G&S: the Lennon/McCartney of the 19th century

On the centenary of WS Gilbert’s death, Tom Ford sheds light on the life without Sullivan.

They were a musical and lyric juggernaut brought to its knees by a series of artistic and personal misunderstandings. This disharmony – like John Lenon and Paul McCartney's – was left unresolved following a premature and unforeseen death.

The mighty partnership between wordsmith William Schwenck Gilbert and musical prodigy Arthur Seymour Sullivan, which produced 14 comic operas between 1871 and 1896, was prickly and delicate. These two men fused their creative powers, yet remained deliberately independent from each other. “Each man brought his own star to the partnership,” noted scholar Gayden Wren. “That it lasted so long is little short of miraculous.” So what was it that sparked their eventual estrangement?  

Of Gilbert and Sullivan’s many contretemps, the most damaging concerned expenses charged to their names by manager Richard D’Oyly Carte. Known subsequently as the “carpet quarrel”, Gilbert took high offence that an inordinate number of company items had been purchased using his and Sullivan’s accounts, one being a new carpet for the Savoy Theatre lobby. Gilbert argued with Carte over the matter on base of principle; Sullivan, a much more relaxed character, eventually sided with the manager. In the wake of the dispute, Gilbert wrote to Sullivan: “The time for putting an end to our collaboration has at last arrived”.

Carte managed to squeeze two final works out of the duo, namely Utopia, Limited (1893) and The Grand Duke (1896), neither of which received acclaim. By this time, the Gilbert and Sullivan partnership had run out of steam. Wren describes the separation: “Simply, both men had less zeal for their work. Both were financially secure beyond even Sullivan’s capacity to gamble away his wealth”. 

A final embarrassing wrangle between the two artists occurred at the premiere of Sullivan’s music drama The Beauty Stone on May 28, 1898. Gilbert strolled up to the Savoy Theatre, accompanied by friends, assuming Sullivan to have allocated some seats for his party. He was informed upon arrival, however, that Sullivan objected to his presence; the composer later denied any involvement in such a glaring exclusion.

Gilbert fumed, naturally. While they continued intermittent correspondence, the Gilbert and Sullivan partnership had reached an impasse. A sad account of their final meeting is described in the composer’s diary following the 21st anniversary performance of The Sorcerer on November 17, 1898. “Tremendous house,” Sullivan wrote, “ditto reception. Opera went very well. Call for Gilbert & self – we went on together, but did not speak to each other! He is mortally offended about The Beauty Stone, insisting that I kept him out of the theatre on the first night! As he will not allow me to explain that I had nothing whatever to do with it, of course there is nothing to be done.” 

Following Sullivan’s death, Gilbert expressed remorse at how their partnership had festered in personal squabbles for so long. He was in Egypt when news of the composer’s death reached him and penned a letter of condolence to Herbert Sullivan, the composer’s nephew: “I wish I had been in England, that I might have had an opportunity of joining the mourners at his funeral”.

In describing his “personal sorrow”, Gilbert revealed that the pair had recently taken steps towards making peace. He found satisfaction, he told Sullivan’s nephew, “that I was impelled, shortly before his death, to write to him to propose to shake hands over [our] recent differences and even a greater satisfaction to learn, through you that my offer of reconciliation was cordially accepted”. 

Gilbert was to outlive his great collaborator by more than a decade. The ailments that plagued him (arthritis and gout) immediately before and after Sullivan’s passing subsided and he returned to full health, regularly partaking in tennis matches and enjoying winter swims in the family lake, much to the bemusement of his wife, Kitty. Creatively, Gilbert began to slow and only wrote four new stage works after formally severing ties with Sullivan in 1896.

The Fortune Hunter (1897) was Gilbert’s last full-length drama. Though witty in parts, the lengthy dialogue and excessive melodrama crippled its flow. The Fairy’s Dilemma (1904) was only slightly more successful. It is perhaps best remembered today as the only one of Gilbert’s plays to be staged at the Garrick, the theatre he himself had built in 1889. Gilbert wrote a sweet tribute to Sullivan in the work by having the Reverend Aloysius Parfitt perform the composer’s magnificent The Lost Chord on the harmonium.

With Fallen Fairies (1909), Gilbert returned to the comic opera scene with the assistance of composer Edward German. The work was a monumental flop and was pulled from the Savoy after a meagre 50 performances. German was unwilling to compromise his musical ideas like Sullivan had; thus, Gilbert’s libretto seemed awkward and disorganised.

His final work, The Hooligan (1911), was by far his most successful post-Sullivan. A “character study” lasting only 15 minutes, it is set in the cell of a criminal moments before his execution. The work’s popularity surprised Gilbert and explains the writer’s joviality immediately preceding his own death. 

More earnestly, Gilbert worked on revising many of his earlier productions, predominately those he wrote with Sullivan, which led one scholar to note that he became a “curator of his own legacy”. Following Carte’s death in 1901, his widow produced all of the great Gilbert and Sullivan works at the Savoy, impelling Gilbert to revise his early libretti. Subsequently, the first decade of the new century saw a revitalised interest in Gilbert and Sullivan operas, much to the playwright’s delight. This new wave of popularity led Edward VII to bestow a knighthood on Gilbert in 1907. Sullivan had received his from Queen Victoria in 1883 for services to “serious music”, effectively snubbing Gilbert and their comic productions.

Buoyed by the unexpected triumph of The Hooligan, Gilbert ignored any physical pains troubling him. “The old crumbling ruin has been propped up and under-pinned,” he wrote to a friend in early 1911, “and will, I think, stand a few months yet.” It was against this outward optimism that his death came as such a shock. On May 29, Gilbert had lunch with his friend, W. H. Kendal, who later recalled the meeting:

He was witty; he was full of spirits; he ate an enormous lunch. After lunch, he sat and talked for a time, then he looked at his watch and said, “I must be off, as I have an appointment to teach a young lady to swim”. He went away, but came back and shook hands with me twice, in the most cordial manner.

Such an effervescent mood belied the tragedy that was about to occur. The fit and sprightly 74-year-old arrived at a local lake to instruct Isabel Emery and Ruby Preece to swim. The girls raced out to the centre; Preece quickly realised her limitations and called for Gilbert’s help. He reached her in a flash and said, “Put your hands on my shoulders and don’t struggle”. In doing so, Gilbert sank. Preece managed to reach the bank and cried for help. Two gardeners answered the call and found Gilbert submerged in the cold water. A doctor was unable to resuscitate the playwright. He was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. 

Gilbert’s regular physician, Dr Shackleton, had previously warned his patient not to bathe in cold water because he suffered from “high tension and an intermittent pulse and slight aneurism”. He believed Gilbert had died from “syncope, the result of excessive exertion”. The coroner reported that “the evidence made it quite clear that Sir William died in endeavouring to save a young lady in distress. It was a very honourable end to a great and distinguished career”.

Indeed it was. A man of real wit and imagination, a true craftsman of the English language, Gilbert’s collaborations with Sullivan possessed that rare combination of popularity and artistic merit. While unable to capture the same creative spark after parting with Sullivan, he found contentment in his last years. It was this sanguineness that Gilbert himself had warned of two decades earlier in The Yeoman of the Guard:

Is life a boon?
If so, it must befall
That Death, whene’er he call,
Must call too soon.   

Guy Noble conducts G&S with the SSO on June 18. See event details here. This article appears in the June issue of Limelight, on sale now.

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G&S: the Lennon/McCartney of the 19th century
Gilbert (right) and Sullivan
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