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Gilbert & Sullivan
Chapter 4 (1880-1900)
“Object All Sublime”
British musical theatre
before G&S
British audiences seemed content with
improbable plots, leggy showgirls, burlesque
and the operettas of Offenbach. The theatre
was ready for innovations led by producer
Richard D’Oyly Carte. He saw a performance
of THESPIS in 1871 that showed the possibility of
a new form for England’s musical stages…
…and in the 1870s – playwright William S. Gilbert and
composer Arthur Sullivan -- revolutionized the musical
theatre, creating a series of witty, melodic operettas
that set a new standard for stage professionalism.
Sullivan's music sparkled with fresh melody, and
Gilbert's librettos blended silliness and satire in settings
that ranged from pure fantasy to the utterly realistic.
Richard D'Oyly Carte publicized these shows as "light
operas", but by any name, they were musicals – some
of the finest the world would ever see in any
Richard D’Oyly Carte
Gaeity Theatre
Gilbert and Sullivan’s Thespis
(1871), was a mythological spoof
involving a theatrical troupe that
stumbles onto Mount Olympus
and trades places with the aging
Greek gods. Written and staged in
a frantic five weeks, Gilbert himself
later dismissed this show as "crude
and ineffective.” Yet, four years
later, when Carte needed a one-act
"curtain raiser" to share the bill
with his production of Offenbach's
La Perichole at London's Opera
Comique, he convinced G&S to
adapt one of Gilbert's satirical
Gilbert was an unsuccessful attorney before a series of
his illustrated comic poems were published in several
popular British magazines. This opened the way to a
successful career as a London playwright and
At the same time, Sullivan was winning acclaim as
Britain's most promising serious composer, but he was
quite willing to compose lighter pieces to cover the
expenses of the high-society lifestyle he craved.
Both men had written minor musical shows with other
collaborators, but neither expected that musical
theatre would be their key to lasting fame.
Innovations of Gilbert and Sullivan included the notion of TOPSY-TURVY…
Topsy - Turvy
Click for “Three Little Maids”
• Realistic costumes and settings
• Turned reality “on its ear” -or- topsy-turvy
• Unqualified men would rise to high public
• Disdain toward older women
• Heavy patter songs for the lead comedian
• Lyrics were creatively rhymed
Gilbert on poetry
• A whimsical letter written by W. S. Gilbert notes ‘a great
want’ among poets. ‘I should like to suggest,’ he says,
‘that any inventor who is in need of a name for his
invention, would confer a boon on the rhymsters, and at
the same time insure himself many gratuitous
advertisements, if he would select a word that rhymes to
one of the many words in common use, which have but
few rhymes or none at all. A few more words rhyming
with ‘love’ are greatly wanted; ‘revenge’ and ‘avenge’
have no rhyming word, except ‘Penge’ and
‘Stonehenge’; ‘coif’ has no rhyme at all; ‘starve’ has no
rhyme except (oh, irony!) ‘carve’; ‘scarf’ has no rhyme,
though I fully expect to be told that ‘laugh,’ ‘calf,’ and
‘half’ are admissible, which they certainly are not.’
Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900)
Notable credits
In 1861 he became organist of St. Michael’s, London, He wrote music to The Tempest (1862); Kenilworth cantata
(1864); a ballet, L’Île enchantée, produced at Covent Garden (where Sullivan was organist for a time); a symphony
and a cello concerto; the In Memoriam and the Overtura di Ballo overtures; and numerous songs.
First comic opera was Sir Francis Cowley Burnand’s Cox and Box (1867). An operetta, the Contrabandista, also on a
libretto by Burnand, was produced in the same year.
Thespis (1871), the first work in which Sullivan collaborated with Gilbert, met with little success when produced at the
Gaiety Theatre. It was Richard D’Oyly Carte, then manager of the Royalty Theatre, who brought the two men together
again in 1875; the result was Trial by Jury, which was originally put on as an afterpiece to an Offenbach operetta; it
won instant popularity and ran for more than a year.
The collective works of Gilbert and Sullivan became known as the “Savoy Operas.”
From time to time, Sullivan protested against the artificial nature of Gilbert’s plots; this led to a disagreement between
them that came to a head when Sullivan supported Carte in a minor business dispute.
Sullivan wrote his next opera, Haddon Hall (1892), to a libretto by Sydney Grundy. Subsequent collaboration with
Gilbert, in Utopia Limited (1893) and The Grand Duke (1896), did not reach their former standard. Sullivan completed
three other operettas: The Chieftain (1895), largely an adaptation of Contrabandista; The Beauty Stone (1898), with a
libretto by Sir Arthur Wing Pinero and J. Comyns Carr; and The Rose of Persia (1889), with Basil Hood, who also wrote the
libretto for The Emerald Isle, which was left unfinished by Sullivan and completed by Edward German.
Sullivan’s more classical compositions included The Prodigal Son (1869), The Light of the World (1873), The Martyr of
Antioch (1880), The Golden Legend (1886), and the “romantic opera” Ivanhoe, written for the opening of the Royal
English Opera House built by Carte in 1891. They were not maintained in the repertory, though they were acclaimed in
their day.
He also wrote many hymn tunes, including “Onward! Christian Soldiers,” and his song “The Lost Chord” attained great
He was knighted in 1883.
(Source, Encyclopedia Britannica)
The Savoy Theatre
Opened on 10 October 1881,
was built by Richard D''Oyly
Carte (1844 -1901) on the site of
the old Savoy Palace in London
as a showcase for the works of
Gilbert and Sullivan, which
became known as the Savoy
It became famous as the first
public building in the world to
be lit by Incandescent electric
Current theatre (the third
version) is home to “Let It Be.”
Gilbert and Sullivan“Operas”
Gilbert and Sullivan collaborated on 14 operas in the 25 year period from
1871 to 1896. These 14 operas constitute the most frequently performed
series of operas in history. They are still being performed regularly throughout
the English speaking world. The dates and performances shown are for the
initial run.
Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old (December 26, 1871; Gaiety Theatre; 64
performances) The Gods on Mount Olympus are old and tired, so decide to
take a vacation to earth while a group of traveling actors take their place.
Most of the music for this opera has been lost, so it is played today only in
reconstructions using either other Sullivan music, or original music. The
general theme was used again in Grand Duke.
Trial by Jury, (March 25, 1875; Royalty Theatre; 131 performances)
Hijinks in a courtroom, as the "bride" sues for breach of promise. The only one
act G&S opera, usually played along with another opera.
The Sorcerer, (November 7, 1877; Opera Comique; 178 performances)
With the help of a love philter, everyone in the village is in love -- with the
wrong person.
H.M.S. Pinafore, or The Lass That Loved a Sailor (May 28, 1878; Opera
Comique; 571 performances) The captain's daughter and a common sailor
on his ship fall in love. The first smash hit G&S opera, and one of the Big Three
The Pirates of Penzance, or The Slave of Duty (April 2, 1880; Opera Comique;
363 performances) A young pirate just out of his "indentures" in love with
Mabel, Major General Stanley's ward, while the rest of the pirate crew want
to marry the general's other wards. Also one of the Big Three G&S operas.
Patience, or Bunthorne's Bride (April 23, 1881; Opera Comique; 578
performances at both Opera Comique and Savoy Theatre) The county
dames are in love with two poets while the poets are both in love with
Patience, the village milkmaid. The brigade men don't see the point to
aesthetics, but decide they had better give it a try to win the women's love.
Iolanthe, or The Peer and the Peri (November 25, 1882; Savoy Theatre, 400
performances) Strephon, an Arcadian shepherd, wants to marry Phyllis, a
ward in chancery. Strephon, however, is half fairy -- down to the waist. His
mother, Iolanthe, pleads his cause. Very well known overture, and beautiful
music throughout.
Original poster art
Princess Ida, or Castle Adamant (January 5, 1884; Savoy Theatre; 246 performances)
Princess Ida decides that men are little more than monkeys in suits, so retreats to Castle
Adamant to run a women's college. The men first infiltrate, then invade, the castle. The
only three act G&S opera.
The Mikado, or The Town of Titipu (March 14, 1885; Savoy Theatre; 672 performances)
Opera Japanese. Ko-Ko, a cheap tailor, becomes the Lord High Executioner for Titipu,
while Pooh-Bah is Lord High Everything Else. Nanki-Poo, the Mikado's son, wants to
marry Yum-Yum, Ko-Ko's ward. The situation gets complicated when Ko-Ko executes
Nanki-Poo. The most popular G&S Opera, and perhaps the most popular opera ever.
Click here to see a clip (I’ve Got a Little List.)
Ruddigore, or The Witch's Curse (January 21, 1887; Savoy Theatre; 288 performances)
None of the village girls stand a chance at marriage because all the village lads love
Rose Maybud, but are too shy to court her Robin Oakapple also loves Rose, but when
he becomes the wicked Baronet of Ruddigore, however, he must commit one major
crime a day or die in agony. The ghosts of his ancestors step from their picture frames
to confront him for not conscientiously carrying out this duty.
The Yeomen of the Guard, (October 3, 1888; Savoy Theatre; 423 performances)
Colonel Fairfax, sentenced to die in an hour on a false charge of sorcery, marries Elsie
Maynard, a strolling singer. But then he escapes, causing complications. At the end
Elsie's boyfriend, Jack Point, dies of a broken heart. Or does he? The nearest that G&S
came to grand opera.
Helen Carte or Helen Lenoir (1852 –
1913) was the second wife of Richard
D'Oyly Carte. They met in 1875 and
she soon became his assistant and
business manager. She helped
produce all of the Gilbert and
Sullivan and other Savoy Operas,
beginning with The Sorcerer in 1877.
One of her principal assignments was
to manage American productions and
tours of the Gilbert and Sullivan
operas. Helen Lenoir married
Richard D'Oyly Carte in 1888. During
the 1890s, with Carte's health
declining, Helen took greater and
greater responsibility for the
businesses, taking full control upon
his death in 1901. She remarried in
1902 but continued to own the opera
company and run most of the Carte
business interests until her death,
when they passed to her stepson,
Rupert D'Oyly Carte
This 1885 program cover for New
York's Madison Square Theatre
shows a lavish Victorian interior.
This is where Gilbert and
Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance
premiered six years before, when
the space was called The Fifth
Avenue Theatre.
The Gondoliers, or The King of Barataria (December 7, 1889; Savoy Theatre;
554 performances) One of two just-married gondoliers is the King of
Barataria, but no one knows which one. As Barataria needs a king to put
down unrest in the country, they travel there to reign jointly, leaving their
wives behind. A fine romp, with lots of bright music and dancing.
Utopia, Limited, or The Flowers of Progress (October 7, 1893; Savoy Theatre;
245 performances) Having a rather idealistic view of England and the
English people, King Paramount of the south sea island of Utopia decides
that his people should adopt all English customs and fashions, and that the
kingdom should become a "company limited.”
The Grand Duke, or The Statutory Duel (March 7, 1896; Savoy Theatre; 123
performances) Ludwig, an actor, replaces Rudolph, the miserly Grand Duke
of Pfennig Halbfennig, after "killing" Rudolph by drawing the Ace in a
statutory duel. By assuming all of Rudolph's obligations, he soon finds himself
with far more wives, and prospective wives, than he knows what to do with.
The most underrated of the G&S operas.
Gilbert reading UTOPIA
LIMITED to the company
W.S. Gilbert
D’Oyly Carte
The works of G&S have remained popular with all
levels of British society for more than a hundred years –
an extraordinary achievement in one of the world's
most openly class-conscious cultures. Professional and
amateur groups still perform the canon throughout
the British Empire and the United States. It is almost
impossible to estimate the influence G&S had on the
development of musical theatre, both as a business
and as an art form, in Britain and the United States.
Thanks to them, the musical theatre was redefined