Archive | September 2016

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.






Gilbert & Sullivan & Pirates, Oh, My!

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

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

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

It’s their devil-may-care attitude

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

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


It’s the clothes

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

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

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

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

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

It’s the accent, matey

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

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

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


Pirates are desperate and dangerous

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


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

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


But some are not so bad once you know them

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

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


Oh, better far to live and die

Under the brave black flag I fly,

Than play a sanctimonious part,

With a pirate head and a pirate heart.

Away to the cheating world go you,

Where pirates all are well-to-do;

But I’ll be true to the song I sing,

And live and die a Pirate King.


For I am a Pirate King!

And it is, it is a glorious thing

To be a Pirate King!


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


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,



Sir Arthur Sullivan and the Lady

Arthur Sullivan’s early love affair with Rachel Scott Russell was doomed by “[her] vain mother who thought the young composer not good enough for her daughter to take in marriage.” (B.W. Findon, Sir Arthur Sullivan, p. 170)

He never married.

Fanny Ronalds

Fanny Ronalds

But he did have a life-long friend and lover—the American socialite and accomplished amateur contralto, Mary Frances “Fanny” Ronalds. She was considered a great beauty, with small and exquisitely regular features, abundant dark hair of a shade called châtain foncé (deep chestnut), a generous smile and beautiful teeth.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1839, by age 20 the beautiful Mary Frances Carter was already known for her singing ability when she married Pierre Lorillard Ronalds, who later was called the “Father of American Coaching” (i.e., horse-drawn carriage-driving).  She gave excellent parties, including a cotillion dinner at Delmonico’s where everyone had to dress in costume. The young Mrs. Ronalds appeared as “Euterpe, the muse of Music,” in a white satin gown embroidered with part of the score of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. On her head she wore a tiara decorated with a harp, from which flickered real flames fed by a tiny gas cylinder hidden in her hairdo.

In 1867, she separated from her husband and moved with her three children to Paris, where she joined the court circles of the pleasure-loving Empress Eugénie and Napoleon III. That was where she first met Arthur Sullivan, during one of his travels during that time.

The Second Empire fell in 1871, and Mrs. Ronalds moved with her children to Algeria and then to London, where she soon became known as an elegant society hostess and one of the many “friends” of the skirt-chasing Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and had a relationship with Lord Randolph Churchill. Those liaisons notwithstanding, Fanny became friends with Lady Randolph Churchill (the former Jennie Jerome) and was also friendly with Queen Victoria and Queen Alexandra.

by Lafayette (Lafayette Ltd), photogravure by Walker & Boutall, photogravure, 1897; published 1899

by Lafayette (Lafayette Ltd), photogravure by Walker & Boutall, photogravure, 1897; published 1899

Not long after she arrived in London, Fanny and Arthur fell in love. She was three years older than Sullivan, still in her early thirties and beautiful, with a strong personality. Sullivan called her “the best amateur singer in London.” She often performed Sullivan’s songs, especially “The Lost Chord,” singing it both in private and in public, often with Sullivan accompanying her.

She even attended the auditions which were held at the Savoy, according to Hesketh Pearson in Gilbert and Sullivan, who noted, “she would sit in a box, Sullivan in the pit, Carte in the gallery and [conductor Frank] Cellier in the orchestra, and the nervous singers had to remember that hers was the casting vote.”

Pearson added, “[Sullivan] followed her advice on most matters with a whole-heartedness seldom displayed by husbands when proffered counsel by their wives.”

Their relationship deepened after the deaths of Sullivan’s brother Fred in 1877 and his beloved mother in 1882. Sullivan became close with Fanny’s children and parents, especially after his brother Fred’s family moved to America in 1883.

But of course, they could never marry, or even publicly acknowledge their relationship.  Fanny was still married to Ronalds, despite their separation – though the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act gave women limited access to divorce, the scandal meant instant social annihilation – and the social stigma of marrying a divorcee would have ruined Sullivan’s career.  So in public, Sullivan called her Mrs. Ronalds. In his private diary, he referred to her as L.W. (Little Woman) or D.H. (Dear Heart, maybe?), with little asterisks showing how many times they’d made love on each stolen night they spent together.

Though their physical relationship seems to have faded out in their later years together (no more little asterisks in the diary), Fanny was Arthur Sullivan’s constant companion until his death in 1900. When he died, he left her the autograph manuscript of “The Lost Chord,” along with other bequests. That manuscript copy was buried with her, at her request, when she died in 1916, at the age of 76. She is buried in the Brompton Cemetery in London.

In an inscription to a wreath that she sent to the funeral, Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise described Fanny Ronalds as “one of the kindest and most unselfish of women.”

I think Arthur Sullivan and Fanny Ronalds would have made delightful dinner companions! Both were clever and witty and talented and kind.

If you could have anyone from any time and place join you for dinner, who would you choose? Let me know in the comments!