Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan: His Life and Character by Andrew Crowther

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Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan: His Life and Character by Andrew Crowther

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Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of the Victorian playwright best known for writing the libretti of the Savoy Operas, published to mark the centenary of his death in 1911.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: April 2011
Publisher: The History Press
ISBN: 978-0752455891

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Gilbert and Sullivan were the Rice and Lloyd Webber of the late Victorian era. Some might regard their work as slightly dated these days, especially the satirical lyrics which were so much a product of their time, but their appeal has never really faded and it surely never will.

As Secretary of the W.S. Gilbert Society, Crowther is as qualified as anyone to tell the man's life story. Gilbert was as much a larger-than-life enfant terrible of his time as Oscar Wilde (and unlike the latter, lived to a contented and disgrace-free old age), and this book captures the personality of this extraordinary man to perfection.

Born in 1836, Gilbert worked briefly for the Civil Service, which he hated, and then as a barrister, but with little success. He found his true vocation as a writer of stories, reviews, and comic verse, much of which he illustrated with his distinctive grotesque drawings. From this he progressed to pantomimes and plays, and the author rightly gives due weight to Gilbert's multi-faceted career and considerable achievements in Victorian theatre and journalism, which all took place before he met the man with whom his reputation would be linked for posterity. It was probably in July 1870, around the same time that he was sent to France as a 'special correspondent' during the Franco-Prussian War, that he was introduced to Arthur Sullivan. One year later they joined forces for the first time on the one-act operetta 'Thespis', premiered on Boxing Day 1871.

Like Gilbert, Sullivan was already established in his chosen career, as one of the most popular and versatile British composers of the day. Both were very different in personality, and much as they respected each others' talents, they were never particularly close friends. As is often the case, the attraction of opposites made for an extraordinarily creative if sometimes explosive partnership. Following 'Thespis', they went their separate ways for three years, before being reunited for a second, very successful one-act comic operetta 'Trial By Jury' in 1875. It was a partnership which would see them write 12 full-length works over the next 21 years.

Gilbert cannot have been an easy man to work with. He comes across as that of a man who could be very amiable, unfailingly generous in the right company, but hot-tempered and even abusive if he felt he was being wronged, a hard taskmaster when putting his cast through their paces during rehearsals. A humorist of the next generation, the youthful P.G. Wodehouse, noted after one encounter with the elder man in his later years that even when in repose his face was inclined to be formidable and his eye not the sort of eye you would willingly catch. He was evidently a good friend and valuable ally – but woe betide anyone who got on the wrong side of him - as well as a devoted husband. It was evidently a source of sadness to him and his wife Lucy that they never had children.

This book tells us much about his very varied and successful career as a journalist and playwright, and it seems that he applied his gifts to everything except novels and non-fiction. Yet it is his work on the Savoy Operas for which many people will be seeking out this book. Several times the partnership (with not only Sullivan, but also Richard D'Oyly Carte, the theatre impresario who was in effect their employer) came close to foundering, such as after the only moderately successful 'Princess Ida' in 1885 when the newly-knighted Sullivan declared he had come to the end of my capability in that class of piece and did not wish to work with Gilbert any more. Thankfully he was persuaded otherwise – and the immediate result was 'The Mikado', their most popular work ever. Yet the fractious triumvirate of Gilbert, Sullivan and Carte was bitterly divided over a quarrel in 1890 when Gilbert took grave exception to being charged for the expense of front-of-house carpets being replaced at the Savoy Theatre. At length they worked together again, but their last two operettas were less successful. After the premiere of their final one, 'The Grand Duke' in 1896, Gilbert declared he was not a proud mother, & I never want to see the ugly misshapen little brat again!

Although he was fighting ill-health by this time, with several of his younger contemporaries predeceasing him by several years (Sullivan and Carte both dying in their late fifties during a six-month period), Gilbert reached a contented old age at his house in Harrow, eventually receiving his knighthood – in his words, a tin-pot, twopenny-halfpenny sort of distinction - and writing to the last. There were no new operettas, but the last years of his life were a golden sunset during which he never completely retired from writing.

Crowther's knowledge and fascination with the man who cruelly held up a mirror to show society what it really was has resulted in a first-rate portrait, balancing the narrative and the chronology skilfully with well-chosen extracts from his letters and published writings. Despite his enthusiasm, he is suitably impartial in his judgements, admitting that some of his plays were below standard – but with such a prolific output, Gilbert was entitled to a few less than stellar efforts. This lively book about a lively man does him full justice. The eight pages of plates comprise a fine selection of portraits, photographs, drawings and a facsimile of one of his illustrated articles for the journal 'Fun'. Finally, Crowther observes perceptively that in at least one sense, Gilbert's impact on society endures to this day. Ever since the sparkling 'Iolanthe' was first performed in 1882, we are reminded, it has never been possible to take the state opening of parliament entirely seriously.

For another title on the late Victorian world, may we recommend Close to Holmes: A Look at the Connections Between Historical London, Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by Alistair Duncan.

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