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W. S. Gilbert

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Sir William Schwenck Gilbert (November 18, 1836May 29, 1911) was a British dramatist and librettist best known for his operatic collaborations with the composer Arthur Sullivan. Gilbert published numerous short pieces of humour and was a cartoonist.

Gilbert's father, also named William, was a naval surgeon and he spent much of his youth touring Europe before settling down in London in 1849, later becoming a novelist in his own right, the most famous of his works being The Magic Mirror, the original edition of which was illustrated by his son. Gilbert's parents were distant and stern, and he did not have a particularly good relationship with either of them. Following the breakup of their marriage in 1876, his relationships became even more strained, especially with his mother. In the late 1850s and early 1860s, he began a career as a barrister, supplementing his income and indulging his creative side with the publication of many short illustrated poems in the magazine, Fun, using the childhood nickname "Bab" as his pen name. As a result the poems have become known as the Bab Ballads. The ballads proved to be very popular and were later published in book form several times. In addition, Gilbert used some of them as the base concepts for several of his librettos, including Trial by Jury and Pinafore.

In 1863, he wrote his first professional play, Uncle Baby, which ran for seven weeks. This represented his only dramatic success until 1866 when he had a burlesque and a pantomime produced. The following year, he married Lucy Agnes Turner. Following their marriage, he began to turn his attention more and more to writing for the stage and directing his work so that it would resemble his vision. Gilbert became a stickler that his actors interpret his work only in the manner he desired. This ran against the production style of the times, which was to let the actors have their way, the result of which had been a decline in the quality of English playwriting and dramatic production over the course of the late 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. By helping to reverse this trend, Gilbert not only improved the production of his own work; he also created an environment in which the work of later and more highly regarded playwrights such as Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw could be produced properly. It is more important that these authors' plays are produced in the manner that their authors intended, and thus it could be argued that Gilbert indirectly encouraged the creation of their work.

In 1871, John Hollingshead commissioned Gilbert to work with Sullivan to create the Grotesque Operetta Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old for the Christmas season at the Gaiety Theatre. This proved successful in that it outran five of its nine competitors, closing only at Easter and being revived for the benefit of Nellie Farren, one of its stars, later in April 1872. However, this proved to be a false start in the men's collaborative efforts. It would be another four years before the men worked together again. Gilbert and Sullivan's real collaborative efforts began in 1875 when Richard D'Oyly Carte commissioned them to write a one-act play, Trial by Jury. The operetta's success was so great that the three men formed an often turbulent partnership which lasted for twenty years and a further twelve operettas. Initially D'Oyly Carte's company, known as the Comedy Opera Company, needed to enlist financial backing. It was his backers who stood in the way of the initial plans to revise and revive Thespis, insisting that they wanted a new work for their money – and thereby losing Thespis to posterity, as the full vocal score was never published.

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Caricature from Punch, 1881

The first work to be presented by the new company at London's Opera Comique was The Sorcerer in November 1877. This was followed by H.M.S. Pinafore in May 1878, which, despite a slow start, mainly due to a scorching summer, became a red-hot favourite in the autumn, causing the directors to storm the theatre one night in an attempt to steal the sets and costumes to mount a rival production. The attempt was repelled and D'Oyly Carte continued as sole impresario of the newly renamed D'Oyly Carte Opera Company.

While working with Sullivan on the Savoy Operas, Gilbert continued to write plays to be performed elsewhere, both serious dramas (e.g. The Ne'er-Do-Weel, 1878) and more humorous works (e.g. Foggerty's Fairy, 1881).

Sullivan, too, had a career of his own. Two ballets, a symphony, a cello concerto, and number of large-scale choral pieces, incidental music to five of Shakespeare's plays and, of course, other operatic works, including Ivanhoe, which opened D'Oyly Carte's new Royal English Opera House (now the Palace Theatre) in Cambridge Circus in 1891.

Gilbert and Sullivan had many rifts in their career, partly caused by the fact that each saw himself allowing his work to be subjugated to the other's, and partly caused by the gap in their social status. Sullivan was knighted in 1883, not long after the company moved to its new home, the Savoy Theatre. One suspects however that this knighthood was not so much for his work with Gilbert, but more for his more 'serious' music such as the musical drama The Martyr of Antioch, first produced late in 1881; Gilbert's family was lower in the social order and he was not recognized until 1907, when he was knighted by King Edward VII. In any event, Gilbert filled his plays with a strange mixture of cynicism about the world and "topsy-turvydom" in which the social order was turned upside down. The latter in particular, did not go down well with Sullivan's desire for realism (not to mention his vested interest in the status quo).

In 1893, Gilbert was named a Justice of the Peace in Harrow Weald. Although he announced a retirement from the theatre after the poor initial run of his last work with Sullivan, The Grand Duke (1896), he continued to produce plays up until the year of his death including an opera, Fallen Fairies, with Edward German (Savoy 1909), and an excellent one-act play set in a condemned cell, The Hooligan (Colliseum 1911). Gilbert also continued to personally supervise the various revivals of his works by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company.

On 29 May 1911, he was giving swimming lessons to two young ladies at his lake when one of them began to flail around. Gilbert dived in to save her, but suffered a heart attack in the middle of the lake and drowned.

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