Gilbert & Sullivan
Gilbert and Sullivan wrote the most popular operettas in the history of English theatre. They are probably even more famous than Victoria and Albert and certainly as English as bacon and eggs or roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Indeed, their fame is so great, it rests as securely on their initials as on their names. To anyone who loves music theatre, 'G & S' means melody, irreverence, wit and fun.

The man who brought these opposites together, Richard D'Oyly Carte, managed - with difficulty - to fire their artistic enthusiasm while, for the most part, patching up their quarrels. He built London's Savoy Theatre as the home of a permanent company to perform their comic operas.

Known collectively as 'the Savoy operas', Gilbert and Sullivan's works instantly captured the imagination of the British theatre-going public, surpassing even Offenbach in popularity and quickly becoming classics of family entertainment.

Following Thespis in 1871, the pair wrote Trial By Jury (1875), The Sorcerer (1877), HMS Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1880), Patience (1881), Iolanthe (1882), Princess Ida (1884), The Mikado (1885), Ruddigore (1887), The Yeomen of the Guard (1888), The Gondoliers (1889), Utopia Limited (1893) and The Grand Duke (1896).

One measure of Gilbert and Sullivan's importance is that a hundred years on, every night somewhere in the English speaking world, there is a performance of a G & S opera.

For more than a hundred years, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company were the professional custodians of Gilbert and Sullivan until 1982. The company has recently been reformed in Birmingham, England, with one of its major successes being The Pirates of Penzance, a co-production with the Victoria State Opera, directed by Australia's Stuart Maunder.

'A source of innocent merriment', Gilbert and Sullivan are the light music theatre's purest diamonds - they are forever.

Willaim Schwenck Gilbert
(18 November 1836 - 29 May 1911)
William Schwenck - a name he loathed - Gilbert was born to a family of comfortable means in a house a few hundred yards from the site of the Savoy Theatre which was later to become the centre of a cult whose merry devotees to this day describe themselves with pride as Savoyards. Aged two, he was kidnapped in Naples by brigands and ransomed for twenty-five pounds. This Gilbertian event he was to use years later in the plots of HMS Pinafore and The Gondoliers. Frustrated and less than successful as a barrister, Gilbert invented a world of 'Topsyturvydom... where right is wrong and wrong is right, where white is black and black is white', a world that first appeared in print as the whimsical and nonsensical poems that constituted Bab Ballads (1869) and from 1871 onwards as the evergreen Savoy operas, starting with Thespis and finishing with The Grand Duke in 1896.

An established comic playwright who revelled in artificial plots and good, clean, Victorian fun, Gilbert was an important figure in the history of the English stage because he was the first director ('stage manager' in late nineteenth-century parlance) to put his stamp on texts and productions. He insisted on the importance of rehearsals for the whole company and supervised in detail every aspect of design, costume, choreography and lighting.
With composer, Arthur Sullivan, and the brilliant entrepreneur, Richard D'Oyly Carte - the Cameron Macintosh of his day - Gilbert became part of England's most important operetta triumvirate, was recognised as being the foremost librettist of his century and is acknowledged as such by his pupils and successors, Lorenz Hart, Alan Jay Lerner and Stephen Sondheim. WSG was also a quarrelsome and dictatorial tyrant who never for a moment doubted his own genius and who, as he grew older, took to suing those who crossed him.
He was knighted in May 1907 and lived in comfortable retirement in his Harrow mansion, Grim's Dyke.
He was drowned in his private lake while trying to assist a young lady in difficulty.
His commemorative plaque on London's Embankment carries the aptly epigrammatic epitaph, 'His foe was folly, and his weapon, wit'.

Arthur Seymour Sullivan
(13 May 1842 - 22 November 1900)
Born in Lambeth, the son of an orchestra musician, Sullivan taught himself piano at five and composed his first anthem, By the Waters of Babylon, aged eight. At twelve, he published his first sacred song, O Israel. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music and later in Leipzig where he met Liszt, Schumann and Greig.
The darling of London musical society, Sullivan was feted by the famous soprano, Jenny Lind, taken to Paris by Charles Dickens and pressed (in vain) by Lewis Carroll to set Alice In Wonderland to music. His parlour ballads, sacred songs (Onward Christian Soldiers and The Lost Chord being his most famous), oratorios and overtures made him a household name in England and a favourite of Queen Victoria. He was knighted in 1883 at the age of 41. This newfound honour was not without its problems. The Musical Review spoke for the world of serious music when it observed that 'something Mr Arthur Sullivan may have done, Sir Arthur ought not to do'.

Not surprisingly, he increasingly came to regard his light music collaboration with Gilbert as a frivolous diversion from his more noble vocation as a serious composer. His one opera, Ivanhoe, though now forgotten, holds the record for the longest single run (155 performances) of any opera in England.

Unlike the militarily disciplined Gilbert, Sullivan was more 'artistic' in temperament, preferring the world of supper parties, royal shoulder-rubbing and European gallivanting and gambling, not least in Monte Carlo.

Plagued by ill health, he constantly worked against the clock to complete songs for rehearsals. Indeed, often as opening night approached, he was so late - and sick - that he would send only outlines for overtures, leaving them to be constructed by his musical director, Francois Cellier. The completed score of The Pirates of Penzance did not appear until four days before opening night, and when he approached the podium to conduct, he recorded that he took up the baton 'more dead than alive'.

He is buried in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral, London. His plaque in Savoy Gardens, London, bears the inscription suggested by Gilbert, from The Yeomen of the Guard:

Is life a boon?
If so it must befall
That Death whene'er he call
Must call too soon!

Go To Essgee's Trilogy of G&S Ô Go To the Official Gibert & Sullivan Archive Site Ô