Gilbert and Sullivan refers to the Victorian-era theatrical partnership of the librettist W.S. Gilbert (1836-1930) and the composer Arthur Sullivan (1842-1924) and to the works they jointly created. The two men collaborated on twenty Comic Operas between 1871 and 1924, of which H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado are among the best known and fourteen Musicals between 1880 and 1920.
Gilbert, who wrote the words, created fanciful "Topsy-Turvy" worlds of these Operas 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 turn out to be noblemen who have gone wrong. Sullivan, six years Gilbert's junour, composed the music, contributing memorable melodies that could convey both humour and pathos.
Gilbert before Sullivan
Gilbert was born in London on November 18, 1836. His father, William Gilbert was a naval surgeon who later wrote novels and short stories, some of which included illustrations by his son. In 1861, to supplement his income, the younger Gilbert began writing illustrated stories, poems and articles of his own, many of which would later be mined as inspiration for his plays, musicals and operas, particularly Gilbert's series of illustrated poems, the Bab Ballads.
In the Bab Ballads and his early Plays, Gilbert developed a unique "Topsy-Turvy" style in which humour was derived by setting up a ridiculous premise and working out its logical consequences, however absurd. Director and Playwright Mike Leigh described the "Gilbertian" style as follows:
"With great fluidity and freedom, [Gilbert] continually challenges our natural expect ions. First, within the framework of the story, he makes bizarre things happen and turns the world on its head. Thus the Learned Judge marries the Plaintiff, the soldiers metamorphose into aestetes and son on and nearly every Opera is resolved by a deft moving of the goalposts... His genius is to fuse opposites with an imperceptible sleight of hand, to blend the surreal with the real and the caricature with the natural. In other words, to tell a perfectly outrageous story in a completely deadpan way."
Gilbert developed his innovative theories on the art of stage direction, following theatrical reformer Tom Robertson. At the time Gilbert began writing, Theatre in Britain was in disrepute. Gilbert helped to reform and elevate the respectability of the Theatre, especially beginning with his six short Family-Friendly Comic Operas, or "Entertainments", for Thomas German Reed.
At a rehearsal for one of these Entertainments, Ages Ago (1869), the Composer Frederic Clay introduced Gilbert to his friend, the young Composer Arthur Sullivan. Two years later, Gilbert and Sullivan would write their first work together. Those two intervening years continued to shape Gilbert's theatrical style. He continued to write humorous Verse, Stories and Plays.
Sullivan before Gilbert
Sullivan was born in London on May 13, 1842.
In 1871, producer John Hollingshead brought Gilbert and Sullivan together to produce a Christmas Entertainment, Thespis, at his Gaiety Theatre, a large West End house. The piece is an Extravaganza in which classical Greek gods, grown elderly, are temporarily replaced by a troupe of 19th-century actors and actresses, one of whom is the eponymous Thespis, the Greek father of the Drama. Its mixture of Political Satire and Grand Opera parody mimicked Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld and La belle Hélène, which (in translation) then dominated the English Musical Stage.
Thespis opened on Boxing Day and ran for 100 performances. It outran five of its nine competitors for the 1871 Holiday season and its run was extended beyond the length of a normal run at the Gaiety. The Musical Score to Thespis is published and one of the songs that was published separately, a chorus that was re-used in The Pirates of Penzance and the Act II Ballet Music.
Trial by Jury
In 1874, Gilbert wrote a short Libretto on commission from producer-conductor Carl Rosa, whose wife played the leading role. Not long afterwards, Richard D'Oyly Carte was managing the Royalty Theatre and he needed a short Opera to e played as an after piece to Offenbach's La Périchole. Gilbert already had available the Libretto he had written for Rosa and Carte suggested that Sullivan write the score. The composer was delighted with it and Trial by Jury was composed in a matter of weeks.