Gilbert at Law

W. S. Gilbert

The first complete Gilbert and Sullivan work that we have today is Trial by Jury, a one-act comic opera that takes place in a courtroom – a venue that Gilbert knew well.

Although Gilbert had been writing plays since he was a boy (the earliest ones were performed by his mother and two younger sisters, who were all interested in amateur dramatics), as a young man he didn’t see play-writing as a career option.

But what was he to do? He got a job as an assistant clerk in the newly-formed Education Department, but loathed every minute of “the detestable thralldom of this baleful office,” as he put it.

As an antidote to the boredom, he joined a volunteer militia, first as an Ensign with the Fifth West Yorkshire Militia, and then switched to the Civil Service Rifle Volunteers where he soon rose to become Lieutenant of the Second Company.

But then in 1861, he received a legacy of £300 from his great-aunt and godmother, Mary Schwenk. It changed his life.

Gilbert wrote: “On the happiest day of my life I sent in my resignation. With £100 I paid my call to the Bar (I had previously entered myself as a student at the Inner Temple), with another £100 I obtained access to a conveyancer’s chambers, and with the third £100 I furnished a set of chambers of my own, and began life afresh as a barrister-at-law.”

But life as a brand-new barrister-at-law proved difficult. His few clients included a number of entertaining characters.

His first appearance as a barrister was at Liverpool, where he had to deal with an Irish woman who was charged with stealing a coat. According to Gilbert, the moment he rose to his feet the woman began to yell.

“Ah, ye devil, sit down!” she shouted. “Don’t listen to him, yer honner! He’s known in all the slums of Liverpool! Sit down, ye spalpeen! He’s as drunk as a lord, yer honner, begging yer lordship’s pardon!”

Every time Gilbert tried to speak, she drowned him out with her insults. The Recorder of the court was laughing too hard to stop her.

Another client was an excitable Frenchman who, when Gilbert won his case for him, embraced him in open court and kissed him on both cheeks.

It was with a third client that Gilbert learned the danger of assuming too much about the person one is defending. This client was a very religious woman on her way to a prayer meeting, when she was accused of pickpocketing by a fellow traveler. Sure enough, the traveler’s purse was found in her pocket. The woman told Gilbert that she always carried her hymn-book in that pocket, so she didn’t realize anything else had been put in there.  As a result, Gilbert assumed the purse was planted on this poor devout woman by some evildoer.

Hesketh Pearson, in Gilbert and Sullivan, reported that the young barrister cross-examined the arresting policeman as follows:

“You say you found the purse in her pocket, my man?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you find anything else?”

“Yes, sir.”


“Two other purses, a watch with the bow broken, three handkerchiefs, two silver pencil-cases, and a hymn-book.”

The items in question were produced as exhibits amid roars of laughter.

Then, when Gilbert called the witnesses he’d asked to appear in court to testify to his client’s good character, exactly none of them were present.

When the judge handed down a sentence of 18 months’ hard labor, the woman pulled off one of her heavy boots and threw it at Gilbert’s head. He ducked. The boot missed him, and hit a reporter in a sensitive spot, which may have been the reason for the tone of the news report that appeared the next day, criticizing Gilbert’s handling of the case.

But on a brighter note, Gilbert’s experience in the courts of law helped him create Trial by Jury, one of the funniest and most original comic operas ever to be set in a courtroom.

Performances of Trial by Jury may be viewed on YouTube:







W.S. Gilbert and P.G. Wodehouse

W.S. Gilbert’s comic operas with Arthur Sullivan inspired generations of artists to come, including Pelham Greville Wodehouse, the creator of Bertie Wooster and his peerless butler, Jeeves.

P.G. Wodehouse

(If you haven’t read the Jeeves and Wooster books yet, you are in for a treat! You can find them in print, as audiobooks and also as a fabulous television series featuring Hugh Laurie as Wooster and Stephen Fry as Jeeves. Check your library, Amazon, or Netflix.)

P.G. Wodehouse, known to friends and family as “Plum,” was born in 1881, when Gilbert was nearing the height of his popularity. The two only met once, when Plum was a boy. Unfortunately, their meeting didn’t produce the fondest of memories!

It happened like this:

In his youth, P.G. Wodehouse was taken to lunch at Grims Dyke, W.S. Gilbert’s handsome home in Harrow Weald in northwest London.
Hesketh Pearson, in Gilbert: His Life and Strife, reported that “…halfway through the meal, Gilbert started to tell the sort of yarn that begins dully and ends brightly.”

Wodehouse confessed, in David A Jasen’s biography, A Portrait of a Master:

“I had a rather distinctive laugh in those days, something like the last bit of water going down the waste pipe in a bath. Infectious, I suppose you would call it.”

So there the young man sat quietly, listening to a story told by his idol, W.S. Gilbert – and if W.S. Gilbert told a story, it must be funny. But this story, in Plum’s opinion, was dull. What’s a young fan to do?

Plum decided he couldn’t let his host down. So, when W.S. paused in telling the story, the young man thought the story was complete. He let loose his loud, distinctive laugh.

Wrong move! The pause was just for dramatic effect, and Plum had spoiled the whole story by laughing before Gilbert got to the punch line. The other guests, seeming a little puzzled, as if they had expected something better from the author of the Mikado, all laughed politely, and conversation became general. Thanks to Plum, the whole story fell flat.

W. S. Gilbert

Pearson quotes Wodehouse:

“It was at this point that I caught my host’s eye, and I shall always remember the glare of pure hatred which I saw in it. If you have seen photographs of Gilbert, you will be aware that even in repose his face was inclined to be formidable and his eye not the sort of eye you would willingly catch. And now his face was far from being in repose. His eyes, beneath their beetling brows, seared me like a flame.
In order to get away from them, I averted my gaze and found myself encountering that of the butler. His eyes were shining with a doglike devotion. I had made his day. I suppose he had heard that story rumbled to its conclusion at least twenty times, probably more, and I had killed it.”

(P.G. Wodehouse once claimed that butlers were always gloomy because so many of their employers were sparkling raconteurs – and butlers were the ones who heard the same sparkling stories told the exact same way, over and over and over again. So the only one who was happy about the boy’s faux pas was the butler!)

In A Life in Letters, a collection of his correspondence, Wodehouse mentioned this story again.

In a letter in August 13, 1964 addressed to a Mr. Schreyer in Remsenburg, New York, Wodehouse said,

Dear Mr. Schreyer,

Thank you so much for your letter. I am delighted that you have enjoyed my books.

When I was your age, my two idols were WS Gilbert, the Savoy opera man, and Conan Doyle – with a slight edge in favor of the latter because I knew him through playing cricket with him, whereas Gilbert was a sort of remote godlike character to me. (I did meet him once. A mutual friend took me to lunch at his (Gilbert’s) house and I killed one of G’s best stories by laughing in the wrong place!)

Yours sincerely

PG Woodhouse


Nowadays, a few brave souls have shared their Awkward Celebrity Encounters. I’d say that Wodehouse’s encounter with Gilbert qualifies as very awkward!

What do you think?

When Gilbert Met Sullivan

Conventional wisdom has it that W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan first met in July of 1870. Their mutual friend Fred Clay formally introduced them at a rehearsal for one of Gilbert’s early plays, Ages Ago.

Gilbert immediately challenged Sullivan with the following question of musical theory: Would the result be the same, he asked, whether one chose to play upon the simple tetrachord of Mercury, that knew no diatonic interval, or the elaborate dis-diapason (four tetrachords, and one redundant note), embracing in its perfect consonance all simple, double and inverted chords?

Apparently, this is a very elaborate piece of nonsense – something that Sullivan recognized right away (Gilbert once said of Sullivan that he always understood a joke immediately and never needed an explanation).

Sullivan thought about it for a moment, then told Gilbert, basically, that it was a very nice question and that he’d have to think about it before giving him a definite answer.  (A typically smooth and diplomatic Sullivan response, I think!)

But was this the first time Gilbert and Sullivan had ever met? Probably not.

Ellen Terry, as The Watchman (c) National Trust, Smallhythe Place; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

As a young writer and artist in 1860s London, W S Gilbert had an active social life which included parties, masquerades, impromptu theatricals, and balls. At the same time, the rising young composer Arthur Sullivan also enjoyed an active social life that included parties, amateur theatricals, and musical entertainments.

William and Arthur traveled in many of the same circles of London’s Bohemia – pre-Raphaelite artists, poets and playwrights, actors, singers and musicians, many of whom achieved great fame in their time.

So it seems very likely that they at least knew of one another; In 1867 Gilbert, as theater critic for Fun magazine, attended the first public performance of Cox and Box, for which Sullivan had written the music. In his review, Gilbert commented that “Mr. Sullivan’s music is, in many places, of too high a class for the grotesquely absurd plot to which it is wedded.”

Furthermore, their paths may have crossed very close indeed – the great Victorian actress Ellen Terry, in her autobiography The Story of My Life, has this to say:

Most people know that Tom Taylor was one of the leading playwrights of the sixties as well as the dramatic critic of the Times, editor of Punch, and a distinguished civil servant, but to us he was more than this – he was an institution! I simply cannot remember when I did not know him… Their house in Lavender Sweep was lovely ….

[Taylor] was an enthusiastic amateur actor, his favorite part being Adam in As You Like It, perhaps because tradition says this was a part Shakespeare played; at any rate, he was very good in it. Gilbert and Sullivan, in very far-off days, used to be concerned in these amateur theatricals. Their names were not associated then, but [my sister] Kate and I established a prophetic link by carrying on a mild flirtation, I with Arthur Sullivan, Kate with Mr. Gilbert!

So there you have it – before Gilbert and Sullivan became Gilbert and Sullivan, they came close enough to flirt with two sisters at the same amateur theatricals. It must have been a small world, where all the creatives knew everyone else.

Kate Terry, who flirted with W S Gilbert at amateur theatricals (pictured here posing as Andromeda. Photo by Lewis Carroll)




I’m Guest Blogging!

Today, your humble correspondent is guest blogging over at the Bluestocking Belles! This entertaining group of ladies write stories and blog together because history is fun and love is worth working for.

In today’s article, I have interviewed my fictional version of W. S. Gilbert, who plays a part in my upcoming historical mystery novel, A SHORT SHARP SHOCK.

CLICK HERE to go to the Bluestocking Belles’ TeaTime Tattler to find out more about Mr. Gilbert, Lucy Turner, and the blasted country house party.

I’m sure you’ll greatly enjoy my interview with The Passionate Mr. Gilbert!


W.S. Gilbert’s Childhood Family Drama

W. S. Gilbert

Children abducted, children hidden, children mixed up by their caretakers—in William S. Gilbert’s librettos, childhood was a dangerous time.

In H. M. S. Pinafore, two babies were mixed up by a careless “baby farmer” (day care provider). In The Pirates of Penzance, the young hero’s silly nursemaid apprenticed the boy to a pirate instead of a pilot, dooming him to a life of crime. In Iolanthe, the Lord Chancellor doesn’t know that he even has a son, much less that his child is the half-mortal, half-fairy Strephon. In The Gondoliers, the infant heir to the throne of Barataria was stolen by the Grand Inquisitor and raised in Venice as a gondolier.

Even though the “secret baby” trope is used in many story genres, Gilbert actually experienced scenes of family drama, revolving around child custody and kidnapping.

As discussed in this earlier blog post, Gilbert himself claimed to have been abducted by brigands in Naples when he was two years old. Although the truth of this story has been questioned (he was only a toddler at the time, so how could he remember it so clearly?), it still seems to have been part of their family’s storytelling.

And it seems that in January of 1845, when Gilbert was only 8 years old, he witnessed another tumultuous family scene involving the forcible separation of a parent from their children. It happened like this:

Gilbert’s drawing of the baby’s abduction in The Gondoliers.

W.S. Gilbert’s father, William senior, had a brother named Joseph. Joseph married Catherine, and they had two sons. By 1841, Joseph had developed tuberculosis and died. His will made his wife, Catherine, the guardian of their children – and a few months before his death, Joseph added a codicil to appoint William Gilbert Senior as the second guardian of the boys. The codicil was not drawn up by the lawyers—it was undated and witnessed not by a solicitor but by William Gilbert’s two servants.

Why? Most likely because Catherine, still in her twenties, might want to marry again. Childhood mortality rates were very high in Victorian days. Catherine’s boys stood to inherit money from their grandfather, and without the codicil, their inheritance would go to Catherine and her new husband instead of to William senior.

At Christmas 1844 Catherine and her two surviving sons, Francis, age 7, and Joseph, age 5, came to stay with the William Gilberts through the new year. At this time, the young widow had become emotionally involved with a Captain Harman Baillie Hopper, and intended to marry him. So in January 1845, Catherine and the Captain left the boys with the Gilberts and went on a little vacation together.

While the couple were away, the boys told their Uncle William (and another relative, John Schwenck) about how they had seen Captain Hopper rubbing ointment on their mother’s leg. That, apparently, made the Captain very tired, and the two of them lay on her bed together talking.

Well, that was a shocker! William senior was so disturbed by this account that when Catherine came back on January 16 to pick up her children, John Schwenck and William Gilbert refused to hand them over.

Undaunted, Catherine came back the next day with her brother, John Francis, and a Bow Street officer. After an angry and tearful scene, she still wasn’t able to get her sons back.  William senior insisted that she had created an “immoral environment” which was unhealthy for her sons. The whole sordid thing wound up in the newspapers. Catherine applied for a writ of habeas corpus on January 20, and got her boys back in March 1845, having apparently proven that she was a fit mother after all.

Was young William S. Gilbert aware of all this drama? It’s likely that he knew about the unhappy situation, even if he might not have actually witnessed the struggle between the widowed sister-in-law and the judgmental and forbidding William senior.

As Andrew Crowther says in Gilbert of Gilbert & Sullivan: His Life and Character:

“Where is the warmth and affection that one would like to see in Gilbert’s family background? Gilbert himself tells us precious little in the way of reminiscence about his family: a sketch of a grandfather, a few passing comments about his father, practically nothing about his mother and sisters. We are left only with a vague feeling of coldness, darkness and isolation. Little wonder, then, that Gilbert looked instead towards the fantasy world of theatre to provide light, warmth and joy.”

Although there is no way to be sure that this ugly event from Gilbert’s childhood affected the stories he wrote as an adult, it’s possible that they might have been twisted and transmuted into the topsy-turvy scenarios he wrote later on. What do you think? Do the events of our childhood leave us, or do they become part of our “core story” as grownups?

Let me know in the comments!

Sir Arthur Sullivan’s Ivanhoe


Cover of Ivanhoe CD

Which has more artistic merit: Drama or Comedy?

I bet most people would say that Drama, being more serious, sheds more light on the human condition. They might add that Comedy is more entertaining but less illuminating.

This was the question Sir Arthur Sullivan faced around 1888 to 1891: Should England’s most highly lauded composer continue to write comic operas with W.S. Gilbert (the musical equivalent, one might say, of being a graphic novel illustrator who provides images that suit someone else’s story), or should he devote his time to Serious Music in the form of a grand opera (perhaps comparable to creating an original oil painting worthy of being hung in a museum)?

Despite the success of the more romantic and dramatic Yeomen of the Guard, by 1888 Sir Arthur Sullivan was ready to move on from comic opera. He was helped along the road to Serious Music by The Times’ review of his incidental music to Henry Irving’s production of Macbeth.

The Times wrote, a bit sniffily, “Self-restraint, subordination, and assimilation to a higher purpose become, in such circumstances, almost as important as creative genius; and these virtues Sir Arthur Sullivan has had every opportunity of practicing during his long association with Mr. Gilbert.”

This apparently was an extremely sore spot with Sullivan – the idea that, in his collaboration with Gilbert, the beauty of the music had to take a back seat to Gilbert’s topsy-turvy stories. Sure, audiences loved the words, but maybe any tune would do.

That really hurt.

So Sullivan decided that he was going to write a grand opera. Gilbert declined to provide a libretto, saying that if he were to try it, his work “would be, deservedly or otherwise, generally poo-poohed.” He suggested that Julian Sturgis was the best serious librettist of the day, and when Sturgis accepted the job, work on Ivanhoe began.

The climactic battle between Ivanhoe and Brian de Bois-Guilbert

What could be more English than Sir Walter Scott’s tale of the disinherited Saxon knight, Wilfrid of Ivanhoe, brave Crusader and loyal follower of Richard the Lionhearted? Scott’s story also is the basis for our popular idea of Robin Hood, who appears in the story along with his band of “merry men.” Victorian audiences would have known this story by heart – but it may be less well-known today, which is a pity since it’s a tremendous tale with chivalrous knights, beautiful damsels, villainous noblemen, jousting, archery, a witch trial and a daring rescue from a burning castle.

Between bouts of illness, Sullivan worked on Ivanhoe, which was finished in December 1890 and premiered on January 31, 1891.

Premiere program

The opening night was well attended by royalty including the Prince and Princess of Wales, the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh, and the cream of London society. Queen Victoria was at Osborne on the Isle of Wight, but her daughter Princess Louise wrote to Sullivan to congratulate him, saying that the Queen was particularly pleased since she believed that “it [was] owing to her own instigation that you undertook this great work.” The Queen had indeed suggested to Sir Arthur that he write a grand opera after she heard The Golden Legend.

Sullivan wrote back saying that it had indeed been the Queen’s encouragement to him that had inspired him to write the opera, and asked to be allowed to dedicate the opera to Queen Victoria. “If Her Majesty would graciously accept this tribute of my devotion and respect, I should look upon it as the crowning point of my career.”

Even W.S. Gilbert, who was in the middle of an extended quarrel with Sullivan and D’Oyly Carte at the time, went to see Ivanhoe and reported that he was not bored by it (“the highest compliment I ever paid a grand opera”).

Sullivan’s Ivanhoe ran for a total of 161 performances – a huge success for a grand opera, but nowhere near the popularity of H.M.S. Pinafore, which had 571 performances, The Gondoliers, performed 554 times, or The Mikado, which ran for an astonishing 672 performances.

At least in terms of enduring popularity, it seems that Comedy has won out over Drama in this case – but maybe it’s time to revisit Sullivan’s grand opera and decide for ourselves.

What do you think? Do you prefer Comedy or Drama? Let me know in the comments.

Sketches of scenes from the opera


References: Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography by Michael Ainger; Gilbert and Sullivan by Hesketh Pearson






Jilted Brides and “Trial By Jury”

tbyj-judgeDuring the Victorian era, only a woman could break off an engagement without suffering any consequences. A romantic relationship wasn’t over until the woman said it was over.

This was mostly the result of Victorian views about the proper roles of men and women: Men were supposed to be strong and protective, while women were weak and emotional. (See more on Gender Roles here)

Because Victorian women required protection, when a man offered or promised such protection, he had to honor that promise. The breach of promise suit – a legal claim that allowed a jilted person to obtain financial damages from their intended – grew into the standard remedy for a female who had suffered when a relationship that should have resulted in the security and stability of marriage went sour.

“Though seldom helpful to women in the criminal courts, the assumption of manly responsibility for providing, promise-keeping, and sexuality was a great asset to female plaintiffs in the civil tribunals,“ comments an article in Nineteenth Century Studies.

Also, according to this article, during the mid-Victorian years, as many as 100 men a year were sued in court by their former fiancées.

Denise Bates, author of Breach of Promise to Marry: A History of How Jilted Brides Settled Scores, mentioned in her guest post here  that the disappointed brides often won their cases, and sympathetic juries often awarded them substantial sums of around 100 pounds (maybe 10,000 pounds today).

In Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, the ambitious engineer Paul Montague had an affair with a woman named Mrs. Hurtle.  They lived together in America, but she ditched him at the altar, and he returned to England thinking she was out of his life. However, she suddenly showed up in his life and insisted that because she had “given him all a woman had to give,” it was up to her to say whether their affair was over. Her weapon was the breach of promise of marriage suit.

In Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by JuryAngelina, the jilted bride, passionately tells the jury:


Oh, see what a blessing,

What love and caressing

I’ve lost, and remember it pray,

When you I’m addressing,

Are busy assessing

The damages Edwin must pay,

He must pay!


With real life, literature and music all telling them to beware of making hasty promises, Victorian men were very careful about breaking off their relationships with women!

I believe that in real life, Arthur Sullivan had this problem with respect to his painful and protracted relationship with Rachel Scott Russell.

Rachel Scott Russell was the daughter of a wealthy engineer, socially far above the promising but penniless young musician that Arthur Sullivan was at the time. Sullivan had begun to get favorable notices from the music critics, and he had powerful friends, but his income was spotty and depended upon selling the occasional piece of parlor music.

Passionately in love, Rachel “gave him all a woman has to give,” in Trollope’s words. In Rachel’s view, she and Arthur were married in every way that mattered. But Arthur’s income wasn’t good enough for Rachel’s parents. When the young couple went to ask permission, her mother forbade the marriage and demanded that they stop seeing one another.

So why didn’t they just stop seeing one another?

I think that because of the Victorian value system, Arthur couldn’t leave her.  She had to leave him — and Rachel didn’t want to end the relationship.

So, they kept writing to one another in secret. They met in secret too. We know some of how the affair went, because Arthur saved all of Rachel’s letters, although he made her promise to destroy his letters to her, which she did.

Rachel argued and complained in her letters, but she never released him.

Rachel asked Arthur to get a steady job as a clerk in a bank. He refused to give up his musical career.

What’s a Victorian man to do?

According to Michael Ainger’s Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography, Sullivan began a love affair with Rachel’s sister Alice. Was he hoping that Rachel would find out about the affair and break things off with him permanently?

If that was the case, it didn’t work. The painful and prolonged relationship between Sullivan and Rachel dragged on for several years, before her parents finally married her off to another man and she moved to India.

The affair between Alice and Arthur faded out, too.

Arthur later found pleasure and companionship in his relationship with his married lover, Mrs. Ronalds. But he never did marry!








W. S. Gilbert and the Secret Admirer

W. S. Gilbert

W. S. Gilbert

William S. Gilbert was known for being a strict and demanding director—a martinet, in fact. But he was respected by the actors who worked for him. One awed member of his chorus noted, “He’s the only man I ever met who could swear straight on for five minutes without stopping to think or repeating himself.”

Also, many of the women he worked with really liked him. He defended the ladies of his chorus against “stage-door johnnies” and “mashers” who thought actresses were loose women. He hated the Victorian double-standard of behavior that punished women for the same actions that men were praised for, and wrote a couple of plays to point out this inequity.

But as far as we know, only one lady of the chorus took her admiration farther than that. While Gilbert was in America for the premiere of The Pirates of Penzance, he received a letter from a chorus member who signed herself “Cynisca.”

She wrote in part:

“How it started God only knows, I flattered myself I was fascinated by your ability…. If you for a moment think I have a sinful thought connected with you, you have sadly mistaken me, my feeling for you is of the head alone…Think of me with respect for I deserve it, there is no shame in the feeling I bear you—Good by.”

Jane Stedman, in her biography of Gilbert, adds that the letter was dated 1880, and was written on cheap lined paper. The author also told Gilbert that she had never loved before, even though she was married to a husband whom she’d left after the American Civil War. “From that time, I encased myself in cast iron,” she wrote, until she met Gilbert. She’d fallen in love with him, and the thought that he would be returning to England was “worse than death.”

Madge Robertson (Mrs.Kendal ) as Galatea. From G&S archive.

Madge Robertson (Mrs.Kendal ) as Galatea. From G&S archive.

Poor Cynisca! Her letter is clearly not an invitation to Gilbert, but rather a farewell. It seems unlikely that Gilbert knew about her feelings until this letter arrived.

Gilbert’s successful play of 1871, called Pygmalion and Galatea, might have been where his anonymous admirer got her name. In that play, the sculptor was married to Cynisca. She’s a strong female character who is most upset when she returns from a trip to find he’s brought his sculpture to life (George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion wasn’t produced until 1913).

History doesn’t reveal who this letter-writing Cynisca was, or how Gilbert felt about it, or even if he knew who she was. He seems to have been a sentimental man and not a Lothario.  However, the fact is that Gilbert usually destroyed all his personal correspondence and this letter, for whatever reason, survives.

What do you think? Would you ever write a letter like the one Cynisca wrote to W.S. Gilbert? Who would you write it to?  Let me know in the comments.



Arthur Sullivan’s Best and Worst Day

sullivanThe worst of days and the best of days – that’s probably how Arthur Sullivan would describe the premiere of Iolanthe on November 25, 1882.

The weeks leading up to the premiere were fraught with tension. To avoid American theatrical companies from pirating their work, Gilbert and Sullivan had arranged for two sets of casts—one in New York and one in London, so the premieres could be held at the same time and thus establish copyright in both places. Letters and transatlantic messages flew back and forth. The music was locked up every night to keep it safe from prying eyes, and during the rehearsals the main character was called Periola instead of Iolanthe!

It was a stressful time. Gilbert had his own way of dealing with stress—he never could stand to be in the playhouse during a premiere. Instead, it was his habit to leave the theater and pace up and down the Thames Embankment until the curtain fell.

Original costume design for Iolanthe by Wilhelm (G&S archive)

Original costume design for Iolanthe by Wilhelm (G&S archive)

At the last minute, Arthur Sullivan told the members of the chorus that the show’s main character was not called Periola—starting on premiere night, they would not be singing “Periola,” as they had been doing for weeks, but they would be singing “Iolanthe” instead.

Understandably upset, some chorus members asked, “What if we forget and say Periola instead of Iolanthe?”

Quickly, Sullivan replied, “Never mind so long as you sing the music. Use any name that happens to occur to you! Nobody in the audience will be the wiser, except Mr. Gilbert – and he won’t be there.”

So Sullivan was good at solving other people’s problems. Too bad he couldn’t solve his own. November 25, 1882 turned out to be a rough day for Sullivan. In his diary he wrote,

At home all day–L.W. [“Little Woman,” his pet name for Mrs. Ronalds] to tea. Received letter from E.A. Hall saying he was ruined & my money (about £7,000) lost, just before starting for the theater—Dined with Smythe at home. 1st Performance of “Iolanthe” at the Savoy Theater. House crammed, awfully nervous, more so than usual on going into the Orchestra—tremendous reception—1st Act went splendidly—the 2nd dragged & I was afraid it must be compressed—however it finished well & Gilbert & myself were called & heartily cheered. Very low afterwards—came home.

So there it is—a brilliant new theatrical success and financial ruin, all in one day.

Original costume design for the Fairy Queen by Wilhelm (G&S archive)

Original costume design for the Fairy Queen by Wilhelm (G&S archive)

According to Hesketh Pearson, that £7,000 sum was Sullivan’s entire life’s savings. According to Measuring Worth, £7,000 in 1882 would have a value of at least £635,800 in 2015.

Christopher Hibbert writes in Gilbert & Sullivan and their Victorian World that Sullivan received a letter from his stockbroker, E. A. Hall, by special messenger right before he left his house on Victoria Street to go to the theater for the premiere.

You must look upon [all Sullivan’s life’s savings] as lost. God knows how it will all end, but I have seen it coming for ages. Thank God my friends stick to me and believe me honest. I am afraid Cooper [his partner] is not all that we have always thought him. I have been weak and he has exerted a fatal influence and power over me… Come and see me, my dear boy, though I feel you will hate me.”

Sullivan apparently didn’t even blame Edward Hall for the loss. He wrote his friend and stockbroker:

I am deeply grieved at the terrible news which I learned first from your letter yesterday. I of course knew from what you had told me that you were passing through critical times, but I did not anticipate such a speedy and lamentable end. As a friend, and one to whom I am so much attached, you have my deepest sympathy for I know what you must have been suffering.

This level of generosity and kindness was evidently typical of Sullivan. Hibbert tells another story about the time when Sullivan’s fur-lined overcoat was stolen:

It was known, for instance, that when his fur-lined overcoat was stolen by one of the wardrobe staff who pawned it for £2 in order to pay for doctor’s bills for his wife and seventh baby, Sullivan said to the man as he contritely confessed to the crime with the pawn ticket in his hand, “I’m sorry you’re in trouble. But as it happens I’m in need of that coat now the cold weather has set in. Here’s £5. Go and get the coat out of pawn and keep the change to buy something for your wife and baby. And for heaven’s sake don’t say you’re sorry again.”

Gilbert was known for his sharp wit, sarcasm and his championing of justice and fairness. But Arthur Sullivan was known for kindness, generosity and humanity. It’s amazing to me that both men could be admirable in their ways, while being so completely opposite.

Also, check out these gorgeous watercolors of Iolanthe by W. Russell Flint.






Gilbert & Sullivan & Pirates, Oh, My!

Engraving of Richard Temple as The Pirate King, c. 1880

Engraving of Richard Temple as The Pirate King, c. 1880

Arrgh, matey! Since the International Talk Like a Pirate Day was celebrated just a couple of days ago on Monday, September 19, I think that the time is ripe to consider these swashbuckling fellows. So, let us consider why we like pirates.

It’s their devil-may-care attitude

Along with highwaymen, spies and other rule-breaking rogues, pirates seem to hold a special place in our popular mythology. We know what they do is wrong, and yet … there’s just something about them. I believe that pirates appeal to regular people because:

  • They defy conventions. When society is particularly rigid, or when ordinary folk are systematically denied justice, then the rule-breakers who impose their own brand of “natural justice” become folk heroes. As the Pirate King in the Pirates of Penzance admits, “I don’t think much of our profession, but contrasted with respectability, it’s comparatively honest.”
  • They are free. Remember in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, when Captain Jack Sparrow confessed to Elizabeth Swann, “Wherever we want to go, we go. That’s what a ship is, you know. It’s not just a keel and a hull and sails; that’s what a ship needs. Not what a ship is… What the Black Pearl really is, is freedom.”


It’s the clothes

In addition, pirates really do get to wear the cool clothes. During the hey-day of piracy in the 1500s and 1600s, the Sumptuary Laws of many nations forbade ordinary people from dressing “above their station.”  According to Cindy Vallar’s site, Pirates and Privateers: The History of Maritime Piracy :

Everyone must wear the clothes of his state and rank. To dress more lavishly or more shabbily than is customary for the class or the circle to which one belongs is a sin of pride or a mark of debasement. Moreover, it is a transgression against the social order and thus a cause for scandal… (Pastoureau, xi)

Sumptuary laws separated the upper and lower classes. Silk, velvet, lace, brocades, gold or silver thread; gemstones and pearls; furs like mink, sable and fox – and anything dyed with the royally expensive purple dye – were all forbidden for commoners to wear. Penalties for violating these laws included the loss of one’s title or property, or if one of the lower class, one’s life.

For pirates, such laws were meant to be broken. According to this report on the Pirates and Privateers site:

After sea rogues captured Captain Samuel Cary’s ship, the Samuel, on 13 July 1720, the Boston News-letter reported that “[t]he first thing the pirates did was to strip both passengers and seamen of all their money and clothes…with a loaded pistol to every one’s breast ready to shoot him down who did not immediately give an account of both, and resign them up.” (Sanders, 113)

It’s the accent, matey

We know that the seafaring peoples of Cornwall and England’s West Country produced many pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But after 400 years, why are we so sure we know how to talk like a pirate?

According to Wikipedia, sources seem to agree that our current ideas of the pirate accent came from one person –Robert Newton, the actor who played Long John Silver and Edward Teach, Blackbeard, in the early 1950s Disney produced films of “Treasure Island” (1950) and “Blackbeard the Pirate”(1952). It was his exaggerated West Country accent that became the accepted pirate voice for us all.

Newton has even been called the “patron saint” of the annual International Talk Like a Pirate Day.


Pirates are desperate and dangerous

The coastline of South West England has many coves and inlets, good for hiding pirates, their vessels and their loot. Smugglers, too, benefited from the coastal geography. Between 1780 and 1783, it’s estimated that as much as 2 million pounds of tea and 13 million gallons of brandy were smuggled into Britain.


And when the economy of the region faltered, there was always the chance that a distressed ship might wreck itself along the rocky shores, providing rich pickings for the locals – at least, until Sir John Killigrew erected the first lighthouse at The Lizard in 1619.

Worst, however, were the pirates who turned kidnappers, raiding villages and selling their captives into slavery in Barbary (North Africa).


But some are not so bad once you know them

sailors-1In the Gilbert and Sullivan opera, the Pirates of Penzance turn out to be “noblemen who have gone wrong” – they have all abandoned the establishment because they’re too tender-hearted and freedom-loving to be true noblemen. But they all desire “domesticity” – female companionship – and ultimately are united in their love and respect for the Queen, that ultimate symbol of the English culture and value system.

So shiver me timbers, matey, join me in song! Or, you can watch a video of Kevin Kline singing this delightful tune here on YouTube.


Oh, better far to live and die

Under the brave black flag I fly,

Than play a sanctimonious part,

With a pirate head and a pirate heart.

Away to the cheating world go you,

Where pirates all are well-to-do;

But I’ll be true to the song I sing,

And live and die a Pirate King.


For I am a Pirate King!

And it is, it is a glorious thing

To be a Pirate King!


Don’t you agree? Let me know in the comments!