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Gilbert & Sullivan

A Beginner's Guide to

W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan are one of the most celebrated theatrical partnerships of all time.  Together they wrote 14 operettas, which were highly successful at the time, and continue to be performed all over the world to this day. An operetta is a short opera, usually on a light-hearted theme which includes spoken dialogue as well as songs and it was a very popular format in the 19th century.  Gilbert and Sullivan were much admired by the Victorian public.  Richard D’Oyly Carte, a successful theatre owner, brought the two men together and managed their partnership for over a decade while they produced many successes. Gilbert wrote the librettos and would present them to Sullivan who skilfully wrote the music to match the words.

D’Oyly Carte formed the D’Oyly Carte Opera company to perform the productions and later purchased the Savoy Theatre in London, in which to stage them, hence the shows now being known as The Savoy Operas.  Their memorable tunes and comic storylines have remained popular with the public for well over a hundred years.


Arthur Sullivan had been a gifted musician since childhood.  His father was a military bandmaster and Arthur learnt several instruments from the band and was composing by the time he was 8.  He was a chorister at the Chapel Royal and was accepted into the Royal Academy of Music at the age of 14, later studying in Germany.  He began his composing career with orchestral works but also wrote hymns, including ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and parlour ballads including ‘The Lost Chord’. At first, he couldn’t make enough money with his compositions, so he worked as a church organist and a music teacher.  He began to acquire a reputation and gained some royal favour when he worked on music for the wedding of the Prince of Wales.  Queen Victoria liked his music and later in his career he was knighted.  


W.S. Gilbert had tried several other careers before becoming a writer.  He had been an assistant clerk in the Privy Council which he hated, so when he inherited some money he decided to try his hand as a barrister.  He was extremely unsuccessful as a barrister and only averaged 5 clients a year.  He started to supplement his income by writing short stories, witty theatre reviews and comic verse under the name Bab, which had been his childhood nickname.  His poems were particularly popular and were reprinted under the name ‘Bab Ballads’ and he would return to some of the themes of these poems for the subject matter in his operettas.  He also drew on his experiences as a Civil Servant and Barrister and his early life, when he travelled extensively.  He developed a unique style of storytelling: absurdist and surreal, setting up a ridiculous premise and following it to its logical conclusion.  It became known as his ‘topsy turvy’ style.

He had tried writing comic opera before he met Gilbert and had had success with ‘Box and Cox’ which Richard D’Oyly Carte had conducted. When D’Oyly Carte needed a short operetta to put on at his theatre he suggested Sullivan and Gilbert work together and they wrote ‘Trial by Jury’ and then a series of box office hits which established them as successful, affluent men. For over ten years they produced regular theatrical triumphs but during the run of the Gondoliers in1890 they fell out and ended their partnership.  The quarrel was over a carpet.  Gilbert thought that the new carpet purchased for the Savoy Theatre lobby should be funded by D’Oyly Carte himself rather than come out of profit from the Gondoliers.  Sullivan took Carte’s side, as he felt obliged to him as he was building a new theatre for a grand opera that Sullivan was writing.  Sullivan had long complained that he wanted to devote himself to more serious works, especially after he had been knighted.  Gilbert took legal action and they parted company.  The split only last a couple of years however, as both men needed money.  They wrote another two Savoy operas together though neither of them was as popular as the earlier collaborations.

Written by Helen Morbey (Eastbourne G&S member)

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