FWO Archives: Gilbert & Sullivan's 'The Pirates of Penzance' (2004)
Updated: Jun 24
One of the descriptors commonly found in discussions of the comic operettas by Gilbert and Sullivan is "topsy-turvy."
There is always something just a bit upside down about the world this writer and composer created in their loony (think Monty Python with music) stage productions. It is often as if grand opera has been turned on its head. Extreme pathos becomes extreme chaos. Instead of tears of sorrow, the love and death scenes bring tears of laughter. Show-stopping arias meant to elicit hails of bravos become tongue-twisting patter songs meant to elicit hails of guffaws. And the plots are even sillier than those found in the standard opera repertoire - which is quite an accomplishment.
And few Gilbert and Sullivan works can claim to be as topsy-turvy as the hilarious The Pirates of Penzance. From its premiere (which took place in New York, not London) to its humble, seafaring bandits who are actually Lords, the whole affair is somewhat inverted. Or, to borrow a phrase from Gilbert, it's "an ingenious paradox."
THE THREE MEN BEHIND GILBERT AND SULLIVAN
The partnership between William Schwenck Gilbert (1836- 191 1) and Arthur Seymore Sullivan (1842-1900) bore such successful fruit that it seems it must have been a lifelong and harmonious union of artists. Just like their works, however, their relationship was not what we might expect. Both men were well established in their respective fields and both had enjoyed some experience with operetta in particular by the time they first met in late 1869.
W.S. Gilbert, the son of a navy surgeon, went into writing after failing to make it as a lawyer. Beginning in 1861, he wrote humorous pieces and drew cartoons and illustrations for Fun magazine, a minor competitor of the better-known humor magazine Punch. Especially popular were his "Bab Ballads" - ridiculous poems that were sometimes satirical and often nonsensical. Although these pieces mean little to modern audiences, it is easy to see in them the beginnings of Gilbert the lyricist.
Personally, Gilbert was notorious for his stiff and prickly personality. He has been described as a highly demanding "autocrat" in the theatre and was widely disliked. Yet, even when being snide, he could display the wit that was his saving grace. During his visit to America to debut Pirates, a New York socialite is alleged to have tried to engage Gilbert in culturally-correct conversation by offering, "Dear Mr. Gilbert, your friend Sullivan's music is too delightful. It reminds me so much of Bach. Do tell me, what is Bach doing just now? Is he still composing?" Gilbert replied, "No madam. Just now dear Bach is by way of decomposing."
Despite his grumpy demeanor, Gilbert apparently had a true zeal for certain things in life. For him, a successful collaboration with Sullivan meant a bigger and better yacht. He was very early car owner. And the married writer was known to enjoy the company of attractive women. While there is no documentation of infidelities, the circumstantial evidence against him is copious. And this weakness may have been his ultimate downfall.
At the age of 74, and enjoying a vital and well-funded retirement, Gilbert went swimming with two young ladies. One of the women got into distress and Gilbert dove in to the rescue. Both of his companions survived the ordeal without help, but he died from the exertion.
Arthur Sullivan, the son of a military bandmaster, studied music at the Royal Academy of Music and at the Leipzig Conservatory. While abroad, he was able to meet several of the greatest composers of the era, including Schumann, Liszt and Rossini. That he was granted an audience with such men speaks to his status as a rising star.
His early, serious compositions were well received by audiences and critics, but they brought little income. He fell into writing for lighter entertainments as a way to keep the wolf from his door -- and he was too good for it from the start.
Years before they met, Gilbert wrote of a review of Cox and Box, an early comic work scored by Sullivan in which he noted, "Mr. Sullivan's music is, in many places, of too high a class for the grotesquely absurd plot to which it is wedded."
The happiness Sullivan found in the successes he enjoyed with Gilbert was always tempered by the frustration of being prevented from walking more challenging musical paths.
But neither this, nor frequent illness, seemed to have had a negative impact on his character. He is frequently described as charming, generous and outgoing. In short, the exact opposite of his partner Gilbert.
It is little wonder, then, that the two men who were and are so inextricably linked by an eternal ampersand seldom met outside the work environment. Their relationship varied between business -like and strained until they finally broke off the partnership in 1890. A couple of reunions in subsequent years produced relatively unsuccessful works.
Sullivan's life had a particularly sad decrescendo. The pain caused by years of kidney problems lead him to "overuse" morphine. He spent his final years in Monte Carlo, gambling and deteriorating, before returning to London, where he died in 1900 at age 58. Queen Victoria ordered a state funeral for the knighted composer.
But no discussion of Gilbert & Sullivan is complete without including their theatrical producer and business manager Richard D'Oyly Carte (1844- 1901). He was to this team what Colonel Tom Parker was to Elvis Presley, what Brian Epstein was to the Beatles.
Born Richard Doyle McCarthy, he was a central figure in bringing Gilbert and Sullivan together and, ultimately, making them household names in the English speaking world.
The first collaboration by Gilbert and Sullivan (but without Carte) was Thespis. When it failed, there was little motivation for the pair to continue working together. But, four years later, Carte suggested that Gilbert use Sullivan as his composer on Trial by Jury. The result was the first major hit by this trio - and the blueprint for many more to come.
Carte established the Savoy Theatre primarily for the purpose of presenting Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. He mounted a number of touring productions that spread the fame of the authors and was highly diligent in seeing that licensed productions of their works were probably performed. And, in perhaps his most important role, he also frequently mediated the disagreements between the writer and the composer. For his labors, he is believed to have fared better financially than either Gilbert or Sullivan. But a court case, brought by Gilbert over the cost of a carpet, revealed that Carte's prosperity may have been earned, at least in part, by some creative bookkeeping.
The impresario's only real misstep, however, came in 1891 when he tried to open a house devoted to grand opera. After giving 155 performances of Sullivan 's serious opera, Ivanhoe, the venture failed and Carte suffered heavy losses.
THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE
The Pirates of Penzance saw its opening night in America because of problems with, well, pirates. The previous G&S collaboration, H.M.S. Pinafore, (1878) was a huge smash in England and America. The problem was that most of the American productions were pirated - meaning they paid no fees to Gilbert and Sullivan for their work. Worse still, these productions often included bizarre alterations. One, for example, added Handel 's Hallelujah Chorus to the score.
Since some of the pirates claimed to be escaping through loopholes in copyright laws, it was decided that G&S would visit America to present an official version of Pinafore and the debut of Pirates - a move designed to assure the later work better protection under US copyright laws.
The preparations for The Pirates of Penzance were thrown into a tailspin when, just two weeks before its debut, Sullivan discovered that he had left his notes for half of the score in London. He had to re-write much of it from memory, finishing the task on Dec. 28, just three days before the New Year's Eve opening night at New York's Fifth Avenue Theatre. [Note: On that same clay, a hastily thrown together "performance" was given in Britain before an audience of 50, also for copyright reasons.]
But despite the haste with which it had been brought together, this outlandish tale of the lives and loves of the world's most inept pirates was a hit from the start. The pair received kingly receptions at every stop on their American tour, riding a new wave of popularity created by this new work which very quickly established itself as the very model of a modern major musical. In a topsy-turvy kind of way.
Dr. Punch Shaw is a writer, teacher and lecturer on various topics related to communications and the arts. He presented the pre -performance lectures for Fort Worth Opera, taught courses at TCU, co-hosted a monthly lecture/ discussion group on classical music at Borders Books & Music and frequently contributed reviews and features to various publications, including the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.