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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.

 

 

Entertaining house guests, Victorian-style

Before the Internet—even before television and radio—beamed professional entertainment directly into our homes, what did people do for fun?

Our Victorian ancestors, especially those of the middle and upper classes, had plenty of leisure time to fill. One way to enjoy oneself was to invite friends over to stay for a while—three days was the standard visit. But once you had your circle of intimates gathered at your country home, what were you to do with them?

Welcoming your guests

The proper time for arrival was mid-afternoon, around teatime. Guests often arrived by train, so a good host would arrange for the guests to be met at the train station. Servants would convey the trunks, suitcases and other baggage to the house, and a carriage would be waiting to bring the guests themselves to the house.

Once at the house, the guest rooms would be all ready with everything they might need—toiletries, needles and pins, brushes, writing paper and pens, and entertaining reading materials.

Entertainment

Reading aloud – tableau with WS Gilbert, Maud Tree, “the Playwright”, and Beerbohm Tree

A good host and hostess would have put some thought into providing entertainment for the guests. Outdoors, there might be opportunities for hunting, or horseback riding, or hiking. In good weather, croquet matches might be held on the lawn. Indoors, options included reading, working jigsaw puzzles, and other quiet activities.

Also, groups of guests might like to indulge in conversation or dancing. Someone could read aloud, or if a guest was good at singing or playing an instrument, they might give a recital. The most active guests could dress up in costume and present a “tableau vivant.”

Tableau vivants

From the French phrase meaning “living picture,” a tableau vivant was when a person or group of people recreated a scene from a famous painting, a moment from a book or a play, or even an idea.

Using costumes, props, and backdrops, the participants would pose in the proper attitudes of the original scene. A curtain would be drawn back revealing the models, who stayed silent and frozen for about thirty seconds. Sometimes a poem or music accompanied the scene, and there might even be a large wooden frame placed around the scene, giving it the appearance of a painted canvas inside a picture frame.

With the advent of photography, the scenes could then be photographed and preserved. Julia Margaret Cameron created a number of fantasy images featuring friends and family dressed in medieval or legendary costumes. No doubt this was big fun for the Victorians, since many of them seemed to enjoy fancy-dress (costumes).

Arthur Sullivan belonged to a group of friends who called themselves the Moray Minstrels and met at Moray Lodge, the home of Arthur James Lewis.  Just for fun, they would hold musical evenings on a monthly basis – they put on the very first performance of Sullivan’s “Cox and Box,” on which he collaborated with writer F.C. Burnand.

Here is a photograph of the costume-wearing Moray Minstrels, plus sisters Kate and Ellen Terry – both were actresses; Kate was married to Arthur James Lewis.  Arthur Sullivan is seated on the far left; the woman seated closest to him is Ellen Terry, the other woman in the picture is Kate Terry, and seated on the floor in front is cartoonist George Du Maurier.

Moray Minstrels, from “Gilbert & Sullivan and their Victorian World” by Christopher Hibbert

 

Christmas with the Gilberts

Kate Terry Gielgud, mother of acclaimed actor Sir John Gielgud

Though William and Kitty Gilbert never had any children of their own, they both enjoyed the company of young people and loved to give lavish parties for the children of friends and family.

One young lady who enjoyed their parties was Kate Terry Gielgud – the daughter of actress Kate Terry and Arthur James Lewis (a silk merchant of the firm of Lewis & Allenby), and the mother of famed actor Sir John Gielgud.  In Kate Terry Gielgud: An Autobiography (1953), she explained, “Both author and composer were friends of my parents, and Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert invited us every year to Christmas parties in their house…”

Born in 1868, young Kate would have been between 10 and 14 years old when she attended the Christmas parties she described. The party held in  December 1881 included a special treat:

“…the Gilberts built a new house in Harrington Gardens with a model of the H.M.S. Pinafore as a weather-vane, and this house … had electric light installed in it, and here the Christmas tree, instead of being hung with candles and parcels, was a dazzling mass of tiny festooned globes, blue, red, green and yellow, a light within each. Parcels were heaped on the floor so as not to spoil the effect, but were disregarded in the clamour to be allowed to move the switch in the wall that could plunge the room into darkness and, reversed, restore the light in a dozen fittings at once. We gaped in wonder…”

It’s amusing now, to think that there was a time when the presents under the tree would be ignored in favor of turning the tree lights off and on, and off and on…

Children brought out Gilbert’s sense of fun. Many of his letters to children are especially playful and amusing. A few years before the awesome electric Christmas tree lights, on 20 December 1876, W.S. Gilbert sent a hand-written Christmas card to Miss Terry that read:

Christmas wish from WSG

“Wishing you both a decent, sober, temperate and respectable Christmas, undisfigured by extravagance and untainted by excess,

I am,

very truly yours,

WS Gilbert.”

 

Here’s hoping that your own Christmas celebrations are the opposite of all that, and very merry indeed!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 – 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, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49887931

Photo of Oscar Wilde By Napoleon Sarony – Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30638597

 

 

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?

 

 

 

Gilbert & Sullivan 101: All Fourteen Operas

So, just in case you came in late and need a refresher, here is a list of all of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas. (Just to be even more basic, William S. Gilbert wrote the words and Arthur Seymour Sullivan wrote the music.)

 

Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old (1871 Christmas entertainment for John Hollingshead’s Gaiety Theatre, where it received its first performance on December 26, 1871 and ran for 63 performances. Although it has often been described as a failure, it outlasted most of the Christmas entertainments that season.)

Plot: The gods on Mount Olympus are old and tired, so they decide to take a holiday. Since somebody has to stay and do their godly jobs while they’re gone, they delegate all their responsibilities to a troupe of travelling actors – with hilarious consequences!

Most of the original music for this opera has been lost, so performances today either adapt music from other Sullivan scores, or use a score by one of the several composers who has written a replacement for the lost music.

 

Trial By Jury (Premiere  March 25, 1875, original run 131 performances) Richard D’Oyly Carte asked the two men to collaborate on a short opera to be played as an after piece to Offenbach’s comic opera, La Périchole. The witty, tuneful and very “English” piece was an immediate hit with Londoners. It is quite short, only forty minutes, and alone of the operas contains no spoken dialogue. The story is set in an English courtroom, where a breach of promise case is underway – Gilbert, a barrister by training, thoroughly enjoyed lampooning everyone involved, from the judge, jury and lawyers, to the plaintiff and defendant! His witty libretto inspired Sullivan to write some of his most sparkling music. The part of the judge in the first production was played by Fred Sullivan, the composer’s brother.

 

The Sorcerer (Premiere at the Opéra Comique, on November 17, 1877. The original run of the piece was a satisfactory 175 performances.) After the success of their one-act opera Trial By Jury, producer Richard D’Oyly Carte asked Gilbert and Sullivan to create a full-length work together. Gilbert’s story is based on one of his favorite dramatic themes: a magic spell that makes everyone do the exact opposite of what they’d usually do. In this case, the sorcerer is hired to put a magic love potion in the village tea pot at an engagement party, with the result that everyone falls in love with the wrong partner.

It was enough of a success to encourage Gilbert & Sullivan to continue to collaborate, which led to their next piece, H.M.S. Pinafore. And the rest, as they say, is history.

 

bumboat-2H.M.S. Pinafore; or, The Lass That Loved a Sailor. (Premiere on May 25, 1878 at the Opera Comique where it ran for 571 performances.)

The fourth collaboration between Gilbert & Sullivan, H.M.S. Pinafore, was their first major success.  Using elements from several of his comic poems, the “Bab Ballads”, Gilbert poked fun at a variety of English attitudes: He poked fun at the class distinctions that keep true lovers apart, at high-minded efforts to keep sailors from using bad language, and at the notion that the First Lord of the Admiralty should be a purely political appointment whose holder need never have been to sea. In the end, “love can level rank,” and therefore, through a supremely silly switched-at-birth moment, the humble sailor marries the Captain’s daughter, the Captain’s daughter doesn’t have to marry the First Lord, and the Captain himself marries the bumboat woman.

 

The Pirates of Penzance, or The Slave of Duty (Simultaneous premieres in England and in the USA on December 30 and 31, 1879; the opera finally opened April 3, 1880 at the Opéra Comique in London, where it ran for 363 performances, having already been playing successfully for over three months in New York.)

This was done to make sure that Gilbert and Sullivan controlled the copyright to Pirates in America – unfortunately, American performing companies had presented unauthorized versions of H.M.S. Pinafore before Gilbert, Sullivan and Carte had a chance to establish their rights over the work.  To keep this from happening again, the dual premiere arrangement was conducted.

The main character of The Pirates of Penzance is Frederic, apprenticed as a child to a band of pirates. He’s turning 21 years old and announces he’s free of his indentures, only to discover that he was apprenticed until his 21st birthday – and since he was born on February 29 in a leap year, that birthday won’t be reached by him for another 60 years!

.By the end of the opera, the pirates, a Major General who knows nothing of military strategy, his large family of beautiful but unwed daughters, and the timid constabulary all contribute to a cacophony that can be silenced only by Queen Victoria’s name.

 

Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride. (Premiere on April 23, 1881 at the Opera Comique and ran for 578 performances, moving on October 10, 1881 to D’Oyly Carte’s new theatre, the Savoy, the first theatre in the world to be lit entirely by electric lights.)

Patience satirizes the “aesthetic craze” of the 1870’s and ’80s, when it was all the fashion to love “art for art’s sake” and to admire blue-and-white china, Japanese screens, and rare things of natural beauty. High-minded, spiritual and esoteric, the poetry and art of the day was considered by some to be empty and self-indulgent.

Patience is a simple village milkmaid who doesn’t understand poetry, is cheerful and uncomplicated and happy. She doesn’t care when all the well-born young ladies in the village, rapturously caught up in aestheticism, fall in love with two contrasting aesthetic poets — a “fleshy” poet and an “idyllic” poet. But both poets are in love with Patience! The military men who are in love with the well-born ladies try to turn aesthetic to please the girls. Patience discovers that love has a prickly side. In the end, everyone ends up with a suitable partner, even if it is only a tulip or lily.

 

fairy-curateIolanthe or The Peer and the Peri, (Premiere at the Savoy Theatre on November 25, 1882, three nights after the final performance of Patience at the same theatre, and ran for 398 performances.)

In this “fairy opera,” the House of Lords is lampooned as a group of ineffective, privileged and dim-witted men, who are being challenged by a troupe of female fairies.
Strephon, an Arcadian shepherd, wants to marry Phyllis, a Ward of Chancery. But Phyllis’ guardian, the Lord Chancellor, and half the peers in the House of Lords are sighing after her, so chances of Strephon winning the Lord Chancellor’s approval for the marriage are slim to none.

The fairies are on Strephon’s side, because he is half fairy (his upper half — his legs are mortal!) and when the Lord Chancellor insults the Queen of the Fairies, the ladies take over.

Phyllis does not know he’s a half-fairy, so when she sees him kissing a seemingly young woman, she assumes the worst. But her “rival” turns out to be none other than Strephon’s own mother, Iolanthe, a fairy — fairies never grow old.

Soon the peers and the fairies are virtually at war, and long friendships are nearly torn asunder. But all is happily sorted out, thanks to the “subtleties of the legal mind”.

Both Gilbert and Sullivan were at the height of their creative powers in 1882, and many people feel that Iolanthe, their seventh work together, is the most perfect of their collaborations.

 

Princess Ida, or Castle Adamant( Premiere on 5 January 1884 at the Savoy Theatre and ran for 246 performances.)

It is the only three act Gilbert and Sullivan Opera and the only one with dialogue in blank verse. This is because Gilbert based his libretto on his earlier play The Princess which, in turn, he described as “a perversion” of Tennyson’s poem of the same name.

Prince Hilarion had been married in babyhood to Princess Ida, daughter of King Gama. The Princess, however, has set up a college for women from which all men are barred. Hilarion and his friends infiltrate the castle and ultimately the men, led by Hilarion’s father, King Hildebrand, stage a full-scale invasion. Ida is abandoned by her women and finally surrenders to her Prince.

Princess Ida was produced between Iolanthe and The Mikado when its creators were at the height of their powers. The score is Sullivan at his best, and some people consider that Gilbert’s libretto contains some of his funniest lines.

 

701460The Mikado, or The Town of Titipu (The most popular Gilbert and Sullivan opera, and maybe the most popular opera ever written, premiered at the Savoy Theatre on 14 March, 1885 and ran for 672 nights.)

The plot of “The Mikado”, as Mr. Adair Fitzgerald mentions in his book “The Story of the Savoy Opera”, came to Gilbert through a Japanese sword, which hung on the walls of his study, suddenly falling down.

Ko-Ko, the cheap tailor, was sentenced to death for flirting, until someone in Titipu got the idea to make him the Lord High Executioner. Then the Mikado’s only son Nanki-Poo, disguised as a Second Trombone (apparently Sullivan kept asking for a second  trombone player for his orchestra, so Gilbert gave him one), arrives only to learn that his  beloved Yum-Yum, Ko-Ko’s ward, is about to be married to Ko-Ko. In despair, he plans to kill himself.

Meanwhile, the Mikado has noticed a sad lack of executions in Titipu, so he gives them a month to carry out his orders. In a hurry, Ko-Ko agrees that Nanki-poo can marry Yum-Yum as long as he’s willing to be beheaded in one month’s time, thereby getting the good out of his self-sacrifice.

When the Mikado shows up, the villagers all agree that they have carried out the sentence – upon the Mikado’s heir, which is a serious crime. In order to induce Nanki-poo, who is still alive, to announce that he’s not dead, Ko-Ko must marry Katisha. So everyone gets a mate and with joyous shouts and ringing cheer, everything ends well.

 

Ruddigore, or The Witch’s Curse (Premiere on January 21, 1887 at the Savoy Theatre and ran for 288 performances.)

This “supernatural opera” is a parody of the stock melodrama — the villain who carries off the maiden; the poor-but-virtuous-heroine; the hero in disguise, and his faithful old retainer who dreams of their former glory days; the snake in the grass who claims to be following his heart; the wild, mad girl; the swagger of fire-eating patriotism; ghosts coming to life to enforce a curse; and so forth. But of course, this is Gilbert – so we can expect that everything will be turned upside down~ Good becomes bad, bad becomes good, and heroes take the easy way out.

The Baronets of Ruddigore are cursed. Anyone who succeeds to the title has to commit a crime every day — or perish in inconceivable agony. Robin Oakapple, is a shy young farmer who loves Rose Maybud, though both are too timid to admit it. But Robin also has a secret. He is really Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd, the rightful Baronet of Ruddigore, in disguise. He faked his death and now his younger brother, Despard, has assumed the title. Robin’s foster brother, Richard, seeking Rose for himself, tells Despard of Robin’s deception, and Robin is forced to accept his true position, losing Rose to Richard in the process.

Now the Baronet of Ruddigore, Robin is confronted by the he ghosts of his ancestors who step from their picture frames in the gallery of Ruddigore Castle to confront him for failing to conscientiously commit his daily crime. Fortunately for all, Robin eventually finds a way of satisfying his ancestors’ demands while leading a blameless life.

 

The Yeomen of the Guard, or The Merryman and His Maid (Premiered October 3, 1888, at the Savoy Theatre and ran for 423 performances.)

It is different from the other Gilbert and Sullivan operas in that it ends with a broken-hearted main character and at least two reluctant engagements, rather than the usual plethora of happy marriages. However, Gilbert finds plenty of opportunity to introduce comedy into his libretto.

Many believe that the score is Sullivan’s finest. Indeed, some enjoy Yeomen particularly because of its ever-changing emotional balance of joy and despair, love and sacrifice.

The setting of Yeomen is the Tower of London in the sixteenth century. The plot concerns Colonel Fairfax, a gentleman, soldier and scientist, who has been sentenced to death on a false charge of sorcery. To avoid leaving his estate to his accuser (a cousin), and with the help of the Lieutenant of the Tower, Fairfax secretly marries Elsie Maynard, a strolling singer. The bride agrees to be blindfolded during the ceremony and expects to be a well-paid widow within the hour. With the help of the Meryll family, Fairfax escapes, throwing the Tower into confusion and the astonished Elsie (and her companion, the jester Jack Point, who is in love with her) into despair. But Fairfax, disguised as Leonard Meryll, woos Elsie, and after a number of plot complications are worked out, she falls in love with Fairfax and leaves Jack Point broken-hearted.

 

The Gondoliers, or, The King of Barataria. (Premiere on December 7, 1889 at the Savoy Theatre, The Gondoliers ran for 554 performances.)

It was the last of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas to achieve wide popularity. Its lilting score has, perhaps, the most sparkling and tuneful music of them all and calls, perhaps, for the most dancing.

Two just-married Venetian gondoliers are informed by the Grand Inquisitor that one of them has just become the King of “Barataria”, but only their foster mother, presently at large, knows which one. As Barataria, needs a king to put down unrest in the country, they travel there to reign jointly, leaving their wives behind in Venice until the old lady can be interviewed. It turns out that the king was wed in infancy to the beautiful daughter of the Spanish Duke of Plaza Toro, and so it seems he is an unintentional bigamist. Of course, the beautiful daughter is in love with a common servant! When the young Spaniard and the two Venetian wives all show up wanting to know which of them is queen, complications arise. No worries: The true identity of the king is revealed, and all is settled happily by the end.

 

Utopia, Limited, or The Flowers of Progress (Premiere October 7, 1893 at the Savoy Theatre and ran for 245 performances.)

King Paramount of the south seas island of Utopia decides that his people should adopt all English customs and institutions, but he goes a bit overboard and decrees that the kingdom and each of its inhabitants should become a “company limited” based on the English “companies act” of 1862. The king’s daughter, Princess Zara, brings six “flowers of progress” from England to train the Utopian people in “English” customs. But the reforms are too successful, which upsets the judges of the Utopian Supreme Court, the “Public Exploder” and ultimately the entire populace, which revolts against them. Zara realizes that an essential element has been forgotten, namely “government by party”. Introduce that and the result would be “general and unexampled prosperity”.

 

The Grand Duke, or The Statutory Duel (Premiere on March 7, 1896 at the Savoy Theatre, London. This last G&S opera ran for only 123 performances.)

In the Grand Duke, Gilbert and Sullivan come full circle, back to the theme of their first collaboration: A troupe of actors takes political power. The Grand Duke suffers from many of the same problems as Utopia Limited — it has a long and rambling libretto — and it calls for more principal quality voices than the typical G&S opera. Nevertheless, the story contains a number of hilarious moments and funny characters, the settings are colorful and the music is cheery. Some find this opera to be the most underrated of the G&S works.

Ludwig, an actor, replaces the company manager, Ernest, and then he replaces the miserly Grand Duke Rudolph of Pfennig Halbpfennig, after “killing” each of them by drawing the ace from a deck of cards in two “statutory” duels. By winning the statutory duels, Ludwig assumes all of Ernest’s and Rudolph’s rights and obligations. Soon he finds himself with far more wives, and prospective wives, than he knows what to do with. Never fear: once again, a lawyer solves the problem and all ends happily.

 

GilbertAndSullivan

 

 

Was W. S. Gilbert a Victorian Feminist?

What did W.S. Gilbert think about women?

scholar-ladyDuring the Victorian era, the division between the worlds of men and women seemed particularly wide, with many popular male writers making efforts to restrict women to the domestic sphere of influence. But as society at large changed, the role of women in public life was expanded – women began to be admitted to colleges and universities, reformers such as John Stuart Mill advocated for women’s right to vote, and women were increasingly able to participate in the world outside their homes.

So what was William S. Gilbert’s attitude toward women in the public arena?

“Gilbert always enjoyed the company of women, particularly intelligent ones, and he was attractive to them,” said Jane Stedman in her biography, W.S. Gilbert: A Classic Victorian and his Theater.

He had three sisters, and was evidently close to them. Gilbert also had a number of female friends.  While working as a barrister on the Northern Circuit, he engaged in amateur dramatics with Marie Wilton, later Lady Bancroft. He worked with a few female theatrical managers, including Marie Litton and Priscilla German Reed (who together with her husband Thomas produced the German Reed entertainments). And when Gilbert was 28, he appeared comfortable enough with the idea of a “lady novelist” to ask the popular author Annie Thomas to marry him. They remained friends even though she refused.

I believe that in his personal life, his views were more progressive than might have been portrayed in his plays and opera librettos – as a satirist, he was well aware that it is important to defuse an audience’s anger by making them laugh when pointing out what’s wrong with them. As Jack Point sang in Yeomen of the Guard:

…he who’d make his fellow creatures wise
Should always gild the philosophic pill

So although many of his female characters behave as typical females of the Victorian era were expected to behave – young women sweet and demure, older women lamenting over the loss of their physical attractions – there are occasions when Gilbert took up his satirist’s pen to point out the injustice of the double standard applied to men and women, and to tackle social issues such as higher education for women and women in politics.

 

Women in Politics

In 1867, Gilbert’s one-act farce, Highly Improbable, was performed at the New Royalty Theater under the management of Martha (Pattie) Oliver. The work was written not long after John Stuart Mill’s unsuccessful attempt to secure women’s suffrage, and contained the first examples of his inclusion of political satire. The play’s script was never published, but Jane Stedman describes it in her book.

The play contains references to a “Young-Ladies-in-All-Employments Bill” and a “Members of Parliament Matrimonial Qualifications Bill” which would require all MPs to be married. The first bill is introduced by the six daughters of a country MP, and the second bill is their father’s attempt to make all MPs respectable through marriage. (The hero outsmarts the girls, and then qualifies for Parliament by marrying one of them.) He also has a character called Cocklethorpe, a female footman, who is dressed as a footman from head to waist, and as a lady’s maid from the waist down.

Sounds like fun! Sadly, the script was never published, as far as I can tell, so there’s no way to find out exactly what Gilbert had in mind.

Other references to women’s role in society appear in Gilbert’s problem play, Ought We to Visit Her? This straight drama is about a seemingly respectable widow who is revealed to have been an unwed mother when, years later, her grown daughter is courted by two men.

The comic opera Iolanthe deals with the topsy-turvy effect of a troupe of fairies taking over the House of Lords, but it’s also about women in politics.  In fact, that’s one of the lines spoken by a disgruntled peer:

 

Lord Mountararat. I don’t want to say a word against brains – I’ve a great respect for brains – I often wish I had some myself – but with a House of Peers composed exclusively of people of intellect, what’s to become of the House of Commons?

Leila. I never thought of that!

Lord Mountararat. This comes of women interfering in politics. It so happens that if there is an institution in Great Britain which is not susceptible of any improvement at all, it is the House of Peers!

 

 

Higher Education for Women

The Princess, Gilbert’s 1870 musical play, and Princess Ida, his later comic opera with Sullivan, were both based on Tennyson’s 1847 poem “The Princess.”

Tennyson’s original had been written as a response to the opening of Queen’s College, London, founded in 1847. It was the first school in Britain to offer higher education to young women ages 12 to 20. At the time, members of the press criticized the establishment of the College because of the supposedly ‘dangerous’ consequences of teaching mathematics to women.

Tennyson’s work had comic as well as dramatic elements. It is the story of Princess Ida who leaves her father’s house and establishes a women’s university where men are forbidden to enter. As a baby, she was promised in marriage to the prince of a nearby country, Prince Hilarion. This prince and two of his friends decide to disguise themselves as women and enter the university. Their identities are revealed and eventually a battle is fought over the princess’ hand. The men lose and are wounded, but the women nurse them back to health. In the process, the princess falls in love with the prince and they get married in the end.

When Gilbert re-cast the poem as a musical play in 1870, women’s education was in the news again. This time, it was the 1869 opening of the first university-level women’s school, Girton College, Cambridge.  He follows the story line of the original poem pretty closely, but comes closest to Tennyson’s original language in the final passage of the work.

Here is the final speech in Tennyson’s poem, spoken by Prince Hilarion:

 

…my bride,
My wife, my life. O we will walk this world,
Yoked in all exercise of noble end,
And so through those dark gates across the wild
That no man knows. Indeed I love thee: come,
Yield thyself up: my hopes and thine are one:
Accomplish thou my manhood and thyself;
Lay thy sweet hands in mine and trust to me.’

 

Though he uses similar language, Gilbert gave this speech to Princess Ida in both his versions. In the 1870 play, Ida says:

 

Take me, Hilarion—“We will walk the world
Yoked in all exercise of noble end!
And so through those dark gates across the wild
That no man knows!  Indeed, I love thee—Come!”

 

And in Princess Ida (1884), there’s only one small change:

 

Take me, Hilarion – “We will walk this world
Yoked in all exercise of noble end!
And so through those dark gates across the wild
That no one knows!” Indeed, I love thee – Come!

(For Star Trek aficionados, let me point out the change from “no man” to “no one.”)

 

David Fidler thinks that by giving the speech to Ida, he’s making her say, “You win, I lose.” But I disagree. To assume that Ida is giving up the fight is to ignore the fact that Gilbert left out the lines from the original speech, where Hilarion insists, “Yield thyself up, my hopes and thine are one…trust to me” – Here Hilarion is telling Ida to give up and embrace his hopes.

My opinion corresponds to that of Caroline Williams in “Gilbert and Sullivan: Gender, Genre, Parody (Gender and Culture Series)” which is – if I remember correctly – that giving this speech to Ida gives her more agency and allows her to make the decision to accept Hilarion.

 

All the Older Ladies

The most comical – and sometimes most poignant – roles in Gilbert and Sullivan belong to the older ladies: sassy Little Buttercup in HMS Pinafore, who flirts with all the sailors while she sells them her wares; Lady Jane, in Patience, who laments losing her figure and her looks; the domineering Duchess of Plaza-Toro in The Gondoliers, who’s “not a beginner,” and Katisha in The Mikado, who despite describing herself as “tough as a bone with a will of her own” sings one of the saddest and most beautiful laments of all:

Alone, and yet alive! Oh, sepulchre!
My soul is still my body’s prisoner!
Remote the peace that Death alone can give —
My doom, to wait! my punishment, to live!
Hearts do not break!
They sting and ache
For old love’s sake,
But do not die,
Though with each breath
They long for death
As witnesseth
The living I !

 

In conclusion, it is difficult to say exactly what Gilbert’s personal attitude was toward women — but nevertheless, he managed to create some interesting and complex female characters in his works.

What do you think? Was Gilbert more liberal in his views about women than many Victorian era men? Or did he adopt the prevailing views of his times?

dancers

W.S. Gilbert the Recycler

Today I am plundering the Gilbert and Sullivan Archive (which is moving soon to gilbertandsullivanarchive.org) to show how William S. Gilbert “recycled” some of his early literary ideas into the bases of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas we know today.

Before Gilbert began writing his comic operas, he was well-known for his witty magazine articles and for a series of comically grotesque poems, collectively known as The Bab Ballads. (“Bab” was William’s childhood nickname, and was the pseudonym he used for this series of poems.) You can find them all collected in the G&S archive here.


From “The Student” to “The Sorcerer

In 1865, Gilbert wrote a parody of  E.A. Poe’s The Raven, called The Student, who is an aspiring barrister:

Well, as I was sitting idly
On my pleasant window-sill,
Speculating vaguely, widely,
On my aunt’s unopened will,

I perceived a silent student
At a window, quite at home,
Stooping more than I thought prudent
Over a Tremendous Tome.

Although the verses in The Student mostly relate to law students at Gray’s Inn, in the following passage we can see a tiny glimpse of John Wellington Wells’ patter song in The Sorcerer:

ology

Check out the similarity between the passage above and John Wellington Wells’ song, where he talks about

Barring tautology,
In demonology,
‘Lectro-biology,
Mystic nosology,
Spirit philology,
High-class astrology,
Such is his knowledge, he
Isn’t the man to require an apology!

 

Breach of Promise: Edwin vs. Angelina, Trial by Jury

On 11 April 1868, Gilbert also wrote about a fictional Breach of Promise suit, which eventually morphed into the Bab Ballad called Trial by Jury (which is even described as an “operetta” )

Here is the opening of the Bab Ballad, which is identical to the operetta:

SCENE – A Court of Law at Westminster

Opening Chorus of Counsel, Attorneys, and Populace.

Hark! The hour of ten is sounding,
Hearts with anxious hopes are bounding,
Halls of Justice crowds surrounding,
Breathing hope and fear –
For to-day in this arena
Summoned by a stern subpoena
EDWIN sued by ANGELINA,
Shortly will appear!

trial-by-jury

This even later became the one act operetta “Trial by Jury” – the first Gilbert & Sullivan collaboration that has survived intact.

 

HMS Pinafore’s Bab Ballad origins

Ideas from Gilbert’s Bab Ballads also found their way into HMS Pinafore: The Ballad “Captain Reece” is the origin of Captain Corcoran, who was so kind and accommodating to his crew that he arranges for all of the men to be married to his female relatives:

You have a daughter, CAPTAIN REECE,
Ten female cousins and a niece,
A ma, if what I’m told is true,
Six sisters, and an aunt or two.

Now, somehow, sir, it seems to me,
More friendly-like we all should be
If you united of ’em to
Unmarried members of the crew.

Also, Little Buttercup was first brought to life in The Bumboat Woman’s Story,

Whenever I went on board he would beckon me down below.
“Come down, little Buttercup, (for he loved to come call me so),…”

So was the crew’s excessive politeness, although in the Ballad it was for a completely different reason (the crew of handsome Lieutenant Belaye’s gunboat, the Hot Cross Bun, was entirely made up of young maidens from Portsmouth who’d fallen in love with the man):

When Jack Tars meet, they meet with a “Messmate, ho! What cheer?
But here, on the Hot Cross Bun, it was “How do you do, my dear?”
When Jack Tars growl, I believe they growl with a big big D—
But the strongest oath of the Hot Cross Bun was a mild “Dear me!”

bumboat-2

The Fairy Curate becomes Iolanthe

Gilbert’s delightful libretto “Iolanthe,” about the complications that arise after a fairy marries a mortal and gives birth to a half-mortal, half-fairy son, relies heavily on the Bab Ballad called “The Fairy Curate,” where a Bishop, not knowing that his curate Georgie has an immortal, eternally young mother, is disapproving:

fairy-curate

“Who is this, sir, —
Ballet miss, sir?”
Said the Bishop coldly.
“‘Tis my mother,
And no other,”
GEORGIE answered boldly.
“Go along, sir!
You are wrong, sir,
You have years in plenty;
While this hussy
(Gracious mussy!)
Isn’t two-and-twenty!”

(Fairies clever
Never, never
Grow in visage older;
And the fairy,
All unwary,
Leant upon his shoulder!)

 

There are many more examples of Gilbert’s clever reworking of his older ideas. How do you feel about a writer or other creative making use of his ideas in multiple ways? Have you ever reworked an oldie but goodie into a newer creative piece? Let me know in the comments!