London’s Savoy Theatre Opens

Built as the home for the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan by their business partner, the Savoy set new standards in theatrical technology, and it provided a home to the world-renowned partnership.

Summary of Event

London’s musical theater was a lively scene during the nineteenth century. Many of the latest operatic hits from the Continent were mounted upon the London stage, and popular theater was active and diverse. Its range extended from music-hall variety reviews and pantomimes to farces and burlesques, many parodying current operas or serious dramas. W. S. Gilbert’s own first play was a nonmusical spoof of an opera Opera;parodies of by Gaetano Donizetti. English operetta, based on continental models, was slow to take root, but the importation of Jacques Offenbach’s lively examples from 1857 onward stimulated local emulations. Opera;operettas
Savoy Theatre
Carte, Richard D’Oyly
Gilbert, W. S.
Sullivan, Arthur
[kw]London’s Savoy Theatre Opens (Oct. 10, 1881)
[kw]Savoy Theatre Opens, London’s (Oct. 10, 1881)
[kw]Theatre Opens, London’s Savoy (Oct. 10, 1881)
[kw]Opens, London’s Savoy Theatre (Oct. 10, 1881)
Savoy Theatre
Carte, Richard D’Oyly
Gilbert, W. S.
Sullivan, Arthur
[g]Great Britain;Oct. 10, 1881: London’s Savoy Theatre Opens[5140]
[c]Theater;Oct. 10, 1881: London’s Savoy Theatre Opens[5140]
[c]Architecture;Oct. 10, 1881: London’s Savoy Theatre Opens[5140]

On this scene the famous team of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan quickly eclipsed all competition. Their collaboration was, however, forged and sustained by the third member of their partnership, the one too easily forgotten: Richard D’Oyly Carte. Carte came from a musical family and trained as a composer. He wrote three light operas in the years 1868-1876 but realized composition was not his forte. In 1870, he became an agent for performers, musical and otherwise, and over the years he handled such clients as singer Adelina Patti, lecturer Oscar Wilde, and composer Offenbach. He developed a sharp eye for talent and creative possibilities, joining it with a mastery of promotion.

In 1874, Carte became a theater manager, offering French operettas and English comedies. Running a leading singer’s company in 1875, he was on the lookout for short program-fillers. A young writer proposed a text to him, and Carte immediately proposed the young composer best suited to write the music for it. The two had, in fact, already been collaborators in a failed production, Thespis: Or, The Gods Grown Old (pr., pb. 1871), but Carte was convinced they had a future as partners. Their names were W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.

Gilbert and Sullivan had each been developing a promising career of his own. Gilbert had begun writing verses and plays in his student days. After grim years as a government clerk, he pursued legal studies and became a practicing trial attorney. At this calling, he had little success. To relieve boredom or fill dull stretches, he returned to scribbling verses and penning satirical drawings. He found publishers for such things and soon his literary and graphic endeavors took precedence over the law. He served as a newspaper correspondent, but during the mid-1860’s, his plays were produced, while the first edition of his comic verses and drawings was published in 1869 as The Bab Ballads (later a source for plot and character ideas). He rapidly became a new force in London’s theater world, at first writing parodies of literary or operatic works, but then graduating to original comedies and satires of his own. From the title of one political satire came the label “topsy-turvy,” which characterized his style.

The son of a bandmaster, Sullivan was immersed early in music. His education as an Anglican choirboy led to training as a church musician. His capacities for composition were recognized, and scholarship support allowed him to study in Leipzig. Back in England and initially employed as a church organist, he made important contacts, soon winning attention for a number of concert and chamber compositions. As his reputation rose, Sullivan circulated in ever more prestigious circles and developed a taste for travel, the good life, and (later) heavy gambling. Responding to London’s new excitement over Offenbach’s operettas, Sullivan joined the humorist Francis Burnand in a little one-act farce, Cox and Box: Or, The Long Lost Brothers (pr. 1866). It led nowhere, confirming Sullivan’s assumption that his destiny lay in “serious” composing, in which he won further success.

Gilbert and Sullivan first met in 1870, in a brief, cold encounter. The following year, mutual friends induced them to collaborate on Thespis, whose failure boded ill for any further endeavors. Richard D’Oyly Carte’s positive recollection of the piece, however, prompted his decision to pair them to produce the courtroom spoof Trial by Jury (pr., pb. 1875). For the premiere, Gilbert directed and Sullivan conducted, setting a pattern that would continue into their future collaborations.

Although the audience loved Trial by Jury, the partnership did not crystalize immediately. Gilbert was caught up in various plays, including operettas with other composers. Sullivan ventured another one-act piece, The Zoo (pr. 1875), with a different collaborator, but still regarded ventures into musical theater as a sideline that distracted him from his “serious” musical path. Carte, however, was now set on making the Gilbert and Sullivan partnership a continuing one. With great daring, Carte organized the financing of a new organization, the Comedy Opera Company, committed to fostering English light opera and specifically focused on Gilbert and Sullivan. From them, he drew a new operetta, their first full two-act production, The Sorcerer (pr., pb. 1877), which benefited from the new troupe of talents Carte was assembling. It was a substantial success, confirming that the partnership had a future.

HMS Pinafore: Or, The Lass That Loved a Sailor (pr., pb. 1878) had obstacles to overcome, but it soon caught on with the public and became an unprecedented sensation. The partners became rich, and Carte organized touring companies of the show. He still had to fight to keep the creative team together, however. To combat the rampant piracy of unauthorized productions and circulation, Carte arranged a double premiere of The Pirates of Penzance: Or, The Slave of Duty (pr. 1879, pb. 1880) for copyright purposes—a token one in Devon and the main one in New York. The partnership’s pressures mounted, as Gilbert quibbled over profits and Sullivan yearned to pursue his “serious” career. Carte still fought to keep things together for Patience: Or, Bunthorne’s Bride (pr., pb. 1881), their next smash hit.

With still grander dreams, Carte plunged into building a new London theater for his company and productions. Located off the Strand, above the Thames Embankment in the area of the old Savoy Palace, it was called the Savoy Theatre. The Savoy Theatre set new standards for theatrical equipment and safety, becoming the first public building in Great Britain to use electric lighting. It opened sensationally on October 10, 1881, with the Patience production transferred to it from its previously leased theater.

Thereafter, the Savoy Theatre became the continuing partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan’s home base, from which touring companies now ranged the English-speaking world and beyond. At the Savoy Theatre were premiered the subsequent Gilbert and Sullivan collaborations: Iolanthe: Or, The Peer and the Peri (pr., pb. 1882), Princess Ida: Or, The Castle Adament (pr., pb. 1884), The Mikado: Or, The Town of Titipu (pr., pb. 1885), Ruddigore: Or, The Witch’s Curse (pr., pb. 1887), The Yeomen of the Guard: Or, The Merryman and His Maid (pr., pb. 1888), and The Gondoliers: Or, The King of Barataria (pr., pb. 1889). Revivals were also mounted there.

With his profits from the partnership, Carte built the grand Savoy Hotel (opened 1889) adjacent to the theater. Modeled on new American designs he had observed, the hotel pioneered new levels of luxury and innovation. Cezar Ritz was its first manager, and Auguste Escoffier was its first chef.

Ever stress-ridden, the partnership between Gilbert, Sullivan, and Carte exploded over expenses for the Savoy Theatre in the notorious “carpet controversy” of 1890. Embittered, Gilbert went his own way, while Carte, to accommodate Sullivan’s ambitions, built a new theater, the Royal English Opera House, where in 1891 his Ivanhoe was premiered. It never caught on, and the theater brought Carte such financial reverses that he had to sell it the following year. (It still exists as the Palace Theatre, and its current proprietor is Andrew Lloyd Webber.)

Sullivan still composed operettas for the Savoy Theatre (1892, 1894, 1898, 1899), but with other librettists, while Gilbert tried to work with other composers. Carte effected a reconciliation between Gilbert and Sullivan, but two late collaborations, Utopia Limited: Or, The Flowers of Progress (pr., pb. 1893) and The Grand Duke: Or, The Statutory Duel (pr., pb. 1896), could not repeat their earlier successes. After 1896, the three partners never worked together again. Sullivan and Carte died in successive years. Carte’s family continued his company, and for a few years (1906-1909) Gilbert directed some revivals of his operettas, but they ended even before he died in 1910.


From the Savoy Theatre has come the designation of “Savoyards” for performers and fans of the immortal Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. From Carte’s success at persuading the public to make an orderly line at his box office has come that English institution, the queue. The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, operated by Richard’s descendants, controlled performance rights for the operettas, mounting regular revivals at the Savoy Theatre, until the copyrights expired in 1962. The company struggled on for a while, finally dissolving in 1982; an attempted renewal in 1988 failed. The theater itself, remodeled extensively in 1929, was gutted by fire Fires;theaters in 1990, but was refurbished and returned to regular use.

Further Reading

  • Ainger, Michael. Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. A coherent treatment of the intertwining lives of Gilbert and Sullivan.
  • Allen, Reginald, ed. The First Night Gilbert and Sullivan. Rev. ed. Avon, Conn.: Cardavon Press, 1975. Includes all the librettos in original form, as well as background essays and period illustrations.
  • Brahms, Caryl. Gilbert and Sullivan: Lost Chords and Discords. Boston: Little, Brown, 1975. Good survey of the partnership, its vicissitudes, and its products.
  • Goodman, Andrew. Gilbert and Sullivan’s London. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1988. Fascinating text with photos on London sites important to Gilbert and Sullivan, including the Savoy Theatre and Hotel.
  • Hibbert, Christopher. Gilbert and Sullivan and their Victorian World. New York: American Heritage, 1976. The operettas set vividly in period context.
  • Hyman, Alan. Sullivan and His Satellites: A Survey of English Operettas, 1860-1914. London: Chappell, 1978. Overview of the London context of light opera.
  • Jacobs, Arthur. Arthur Sullivan: A Victorian Musician. 2d ed. Portland, Oreg.: Amadeus Press, 1992. The authoritative biography of the composer.
  • Pearson, Hesketh. Gilbert: His Life and Strife. New York: Harper & Row, 1957. Classic study of the playwright.
  • Stedman, J. W. W. S. Gilbert: A Classical Victorian and his Theatre. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Important study of the writer, placing him in relation to British Victorian culture.
  • Wren, Gayden. A Most Ingenious Paradox: The Art of Gilbert and Sullivan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Analysis of the operettas, discussing what is most distinctive about the work of Gilbert and Sullivan.

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Gaetano Donizetti; W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan; Jacques Offenbach; Oscar Wilde. Opera;operettas
Savoy Theatre
Carte, Richard D’Oyly
Gilbert, W. S.
Sullivan, Arthur