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William Schwenck Gilbert was born on the 18th of November, 1836, at 17 Southampton Street, Strand, London. He was the son of William Gilbert, a novelist and British Navy surgeon, and Anne May Bye Morris, whose father was an apothecary. He did not have a good relationship with his parents, who offered neither him or each other much affection. Indeed, they were frequently arguing and their marriage eventually broke up in 1876, further dismantling his relationship with them. Gilbert had three sisters, Jane Morris (born 1838, in Milan, Italy), Mary Florence (born 1843 in Boulogne, France) and Anne Maude (born 1845). As a baby Gilbert had the nickname “Bab”, and then “Schwenck” which came from his father’s godparents.
The family travelled frequently, hence the varying birthplaces of the children. They were in Italy in 1838 when Gilbert was two, and then France before settling in London in 1847. He began his education in Boulogne at seven years old. When the family returned to England he attended Western Grammar School, Brompton, London, and then the Great Ealing School. During this time he kept his diary in French in order that the servants could not read it. While at Great Ealing School he was Head Boy, writing plays for the school players and painting. After school he studied at King’s College London, from which he graduated in 1856. Though he had intended to apply for a commission in the Royal Artillery, the end of the Crimean War required fewer recruits and there were subsequently fewer commissions available; the only one available to Gilbert was in a line regiment.
The Civil Service was his chosen alternative, beginning in the Privy Council Office as an assistant clerk for four years. However, he did not enjoy it at all and joined the Militia in 1859. The Militia was a volunteer force of infantry, artillery, engineers and signals. Many of the regiments in today’s Territorial Army were formed at this time by the Militia. Its intended purpose was to provide military support to the Army in the wake of the Crimean War since much of the Army was garrisoned around the British Empire and military presence on the British Isles was dangerously slim, especially with tensions increasing in Europe. He remained in service until 1878 alongside his writing career and other endeavours, and eventually achieved the rank of Captain. One of those other endeavours was an attempt at a legal career, using a bequest of £300 to leave the Civil Service and begin as a barrister, although his average of five clients per year was nowhere near sufficient to mark this foray a success.
In need of supplementary income Gilbert began to write stories, comedic rants and theatre reviews, and he begin drawing grotesqueries and illustrating poems under the pseudonym Bab, the nickname he had as a child. These illustrations were for various comic magazines, principally Fun, which had been started by Henry James Byron in 1861. His writing saw publication in papers like the London Society, Tinsley’s Magazine, Temple Bar and the Cornhill Magazine, which serialised several significant literary works such as George Eliot’s Romola and Henry James’s Washington Square. He acted as London correspondent for L’Invalide Russe, [INSERT INFO]. Alongside this he worked as a drama critic for the Illustrated London Times, and was a contributor to Tom Hood’s Christmas annuals, to the Comic News, to the Savage Club Papers and to Saturday Night, all popular annuals and journals. He was sent by The Observer newspaper to France to act as correspondent for the Franco-Prussian War.
The immense popularity and success of these poems led to their collection in a book and published under the title Bab’s Ballads. Out of an approximate total of 139 (the true number is unknown, as Gilbert published some poems before they were known collectively as Bab’s Ballads, and it is unclear exactly which Gilbert intended to be included) he selected forty-four for the collection, and thirty-four were illustrated. Satirical and nonsensical, these ballads derive humour from applying logic to a set of absurd circumstances and working them through to a resolution, however absurd. Their popularity saw them recited at public banquets, private dinner-parties and in the House of Lords. Gilbert described how they came about:
“In 1861 Fun was started, under the editorship of Mr H. J. Byron. With much With much labour I turned out an article three-quarters of a column long, and sent it to the editor, together with a half-page drawing on wood. A day or two later the printer of the paper called upon me, with Mr Byron's compliments, and staggered me with a request to contribute a column of 'copy' and a half-page drawing every week for the term of my natural life. I hardly knew how to treat the offer, for it seemed to me that into that short article I had poured all I knew. I was empty. I had exhausted myself: I didn't know any more. However, the printer encouraged me (with Mr. Byron's compliments), and I said I would try. I did try, and I found to my surprise that there was a little left, and enough indeed to enable me to contribute some hundreds of columns to the periodical throughout his editorship, and that of his successor, poor Tom Hood!”
Gilbert turned to the poems for inspiration and source material for his later comic operas and plays. Fun’s success and popularity saw its editors and major contributors become minor celebrities. Gilbert and his colleagues Tom Robertson, Tom Hood, Clement Scott and F. C. Burnand enjoyed frequenting the Arundel Club, the Savage Club and Evan’s café where they sat at their table in opposition to the ‘Round table’ of their rivals, Punch.
Though Gilbert had written and directed several plays during his time at school, the first of his plays to be produced professionally was Uncle Baby which ran in the autumn of 1863 for seven weeks, to reasonable success. Over the next few years he and Charles Millward collaborated on several pantomimes. It was only after the premiere of one of these pantomimes, Hush-a-Bye Baby, that he had his first real opportunity for solo success. Tom Robertson, his friend and mentor and a fellow playwright, had been asked for a new pantomime but did not feel capable to write it within the two-week deadline he had been given. Instead he recommended Gilbert, who over the course of the following ten days wrote Dulcamara, or the Little Duck and the Great Quack. It was rushed to the stage and was an instant success.
Though Gilbert had had a relationship with the novelist Annie Thomas in the mid-1860s, in 1867 he married Lucy Agnes Turner. Gilbert called Tuner “Kitty”, and he was eleven years older than her. Thomas had refused his offer of marriage in 1866, instead marrying Reverend Pender Hodge Cudlip in 1867. Over the course of their relationship Gilbert wrote many love letters to Lucy, and they enjoyed an affectionate relationship. They were active socially, often hosting parties or attending them. Though they never had children, they had many pets, some of which were exotic.
At the time Gilbert was beginning to write plays, English theatre was low both in standard and repute. A combination of poor translations and adaptations of French theatre and equally poorly written, wantonly over-sexed Victorian drama was overtaking the London stages. Literary historian Jessie Bond writes “stilted tragedy and vulgar farce were all the would-be payer had to choose from, and the theatre had become a place of evil repute to the righteous British householder.” Some playwrights, such as Thomas German Reed, were fighting to restore the theatre’s reputation as a viable artistic medium through his organisation German Reed Entertainment, which gave performances in the intimate setting of the Gallery of Illustration to its target family audience. Their efforts to restore the morals and virtue of English theatre that, by 1885, Gilbert considered their work appropriate for even fifteen year old girls to attend. The first piece Gilbert wrote for the Gallery of Illustration was No Cards, opening on the 29th of March 1869 and closing on the 21st November that year. It was a one-act musical piece with a libretto by Gilbert and the music by Reed, and Gilbert went on to write six more in collaboration with him. The nature of the German Reeds’ theatre, with its intimacy and informalities, enabled Gilbert’s personal style to rapidly develop as he had almost free reign over his writing and production. The style Gilbert was able to develop during his time writing for this environment is described by Mike Leigh:
With great fluidity and freedom, [Gilbert] continually challenges our natural expectations. First, within the framework of the story, he makes bizarre things happen, and turns the world on its head. Thus the Learned Judge marries the Plaintiff, the soldiers metamorphose into aesthetes, and so on, and nearly every opera is resolved by a deft moving of the goalposts.... His genius is to fuse opposites with an imperceptible sleight of hand, to blend the surreal with the real, and the caricature with the natural. In other words, to tell a perfectly outrageous story in a completely deadpan way.
Gilbert’s first big hit at the Gallery was Agnes Ago, and it was during rehearsal that he was first introduced by the composer of the work, Frederic Clay, to Arthur Sullivan, with whom he would collaborate famously as Gilbert and Sullivan.
Several of the plays which Gilbert wrote in the early 1870s were comedies with which he sought to raise the comedic form up out of the vulgarity and putridity of the gutter in which it currently sat and offer the refined audience a more intellectual and tasteful theatrical comedy experience. These comedies, produced at the Haymarket Theatre, afforded Gilbert a more established reputation as a playwright which later proved crucial to his success in collaboration with Sullivan, for by the time they met Sullivan was already very highly regarded as a composer and musician; it is widely believed that, had Gilbert’s canon not included six or seven such successful comedies, the likelihood of their working together would have been reduced to very nearly zero.
Having established himself as a writer it became expected that he would also insist on directing his own plays; though he had before, at school and at the Gallery, he had not yet at the Haymarket. Drawing heavily on the influence of other directors such as James Planché and Tom Robertson, who had formalised the ideas and practices of conventional stagecraft, he aspired to realism in acting, setting and costume. Of course, any of his plays containing any sort of fantastical element could not literally be described as ‘realistic’, and in that regard much of his work is dependent on the concept of suspension of disbelief, a term coined some fifty years earlier by the now famous poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria.. His theory was that so long as a writer could “‘infuse a human interest and a semblance of truth’ into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgement concerning the implausibility of the narrative”. Gilbert was so inspired by the work of Robertson that he regularly attended rehearsals of plays which Robertson was directing in order that he might learn first-hand. The evolution of his style, both in writing and directing, arguably paved the way for writers such as George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, both of whose writing found an audience now accustomed to a level of literary refinement which had been absent from such writing prior to Gilbert.
The first time Gilbert and Sullivan worked together was in 1871, when John Hollingshead commissioned a Christmas holiday piece, which they called Thespis, or the Gods Grown Old. It was staged at the Gaiety Theatre, and its run lasted far longer than the average run at the Gaiety. Despite this clear success, the two carried on apart from each other for four more years before they reunited on Trial By Jury, following a series of cancellations and deaths which eventually brought the two back together. It was another great success. Gilbert continued seeking to make the dramatic form more upmarket, and one such way in which it currently was anchored to its lowest denomination was simply in the nature of its published form. No plays were published in a format suitable for a ‘gentleman’s library’, instead appearing in cheap editions which would not have belonged on the shelves of the higher society. To remedy this shortcoming Gilbert arranged for his plays to be published by Chatto and Windus in neatly leather-bound and clearly typed edition. Here began a relationship between Gilbert and that publishing house which lasted much of his career. One of Gilbert’s plays published in this more tasteful physical iteration was 1877’s Engaged, which would inspire Oscar Wilde’s famous The Importance of Being Earnest.
By 1877 Richard D’Oyly Carte had launched the Comedy Opera Company with the intention of supporting and promoting English-written comedy operas. It launched with 1877’s The Sorcerer, another collaboration between Gilbert and Sullivan, followed swiftly by H.M.S. Pinafore, arguably their most widely recognised work. Now began along period of collaboration between Gilbert and Sullivan, during which they wrote their most successful and critically acclaimed work. Gilbert had long dreamt of playing Harlequin, which he realised in 1878 having written himself a part in an amateur charity production of The Forty Theives. Hollingshead later recalled that “the gem of the performance was the grimly earnest and determined Harlequin of W. S. Gilbert. It gave me an idea of what Oliver Cromwell would have made of the character.” Clearly then, Gilbert’s understanding of the finer points of stagecraft came from an inherent understanding of performing on it; though it had take this long for him to demonstrate his abilities as an actor, they were nonetheless there. Gilbert had been so enthusiastic for his performance that he frequently invited other cast members to his house for dinner, one of whom recalled that “a pleasanter, more genial, or agreeable companion than he was it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to find.”
By 1891 relationships between Gilbert and Sullivan had become strained, not least because of their financial involvement with Carté who seemed increasingly unable to manage them effectively. An argument stemming from the allocation of the expense of a replacement carpet at the Savoy Theatre led Gilbert to confront Carté and Sullivan, arguing that there was imbalance and inaccuracy in their accounts. The Gondoliers closed in 1891 and heralded an artistic split. A period of inactivity followed until Gilbert built the Garrick Theatre in 1889. He and Lucy then moved to Grim’s Dyke, a house in Harrow, in 1890, where they continued to host various guests at frequent dinner parties. By 1891 Gilbert had been appointed Justice of the Peace in Middlesex. Though Gilbert had announced a retirement following a poor opening run of The Grand Duke, his last work with Sullivan, in 1896, he went on to write three further plays during the final twelve years of his life. On the 15th July 1907 Gilbert was knighted for his contribution to the dramatic form. Though other writers had been knighted before, Gilbert was the first to be knighted purely on the value of his contribution to drama; the others had been involved with the political administration too, and their contribution in these areas was recognised in their knighthood. On the 29th of May 1911 Gilbert was going to give a swimming lesson in the lake at Grim’s Dyke to two young women, Winifred Isabel Emery and Ruby Preece. Preece slipped on approaching the lake and called for help, prompting Gilbert to dive in and save her. However, following this act of heroism he suffered a heart attack in the middle of the lake, dying on the scene. He was cremated at Golders Green, and had his ashes buried at the Curch of St. John the Evangelist in Stanmore. He is survived by a legacy of critically acclaimed and still-performed comedy opera, and significant contribution to the English dramatic stage.