Gilbert and Sullivan: A Victorian Era Dynamic Musical Duo

Yum Yum and Nanki-Poo from G&S "The Mikado"

One of Gilbert and Sullivan's most popular musicals, "The Mikado". During its initial London run it influenced  style and fashion -- everything took on a Japanese influence.
One of Gilbert and Sullivan's most popular musicals, "The Mikado". During its initial London run it influenced style and fashion -- everything took on a Japanese influence.

Gilbert and Sullivan: Their Popularity Extends to Today

Gilbert and Sullivan: refers to the partnership of librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer A. Sullivan in the Victorian age who collaborated in comic operas, in fact one could say that they revolutionized the musical theatre of the time which had been dominated by the musical fare of the European continent with fresh melody and silly, satiric librettos.

The musical team of librettist W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) and Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) brought to the musical world fourteen comic operas that are still performed and seem as vibrant as they did more than a century ago. The most well known and performed frequently today include The Pirates of Penzance, H.M.S. Pinafore, and the Mikado.

The influence of Gilbert and Sullivan has extended to musical theatre today:drama in the spoken word, sometime quirky lyrics and rhyme, and memorable music.

A Young Captain W.S. Gilbert

Image of W. S. Gilbert as Captain in the Royal Aberdeenshire Highlanders (1875-1878).
Image of W. S. Gilbert as Captain in the Royal Aberdeenshire Highlanders (1875-1878).

W.S. Gilbert, Playwright

Gilbert was born in 1836 the son of a naval physician who later in life wrote short stories and novels which at times included illustrations done by his son. The young Gilbert started writing stories of his own in 1861. Shortly after this introduction to writing Gilbert started writing plays with some marginal success. Before partnering with Sullivan he was developing his expertise as a playwright and stage director. In 1871, seven of his plays saw premieres.


The Young Arthur Sullivan

Arthur Sullivan's musical talent was recognized at a young age. This picture was  taken shortly after winning a scholarship which brought him to Leipzig for musical training.
Arthur Sullivan's musical talent was recognized at a young age. This picture was taken shortly after winning a scholarship which brought him to Leipzig for musical training.

Sir Arthur Sullivan, Composer

Arthur Sullivan was born in London in 1842. He was formally trained in music at the Royal Academy and the Leipzig Conservatory. In his early career he supported himself in a variety of capacities revolving around his musical training including teaching, performing, and musical composition. He had some success in the 1860s although most notable today he may be recognized widely for the music he composed for the song “Onward Christian Soilders” and naturally his compositions for the musicals were created with W.S. Gilbert.

An Impresario Brings The Team Together

The musical producer Richard D’Oyly Carte brought Gilbert and Sullivan together as a team. He believed that English comical opera could become more popular than the French works which were dominating the English musical stage.

D'Oyly Carte would continue to encourage and at time cajole the team of Gilbert and Sullivan. His vested interest was in the London hotel market, as owner and operator of the Savoy and as the owner of two theatres, the Savoy and the Palace.

D'Oyly Carte's Palace Theatre

D'Oyly Carte not only was a theatrical producer but was the builder and owner of the famous Savoy Hotel as well as two theaters, the Palace Theatre (c. 1880) in  London pictured above.
D'Oyly Carte not only was a theatrical producer but was the builder and owner of the famous Savoy Hotel as well as two theaters, the Palace Theatre (c. 1880) in London pictured above.

First Collaboration: "The Thespis"

This “operatic extravaganza” was the first collaboration of Gilbert and Sullivan and premiered in December 1871. It was neither a commercial success nor a failure running for four months with sixty-three performances. Unfortunately, no musical score was ever published and the music was for the most part been lost, except for one song that was published separately and re-used in The Pirates of Penzance and music for a ballet.

First "True" Commercial Success: "Trial by Jury"

Trial by Jury opened in March 1875 and between then and the end of 1876 it had run for nearly 300 performances. It is the shortest of the works created by the duo, just forty minutes long containing no spoken language.

What made it a commercial success was not its length. It was never intended to be the centerpiece of a theatrical production, but rather one act of a production sharing the billing with other companion pieces.

Trial By Jury probably was the catalyst which would cement this partnership. The impersario, D'Orly Carte was encouraged by the reception it received and would later act to "egg on" the Gilbert and Sullivan team.

Trial By Jury - Not a Spoken Word

“So I fell in love with a rich attorney's elderly ugly daughter”
“So I fell in love with a rich attorney's elderly ugly daughter”

Lyrics from "Trial By Jury"



At Westminster Hall
I danced a dance,
Like a semi-despondent fury; 
For I thought I never
Should hit on a chance 
Of addressing a British Jury.
But I soon got tired
Of third-class journeys, 
And dinners of bread and water; 
So I fell in love
With a rich attorney's 
Elderly, ugly daughter.





After "Trial by Jury" More Succeses

Trial by Jury was followed by The Sorcerer (1877), H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1879), Patience (1881), and Iolanthe (1883).

Some Difficulties in their Relationship (1883-85)

The relationship had its ups and downs. An irritation which seemed to nag at Gilbert was Sullivan's knighthood in 1883. It was now Sir Gilbert and a mere commoner, Mr. Sullivan. Other problems had cropped up based somewhat on the poor reception of Princess Ida in the following year (1884). However, even though it appeared that any collaborations might be ended they reconsidered and their ninth production, The Mikado, would outperform any other their previous works and in fact any future works in the length of its initial London production run in 1885. The Mikado wuold become the second longest London production run to that date.

Mr. Sullivan did become Sir Sullivan in 1907, almost a quarter century after Gilbert. It is noteworthy to say that Sir Sullivan was the first person knighted solely on being a playwright.

The Success of "The Mikado"

Japan was a great unknown in the years preceding the production of The Mikado. The beginning of trade between England and Japan had brought some Japanese fashion and art. The Mikado certainly benefited from the allure of the mysterious, but The Mikado probably "fueled the fire" for "all things Japanese" in London during its production run.

The influence of the play and at times ambivalent attitude in which it was seen in its portrayal of the Japanese was felt more than a quarter of a century later when its London production was banned for a six week period during the state visit of one of the Japanese princes to England in 1907.


Photo of an Early Production of "The Mikado"

This is a composite photo off an early production of "The Mikado" (Montreal, 1886).
This is a composite photo off an early production of "The Mikado" (Montreal, 1886).

The Later Operettas

The Mikado would be followed by later musicals which also had commercial success: Ruddigore(1887), The Yeoman of the Guard (1888), The Gondoliers (1889), Utopia, Limited (1893), The Grand Duke (1896),

The Gilbert and Sullivan works have enjoyed broad and enduring success and are still performed by production companies throughout the world. The lyrics and the music reflect the synergy of collaboration in a way in which both may have been successful in their own element, but working together has given the world an enduring body of genius

Some Ideas for Further Reading

  • Ainger, Michael (2002). Gilbert and Sullivan, a Dual Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195147698
  • Jacobs, Arthur(1986). Arthur Sullivan: A Victorian Musician. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780193154438.
  • Stedmann, Jane W. (1996). W.S. Gilbert: A Classic Victorian and his Theatre. Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 978018161745.

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