Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 904
William Schwenck Gilbert was born at 17 Southampton Street, Strand, London, on November 18, 1836, the son of a fairly well-to-do naval surgeon, who turned to a literary career at about the same time as young William did. At the age of two, while on holiday with his parents in Italy, Gilbert was kidnapped from his nurse and ransomed for twenty-five pounds. He later claimed to have a perfect recollection of the incident. At any rate, his plots frequently hinge on the removal of infants from their real parents.
Educated at Boulogne, France, and Great Ealing School, he then attended King’s College, London, hoping to obtain a commission in the Royal Artillery. The sudden end of the Crimean War made a military career less appealing, and he obtained, by competitive examination, a clerkship in the Education Department of the Privy Council Office, a post he occupied from 1857 to 1862. Coming into an unexpected sum of money, Gilbert was able to free himself from that “ill-organised and ill-governed office.” Having already entered the Inner Temple, Gilbert was called to the Bar in 1863. He did not thrive as a barrister, however, earning no more than seventy-five pounds in his first two years of practice. He never wholly abandoned either his military or his legal aspirations, for he held a commission in the Fifth West Yorkshire Militia, the Royal Aberdeen Highlanders, and, from 1893, was a justice of the peace for the county of Middlesex.
Gilbert’s career as a writer had been launched as early as 1857, when he accepted a commission to translate a French song for a theater program. His first play to be produced, Dulcamara, a travesty based on Gaetano Donizetti’s opera L’elisir d’amore (1832), was followed in succeeding years by similar treatments of operas by Donizetti, Vincenzo Bellini, Giacomo Meyerbeer, and others. In 1867, Gilbert was confident enough of his abilities to marry Lucy Blois Turner, a woman fourteen years his junior. Despite the example of the tempestuous marriage of Gilberts’ parents, his own irascibility, and his almost total absorption in his work, the union appears to have been a happy one. The 1860’s were also the years of the composition of The Bab Ballads. In 1869, he became a contributor of short comic plays for the German Reed’s Royal Gallery of Illustration, which provided a kind of family entertainment mixing song with improbable fable, presented without the elaborate trappings of the stage. He also began writing full-length comedies, such as The Palace of Truth, Pygmalion and Galatea, and Broken Hearts, whose plots involve the intervention of fairies or other supernatural agencies in human affairs.
The first meeting of Gilbert and Sullivan took place at the Gallery of Illustration and was brought about through a common friend. Though each knew the work of the other, it was another two years before Gilbert proposed that Sullivan set to music the draft of Thespis (the musical score has since been lost). Neither appears to have taken this first collaboration very seriously, and four years were to elapse before they worked together on another opera, a curtain raiser prodded into being by Richard D’Oyly Carte, then the manager of the Royalty Theatre, in the Soho district of London. The extraordinary success of this piece, Trial by Jury, prompted D’Oyly Carte to lease the Opéra Comique as the home of the Comedy Opera Company and to commission a third opera, The Sorcerer.
One success followed another. To frustrate theatrical piracy, a continuing problem as the popularity of their work increased, the premiere of The Pirates of Penzance took place in New York. By 1881, the trio of Gilbert, Sullivan, and D’Oyly Carte had opened their own theater, the Savoy, the first in the world to be illuminated by electric light. All their subsequent operas were produced here. That two men so temperamentally different—Gilbert, robust and litigious, and Sullivan, frail and affable—should have collaborated at all is more remarkable than that their association became strained during the decade of their greatest artistic and commercial success. Each considered that he was being asked to yield too much to the other. These differences were precipitated by the famous “carpet breach.” Believing that D’Oyly Carte had wrongly charged the theater’s new carpeting as a cost of production of The Gondoliers, rather than as one of building maintenance, and that Sullivan and he were thereby aggrieved, Gilbert insisted on an immediate renegotiation of the agreement among them. When D’Oyly Carte demurred and Sullivan proved insufficiently vigorous in his support of Gilbert’s demands, Gilbert became furious and actually took legal action against both of them. Although a compromise was eventually worked out, and two more operas followed the reconciliation, the heyday of the team of Gilbert and Sullivan was over.
Gilbert continued to be active with other collaborators in the 1890’s, and he reverted as well to the fairy comedies of his pre-Sullivan days. Gout and other ailments, however, compelled him to lead a life of greater retirement. In 1907, some twenty-four years after Sullivan had received a similar honor, Gilbert was knighted for services to the theater—as a playwright rather than with the more prestigious designation he had craved, that of dramatist. Though rancor figured significantly in Gilbert’s life, his death was gallant. Diving to rescue a young woman swimming in the lake on his estate, Sir William suffered a fatal heart attack on May 29, 1911.