Archive | May 2016

W.S. Gilbert, Amateur Photographer

In his later years, William S. Gilbert’s favorite hobbies were croquet and photography.

Of course, Gilbert wasn’t the only “shutter-bug” out there. During the 1880s, when he seems to have taken up the hobby, photography had become a popular pastime. Check out this PBS documentary on the subject.  

The Kodak camera was introduced in May 1888. It was easy to use – Eastman’s advertising slogan was “You press the button, we do the rest.” On the down side, it cost a then-whopping $25 (still less than a wet-plate camera).

Everyone tried out the Kodak camera – President Grover Cleveland had one. Even the Dalai Lama had one, and brought his camera with him when he left Tibet for the first time.

By 1893, W. S. Gilbert included a song about Kodak cameras in the 13th of his 14 comic operas with Sullivan, Utopia Limited. The opera’s story is about the king of a South Seas island who decides to adopt modern English ways, including turning the country into a “company limited” according to the English “Companies Act” of 1862.

One of the songs contains this deft variation on the Kodak slogan:

Then all the crowd take down our looks
In pocket memorandum books.
To diagnose
Our modest pose
The Kodaks do their best:
If evidence you would possess
Of what is maiden bashfulness
You need a button press—
And we do the rest!


He also created an amusing little Bab cartoon about photography : “Modest Maidens Captured by Kodak”

Modest Maidens Captured by Kodak, by Bab

Modest Maidens Captured by Kodak, by Bab


Not only that, but a sweet little short story he wrote for Christmas 1885 is all centered around a camera and a photograph: The Story of a Dry Plate. Here’s the summary of the story from the Journal for Amateur Photographers, Vol. 29 “The Photographic News,” December 24, 1885

W S. Gilbert turns photography to novel and dramatic account in the short but effective “Story of a Dry Plate” (page 868) he tells this Christmas. The nature of his tale is briefly this. A young fellow falls deeply in love with a girl on board a P and O steamer; becomes her accepted lover and having a camera with him photographs her during the voyage on a dry plate, which, as he can find no conveniently dark place for its development, puts carefully by for future manipulation. In due time the steamer arrives at the Far East, he parts with his fiancée and on returning to England after a year or two of vicissitude, is horrified to hear of her shipwreck and death. Suddenly he bethinks him of his dry plate taken long ago, and now the only link between him and his lost love.

Then, in a powerfully written passage, Mr. Gilbert describes the eager anxiety and feverish caution with which the hero of the tale proceeds to shut himself into a darkened room and to effect what seems to him well-nigh like calling the dead back to life. With true dramatic art he is made to narrate the progress of the development and how at length, as every feature he had learned to love slowly appears on the plate, the door is excitedly opened and his valet rushes in, and ere he can hotly upbraid him for the irreparable mischief he has done, tells him the happy news that his fiancée was saved by a passing vessel from the wreck and is alive and well in London waiting to receive him. The story is very brief, but as with everything W. S. Gilbert writes it is distinctly original, whilst its purely technical photographic details lead us to suppose that the author of The Mikado is himself an amateur photographer. Be this as it may, he has certainly made a very interesting sketch out of his “dry plate.”

The Victorian era saw the beginnings of many of the technological advances that we enjoy today – telephones, audio recordings, electric lights, the postal service, railroads, and as discussed above, the camera.

However, it seems that movies came a little bit later than the Victorian era—but only a few years later. Recently, the Telegraph reported that the world’s first color film was invented by Englishman Edward Turner in about 1902.  Check out this wonderfully restored bit of history here. 

Are you surprised to learn of these early advances? Let me know in the comments.








Arthur Sullivan: Early Success and Early Heartbreak

(Note: Sorry for the delay in posting this week’s blog — I finished a free short story, which you can read here.)

Everybody liked Arthur Sullivan. Good looking, charming, funny, smart, superbly talented. How could they not?

boy-sullivanMen liked him and women fell in love with him. According to Hesketh Pearson, author of Gilbert and Sullivan, “With women his appeal was immediate and often permanent. His oval, olive-tinted face, his dark luminous eyes, his large sensuous mouth, and the generous crop of black curly hair which overhung his low forehead, no doubt added to the attraction.”

But despite all this, Arthur Sullivan’s first serious love affair ended in heartbreak.

Michael Ainger, in his book Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography, explains that in 1866, Sullivan was part of a group of friends called the Moray Minstrels, who gathered at Moray Lodge, Campton Hill, at the home of Arthur Lewis. They liked to put on amateur theatricals.

One member of the group, a writer named Frank Burnand (later the editor of Punch magazine) suggested to Sullivan that they should write something together. Sullivan agreed, and Burnand set to work adapting the farce “Box and Cox”, a story about two men who never met, even though they shared the same room in a boarding house—and, as it turned out, the same girlfriend.

Burnand called his effort Cox and Box, and it had just three characters: Box, who worked all day; Cox, who worked all night; and Sgt. Bouncer, the landlord who rented them the same room. When one of the two lodgers gets the day off work, hijinks ensue.

Sullivan wrote a number of clever songs for the piece, including a lovely lullaby to a rasher of bacon that one man sings as his dinner cooks quietly on the stove. You can hear it here. At first, he only wrote out the vocal parts, because he was playing the music on the piano himself.

On Wednesday, 23 May 1866, Cox and Box was performed for the first time for the Moray Minstrels. The friends who played the characters included the popular Punch cartoonist George du Maurier in the role of Box. This amateur performance was such a success that later Cox and Box was turned into a complete one-act comic opera with orchestration by Sullivan.

But during this time, Sullivan was falling in love. Her name was Rachel Scott Russell.

Rachel Scott Russell was the daughter of John Scott Russell, a wealthy and socially prominent engineer. She and Sullivan had known one another since 1863 when Sullivan was 21 and she was 18. Although on friendly terms with the whole family, no one expected anything to come of their friendship.

Rachel and Arthur’s relationship turned serious and intimate around the time of the amateur performance. However, they did not tell her parents.

In May of 1867, the first public performance of Cox and Box took place at the Adelphi Theater. It was a success. William S. Gilbert reviewed the comic opera for the magazine Fun, and wrote in part:

“Mr. Sullivan’s music is, in many places, of too high a class for the grotesquely absurd plot to which it is wedded.”

(History records that Burnand never liked Gilbert too much.)

When Rachel told her parents that she wanted to marry Sullivan, her mother, a baronet’s daughter, absolutely forbade it. Sullivan was poor, and at that time he made very little money – he survived by selling sheet music, playing the church organ on Sundays, and teaching. His serious compositions brought in critical acclaim but not much financial reward.

sullivan-young-manRachel and Arthur continued to write to one another and to meet in secret, but their tumultuous love affair was marred by jealousy and misunderstandings. Rachel expected Arthur to put her ahead of his music. At one point, she wanted him to put his musical career aside and work in a bank to make enough money to satisfy her parents so that they could get married.

But Arthur’s career as an artist and musician was more important to him, and his priorities caused a lot of stress in their relationship. However, since she had “given herself” to him, she felt that they must eventually marry. Arthur could not find a way to break off their relationship, and the affair limped along until 1870, when it was finally broken off.

Rachel’s letters to Sullivan survive, although she burnt his letters to her at his request. In one of her last letters to him, she returned his ring and wrote,

“You have others to work for & your beautiful genius to work for—& I—nor any other woman on God’s earth—is worth wasting one’s life for.”

Although he had longstanding love affairs after Rachel, Sullivan never married.

In Sullivan’s family, the long relationship with Rachel Scott Russell was known as his one serious love affair. The blame for the failure of the relationship was laid firmly at the door of Mrs. Scott Russell because Rachel’s mother had thought that the young composer was not good enough for her daughter to take in marriage.

Such a sad chapter in the life of a man who wrote beautiful music, don’t you think?

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?


W.S. Gilbert the Recycler

Today I am plundering the Gilbert and Sullivan Archive (which is moving soon to 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:


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

Barring tautology,
In demonology,
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
Shortly will appear!


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!”


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:


“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!