W.S. Gilbert: He was an Englishman

Ian Bradley examines the achievements of the surprisingly radical Victorian dramatist and librettist who, in collaboration with the composer Arthur Sullivan, created classic satires of English national identity.

W.S. Gilbert, 1878
W.S. Gilbert, 1878

Jonathan Miller’s dismissive comment in a Sky Arts television documentary about ‘UKIP [the anti-EU UK Independence Party] set to music’ sums up a prevailing feeling about the works of Gilbert and Sullivan that is shared by many academic historians. David Cannadine writes in similar vein in his book In Churchill’s Shadow (2004) that ‘the Savoy operas were a paean of praise to national pride and to the established order’. W.S. Gilbert, who died a hundred years ago this month on May 29th, 1911, is generally viewed as a crusty Victorian gentleman exhibiting in acute form the typical prejudices of his age and class, notably complacency, misogyny and xenophobia.

It is true that in his later days Gilbert did lead the life of an establishment figure, living in considerable style in a large country house near Harrow, sitting on the bench at Edgware Petty Sessions in his role as a JP for Middlesex, parading in his uniform as Deputy Lieutenant of Middlesex and dining regularly at the Garrick and Beefsteak clubs. Yet even in these establishment roles he displayed more than a touch of radicalism. As a magistrate he became well known for his refusal to believe that the evidence of the police was always correct and for his concern to establish the social background and life chances of those who came before him for sentencing.

The fact is that throughout his life, as indisputably the leading English dramatist and satirist of the Victorian age, W.S. Gilbert had a strong social conscience and a deep concern with injustice as well as an overriding sense of the arbitrariness and fickleness of life. In many respects he was closer to the social reformers and anguished doubters of the later 19th century than to the jingoists and complacent establishment figures among whom he tends to be counted.

W.S. Gilbert in a caricature from The Ludgate, 1898His somewhat bleak view of life was in part the product of an unhappy childhood. He grew up in London in the 1840s without much parental love and affection although he was clearly influenced by his father, a rather eccentric naval surgeon who turned to writing on social issues, passionately expounding the view that poverty rather than innate depravity was the cause of crime. It was probably also from his father that Gilbert got his irascibility. His friend the actor and playwright Seymour Hicks (1879-1941) commented that: ‘He always gave me the impression that he got up in the morning to see with whom he could have a quarrel.’ Another paternal inheritance was his pessimistic view of human nature, as expressed in an article of 1867, written under the pseudonym of the Comic Physiognomist, where he noted: ‘Man was sent into the world to contend with man, and to get the advantage of him in every possible way.’

What prevented Gilbert from being a wholly negative commentator was his delight in the eccentricities and foibles of his countrymen. To that extent he was indeed a patriot. He gently ridiculed them in the Bab Ballads, which he wrote through the 1860s for Fun magazine while practising somewhat half-heartedly and unsuccessfully at the Bar. It was here that he first explored many of the themes later developed in the libretti of the Savoy operas. One of the earliest Bab Ballads, ‘Etiquette’, recounted the story of two Englishmen who were shipwrecked on a desert island but could not talk to each other because they had not been introduced.

Gilbert was first and foremost a satirist with a keen eye for hypocrisy, pomposity and absurdity. His targets were sometimes social and cultural, like the English class system which he lampooned in HMS Pinafore (1878) and the preciousness of Pre-Raphaelite asceticism which he pilloried in Patience (1881), but predominantly he went for institutions, like the police force which is sent up so gently but effectively in The Pirates of Penzance (1879). His two most consistent targets were the Church of England and the political system but he was thwarted in his satirical sallies in these two areas by public taste, critical opinion and the censorship of the lord chancellor, as well as by his own timidity and reluctance to offend, all of which had the effect of emasculating and weaken- ing the force of his barbs.

Gilbert’s earliest and most robust assault on the values of the institutional church came in an article published in Fun in January 1870 entitled ‘A Christian Frame of Mind’. It told of a colonial bishop seeking to convert members of a barbarous tribe, the Canoodle-Dums, on the coast of Africa. Discovering that they were summoned to prayer either by the beating of a tom-tom or the blowing of a horn the bishop was appalled that the Canoodle-Dums were indifferent as to which instrument was used and told them that if the horn was right then the tom-tom must be wrong and vice-versa. ‘The next day the tribe was divided into two mighty religious factions, those who stood up for the horn, and those who stood up for the tom-tom.’ The Chum or high priest of the Canoodle-Dums tried in vain to persuade his followers not to divide on matters of unimportant detail, but the bishop persisted in stirring up differences between them, telling the Horn Party that some of their horns were long and others short and the tom-tom party that some of their tom-toms were long and narrow while others were short and stout. His insistence that one approach must be right and the other wrong had the effect of further dividing the two parties into smaller opposing sects. This process went on, prompted by the bishop’s constant interventions to draw attention to different practices with regard to the two instruments, until the number of subdivisions was such that there was just one man in each and the process of disintegration could be carried on no further. Gilbert ended his caustic tale on the tendency of Christians to divide bitterly on unimportant issues: ‘Let us hope that the bishop was as successful in converting them to Christianity as he was in bringing them to a Christian frame of mind.’

A poster for the New York production of Patience, c.1881

The original plot for the 1881 opera Patience involved a further attempt to satirise some of the absurdities of the Victorian Church of England. It was based on a Bab Ballad entitled ‘The Rival Curates’ about two Anglo-Catholic clergymen who vied with one another in their insipidity and Tractarian ways while in fact secretly wanting to dance, smoke, play croquet and generally adopt a more jocular approach to life. For the operatic version Gilbert envisaged a female chorus of devoted parishioners of the Rev. Lawn Tennyson and a male chorus of soldiers whose no-nonsense manliness would contrast with the effete ways of the two central clerical characters. He eventually got cold feet about basing an opera around this theme, writing to his collaborator Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) in November 1880: ‘I mistrust the clerical element. I feel hampered by the restrictions which the nature of the subject places upon my freedom of action.’ The leading characters were switched from Tractarian clergy to Pre-Raphaelite poets. Just occasionally the libretto of Patience retains traces of the earlier subject matter, as in Bunthorne’s opening soliloquy: ‘I am not fond of uttering platitudes in stained glass attitudes.’

Similar concerns about propriety and appropriateness inhibited Gilbert’s attempts to poke fun at politicians. His most biting piece of political satire, The Happy Land, which he wrote in 1873 under the pseudonym F. Latour Tomline, was itself a parody of an earlier play The Wicked World which pursued a favourite Gilbertian theme of the chaos wreaked in Fairyland when an element of life in the mortal world is imported. In the original play this element had been the power of love. In The Happy Land it was the equally disastrous concept of popular government, represented by the three leading male characters, the Right Honourable Mr G, the Right Honourable Mr L and the Right Honourable Mr A, who were made up and costumed to look like the caricatures of W.E.Gladstone, Robert Lowe and Acton Ayrton in Vanity Fair. Their professed aim was to introduce the fairies to ‘the beauties of a Liberal government’.

The clear representation on stage of contemporary politicians, who were respectively the prime minister, chancellor of the exchequer and first commissioner of works of the day, caused a sensation. The lord chamberlain revoked the play’s performance licence, having apparently received an official complaint from the Prince of Wales who had attended the opening night at the Royal Court Theatre on March 3rd, 1873. He subsequently allowed it to re-open on condition that the obvious references to the three leading politicians, who had been portrayed in an unattractive light as mean, lacking substance and uncaring of Britain’s national interests and prestige abroad, were removed. The play went on to enjoy a highly successful run of 142 performances and a lengthy provincial tour.

The Happy Land seems to reveal Gilbert as a clear conservative in politics. This is certainly the verdict of the American literary critic Elwood Lawrence writing in 1971 in the journal Victorian Studies:

It revealed in a clear and popular form the conservative Tory anguish as the balance of political power tilted away from the aristocracy, and land owners, and the upper middle class, and toward the lower middle class and the workers. Gilbert, in his topsy-turvy manner, stigmatised the ethics and morality of popular government, as the Liberal programme was called, and predicted the dire consequences for England of this innovation. Governmental wisdom and virtue could rise no higher than their source, and under popular government the source was the new electorate, motivated by profit, greed, and the crude desires of the mob. At home the quality of British life would sink to the level of the cheap and nasty, and abroad, good-bye to national honour. England under the Liberals was on the way to becoming a second rate power, at the mercy of its mightier neighbours across the channel. According to Gilbert, this was the gloomy outlook for Great Britain under popular government.

Yet Gilbert was not always on the side of conservatives against liberals and progressives. Gladstone, Lowe and Ayrton were not the only contemporary politicians whom he satirised. As is well known, his model for Sir Joseph Porter, the First Lord of the Admiralty who has never been to sea in HMS Pinafore, was W.H. Smith, the Conservative career politician who held that office in Disraeli’s government between 1877 and 1880. In HMS Pinafore Gilbert’s sympathies seem to lie decidedly with the masses rather than the classes. Its sustained satire on snobbery and class consciousness is particularly well illustrated in the ‘lost song’ from Act I which Captain Corcoran sings to his daughter Josephine about her love for the lowly sailor, Ralph Rackstraw:

He may a second Shakespeare be,
Endowed with faculty creative
But what avail such gifts, if he
Confounds accusative with dative?
In what far nook of earth
Would mortal worth,
Or strength of lung or limb,
Atone for him
Whose verbs don’t tally with the nominative?

This biting commentary on the English obsession with correct grammar as an indicator of proper breeding was jettisoned before the first performance.

Gilbert’s greatest work of political satire is, of course, Iolanthe which opened on November 25th, 1882 in the midst of Gladstone’s second great reforming administration. Its origins lay in another Bab Ballad, ‘The Fairy Curate’, about a ritualistic clergyman, George, who was the product of a marriage between a fairy and an attorney. His fairy mother, unhappy about his extreme High Church views, flew down to discuss them with him. They were interrupted by his bishop who refused to believe that the young lady leaning against the young curate’s shoulder was, in fact, his mother. The poem ends with George leaving the Church of England and becoming a Mormon. Gilbert does not seem to have considered keeping the clerical theme when translating this particular Bab Ballad into an opera, as he had initially for Patience. His original conception was rather that the fairy heroine should marry a solicitor. This was later changed to the grander idea that the entire female chorus of fairies should marry barristers of the Northern Circuit with the action being set in a law court. As he worked on the plot Gilbert realised that he could have much more fun by switching from a legal to a political setting. He moved the action to the House of Commons. The Fairy Queen should marry the prime minister (later changed to the foreign secretary) while the other principal fairies were paired off with the home secretary, the attorney general and other ministers. Finally he hit on a formula which satisfied him and enabled him to produce his comic masterpiece. The setting of the opera would be the House of Lords, the Fairy Queen would be pitted against the lord chancellor and a chorus of fairies would fall in love with a chorus of peers.

Gilbert had already poked fun at the House of Lords and the idea of birth rather than intelligence as the qualification for membership of the upper house of Parliament in The Pirates of Penzance, notably in the finale of the original British and American versions, which ended with a lengthy ‘hymn to the nobility’:

How doubly blest that glorious land
Where rank and brains go hand in hand,
Where wisdom pure and virtue hale
Obey the law of strict entail,
No harm can touch a country when
It’s ruled by British noblemen.

Resistance in the Upper House to much of the reforming legislation of Gladstone’s second Liberal government, elected in 1880, led to a growing call for reform of the House of Lords and an end to its powers of veto. In his digs at the intellectual inadequacies of the peerage Gilbert seemed to be siding with the Liberals and their reforming principles. Gladstone himself was enthusiastic about Iolanthe. He noted in his diary after seeing it at the Savoy Theatre on December 4th, 1882 that it was ‘a perfect piece of scenic representation with much fun’ and wrote to Sullivan about the good taste of the piece and ‘its admirable execution from beginning to end’.

Early plot notes by Gilbert certainly suggest a basic radicalism in his outlook:

The piece will probably open with a meeting of the fairies. They are very much distressed at the unsatisfactory character of British legislation and attribute much of this to the House of Peers which they consider should be abolished. They discuss the absurdities of hereditary legislation and argue that a man should be a legislator by reason of his own fitness, rather than on account of the fitness of his ancestors …

Certain benevolent fairies, who take a deep interest in human welfare, are distressed to find that British legislators devote weeks of laborious attention to matters of mere abstract importance, utterly neglecting the crying miseries which are at their door and which spring from the filth, squalor and crime in which so large a portion of our population are reared.

This second point, which perhaps cuts to the heart of Gilbert’s own social and political philosophy, was taken up in a song written for Strephon, the half-fairy half-mortal hero of Iolanthe who enters Parliament as a Liberal Conservative and introduces a bill opening the peerage to competitive examination. In it he castigates his fellow MPs for not legislating on the social ills at the root of crime and not realising how easily they themselves might have been criminals or drunkards had they had a rather less privileged upbringing:

Take a wretched thief
Through the city sneaking,
Pocket handkerchief
Ever, ever seeking:
What is he but I
Robbed of all my chances –
Picking pockets by
Force of circumstances?
I might be as bad –
As unlucky, rather –
If I'd only had
Fagin for a father!

This song received almost universally adverse reviews from critics who complained that it held up the action and was out of keeping in a comic opera. The comments of The Theatre reviewer were typical:

The libretto of Iolanthe has been utilised by its author as the vehicle for conveying to society at large a feeling  of protest on behalf of the indigent, and a scathing satire upon the hereditary moiety of our legislature. Advocacy and denunciation of this sort are all very well in melodrama, where telling points may always be made about the unmerited wrongs of the poor and the reprehensible uselessness of the aristocracy. But they jar upon the ear and taste alike when brought to bear upon us through the medium of a song sung by half a fairy in a professedly comic opera.

Gilbert took this criticism to heart and Strephon’s song was cut during Iolanthe’s initial run. It was, however, printed in both the first and second British editions of the libretto and in the first American edition of the vocal score. Like several other songs cut from the Savoy operas it shows an altogether more pointed and socially conscious satirical approach than is displayed in many of the more gently humorous numbers that remained.
Gilbert’s concern with injustice and his conviction that nurture rather than nature often accounted for criminal behaviour continued to be displayed in his writings to the very end of his professional life. His last play, The Hooligan, written and performed just a few months before his death in May 1911, dealt with a young man, the son of a thief and brought up among thieves, condemned to death for killing his girlfriend. Set in the condemned cell and lasting just 15 minutes it is a deeply disturbing and harrowing piece that argued, in Gilbert’s own words, ‘that the punishment of a man who never had been given a chance to rise out of the gutter should not be the same as the punishment of a man who had thrown away his chances’. It was his final statement of a lifelong theme and met with a predictably mixed response. The actor who played the condemned man was given four curtain calls but also greeted by hisses from a section of the audience that had not come to the theatre for what one described as ‘this hideous piece of realism’.

Gilbert held up a mirror to Victorian hypocrisy, complacency and indifference. In truth it is often difficult to know whether he is lampooning or extolling the characteristic institutions and prejudices of his age and country. Ultra-patriotic songs like ‘He is an Englishman’ from HMS Pinafore, ‘When Britain Really Ruled the Waves’ from Iolanthe and ‘There’s a Little Group of Isles Beyond the Wave’ from Utopia Limited (1893) can be taken either way – at face value or as tongue-in-cheek. Sullivan’s settings encourage the former interpretation because they tend to accept the words as they are and not respond to their satirical spin. Sullivan was a more straightforward, trusting and optimistic figure than his librettist, the impact of whose words he often softened and mellowed by his melodic lyricism. But, irascible and discontented as Gilbert undoubtedly was, he also had a deep affection for the institutions that he lampooned, none more so than the unreformed House of Lords. In 1909 some of the Liberals who were campaigning to reduce the powers of the upper house wrote asking his permission to quote from Iolanthe in their speeches. He replied caustically:

I cannot permit the verses from Iolanthe to be used for electioneering purposes. They do not at all express my own views. They are supposed to be the views of the wrong-headed donkey who sings them.

There has been much discussion about Gilbert’s proper place in British literary and dramatic history. Was he essentially a writer of burlesque, a satirist, or, as some have argued, the forerunner of the theatre of the absurd? There are elements of all three approaches in his prodigious output, of which the Savoy operas are just a tiny fraction. Perhaps he stands most clearly in that distinctively English satirical tradition which stretches back to Jonathan Swift and forward to the magazine Private Eye and the BBC television show Have I Got News for You? Its leading exponents lampoon and send up the major institutions and public figures of the day, wielding the weapon of grave and temperate irony with devastating effect, while themselves remaining firmly within the Establishment and displaying a deep underlying affection for the objects of their often merciless attacks. It is a combination that remains a continuing enigma to those who belong to other nations.

Ian Bradley is Reader in Church History at the University of St Andrews, honorary life president of the St Andrews University Gilbert and Sullivan Society and author of The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan (Oxford University Press, 2000).