Often associated with his musical collaborator, the composer Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan, Sir William Schwenck Gilbert was a dramatist, published poet, and satirist before composing the lyrics for the operettas that have immortalized his name. Born in London on 18 November 1836, the son of a retired naval surgeon, he traveled with his parents throughout Europe, and at the age of two was kidnapped and held for ransom by Italian bandits. Returning with his family (which included three sisters) to London in 1849, he studied first at the Great Ealing School and then at King's College, but decided upon a career in the military as an artillery officer rather than continue studies at Oxford. However, just as he finished his military training the Crimean War ended, and he found employment as a clerk of the Privy Council at the Educational Department (1857 to 1864).

An inheritance of 400 enabled him to study law. Although called to the bar in 1866, he could not attract enough wealthy clients to succeed financially, and switched to humorous freelance writing, making significant contributions to the magazines Punch and Fun from 1861. In 1869, his various "Bab Ballads" were collected. His first professionally produced play was Uncle Baby, which débuted at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, London, on 31 October 1863, and ran for seven weeks. Other light satirical works for the popular stage include the Christmas pantomime Hush-a-By-Baby (1866) and burlesques Dulcemara, or The Little Duck and The Great Quack (1866) and Pygmalion and Galatea, one of seven new Gilbert plays staged in 1871.

The twenty-five-year partnership with Arthur Sullivan actually began in 1871, when the librettist and composer collaborated on Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old, which premiered on 23 December. They scored their first big hit some four years later with Trial By Jury, which under the able management of Richard D'Oyly Carte débuted at the Royalty Theatre, London, on 25 March 1875, originally conceived of as a companion piece for Jacque Offenbach's comic opera La Perichole. The story is apocryphally told of how the death of Gilbert's composer necessitated the hiring of another, and so D'Oyly arranged for the pair to meet; two weeks later the operetta was ready for rehearsal (in fact, they first met in the autumn of 1870 and produced Palace of Truth together that November). Their next three works -- The Sorcerer (1877), H. M. S. Pinafore (1878), and The Pirates Penzance (1879)--were performed at the Opéra Comique. However, in 1881 their manager built the new Savoy Theatre especially for G & S productions. Of eleven dramatic works which Gilbert wrote during the 1880s, seven were scored by Sullivan. The quarrel that eventually destroyed the nineteenth-century theatre's most effective partnership began when Gilbert voiced his concern about the excessive cost of the carpets for the new playhouse. The rift continued unabated until 1893, after which they collaborated on only two significant works: Utopia, Limited (7 October 1893) and The Grand Duke (7 March 1896). After Sullivan's death on 22 November 1900, Gilbert teamed up with Edward German to produce the less-than-memorable Fallen Fairies (1909), an adaptation of The Wicked World. Knighted by Edward VII in 1907, Gilbert died four years later when, aged 74, he attempted to rescue a drowning woman. Despite the continuing popularity and calibre of his work, Gilbert's verse does not usually appear in anthologies of nineteenth-century British verse, the exception being Lionel Trilling and Harold Bloom's Victorian Prose and Poetry (Oxford, 1973), which features under "Poetry of the Nineties" Bunthorne's song, "The Aesthete," from Patience.

References

The Best of Gilbert and Sullivan. EMI Classics. EMI Records, 1987, 2000.

Chambers Biographical Dictionary, ed. Una McGovern and Melanie Perry. Edinburgh: Chambers Harrap, 2003.

The Complete Plays of Gilbert and Sullivan. The Modern Library. New York: Random House, 1936.

Crowther, Andrew."The Life of W. S. Gilbert."Gilbert and Sullivan Archive. http://math.boisestate.edu/gas/html/gilbert_1.html.

Gilbert, W. S. The Bab Ballads, ed. James Ellis. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap and Harvard U. P., 1970.

Jones, John Bush. W. S. Gilbert: A Century of Scholarship and Commentary. New York: New York U. P., 1970.

Terpening, William."Sir William Schwenck Gilbert: A Bibliography."


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26 July 2004