Sir William Schwenck Gilbert

The English playwright and poet Sir William Schwenck Gilbert (1836-1911) collaborated with Sir Arthur Sullivan to create a famous series of comic operas.

William Gilbert was born in London, the son of a retired naval surgeon who became a prolific novelist. As an infant, he traveled to Germany and Italy with his parents, was kidnaped by brigands in Naples, and was later ransomed—almost a scenario for his later operettas. After receiving a fine education at Boulogne, France, and then at the University of London, the young man was granted a military commission in the Gordon Highlanders. He spent 4 years as a clerk in the education department of the Privy Council, studied law with no particular distinction, and drifted into journalism.

Gilbert contributed drama criticism and humorous verse to various London periodicals under his boyhood nickname "Bab" and also illustrated several of his father's novels. His artwork for his own "Bab Ballads" (1866-1871) possesses a direct and quaint humor. In 1866 Gilbert began his career as a playwright. His penchant for satire was revealed in Dulcamara (1866), in which he ridiculed grand opera, and in several shorter burlesques. He had a series of dramatic successes, including The Palace of Truth (1870) and Pygmalion and Galatea (1871).

Gilbert's association with Sullivan was initiated in 1871. Their first major production, Trial by Jury (1875), produced under D'Oyly Carte's able management, contained Gilbert's characteristically gay and jibing wit, well accentuated by Sullivan's score. So popular was this work that a company was formed, and in rapid succession The Sorcerer (1877), H. M. S. Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1880), and Patience (1881) were performed in London and New York. The Savoy Theatre was constructed by Carte for their works, and the Savoyard productions included Iolanthe (1882), The Mikado (1885), Ruddigore (1887), The Yeoman of the Guard (1888), and The Gondoliers (1889).

The comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan are characterized by sharply satirical attacks on Victorian bureaucracy, the grotesquely sentimental qualities of currently popular art and amusements, and contemporary topics such as the estheticism of Oscar Wilde. The cleverness of form and the acerbic wit gave their plays—especially The Mikado and H.M. S. Pinafore—a transcendent reference, and time has not diminished their relevance. Gilbert and Sullivan developed a new dramatic art form. No longer was the narrative subordinated to the music, as in formal opera, but rather through the integration of the two the characterizations and plot structure are rendered more meaningful. Gilbert's lyrics with their unique rhythms and internal rhymes suggested the music Sullivan provided for them.

After 20 years of fruitful collaboration a conflict developed, and the two severed their relationship. The quarrel was actually between Gilbert and Carte over finances, but Sullivan had been drawn into the disagreement. A reconciliation was effected, but their subsequent productions fell short of their major accomplishments. Gilbert was knighted in 1907 and subsequently retired to Middlesex, where he lived as a country squire; he accidently drowned in 1911 near his estate there.

Further Reading on Sir William Schwenck Gilbert

Sidney Dark and Rowland Grey, W. S. Gilbert: His Life and Letters (1923), is the most substantial biography of Gilbert. Hesketh Pearson, Gilbert and Sullivan: A Biography (1935), and William A. Darlington, The World of Gilbert and Sullivan (1950), are excellent accounts of the two men and the Victorian musical world. John Bush Jones, ed., W. S. Gilbert: A Century of Scholarship and Commentary (1970), is an anthology of critical opinion from 1869 to 1968.

Additional Biography Sources

Baily, Leslie, Gilbert and Sullivan, their lives and times, Harmondsworth, Eng.; New York: Penguin Books, 1979, 1973.

Eden, David, Gilbert & Sullivan, the creative conflict, Rutherford N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1986.

James, Alan, Gilbert & Sullivan, London; New York: Omnibus Press, 1989.

Pearson, Hesketh, Gilbert and Sullivan: a biography, London: Macdonald and Jane's, 1975.

Pearson, Hesketh, Gilbert, his life and strife, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978.

Stedman, Jane W., W.S. Gilbert: a classic Victorian and his theatre, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.