W.S. Gilbert

A wildly funny and slyly subversive comic genius who deftly skewered the mores of Victorian England


This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Though the Philistines may jostle,
You will rank as an apostle
In the high aesthetic band,
If you walk down Piccadilly
With a poppy or a lily
In your medieval hand.

— W.S. Gilbert, “If you’re anxious for to shine”, from Patience, 1881

Postman’s park, the public garden a short walk from St Paul’s Cathedral, was immortalised by the play Closer (and its subsequent film adaptation) as the site of ordinary people remembered for acts of heroism that cost them their lives.

The Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice, as it is known, commemorates those who died in a variety of ways in attempts, whether successful or in vain, to save others. The idea was that of the painter and sculptor G.F. Watts, who wished to commemorate the valiant deeds of ordinary people who might otherwise have been forgotten.

It is because of this insistence on their being “ordinary” that the lyricist, playwright and poet William Schwenck Gilbert was not included in their number, which is understandable. However, Gilbert’s own death, at the age of 74, was just as deserving of recognition as anything else in his life.

Whilst he and his wife Lucy lived at their Harrow estate, Grim’s Dyke, they often invited local residents to come and swim in their ornamental lake, which Gilbert had extended during their time at the house. On 29 May 1911, Gilbert was conducting a swimming lesson for two local young women, Winifred Emery and Ruby Preece. When Preece was in the middle of the lake, not realising how deep it was, she panicked and shouted, “Oh, Miss Emery, I am drowning!”

Gilbert, without any hesitation, called out to Preece not to be afraid and that he was coming, before swimming out to the centre of the lake. His last words to her were “Put your hands on my shoulder and don’t struggle.” Unfortunately, in so doing, Gilbert suffered a massive and fatal heart attack, and his body had to be recovered from the lake, even after Preece and Emery escaped safely.

Giving evidence to the inquest, Ruby Preece recalled, “I put my hand on his shoulder and I felt him suddenly sink. I thought he would come up again. My feet were on the mud then. Miss Emery called for help and the gardeners came with the boat.”

The image summoned up when Emery later informed Gilbert’s biographers Sidney Dark and Rowland Grey that “it seemed a long time before they recovered the body” is a blackly comic one, that of the grand old man of Victorian lyrics being prodded with boat hooks by the gardeners.

Sir William Schwenck Gilbert

Had Gilbert been able to witness it from whatever celestial perch he found himself in, he would, one hopes, have found it all rather amusing, even if his sudden end was hardly the subject of mirth.

Today, “Gilbert and Sullivan” remain one of the great British duos, like fish and chips, Morecambe and Wise, or Cook and Moore. As with those three, one half of the pair remains vastly more important than the other. They composed a total of 14 comic operas over the quarter-century between 1871 and 1896, and several of their works, including The Mikado, H.M.S Pinafore and Patience, have joined the musical canon, being regularly revived and performed at all levels, from the highest opera houses to the humblest of amateur productions.

Sullivan, who died in 1900 at the age of 58, was a talented composer whose adherence to tuneful pastiche made for pleasant and enjoyable listening. It was little wonder that he was also a prolific writer of hymns (including every schoolchild’s most dreaded march, “Onward Christian Soldiers”) and other sacred and occasional music, although the only time that he ever attempted a serious opera — 1891’s Ivanhoe — was undistinguished and has seldom been revived since.

When Arthur Sullivan expired from a heart attack following an attack of bronchitis, his reputation was assured. Yet Sullivan without Gilbert is a very different proposition to the other way around. The one man had talent; the other, genius.

Gilbert had begun writing witty squibs and comic stories for the magazine Fun in the 1860s, after brief and undistinguished careers in the law and the civil service. He had planned to join the army, but the end of the Crimean War meant that recruiting had gone into abeyance, and so soldiering’s loss became wit’s gain.

By the end of the decade, Gilbert’s snappy skills with a rhyming couplet had seen him pressed into service to supply jokes and comic interludes for many of the burlesque shows and variety acts that were currently filling the stages of London’s theatres, which he did with some distinction.

By 1869, Gilbert had created the libretto for the entertainment Ages Ago, which played in repertoire with the one-act musical farce Cox and Box; the latter had its memorably hummable songs composed by none other than Sullivan, and so the two men began a tentative collaboration in the early 1870s, although their first work together, 1871’s Thespis, was not a success.

Gilbert, diversifying from Sullivan for a time, wrote the burlesque farce Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, A Tragic Episode, in Three Tableaux, which not only anticipated Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by a century, but also introduced an element of sly literary satire that would reappear numerous times in his later work: when Claudius confesses his “unspeakable crime” to Gertrude, it is not the murder of his brother, but the composition of a five-act tragedy in his youth.

Reuniting with Sullivan, Gilbert drew upon his short-lived legal experience at the bar to produce a richly enjoyable satire of the English legal profession, Trial by Jury. It featured the first of Gilbert’s indelible parodies of high society figures in the form of the grandly pompous judge, who declares that, in his legal odyssey:

“In Westminster Hall I danced a dance
Like a semi-despondent fury;
For I thought I never should hit on a chance
Of addressing a British Jury —
But I soon got tired of third-class journeys,
And dinners of bread and water;
So I fell in love with a rich attorney’s
Elderly, ugly daughter.”

Trial by Jury was a hit, and the collaboration between the two men developed swiftly from the tentative to the confident. 1877’s The Sorcerer mocked both Victorian social mores and bogus supernatural charlatanism, exemplified by the figure of the “dealer in magic and spells”, the urbane but fraudulent John Wellington Wells, before H.M.S Pinafore (1878) established Gilbert and Sullivan as both a British and an international phenomenon.

Pinafore played exceptionally well in the United States, which thrilled to its satire of British pomposity and incompetence. Gilbert’s lyrics for the songs, “When I was a lad” and “For he is an Englishman” remain two of his most enduring. The former features Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty, engaging in a patented Gilbert technique of ridiculing his social advancement as he declares:

“I grew so rich that I was sent
By a pocket borough into Parliament
I always voted at my party’s call,
And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.
I thought so little, they rewarded me
By making me the Ruler of the Queen’s Navee!”

It is a shame that many contemporary politicians have regarded Porter’s credo as career advice, rather than satire, but a greater claim to patriotism comes later, when the opera’s hero Ralph, “the smartest lad in all the fleet”, can declare that “I am an Englishman, behold me!” as the chorus comment, firmly tongue-in-cheek:

“But in spite of all temptations
To belong to other nations,
He remains an Englishman!”

Patriotism, humour — the satirical thrust of which may have gone over an indulgent audience’s heads — and tunefulness were a potent combination. They returned over and over as Gilbert and Sullivan entered their imperial phase, which in 1879 produced The Pirates of Penzance, complete with their most famous patter song, the double-paced “I am the very model of a modern major general”.

The song not only saw Gilbert embrace self-referentiality, as the pompous Major-General Stanley announces that he can “whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore”, but also takes aim at military incompetence, as Stanley concludes:

“For my military knowledge, though I’m plucky and adventury,
Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century;
But still, in matters vegetable, animal and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.”

Gilbert was explicitly satirising the future commander-in-chief of the British Army, Sir Garnett Wolseley, who was sufficiently flattered by the compliment that he would serenade his no doubt terrified family and friends with impromptu choruses of “I am the very model of a modern major general” at home.

Yet Gilbert’s intentions stretched beyond mocking the traditional pillars of Englishness to take on the then-modish Aesthetic movement. In his next collaboration with Sullivan, 1881’s Patience (1881), he satirised Oscar Wilde as the “fleshy poet” Bunthorne, who, in the show’s most memorable number, declares himself to be “an aesthetic sham”. Gilbert anticipated the humour of such 20th century gay playwrights as Coward and Orton — as well, of course, as the work of Wilde himself — when he had Bunthorne soliloquise:

“Then a sentimental passion
Of a vegetable fashion
Must excite your languid spleen
An attachment a la Plato
For a bashful young potato
Or a not-too-French French bean!”

This was subtle; it is not even clear that Sullivan understood his collaborator’s jokes. Certainly, the relationship between the two men, although still professionally harmonious, was showing signs of strain. Gilbert’s satirical edge was getting sharper with experience, as his targets stretched to include everyone and everything from the House of Lords (in Iolanthe) to women’s educational standards (Princess Ida) and mid-level bureaucracy (The Mikado), though the sting of the latter was partially disguised by its Japanese setting.

Ever-perceptive, G.K Chesterton remarked of it, “I doubt if there is a single joke in the whole play that fits the Japanese. But all the jokes in the play fit the English. … About England Pooh-bah is something more than a satire; he is the truth.”

Yet Sullivan was consorting avidly and enthusiastically with London’s Pooh-bahs and Ko-Kos at society functions. It is only a minor exaggeration to suggest that whilst Gilbert tore into British hypocrisy and pomposity, Sullivan thrived on it. He had been knighted in 1883 for “services rendered to the art of the promotion of music” — a suitably long-winded way of describing his ability to compose a tuneful number — and took his responsibilities seriously enough to lean on Gilbert to tone down the pro-republican sympathies in one of their final collaborations, 1889’s The Gondoliers.

Sir Arthur Sullivan

Their relationship then foundered entirely in a suitably bizarre and very English fashion; Gilbert was angered by their patron Richard D’Oyly Carte charging them £500 for a new carpet for the Savoy Theatre, where their shows were staged. When Sullivan took Carte’s side, Gilbert dissolved the partnership. As Sullivan sighed in a letter to his former friend, “I have not yet got over the shock of seeing our names coupled in hostile antagonism over a few miserable pounds.” They would work together again, but without their former success, and eventually went their separate ways in recrimination and occasional remorse.

In the last years of his life, Gilbert attempted to move beyond witty satire with his 1911 play The Hooligan, an introspective study of a young man condemned to death for the murder of his girlfriend, a world away from the lighter works with which he was synonymous.

Gilbert, by now also a knight of the realm, was wealthy, successful and able to take on only the work that interested him, rather than having to collaborate on lucrative but unexciting projects. He had acquired a reputation, like many humorists, for being gruff, even curmudgeonly in his professional life. But this was at odds with the enormous kindness and decency that he demonstrated on other occasions; including, of course, in the final moments of his existence.

Gilbert has influenced countless other writers, both comic and serious — not least the American screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who has tried on numerous, sometimes incongruous, occasion to include allusions to Gilbert in everything from The West Wing to his serial killer thriller Malice.

Some have come close to his wit — not least Michael Flanders, whose partnership with Donald Swann was a lower-key and more overly jovial attempt to recreate the Gilbert and Sullivan magic — but few have ever equalled his ability to combine “generous anger”, as Orwell wrote of Dickens, with a rich insight into the vagaries and infelicities of human nature. As Sullivan’s music parps and trills away pleasantly, Gilbert’s lyrics, in all their tongue-twisting, brain-whirling glory, manage to paint an upside-down picture of Victorian England in which black is white, topsy is turvy and disorder rules the roost.

It’s an exhilarating, frequently confounding vision that can, and should, be ranked with the likes of Lewis Carroll and Mervyn Peake in its panoramic splendour, as well as its subversive wit. Still, as he wrote in H.M.S Pinafore, “it’s greatly to his credit / that he is an Englishman.” It is hard to imagine any other nation that this irascible, brilliant figure would have been such an asset to.

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