W. S. Gilbert Analysis

Other Literary Forms

ph_0111205124-Gilbert_WS.jpg W. S. Gilbert Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Apart from his writing for the theater, W. S. Gilbert’s principal literary accomplishment is The Bab Ballads (1869), whimsical verses that he illustrated himself. Originally published in comic journals such as Fun and Punch, they are generally regarded as the well from which Gilbert drew many of the songs and situations of his comic operas.


The comic operas of W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan are the product of one of the most successful collaborations in theatrical history, for while other teams of librettist and composer have achieved comparable distinction, in no other pair have the talents so complemented each other. Both chafed at the fact that their more serious accomplishments were less well regarded, and both tried, without great success, to work with other collaborators. Gilbert’s whimsy and legalistic paradoxes would have been little more than quaint if they had not been humanized by Sullivan’s melodies, and Sullivan’s choral and orchestral virtuosity and his propensity to parody found their focus in Gilbert’s preposterous plots. Their initial collaborations took place over a span of six years, during which they were engaged in other artistic enterprises as well. With the composition of H.M.S. Pinafore, however, they began a decade of enormous popularity, with virtually one new opera a year, each with a measure of uniqueness yet all derived from a recognizable formula. Although the later operas are somewhat more musically complex and more extravagantly plotted, these advances are less the consequence of artistic maturity than of technical confidence. Gilbert’s not too serious social criticism, his tongue-twisting lyrics, and his gentle spoofs of romantic conventions appealed to a middle-class audience that had only recently been persuaded that the theater might be a...

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Bailey, 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...

(The entire section is 651 words.)