The most talented librettist and lyricist for the 19th-century English-language theatre: W. S. Gilbert

Kurt Gänzl
The Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre
1 January, 2001

William Schwenk Gilbert (b London, 18 November 1836; d Harrow Weald, 29 May 1911).  The most talented librettist and lyricist for—and, as one half of the show-writing tandem Gilbert and Sullivan, the modern flagbearer of—the 19th-century English-language theatre. Originally destined for a legal career, Gilbert swiftly abandoned the law to take up writing. The most effective of his earliest work, mostly published in humorous magazines such as Fun, was in the form of comic verses, and some of these, written under the pseudonym of `Bab’, brought him particular renown. They were subsequently collected into book form in 1869 under the title The Bab Ballads.

W. S. Gilbert in an official portrait.

W. S. Gilbert in an official portrait.

Gilbert began writing for the theatre in his twenties, making his début with the short play, Hush a Bye, produced by the eccentric W H C Nation at Astley’s Theatre, but he won his first real success in the realm of burlesque. His Dulcamara (1866), a burlesque of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore, La Vivandière (1867), which took the same composer’s La Fille du régiment as its basis, a Bohemian Girl parody called The Merry Zingara, the Gaiety Theatre’s opening burlesque of Meyerbeer’s Robert the Devil (1868), a Norma burlesque called The Pretty Druidess (1869) and The Princess (1870),a burlesque based not, for once, on an opera but on Tennyson’s poem of the same title, all won notice as particularly intelligently made and classy examples of an often ill-treated genre.
By the time he abandoned the pasticcio burlesque, Gilbert had already begun to branch out in different areas. In 1869 he had considerable success with some short comic operettas written for the German Reeds’ Gallery of Illustration, and the following year he scored a hit with the play The Palace of Truth. This was followed by other plays equally as successful, mostly based on whimsical or supernatural notions, and including Pygmalion and Galatea (1871) and The Wicked World (1873), a piece which — under the pseudonym of `F Latour Tomline’ — he also used as the basis for a burlesque The Happy Land. The Happy Land won him a different kind of notice — it was stopped in mid-performance by a detective and banned by the Lord Chamberlain, allegedly for including in its staged version 18 pages of interpolations not in the approved script, but in reality for its ridiculing of government and the representation of Mr Gladstone on the parody stage.
On the musical comedy front, his No Cards, Ages Ago, Our Island Home, A Sensation Novel and Happy Arcadia all proved highly popular at the little `drawing room entertainment’ purveyed by the Reed family and their friends, and, while they prospered, Gilbert made his first venture with a full-length musical play: a piece based on the theatrically-popular theory of metempsychosis, The Gentleman in Black, set to music by his preferred collaborator Frederic Clay. The Gentleman in Black, which held the seeds of many of the topsy-turvy ideas that Gilbert would later use repeatedly in his more famous works, played for only 26 performances, but another, shorter piece in a similar vein, Creatures of Impulse, won a number of further productions, both with and without its Randegger score.

Gilbert returned to the area of burlesque and extravaganza when he was commissioned to write a Christmas entertainment for the Gaiety Theatre. On this occasion, he was paired with the white hope of the light musical theatre, the young Arthur Sullivan, as his composer, and their joint effort, a jolly festive `grotesque opera’ called Thespis served the Gaiety’s purposes more than adequately.
The author and composer were paired again when they produced a 1-act curtain-raiser, Trial By Jury, for Selina Dolaro’s La Périchole company, but when the actress/manager Kate Santley commissioned a full-length comic opera from Gilbert, it was to his old collaborator of the Gallery of Illustration and The Gentleman in Black, Freddie Clay, that he turned for music. In spite of the special wit of some of its text and the charm of its score, the production of Princess Toto, dogged by backstage problems, was only a half-success.
The author’s next commission came from the former company manager of the Selina Dolaro company, Richard D’Oyly Carte, and he reconstituted the Gilbert/Sullivan partnership for the occasion. The resulting piece, The Sorcerer, set in motion the phenomenon which would become `the Savoy operas’. The success of the witty and whimsical English version of the opéra-bouffe form in which Gilbert excelled, and of which The Sorcerer was his best example to date, was confirmed with wild international success by its successor, HMS Pinafore, as manager Carte, author Gilbert and composer Sullivan set forth on a decade of work together which was to become one of the wonders of the theatrical world. Together, they produced, first for the old Opera Comique and then for the Savoy Theatre built by D’Oyly Carte to house his productions, The Pirates of Penzance, Patience, Iolanthe, Princess Ida (a remake of The Princess), The Mikado, Ruddigore, The Yeomen of the Guard and The Gondoliers, each of which followed its London run by an international career of greater or, just occasionally, lesser dimensions.
After The Gondoliers, the tensions which had grown up among the trio resulted in Gilbert breaking with the other two members of the team. He continued, however, to write for the musical stage and combined, with only some success, with Alfred Cellier on The Mountebanks and with very little with George Grossmith on a musical version of his old adaptation of Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie under the title Haste to the Wedding, before the breach at the Savoy was pasted over. He rejoined Sullivan — who had been no more successful away from him — for two final pieces, Utopia (Limited) and The Grand Duke. Neither reached the level of the earlier Savoy pieces, and, after the comparative failure of The Grand Duke, the collaboration was put to rest.
Gilbert subsequently wrote a libretto and lyrics worthy of his heyer-days for the comic opera His Excellency (1894), set to music by Osmond Carr, the play The Fairies’ Dilemma (1904), and an unsuccessful musical adaptation of his The Wicked World composed by Edward German under the title Fallen Fairies, but he was unable to find a producer for his last musical in a world which had moved well away from the style of Victorian comic opera in which he had made his name.

In later years, Gilbert’s 1877 comedy Engaged was set several times to music by other hands. In 1925 a version by Brian Hooker, set with a pasticcio score was producedat New York’s 52nd Street Theater (18 June), and in 1962 Britain’s Theatre Royal, Windsor put out a version which decorated Gilbert’s play with a pasticcio of melodies taken from the just-out-of-copyright Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas. The Wicked World already auto-disembowelled for The Happy Land was again burlesqued by Owen Marlowe’s Comedy Company at Hooley’s Theatre, Brooklyn in 1874 (5 January) in a version by local writer William C Hudson, and a localised version of The Happy Land was played by Tony Pastor as [H B S] Venus in May 1879 and again in June 1882. The Wedding March (Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie) was also re-musicalised, at Chicago’s Bush Temple in June 1906. This ‘americanised version’ which ‘Mr Gilbert wouldn’t have owned if he had been here and recognised it’ featured ‘a row of girls in short dresses .. a waltz song about a local amusement resort .. and such ditties as ‘I Was Just Making Believe’ and ‘One Boy in the World for Me’.
1866 Dulcamara, or the Little Duck and the Great Quack (pasticcio arr van Hamme) St James’s Theatre 29 December

1867 La Vivandière, or True to the Corps (pasticcio arr Ferdinand Wallerstein) St James’s Hall, Liverpool 15 June; Queen’s Theatre, London 22 January 1868

1868 The Merry Zingara, or the Tipsy Gipsy and the Pipsy Wipsy (pasticcio) Royalty Theatre 21 March

1868 Robert the Devil, or the Nun, the Dun and the Son of a Gun (pasticcio arr Kettenus) Gaiety Theatre 21 December

1869 The Pretty Druidess, or the Mother, the Maid and the Mistletoe Bough (pasticcio) Charing Cross Theatre 19 June

1869 No Cards (Thomas German Reed) 1 act Gallery of Illustration 29 March

1869 Ages Ago (Frederic Clay) 1 act Gallery of Illustration 22 November

1870 The Princess (pasticcio arr John Winterbottom) Olympic Theatre 8 January

1870 The Gentleman in Black (Clay) Charing Cross Theatre 26 May

1870 Our Island Home (German Reed) 1 act Gallery of Illustration 20 June

1871 A Sensation(al) Novel (German Reed) 1 act Gallery of Illustration 30 January

1871 Creatures of Impulse (Alberto Randegger) Court Theatre 15 April

1871 Thespis, or the Gods Grown Old (Arthur Sullivan) Gaiety Theatre 26 December

1872 Happy Arcadia (Clay) Gallery of Illustration 28 October

1873 The Happy Land (pasticcio arr A E Bartle/w Gilbert a’Beckett) Court Theatre 3 March

1874 Topseyturveydom (Alfred Cellier) Criterion Theatre 21 March

1875 Trial By Jury (Sullivan) 1 act Royalty Theatre 25 March

1875 Eyes and No Eyes, or the Art of Seeing (German Reed) 1 act St George’s Hall 5 July

1876 Princess Toto (Clay) Theatre Royal, Nottingham 26 June; Strand Theatre, London 2 October

1877 The Sorcerer (Sullivan) Opera Comique 17 November

1878 H M S Pinafore (Sullivan) Opera Comique 25 May

1879 The Pirates of Penzance (Sullivan) Fifth Avenue Theatre, New York 31 December

1881 Patience (Sullivan) Opera Comique 23 April

1882 Iolanthe (Sullivan) Savoy Theatre 25 November

1884 Princess Ida (Sullivan) Savoy Theatre 5 January

1885 The Mikado (Sullivan) Savoy Theatre 14 March

1887 Ruddigore (Sullivan) Savoy Theatre 22 January

1888 The Yeomen of the Guard (Sullivan) Savoy Theatre 3 October

1889 The Brigands (Les Brigands) English version (Casino Theater, New York)

1889 The Gondoliers (Sullivan) Savoy Theatre 7 December

1892 The Mountebanks (Cellier) Lyric Theatre 4 January

1892 Haste to the Wedding (George Grossmith) Criterion Theatre 27 July

1893 Utopia (Limited) (Sullivan) Savoy Theatre 7 October

1894 His Excellency (F Osmond Carr) Lyric Theatre 27 October

1896 The Grand Duke (Sullivan) Savoy Theatre 7 March

1909 Fallen Fairies (Edward German) Savoy Theatre 15 December

Biographies: Browne, E: W S Gilbert (John Lane, London, 1907), Dark, S & Grey, R: William Schwenk Gilbert; His Life and Letters (Methuen, London, 1923), Pearson, H: Gilbert: His Life and Strife (Methuen, London, 1957), Sutton, M: W S Gilbert (Twayne, Boston, 1975), Cox-Ife, W: W S Gilbert: Stage Director (Dobson, London, 1977), Stedman, J: W S Gilbert; a Classic Victorian and his theatre (OUP, New York, 1996) etc.