The Sentry’s Song: Politics are Crazy!

Gilbert’s drawing of a singing soldier – probably Private Willis

In Gilbert & Sullivan’s 1882 hit Iolanthe, a troupe of flighty, gauzy fairies go toe-to-toe with Britain’s venerable House of Lords. Guess who wins?

(Spoiler alert: They both do.)

Act II of this charming opera begins with a quiet interlude as Private Willis stands on sentry duty. He is dressed as a soldier (although it seems  that is an inaccuracy, for the Houses of Parliament are actually guarded by police officers and not the army).

We meet him as he’s standing at the door in Palace Yard, at the eastern (or Whitehall) end of Sir Charles Barry’s great neo-Gothic Houses of Parliament – which was only completed five years before Iolanthe was written.  He sings:

When all night long a chap remains

On sentry-go, to chase monotony

He exercises of his brains,

That is, assuming that he’s got any.


So the poor fellow, while on his solitary sentry duty, has nothing to do but think – and he assures us that he does have a brain to think with:

Though never nurtured in the lap

Of luxury, yet I admonish you,

I am an intellectual chap,

And think of things that would astonish you.


Although the best education may be reserved for the children of the wealthy, that doesn’t prevent a person from developing actual wisdom. So here are the fruits of Private Willis’ mental labors:

I often think it’s comical – Fal, lal, la!

How Nature always does contrive – Fal, lal, la!

That every boy and every gal

That’s born into the world alive

Is either a little Liberal

Or else a little Conservative!

Fal, lal, la!


Gilbert, with his love of wordplay, indulges himself “a little” here – using little in the sense of “small,” and also in the sense of “slightly.” This makes me happy.

When Gilbert wrote these lyrics circa 1882, the British parliament had a strong two-party system—Liberals and Conservatives. Nowadays, the Labour Party occupies the liberal end of the spectrum. Annotator Ian Bradley, in The Complete Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan, commented that “[s]ubstitution of ‘a little Socialist’ for ‘a little Liberal’ would have provided a more accurate description of the prevailing political climate for most of the twentieth century, although in our present era of mould-breaking goodness knows what a modern Private Willis should sing. Perhaps it is best, after all, to leave him in those happy days when there were just Liberals and Conservatives.’

However, this has not been the case in some productions of Iolanthe – for example, this performance in Southampton Operatic Society’s 2005 production of Iolanthe changes the word “liberal” to “Labourite.”  From the comments, you can observe that some people objected to this change.

However, he continues:

When in that House M.P.’s divide,

If they’ve a brain and cerebellum, too,

They’ve got to leave that brain outside,

And vote just as their leaders tell ’em to.


This is a practice that many Americans may not be familiar with: the Division of the Assembly. Here’s an explanation from the UK Parliament’s official website :

Members of both Houses register their vote for or against issues by physically going into two different areas either side of their debating chambers. This is known as ‘dividing the House’, while the areas concerned are ‘division lobbies’. Therefore, a vote is called a ‘division’.


According to Wikipedia,  this is  a more accurate way of counting a vote than a voice vote. Typically, a division is taken when the result of a voice vote is challenged or when a two-thirds vote is required. Moving on:

But then the prospect of a lot

Of dull M. P.’s in close proximity,

All thinking for themselves, is what

No man can face with equanimity.


This passage above is a cynical Gilbertian comment – although it’s bad that Members of Parliament should be required to stop thinking and vote as their party leaders tell them to, it would be much worse to let all those mentally dull MPs think for themselves! Nobody could face such an alarming prospect with equanimity (i.e., calmly).

Then let’s rejoice with loud Fal la – Fal la la!

That Nature always does contrive – Fal lal la!

That every boy and every gal

That’s born into the world alive

Is either a little Liberal

Or else a little Conservative!

Fal lal la!

Therefore, it’s a good thing that the system is the way it is, because it works out for the best in the end.


What do you think? Should our elected representatives follow their leaders or follow their consciences? It certainly does sound like a choice between order and chaos.


Gilbert and Sullivan – Together

In the 1870s, Arthur Sullivan was a rising young composer whose reputation was growing steadily. At the same time, William S. Gilbert was a rising young dramatist whose plays were attracting an increasingly wider audience.

They lived in the same city, they had friends in common, and each probably knew of the other’s work—we know Gilbert had heard Sullivan’s music, because he had reviewed Sullivan and Burnand’s operetta, Cox and Box, as the theater critic for Fun magazine.

They had even collaborated on a Christmas entertainment, Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old. It was a successful venture in its limited way, but both men evidently considered the project a one-off. So neglected was it, that the music to Thespis has been lost except for a tune that Sullivan re-used for a chorus song in The Pirates of Penzance: “Climbing Over the Rocky Mountains.”

It was the impresario Rupert D’Oyly Carte who brought the two together and encouraged the formation of the partnership that was to change the course of musical theater.

Gilbert had expanded his Bab ballad (comic poem) Trial By Jury for his friend Carl Rosa’s opera company to perform, and Rosa had agreed to write the music for it. Tragically, however, Rosa’s wife Euphrosyne, who had also been friends with Gilbert since childhood, died in childbirth at age 37 in January 1874. Carl Rosa no longer had the heart to continue his work, and the libretto had been returned.

The next year, D’Oyly Carte was trying to find a libretto for Sullivan to write the music for, and he persuaded Gilbert to take Trial by Jury to Sullivan.

It would have been hard to find two less likely collaborators. Everything about them, including their appearances, personalities, and preferences, were diametrically opposed. In his book Gilbert and Sullivan, Hesketh Pearson comments on how completely opposite the two men were:

“…the librettist, a tall military-looking gentleman with fair hair, rosy complexion, bright blue eyes and high massive forehead, who spoke quickly and jerkily in a deep hearty voice; and the composer, a short, plump, daintily-clad person, with a thick neck, dark hair and eyes, olive-tinted mobile face, sensuous lips and tender expression, whose voice was wistful and full of feeling.”

Still, Gilbert was not the kind of businessman to leave an unproduced manuscript around to gather dust if he could help it. On a cold, snowy February 20, 1875, Gilbert went to visit Sullivan at Albert Mansions in Victoria Street.

Sullivan recalled the event for his biographer, Arthur Lawrence, in Sir Arthur Sullivan: Life Story, Letters and Reminiscences  :

“It was on a very cold morning,” Sir Arthur tells me, “with the snow falling heavily, that Gilbert came round to my place, clad in a heavy fur coat. He had called to read over to me the MS of ‘Trial by Jury.’ He read it through, as it seemed to me, in a perturbed sort of way, with a gradual crescendo of indignation, in the manner of a man considerably disappointed with what he had written. As soon as he had come to the last word he closed up the manuscript violently, apparently unconscious of the fact that he had achieved his purpose so far as I was concerned, inasmuch as I was screaming with laughter the whole time.”

Less than five weeks later, the music had been written, the cast rehearsed, and the new one-act operetta was ready for opening night.

Even though it followed a very popular opera by Offenbach, La Perichole, the performance was an immediate hit, as this quote from Michael Ainger’s Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography attests:

“To judge by the unceasing and almost boisterous hilarity which formed a sort of running commentary on the part of the audience,” said The Times, “Trial by Jury suffered nothing whatever from so dangerous a juxtaposition. On the contrary, it may fairly be said to have borne away the palm.”  The sheer enjoyment the audience experienced came not from the words or the music alone but from the unusually happy combination of the two, a point that was seized on by the critics as exceptional: “so completely is each imbued with the same spirit,” commented the Daily News, “That it would be as difficult to conceive the existence of Mr. Gilbert’s verses without Mr. Sullivan’s music, as of Mr. Sullivan’s music without Mr. Gilbert’s verses. Each gives each a double charm.”

And so the partnership was born.

Though both were moderately successful in their separate spheres, and in later years, both Gilbert and Sullivan would feel that they each had limited their own talents in deference to the other’s artistic needs, the truth is that it took both of them together to create their extraordinary works.

I think it’s impossible to choose one over the other. What do you say? Do you prefer the music or the words? Let me know in the comments.



Arthur Sullivan and The Golden Legend

Cover art for a present day recording of The Golden Legend, available on Amazon.

Even successful artists like Sir Arthur Sullivan struggle with procrastination, goal-setting, and getting things done!

In 1886, 44-year-old Arthur Sullivan was at the top of his career. He’d been knighted in 1883 for his services to music, his collaborations with WSGilbert had brought him a lot of success and financial reward, but success brought increasing pressure into his life.

First, there was the pressure to write “serious music,” not comic operas or other popular stuff.  High-minded critics thought that an ordinary tunesmith could write a comic opera, but a Knight of the Realm had to compose masterpieces, music for the ages. Second, success at any level comes with its own increasing momentum, and the artist or composer has to start running just to keep up.

At the beginning of the year 1886, Sullivan promised to write a cantata for the Leeds Festival, to be premiered in October. The cantata would be a large-scale choral work, The Golden Legend, based on a poem by Longfellow. This is how it all worked out:

By the end of January, Sullivan had dinner with his friend Joseph Bennett, and confided that he could write the music, but he just couldn’t figure out how to put together a libretto.

In February, a story in the press announced that Sullivan was hard at work on The Golden Legend! Since Sullivan hadn’t yet reported back to the Leeds Festival committee on his progress, they were pretty annoyed that the papers knew more than they did. Sullivan was annoyed, too – he hadn’t made any progress yet, no matter what the papers said, and he didn’t need questions from the committee at this stage of the work.  But he assured them he was hard at work on the cantata.

Then other commitments got in his way.

In March, he had to conduct one of his earlier works, The Martyr of Antioch, with the Bath Philharmonic. He also had to work on a new comic opera for the Savoy Theater. Rupert D’Oyly Carte wanted Sullivan to write the comic opera first, before working on the The Golden Legend. Between the cantata and the comic opera and the conducting gigs, Sullivan’s life was picking up speed.

In April, the Prince of Wales asked Sullivan to write a piece of music for the opening of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, on the 4th of May. Of course, he couldn’t turn down the Prince. Now this new work had to be squeezed in before Sullivan could even think about the comic opera and The Golden Legend.

“How am I to get through this year’s work?” Sullivan complained to his diary.

The rest of April was full of social engagements – receptions for Liszt, newly arrived from Paris; the opening of the spring season at Epsom; receptions at Grosvenor Gallery; and more concerts. Very little time was left for writing music.

May was equally busy: Conducting the music he’d written for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, which was opened by Queen Victoria herself; conducting his symphony on his birthday at St. James’ Hall; then sparkling social engagements like Derby Day at Epsom, followed by Ascot Week.

Cover of the score of The Golden Legend

When, oh, when, was he going to find time to write The Golden Legend?

Finally, toward the end of July, Sullivan was able to escape the city and work on The Golden Legend at Stagenhoe Park. It was finally finished on August 25, 1886.

By then, of course, it was too late to do anything about the comic opera for the Savoy – In a meeting in September, Gilbert, Sullivan, and D’Oyly Carte decided to postpone the new opera until November. This still didn’t leave Sullivan a lot of time, because now the rehearsals for The Golden Legend would have to begin right away, so the soloists and choir members would be ready for the October premiere.

Would everything come together in time for The Golden Legend to go off without a hitch?

The Golden Legend premiered on October 15, 1886. As Michael Ainger writes in Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography, “Most of the press were ecstatic in their praise: “cheer after cheer rang through the hall,” said the Liverpool Mercury, “the audience were excited and the choristers simply crazy. The girls pelted the composer with flowers. Such a frenzy of congratulations has surely never before rung in the ears of any living man as that amid which Sir Arthur left the platform.”

The Times was more restrained: “The Leeds Festival may boast of having given life to a work which, if not of genius in the strict sense of the word, is at least likely to survive till our long expected English Beethoven appears on the stage”.

According to Hesketh Pearson, in Gilbert and Sullivan, the premiere “was received with delirious enthusiasm. The audience yelled themselves hoarse and pelted him with flowers. He turned to bow his acknowledgments to the choir, who also pelted him with flowers. The newspapers agreed with the audience and choir. The World called him ‘the Mozart of England,’ and said that though it was difficult to claim a place in the foremost ranks of composers for the author of The Pirates of Penzance, the case of the author of The Golden Legend rested on a very different basis. It still does.”

Drawings of the premiere at Leeds in 1886

Finally, Sullivan had received the recognition he’d so long coveted—to be ranked alongside the greatest composers of serious music, and not regarded simply as a popular tunesmith.

Even royalty approved. When Queen Victoria heard The Golden Legend, she told Sullivan that he ought to write a grand opera. “You would do it so well,” she said.

Sullivan did write a grand opera, based on Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. It’s not often performed these days. And, although The Golden Legend was one of the most-performed cantatas of the 1880s and 1890s after Handel’s Messiah, the work is not very often performed these days. Ironically, it is those light-hearted comic operas which have endured.

But it gives me hope to know that Sir Arthur struggled to meet his commitments, and that he managed to achieve success despite all the obstacles he faced, such as a busy life, other  work to do, new projects that pop up unexpectedly and all the rest. I’ll take the thought of Sir Arthur’s own challenges with me as I face the projects I hope to accomplish in 2017.

How about you? Do you worry about finishing every job you’ve got on your plate?  Let me know in the comments.

W.S. Gilbert’s Political Snarkiness

"Iolanthe" American music cover from

“Iolanthe” American music cover from

W.S. Gilbert lampooned Victorian politics in Iolanthe, a topsy-turvy tale in which a troupe of fairies take over Parliament after their Fairy Queen is insulted by the Lord Chancellor. He mistook her for the Headmistress of a Ladies’ Seminary, and in revenge the fairies use their powers to pass all the laws the House of Peers can’t stand to see on the books.

All the political “hot potato” issues of the day are blithely passed into law — from Marriage to Deceased Wife’s Sister to making a Dukedom attainable by Competitive Examination, the fairies ruthlessly suppress all objections from the peers. How can the legislators rescue themselves and the nation from this quandary?

The premise gave Gilbert the chance to satirize Victorian notions of status, privilege, the two-party system, and the laws and lawmakers of the day (I’m feeling very political these days, so it pleases me to share with you the master’s snarkiness, even if it doesn’t apply directly to our own government).

In Iolanthe, the Peers of the House of Lords enter singing,

Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes!

Bow, bow, ye tradesmen, bow, ye masses,

Blow the trumpets, bang the brasses,

Tantantara! Tzing, boom!


Later on, the Chorus of Peers try to woo the beautiful Arcadian shepherdess Phyllis by singing,

High rank involves no shame —

We boast an equal claim

With him of humble name

To be respected!


One of the most famous politically-minded songs from the opera is Private Willis’ song, in which the lonely guard offers his philosophical musings on politics, including the idea that every child is born “a little liberal or a little conservative.” (As a side note, I was thrilled when Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg quoted that lyric in a recent interview. Awesome!)

Private Willis also adds, if I’m reading the lyrics right, that it’s probably a good thing that politicians have to vote as their parties tell ‘em to, because it would be too frightening if they all started thinking for themselves. Read the song’s lyrics and decide for yourself:

When all night long a chap remains

On sentry-go, to chase monotony

He exercises of his brains,

That is, assuming that he’s got any.

Though never nurtured in the lap

Of luxury, yet I admonish you,

I am an intellectual chap,

And think of things that would astonish you.

I often think it’s comical – Fal, lal, la!

How Nature always does contrive – Fal, lal, la!

That every boy and every gal

That’s born into the world alive

Is either a little Liberal

Or else a little Conservative!

Fal, lal, la!


When in that House M.P.’s divide,

If they’ve a brain and cerebellum, too,

They’ve got to leave that brain outside,

And vote just as their leaders tell ’em to.

But then the prospect of a lot

Of dull M. P.’s in close proximity,

All thinking for themselves, is what

No man can face with equanimity.

Then let’s rejoice with loud Fal la – Fal la la!

That Nature always does contrive – Fal lal la!

That every boy and every gal

That’s born into the world alive

Is either a little Liberal

Or else a little Conservative!

Fal lal la!


Isaac Asimov, in his The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan, called the bombastic “When Britain Really Ruled the Waves” one of Gilbert’s most patriotic songs, but I think the lyrics sound ironic.

Asimov added this fun little story: “In 1909, some of the Liberals campaigning against the House of Lords’ power of veto after its rejection of Lloyd George’s radical budget of that year asked Gilbert for permission to quote this verse:

And while the House of Peers withholds

Its legislative hand,

And noble statesmen do not itch

To interfere with matters which

They do not understand,

As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays

As in King George’s glorious days!


Isaac Asimov continues: “He [Gilbert] replied rather pepperily: “I cannot permit the verses of Iolanthe to be used for electioneering purposes. They do not at all express my own view. They are supposed to be the views of the wrong-headed donkey who sings them.”

Asimov also reported that “with or without the help of Iolanthe however, the Liberal reformers achieved their aims and in 1911 the Parliament Act was passed, curtailing the House of Lords’ power to veto legislation already passed by the Commons. Since them noble statemen have largely withheld their legislative hand and contented themselves with moving amendments to Bills sent up from the Lower House.”

Here is the complete text of the song:

When Britain really ruled the waves –

(In good Queen Bess’s time)

The House of Peers made no pretence

To intellectual eminence,

Or scholarship sublime;

Yet Britain won her proudest bays

In good Queen Bess’s glorious days!

Yet Britain won her proudest bays

In good Queen Bess’s glorious days!



Yes Britain won her proudest bays

In good Queen Bess’s glorious days!


When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte,

As every child can tell,

The House of Peers, throughout the war,

Did nothing in particular,

And did it very well:

Yet Britain set the world ablaze

In good King George’s glorious days!

Yet Britain set the world ablaze

In good King George’s glorious days!



Yet Britain set the world ablaze

In good King George’s glorious days!


And while the House of Peers withholds

Its legislative hand,

And noble statesmen do not itch

To interfere with matters which

They do not understand,

As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays

As in King George’s glorious days!

As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays

As in King George’s glorious days!



As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays

As in King George’s glorious days!


And so the political pendulum swings back and forth. Satirists throughout the years have found plenty to mock in a nation’s leaders, but W.S. Gilbert managed to poke fun at the House of Lords and still have them laughing at themselves.

As Gilbert wrote in Yeomen of the Guard, “he who’d make his fellow … creatures wise/ should always gild the philosophic pill.”

"Bab" drawing of a king in the stocks, frm

“Bab” drawing of a king in the stocks, frm

W.S. Gilbert – The Dragon at the Stage Door

Gilbert the Dragon

Gilbert the Dragon

Many Victorians assumed that actresses were “no better than they should be” (i.e. very bad indeed).

According to Hesketh Pearson, in Gilbert and Sullivan, “In those days actresses were considered to be saleable property. Their social status was extremely low, and the average middle-class Englishman scarcely differentiated the back of a stage from a brothel.”

However, that certainly wasn’t the case for the actresses in the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. William S. Gilbert insisted on all his players behaving with utmost propriety.

Jessie Bond, the long-time Savoyard actress who created many of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most delightful contralto roles, from Hebe in HMS Pinafore to Pitti-Sing in The Mikado to Tessa in The Gondoliers, wrote about Gilbert’s protective attitude towards his actors and actresses in her Life and Reminiscences:


“An outsider would hardly credit the strict discipline of our life behind the scenes. No lingering about was allowed, no gossiping with the other actors; the women’s dressing-rooms were on one side of the stage, the men’s on the other, and when we were not actually playing we had to mount at once our respective narrow staircases – sheep rigorously separated from the goats!

Once, when my mother came to see me in London, expecting to find me dwelling in haunts of gilded luxury, and far down the road to perdition, I took her behind the scenes and showed her the arrangements for the actors and actresses, conventual in their austerity. She was astonished, I can assure you, and evidently thought it all very dull and restricted.

I think there never was a theatre run on lines of such strict propriety; no breath of scandal ever touched it in all the twenty years of my experience. Gilbert would suffer no loose word or gesture either behind the stage or on it, and watched over us young women like a dragon.

Not that I ever gave him any trouble. Verses and love-letters used to be sent to me, presents and invitations too, all of which I returned or disregarded. The unhappy experiences of my youth had made me quite impervious to that sort of thing. I had no use for love or lovers, and never felt the slightest romantic interest in any man I acted with. I lived only for my work, my last meal was a light one at six o’clock, and never once in all those years did I accept an invitation to supper!”


Jessie Bond as "Mad Margaret" in Ruddigore, 1887

Jessie Bond as “Mad Margaret” in Ruddigore, 1887

However, during the run of Patience, Gilbert happened to be behind the scenes one night when one of those notes was brought to Jessie Bond. When he asked her about it, she handed it to him “indifferently,” not being at all interested.  Jessie goes on to explain:

“It was from a party of four young men in one of the stage boxes, inviting me to supper with them after the performance. Gilbert was furious. He went round to the box, rated the young men for insulting a lady in his Company, and insisted on their leaving the house forthwith.”


He also came to the aid of the actress who played Celia in Iolanthe, Miss May Fortescue, when her noble fiancé Lord Garmoyle jilted her in 1884. After her engagement was broken off, Gilbert not only found Miss Fortescue a role in a revival of his play Dan’l Druce, but he also sent her to his solicitors so she could sue Lord Garmoyle for breach of promise. She won her case, and used the money she received to set up her own theatrical company which toured for many years, often performing Gilbert’s plays.


Gilbert had a very sentimental view of women and a deep hatred of the hypocritical Victorian double-standard that blamed and shamed women for the same acts that were admired in men.

Here is his poem “Only A Dancing Girl,”  in which he gives us a very sympathetic portrait:


Only a dancing girl,

With an unromantic style,

With borrowed colour and curl,

With fixed mechanical smile,

With many a hackneyed wile,

With ungrammatical lips,

And corns that mar her trips.


Hung from the “flies” in air,

She acts a palpable lie,

She’s as little a fairy there

As unpoetical I!

I hear you asking, Why –

Why in the world I sing

This tawdry, tinselled thing?


No airy fairy she,

As she hangs in arsenic green

From a highly impossible tree

In a highly impossible scene

(Herself not over-clean).

For fays don’t suffer, I’m told,

From bunions, coughs, or cold.


And stately dames that bring

Their daughters there to see,

Pronounce the “dancing thing”

No better than she should be,

With her skirt at her shameful knee,

And her painted, tainted phiz:

Ah, matron, which of us is?


(And, in sooth, it oft occurs

That while these matrons sigh,

Their dresses are lower than hers,

And sometimes half as high;

And their hair is hair they buy,

And they use their glasses, too,

In a way she’d blush to do.)


But change her gold and green

For a coarse merino gown,

And see her upon the scene

Of her home, when coaxing down

Her drunken father’s frown,

In his squalid cheerless den:

She’s a fairy truly, then!

W.S. Gilbert's "Only A Dancing Girl" drawing

W.S. Gilbert’s “Only A Dancing Girl” drawing





W.S. Gilbert — a Stage-struck Kid

W.S. Gilbert in 1861 (West Yorkshire Militia) from Gilbert His Life and Strife, by Hesketh Pearson

W.S. Gilbert in 1861 (West Yorkshire Militia) from Gilbert His Life and Strife, by Hesketh Pearson

W.S. Gilbert was a stage-struck kid.

As a youngster, he used to write plays that the family performed at home, and his mother and his two younger sisters were interested in amateur dramatics. (Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography, by Michael Ainger)

When he attended the well-regarded public school, the Great Ealing School in London, he would write plays, direct them, and even paint the scenery.  One of the plays he produced was called Guy Fawkes, in which he also played the principal role.

In February 1852, the 15-year-old Gilbert went to see The Corsican Brothers by Dion Boucicault, at the Princess’ Theater in Oxford Street. He was so impressed by the performance that he packed his bag and went back to the theater and nervously asked to see Charles Kean, the actor-manager. Unfortunately for young Gilbert, Kean knew Gilbert senior, and sent the boy straight home to his father.

According to “Gilbert and Sullivan” by Hesketh Pearson, an author who apparently enjoyed sticking his poisoned pen into Gilbert, the meeting between Charles Kean and young Gilbert went something like this:

“Believing that, given the chance, he could teach real actors a thing or two, he decided to waste no more time over the classics, but to go on to the stage at once Without communicating this bright idea to anyone in authority, he left school one afternoon and made his way to the theatre where the leading actor of the day, Charles Kean, was performing.

Once in the theatre, he became the prey of misgivings, and when at last Kean appeared his was not in a condition to bear up against the actor’s voice, which, though it sounded splendid in the gallery, was more like the roar of exploding gunpowder at close quarters.

“So you would like to be an act-orr?” bellowed Kean.


“What’s yourrr name?”

Gilbert tried hard to think of any name except his own, but the eagle eye of the actor was upon him and he faltered out an apologetic “G-Gilbert.”

“Not the son of me old frrriend, Gilbert?”

The fat was in the fire.


Gilbert was back among the classics the next morning.”


Even though Gilbert might also have been interested in other professions—as a young man in his 20s, he wanted to be an artillery officer in the Army, and although he never pursued that career, he spent many years serving in militia regiments—the theatre remained his main calling throughout his life.

What about you? Did you know from a very young age what you wanted to do with your life or are you, as the currently fashionable phrase has it, a multi-passionate person?

Leave me a message in the comments below.






W.S. Gilbert – Tilting at Social Windmills

gilbert-risingNothing succeeds like success!

Although W. S. Gilbert is known mainly for his brilliant comic operas with Arthur Sullivan, he wrote many other plays, some of which addressed serious social issues and which turned out to be the inspiration for later works by other playwrights. Here are a few examples:

Charity (1874) is a play about Mrs. Van Brugh, a good woman who, in her youth, lived with a man without benefit of marriage, and they had an illegitimate child. Now a widow of 35 years’ standing, she has dedicated her life to helping those in need. She has almshouses, and scandalizes the village by letting in not only good Anglicans, but also Catholics, Jews, and even Dissenters.

But when her daughter, Eve, becomes engaged to the serious-minded and rather priggish Fred Smailey, things get difficult. Fred’s father discovers that Mrs. Van Brugh was never married and blocks the marriage, declaring that her daughter is unfit to marry his son. When it is revealed that Fred’s father was the psalm-singing villain who ruined a young girl 20 years ago, the father excuses his actions, but continues to persecute Mrs. Van Brugh.

Finally, the engagement of the son and daughter is broken off, and Mrs. Van Brugh and her daughter decide to move to Australia to start over.

oscar_wilde_saronyThe play analyses and critiques the double standard in the Victorian era concerning the treatment of men and women who had sex outside of marriage, anticipating the “problem plays” of Shaw and Ibsen. The same story situation influenced Oscar Wilde’s “A Woman of No Importance.”

Engaged (1877) is a three-act comic version of a romantic drama. The main action revolves around a group of innocent-seeming Highlanders who cause train derailments and then sell refreshments and hotel rooms to stranded travelers. Among the travelers are a young couple, Belvawny and Belinda, escaping from Belinda’s relentless suitor. Belinda refuses to go through a Gretna Green marriage because of the odd way that Belvawny earns his money—by keeping his wealthy and amorous friend, Cheviot Hill, from getting married to any woman who crosses his path. If Cheviot gets married, then Belvawny loses his income and the whole of Cheviot’s estate goes to the villain Uncle Symperson. Naturally, not only do Cheviot and Uncle Symperson show up in the same spot, but so does the relentless suitor, Major McGillicuddy.

After mistaken marriages and mysterious disappearances and misunderstandings separate the lovers, everyone is sorted out in the third act and all is well.

bernard-shaw-iln-1911-originalThe topsy-turvy elements in Engaged are believed to have inspired Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” and may also have inspired George Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man” and Alan Ayckbourn’s “The Norman Conquests.”

Pygmalion and Galatea (1871) Gilbert’s blank-verse play set in ancient Athens, has the sculptor Pygmalion falling in love with his creation while his wife Cynisca is away. The innocent Galatea doesn’t understand anything about morality or social conventions, so she accepts Pygmalion’s love as a matter of course. She also is unflatteringly truthful in her opinions. She drives away Pygmalion’s rich, vulgar patrons, calling them statues sculpted by a clumsy beginner.  She meets a soldier, Leucippus, and calls him a paid assassin – and when Leucippus shoots a fawn by accident, she tells Pygmalion the man is a murderer.

When Cynisca returns, Galatea is open about her relationship with Pygmalion. This infuriates Cynisca, who calls upon the goddess Artemis to blind her husband. Pygmalion rues the day he brought Galatea to life, and Cynisca relents, restoring his vision. Galatea, disillusioned by humanity, is glad to go back to being a statue.

Pygmalion and Galatea was so popular that other Pygmalions were rushed to the stage. In January 1872, Ganymede and Galatea opened at the Gaiety Theatre. This was a comic version of Franz von Suppé’s Die schöne Galathee, coincidentally with Arthur Sullivan’s brother, Fred Sullivan, in the cast. In March 1872, William Brough’s Pygmalion; or, The Statue Fair was revived, and in May of that year, a visiting French company produced Victor Massé’s Galathée.

Would you like to see any one of these three original plays? What do you think of the themes they address – double standards toward men and women, matters of love and marriage, and truthfulness in all dealings? Do you think those themes are still valid today? Let me know!


Photo of Bernard Shaw By Alvin Langdon Coburn – Illustrated London News, p. 575 (subscription required), PD-US,

Photo of Oscar Wilde By Napoleon Sarony – Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain,



W.S. Gilbert – Kidnapped!

Sometimes real life imitates art. Or it inspires art.

William S. Gilbert’s plots involving stolen babies were inspired by his own life: As a baby, he was kidnapped by bandits.

When Gilbert was not yet 2 years old (as the story goes), and a few months before his sister Jane was born in October 1838, his parents were traveling around the Continent and they stopped in Naples, Italy.

In Naples, his parents had hired a maid to look after their young son. As the maid and baby were out on a walk, a couple of men approached her and said that the “English gentleman” wanted his child returned to him right away. The foolish nursery-maid handed the boy over, and the brigands took off with “Bab.”

1024px-Napoli6Many years later, Gilbert said he remembered riding in front of a mounted man along a street toward some mountains. As a grown man, he identified that street as the Via Posillipo, a main road through one of Naples’ residential areas, which is high enough on the hillside overlooking the Bay of Naples to provide a clear view of Mount Vesuvius in the distance.

His parents paid a ransom of £25, and a detachment of carabinieri returned the boy to his no doubt frantic parents.

What a great story! But is it true? Nobody is sure – no official record of the event has turned up. We only know about it because Gilbert himself told his first biographer the tale, when he was 70 years old. At the very least, the story had probably been told and re-told in the Gilbert family for years.

But whatever might have happened originally, there is no doubt that the story had a profound influence on Gilbert’s story-telling: think of Ruth, the foolish nursery-maid in the Pirates of Penzance, who apprenticed her small charge to a pirate instead of a pilot. Or think of The Gondoliers, which centers on the problem of identifying the heir to the throne, who was kidnapped as a baby and raised as a gondolier.

In The Gondoliers, Don Alhambra sings:

I stole the Prince, and I brought him here,
And left him gaily prattling
With a highly respectable gondolier,
Who promised the Royal babe to rear,
And teach him the trade of a timoneer*
With his own beloved bratling.

(*a helmsman; someone who steers a ship)

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

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

The Gondoliers was Gilbert and Sullivan’s twelfth opera together, and was the last of the G&S operas that would achieve wide popularity. It opened on December 7, 1889 at the Savoy Theater and ran for 554 performances.

First night reviews of The Gondoliers were glowing, and even Queen Victoria enjoyed the show when the entire company went to Windsor Castle for a command performance.

Despite Gilbert’s obvious love of topsy-turvy plots, the notion of a kidnapped baby might have seemed even more logical to Gilbert than some of his other plot devices. Whether or not the story was true as he told it to his biographer, or if it had undergone some modifications over the years of repeated telling, it still is a fascinating little story.

Which Came First, the Music or the Words?

GilbertAndSullivanWhen writing a song, what does a composer start with – the tune, or the lyrics? Do you come up with words to fit a particular melody, or do you read the words and imagine a tune that would fit the words?

The answer is, different composers and lyricists work in different ways. For Gilbert and Sullivan, the journey from musical idea to finished song took an interesting path:

  • Gilbert would write lyrics that fit a popular tune he had in mind.
  • Then he would give the words to Sullivan, without telling him what song he’d used.
  • Sullivan would study the rhythm of the words and come up with a tune that fit them.

Interestingly, it’s nearly impossible to guess a melody simply by listening to someone else tap it out (a rhythm, yes, but not a melody). So their process worked!

But how did they arrive at this method? It started with the way that Gilbert learned his craft.


Gilbert and Victorian Burlesque Theater

In Victorian England, a “burlesque” performance was something quite different from what might be expected in a French or an American playhouse. On the British stage, wordplay and clowning replaced sexual innuendo – the idea was to be funny and silly, not suggestive. Also, as with a Ballad Opera (like the eighteenth-century work, The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay), sometimes songs were added, with new words set to popular tunes, including opera arias, church hymns and folk songs.

So Gilbert’s earliest practice in song-writing came as he wrote new words for the music of the pantomimes and the operatic burlesques he wrote – such as his parody of Donizetti’s opera “L’Elisir d’Amore” about a shady doctor peddling a love potion, which Gilbert turned into “Dulcamara! Or the The Little Duck and the Great Quack,” or the same composer’s “La Figlia del Reggimento,” which became “La Vivandière, or True to the Corps.” (Gilbert loved puns! I can just imagine your groans if you know that a vivandière is a woman who sells groceries to the troops.)


Sullivan and Tennyson

No doubt Arthur Sullivan, tasked with setting Gilbert’s clever wordplay to music, appreciated the rhythmic qualities of the librettist’s words despite the fact that he didn’t want to know what basic tunes were used.

In an article by Arthur H. Lawrence titled, “An Illustrated Interview With Sir Arthur Sullivan“, Sullivan said that in setting Gilbert’s (or anyone else’s) words, “I decide on [the rhythm] before I come to the question of melody. … I mark out the metre in dots and dashes, and not until I have quite settled on the rhythm do I proceed to actual notation.”

This method of tune-building meant that it was really important for Sullivan that the words have a regular rhythm in each verse – something that poets aren’t often that concerned with when writing a poem. The great poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson was a friend of Sullivan’s, and he asked the composer to set a number of his poems to music, which Sullivan did in The Window; or, The Songs of the Wrens.

This led to the following confession by Sullivan, which Arthur Lawrence describes here :

Sir Arthur has told me that he always felt that Tennyson “was the one great man whose personal appearance seemed to correspond with his work. He always appealed to me as being the rugged old prophet Isaiah of this country. I really owed much to his gentleness and patience. I actually had the audacity to lecture him about rhythm! ‘Don’t mix up your iambics and spondees’ I would tell him, and then continue my dissertation in pretty much the same strain!

Of course one reason of his good-nature in this matter was that he knew that I was not discussing his verse from the point of view of a critic of poetry, but merely in regard to certain musical difficulties. You see he would write a simple song or ballad wherein the music to each verse should be the same, but which really required a separate setting, and would make strong accents in one verse, where in the corresponding place in another verse he would place a weak one, so that the ballad became most difficult for setting to music. It is a glaring fault with most hymn-writers also.”


The time they broke their rule

"I have a song to sing, O!"

“I have a song to sing, O!”

The only time that Sullivan asked Gilbert to tell him what song he’d based his rhyme-scheme on was in writing “I Have a Song to Sing, O!” from The Yeomen of the Guard. The difficulty was that each stanza gets longer and longer, like the nursery rhyme “The House That Jack Built.”

Stumped by how to solve the musical problem of making the song the same but longer with each verse, Sullivan asked Gilbert what he’d had in mind. Gilbert, aware that he was no singer but naturally eager to help, hummed a few bars of the traditional Cornish sea-shanty that had inspired him – and Sullivan stopped him.

“That’s it! That enough, thanks, I’ve got it now,” the composer said, and away he went to finish the song.

So that is the only time that Gilbert contributed both the words and the music to one of their comic operas.

Now, if you want, tell me: How would you write a song – words first, or music first?




An Unexpected G&S Performance

I was going to do a serious post today, but then I remembered this little gem and had to share it. When I was a mere child of ten, I discovered the very first “Doctor Who” — featuring the first Doctor, portrayed by William Hartnell. Even though I missed some of the finer details of the plot during that first season because the episodes were broadcast in Spanish on Mexican television (I grew up in Mexico City), the Daleks still were capable of scaring the bejeezus out of me and my nine-year-old brother.

And so, without further ado, here’s a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan that’s really out of this world. (If the embedded video doesn’t come through, you can click on the highlighted text and enjoy the Daleks singing Gilbert and Sullivan on YouTube).



Hope you enjoy~