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MEET SIR GILBERT

   

Fourteen operettas were collaborated by Arthur Sullivan and W. S. Gilbert between the years 1871 and 1896. Their first and third (Thespis 1871 and The Sorcerer 1877) and their last two (Utopia Limited 1893 and The Grand Duke 1896) are generally neglected. Our Society has performed the remaining ten, with Princess Ida, The Sorcerer, and Patience just once each in all of our years in Scarborough.

In 1869, at the Royal Gallery of Illustration ("gallery" being more genteel then "theatre" in a place of comic opera for prim Victorians), Ages Ago, with music by Frederic Clay and words by W. S. Gilbert, was in rehearsal. Clay had invited his friend, composer Arthur Sullivan to stop by, and thus a high moment of theatre history took place - although it went unmarked and unnoted - when he introduced the 27-year-old musician to the 33-year-old writer. The two men exchanged unremarkable pleasantries and went their separate ways, not to meet again until 1871 when they collaborated on their first opera, Thespis.

At the time of their first meeting, William Schwenck Gilbert was an established playwright as well as author-illustrator of the "Bab Ballads" for the weekly journal Fun, and writer of drama criticism by the ream for whomever would publish. He had taken a 17-year-old bride two years before: delicate, blonde, blue-eyed Agnes Turner, whom he called "Kitten" (and in a less romantic moods, "Missus"), the prototype of all the fair young women on whom he would have crushes during the years of a long and remarkably happy marriage.

Gilbert's childhood had been comfortable. His father, a naval surgeon with literary yearnings, once paid 25 to Neapolitan kidnappers for the return of his two-year-old "Bab." Years later Gilbert used the incident to advantage in The Gondoliers, where an infant prince is hidden away by his nurse and is later thought to have been left "gaily prattling with a highly respectable gondolier." Gilbert's childhood nickname surfaced later as well, affixed to his humourous ballads and illustrations in Fun.

At school Gilbert earned some distinction for his translations of Greek and Latin verse, as well as acquiring a B. A. degree at King's College. Thus equipped to face the world, the young man went into the Civil Service, where he clerked for a miserly 120 a year and tried to sell his clever verses on the side. As a volunteer in the 5th West Yorkshire Militia, he began his lifelong love affair with the uniforms and military accoutrements that would brighten many of his operas and enliven his personal wardrobe.

At last, after four lean years, a small legacy freed him to go into the law. He furnished a set of chambers in "a sombre little quadrangle" of Clement's Inn, attended theatre and concerts when he could, and kept at his whimsical verses and drawings.

In 1866 the London theatre asked the aspiring playwright to write a parody of Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore for the Christmas burlesque at St. James' Theatre. Dulcamara, or The Little Duck and the Great Quack was Gilbert's maiden work for the theatre, written in ten days, rehearsed for only a week, and, according to the then modest author, meeting with "more success than it deserved." In the flush of that success, inexperienced Gilbert asked for a fee of 30 for the play. Only after being paid was he advised by the manager, "Never sell so good a play as this for 30 again." He never did.

With one play to his credit, other commissions followed, though they were for the trashy ephemera that passed for musical theatre at the time - burlesques and Christmas pantomimes. Nevertheless, these were a start and an opportunity for Gilbert to learn stagecraft. They also gave him a firmer financial underpinning than the law was able to afford, and at last the young man could think of marriage.

The following year, producer John Hollingshead opened the new Gaiety Theatre with Gilbert's parody of Giacomo Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable. The play was Robert the Devil, or The Nun, the Dun, and the Son of a Gun. It was not much better than its title but then what else on the London musical stage was, that is, before Gilbert and Sullivan touched it with their combined genius?

- Source: The Gilbert and Sullivan Operas, by Darlene Geis, 1983 NY USA, pp.7-9.

 

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