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 so deliberate that they might almost be called revolutionaries. But as with all revolutionaries, their achievement was significantly determined by the world they were trying to change: in this case the unrespectable nineteenth-century stage, which was primarily patronized by the working classes, who sought excitement and escape from the monotony of their lives. Theater owners were generally regarded as shady characters, and their living was decidedly precarious. Writers were ill-rewarded, and could make ends meet only by maintaining parallel careers as actors or as journalists. The stage was neither honorable nor a disciplined profession, and actresses were regarded as little better than prostitutes. Not surprisingly, the upper and middle classes, who had delighted in the eighteenth-century theater of Garrick and Sheridan, had effectively withdrawn their patronage altogether. There were attempts to raise the tone and standard, but these were very much the exception.
For the most part, the works that were produced on the London stage were singularly lacking in distinction and refinement. Tragedy, comedy, and satire had effectively disappeared by the early nineteenth century, and had been replaced by a variety of lesser genres. The most popular was melodrama, with its stories of murder, torture, haunted castles, and wicked baronets, as in Douglas Jerrold’s Black Ey’d Susan (1829) and Dion Boucicault’s The Corsican Brothers (1851). Almost as appealing was burlesque: the deliberate travesties of classical plays and characters, as in the works of James Robinson Planché, which included Olympic Revels (1831) and The Golden Fleece (1845). Pantomime and extravaganza were also highly popular, with their stress on love, magic, and the supernatural. Ballad opera, a genre which began with John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728), was by this time a much debased form, devoid of satiric edge or musical merit. Comic operas were imported—Offenbach’s works reached the London stage in the 1860s, and Strauss’s Die Fledermaus was first performed in 1875. But often, the librettos were poorly translated, the music was badly performed, and the productions were vulgar, slapdash, and risqué.
It was in this world that W.S. Gilbert learned his craft. Although trained as a barrister, he turned to writing, and produced a series of satirical verses later published as the Bab Ballads (1869), which brought him to the attention of theater managers. Inevitably, many of his early plays were in the prevailing style of burlesque, pantomime, and extravaganza, forms that were later parodied in the Savoy Operas. Thespis was actually performed at the Gaiety, a theater renowned for burlesque, and its acting troupe playing Greek gods was borrowed from that genre. The Sorcerer was based on Dulcamara, Gilbert’s earlier burlesque of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, and both HMS Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance owed much to popular nautical melodrama, while Iolanthe, with its fairies and final transformation scene, clearly harked back to pantomime. With Ruddigore, Gilbert once more returned to Gothic, blood-and-thunder melodrama, complete with haunted house and wicked baronets. Throughout his librettos, Gilbert’s delight in disguise and mistaken identity, and in the last-minute restoration of of order by essentially implausible means, showed his indebtedness to mid-Victorian tradition, just as his aging and unattractive women—Ruth, Kathisa, Lady Sophy—preserved memories of transvestite dame parts of burlesque.
Even though the Savoy Operas were designed for the middle classes of late-Victorian England, allusions to the older, more vulgar theatrical tradition would have been appreciated—at least during the early years of the collaboration. It was also from this same mid-Victorian theatrical world that the impresarios emerged who became the midwives to the Gilbert and Sullivan partnership. Thomas German Reed and his wife sought to raise the moral tone of the stage at their euphemistically entitled Royal Gallery of Illustration, where they put on one-act comic operas, imported from France, but shorn of their characteristic vulgarity. The large drawing room with piano and harmonium had more in common with a chapel than with a theater. Both Gilbert and Sullivan worked for the Reeds, writing librettos and scores for comic operas and musical plays, not yet in partnership, but with different collaborators. John Hollingshead, a self-made journalist, opened the Gaiety Theatre in 1868, made it an established home of burlesque, and brought Gilbert and Sullivan together for Thespis in 1871. And Richard D’Oyly Carte, who persuaded them to join forces again four years later for Trial by Jury, was a theatrical agent, manager of the Royalty Theatre, and himself a minor composer of operetta.
But D’Oyly Carte’s ambition was “the staging of English comic opera in a theatre devoted to that alone,” and he saw in Gilbert and Sullivan the perfect means for realizing his objective. In 1876 he formed the Comedy Opera Company, which was exclusively devoted to the production of their work, and in 1881 he opened the Savoy, the most modern and glamorous theater in London, and the first to be lit by electricity. He made the first nights of Gilbert and Sullivan operas into social highlights of the 1880s, inviting Oscar Wilde, on whom the character of Bunthorne was based, to the premiere of Patience. And he zealously promoted official performances in the provinces and overseas, especially in the United States. But above all, he enabled Gilbert and Sullivan, with whom he had an exclusive contract, to establish their own permanent repertory company, which effectively institutionalized the production of their works, and which included many principal singers and actors who soon became famous—like George Grossmith, Rutland Barrington, and Jessie Bond. In short, it was D’Oyly Carte’s revolution in theatrical management that made possible Gilbert and Sullivan’s revolution in theatrical entertainment.
On the stage of the Savoy, Gilbert and Sullivan were left by D’Oyly Carte in “absolute control,” and they wielded their authority over the company with a dictatorial sway that had been almost entirely absent in the mid-Victorian theater. Sullivan drilled and disciplined the orchestra, refusing to tolerate slapdash attendance or lackluster playing, while Gilbert exercised complete dominion over the casting, dressing, and staging of the operas. He planned his productions on a model theater he kept at home, down to the very last detail. He took endless trouble over the design of the costumes and the scenery. He rehearsed the chorus and the principals until they dropped. And he insisted that his words and stage directions be followed to the letter: ad-libbing, interpolations, slapstick humor, and cheap laughs were absolutely forbidden, and offenders were severely reprimanded. The essence of the Savoy style, as Gilbert once explained, was treating “a thoroughly farcical subject in a thoroughly serious manner.” And the success with which he accomplished this meant that he became the first author-producer to dominate the Victorian stage.
In addition to showmanship, glamour, and discipline, the Savoy Operas provided respectable entertainment. There was no transvestitism, and the women’s costumes were entirely decent. Men and women changed in rooms on opposite ends of the stage; their morals were expected to be—like the Mikado’s—particularly correct; and on more than one occasion, Gilbert came to the defense of female members of the cast whose honor had been wrongly impugned. Not for nothing was D’Oyly Carte’s company once rechristened “The Savoy Boarding School.” Above all, the presence of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s illustrious name on the program conferred prestige and rectitude. He had studied music in Leipzig, was the composer of hymn tunes and oratorios, and was widely regarded as the greatest English musician since Purcell. He was the close friend of the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Edinburgh, his music was much admired by Queen Victoria, who knighted him in 1883. That such a paragon should grace the orchestra pit of a theater was a virtual guarantee of respectability. For all their gaiety and wit, it was once remarked that the performance of Gilbert and Sullivan operas at the Savoy, with a rapt audience following every word in the program, and turning the same page at the same time, was reminiscent of a prayer meeting in a church.
But it was the content of the operas themselves that most powerfully showed their departure from earlier theatrical tradition. For Gilbert’s librettos were vastly superior to anything that had in recent memory been played on the London stage. His complex plots were carefully and economically constructed; he created a series of memorable, outsize characters: the Lord Chancellor in Iolanthe, Poo-Bah in The Mikado, Jack Point in The Yeomen of the Guard. He brought back to the theater political satire, absent since the eighteenth century. His dialogue was witty and epigrammatic in a way that had last been heard in a play by Sheridan. Gilbert assumed that his audiences were well educated: the plots of Trial by Jury and Iolanthe are unintelligible without some knowledge of the law; Patience took for granted an understanding of contemporary art; and Princess Ida presupposed a familiarity with recent trends in higher education for women. The wordplay in his verses was astonishingly varied in its meter and rhythm, from the profusion of syllables and elaborate rhymes in the patter songs to the genuine vein of poetry that suffuses his verses in The Yeomen of the Guard, as in this quatrain, which was later chosen by Gilbert as the inscription for Sullivan’s memorial in London:
Is life a boon?
If so, it must befall,
That death, when ‘ere he call,
Must call too soon.
And Sullivan’s music was as clever, as humorous and versatile, as Gilbert’s words. When the libretto required it, he composed a hornpipe, a waltz, a march, a gavotte, a cachucha, a madrigal, an aria, or a love duet: indeed, Nanki-Poo’s opening song in The Mikado is, by turns, a sentimental ballad, a patriotic march, a sea shanty, and a lullaby. He wrote many memorable melodies: “The sun whose rays” in The Mikado, “Take a pair of sparkling eyes” in The Gondoliers. He could illuminate character in a phrase, as with the ponderous double-bass passage that introduces the policemen in The Pirates of Penzance. He pointed the contrasts between the different social groups portrayed in the operas: the soldiers and the aesthetes in Patience, the Spanish nobility and the Venetian citizens in The Gondoliers. And he was unrivaled as a parodist and pasticheur. Mabel’s song, “Poor wand’ring one,” in The Pirates of Penzance, is a Gounodesque waltz, full of coloratura trills and cadences. The finale to Act I of The Mikado is reminiscent of Verdi. “All hail great judge” (Trial by Jury) and “This helmet I suppose” (Princess Ida) are both exuberant parodies of Handel. And when Iolanthe is raised from the bottom of the stream where she has been banished one recalls the opening of Das Rheingold.
D’Oyly Carte, Sullivan, and Gilbert were jointly responsible for this sweeping revolution in theatrical taste. They deliberately sought to appeal to the well-educated middle classes, and they triumphantly succeeded. They created a new form of entertainment, precisely pitched between the music hall and the concert hall, which was intelligent but not intellectual, tasteful but not pretentious. They took the theatrical conventions of the lower classes, and made them acceptable to the bourgeoisie. As their confidence grew, Gilbert and Sullivan gradually left behind the old traditions of farce, pantomime, melodrama, and burlesque, and in their later operas, The Mikado, The Yeomen of the Guard, and The Gondoliers, they created self-sufficient dramas and extended scores, which seemed to hold out the prospects of limitless creative possibilities. As The Times of London noted in 1887,
The middle classes, and even the working classes, which had no opportunity of appreciating either art or music fifty years ago, cannot complain that these wholesome enjoyments are now monopolised by a fashionable aristocracy.
For these developments, the Savoy Operas themselves were self-consciously responsible.
Of course, Gilbert, Sullivan, and D’Oyly Carte were not alone in bringing about the transformation of the late Victorian theater: while they were making comic opera respectable at the Savoy, Henry Irving was achieving very similar results with Shakespeare and with melodrama at the Lyceum. And for Gilbert and Sullivan, their very success brought with it its dangers, partly because, even in their own unrivaled hands, it proved impossible to reproduce comic opera indefinitely. In 1890 when Gilbert, returning from a vacation, found that D’Oyly Carte had bought an expensive carpet for the Savoy Theatre, a quarrel broke out which became front-page news, with Gilbert and Sullivan ranged on opposite sides in a lengthy and much publicized lawsuit. This effectively ended their long run of collaborative triumphs, and neither Gilbert nor Sullivan found another partner with whom he could successfully work.
Then, too, the new theater audience which they had done so much to call into being soon began to look elsewhere for less demanding and less cerebral amusement. The long-running successes of Alfred Cellier’s Dorothy (1886) and Sidney Jones’s A Gaiety Girl (1893) and The Geisha (1896) signaled the arrival of a new form of light entertainment: musical comedy. Its lyrics were simpler to follow and they required much less knowledge of contemporary affairs to be understood. There was no satire, the melodies were simpler, the humor was broader, and there was a greater stress on romantic entanglement and on lavish spectacle. In The Gondoliers and Utopia Limited, Gilbert and Sullivan made some attempts to adjust their style to this new fashion, with more elaborate staging and more dancing and display. But by then they were too old and too disenchanted to change. “What the public want,” D’Oyly Carte lamented, “is simply ‘fun’ and little else.”
Although the Savoy Operas must be understood as part of the history of theatrical entertainment, we must not lose sight of their broader perspective. The years of Gilbert and Sullivan’s collaboration, between 1871 and 1896, were for the British among the most tumultuous and disturbing of the nineteenth century. This was a period of deepening economic depression, with well-grounded fears that Britain’s industrial preeminence was being lost. International rivalry grew between the great powers of Europe as they scrambled for colonies in Africa; the murder of Gordon and his men at Khartoum dramatized the dangers of maintaining the empire. The monarchy was unprecedentedly popular and the aristocracy increasingly impoverished and insecure. The middle class was bewildered by Irish Home Rule, worried by the depression of prices, profits, and interest rates, and concerned about a working class that was better educated and partially enfranchised, yet sometimes seemed ominously discontented.
In the midst of such international and domestic turmoils, the Savoy Operas strongly celebrated national pride and the established order. Whatever their ostensible location, all Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas are actually about England. There is nothing disingenuous about the chorus “For he is an Englishman” in HMS Pinafore. In Ruddigore, the Union Jack is described as “a flag that none dare defy.” The claim, in Utopia Limited, that Britain “occupies a pre-eminent position among civilised nations” is not made ironically. And the prevailing assumption of all the operas is that foreigners—whether Japanese or Spanish or German or Venetian—are generally comical and on the whole unfortunate. There are schoolboyish satires on the Army, the Navy, and the peerage. But while Sir Joseph Porter, the First Lord of the Admiralty in HMS Pinafore, is teased for being a landsman, the skill of Captain Corcoran and the steadfastness of his crew are never doubted—well, “hardly ever.” In The Pirates of Penzance, Major General Stanley may not be the most up-to-date commander in his knowledge of military strategy, but the “soldiers of the queen” in Patience are glamorous, robust, fearless, and patriotic. And the most barbed song remaining in Iolanthe—“When Britain really ruled the waves”—was set by Sullivan to a stately, majestic tune, which soothes the satire into affectionate mockery.
Within this robust, patriotic setting, the operas are obsessed with the rituals of monarchy. “Because with all our faults we love our Queen” applied as much to Gilbert and Sullivan personally as it did to the pirates of Penzance. But the image of royalty underwent important changes during the Savoy Opera cycle, mirroring the transition in the British monarchy from the seclusion and unpopularity of the middle of the queen’s reign, which was marked by republican protests, to popular symbol and ceremonial splendor by the end. In the early pieces, the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance and the Fairy Queen in Iolanthe owe much to the tradition of melodrama, burlesque, and pantomime: they are not credible as real rulers. But the later sovereigns—in The Mikado, The Gondoliers, Utopia Limited, and The Grand Duke—are much more elaborate and distinctive creations. In the same way, the pageantry surrounding the monarchy reaches its grandiose climax at the gondoliers’ court of Barataria, and at the elaborately staged drawing room in Utopia Limited, which was an almost exact rendition of a royal reception at Windsor Castle or Buckingham Palace. And in The Gondoliers, produced only two years after Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, and in the centenary year of the French Revolution, it is republicanism, not monarchy, that is ridiculed.
In depicting the British aristocracy, Gilbert was equally sensitive to changing circumstances. The pirates of Penzance are “no members of a common throng; they are all noblemen who have gone wrong,” and who in the end go right again. There are peers and notables in Iolanthe, The Mikado, The Gondoliers, and The Grand Duke. A whole dynasty of baronets performs in Ruddigore. In Patience, Bunthorne is a landed gentleman (albeit dressed in aesthetic costume), and, in the same opera, the Duke of Dunstable is a lieutenant in the Dragoon Guards. But unlike the monarchy, these “tremendous swells” are not as secure as they once were. During the early 1880s, the power and composition of the House of Lords were widely attacked by radicals, who were enraged by the way in which the second chamber consistently obstructed Liberal legislation, and this provides the essential, background to Iolanthe, with its chorus of haughty peers who vainly believe that the upper house “is not susceptible of improvement.” And in the same decade, when landed incomes were hard hit by agricultural depression, many aristocrats were obliged to search for additional income by selling their status for money, and becoming ornamental directors of commercial ventures in the undignified manner of the Duke of Plaza-Toro in The Gondoliers.
In treating the Army and the Navy, the Savoy Operas were also up to date. Gilbert was the son of a naval man, and adored sailing; and Sullivan’s father was a military band conductor: both were respectful of the armed services. The Royal Navy—not just in HMS Pinafore, but also in Ruddigore and Utopia Limited—is the greatest fighting force in the world, “the bulwark of England’s greatness.” At the very time when the era of inexpensive British naval mastery was suddenly drawing to a close, the Savoy Operas were celebrating the age of unchallenged fighting sail. In the same way, the British army was very much in vogue. Cardwell’s reforms at the War Office, carried out between 1869 and 1870, had abolished the system of purchasing commissions and sought to remedy the inefficiencies and abuses made plain during the Crimean War. And in making fun of Sir Garnett Wolseley as Major General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert was in fact gently mocking one of the most progressive new commanders, who led the British forces in the Ashanti wars of 1873 and was sent out to relieve Gordon at Khartoum in 1885. Moreover, by giving the army such attention (in Patience, Ruddigore, The Yeomen of the Guard, and Utopia Limited as well), he was also acknowledging its importance in those many late-nineteenth-century imperial conflicts known as “Queen Victoria’s little wars.”
The other two professions on which Gilbert lavished his attention were those concerned with domestic order: the law and the police. Since Gilbert had himself trained for the bar, it is hardly surprising that Trial by Jury was set in a courtroom, and that solicitors, barristers, judges, and even the Lord Chancellor himself make repeated appearances in the operas. Moreover, this was the very period that saw extensive legal reform, beginning in the late 1870s with the establishment of the Central Criminal Courts, and ending with the creation of the Bar Association in 1894. And it was also at this time that the police force established itself in the popular imagination as the avuncular representative of state authority. Even as late as the 1870s, the constabulary was still much disliked by the working classes as being licensed snoopers, agents of repressive authority and an intrusive state: they were widely regarded as a “plague of locusts.” Only at the very end of the decade and during the early 1880s was the force transformed, in the popular imagination, into a friendly and familiar organization. The affectionate image so vividly conveyed in The Pirates of Penzance was not a long established convention but a very recent development. Indeed, Gilbert and Sullivan may not just have reflected this change in popular attitude: they may actually have helped to create it.
This, in essence, is the social universe of the Savoy Operas—a universe selectively modeled on a recognizable Britain of the years 1871 to 1896, with the monarchy on the way to apotheosis, the aristocracy on the way to decline, and increasing admiration for the professions most concerned with domestic and international security. But apart from Dr. Daly in The Sorcerer, there are no clergymen, and Gilbert abandoned his original idea of constructing the plot of Patience around two rival curates because both he and Sullivan feared it would offend contemporary sensibilities. In the same way, the commercial and entrepreneurial bourgeoisie hardly appears at all, apart from the gentlest references to middle-class social climbing in The Mikado. Indeed, Mr. Goldbury, the unscrupulous company promoter in Utopia Limited, is satirized for not embodying those quint-essential middle-class virtues of honesty and decency. As for the working classes, they are invariably picturesque and dutiful; rustic maidens, country bumpkins, jolly jack-tars. The settings are almost always pastoral and sylvan: apart from Titipu (the Japanese town) and the Palace of Westminster (bathed in mellow moonlight in Act II of Iolanthe), urban life hardly intrudes.
In their contemporary references, the Savoy Operas were thus as important for what they left out as for what they put in. The international anxieties generated by Irish Home Rule, the scramble for Africa, and economic depression are not just ignored: Gilbert and Sullivan simply presume that they do not exist. The same was true in the domestic sphere. In London in particular, the 1880s were a decade with many elements of melodrama. There were the revelations of appalling poverty contained in Andrew Mearns’s book The Bitter Cry, and in Charles Booth’s early social surveys; there were “Bloody Sunday” and the great dock strike; and there were the “Jack the Ripper” murders. But the only extended and explicit allusions to contemporary social problems—Strephon’s savage song “Fold your flapping wings” in Iolanthe, and Princess Zara’s final, bitter speech in Utopia Limited—were both cut after adverse public reaction on the first night. So these late-Victorian operas offered essentially the same invitation to the middle classes that the mid-Victorian burlesque and pantomimes had given to the working classes, to laugh rather than to think. Its satire was carefully trimmed to the tastes of an increasingly conservative public.
But it is in this broader setting of fin-de-siècle apprehension and dissolving certainties that the ostensibly innocent, topsy-turvy world of the Savoy Operas takes on a deeper significance. For within their own fantasy world, they repeatedly hold out the prospect of the social and political order being overturned and subverted—the very danger that, in reality, so many comfortably off contemporaries genuinely feared. In The Sorcerer and HMS Pinafore, love may level ranks. In The Pirates of Penzance, the police are defeated by vagabonds. In Princess Ida, the dominance of men is rejected by women. In Iolanthe, the fairies subdue the House of Lords, and take over Parliament. And in The Gondoliers, the two temporary monarchs are in fact armchair republicans. But in every case—with the exception of Iolanthe—order is eventually restored. Of course, the sheer absurdity of the inversion, and the artificiality of the means whereby everyone lives happily ever after, deliberately invited incredulous laughter. But the line between humor and anxiety was often very narrow indeed.
In all these ways, the Gilbert and Sullivan operas were perfectly judged productions for the London middle classes, especially of the 1880s. Between them, the court composer and the court jester lightly blended realism and escapism, satire and sweetness, “patriotic sentiment” and “innocent merriment,” reassurance and subversion. But their congruence with that particular decade runs even closer. The Eighties began with the last great fling of Gladstonian reform, but ended with Lord Salisbury’s Unionists firmly in power. As such, it witnessed a major shift in middle-class opinion, from mid-Victorian liberalism to late-Victorian conservatism. Gilbert himself seems to have followed a similar path, from the savagely irreverent versifier of the Bab Ballads of the Seventies to the Harrow country gentleman of the Nineties. The Savoy Operas trace what is recognizably the same trajectory. It is not just that they gradually leave burlesque, pantomime, and melodrama behind, and become more confident and self-conscious. It is also that the satire gets weaker, the settings become more exotic, realism declines, and spectacle increases. While these developments may be explained to some degree by changing attitudes on the part of the audience and changing theatrical conventions, they also mirror the broader political developments of the decade.
Because the Savoy Operas were so much the product of a particular theatrical milieu and historical generation, they quickly began to show distinct signs of their age. By Ruddigore, Gilbert’s continued reliance on melodrama and pantomime was anachronistic. The many contemporary allusions in the librettos—to politicians like W.H. Smith, to the Aesthetic movement, and to company promoters—inevitably lost their topicality, while Sullivan’s references to the music of Offenbach and Gounod, Wagner and Verdi, remained recognizable but only to people who knew something of classical music. By the 1890s, the operas seemed too sophisticated and cerebral compared with the light musical comedies which George Edwardes was staging at the Gaiety Theatre. And in the early years of the new century, the sensational successes of Lehár’s The Merry Widow (first seen in London in 1907), Frederic Norton’s Chu Chin Chow (1916), and Harold Fraser Simpson’s The Maid of the Mountains (1917) overshadowed the Savoy Operas. When Sullivan died in 1900, his reputation as a serious composer had entered a seemingly irretrievable decline. And Gilbert, who lived until 1911, expected no better: “Posterity,” he once remarked, “will know as little of me as I shall know of posterity.” Yet however harshly posterity has dismissed their noncollaborative endeavors, their joint works soon became popular again. As The Times explained in 1948, unconsciously echoing Gilbert’s remarks of sixty years before, the Savoy Operas had “become a national institution.” How did this unexpected development occur?
Part of the answer undoubtedly lies in the zeal with which the D’Oyly Carte family exploited their exclusive rights of professional performance in Britain, which they retained until the 1950s. After Richard D’Oyly Carte’s death in 1901, his widow Helen took charge of the company, and she was followed in 1911 until 1948 by her stepson, Rupert. The first major Gilbert and Sullivan revival took place in London between 1906 and 1908, and the productions were supervised by W.S. Gilbert himself. Between the wars, Rupert D’Oyly Carte sponsored a succession of London seasons and provincial tours, and gramophone recordings were made of many of the operas. And in the late Twenties and early Thirties, the company returned to the United States once more. The result was that while most of the works that had been staged during the 1880s, 1890s, and 1900s disappeared without trace after their initial London run, the support provided by the D’Oyly Carte Company ensured that Gilbert and Sullivan survived. Moreover, the operas themselves were produced “precisely in their original form, without any alteration in their words, or any attempt to bring them up to date,” and when permission was given to amateur societies to perform them, it was on the same exacting condition that Gilbert’s stage directions must be slavishly followed. As a result, the operas began to seem dated, and by firmly resisting changes, became renowned instead for being unapologetically “traditional.”
This successful cultivation of anachronism also suggests a deeper reason for their survival. For many aspects of British life which by the interwar years were regarded as “traditional” had in fact been invented only during the last quarter of the nineteenth century: the grand public spectacles of monarchy, the Royal Tournament, the old school tie, the Wimbledon tennis championships, Test Match cricket, and Sherlock Holmes are only a few.1 And to some extent at least, the Gilbert and Sullivan operas themselves survived because they had been, and thereafter remained, an integral part of this remarkably enduring late Victorian world. Their pageantry, their stirring marches and grand costumes, their loyal sentiments toward crown and nation made them an appropriate adjunct to the recently apotheosized monarchy. Sullivan’s music was regularly played at state occasions at Buckingham Palace. The procession of Knights of the Garter, revived after the Second World War and held at Windsor Castle, was a real-life version of the peers’ entrance and march from Iolanthe. And when the Tory MP Henry Channon noted in his diary that there was a “Gilbert and Sullivan atmosphere” about Queen Elizabeth II’s unprecedentedly lavish coronation, he was essentially describing one invented British tradition in terms of another.
A similarly close relationship existed between the reality of aristocratic life and the picture conveyed in the Savoy Operas. During the 1880s, Gilbert and Sullivan had depicted the gentry and peerage in a new light, as picturesque yet fading away. But it was right for the time, and it became even more right during the next half century. In 1909, the peers foolishly behaved as they had threatened to do in Iolanthe: they “interfered in a matter which they did not understand” and threw out Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget,” with the result that their powers were drastically reduced. Although “competitive examination” was never suggested, a variety of schemes to reform the composition of the upper house were put forward intermittently from the 1880s to the 1930s. Many noblemen, impoverished by renewed agricultural depression during the Twenties and Thirties, and forced to sell some or all of their estates, were compelled to look for jobs in the manner of the Duke of Plaza-Toro. Not surprisingly, P.G. Wodehouse’s interwar aristocratic world is recognizably the same as Gilbert’s: indeed, there is a Duke of Dunstable in the Savoy Operas and in Wodehouse’s novels. And Noel Coward’s song “The Stately Homes of England” is very much in the spirit of Iolanthe.
Likewise, the great professions remained as central to British life as they had been in the times of Gilbert and Sullivan. In the case of the armed services, subsequent developments meant that Gilbert’s affectionately satirical creations became suffused with an unexpected (and unintended) nostalgic glow. As the cult of Nelson and his flagship HMS Victory gathered force, and with the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1905, HMS Pinafore became a worthy sister ship, appropriately anchored nearby, off Portsmouth. In the era of the Dreadnought, the Battle of Jutland, and the Washington Treaty, Gilbert’s oldfashioned Royal Navy became a comforting reminder of the time when Britannia really had ruled the waves. Admiral Lord Fisher, who had modernized the navy during the 1900s and was First Sea Lord on the outbreak of the First World War, greatly admired Pinafore, and regularly attended D’Oyly Carte performances. And in nautical patriotism, it was a very short step from Pinafore to Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs, and even to Noel Coward’s wartime film In Which We Serve. As the commanders of the British army became more middle class, and as the humiliations of the Boer War were followed by the horrors of the trenches, Gilbert’s “soldiers of the Queen” picturesquely recalled the time when officers had indeed been gentlemen, and when the only wars were (to the British) relatively minor colonial skirmishes.
By contrast, Gilbert’s portrait of the forces of law and order retained, and even increased, its essential topicality. The legal profession, as it was reformed during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, remained fundamentally unaltered down to World War II. British politics was dominated during the ensuing decades as never before by a succession of lawyer-politicians: Asquith, Lloyd George, Lord Reading, Lord Simon, and Lord Birkenhead (who knew many of the Lord Chancellor’s songs from Iolanthe by heart). And in the lawyer-humorist A.P. Herbert it almost seemed as if Gilbert himself had been reincarnated. A succession of his articles in Punch, “Misleading Cases,” amusingly satirized the law and its anomalies, and from the 1920s to the 1940s, Herbert produced a series of plays, operettas, and musical reviews for the London stage. Between the 1880s and the 1930s, crime decreased in Britain, and the police consolidated their position as a force, not just for order, but also for good. Like Gilbert’s reluctant heroes in The Pirates of Penzance, they were regarded as (and respected for) being dutiful, well-meaning, and incorruptible—even if not overbright. And it was precisely this Gilbertian image of the constabulary that was carried on by detectives like Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Miss Marple, and in early television programs like Dixon of Dock Green.
The result was that although the Savoy Operas were written for the well-educated middle classes of late-Victorian England, they captivated a much broader national audience during the first half of the twentieth century. As the music halls went into decline during the interwar years, the unabashed patriotism of Gilbert and Sullivan found a responsive audience among the many members of the “flag-saluting, foreigner-hating, peer-respecting” working classes. The undemanding tunefulness of the Savoy Operas appealed with equal success to the increasingly philistine members of the upper classes. Their refusal to address social problems, and their general frivolity, which had made them such a tonic during the gloomy decade of the 1880s, was of even greater value during the Depression. And their disdain for “abroad,” and their determination not (as in Pinafore) to bow down to continental dictators or to endure “the tang of a tyrant’s tongue” gave them a new relevance during World War I—and again during the 1930s.
As the specific circumstances of their original performances were forgotten, the Savoy Operas began to acquire the ahistorical trappings of a national “tradition.” It was entirely fitting for Englishmen to laugh at themselves in this gentle, self-regarding way, a viewpoint reinforced by the fact that Gilbert’s puns, jokes, and elaborate rhymes could not be easily translated into foreign languages. The production of the D’Oyly Carte Company remained essentially unchanging, and the audiences were reassured that this was so. In 1934 the D’Oyly Carte principal, Henry Lytton, celebrated his golden jubilee on the stage, and received a national testimonial, signed by all three past and present prime ministers: Ramsay MacDonald, Lloyd George, and Stanley Baldwin. And at almost the same time, the supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary officially recognized the adjective “Gilbertian” as a fully accredited word in the English language. The incorporation of Gilbert and Sullivan into national “tradition” was complete. In celebrating British institutions, with the gentlest of satire and the greatest of affection, they had become a British institution in themselves.
In an almost Gilbertian fashion, therefore, the Savoy Operas had assumed three very different historical guises: they were the audacious expression of a nineteenth-century theatrical revolution; they were shrewdly judged entertainment for the late-Victorian middle class; and they became a national institution during the first half of the twentieth century. Since the Second World War, however, they have gradually been emancipated from tradition’s thralldom. In part, this happened once the D’Oyly Carte monopoly ended. With the expiration of Sullivan’s copyright in 1950, and of Gilbert’s eleven years later, the family lost its rights of exclusive professional performance, and could no longer insist that Gilbert’s stage directions be precisely followed in all amateur productions. Thereafter, while the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company continued to perform, its finances grew precarious, and its performances seemed increasingly lackluster and outmoded. In 1982 the British Arts Council refused the company a government subsidy because of its staid and unimaginative productions, and after more than one hundred years as the creator, upholder, and embodiment of the Savoy “tradition,” the D’Oyly Carte Company closed down. In 1985 the death of Dame Bridget D’Oyly Carte, who had managed the family business since 1948 and was the last direct descendant of the original impresario, effectively brought to an end this phase in the history of Gilbert and Sullivan.
But it is not just that this controlling influence finally fell away. For in the radical and confrontational Britain of the last twenty years, the operas themselves seem less comfortingly and relevantly “traditional” than they did. Today, it is Mrs. Thatcher rather than Elizabeth II who has most in common with the Fairy Queen in Iolanthe. The House of Lords is very largely a political irrelevance, the aristocracy are the proprietors of safari parks or photographer’s studios, and life peerages are given out to members of all social classes. With Britain no longer an imperial power, the Army and the Navy seem increasingly tangential to national life. The legal profession is on the brink of the most systematic reform since the time of Gilbert and Sullivan themselves, and with rapidly rising crime rates, and countless allegations of police corruption and brutality, the constabulary are no longer regarded as once they were.
But while traditionalists may regret these changes, the effect in many ways has been both salutary and liberating. There have been new and vigorous performances of the operas, both on television and in the theater. Joseph Papp’s production of The Pirates of Penzance in New York took many liberties with Sullivan’s score, but it also presented the Pirate King as an authentic swashbuckling hero, and in so doing pointed up the close connections between the early Savoy Operas and Victorian melodrama. Even more audaciously, Jonathan Miller’s Mikado removed Gilbert’s Japanese façade altogether, by setting the opera in interwar England, and suggested that it was best seen as a comedy of manners and a satire on social and political ambition. And just as the operas have been revitalized by these imaginative new productions, so their creators have become historically credible beings for the first time. Sullivan’s recently opened diary shows that he was far from being the pious paragon of popular legend: he loved wine, women, and gambling, and there was little sign in his own life of the ponderous religiosity of his music. 2 And a study of Gilbert and Sullivan’s collaborations suggests that Gilbert was not so much the crusty but good-humored uncle so beloved of Savoyard mythology, as a coarse, aggressive, ill-tempered, and litigious man.3
The result of all this is that the operas and their creators have been practically emancipated from what had increasingly become stultifying encrustations of a century-old British “tradition.” And by viewing Gilbert and Sullivan in their proper historical setting, this paradoxically means that some of the Savoy Operas themselves are being produced more freely and more adventurously than ever before. It may well be that for Gilbert, for Sullivan, and above all for their works, the most fascinating and exciting time in their history is yet to come.
March 7, 1991
For a fuller discussion of the concept of “invented traditions,” see E.J. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 1983). ↩
Arthur Jacobs, Arthur Sullivan: A Victorian Musician (Oxford University Press, 1984). ↩
D. Eden, Gilbert and Sullivan: The Creative Conflict (London: Associated University Presses, 1986). ↩