W. S. Gilbert

W. S. Gilbert (1878, 1879)

[Born London 18 Nov 1836, died Harrow Weald, Middlesex, 29 May 1911]

William Schwenck Gilbert made at least two appearances on stage as a chorister in D'Oyly Carte productions. The first was on April 16, 1878, at the Opera Comique, when he made what appears to have been a spur-of-the-moment decision to go on in Trial by Jury. He was also a member of the chorus on December 1, 1879, at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, New York, when H.M.S. Pinafore was presented by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company for the first time to an American audience. His purpose on this occasion was to oversee the production and guide the members of the cast. While these may have been his only appearances in D'Oyly Carte productions, he frequently appeared on stage in benefit matinees, most often as the Associate in Trial by Jury.

Gilbert's service to the D'Oyly Carte organization went far beyond that of dramatic author. He was de facto Stage Director for all the original Gilbert & Sullivan operas, oversaw the scenery and costume design, and actually designed costumes himself for Patience, Iolanthe, Princess Ida, and Ruddigore. All the Gilbert & Sullivan works performed in London, up to and including the 1901-02 revival of Iolanthe were produced under his personal supervision.

This was not true for the 1906-07 and 1908-09 London Repertory Seasons. Gilbert was displeased with the cast chosen by Mrs. Carte for the first season, and objected to the productions as well. The first programs for The Yeomen of the Guard and The Gondoliers in 1906 contained the statement that they were "produced under the personal direction of the author." But Gilbert felt compelled to write to The Times disclaiming responsibility, and protesting that he was responsible only for "the ordinary duties of a stage manager."

Gilbert wrote over 70 works for the stage, most of which were published in a four-volume series of "Original Plays," beginning in 1876. Many others have been published since in books produced and edited by Townley Searle, Charles Plumtree Johnson, Isaac Goldberg, Terence Rees, Jane W. Stedman, and George Rowell.

Early in his life, Gilbert wrote and illustrated a series of highly popular comic verses, primarily for the magazine Fun. These were known as the "Bab Ballads." Most of them were republished during Gilbert's lifetime in book form beginning in 1869, but the definitive collection of "Bab Ballads" was collected and edited by James Ellis (Cambridge, Belknap Press, 1980). Gilbert also published a collection of his early prose fiction in 1890 under the title "Foggerty's Fairy and Other Tales." The short stories are far less amusing than his verse and stage works.

There have many books published over the years on Gilbert and his craft, as well as a few general biographies:by Edith Browne (1907), Sidney Dark & Rowland Gray (1923), and Hesketh Pearson (1957). The definitive Gilbert biography is the most thoroughly researched, Jane W. Stedman's "W. S. Gilbert: A Classic Victorian and His Theatre," published by Oxford University Press in 1996.

Page modified November 26, 2002 © 2001-02 David Stone