A Life of W.S. Gilbert

by Andrew Crowther.

[This account is based on a version I wrote for the Introduction to Gilbertiana, a selection of Gilbert's writings. AJC.]

William Schwenck Gilbert was born in London on November 18, 1836, the son of William Gilbert (a retired naval surgeon) and Anne. He was the eldest child of the marriage, and within ten years had acquired three sisters.

The young Gilbert spent much of those first ten years of his life travelling round the Continent with his parents, and he seems to have received his first schooling in Boulogne. This must have given him a grounding in the French language invaluable to him in later years.

In 1846 the Gilberts settled back in England at last, and young Gilbert's education was able to go ahead in earnest. He attended the Western Grammar School in Brompton and Great Ealing School, then took a bachelor's degree at King's College, University of London. But the most important part of his education took place outside the official institutions.

Around this time Gilbert fell in love with the theatre. The Victorian period is still widely seen as a dead period in British drama, but this is a completely false impression. In fact this period saw an explosion in drama - not literary drama, but crude, disposable, lively drama, appealing to a broad audience. His first experience of theatre seems to have been at a pantomime - and indeed he later confessed that the pantomime characters awakened in his mind "the only recollection of unmixed pleasure associated with early childhood." In the 1840s and 1850s Gilbert became a regular playgoer: he saw Charles Kean in The Corsican Brothers; almost certainly he saw some of the elegant rhymed extravaganzas written by James Robinson Planché for the Haymarket Theatre; he saw melodramas and farces, and the combination of music, spectacle and broad comedy that was variously called burlesque or extravaganza. These were the kinds of drama which first besotted him, and their influence clearly extends through all his later work.

So, while still at school, he began to dream of making a career of the theatre. He tried to run away from home to become an actor; but the actor he ran away to, Charles Kean, happened to know Gilbert's father, so that project came to nothing. Still, Gilbert began to write plays, and he produced them at his school, with himself as director.

Even now, while still a schoolboy, Gilbert's character was beginning to show itself pretty clearly. A dominating character rather than a popular one; perhaps something of a bully; but redeeming these faults an irrepressible creativity. He could be charming, but there was always a sense of something cold and unapproachable within him. It is difficult not to see this as a legacy from his parents, who by all accounts were spiky, angry characters who could not easily show affection. Theirs was a stormy marriage, and they finally separated in 1876.

The late 1850s were an aimless period for Gilbert. Having passed his B.A. degree, he tried to get himself an officer's commission to fight in the Crimean War, but the war was over before he could take the necessary examination. He spent four years, from about 1857, working miserably as a Government clerk - "I was one of the worst bargains any Government ever made", he later said - and at the same time he was studying law in preparation for becoming a barrister. He was called to the Bar in 1863, but by that time he had already made the first decisive steps into writing professionally.

In 1861, he began contributing to a new comic periodical called Fun, edited by the burlesque-writer H.J. Byron. For it Gilbert wrote verse (fairly crude at this stage), filler paragraphs and other jokes, and he also contributed cartoons drawn in a precise, sometimes grotesque style that had in them at least the seeds of his more mature manner. The earlier drawings are signed "W.S.G.", but round about 1865 Gilbert started regularly to sign them "Bab", after a childhood nickname. And so, when in 1868 Gilbert published a selection of his verse (mostly illustrated), he naturally gave them the title The Bab Ballads. In these neat, precise and slightly insane verses, with their attractively ugly illustrations, the first notes of Gilbert's distinctive tone can be heard. The ballads are not so well known today, but they were regarded as comic classics well into this century, and they do have a strange charm.

The Bab Ballads were far from being Gilbert's only significant contributions to Fun. He wrote theatre reviews, then moving on to develop a way of reviewing plays by means of parody. These parody reviews are among the most sheerly funny examples of Gilbert's early work. He also wrote the occasional short story, usually rather like a Bab Ballad in prose.

One of Gilbert's colleagues on Fun was Tom Robertson, a jobbing playwright who suddenly leapt to fame in 1865 with the production at the Prince of Wales's Theatre of his comedy Society. This play soon came to be regarded as a milestone in Victorian drama because of its unusual realism in sets, costume, acting and dialogue. Robertson, who directed (or "stage-managed") his own plays, aimed to create an illusion of reality by getting rid of the unreal stylisation and bombast of the old melodramas. It is now disputed whether Robertson really originated many of his supposed innovations, but Society and its successors were certainly viewed at the time as something quite new and, in their quiet way, revolutionary: and one of the people on whom these plays had a profound effect was W.S. Gilbert. Gilbert's plays very rarely even attempted to be "realistic" in content, but Gilbert always insisted they be performed with Robertsonian realism.

Gilbert's first publicly performed play, Uncle Baby, appeared in 1863 and very quickly disappeared once more, to be quietly forgotten by everyone, including its author. Gilbert's real start as a dramatist came in 1866 when Tom Robertson recommended Gilbert to Miss Herbert, lessee of St. James's Theatre, as a man capable of writing a burlesque in a fortnight. The result was Dulcamara, a parodic version of the Donizetti opera L'Elisir d'Amore, written in rhyming couplets interspersed with lyrics written to well-known tunes. It was a fairly crude piece, warped with word-play, but it succeeded, and it made a name for Gilbert as someone who could write entertainingly in this form. He wrote four more such pieces for various theatres, but it soon became apparent that his talent was quickly outgrowing this restrictive form. His last rhymed burlesque was The Pretty Druidess in 1869; and six months later, in January 1870, he produced The Princess, an attempt to create a more serious kind of burlesque in blank verse. This paved the way for his "fairy comedies", each of which was more serious in intent than the last.

He wrote one-act farces; he wrote prose comedies and dramas; he translated French farces (and learned much from the experience); and at a little theatre calling itself the Gallery of Illustration he started writing short libretti with prose dialogue in which the recogniseable "Gilbertian" voice soon began to sound. This was a period of astonishing creativity: in this brief survey it is impossible even to begin to do justice to them all. His imagination was now working at its fullest extent, and his mature style was at last emerging - a combination of wit, irony, topsyturvydom, parody, observation, theatrical technique, and profound intelligence. In the theatre he had definitely found his métier, and it is not surprising that, amidst all the theatrical work he was doing, he could no longer find time to write for Fun. He stopped contributing to it in 1871, and returned to it in 1874 only briefly, to contribute a serialisation of his Shakespeare burlesque Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

His private life, too, matched this sudden coming to maturity. In 1867 he had married Lucy Agnes Turner - a woman eleven years younger than Gilbert, who though quiet-spoken in manner could also put her foot down when required. Their marriage lasted till Gilbert's death in 1911, and it seems to have been an ideal match. It was probably the happiest relationship Gilbert ever had.

With his literary abilities now fully grown, and with his business sense and determination to succeed, it is not surprising that he was becoming financially very well-off. By 1876 he and Lucy were able to afford a plum London residence at The Boltons in South Kensington. He was a well-known literary figure - it is tempting to add "respected", but perhaps his plays were too unusual, his manners too abrasive, for that word to be quite appropriate. He was certainly getting a reputation as a man to be feared, and the anecdotes of his arguments with stubborn actors (sometimes to the point of fisticuffs) were legion. But he was widely accepted to be the most original and "interesting" dramatist of his generation.

By 1876, another strand had appeared in his life - a strand which was to change his career completely. In 1871 he had collaborated with the composer Arthur Sullivan on a comic opera called Thespis. It had lasted a few months (a decent run but nothing spectacular) and had disappeared. Then, in 1875, an impresario called Richard D'Oyly Carte had brought the two together again to write a supporting piece for his production of Offenbach's La Périchole - and the result was the riotously successful Trial by Jury. In 1876, Gilbert was becoming involved in Carte's grandiose scheme for establishing a company to perform English operatic works, to start with a full-length comic opera written by Gilbert with Sullivan.

It was a risky experiment; but as it happened The Sorcerer, produced at the Opéra-Comique theatre in 1877, was a success, and in time a follow-up was wanted. Gilbert and Sullivan came up with H.M.S. Pinafore.

This was the opera which changed everything. Its success, in both Britain and the United States, was phenomenal. Its tunes were whistled and its catch-phrases repeated everywhere. The American "pirate" productions of the opera didn't give Gilbert, Sullivan or Carte a single penny, thanks to the absence of an international copyright law, but they did at least proclaim Gilbert and Sullivan to be an international phenomenon. From this moment the permanent linking of those two names became practically inevitable.

The rest of the story is very well known. In this brief account the merest outline of the rest will be sketched, with one or two significant moments emphasised.

Gilbert had insisted on "stage-managing" his own plays since the early 1870s, but he had never had such absolute command over what went on on the stage as he enjoyed with D'Oyly Carte's opera company, first at the Opéra-Comique and then at the theatre specially built for them, the Savoy, which opened in 1881. Carte gave him a solid repertory company employed specifically to perform his works, and he was the mind in overall control of actors, set, costume and production generally. Sullivan was a special case: of course he had his area of control in the realm of music: but he instinctively understood that the first requirement was that his music should not get in the way of the words. There was real collaboration and compromise between author and composer, but Gilbert was the dominant partner of the two. In short, D'Oyly Carte's opera company became, to an astonishing extent, W.S. Gilbert's opera company.

As for Carte himself, he frankly acknowledged that he was only the facilitator, the man with the money who allowed the operas to be created. But he began to resent Gilbert's assertion of control, and Gilbert's insinuations that Carte was reliant on Gilbert and Sullivan for all his money and was perhaps not entirely honest in his financial dealings. In 1883 the three signed a contract which bound Gilbert and Sullivan to provide Carte with a new opera at six months' notice - which sounds rather like Carte reasserting his position as the employer of the other two.

By now, definite strains were beginning to appear in the partnership. In 1884 Sullivan protested that he had come to the end of what he could do in his old style; and though his grievances were patched up and next year he produced with Gilbert The Mikado, the underlying problems remained. In 1889 he complained to Gilbert that his music was constantly being sacrificed to Gilbert's words: Gilbert finally mollified him by providing him with one of his most music-friendly libretti, The Gondoliers - but again the resentments were not dispersed.

The whole thing came to a head in 1890 with a financial dispute between Gilbert and Carte - the so-called "Carpet Quarrel". This is not the place to go into the complex details of the matter, but it may be surmised that the real reason why the quarrel devastated the partnership as it did was that resentments had been slowly building up between the three over a period of at least five years. Gilbert thought Carte was a swindling parasite; Carte thought Gilbert was taking too much control of the company; Sullivan thought Gilbert was disregarding his wishes. Carte may have been in the wrong over the narrow cause of the dispute; but of the three it is Gilbert who comes out worst. It may be that it was his desire to have effective control of D'Oyly Carte's opera company that was the major cause of the break-up.

When the dust had settled and tempers had calmed, the three men joined together once more and produced two final operas. But there was no trust between them any more, and this shows in the operas, which, despite their merits, are broken-backed affairs. The Gilbert and Sullivan story was over.

In 1890, Gilbert moved home one last time, and took up residence at Grim's Dyke. In 1897 he announced that he was retiring from the theatre, and though he did write a handful of last works, for the most part he held to his promise. In 1907 he was knighted by King Edward VII. On May 29th 1911, he went swimming in a lake in the grounds of Grim's Dyke, accompanied by two young women. Ruby Preece, the younger of the two, floundered out of her depth in the water, and Gilbert dived in to help her to shore. But Ruby quickly found her footing once more, only to discover that Gilbert had not resurfaced. He had died of a heart attack.

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