Gilbert and Sullivan were self-made products of the Victorian era who, for all their lightheartedness, might have stepped straight from the pious pages of Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help. They were both born in unpromising circumstances, but their ascent to the high peaks of fame and fortune was even more successful than that of such renowned Gilbertian social climbers as the judge in Trial by Jury or Sir Joseph Porter in HMS Pinafore. This success was very largely the result of the series of comic operas which they created together. Their partnership began tentatively, with Thespis (1871), Trial by Jury (1875), and The Sorcerer (1877), but it was only with the production of HMS Pinafore (1878) that they effectively established themselves. During the next decade, they produced a rapid succession of new works: The Pirates of Penzance (1879), Patience (1881), Iolanthe (1882), Princess Ida (1884), The Mikado (1885), Ruddigore (1887), The Yeomen of the Guard (1888), and The Gondoliers (1889). But then Gilbert and Sullivan fell out (ostensibly over the costs of new furnishings for the Savoy Theatre), and their last two collaborations—Utopia Limited (1893) and The Grand Duke (1896)—were not a success.
Taken as a whole, however, their remarkable partnership is unique in the history of popular entertainment, far surpassing either Rodgers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Loewe in its duration and productivity. For over one hundred years their operas have delighted audiences throughout the world with their “innocent merriment.” Mr. Gladstone went to see Iolanthe and happily acknowledged “the great pleasure which the entertainment has given me.” Queen Victoria commanded a performance of The Gondoliers at Windsor, and found it “quite charming” throughout. More recent admirers include Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harold Wilson. In the summer of 1980, The Pirates of Penzance was restaged in New York’s Central Park and transferred to Broadway and London’s West End. And six years later, Jonathan Miller’s audacious and inventive production of The Mikado for the English National Opera was greeted with widespread acclaim and went on to enjoy a great success in Houston. As Gilbert boasted to Sullivan in 1887, “We are world-known, and as much an institution as Westminster Abbey”—a self-satisfied verdict which English-speaking posterity has enthusiastically endorsed.
For many of the Savoy Operas’ most ardent and appreciative admirers, this state of affairs requires no explanation. Gilbert and Sullivan, it is argued, were uncommonly gifted artists whose genius only flowered in their harmonious, if ultimately discordant, collaboration. Together, they produced works so original in form and so sparkling in content as to be “timeless” in their appeal and “universal” in their significance. But all genius—especially collaborative genius—requires the aid of luck and circumstance to come to fulfillment. I hope here to let a little daylight in on the Savoyards’ magic, and to see Gilbert and Sullivan in the border setting of nineteenth-and twentieth-century British history.
However venerated they have since become, in their own day Gilbert and Sullivan were theatrical innovators …