt), who had previously sung in the touring companies and was now to begin a distinguished career as a London Savoyard. When Jubilee duties were ended, and after a royal reception at Windsor in July, Sullivan went off the next month to attend the Bayreuth Festival, where he registered mixed but extensively negative reactions to a heavy diet of Wagner.
Gilbert indicated willingness to attempt a new operetta with Sullivan, but met with discouragement. Shifting to a new play, The Fortune Hunter, Gilbert was blocked from a London production and had it mounted instead in Birmingham that September. When the Cartes made their next return to the G & S storehouse, with a revival of The Gondoliers, Sullivan was abroad and Gilbert declined to take a bow alone, without his partner, on the opening night (March 22, 1898). But Sullivan himself was caught up now in his next stage work-so busily that he eventually had to decline Rudyard Kipling’s invitation to do a musical setting of his new poem, Recessional. Contracted by Carte as the next Savoy production, but without Sullivan, the new piece was The Beauty Stone, done in collaboration with J. Comyns Carr and the distinguished Victorian dramatist Arthur Wing Pinero. Described as “a romantic musical drama”, it was a sprawling affair with a huge cast, on a plot full of magic spells and chivalric heroism. Totally un-Gilbertian in its absence of humor or satire, it drew only mediocre and inconsistent music from Sullivan, who found the two librettists far more difficult to work with artistically than Gilbert. First performed on May 28, 1898, with a cast including valued Savoy veterans (Brandram, Passmore, Lytton), it was received poorly and seemed a sign of Sullivan’s decline as England’s great musical hope.
The Cartes replaced the unfortunate flop with more G & S revivals: first The Gondoliers (July), then a double-bill of Trial by Jury and The Sorcerer (September), all supervised by Gilbert. Sullivan was still keen to do more stage work, but as he went through some negotiations for possible collaborators he made it plain that Gilbert would not be one of them. This became clear to Gilbert, who imagined other slights. Thus, when there was a celebration at the Savoy of the twenty-first anniversary of The Sorcerer’s debut (on November 17), with Sullivan conducting, their joint curtain calls were made stiffly, the two not speaking to each other. It was to be not only their last public appearance together, but their last meeting.
In September 1898, meanwhile, Sullivan fulfilled his conducting work at the Leeds Festival for what would be the last time. Always encouraging to younger composers and musicians, Sullivan was to distinguish his final season by including in the program, and conducting, the first performance of another Jubilee spinoff, the patriotic-dramatic cantata Caractacus, an early work of the young Edward Elgar (1857-1934), the composer who was to succeed and overshadow Sullivan as the great hope of English “serious” music. When the festival concluded, Sullivan was saluted with outpourings of affection from the Festival performers. The official end of his conducting appointment came, however, in late December, amid painful and unedifying tensions with a hostile Festival Committee, which prompted his resignation-at a time when his health would have made it difficult for him to continue anyway.
The Cartes had been suffering financial losses and transferred their Savoy Theatre to a publicly subscribed company named the Savoy Theatre and Operas, Ltd.-the two Cartes among its directors. Anxious to renew their fortunes, they no longer looked to Gilbert for librettos, but hoped to tie Sullivan as a house composer. The latter resisted being shackled, and, amid some tensions between the two sides, agreed to compose a new stage piece under flexible terms and, only if that were successful, something more beyond. He professed himself weary of writing comic operas, but was willing to go forward with a new collaborator to whom he had already committed himself. This was the recently retired army officer and emerging playwright Basil Hood (1864-1917), who had been sketching an exotic piece at first called “Hassan” but eventually re-titled The Rose of Persia, or The Story-Teller and the Slave. Despite distractions-participation (with Fanny Ronalds) in charitable events and activities related to the Boer War-Sullivan finished the score and plunged into rehearsals. The cast was another honor-role of Savoy veterans, including Bond, Brandram, Passmore, and Lytton; Sullivan himself conducted. He and the Cartes had hoped that Gilbert would attend, but the latter continued to cultivate grievances and went only to a later performance.
With Basil Hood, it seemed as if Sullivan had at last found a new collaborator who could match Gilbert in carrying on the “Savoy opera” tradition. Despite the artificiality of plot and setting, Hood managed to create both situations and verbal play that echoed (perhaps at times explicitly imitated) and came close to equaling Gilbert’s verbal cleverness. Sullivan found the libretto a comfortable challenge, and responded with tuneful pseudo-orientalisms and well-crafted music close to his earlier standards. Recognizing that he had something good now, Sullivan set to work with Hood on ideas for a new stage work, to be called The Emerald Isle, or The Caves of Carrig-Cleena, a romantic piece set in Ireland. As the libretto took shape, Sullivan worked on the score through 1900. Along the way, he was commissioned to compose a grandiose setting of the Anglican Te Deum, intended to celebrate expected victory in the Boer War. He managed to finish the latter in good order. It was to be his last completed major work, and he was never to hear it; the planned operetta with Hood was left to be finished by other hands.
Illness and hardship were piling up on the composer. (Plagued by his kidney problems, he was recurrently in great pain and in his later stages had recourse to morphine to relieve it.) In May 1900 he was crushed by news of the death of his old friend, Sir George Grove, just at the time of his annual remembrance of his beloved brother’s death. At the end of July, two more old friends died-one of them the former Duke of Edinburgh-adding to his gloominess. In between, in June, he went to Berlin to conduct a command performance of The Mikado, and in the course of the visit he had a cordial interview with the Kaiser: the press reports of his indiscreet remarks causing much embarrassment.
Gilbert, too, was experiencing a phase of ill health (especially his growingly severe gout), even as he was rehearsing the revivals of two of his plays. Nevertheless, he had responded to Helen Carte’s recurrent calls to preside over revivals of his operettas. In June 1899, as filler before The Rose of Persia went on, he supervised Pinafore. Veterans Brandram, Passmore, and Temple graced the cast; but rehearsals were poisoned by irritations with the meddlesome subordinate, Richard Barker. Following the run of The Rose, Gilbert directed the revival of The Pirates of Penzance. Gilbert had wanted Sullivan to take a joint curtain call with him on its opening night (June 30, 1900); but the composer felt he had been snubbed by Gilbert at the Sorcerer curtain call the previous September, and had then been “cut dead in the street” by Gilbert thereafter. Then, since the new Hood-Sullivan operetta would not be ready on time, Helen Carte had Gilbert direct a revival of Patience. Looking ahead to its opening night, she proposed that Gilbert, Sullivan, and her husband take a curtain call together for old times sake. Gilbert readily agreed, and by mail Sullivan was likewise agreeable. Since all three were ill, it was suggested that they be wheeled out in bath-chairs. Sullivan thought this would be amusing, but a chill he had caught had led to bronchitis with deepening complications, so he had to beg off. When the revival opened, Gilbert and Carte (leaning on canes rather than in vehicles) took bows without him.
Sullivan was trying to work on, as his health worsened after he returned to London from Tunbridge Wells. Himself in “enfeebled condition” and about to leave on renewed travel, Gilbert was unable to visit him, but wrote a cordial message, not realizing how grave the situation had become. Sullivan’s condition suddenly deteriorated and he expired of heart failure early on the morning of November 22, 1900. He was fifty-eight years old.
Preparations were made for his burial, according to his instructions, in a family grave plot, but these were pre-empted by the flood of national reaction, in public obsequies on November 27. The Queen ordered a funeral service for him at the Chapel Royal of London’s St. James’s Palace (where Sullivan had served as a choirboy), and then a fuller service was held in St. Paul’s Cathedral, following which the composer was buried in that church’s grand crypt.
Sullivan’s death was no longer the blow to English music that it might once have been expected to be. But it was devastating for those who had been close to him. Gilbert deeply regretted that, because of his travels, he had not been able to attend the memorials. His own health was not good, and his absence in Egypt caused him to miss another sad landmark. On April 3, 1901, Richard D’Oyly Carte died, at age fifty-six, at the end of prolonged illness. As an even more potent symbol of a passing era, Queen Victoria herself had died on the previous January 22.
Helen Carte now assumed responsibility for carrying on the Savoy traditions. Her husband had already arranged that Edward German should complete The Emerald Isle, the operetta that Sullivan had left unfinished. He had written seventeen out of the twenty-eight musical numbers: German composed the remaining ones and carried out the orchestration. Its premiere on April 27, 1901, had such Savoy veterans as Brandram, Lytton, and Passmore in the cast, with François Cellier conducting. An engaging if somewhat easily dated work, it has some fine touches in Sullivan’s sections, but it inevitably suffers from its divided authorship. Nevertheless, like its predecessor, it was cordially received and ran for 205 performance, then being put on tour. Amid commemorative and retrospective concerts of Sullivan’s music all this time, one last premiere remained: his grandiose if windy Te Deum. It was finally performed, some nineteen months after his death, in St. Paul’s Cathedral itself, its sounds rolling over the composer’s grave in the crypt below.
Helen Carte realized that the Savoy could only survive securely by tapping the G & S repertoire now irrevocably completed. Gilbert was therefore brought in to prepare the revival of Iolanthe, the latest in what would turn into a series of rethinking the operettas’ staging for the Savoy. But in the spring of 1903 the old performing team had to be dissolved, and the Savoy Theatre & Operas Ltd. trimmed down its scope, requiring Gilbert to renegotiate his profitable leasing of performing rights to the operettas. Helen Carte (who had now remarried as Mrs. Stanley Boulter) continued to manage the Savoy Theatre itself as well as the enduring Repertory Company touring troupe. Gilbert devoted his attention to other tasks. He even did a little acting in some of his revivals. He participated in the creation of a statue of Sullivan erected as a memorial in the Thames Embankment Gardens just below the Savoy, selecting its inscription, an apt quotation from Yeomen. And he returned to writing plays with The Fairy’s Dilemma, billed as “a domestic pantomime.” It opened in May 1904 and closed in July under heavy criticism as old-fashioned.
Gilbert was enjoying life as the country squire (though troubled by an arthritic leg), but revivals of several of his plays stimulated thoughts of his own return to the London scene, and some new attempts at writing. In mid-1905 he proposed to Helen Carte that he reclaim his performing rights and assume the management of a London theater so as to stage a series of operetta revivals, but this was rejected. In May 1906 he relished appearing on stage himself, in the non-singing (and often unidentified) role of the Court Associate in a benefit performance of Trial by Jury at the Drury Lane Theatre: the remarkable cast including such regulars as Pounds and Barrington, with Brandram in the chorus, and a distinguished jury that included the likes of Francis Burnand and Arthur Conan Doyle. At the end of 1906 Helen Carte proposed a revival of Yeomen of the Guard with Gilbert directing. The production came off in late December, provoking a strong revival of public interest in the G & S operettas when they had seemed to be in eclipse. But there was endless haggling over the casting, which greatly dissatisfied Gilbert (not without some reason) and resulted in renewed tensions between him and Helen. Nevertheless they tensely agreed to the next revival, of The Gondoliers, the next month. Disputes over casting and rehearsal schedules brought more bitter exchanges, as Gilbert fought for what he understood as the integrity of his work, and for the retention of as many as possible of the old Savoyard singers. (Gilbert became convinced, too, that Helen’s new husband was meddling in the decision-making, to ill effect.) Her intention next to put on The Mikado was thwarted by the Lord Chamberlain’s concern that it would offend a visiting Japanese prince. Instead, Patience was mounted in April 1907, followed by Iolanthe again in June.
An honor long-deferred finally caught up with Gilbert that summer. Sullivan’s old friend, the Prince of Wales, was now King Edward VII and, appropriate to the revival of public attention to the G & S operettas, he awarded Gilbert a knighthood. This was conferred on July 15, 1907, and Gilbert enjoyed a flood of congratulation and admiration. He returned to action when Helen Carte was finally able to remount The Mikado after all, in April 1908. To his delight, he was able to sign on three old Savoy veterans, Workman, Lytton, and Barrington. This time disagreements and squabbles arose over Gilbert’s insistence of expunging from this work, and from others, the interpolations and ad-libs that performers had been introducing over the past years-though a few of them he decided to allow after all. The same three veterans were employed in the next revival, of HMS Pinafore in July. Gilbert was, however, little involved (and contented with that) in revivals of Iolanthe (October) and The Pirates of Penzance (November), with thoroughly able casts Gilbert could now trust.
For some time, Gilbert had been working on a libretto for an operetta based on a play he had produced back in 1873. He first retained the original title of The Wicked World, and in 1905 he had sent a copy of the scenario to the French composer André Messager; but the latter was uninterested. He reworked the piece, eventually making the original title a subtitle and replacing it with Fallen Fairies. An attempt to have Edward Elgar take up the musical assignment was unsuccessful, but he was finally able to win the agreement of Edward German (who by now had done two operettas with Basil Hood, among others). They entered formal discussion of the project in January 1909, while Gilbert was deeply involved in the revival of The Gondoliers. There was some consideration of turning to Ruddigore, but this was put off vaguely for the future because of production “difficulties” and expense. Helen Carte projected, as a final revival in this series, The Yeomen of the Guard; her assumption that Gilbert need not supervise this one directly was firmly argued down by him. It opened that March, with a cast including the hoary veterans Temple and Barrington, and also the rising newcomer Leo Sheffield. This was to be the last one of the revivals that Gilbert directed.
Weighed down by ill health, Helen Carte decided to give up managing the Savoy Theatre while retaining the touring company. In negotiating new performing rights with her, Gilbert was able to arrange a deal that would allow him to organize a company at the Savoy to produce his new operetta with German, and another beyond he was thinking about, plus revivals of both G & S operettas and ones for which Gilbert had had other collaborators. This settled, and while Gilbert was playing with a new toy, his latest automobile (a Rolls-Royce), preparation advanced with Fallen Fairies, which opened at the Savoy on December 16, 1909. The work was not very well received, and there were quarrels over the inadequacy of the soprano lead, Nancy McIntosh, the American singer whom Gilbert had adopted as the chief of his protégées and long had tried to force into his productions. Partly due to her problems, the production foundered and when the run collapsed after less than seven weeks the auspices for the other productions and revivals went with it.
Returned to Grim’s Dyke, Gilbert made a small stab at beginning his memoirs and then abandoned the idea. About this time, the Gilbert household was invaded by a burglar who was captured, trussed up, and grilled by Sir William about the arts of burglary, only later to be conveyed, exhausted, to the police station in the master’s Cadillac.
Gilbert’s primary activity in 1910 was another extended cruise, this one going as far as Constantinople. On one of his recurrent visits to the Bow Street Magistrate’s Court the former barrister became fascinated by the case and person of a criminal condemned to death. This experience, furthered by visits to prison cells and personnel led him to write a one-act play called The Hooligan, about the final hours of a condemned man who ends up dying of heart failure. For the ex-barrister this was an understandable exercise, but for the master of satiric wit and topsy-turvy burlesque it was an astonishing revelation-a grim piece of moralizing realism that makes one wonder about “serious” instincts in himself that Gilbert had suppressed or avoided.
The success of this curious miniature after its introduction in February 1911 provoked Gilbert to write another short play, Trying a Dramatist, intended for students. He also thought he might have an opportunity, with the impresario Henry Mapleson, to revive Ruddigore after all, but nothing came of that.
Through the spring Gilbert busied himself enjoying the pleasures of his country world of Grim’s Dyke. One of these was an artificial lake he had had created on his estate. An avid swimmer, he delighted in plunging into it, even in extreme conditions, and he had been warned about going in when the water was too cold. On May 29, 1911, after making some rounds and taking lunch at a local club, he returned to Grim’s Dyke where he had agreed to give a swimming lesson to one of his young-lady guests. She foundered in the water and Gilbert jumped in to rescue her, but in the process of bringing her out he had a heart attack. He was pulled ashore but all efforts to revive him had failed. The last member of the great triumvirate was dead at seventy-four. At the inquest, the coroner delivered his epitaph:
“...Sir William died in endeavouring to save a young lady in distress. It was a very honourable end to a great and distinguished career.”
As a final irony, his wish to be buried in a local church cemetery could be allowed only when his body was cremated so that his interment would not take up undue parish space.
Just as Sullivan’s death was followed shortly by that of his sovereign, Queen Victoria, with almost equal symbolism, Gilbert’s death was preceded by that of her successor, Edward VII in the spring of 1910. And, following Gilbert, others of the G & S era soon passed from the scene. To be sure, his beloved Kitty, Lady Gilbert, lived on at Grim’s Dyke until her death on December 12, 1936, at age eighty-nine. But, among the pioneer Savoyards, Rosina Brandram had died in February 1907, while George Gros-smith died in March 1912. Helen Lenoir Carte Boulter died on May 5, 1913, at age sixty-one. François Cellier died on January 5, 1914, at age sixty-four. Fanny Ronalds died on July 28, 1916, age seventy-six. World War I, which was to shatter the world the collaborators had known, was already under way by then.
By her will, Helen Carte bequeathed her interests in the Savoy Theatre and in the Savoy Hotel, as well as the touring company, to her stepson, Rupert D’Oyly Carte (1876-1948). He ran the company in tours and revived a London company in 1915. Holding the copyrights to the G & S operettas, the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company became both the beneficiary and the citadel of their continuing popularity, which Rupert’s devoted efforts-regular seasons, tours, recordings-helped foster. In 1929 the company renewed its identification with the Savoy Theatre, by then rebuilt. On Rupert’s death, his daughter, Bridget D’Oyly Carte continued to manage the company, beyond the economically damaging expiration of its exclusive copyright controls in 1961, until its dissolution in 1982, after government subsidies failed. Bridget died in 1985. Thanks in part to her bequests, a reconstituted company was put into operation (1988), which has struggled on since. It was able to return to the Savoy in 1989, but the following year that theater was devastated by fire. It has since been restored handsomely, and is now in general use.
Grim’s Dyke is now an elegant hotel.
It is absolutely essential to the success of this piece that it should be played with the most perfect earnestness and gravity throughout. There should be no exaggeration in costume, makeup, or demeanour; and the characters, one and all, should appear to believe, throughout, in the perfect sincerity of their words and actions. Directly the actors show that they are conscious of the absurdity of their utterances the piece begins to drag.
---William S. Gilbert, “Author’s Note” to his play Engaged
It is a familiar truism that William S. Gilbert and Arthur S. Sullivan were very different people, in many ways personally incompatible. For all their exchanged expressions of friendship and esteem, they never came to address themselves by their first names, but always by the typically British curtness of “Sullivan” and “Gilbert”. (They were hardly more close in dealing with the Cartes, as well.)
For one thing, the two belonged to different social circles. Though Sullivan had come up from a much lower background than had Gilbert, Sullivan had become a darling of high society with close connections all the way to the court, and he acquired early a taste for high living and lavish spending (notably often disastrous gambling). Gilbert’s theatrical world was by no means held in the same social esteem, though his rise to wealth through his work gave him a very substantial economic status. His way of life was, nevertheless, distinctly haute bourgeois, and his domestic life was exemplary, in a devoted marriage despite lack of children-a sharp contrast with Sullivan’s reckless sexual appetite and hedonistic promiscuity. Above all, there were stark differences in temperament and personality. Both were sensitive men, to be sure, but in different ways. Sullivan was a man of close personal relationships and great social refinement. Gilbert-perhaps the more to compensate for a deep strain of insecurity-could be prickly, brusque, and bellicose, holding grudges over supposed slights, dogged and even brutal in defense of what he considered his rights and interests (and regularly ready to go to court over them), and prone to volcanic verbal eruptions, though in his personal relationships actually a gentle and deeply caring person in his own ways.
For all that, it would be a mistake to think of them as aloof or remote from each other. They did socialize to some extent, regularly exchanging dinner parties (with Fanny Ronalds as Sullivan’s accepted counterpart to Kitty Gilbert). Above all, they had deep respect for each other as professionals in their spheres. To be sure, they had their irritations with each other, and Sullivan could at times be driven to distraction by Gilbert’s overbearing manners. It must be remembered, too, that at the time Sullivan was seen as the more prestigious of the two collaborators, and it is only in our time that, with Sullivan’s wider musical reputation at a low ebb, it would seem that Gilbert’s enduring verbal artistry has made him seem the dominant figure, with Sullivan’s music as simple decoration. But, between themselves, they recognized each other as equals, and as true partners in the actual work of creating their operettas. Sullivan might not have admitted it, but at least Gilbert was probably aware that they brought out the best in each other. Certainly they complemented each other: If at moments Gilbert’s verses were too fussy or astringent, Sullivan could make them more warm and human; while Gilbert’s wit could carry music that reflects Sullivan’s propensity for the sentimental, unctuous, or academic. The unique perfection of their collaboration is certainly suggested by the fact that, for all D’Oyly Carte’s hopes for creating a broad literature of English light opera, among all the “Savoy operas” he generated, by various collaborators (Gilbert without Sullivan, Sullivan without Gilbert, others with others), only the G & S ones were works of enduring success and vitality.
Their secret was partly the consistent give-and-take of their normal working methods. As an idea for an operetta was agreed upon, Gilbert would prepare a detailed scenario for Sullivan’s approval. That secured, the two would work out the sequence and contents of the musical numbers to be included. Gilbert would prepare the lyrics for these numbers, and as Sullivan required adjustments or as musical considerations prompted, Gilbert would make necessary revisions. While Sullivan was composing the music, Gilbert would then write the dialogue that surrounded the numbers. Revisions would be made-changes in text, cuts, shufflings of material-on through the rehearsal period and even after the opening night, into the production run. Meanwhile, the text planned for the opening night would have to be submitted in advance to the Lord Chamberlain for review before performance license would be granted. (Those texts often differ in details from what was eventually settled as the definitive versions, eventually with retrospective review in later years by Gilbert.)
As seen, many of the plots grew out of ideas Gilbert had first tried in one or more of his Bab Ballads, or sometimes from stories or plays of his. It was through one of the latter, a parody of Tennyson, that evolved the only one of the operettas to be based on an independent literary work. Gilbert’s ideas and plots reflected a lot of what was fashionable in Victorian theater. The element of absurdity has long been present in British humor: one has only to think of The Goon Show, Beyond the Fringe, and Monty Python in our time. Absurdity was a point in its own right for Gilbert, but his ability to clothe it in satiric wit and clever verbiage elevated it beyond the merely zany and made it delightfully welcome.
Stereotypes were an inevitable component of comedy, and G & S is rich in them. They can be too simplistically registered for burlesquing, as in Anna Russell’s monologue, “How to Write Your Own Gilbert and Sullivan Opera” (which, when you look closely, is really little more than a parody of HMS Pinafore). After The Sorcerer, Sullivan resisted Gilbert’s infatuation with magical gimmicks that motivated the plot outside of human behavior; but he was content with recurrent use of such hoary devices as identity confusions and mixed-up babies. Of course, it might be remembered that Gilbert was often ready to parody plot devices already common in theater of the day, especially in opera, and these touches would have had for their audiences a humorous effect that is somewhat diluted now.
Certainly the sets of characters that the collaborators cultivated regularly contained stock types that are readily recognizable. The Mikado in particular offers a typical roster of them, and it is worth reviewing the patterns they represent through the G & S canon.
A starting point is a romantic couple of some kind or another, but almost invariably a soprano and tenor (what else?); though in The Gondoliers there are two pairs of them (conveniently, a soprano-mezzo-tenor-baritone quartet). They may be in love from the start or fall in love along the way. The latter is the case with Yum-Yum, who is fairly typical also of the artlessly docile beloved. (Many of these were the roles that Leonora Braham created.) Docility can extend to fickleness (as with Patience, who shifts between Bunthorne and Grosvenor; or Rose Maybud in Ruddigore); though Elsie Maynard in Yeomen of the Guard starts out paired with the patter-comedian but ends up with the tenor hero. There are even cases of sopranos less then bubble-headed and having some personality (Princess Ida) and even showing some spunk (Josephine in Pinafore, or Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance). Even Yum-Yum has some moments of initiative. (Though Elsie Griffin set a certain standard in the Braham roles for some years, the D’Oyly Carte casts have not been strong on vocally satisfying lead sopranos.)
The tenor leads, in the manner of their tribe, are not likely to be very bright either-though it might be said that Colonel Fairfax in Yeoman has a certain strength to him, and takes the soprano away from the hapless comedian. But there is at least one case of the reverse (Richard Dauntless in Ruddigore): the tenor is a romantic suitor, but loses out to the patter/comedian. And in Grosvenor (Patience) we have the tenor as an effective caricature (of Swinburne). The leading company tenors over the decades have been Derek Oldham, Leonard Osborn, and Thomas Round
Among lesser female characters (friends, confidantes, etc.) there are often mezzo roles that step beyond incidental importance and become serious personalities, whether silly or reasonably sympathetic. These were the roles that Jessie Bond created, moving from the modest Edith in Pirates and Lady Angela in Patience to such levels as Melissa in Princess Ida and Pitti-Sing in Mikado; though her finest opportunities came as three suffering ladies, Iolanthe herself, Mad Margaret in Ruddigore, and Phoebe in Yeomen, while in Gondoliers she became Tessa, one of the two female romantic leads. Sadly, the D’Oyly Carte Company has had in its rosters over the years few exponents of these roles who stood out as Bond did.
But the juiciest female character-type in G & S is surely the love-starved contralto. Katisha is only the supreme example of the type, which is present in virtually every operetta: Lady Sangazure (Sorcerer), Little Buttercup (Pinafore), Ruth (Pirates), Lady Jane (Patience), the Fairy Queen (Iolanthe), Dame Carruthers (Yeomen), Lady Sophy (Utopia Limited), and the Baroness von Krakenfeldt (The Grand Duke). It might be said that Ruddigore has two of them, if you include Mad Margaret, but Dame Hannah is the proper example there. Variants display the hunger for power, not love (Lady Blanche in Ida), or a frank glorying in power (the Duchess of Plaza-Toro in Gondoliers). In many cases the contralto gets the patter/comedian at the end, as with Katisha and Ko-Ko, though sometimes she gets a baritone (Buttercup, Carruthers; and, by implication, Ruth) or a bass (Ruddigore). Though sometimes grotesque (with their ageing cruelly emphasized), these characters could often reveal a tenderly vulnerable side that can make them unexpectedly sympathetic: Katisha’s extremes are the perfect case in point. Three of these roles (Ruth, Lady Jane, Fairy Queen) were memorably created by Alice Barnett, but the rest were first sung by Rosina Brandram, the loyal and dependable Savoyard who became fully identified with the type. In subsequent years, the leading exponents of that type for the company were Bertha Lewis, and Ann Drummond-Grant, plus, on a less exalted level, Ella Halman.
Among the male characters, surely the most typical G & S type is the one described by Anna Russell as “the funny little man who sings the patter-songs”, and normally in baritone range. The type was first intended for the composer’s brother, Fred Sullivan, who was the Learned Judge in Trial by Jury. But thereafter this kind of role was virtually built around the professional comedian and singer George Grossmith, who created, with the exception of two (Major-General Stanley in Pirates, the Duke of Plaza-Toro in Gondoliers), all the others (John Wellington Wells in Sorcerer; Sir Joseph Porter in Pinafore; Bunthorne in Patience; the Lord Chancellor in Iolanthe; King Gama in Ida; Ko-Ko in Mikado; Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd in Ruddigore; Jack Point in Yeomen). Almost invariably, this character-type is the particular focus of the operetta’s humor and absurdity; though there might be an intent to caricature an actual personality, as with Sir Joseph in Pinafore, certainly Bunthorne in Patience (as a spoof of Wilde), and even (as a self-caricature of Gilbert) King Gama in Ida; or, with Oak-apple/Ruthven Murgatroyd in Ruddigore, the modified type is a frustrated romantic who actually wins the girl at the end. And, in a late case (Jack Point in Yeomen), this character is a hapless looser who “expires” at the final curtain in a kind of tragicomic touch. Of course, this character is not always the only one who sings patter, but it is his particular characteristic. After Grossmith, these roles became identified in D’Oyly Carte assignments successively with Henry Lytton, Martyn Green, Peter Pratt, and John Reed; George Baker became famous for them in recordings but never sang with the D’Oyly Carte Company itself. Note, how-ever, that this character type seems to disappear in the last two operettas, or is dissolved into more diverse types in their casts.
Lower-voice males vary in character qualities. Baritones are often mildly comic figures in their own right (Dr. Daly and Sir Marmaduke Poindextre in Sorcerer; Captain Corcoran in Pinafore; the Police Sergeant in Pirates; Colonel Calverley in Patience; Earl Mountararat and Private Willis in Iolanthe; King Hildebrand in Ida; Sir Despard Murgatroyd in Ruddigore; Sergeant Meryll in Yeomen). But they can assume a truly commanding status in the extravagantly pompous Pooh-Bah, even melting into the ardent Giuseppe into the quartet of lovers, then as King Paramount in Utopia and as Ludwig in The Grand Duke, effectively replacing the patter-comedian as the dominant figure; though Tarara (Utopia) and Grand Duke Rudolph, both created by Walter Passmore also should be noted. (Strephon in Iolanthe might fall into this category, since he was first sung by Temple, though he is actually a light-baritone romantic lead.) Almost all of these roles were created either by Richard Temple or Rutland Barrington-the two singers longest identified with the work of Gilbert and Sullivan. Their roles were passed on to such stalwart Savoyards as Leo Sheffield, Sydney Granville, Richard Watson, Leslie Rands, Alan Styler, and Kenneth Sandford.
Sometimes overlapping the preceding vocal category was that of bass or bass-baritone, sometimes reserved for particularly bi-zarre (or bizarrely authoritarian) types (Dick Deadeye in Pinafore; the Pirate King in Pirates; the Mikado; Sir Roderic Murgatroyd in Ruddigore; Wilfred Shadbolt in Yeomen; the Grand Inquisitor, Don Alhambra del Bolero, in Gondoliers). Most of these parts were originated by Richard Temple. His most important heirs in the company have been Darrell Fancourt and Donald Adams.
It is easy, of course, to exaggerate the prominence of stock characters and stereotypes in G & S. Such are features of a great deal of theatrical literature, going back to the Roman comedy (and its predecessor, Greek New Comedy), which influence the shaping of comic theater from the Renaissance to our times (and not excluding TV sitcoms). In their G & S manifestations, these characteristics are given life through Gilbert’s verbal wit, plus added assistance from Sullivan’s musical emphases. The key to performing G & S is revealed in the quotation from Gilbert given at the head of this section. What is interesting is that this was delivered in relation to one of Gilbert’s plays rather than to any of the operettas-which only demonstrates that those operettas were stylistically of a piece with the broader context of Victorian stage farce, burlesque, and satire. The essence of all such comedy is that the characters on stage must be seen always to take what is going on with full seriousness. That the G & S operettas are virtually the only survivors of that idiom speaks to the quality of the collaboration, creating works both of a time and timeless.
Part of their success resulted from the traditions of performance established by Gilbert himself, not only as writer, but as stage director. Gilbert was notorious as a martinet in dealing with his cast, and his insistence upon having his way could even lead to physical violence early in his career. But if Gilbert was used to driving his players hard, he got to know them well-especially as the Savoy troupe developed-allowing him to utilize their talents skillfully while being their advocate in tensions with the management. Gilbert was, too, a pioneer in the practice of constructing miniature models of his sets before each production, so that he could master every detail of movement and stage effect. His last stage manager, J. M. Gordon, was no less a despot than Gilbert himself, and supervised the D’Oyly Carte operetta productions for decades, insisting that not the slightest detail of Gilbert’s stagings be changed. Nevertheless, the success of the operettas for over a century of D’Oyly Carte Opera Company productions was based on more than slavish imitation; it was also a matter of stylistic spirit, and it was this legacy that was Gilbert’s final gift.
Insufficiently appreciated nowadays is Sullivan’s musical contribution to the operettas’ success. He, too, settled into stereotypes, but he handled them as brilliantly as Gilbert did his. He was by instinct a fine melodist, and this shows in all his compositions. He had a strong feeling for dance rhythms and characteristics, and that shows in separate orchestral segments as well as in vocal numbers. But his melodic writing for the operettas found him at his best, above all, for the simple reason that he had the exceptional words of Gilbert to set. It was Sullivan’s practice, as he addressed one of Gilbert’s lyrics, to speak the lines over and over again to himself, getting their rhythms set in his mind with all their shapes and potential inflections, and out of that exercise to develop the melodies to go with them. Nor did he hesitate to go back to Gilbert and ask for modifications in the words when they required improved inspiration. As a result, Sullivan could invariably cloak Gilbert’s words in just the right musical dress.
The overall layout of the G & S operettas naturally followed a kind of generic pattern-one that can be traced back to the German Singspiel (or play with musical numbers) and that still survives in most Broadway musicals. A framing is provided by an overture (normally just a medley of the shows best tunes), at one end, and, at the end of each act, providing dramatic climax, is a finale, often with several subdivisions, and sometimes of near operatic substance. Within such framing came the individual numbers, interspersed in the spoken (acted) dialogue. Gilbert’s verses dictated some aspects of musical forms, though the two worked out a great deal jointly. The solo numbers-especially those of romantic, reflective, or narrative function-are in the style of ballads, usually in two stanzas, and sometimes with a folk or music-hall tone. Taking cues from operatic models, often with direct parody in mind, ensembles could be more highly structured. Sullivan’s background in church music gave him the basis for using the chorus with sometimes remarkable power, as in Yeomen of the Guard. At least at one point, in “Hail poetry!” from The Pirates of Penzance, he has the chorus stop everything with a mo-ment of unaccompanied singing whose ecstatic beauty is meant to be funny at one level, but must be appreciated as undeniably powerful. And in Utopia Limited, he gives the chorus an a cap-pella section, “Eagle high”, that is a veritable Anglican anthem.
Sullivan’s command of counterpoint allowed him a recurrent device of simultaneously musical and dramatic effect: individual soloists or choral groups would each deliver a distinct tune in turn, then put them all together in a wonderfully telling combination. A prime example of this is the trio, “I am so proud” in Mikado. Another familiar example is the scene in Act II of Pirates pitting the timid Policemen against Mabel and her girls; but there are splendid examples of this in many of the operettas, notably twice in Yeomen. A refinement of this technique is demonstrated in two instances of ensembles in which a basic melodic pattern is followed, out of which and then back into which individual singers step in turn. This kind of thing was first tried in the duet “Welcome joy” in Act I of The Sorcerer, but it reached its most marvelous perfection in the quartet “In a contemplative fashion” in Act II of The Gondoliers. (Benjamin Britten imitated this technique unashamedly in one ensemble in his Albert Herring.)
The collaborators’ love for parody was regularly conveyed in Sullivan’s music, with Italian opera as a particular target, as noted. Also mentioned was Sullivan’s clever spoofing of Handel’s Baroque recitative style or florid display idiom. In Mikado, too, we note his subtle musical quotations, as from Bach. His sense of parody could be quite creative, as in the echo of Schubert in the ballad, “Sighing softly to the river”, in Act II of Pirates, directly imitating Schubert’s partsongs for male voices. Indeed, Sullivan even quotes directly the theme of Schubert’s song Der Wanderer in the choral entry of the family ghosts in Act II of Ruddigore. Also creative was Sullivan’s delight in pseudo-archaic touches, most notably the “madrigals” that he so frequently inserted into many of the operettas (with Gilbert’s collaboration). The ancestor is the glee-like partsong for the sailors, “A British tar is a soaring soul” in Act I of Pinafore. The prime example, “Brightly dawns our wedding day” in Mikado, has already been commented upon in the Glossary above. There is a veritably sublime one (“Strange adventure”) in Act II of Yeomen, a particularly grand one (involving chorus and orchestra as well as soloists) in Act II of Ruddigore (“When the buds are blossoming”). In this line also is the veritably Mozartean quintet, “Try we lifelong” in Act I of Gondoliers, while the same work’s Act II contains another quintet, “I am a courtier grave and serious” which is cast in one of Sullivan’s favorite old-fashioned dance idioms, the gavotte.
Sullivan’s scores have often been criticized for their seemingly bland and banal orchestral scorings-prompting recurrent efforts at “improvement”, both within the D’Oyly Carte (e.g., Geoffrey Toye’s 1920 overhauling of Ruddigore) and beyond (the hideous perversion of the instrumentation for Joseph Papp’s popular 1980 production of Pirates). But, in fairness, Sullivan was obliged to work with a fairly standard pit orchestra of his day, expanded very slightly along the way under his pressure. Within its confines, however, he managed to achieve quite a lot, with excellent use of individual instrumental solos or obbligatos, and sometimes with veritably Wagnerian power (for all his limits) in the ghostly music for Ruddigore, for examples. Indeed, close attention to Sullivan’s instrumentation throughout the operettas will often yield surprising points meriting admiration.
One of Sullivan’s recourses to contemporaneous practice was with regard to the Overtures for his operettas (two of which, Trial and Utopia, have none). Just as with those heard in Broadway shows today, they were expected to be pleasing potpourris of main tunes in the work to follow. Following Rossini’s waggish advice that the composer should write the overture only at the last minute, on the night before the opening, Sullivan usually did just that. There remains debate about some specifics, but it seems that he personally composed only some of them, usually identified as those for Patience, Iolanthe, Princess Ida, Yeomen, Gondoliers, and The Grand Duke. Certainly in other cases Sullivan deemed the task not worth his time (if he had any), and so he would sketch out to some extent the tunes to be used and leave it to one of the assistants with whom he regularly worked to assemble the final confection and orchestrate it. Thus, the Overtures to Pinafore and Pirates are credited to Alfred Cellier, and Hamilton Clarke apparently prepared that for Mikado; while that for Sorcerer is ascribed to either (or both) of these two men. With some help from assistants and copyists, however, the scoring for the actual numbers of each operetta was done by Sullivan himself.
When all analyses and expositions are over, however, it is the results that matter. That the G & S operettas can go on delighting their audiences , for more than a century, is proof of the genius of their creators, two collaborators who were as perfectly matched as any combination in all of music. At the moment, we worry about the fashion changes in taste. It was not so long ago, when this writer was young, that performances-professional or amateur-of these operettas (above all, of the “big three”: Pinafore, Pirates, Mikado) were everywhere, in commercial theaters, in amateur playhouses, in church basements, in school auditoriums. Nowadays, the blitz of mass culture and the breakdowns in cultural education have given us a generation or two of audiences who either have never had any encounter with Gilbert and Sullivan, and are terrified at the thought of anything “old” or the least bit “operatic”. All it takes, of course, is an honest production, and a G & S operetta will win over its house. It would be a tragedy if we were to let go of these priceless treasures of English-language lyric theater. To do so would be to lose a part of our humanity itself.
John W. Barker