Not until two years after their casual introduction (1869) were Gilbert and Sullivan brought together for a
theatrical purpose. Gilbert wrote an "entirely original grotesque opera in two acts" about the gods on Mount
Olympus. When Sullivan read his libretto of Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old, he agreed, surprisingly, to write
the score — embellishing it with such novel musical high jinks as train whistles and railway bells for
Thespis’ song about Diddlesex Junction. Their joint effort, however, turned out to be a flop — for reasons not solely due
to the material itself.
Four years later, under the wing of Richard D’Oyly Carte, himself a musician and a man of taste, Gilbert and
Sullivan came into their own as writers for the musical stage. Young Carte, with his gifts and perseverance, was
able to forge the three-way partnership that was to revolutionize English comic opera. They made theatrical
history, beginning in 1875 with Trial by Jury, followed by outstanding successes such as H. M. S. Pinafore, The
Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado. The trisome ended 21 scintillating years later with a sadly disappointing
production of The Grand Duke.
Carte’s family was musical and he himself had composed several operettas; he had started a small theatrical
agency and in 1875 was managing the little Royalty Theatre in Soho (London, England). For their first effort
together, Gilbert recycled one of his "Bab Ballads," Trial by Jury, into a mock breach-of-promise lawsuit, its
clever lyrics all to be set to music, with no spoken dialogue; the stately machinery of British justice sent up in a
mad and merry spoof that would mingle nonsense with sharpest mother wit. It was Carte who thought to pair
Sullivan’s music with Gilbert’s libretto, having the taste and acumen to see beyond the failure of Thespis to the
potential strengths of the new collaboration.
After the benchmark Trial by Jury, Carte was more tenacious than ever about his dream of "English comic
opera in a theatre devoted to that alone." Harnessing his showmanship and taste to a group of men who could
put up money but little else, he became managing director of the Comedy Opera Company. A building was
leased near the Strand; Gilbert and Sullivan were paid in advance on their next opera, The Sorcerer; but, most
importantly, of all, Carte ensured that the two creators were to be in complete control of their productions.
Casting, costumes, sets, direction, rehearsals were their province and theirs alone.
While Gilbert and Sullivan created, Carte busied himself with American and foreign productions and an
American tour that showered the men with fame and fortune beyond their dreams. Carte’s own goal of an
English musical theatre was realized with the building of the Savoy Theatre in 1881, a marvel lighted by twelve
hundred incandescent lamps instead of the old noxious gaslights. It gave its name to the D’Oyly Carte, Gilbert,
and Sullivan company; the three were known as Savoyards, and they thrived until 1892.
Today, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas reach new and broader audiences than ever before, thanks in no small
part to the popularity of G&S societies in the UK, North America,
Australasia, etc. The old G&S magic is as potent now as it ever was.
Adapted from The Gilbert and Sullivan Operas, by Darlene Geis, 1983 NY USA, pp.10-15.