I was delighted to see that on Easter Sunday BBC4 showed a full production of the comic opera The Gondoliers
by William Schwenk Gilbert (libretto) and Sir Arthur Sullivan (composer)[i]
. In my memory it is some time since such a performance was televised on prime-time television. My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed the performance which brought back wonderful memories. I was first introduced to the works of Gilbert and Sullivan when I was in my teens. In those days, the famous D’Oyly Carte Opera company, which had been founded by Richard D’Oyly Carte, the producer who brought Gilbert and Sullivan together and nurtured their collaboration, would conduct tours of the UK and further afield throughout much of the year. They were usually on the road for 38 weeks of the year and resident at the Savoy Theatre in London, which had been specially built for them, for 10 weeks leaving just four weeks of holiday. Many of the company, both singers and musicians, did not even have their own house or flat since they were on the road for so much of the time. But it was a very successful family company and indeed there were several examples of marriage between different members of the company.
I saw most of the productions when on tour in Manchester, certainly all the famous ones and when I moved south could visit the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company at the Savoy Theatre but by the time I met and married my wife in 1982 and brought her to live in the UK sadly the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company had closed that year. We saw some local amateur productions together, some of which were very good. I had not realised until this BBC showing that the Doyly Carte Company had been revived and is now once again performing, though nothing like on the same scale. But seeing this production of The Gondoliers
for the first time in many years I had forgotten just how subversive it is. By setting its satire in the unlikely venue of Venice it is able to pillory the establishment without appearing to do so directly. This was further strengthened by the fact that the producers have added the odd additional line or reference that would certainly not have been in Gilbert’s original work. For example, there was a reference to Orwell i.e. George Orwell. When Gilbert died in 1911 George Orwell was just eight years old and even more strikingly there was even a reference to Carrie the Prime Minister’s wife that clearly was an anachronism, but I started thinking about it.
The two men collaborated on 14 comic operas between 1871 and 1896, of which H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance
and The Mikado
are among the best known. Gilbert who wrote the libretti for these operas, created fanciful topsy-turvy worlds where each absurdity is taken to its logical conclusion – fairies rub elbows with British lords, flirting is a capital offence, gondoliers ascend to the monarchy, and pirates emerge as noblemen who have gone astray. Sullivan, six years younger than Gilbert, composed the music, contributing memorable melodies that could convey both humour and pathos. Their operas have enjoyed great and lasting international success and are still performed frequently throughout the English-speaking world if not by the original company they founded. They introduced great innovations in content and style that directly influenced the development of musical theatre through the 20th
century but just about every great writer of musical plays from PG Wodehouse to Cole Porter to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice have been influenced by Gilbert and Sullivan.
After some initial experimentation they achieved their first international hit with H.M.S. Pinafore
in 1878 satirising the rise of unqualified people to positions of authority and poking good-natured fun at the Royal Navy and the English obsession with social status. The two men took great care over all aspects of the production. Gilbert was not just a dramatist, but he oversaw the designs of sets and costumes, and he directed the performance on stage. While many of his characters were absurd, he insisted that the actors knew that the characters were never aware of that absurdity. Sullivan personally oversaw musical preparation selecting musicians and insisting on accuracy in performance.
ran in London for 571 performances, an exceptional run for the period. It was widely copied and pirated, particularly in America and there were difficulties with Richard D’Oyly Carte’s fellow investors. They were so upset that they sent a group of thugs to seize the scenery during a performance and were just held off by stagehands. This event cleared the way for D’Oyly Carte in alliance with Gilbert and Sullivan to form the D’Oyly Carte Opera company which then produced all their succeeding operas.
The Pirates of Penzance
(New Year’s Eve 1879) also poked fun at grand opera conventions, sense of duty, family application, the respectability of civilisation and the peerage, and the relevance of a liberal education. The story returns to Pinafore’s
theme of unqualified people in positions of authority, in the person of the “modern Major-General” who has up-to-date knowledge about everything except the military. Despite issues with copywriting in America, Pirates
was a hit both in New York and then London and became one of the most frequently performed of their works.
By now D’Oyly Carte was building the large modern Savoy Theatre which became the partnership’s permanent home. It was the first theatre (and the world’s first public building) to be lit entirely by electric lighting. It was opened during the production of Patience
(1881) which satirised the aesthetic movement in general and its colourful poets in particular, combining aspects of A.C. Swinburn, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Oscar Wilde, James McNeill Whistler and others. Doyly Carte was the booking manager for Oscar Wilde, a then lesser-known proponent of aestheticism, and he dispatched him on an American lecture tour in conjunction with the opera’s US run so that American audiences might better understand what the satire was all about.
(1882) was the first of the operas to open at the Savoy. The fully electric Savoy made possible numerous special effects, such as sparkling magic wands with a female chorus of fairies. The opera poked fun at English law and the House of Lords and made much of the war between the sexes.
That year Gilbert had a telephone installed in his home and at the prompt desk at the Savoy Theatre so he could monitor performances and rehearsals from his own study. Sullivan had one installed as well and in 1883 at a party to celebrate the composer’s 41st
birthday, the guests, including the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) heard a direct relay of parts of Iolanthe
from the Savoy. It was probably the first live “broadcast” of an opera. [ii]
Also, that year Sullivan was knighted by Queen Victoria, but this was in honour of his services to serious music.
(1884) spoofed women’s education and male chauvinism and continued the theme from Iolanthe
of the war between the sexes. It was not particularly successful running for a comparatively short 246 performances but by this time D’Oyly Carte gave Gilbert and Sullivan contractual notice that a new opera would be required in six months’ time. Whether or not it was that pressure that the resulting production of The Mikado
in 1885 was the most successful of the Savoy operas, making fun of English bureaucracy thinly disguised by a Japanese setting. This was the first time that Gilbert had pulled this trick allowing him perhaps to take greater risks with the satire as purportedly the satire was about a faraway country. With the opening of trade between England and, Japanese imports, art and styles became fashionable, and a Japanese village exhibition opened in Knightsbridge making the time right for an opera set in Japan. But GK Chesterton saw through this ruse saying “Gilbert pursued and persecuted the evils of modern England till they had literally not a leg to stand on, exactly as Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.
I doubt if there is a single joke in the whole play that fits the Japanese. But all the jokes in the play fit the English. …About England Pooh-bah is something more than a satire; he is the truth.”“[iii] The Mikado
became the partnership’s longest running hit enjoying 672 performances at the Savoy Theatre. It has been translated into numerous languages and is one of the most frequently played musical theatre pieces in history.
Ruddigore (1887) was less successful than most of the earlier collaborations with a run of 288 performances but with their next production The Yeoman of the Guard
(1888) the partnership again changed direction as it is their only joint work with a serious ending. This ran for over a year with strong New York and touring productions but by this time Sullivan was losing his liking for writing comic opera and insisted the next opera must be a grand opera. Gilbert did not feel that he could write a grand opera libretto and instead they compromised that they would write a light opera for the Savoy while Sullivan wrote a grand opera.
They again returned to foreign locations and The Gondoliers
(1889) takes place partly in Venice and partly in an imaginary kingdom ruled by a pair of gondoliers who attempt to remodel a monarchy in a spirit of Republican equality. Gilbert recapitulates a number of his earlier themes including the satire of class distinctions figuring in many of his earlier librettos. This opera enjoyed a run longer than any of their other joint works except for H.M.S. Pinafore, Patience
and The Mikado.
There was a command performance of The Gondoliers
for Queen Victoria and the Royal family at Windsor Castle in 1891, the first Gilbert and Sullivan opera to be so honoured.
This turned out to be the last great success, but I would love to know what Queen Victoria thought of this satire about Republicanism.
There were a number of later works but they were modest if successful and some indeed were outright failures, but the Savoy Theatre continued to revive the classic operas, in between these new pieces and D’Oyly Carte companies were playing them in repertory on tour. Richard D’Oyly Carte died in 1901 but his widow continued to direct the activities and that set the scene for the future. Gilbert died in 1911, and Richard’s son, Rupert Doyly Carte, took over the opera company upon his stepmother’s death in 1913. His daughter, Bridget, inherited the company upon his death in 1948. They continued to tour extensively until it closed in 1982 giving well over 35,000 performances during the 20th
century. For nearly a century and a half Gilbert and Sullivan have strongly influenced popular culture in the English-speaking world, and lines and quotations from their operas have become part of the English language (even if not originated by Gilbert), such as “short, sharp shock,” “What never? Well, hardly ever!,” “Let the punishment fit the crime”, and “A policeman’s lot is not a happy one”.
The American and British musical owes a tremendous debt to Gilbert & Sullivan by authors and composers such as PG Wodehouse, Guy Bolton and Victor Herbert, and later Jerome Kern, Ira Gershwin, Yip Harburg, Irving Berlin, Ivan Novello, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Gilbert’s lyrics serve as a model for such 20th
-century Broadway lyricists as Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin and Lorenz Hart. Noël Coward wrote of his strong influence from Gilbert and Sullivan. it’s not just the musical shows that were influenced. There are also other witty and satirical song writers that have been found on both sides of the Atlantic like Michael Flanders and Donald Swann in the United Kingdom and Tom Lehrer in the United States. We can even see the influence of Gilbert in the vein of British comedy that runs through John Betjeman’s verse via Monty Python and Private Eye.
Television series like Yes, Minister…
where the emphasis is on wit, irony, and poking fun at the establishment from within it in a way which manages to be both disrespectful of authority and yet be cosy and urbane.
And that brings me back to my opening question. The degree to which I perhaps had not realised so much in my youth that this was actually quite subversive while at the same time not perhaps undermining the British authorities. inclusion of references to Orwell and even Carrie is entirely fitting. I’ve no doubt throughout the 20th
century updated references would be used and even politicians have taken inspiration from this. I remember my former MP Conservative Peter Lilley’s speech at the Tory party conference mimicking the form of “I’ve got a little list" from The Mikado
listing those he was against including “sponging socialists” and “young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing queue,” with the famous punchline- “there’s none of them be missed.”