Authors: W. S. Gilbert

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English playwright

Author Works


Ruy Blas, pb. 1866 (in Warne’s Christmas Annual)

Dulcamara: Or, The Little Duck and the Great Quack, pr., pb. 1866 (based on Gaetano Donizetti’s opera L’Elisir d’amore)

Allow Me to Explain, pr. 1867

Highly Improbable, pr. 1867

Harlequin Cock Robin and Jenny Wren: Or, Fortunatus and the Water of Life, the Three Bears, the Three Gifts, the Three Wishes, and the Little Man Who Woo’d the Little Maid, pr., pb. 1867

The Merry Zingara: Or, The Tipsy Gipsy and the Pipsy Wipsy, pr., pb. 1868

Robert the Devil: Or, The Nun, the Dun, and the Son of a Gun, pr., pb. 1868

No Cards, pr. 1869 (libretto; music by Lionel Elliott)

The Pretty Druidess: Or, The Mother, the Maid, and the Mistletoe Bough, pr., pb. 1869

An Old Score, pr., pb. 1869

Ages Ago: A Ghost Story, pr., pb. 1869 (libretto; music by Frederick Clay)

The Princess, pr., pb. 1870

The Gentleman in Black, pr. 1870 (libretto; music by Clay)

The Palace of Truth, pr., pb. 1870

A Medical Man, pb. 1870

Randall’s Thumb, pr. 1871

A Sensation Novel, pr. 1871 (libretto; music by Florian Pascal)

Pygmalion and Galatea, pr. 1871

Thespis: Or, The Gods Grown Old, pr., pb. 1871 (libretto; music by Sir Arthur Sullivan)

The Brigands, pb. 1871 (libretto; music by Jacques Offenbach)

On Guard, pr., pb. 1872

Happy Arcadia, pr., pb. 1872 (libretto; music by Clay)

The Wicked World, pr., pb. 1873

The Happy Land, pr., pb. 1873 (as F. Tomline; with Gilbert A’Beckett)

The Realm of Joy, pr. 1873

The Wedding March, pr. 1873 (adaptation of Eugène Labiche’s Le Chapeau de paille d’Italie)

Charity, pr. 1874

Ought We to Visit Her?, pr. 1874 (with Annie Edwards)

Committed for Trial, pr. 1874 (adaptation of Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy’s Le Réveillon; later revised as On Bail)

Topsy Turveydom, pr. 1874

Sweethearts, pr. 1874

Trial by Jury, pr., pb. 1875 (libretto; music by Sullivan)

Tom Cobb: Or, Fortune’s Toy, pr. 1875

Eyes and No Eyes: Or, The Art of Seeing, pr. 1875 (libretto; music by Pascal)

Broken Hearts, pr. 1875

Princess Toto, pr., pb. 1876 (libretto; music by Clay)

Dan’l Bruce, Blacksmith, pr., pb. 1876

Original Plays, pb. 1876-1911 (4 volumes)

On Bail, pr. 1877 (revision of Committed for Trial)

Engaged, pr., pb. 1877

The Sorcerer, pr., pb. 1877 (libretto; music by Sullivan)

The Ne’er-do-Weel, pr., pb. 1878

H.M.S. Pinafore: Or, The Lass That Loved a Sailor, pr., pb. 1878 (libretto; music by Sullivan)

Gretchen, pr., pb. 1879

The Pirates of Penzance: Or, The Slave of Duty, pr. 1879 (libretto; music by Sullivan)

Patience: Or, Bunthorne’s Bride, pr., pb. 1881 (libretto; music by Sullivan)

Foggerty’s Fairy, pr., pb. 1881

Iolanthe: Or, The Peer and the Peri, pr., pb. 1882 (libretto; music by Sullivan)

Comedy and Tragedy, pr. 1884

Princess Ida: Or, Castle Adamant, pr., pb. 1884 (libretto; music by Sullivan)

The Mikado: Or, The Town of Titipu, pr., pb. 1885 (libretto; music by Sullivan)

Ruddigore: Or, The Witch’s Curse, pr., pb. 1887 (libretto; music by Sullivan)

The Yeoman of the Guard: Or, The Merryman and His Maid, pr., pb. 1888 (libretto; music by Sullivan)

Brantinghame Hall, pr., pb. 1888

The Gondoliers: Or, The King of Barataria, pr., pb. 1889 (libretto; music by Sullivan)

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, pr. 1891

The Mountebanks, pr., pb. 1892 (libretto; music by Alfred Cellier)

Haste to the Wedding, pr., pb. 1892 (libretto; music by George Grossmith)

Utopia, Limited: Or, The Flowers of Progress, pr., pb. 1893 (libretto; music by Sullivan)

His Excellency, pr., pb. 1894 (libretto; music by Osmond Carr)

The Grand Duke: Or, The Statutory Duel, pr., pb. 1896 (libretto; music by Sullivan)

The Fortune Hunter, pr., pb. 1897

Fallen Fairies, pr., pb. 1909 (with Edward German)

The Hooligan, pr., pb. 1911

Gilbert Before Sullivan: Six Comic Plays, pb. 1967 (Jane Stedman, editor)

Plays, pb. 1982 (George Rowell, editor)

Short Fiction:

The Lost Stories of W. S. Gilbert, 1982


The Bab Ballads, 1869

More Bab Ballads, 1873

Songs of a Savoyard, 1898


Sir William Schwenck Gilbert has a name indissolubly linked with that of the British composer Sir Arthur Sullivan. Both men produced work individually–and Gilbert might be remembered for his Bab Ballads and Sullivan for his famous composition “The Lost Chord”–but the individual works of each man are eclipsed by what the two achieved together. They gave all who share in Anglo-Saxon culture a new set of phrases, characters, and melodies. The very existence of works like H.M.S. Pinafore and The Mikado gives the lie to a twentieth century stereotype of the Victorian Age as a time of hypocrisy and prudery. Gilbert and Sullivan were deadly critics of pomposity and emotional and intellectual dishonesty, and, as the popularity of the Savoy operettas shows, there was a large public that responded eagerly to satire and a far from gentle ridicule.{$I[AN]9810000601}{$I[A]Gilbert, W. S.}{$S[A]Tomline, F;Gilbert, W. S.}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Gilbert, W. S.}{$I[tim]1836;Gilbert, W. S.}

W. S. Gilbert

(Library of Congress)

Gilbert was the son of William Gilbert, a retired naval surgeon. At the age of two, while traveling with his parents, he was kidnapped by brigands in Naples and returned for a ransom price of twenty-five pounds; the incident is reflected in the Savoy operettas, which are full of the confusions of identity that may overtake a young child. Gilbert’s first schooling was in France; his later education, interrupted by the Crimean War, was completed at King’s College, University of London, in 1857. He served for four years in the Education Department of the Privy Council until a small inheritance enabled him to resign and begin the practice of law, a profession he had been studying in his spare time. The young man thus had, in a comparatively short time, experience of the army, the civil service, and the law, three respected institutions that eventually became the target of his witty and satirical writing.

In 1867 Gilbert married Lucy Turner, a daughter of a captain of engineers. Gilbert was by now an established literary personage and a regular contributor of copy and drawings to Fun, the rival of Punch; his delightful Bab Ballads, in which his deftness of rhyme and trenchancy of insight were already apparent, appeared here. Gilbert’s collaboration with Sullivan came about after the two men first met and worked as amateur producers of sketches and music at the Gallery of Illustration. Their first joint production, the burlesque Thespis, was presented in 1871. It is worth noting that already Gilbert was finding Greek mythology and fairy tales in general a fertile source of subject matter. After this collaboration Gilbert produced several witty comedies, but in general his stage works without Sullivan exhibit extremes either of cynicism or sentimentality. Although they were fairly well received, they did not meet the extraordinary success of the Savoy operettas. Some of the more significant works include Charity, which foreshadows the problem plays if the next decades, and Engaged, which anticipates the wit of Oscar Wilde.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s first serious collaboration was Trial by Jury, which was produced by D’Oyly Carte in 1875 and met with such immediate approval that the producer formed the Comedy Opera Company. There followed in quick succession The Sorcerer, H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and Patience. During its run Patience was transferred from the Opera Comique to the Savoy, which Carte had built especially for the Gilbert and Sullivan works. Included in the Savoy operas were Iolanthe, The Mikado, Ruddigore, The Yeomen of the Guard, and The Gondoliers. Almost without exception, the works took their themes from a perception of bureaucratic bungling, grotesque aspects of current modes of sentiment (romance is always taken with a smile), or topical sensations, such as the aestheticism of Oscar Wilde which suggested features of Patience. Whatever their inspiration, certain of the works, notably The Mikado and H.M.S. Pinafore, seem to hit off officialdom decisively; and the popularity of these works does not falter.

During the production of The Gondoliers the temperamental Gilbert quarreled with Carte over financial arrangements. Sullivan was drawn into the disagreement, and the partnership was almost dissolved. There was some subsequent collaboration, but most of that work has not withstood the test of time. In later years Gilbert built a theater of his own in London, bought an estate in Middlesex, and lived the life of a country gentleman. He was knighted in 1907, four years before his death of heart failure while trying to rescue a swimmer in distress.

It is the opinion of some critics that Gilbert and Sullivan created a new form of theatrical representation. Although songs had been used as incidental effects by other nineteenth century writers, Gilbert was the first to see the music as an integral part of the characterizations and the plot. Even the rhythms of many of his lines seem to have the power to suggest the sort of music Sullivan thereupon provided for them.

BibliographyBailey, Leslie. The Gilbert and Sullivan Book. London: Spring Books, 1966. Informative and richly illustrated. This examination of Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan grew out of a series of British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) radio broadcasts. Although knowledgeable, accurate, and complete, it maintains a popular quality, telling of the successes and failures of the team and commenting upon the two artists’ works. Richly illustrated, bibliography, and index.Crowther, Andrew. Contradiction Contradicted: The Plays of W. S. Gilbert. Cranbury, N. J.: Associated University Presses, 2000. Criticism and interpretation of the plays of Gilbert. Bibliography and index.Darlington, W. A. The World of Gilbert and Sullivan. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1950. Darlington provides the social context for the Savoy operas, providing a great wealth of local allusion, which should help the modern reader more fully to appreciate, understand, and enjoy Gilbert’s scripts. Includes a dictionary-index of opera characters and a subject index.Dunn, George F. A Gilbert and Sullivan Dictionary. 1936. Reprint. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1973. Explains many topical allusions in the works.Finch, Michael. Gilbert and Sullivan. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1993. A look at the collaboration between Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan. Bibliography and index.Fischler, Alan. Modified Rapture: Comedy in W. S. Gilbert’s Savoy Operas. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991. Fischler begins his analysis with Gilbert’s fiftieth theatrical work, H.M.S. Pinafore, because it both separated him from other Victorian playwrights and was the turning point in his comic dramaturgy. Argues that Gilbert’s new approach to comedy appealed to bourgeois prejudices and provided his greatest popularity. Extensive notes and index.Godwin, Augustine H. Gilbert and Sullivan: A Critical Appreciation of the Savoy Operas. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1969. Godwin’s “critical appreciation” is possibly the first to examine the Savoy operas as a whole. It provides an excellent introduction to traditional Gilbert criticism, examining recurring themes, characters, and characterization, as well as staging and acting techniques.Goldberg, Isaac. The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1928. Goldberg’s critical evaluations and biographies of Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan focus on the political and social context of their works and lives. Illustrations, bibliography, and index.Jones, John Bush, ed. W. S. Gilbert: A Century of Scholarship and Commentary. New York: New York University Press, 1970. This volume presents eighteen critical essays in chronological order from 1869 to 1968. Its value is in bringing together leading commentaries on Gilbert’s work in a way that demonstrates the changing attitudes, approaches, and methodologies of literary and drama critics. Select bibliography.Orel, Harold, ed. Gilbert and Sullivan: Interview and Recollections. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994. A collections of interviews and essays remembering Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan. Bibliography and index.Joseph, Tony. The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, 1875-1982: An Unofficial History. Bristol, England: Bunthorne, 1994. A history of the opera company at which most of the Gilbert and Sullivan works were performed. Bibliography and index.Stedman, Jane W. W. S. Gilbert: A Classical Victorian and His Theatre. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. A look at Gilbert’s life and works, including his collaborations with Sir Arthur Sullivan. Bibliography and index.Stedman, Jane W. W. S. Gilbert’s Theatrical Criticism. London: Society for Theatre Research, 2000. A close examination of the criticism around Gilbert. Bibliography and index.Sutton, Max Keith. W. S. Gilbert. Boston: Twayne, 1975. Concise and authoritative and has a useful annotated bibliography.Wilson, Robin, and Frederic K. Lloyd. Gilbert and Sullivan: The Official D’Oyly Carte Picture History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984. An excellent source for examining the aesthetic of Gilbert’s work in performance. Hundreds of photographs and designs from the long history of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company trace the evolution of the Savoy operas on stage in both England and the United States. Brief introductions to each section include biographical and critical information on Gilbert as it pertains to the opera company. Illustrations, bibliography, and index.
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