Archive | October 2016

W. S. Gilbert and the Secret Admirer

W. S. Gilbert

W. S. Gilbert

William S. Gilbert was known for being a strict and demanding director—a martinet, in fact. But he was respected by the actors who worked for him. One awed member of his chorus noted, “He’s the only man I ever met who could swear straight on for five minutes without stopping to think or repeating himself.”

Also, many of the women he worked with really liked him. He defended the ladies of his chorus against “stage-door johnnies” and “mashers” who thought actresses were loose women. He hated the Victorian double-standard of behavior that punished women for the same actions that men were praised for, and wrote a couple of plays to point out this inequity.

But as far as we know, only one lady of the chorus took her admiration farther than that. While Gilbert was in America for the premiere of The Pirates of Penzance, he received a letter from a chorus member who signed herself “Cynisca.”

She wrote in part:

“How it started God only knows, I flattered myself I was fascinated by your ability…. If you for a moment think I have a sinful thought connected with you, you have sadly mistaken me, my feeling for you is of the head alone…Think of me with respect for I deserve it, there is no shame in the feeling I bear you—Good by.”

Jane Stedman, in her biography of Gilbert, adds that the letter was dated 1880, and was written on cheap lined paper. The author also told Gilbert that she had never loved before, even though she was married to a husband whom she’d left after the American Civil War. “From that time, I encased myself in cast iron,” she wrote, until she met Gilbert. She’d fallen in love with him, and the thought that he would be returning to England was “worse than death.”

Madge Robertson (Mrs.Kendal ) as Galatea. From G&S archive.

Madge Robertson (Mrs.Kendal ) as Galatea. From G&S archive.

Poor Cynisca! Her letter is clearly not an invitation to Gilbert, but rather a farewell. It seems unlikely that Gilbert knew about her feelings until this letter arrived.

Gilbert’s successful play of 1871, called Pygmalion and Galatea, might have been where his anonymous admirer got her name. In that play, the sculptor was married to Cynisca. She’s a strong female character who is most upset when she returns from a trip to find he’s brought his sculpture to life (George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion wasn’t produced until 1913).

History doesn’t reveal who this letter-writing Cynisca was, or how Gilbert felt about it, or even if he knew who she was. He seems to have been a sentimental man and not a Lothario.  However, the fact is that Gilbert usually destroyed all his personal correspondence and this letter, for whatever reason, survives.

What do you think? Would you ever write a letter like the one Cynisca wrote to W.S. Gilbert? Who would you write it to?  Let me know in the comments.



Arthur Sullivan’s Best and Worst Day

sullivanThe worst of days and the best of days – that’s probably how Arthur Sullivan would describe the premiere of Iolanthe on November 25, 1882.

The weeks leading up to the premiere were fraught with tension. To avoid American theatrical companies from pirating their work, Gilbert and Sullivan had arranged for two sets of casts—one in New York and one in London, so the premieres could be held at the same time and thus establish copyright in both places. Letters and transatlantic messages flew back and forth. The music was locked up every night to keep it safe from prying eyes, and during the rehearsals the main character was called Periola instead of Iolanthe!

It was a stressful time. Gilbert had his own way of dealing with stress—he never could stand to be in the playhouse during a premiere. Instead, it was his habit to leave the theater and pace up and down the Thames Embankment until the curtain fell.

Original costume design for Iolanthe by Wilhelm (G&S archive)

Original costume design for Iolanthe by Wilhelm (G&S archive)

At the last minute, Arthur Sullivan told the members of the chorus that the show’s main character was not called Periola—starting on premiere night, they would not be singing “Periola,” as they had been doing for weeks, but they would be singing “Iolanthe” instead.

Understandably upset, some chorus members asked, “What if we forget and say Periola instead of Iolanthe?”

Quickly, Sullivan replied, “Never mind so long as you sing the music. Use any name that happens to occur to you! Nobody in the audience will be the wiser, except Mr. Gilbert – and he won’t be there.”

So Sullivan was good at solving other people’s problems. Too bad he couldn’t solve his own. November 25, 1882 turned out to be a rough day for Sullivan. In his diary he wrote,

At home all day–L.W. [“Little Woman,” his pet name for Mrs. Ronalds] to tea. Received letter from E.A. Hall saying he was ruined & my money (about £7,000) lost, just before starting for the theater—Dined with Smythe at home. 1st Performance of “Iolanthe” at the Savoy Theater. House crammed, awfully nervous, more so than usual on going into the Orchestra—tremendous reception—1st Act went splendidly—the 2nd dragged & I was afraid it must be compressed—however it finished well & Gilbert & myself were called & heartily cheered. Very low afterwards—came home.

So there it is—a brilliant new theatrical success and financial ruin, all in one day.

Original costume design for the Fairy Queen by Wilhelm (G&S archive)

Original costume design for the Fairy Queen by Wilhelm (G&S archive)

According to Hesketh Pearson, that £7,000 sum was Sullivan’s entire life’s savings. According to Measuring Worth, £7,000 in 1882 would have a value of at least £635,800 in 2015.

Christopher Hibbert writes in Gilbert & Sullivan and their Victorian World that Sullivan received a letter from his stockbroker, E. A. Hall, by special messenger right before he left his house on Victoria Street to go to the theater for the premiere.

You must look upon [all Sullivan’s life’s savings] as lost. God knows how it will all end, but I have seen it coming for ages. Thank God my friends stick to me and believe me honest. I am afraid Cooper [his partner] is not all that we have always thought him. I have been weak and he has exerted a fatal influence and power over me… Come and see me, my dear boy, though I feel you will hate me.”

Sullivan apparently didn’t even blame Edward Hall for the loss. He wrote his friend and stockbroker:

I am deeply grieved at the terrible news which I learned first from your letter yesterday. I of course knew from what you had told me that you were passing through critical times, but I did not anticipate such a speedy and lamentable end. As a friend, and one to whom I am so much attached, you have my deepest sympathy for I know what you must have been suffering.

This level of generosity and kindness was evidently typical of Sullivan. Hibbert tells another story about the time when Sullivan’s fur-lined overcoat was stolen:

It was known, for instance, that when his fur-lined overcoat was stolen by one of the wardrobe staff who pawned it for £2 in order to pay for doctor’s bills for his wife and seventh baby, Sullivan said to the man as he contritely confessed to the crime with the pawn ticket in his hand, “I’m sorry you’re in trouble. But as it happens I’m in need of that coat now the cold weather has set in. Here’s £5. Go and get the coat out of pawn and keep the change to buy something for your wife and baby. And for heaven’s sake don’t say you’re sorry again.”

Gilbert was known for his sharp wit, sarcasm and his championing of justice and fairness. But Arthur Sullivan was known for kindness, generosity and humanity. It’s amazing to me that both men could be admirable in their ways, while being so completely opposite.

Also, check out these gorgeous watercolors of Iolanthe by W. Russell Flint.






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





A Composer in the Wild, Wild West

sullivan-young-manWhen I think about the composer Sir Arthur Sullivan, I see the courtier who entertained the crowned heads of Europe, playing the piano as an accompanist to Prince Albert’s violin, joking with the future Kaiser Wilhelm, or rubbing elbows with Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie in France.

But Sir Arthur Sullivan also traveled across the American continent in 1885, heading for California to visit his brother’s children. This was during the wild, wild days of the Old West, and as he told his biographer Arthur Lawrence, along the way he had a little adventure at one particular stagecoach stop:


Well, … some of my experiences have been very curious. Amongst them was one I will relate to you if you will permit me, in which arose a most curious case of mistaken identity, more or less gratifying to me as a musician.

I was traveling on a stage in rather a wild part of California and arrived at a mining camp, where we had to get down for refreshments.

As we drove up, the driver said, “They are expecting you here, Mr. Sullivan.”

I was much pleased, and when I reached the place I came across a knot of prominent citizens at the whiskey store.

The foremost of them came up to a big burly man by my side and said, “Are you Mr. Sullivan?”

The man said, “No!” And pointed to me.

The citizen looked at me rather contemptuously, and after a while said, “Why, how much do you weigh?”

I thought this was a curious method of testing the power of the composer, but I at once answered, “About one hundred and sixty-two pounds.”

“Well,” said the man, “That’s odd to me, anyhow. Do you mean to say that you gave fits to John S. Blackmore down in Kansas City?”

I said, “No, I did not give him fits.”

He then said, “Well, who are you?”

I replied, “My name is Sullivan.”

“Ain’t you John L. Sullivan, the slugger?”

I disclaimed all title to that and told him I was Arthur Sullivan.

“Oh, Arthur Sullivan!” he said. “Are you the man as put Pinafore together?” – rather a gratifying way of describing my composition.

I said “Yes.”

“Well,” returned the citizen, “I am sorry you ain’t John Sullivan, but still I am glad to see you anyway – let’s have a drink.”


What a great story! If I were to give a dinner party, Arthur Sullivan would be right at the top of my guest list! He had some remarkable experiences, and such an entertaining story-telling manner.

What about you? Are there any Victorian notables that you’d like to invite to a sparkling dinner party? Let me know.