Decorated initial T

his book appears in what is primarily a literary series, rather than Ashgate’s nineteenthcentury British music series. The emphasis, therefore, falls predictably on W. S. Gilbert, even though these comic operas were written with Arthur Sullivan as an equally creative partner. Regina Oost explains that her intention in this study is ‘to examine the Savoy operas in the context of their production and performance’ (p. 3), which means paying due attention to ticket pricing, audience demographics, programmes, and advertising. The author situates the G & S productions in the competitive world of London theatre, and examines D’Oyly Carte’s strategies for attracting audiences. A picture is painted of rival entrepreneurs, all seeking the profit they desperately need to ensure their theatre’s survival.

A key question is how these comic operas achieved their status. Oost’s comment that they were ‘considered classics a few short years after their premières’ is probably overstating the case. Whatever it felt like for Gilbert, there was no doubt that Sullivan was acutely aware that some critics thought he had embarked on a downward course. A reviewer in The World remarked of the premiere of The Sorcerer (1877): ‘It was hoped that he would soar with Mendelssohn, whereas he is, it seems, content to sink with Offenbach.’ The next comic opera, H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), may have been a success with the audience, but was slammed in the press as undistinguished, disappointing, and feeble. Sullivan was to encounter such accusations often in the succeeding years, and they coloured the reception of these operas for many years in Britain. As president of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society at the University of Hull in the early 1970s, I remember just how second-rate these stage works were considered to be by the Department of Music. It is remarkable how much more status G & S have always been accorded in the USA.

The novelty in Oost’s approach is that she explores reasons for their success other than the quality of the music and libretto, and points, in particular, to the importance of Carte’s establishing a ‘house brand’. Carte, Gilbert, and Sullivan, she claims, all shared a ‘sophisticated consumerist outlook’ (p. 6). Carte had a talent for publicity, placing advance notices of productions, ensuring sheet music was available as soon as the premiere was over, and so forth.

The first chapter asks who were the audiences for G & S, and what were their expectations. Among the tactics for ensuring upper- and middle-class London playgoers had a sense of exclusivity were high pricing for tickets, commencing performances before the typical working day ended, and making the purchase of tickets inconvenient (by putting them on sale during the working day, or requiring them to be ordered by letter). Oost remarks that Carte’s pricing indicated his desire to attract a similar kind of audience to that found in the more exclusive West End theatres. The cheapest seats Carte offered at the Opera Comique and, later, at the Savoy Theatre, were those in the gallery at one shilling. Oost does not offer a comparison with music halls, but one shilling would have bought a seat in the stalls at a West End hall. It was not common for a working-class person to lash out on a shilling seat, but it was not completely out of the question. There is frustratingly little evidence, however, regarding working-class attendance at the Savoy operas. The adverts in the programmes clearly target middle-class consumers.

Chapter 2 examines advance publicity: advertisements, flyers, press releases, and letters to editors. Examples of Carte’s promotional energy are the simultaneous productions by touring companies that he mounted in the provinces, and his decision to take H.M.S. Pinafore to New York in 1879. The prominence with which the names Gilbert and Sullivan appeared on Carte’s notices was unusual in the late 1870s. Carte was at pains to contrast the ‘pure and wholesome’ satire of H.M.S. Pinafore with the ‘questionable character’ of ope¤ra-bouffe. Oost has no difficulty explaining Carte’s carefully chosen words. When, however, we read Jessie Bond’s comment that the music was ‘thoroughly English’, there is no interrogation of that description. What does it include and exclude? Presumably, Bond recognized non- English influences on Sullivan’s music— the Italianate character of The Gondoliers, for instance. But did she regard it as English when the influence was Handel, as at the Learned Judge’s entrance in Trial by Jury that Oost refers to in chapter 4? The point of the musical reminiscence, of course, is that Sullivan is employing old-fashioned fugal writing to connote someone who is elderly and pedantic.

Chapter 3 looks at the libretti and the programmes that Carte provided inside the theatre. The former were to be paid for, the latter were free at the Savoy, although the more lavish ‘souvenir programmes’ were handed out only to those in the more expensive seats (stalls, dress circle, and boxes). An interesting innovation was to have an advertisement in the programme that related to the opera being performed. Liberty, for example, advertised the fact that the dresses worn in Patience were made from their ‘art fabrics’. Musical arrangements of numbers from the opera were also advertised in the programmes, and Gilbert’s libretto would be on sale inside the theatre.

The treatment of class in The Sorcerer and H.M.S. Pinafore is subtly and perceptively analysed in chapter 4. The discussion of nationalism in Pinafore I found less convincing. Singing about being English ‘in spite of all temptations to belong to other nations’ is surely ridiculous; and, at the end of the song ‘He is an Englishman’, the long melisma on the ‘Eng’ of ‘Englishman’ rings out as if it were laughter. Moreover, the tune’s resemblance to the folksong ‘Ward the Pirate’ adds to the satire. I find this song no more celebratory of nationalism than ‘When Britain really ruled the waves’ is celebratory of the House of Lords. Nevertheless, it is not untypically English to laugh at satire and learn nothing.

Chapters 4 and 5 ‘consider the libretti and performances as they evoked the discourse of modern commodity culture to confirm audience members’attitudes toward respectability, rank, and the social status quo’ (p. 11). But do they? Is rank held up for admiration in The Gondoliers despite its satire of egalitarianism? The Duke of Plaza-Toro lampoons the people who purchase titles from him: ‘Small titles and orders for Mayors and Recorders I get— and they’re highly delighted.’ Is the social status quo reinforced by songs like ‘Blue blood’ and ‘When all night long’ from Iolanthe? It all raises the question of how complicit Gilbert and Sullivan were with their audience’s values and prejudices. Following the first night of Iolanthe, Gilbert found it necessary to remove a song about a pickpocket after he was accused of ‘bitterly aggressive politics’. This incident tells us more about an audience’s power to reject what it doesn’t want than it does about Gilbert’s confident ability to predict the audience’s wishes.

Chapter 5 contains a fascinating study of the ways in which these operas whet the audience’s appetite for consumer goods, whether in the costumes worn by characters or the commodities referred to in lyrics. Commercial metaphors abound. This chapter also discusses how language functions ‘as guarantor and guardian of social position’ (p. 117), although Oost argues convincingly for Gilbert’s dislike of snobbery. The conclusion in this chapter that Englishness is equated with the middle class parallels Ralph Waldo Emerson’s opinions in English Traits (and continued to inform American attitudes to the English for many years— the sitcom Frasier parodies this notion of Englishness in the behaviour of the eponymous character and his brother Niles). The most striking argument here is that The Grand Duke proved a relative failure because it ‘failed to show audience members a society in which the middle class deserved to prosper due to good will, good sense, and good habits’ (p. 130). Oost develops her thoughts in chapter 6 about a family likeness shared by the operas and how this helped to encourage patronage. It was a key factor in allowing people to conceive of Gilbert and Sullivan as establishing a tradition, and this was something Carte himself was keen to emphasize in the 1880s. One way of doing this was by including illustrations of one opera in the programme of another, reminding the reader of a Gilbert and Sullivan repertory. Music is touched on (p. 148), quoting Alexander Mackenzie’s remark that the music of Pinafore would ‘likely pass into our English folk-music, if it has not already done so’. Such a judgement would have infuriated the folksong collectors of the period, so it stands in need of elucidation.

It’s a pity, when we’ve grown so accustomed to believing we are living in an interdisciplinary age, that not a single musicologist is cited in this study. I’m at a loss to know why the musical dimension is so neglected. In the past dozen years or more, musicologists have been as interested in the contexts of production and performance as their colleagues in literary studies. So, what is missing in this survey? We are never told how the music plays a part in catering to the tastes of the audience. A quick example: when Ko-Ko makes his first entrance in The Mikado singing ‘Taken from the county jail’, the harmony is markedly that of popular musical entertainment (tonic chord with added 6th), not of high culture. But there is so much else to consider. How were Gilbert and Sullivan adapting and reworking Continental operetta by Offenbach, Lecocq, Strauss, and others? What was it they brought to operatic entertainment that was new— the slowed down Viennese waltz for Buttercup in Pinafore, for instance— and what does that tell us about markets and consumer taste? What about those instances when Sullivan parodies the music of serious opera? What does he assume his audience knows, and how does this add to our knowledge of that audience?

The book’s arguments are informed by archival research in the British Library, Pierpont Morgan Library, and the Victoria and Albert Theatre Museum. The author has scrutinized playbills and combed through countless letters of Gilbert, Sullivan, and Carte to uncover a multitude of details that throw interesting light on her project. As a sustained exploration of these stage works in the context of nineteenth-century consumerism it has no rivals and is to be recommended for the insights it provides into the relationship of art and commerce.


Oost, Regina B. Gilbert and Sullivan: Class and the Savoy Tradition, 1875-1896. pp. 168. The Nineteenth Century. Ashgate, Farnham and Burlington, Vt. 2009. ISBN 978-0-7546-6412-3.

Last modified 1 March 2017