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.”
Many 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)
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.