A Potted History

Gilbert, Sullivan & D’Oyly Carte and the writing of the Savoy Operas
Richard Ogden

When Gilbert and Sullivan were exchanging mutual congratulations after the successful opening of The Gondoliers, Gilbert said of Sullivan’s score: “It gives one the chance of shining right through the twentieth century with a reflected light”. But could he really have envisaged just how strongly their joint works would still be in the public eye, performed both by professionals and by dedicated amateur groups, such as Abbots Langley G&S Society, by the end of that century? Nor that the rapidly burgeoning technology of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries should be so enthusiastically used by G&S devotees – witness the extensive G&S Archive on the World Wide Web, the E Mail Savoynet group, with its hundreds of subscribers all over the world… and, indeed, this Web Site. All the more strange, of course, when you consider, too, that these works were written by two men who considered their best work as anything but these operas (especially in Sullivan’s case), and who were hardly mutually compatible, although they had considerable – if grudging – respect for each other’s talents. So who were these two men – or three, since Richard D’Oyly Carte was very important in bringing, and keeping them together – and how did the G&S operas come to be written? “Permit me, I’ll endeavour to explain.”


William Schwenck Gilbert was born at 17 Southampton Street, Strand, London, on 18 November 1836, to parents in reasonably comfortable circumstances. (His second name was the surname of his godmother – he heartily disliked it.) His father was a naval surgeon who took to writing late in life; Gilbert liked to think that he had even more illustrious naval ancestry in Sir Humphrey Gilbert, but the truth was that the Gilberts had for centuries lived well inland, on the Hampshire/Wiltshire border. WS went to school in Boulogne, then attended Great Ealing School and subsequently attended King’s College. He abandoned this academic career with a view to getting an army commission, but the Crimean War came to a sudden end before Gilbert could take the examination. Instead, he took an exam for an assistant clerkship in the Education Department of the Privy Council Office where he spent “four uncomfortable years”. An unexpected legacy of £300 enabled him to abandon this and set up as barrister-at-law, at which he was hardly more successful. However, as his writing became more successful he was able to abandon the bar, too. Gilbert’s plays at this time were often burlesques on operas, and he also contributed lively poems, illustrated by himself, to the paper Fun. They are still celebrated as The Bab Ballads, and were the source of many of the ideas for later Savoy opera libretti.


Arthur Seymour Sullivan was born at 8 Bolwell Terrace, Lambeth, on 13 May 1842, a happy but rather poor home – his father, Thomas, was a musician in theatre pits. (Sullivan, too, disliked and tended not to use his second name, because of the word the initials formed.) Very soon, however, things looked up, with Thomas Sullivan becoming first bandmaster at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, and then taking up a post at Kneller Hall. Music was, from the start, a dominant factor in young Arthur’s life; he could soon play nearly all the wind instruments which were readily available, and wrote his first anthem at the age of eight. At twelve he became a chorister at the Chapel Royal, became “first boy” two years later and then won the Mendelssohn Scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. The scholarship was twice renewed and he then went on to study in Leipzig, where Greig and Carl Rosa were fellow students and he met Franz Liszt. In Leipzig he had his first big success as a composer, with his music to The Tempest being performed, a success repeated the next year back in London, at the Crystal Palace. Further successful compositions followed, including a first foray into the field of lighter music with the one-act frolic,Cox and Box, adapted by F C Burnand from J Madison Morton’s Box and Cox, but initially only performed privately. More publicly, he again collaborated with Burnand on a full-length comic opera, The Contrabandista.


Gilbert and Sullivan first met in 1869, introduced by a mutual friend, Frederic Clay, with Gilbert typically (apparently) flooring Sullivan with an invented question of music theory. Two years later, John Hollingshead, manager of the Gaiety Theatre, first brought Gilbert and Sullivan to work together, on a piece called Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old, first produced on Boxing Day, 1871. Exactly how successful it was is unclear, and will never really be known, since most of the music was lost. Several items may have been used again later, but this is only certainly true of “Climbing over rocky mountain”, which appeared again in The Pirates of Penzance. The song “Little maid of Arcadee”, published separately, also survives. Also to be noted about Thespis is the inclusion in the cast of Frederic Sullivan, the composer’s elder brother, of whom more later.


After 64 performances of Thespis there didn’t seem to be much future for Gilbert and Sullivan as a team. Sullivan returned to “serious” music with a Te Deum for the recovery of the Prince of Wales from illness, an oratorio The Light of the World, and incidental music for Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. Gilbert returned to writing successful plays, such as Happy ArcadiaThe Wicked WorldSweethearts,Topsy-Turvydom and Broken Hearts. They did, however, write two songs together, ‘Sweethearts’ and ‘The Distant Shore’. But if John Hollingshead had no more interest in Gilbert and Sullivan someone else was more perceptive – Richard D’Oyly Carte.

His father, also Richard, was the inventor of a new kind of flute, founder of The Musical Dictionary, and married a Welsh girl descended from the old Norman family of D’Oyly or D’Ouilly. Richard D’Oyly Carte was born in Soho on 3 May 1844, like Gilbert studied at London University and then went into the London business in which his father was a partner – the still-extant Rudall, Carte and Co, musical instrument makers. But before long he launched his own concert and lecture agency, with clients such as Adelina Patti, the famed tenor Mario, Matthew Arnold and, later, Oscar Wilde. A trained musician, he was composing songs and operettas in his early twenties. (Unlike G & S, he had no trouble with his second name – indeed, he was often known just as “D’Oyly”.)


Richard D’Oyly Carte became manager for one Mme Selina Dolaro at the Royalty Theatre in Soho, where she was appearing in operettas by Offenbach and others. In 1875 a bill was being planned consisting of Offenbach’s La Périchole, preceded by a piece called Cryptoconchoidsyphonostomata or While It’s to be Had! But the bill was still too short and, whilst looking round for a third piece, Carte encountered Gilbert and suggested he might write something, perhaps in collaboration with Sullivan. In fact Gilbert had something ready prepared – a ballad written for Fun and then turned into dramatic form for a project which had fallen through. Most uncharacteristically, Gilbert seemed highly diffident when he called on Sullivan to read the piece – Trial by Jury – through to him, but Sullivan recorded later that he was curled up with laughter at Gilbert’s little work, and the music was composed and the whole piece ready in only three weeks. It was an immediate hit on opening on 25 March 1875, thanks not least to a major personal success by Fred Sullivan as the Learned Judge. Trial became the main attraction of the bill, even after La Périchole had been taken off, and this first run only ended after 131 performances because of the untimely death of Fred Sullivan, to his brother’s deep distress. Although Trial is the first of Gilbert and Sullivan’s pieces still played it is unusual in consisting of only one act with no spoken dialogue, it foreshadows things to come in the imaginative handling of the chorus and the Judge’s patter song. For many years the D’Oyly Carte Company presented it as part of a double bill with HMS Pinafore. Most amateur companies still present this excellent value double bill, or find Trial a highly popular component of a G&S evening, or more varied concert.


The success of Trial by Jury encouraged D’Oyly Carte, who already had ambitions to create a theatre devoted to the presentation of English comic opera, though for the moment he could only afford to lease the Opera Comique Theatre to stage it. The Comedy Opera Company was formed with Carte as manager, and Gilbert and Sullivan were approached for a new piece. Gilbert went for one of his favourite themes – later to cause much friction – and The Sorcerer depended much on the workings of a love philtre. Although this, the first existing two-acter of the series, has considerable charm, it is of particular interest in that the cast introduced three of the mainstays of many of the later operas. George Grossmith played John Wellington Wells, the eponymous sorcerer – the part which would have gone to Fred Sullivan, had he lived – despite Grossmith’s initial self-doubts as to suitability, Rutland Barrington played the delightful part of Dr Daly, the Vicar of Ploverleigh, and Richard Temple was Sir Marmaduke Pointdextre. Opening on 17 November 1877, The Sorcerer ran initially for 178 performances. When revived as a stopgap between the first performances of Princess Ida and The Mikado it had a new overture and revised opening to Act II. In this form it continues to be far from shunned by amateur companies, though there has been no professional production since the latter years of the “old” D’Oyly Carte Company – when a truly delightful new production was staged, with costumes and sets designed by Osbert Lancaster and Kenneth Sandford as a superb Dr Daly.


If The Sorcerer was not a roaring success it was good enough for Richard D’Oyly Carte soon to be asking for more. The subject for what became HMS Pinafore or The Lass That Loved a Sailor came naturally enough to the nautically-inclined Gilbert, and Sullivan accepted it enthusiastically, the carefree music showing no sign that it was written whilst he was suffering severe bouts of a constantly recurring liver complaint. A newcomer to the cast – at a late stage – was young Jessie Bond, who replaced the originally-cast Cousin Hebe. She insisted that she was a singer, not an actress, and Gilbert accordingly removed most of the dialogue he had originally written for the character. Miss Bond’s acting ability improved greatly in later years as she played such parts as Iolanthe, Pitti-Sing, Mad Margaret and Phoebe. Pinafore opened to great acclaim on 25 May 1878, but quickly suffered, along with all other theatres, from the effects of a heatwave. Business became so bad that the directors wanted to close the show and the cast voluntarily accepted cuts in their salaries. But fortunately, the heatwave passed, and Sullivan conducted an arrangement of thePinafore music at Royal Opera House Promenade Concerts with immediate success, which transferred to the opera itself – it sailed on triumphantly for 571 performances. The tunes – and the catchphrase ‘What, never?’ … ‘Hardly ever!’ – swept Britain and America, and in the latter country, with no copyright agreement, numerous pirated versions of the opera sprung up, which D’Oyly Carte countered by taking a “genuine” production across the Atlantic. Back at home, the directors of the Comedy Opera Company had completely changed their tune and, now wanting a greater share of the success, invaded the Opera Comique in the middle of a performance to try to steal scenery and properties for a production of their own. They were beaten off, still staged their own (unsuccessful) production, but were then banned by the courts from presenting Gilbert and Sullivan’s works. The Comedy Opera Company went into liquidation and Gilbert, Sullivan and D’Oyly Carte formed their own association for the production of the operas. Pinafore is another of the operas which has effortlessly retained its popularity up to the present day. A very slick production, updated to the 1920s, by the new D’Oyly Carte Opera Company drew huge audiences to the Savoy Theatre in early 2000, and at the time of writing this production is on tour whilst The Mikado is in London – the first time there have been two simultaneous D’Oyly Carte productions for many, many years. The title? Actually, Sullivan had a hand in that. All that was needed, really, was something to rhyme with “one cheer more”. Gilbert could only suggest a rather prosaic “HMS Semaphore” – Sullivan it was who proposed instead the rather more nonsensical Pinafore.


It is not known whether the experiences of American “piracy” gave Gilbert the idea for the opera to follow Pinafore, but it certainly featured pirates in the libretto and elaborate steps were taken to combat transatlantic piracy. The show was, of course,The Pirates of Penzance or The Slave of Duty, and it was very special in that the first night took place in New York, on 31 December 1879. The cast was taken from the company which had gone to New York with Pinafore, but a major disaster was that Sullivan found he had left much of his preparatory work on the music at home in England, so had to start afresh. Probably at least part of the reason why the piece from Thespis, mentioned earlier, was included. Rehearsals went ahead with guards on the theatre to deter “pirates”, but the orchestra threatened to strike for more pay on the grounds that the music was more like grand opera. Sullivan called their bluff by threatening to bring the Covent Garden orchestra over from England, or even to go ahead with piano and harmonium accompaniment. The show was another immediate, huge success, with four companies being immediately despatched to various parts of the United States to forestall unauthorised productions.

In order to protect copyright back home an extremely strange British “first night” ofPirates took place on 30 December 1879, at the Royal Bijou Theatre, Paignton. This was given by a D’Oyly Carte company which was playing Pinafore in Torquay. The score had been sent over piecemeal from America and was almost certainly incomplete, the cast wore their Pinafore costumes (the pirates with scarves round their heads) and many carried the music which they had not had time to learn – there had been only one rehearsal. The London première was not until 3 April 1880, and the show continued at the Opera Comique for 363 performances. Pirates has also been notably popular with audiences in the latter years of the 20th century, particularly thanks to the lively production by Joseph Papp, which opened in New York’s Central Park in July 1980, went on to take both Broadway and London’s West End by storm, and was made into a film. With rock stars as Frederic and Mabel and re-orchestrated for electric guitars and synthesisers, it also features decidedly swashbuckling pirates and a much more youthful Pirate King – something which has almost become a new tradition, even in productions with the more traditional music!


As the successor to Pirates of Penzance was being planned D’Oyly Carte was also pressing ahead with the building of his new Savoy Theatre in the Strand. It was not ready, however, for the opening of Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride on 23 April 1881, so this was again at the Opera Comique. Gilbert’s original plan had been for this opera to feature rival clergymen, based on a Bab Ballad called ‘The Rival Curates’, but at quite a late stage he got cold feet about poking fun at the Church and changed the theme to feature rival poets of the ‘aesthetic movement’ then at its height, personified by people such as Oscar Wilde, Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Whistler. No problem for smart London society to recognise the object of Mr Gilbert’s satire, but what about the American market? D’Oyly Carte had the answer – send Oscar Wilde on an extensive lecture tour of the States and the Americans soon knew all about the craze of aestheticism! Later in 1881 the Savoy Theatre was ready and an improved production of Patience opened there on 10 October. This was, of course, the first theatre to be entirely lit by electricity, and the first night featured D’Oyly Carte’s famous demonstration of the safety of the new power source; a lighted bulb was covered with a cloth and smashed with a hammer, after which the cloth was shown to be unburned. Altogether, Patience ran for 578 performances. It may not be the most popular for revival these days, but similar “types” to Bunthorne, Grosvenor, the rapturous maidens and the 35th Dragoon Guards are not hard to identify, and Gilbert’s words and Sullivan’s music were pretty well as good as anything they wrote.


A considerable amount of detail has survived of Gilbert’s plans and thought processes for what was to be the first new production at the Savoy Theatre. The general theme was always there, but he went through all sorts of combinations of political characters before declaring of the men’s chorus that “they must be peers”. Combined with the ladies as fairies, the Arcadian shepherd and shepherdess, Strephon and Phyllis (though the former only half a mortal – the lower half), the Lord Chancellor and the philosophical Private Willis, the result was perhaps that most Gilbertian of the whole series, Iolanthe or The Peer and the Peri. Fairies with battery-operated electric lights in their hair and the contrast of the peers’ robes after the pastel fairies made this opera as striking visually as in any other way, and the band of the Brigade of Guards was on stage as well, for the March of the Peers on the first night, 25 November 1882 – this time simultaneously in London and New York. Another ruse to foil the “pirates” on this occasion was to rehearse the opera under an entirely different name – “Perola” – which actually meant that “Come Perola” had to be sung instead of “Iolanthe” to make the correct number of syllables. If anyone forgot on the first night then Gilbert wasn’t there to correct them – as usual, he spent the performance nervously pacing the streets, returning only in time for the verdict of the final curtain. And again the verdict was good, with the initial run going on to a total of 398 performances. The political scene may have changed somewhat since 1882 and in modern productions the names of the parties are sometimes updated, but modern audiences have little difficulty in identifying with the jokes, especially when Private Willis sings of the MPs who “have to leave that brain outside And vote just as their leaders tell ’em to”.


Gilbert and Sullivan’s next collaboration after Iolanthe could be seen as something of an aberration, especially from Gilbert’s point of view. Princess Ida or Castle Adamant traced its origins back to a long poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson called ‘The Princess’, written in 1847 about the founding of a college for women. Gilbert had already written a play which was a parody of this poem, produced at the Olympic Theatre in 1870. With some adjustment and the addition of lyrics and music this became Princess Ida, described as ‘a respectful Operatic Perversion of Tennyson’s “Princess”. Amongst the unusual features of this opera were the fact that it was in three acts (or a prologue and two acts), required two tenor leads (Hilarion and Cyril) and the Grossmith comic lead character (King Gama) didn’t appear in Act II at all!! But if Gilbert took what might well be considered an “easy way out” Sir Arthur Sullivan (as he now was) certainly did not and, not for the first time when badly affected by illness, produced some of his best music, including “Oh Goddess wise”, a whole string of numbers starting with the three men’s invasion of Castle Adamant and ending with “Now wouldn’t you like to rule the roast?”, and that marvellous Handelian parody, “This helmet, I suppose”. Sullivan’s ill health culminated in him almost failing to make it to conduct the first night, on 5 January 1884, and collapsing very ill straight afterwards. This episode was, of course, the starting point for the acclaimed 1999 Mike Leigh filmTopsy TurvyPrincess Ida ran for a relatively few 246 performances and precipitated the first major crisis in the partnership, quickly followed by its greatest triumph.


When Richard D’Oyly Carte came unexpectedly early to give Gilbert and Sullivan the required six months’ notice of the need for a new opera to follow Princess Ida the composer stunned everyone by announcing that he was not prepared to write another of the same sort. In ensuing bitter correspondence he explained to Gilbert that “with Princess Ida I have come to the end of my tether – the end of my capability in that kind of piece. My tunes are in danger of becoming mere repetitions of my former pieces…I have looked upon the words as being of such importance that I have been continually keeping down the music in order that not one should be lost…the music is never allowed to arise and speak for itself”. Gilbert expressed hurt amazement at what he regarded as Sullivan’s slurs on the quality of his libretti, and produced a suggestion for a new work. But this only made matters worse, for it was only a re-working of the so-called “Magic Lozenge” plot, the taking of which turned characters into who they wanted to be. It was too much like The Sorcerer – a revival of which incidentally occupied the Savoy stage after Ida ended its run – and Sullivan had already rejected the idea some years earlier. Arguments continued in an attempt to find a way out of this impasse until, apparently, the falling of a Japanese executioner’s sword from the wall of his study suddenly focused Gilbert’s thoughts in a quite different direction. It wasn’t really that novel, since there was already quite a Japanese craze in London, nurtured especially by a Japanese exhibition, in the form of a Japanese village, with genuine Japanese inhabitants, being staged in Knightsbridge. The plot which Gilbert now presented to Sullivan was scarcely more believable than those he had rejected and, indeed, he might have been expected to jib at its emphasis on torture and execution, but it seemed to worry him no more than it has really worried the countless people who have watched The Mikado or The Town of Titipu since it opened triumphantly on 14 March 1885.

The original production ran for 672 performances, the longest run of any of the Savoy series, and The Mikado is still the most popular of them all. There have been many different versions over the years, perhaps most notably that produced for English National Opera by Jonathan Miller which transfers the action to an English seaside resort in the 1920s (where, perhaps, it is actually closer to home than Japan!). With its English gentlemen, gym-slipped maids from school, parlour maids and bell-hops, it only goes to prove the inherent strength of the original and has been successfully revived a number of times since it was first staged in 1986. Strange, therefore, that – as depicted in Topsy Turvy – Gilbert had an uncharacteristic attack of self-doubt about the Mikado’s song, ‘My object all sublime’, and announced his intention, after the dress rehearsal, of cutting it out. Apart from anything else it left Richard Temple, in the title role, with practically nothing to sing. Fortunately the chorus members realised what a loss the song would be and successfully lobbied Gilbert to have it reinstated. The Mikado is particularly full of “gags” – lines added by artistes in the course of early performances. Rutland Barrington, as Pooh-Bah, was particularly adept at these, two classic examples being “No money, no grovel” and “I don’t want any lunch”. Many were more or less grudgingly accepted by Gilbert. Another interesting change from what Gilbert originally wrote is Nanki-Poo’s “Modified rapture” on learning that Yum-Yum is to marry Ko-Ko but doesn’t love him. Gilbert originally wrote simply, “Rapture”, but at a rehearsal felt that Durward Lely, as Nanki-Poo, was putting too much into the word, so called out “Modified Rapture”. Lely, misunderstanding, repeated, “Modified Rapture”, which so pleased Gilbert that the line remained thus. For the first sixty years or so The Mikado also twice included the word “nigger”, but by the late 1940s this was what we would now call “politically incorrect”. Rupert D’Oyly Carte (Richard’s son and successor) thus approached Sir Alan Herbert, a leading humorous writer of the time, who came up with alternatives. Thus it is that Ko-Ko’s “little list” now includes a “banjo serenader” instead of a “nigger serenader”, while the Mikado’s own list of pet punishments now tells how “the lady… who pinches her figger is painted with vigour and permanent walnut juice”, where before she was “blacked like a nigger with permanent walnut juice”.


Of course, it was never going to be easy to follow such a tremendous success as The Mikado, but the early signs were good, from Sullivan in particular, who set to work on the music for Ruddigore unusually diligently, finishing it without the usual last minute panic. But perhaps a skit on the bloodthirsty melodramas of the time was not an ideal choice – the worst problem, however, came with the title itself. The piece opened on 22 January 1887, just three days after The Mikado closed, as Ruddygore, or The Witch’s Curse, and Victorian tastes were offended by such a title. Not so Gilbert, who had a sharp rejoinder to a friend who asked him how “Bloodygore” was going: ‘It’s Ruddygore,’ said Gilbert. ‘Oh, it’s the same thing,’ insisted the friend. ‘Is it?’ retorted Gilbert. ‘Then I suppose that if I say I admire your ruddy countenance, it means I like your bloody cheek!’ But after only a few performances a change to Ruddigore mollified the worst criticisms, though Gilbert thought the subtitle should be changed to Not So Good As The Mikado.

Despite a good start, apart from the title business, the end of the first performance did drag and some boos were heard at the final curtain. A number of changes were made and the storm was weathered, including complaints from some French sources about Dick Dauntless’s references to the ‘darned Mounseer’ and the ‘poor Parley-Voo’, which they felt insulted their national pride. If they had studied the song more carefully they would have realised that more fun was actually being poked at the English than at the French! In fact Ruddigore ran for a quite respectable 288 performances and Gilbert commented that he could do with more such failures, which put £7,000 into his pocket. Unlike most of the other operas, Ruddigore was not revived in the authors’ lifetime, but shortly after the First World War it was, with a number of changes, most notably an excellent new overture, written by the then D’Oyly Carte Musical Director, Geoffrey Toye – the old one had contained several tunes omitted from the revival. In this version, the opera has done much to redeem its initial reputation, being particularly liked by the most keen G&S supporters – and one of Geoffrey Toye’s cuts is often restored these days. His very brief Act II finale gives way to the longer original, popularly known as the “Basingstoke” finale, as it refers to that Hampshire town which figures so prominently in the reform of one of the opera’s greatest characters, Mad Margaret.


The theme for the next opera in the series, to follow Ruddigore, came to Gilbert as suddenly, if not as dramatically, as that for The Mikado. In this case, he was standing waiting for a train on Uxbridge station when his gaze lighted on an advertisement for the Tower Furnishing Company, and the idea of an opera based around the Tower of London, set back in Tudor times, was born. This was not his first idea – that, yet again, was the old “magic lozenge” idea, which could very easily have broken the partnership but for Gilbert’s encounter on Uxbridge station. Sullivan was delighted with the new idea, though was constantly expressing uncertainties all through the writing of the piece, even though it went a long way to his aspirations to write grand opera.

Though the end result was a truly splendid score, from the magnificent overture onwards, Sullivan encountered much more trouble than usual in the writing. Several different versions of “Is Life a Boon?” were written, and as for “I have a song to sing, O”, for the first time the composer had to go back to the librettist and admit defeat. Sullivan knew that, despite his professing to only know two tunes – one of which was “God Save the Queen” and the other wasn’t – Gilbert often had some tune in his head when writing the words of the songs. Had this been the case here, Sullivan asked Gilbert? It had – Gilbert hummed Sullivan part of a sea shanty sung by sailors on his yacht and the theme song of the opera was on its way.

From the very start, when the curtain rose, not on the usual chorus – male or female – but on Phoebe Meryll alone, singing a sad little song at her spinning wheel, it was clear that The Yeomen of the Guard, or The Merryman and his Maid was a new departure for Gilbert and Sullivan. The ending was also controversial – the stage direction says that Jack Point “falls insensible”. The original Point, George Grossmith, made it clear that the character wasn’t dead, but others made it equally clear that he was. Though he didn’t enforce it, Gilbert, when appealed to, stated that Point should die, and the end of the opera be a tragedy. It is usual for Point to be at least separated from the rest of the cast in productions to this day.

Gilbert, like Sullivan, was unsure about Yeomen during the writing and rehearsals – at the first night he crazed Jessie Bond, waiting to open the show as Phoebe, with constant fussing, until she had to beg him to leave her alone. But this first performance, on 3 October 1888, was well received and a very good run of 423 performances ensued, and later both Gilbert and Sullivan considered it the best work they had done together.

In 1962 a highly successful outdoor production of Yeomen was staged actually at the Tower of London, and revived in 1964, 1966 and 1978, on which latter occasion the rock-and-roll singer, Tommy Steele, starred as Jack Point. A most spine-chilling moment of these productions came in the Act I finale, when the actual bell of the church of St Peter ad Vincula was tolled when the execution of Fairfax was about to take place.


Despite the undoubted success of Yeomen the relationship between Gilbert and Sullivan was becoming more and more strained. Sullivan, encouraged by no less than Queen Victoria herself, longed to write a grand opera, whilst being only too aware that it was the Savoy type of opera which brought in the money he needed to enjoy a life in high society. He did, however, invite Gilbert to write the libretto for his planned grand opera. Gilbert declined, but suggested that there was no reason why Sullivan should not compose his grand opera with someone else whilst writing the next Savoy opera with himself. At this point the clash became fiercer; Sullivan suggested that his music had always been subservient to Gilbert’s words, to which Gilbert retorted that grand opera was a form in which the librettist was always swamped by the composer.

Crisis point was then reached in a letter from Sullivan to D’Oyly Carte, in which he complained at the way in which Gilbert dominated and time-wasted at rehearsals, so that, apart from the purely musical sessions, he, Sullivan, was reduced to ‘a cipher in the theatre’. Unfortunately, Carte showed this to Gilbert, inevitably resulting in a flare-up. But, realising his error, perhaps, Carte employed his management skills to the full, assisted by his wife, Helen, to bring about a compromise between the two, without undue loss of face for either of them.

It was, in fact, done, in the way Gilbert had suggested, for Carte had embarked on building the Royal English Opera House at the top of Shaftesbury Avenue – now known as the Palace Theatre and home for 19 years, to 2004, of the long-running Les Misérables – and Sir Arthur Sullivan was the very man to write the opening work. So Sullivan embarked on his grand opera, Ivanhoe, whilst at the same time working on the score of The Gondoliers or The King of Barataria for the Savoy.

In fact, Sullivan was delighted by the gay libretto which Gilbert had presented him with, feeling a great affinity with the Venetian and other Mediterranean themes. Gilbert bent over backwards to accommodate Sullivan – and the vocal score is comfortably the longest in the whole series, including an opening number of 20 minutes uninterrupted music. Moreover, the theme of equality – “And all shall equal be” – was reinforced by the noticeably even-handed way in which the principal parts were distributed. This happiest and sunniest of operas scored an immediate triumph from its first night, on 7 December 1889, through a run of 554 performances. Strangely, for once, it didn’t quite go down so well in the United States, where it got known as “The Gone-Dollars”.

Meanwhile, just over a year later, on 31 January 1891, Ivanhoe, with libretto by Julian Sturgis, opened the Royal English Opera House – a dazzling first night, attended by the Prince of Wales and the Duke and Duchess of Edinburgh. By employing two casts of equal status it was ensured that the opera could run continuously for six nights a week and, bearing this in mind, an initial run of 155 consecutive performances represents a remarkable record for grand opera. However, as a whole, not much has been heard of the opera since, and Carte’s overall Royal English Opera scheme failed, for there was no successor waiting after Ivanhoe ended, and the Opera House was sold to become the Palace Theatre in 1892.


Alas, the mutual congratulations at the success of The Gondoliers were only papering over the cracks of a relationship between two men who were so totally different that it was, perhaps, remarkable that they had worked together with so little difficulty for so long.

The culmination of the breakdown came when Gilbert asked Carte for detailed accounts of the costs of putting on The Gondoliers. He was staggered by the figure of £4,500 – but how even amateur companies these days wish they could put on such a show for so little! – and took particular objection to the inclusion of the sum of £500 for new carpet for the auditorium. To Gilbert’s mind, this had nothing to do with the expenses of this one show, and should not be borne by all three partners, and he was shocked when Sullivan disagreed and sided with Carte. Gilbert vowed that he would not write again for Carte, and the he would not allow any of his existing works to be performed at the Savoy after Christmas of that year. The matter came to court, an unpleasant spectacle for the pair’s admirers, and the case ended in an uneasy compromise and an atmosphere of bitterness.
For the first time, non-G&S works occupied the Savoy stage after The Gondoliers closed, but eventually pressure from friends, and, indeed, their own wishes, brought Gilbert and Sullivan together again and, although Gilbert was beset by gout and Sullivan nearly died from a recurrence of his long-standing liver complaint, the next opera, Utopia (Limited) or The Flowers of Progress – soon renamed, for no very clear reason, Utopia, Limited – opened on 7 October 1893. This vigorous satire on cherished English institutions, including the somewhat risky topic of a Royal drawing-room, although set in a tropical island, went down well with an audience so happy to see Gilbert and Sullivan back together. It has some great moments, such as the “Christy Minstrel” “skit” – ‘Society has quite forsaken all her wicked courses’ – and ‘A tenor all singers above’, where the leading tenor has to crack his top notes, but on the whole a drop in quality from previous operas, in both words and music, was unmistakable. After an opening run of a reasonable 245 performances it has only once been revived professionally, for the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company centenary in 1975, with several more performances later at the Royal Festival Hall in response to an overwhelming demand for tickets. It is by no means unknown for amateur companies to perform Utopia, however – the Americans seem particularly fond of it – but Abbots Langley G&SS have never done so. It was planned for the 25th anniversary in 1975 – as indeed, can be seen in some early publicity – but after failure to get tickets to see the D’Oyly Carte revival a party went instead to a decidedly sub-standard production in South London, which resulted in getting the show dropped in favour of Iolanthe.

A final comment about Utopia, Limited – it is the only opera in which a character from a previous opera appears; Captain Corcoran, once of HMS Pinafore, reappears as Captain Sir Edward Corcoran, KCB, complete with “What never? … Hardly ever” quotation. Or does he? Is this actually Captain Corcoran, risen through the ranks again, or the person we knew in Pinafore as Ralph Rackstraw? There has been considerable debate about this – personally, I think that Little Buttercup had mixed up both the identities and names of Corcoran and Rackstraw, and that the tenor Rackstraw has now matured into the baritone Corcoran!

Just one more Gilbert and Sullivan opera was written; on 7 March 1896 The Grand Duke or The Statutory Duel opened. Nearly everyone realised that this was the end. A highly contrived plot, central to which was the secret sign of eating a sausage roll, and a duel conducted by means of playing cards, rather than swords or pistols, could not even be redeemed by the music on this occasion, and the show closed after just 123 performances. Never revived professionally, though D’Oyly Carte did a single concert version in 1975, it is staged occasionally by the bravest amateur companies – not Abbots Langley – with, like Utopia, Limited, rather more frequency in America.


Sullivan continued to be involved in various projects as the 19th century drew to a close, but his always precarious health continued to deteriorate. He suffered a severe attack of bronchitis whilst holidaying in Switzerland, struggled back to London, but died on 22 November 1900, aged 58. He was buried, at Queen Victoria’s command, in St Paul’s Cathedral.

Richard D’Oyly Carte was already desperately ill, and died on 3 April 1901, aged only 56.

W S Gilbert had the most peaceful old age. He continued to write for a time, but gradually became the mellowing country squire at his home at Grim’s Dyke, Harrow Weald. He was belatedly knighted in 1907. On 29 May 1911 two girls, friends of the Gilberts, were swimming in the lake at Grim’s Dyke. One got into difficulties and called out for help. Gilbert was used to swimming and dived in to help, but his heart gave way and he was dead when his body was recovered from the bottom of the lake.

Helen D’Oyly Carte – Richard’s widow – had produced a series of revivals of many of the operas in the 1900s, aided by Gilbert revising the libretti, but then the operas were missing from London until shortly after the First World War, when they were triumphantly brought back by Rupert D’Oyly Carte, Richard’s son. They included the first revivals of Princess Ida and Ruddigore. London seasons, and almost year-round touring continued right through the Second World War and into the second half of the 20th century. There was a good deal of new scenery and new costumes but – apart from the astonishing film of The Mikado made just before the Second World War – the actual acting remained just as originally staged by Gilbert. Amateurs, too, had to adhere closely to these directions.

Then, in 1950, 50 years after Sullivan’s death, the music became free of copyright, the most notable result being the ballet Pineapple Poll, produced in 1951, with Sullivan’s tunes brilliantly woven together by Charles Mackerras. Finally, in 1961, copyright ran out completely and other companies were able to do what they liked with the operas, as were amateur companies. It was not the immediate end of the D’Oyly Carte tradition – indeed, they indulged in fresh interpretations themselves, such as Anthony Besch’s Gondoliers, notable for the Ducal party having to eat spaghetti on stage, and the revival of The Sorcerer, referred to in the chapter on that opera. Other companies came up with a variety of productions of various operas, with varying success, whilst year-round touring became financially more difficult for D’Oyly Carte. They applied for Arts Council funding, but were turned down due to the tiredness of the productions – some additional funding would have helped here – Catch 22!! In the early 1980s the Company were led to believe that they would be used in a series of videos of the operas, and cancelled a series of good tour venues on the strength of this. But the Brent Walker organisation in fact used completely non-D’Oyly Carte casts, with “big names” such as Frankie Howerd, and the D’Oyly Carte sank even deeper, finally being forced to close in 1982.

But only a few years later Dame Bridget D’Oyly Carte, the last of the line, who had run the Company since her father, Rupert’s death in 1948, herself died and left a considerable sum in trust for the Company. So, in 1988, they were able to start performing again, though no longer on the old, year-round, repertory basis. Sadly, still denied sufficient funding by the Arts Council, the new D’Oyly Carte Company, too, suspended productions in 2003, and there seems little liklihood of another revival.