A Victorian Partnership

By Mary R. Devine



“It seems as though poem and music had proceeded simultaneously from one and the same brain.”

(The Times.26 March 1875 in a review of Trial by Jury)

In the recently released film Topsy Turvy the director Mike Leigh displays a remarkable Victorian artist partnership at the point of its most successful collaborative effort. The partnership was that between the librettist William Schwenck Gilbert and the composer Arthur Sullivan in the development of what became known as the Savoy Operas under the guiding hand of the impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte (1844-1901), the managing director of the D’Oyly Carte Company. Their collaboration led to ten notable successes, its crowning triumph being the production of The Mikado in 1885. This light opera was to remain the most successful of all the Savoy operas; it is frequently staged and enjoyed today worldwide, with the variations in staging permissible after the tight control of copyright expired in 1995. Leigh’s film has much to offer the general viewer – and the not particularly musical viewer – with its period detail, its social commentary, its insights into London life high and low, its clashes of strong personalities, its moments of pathos, and the occasional poignant glimpses of backstage life far removed from the romance and glamour of the stage sets. It offers most perhaps to opera lovers, comic opera lovers (especially Savoyards), and to anyone who has wondered even momentarily about the delicate balance of words and music that is the prerequisite to the impact of vocal music and to the production of a stage musical.

The established, traditional order is “Gilbert and Sullivan”;the librettist’s name is thought of first, and Gilbert is certainly the dominant figure in any account of the Savoy Operas and in this Mike Leigh film, Topsy Turvy. Some issues in their relationship are the subject of this paper.

In the world of opera, from the late eighteenth century, the time of Mozart’s operas, and throughout most of the nineteenth, the primacy of the music and therefore of the composer was accepted: it would be hard to imagine a broad reference to Cosi fan Tutti for example in which the name of the librettist, Lorencio Da Ponte, is given precedence over that of Mozart. The progression from the earlier, strongly text-based oratorios and operas-from the “poet-dominant” Florence of Metastasio through to Gluck – is beyond the scope of this paper. However, even a cursory survey will note that later nineteenth and especially twentieth century operas- operas such as Britten’s Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers, and Prokofieff’s The Gambler have libretti based on well known literary works of Melville, Henry James, and Dostoievsky. In each case the librettist’s task was to follow the text and dialogue of the author and extract appropriately for recitativ and aria. Wagner, who wrote his own libretti, is a good example of “a librettist who guides the musician at every step” as Patrick Smith points out in The Tenth Muse. Here it seems worthwhile to look, as this film does, at the way the collaboration works in the less elevated world of Opera Comique from which the Savoy operas stem. The Savoy collaboration seems to be a seamless match. The Times’ reviewer wrote in 1875 (referring to Trial by Jury) of poem and music proceeding “simultaneously from the same brain”. It was also said that “It was neither Gilbert nor Sullivan that was important. It was the ampersand”, a witticism that can obscure the issue. The question of balance of power or influence or genius within the partnership cannot be easily teased out without understanding the reputations of the two men individually, without the ampersand. A brief account of each man’s career apart from and before the Savoy Operas will serve to suggest several elements that led Gilbert to assume precedence in his relationship with Sullivan and allowed the easy-going Sullivan, to a large extent, to accommodate the older man while reserving his ambitions for a musical life beyond the Savoy Operas.

In tracing some troubled times in the life and mid career of William Schwenck Gilbert between 1884 and 1885, Leigh’s film unfolds the combination of events that led to the staging of what is usually regarded as the greatest of the Savoy operas. The Mikado, first staged in 1885, represents a high point in a remarkable partnership, one which came about after a period of serious differences–even a breakup-between the librettist and composer. The differences were both practical (over management and the nature of contracts) and aesthetic: Gilbert being an obsessively litigious man was not to be blindsided by his partner and manager, and on the aesthetic front, Sullivan had a long simmering problem with the nature of the music demanded of him by Gilbert’s versification and his implausible plots.

When the paths of these two men crossed in about 1869, both were well established in the world of Victorian humor, music, and entertainment. William Schwenck Gilbert, having been trained for a legal career and called to the bar on 17 November 1863, found that he had remarkably little aptitude for talking on his feet. His legal career foundered: for him there was little money in the law but there developed a more lucrative job in journalism. By his mid-twenties he was successful as a humorous writer and a pen and ink draftsman with his works appearing in the magazine Fun; later he became known as the author of the Bab Ballads. He wrote burlesque plays, a series of musical plays put on in London by Thomas German Reed and Priscilla his wife. Immensely prolific, he poured out much in the way of stories, critiques, reviews, and dispatches. He married Lucy Turner, known as Kitty, in 1867; they remained childless. There were troubles in Gilbert’s family background, alluded to somewhat cryptically in Leigh’s film. By the time the two men met professionally, Arthur Sullivan was also under contract with the Reeds. Sullivan with a strongly musical background (son of a clarinet player who became Sergeant Bandmaster at the Royal Military College in 1845) fulfilled the early promise of his musical talents both in England and Europe. He seemed set to become the English answer to Mendelssohn. He was commissioned to write incidental music for The Tempest performed at Crystal Palace in 1862; he was called on to provide the sort of grand music needed for state and public occasions and enhanced his reputation with his Te Deum (a somewhat secular work) commissioned for the national celebration in May 1872 (also at Crystal Palace) of the recovery from typhoid of the Prince of Wales, Albert, son of Queen Victoria. Along with his success in composing incidental music for the theatre, (for The Merchant of Venice, in 1871, The Merry Wives in 1874 and Henry VIII in 1877), Sullivan was known for what were called royalty ballads (songs for amateur singers sung in drawing rooms). The Lost Chord (used in the Leigh film) was the most celebrated. He composed many hymns, choral works, oratories, and cantatas and it is of these that he later declared himself most proud. His setting of the hymn Onward Christian Soldiers in 1871 was an instant success, its popularity continuing into more secular times. By the late 1860’s the theatre began increasingly to occupy his composing genius and comic operas such as Cox and Box and Contrabandista became the form of musical endeavor with which his name and reputation became linked. Sullivan remained unmarried; he was known for his liking for society, the company of society women. His longest association was with Fanny Ronalds, a wealthy American woman with talents as an amateur singer. She is well portrayed in the film in two scenes, the first being the drawing room performance of The Lost Chord with Sullivan at the piano; the song was closely associated with her. He twice came close to marriage: there was a broken engagement in 1869 and much later when he was fifty four he fell in love with the twenty year old Violet Beddington. A sense of his discreet amorous liaisons is conveyed in the film’s Parisian scenes and in an understated moment when he and his mistress (Fanny) discuss an unwanted pregnancy.

Initially W.S. Gilbert appears to have thought Sullivan’s music of “too high a class” for the sort of plots it served (e.g. in Cox and Box) and although they collaborated on Thespis in 1871, it was not until the mid 1870’s that, at the urging of Richard D’Oyly Carte, the two men began the most productive time of collaboration with Trial by Jury in 1875 followed by HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, Patience, Iolanthe, the unsuccessful Princess Ida, and in 1885 The Mikado. The film Topsy Turvy opens up with the premier of Princess Ida and ends with the successful opening of The Mikado.

An early episode in the film reveals the climax of growing disputes between Gilbert and Carte and Sullivan. A brief note of the business arrangements between the three men, as detailed by Hesketh Pearson in his biography of Gilbert, will perhaps help at this point. The director and impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, after countless disputes with three fellow investors in the Opera Comique Company, decided in 1879 to run an independent company for putting on operas such as Gilbert and Sullivan’s and ultimately, in October 1881, built the Savoy Theatre to stage them. In the partnership formed between the three men, each put up one thousand pounds, Carte was to receive 15 pounds a week as business manager, Gilbert and Sullivan four guineas for each performance, and the profits (after all salaries and expenses were taken care of) were to be divided equally between the three partners. Difficulties over the nature of the financial dealings between the three were to be expected especially given Gilbert’s highly volatile and litigious disposition, and led ultimately to the bitter so-called “carpet quarrel” which erupted later, after the success of The Mikado.

By 1883 Sullivan was reluctant to “live up to the contract he had signed a year earlier”, citing the repetitiveness of Gilbert’s plots, especially their “topsyturydom”. His dislike of the “lozenge plot:” so beloved by Gilbert seemed to lead to stalemate. The origins of Gilbert’s “lozenge plots” are found in his earliest writings: a character by swallowing a magic lozenge is transformed instantly (usually favorably); crisis is avoided, and the plot can be resolved however implausibly. Letters from Sullivan to Gilbert in 1884 revealed a critical situation: Carte who was concerned about the relative lack of success of Princess Ida was pressing the two men for another opera in fulfillment of their contract. However Sullivan revealed just how tired he was of “topsyturvydom:, the unreality and repetitiousness of Gilbert’s plots: “With Princess Ida I have come to the end of my tether-the end of my capability in that type of piece”. By this time, May 1883, Sullivan had received a knighthood and, with Royal patronage, had other musical ambitions to fulfill. The dispute and the exchange of letters between Gilbert and Sullivan are fully laid out in the chapter entitled “Conflict” in Arthur Jacobs’ biography of Arthur Sullivan.

Gilbert foresaw the end of their partnership; he was hurt and resentful. It was at this point that a series of chance events led to the development of The Mikado. One was the Japanese samurai sword in the Gilberts’ drawing room (a scene of its falling is used effectively in the film but that incident is questioned as apocryphal legend by Michael Beckerman in a 1989 article in The Musical Quarterly). The other is the strong Japanese presence in London to coincide with an exhibition of Japanese culture which opened on 10 January at Humphrey’s Hall in Knightsbridge. In the film it is to this exhibition that Kitty Gilbert takes her disheartened husband. This wholly new setting for a comic opera allowed Sullivan to contemplate new musical forms and inspired Gilbert to write the lyrics and plot the staging of his most successful work. By 8 May 1884 Sullivan agreed that “If I understand you to propose you will construct a plot without the supernatural or improbable events and on the lines you describe, I gladly undertake to set it without further discussing the matter, or asking what the subject is to be.” The resulting opera was not in fact markedly more realistic than previous works but The Mikado was a resounding success when it opened on 14 March 1885; Sullivan agreed “There is never a weak syllable”.

Clearly the joint success of these two men did not eliminate the significant differences which are the focus of this paper. First, a comment on the division of command. The artistic decisions about casting, costumes, and staging the operas were naturally the province of Gilbert who took meticulous care in controlling every detail of movement on stage, and the articulation of every line of verse. Sullivan’s part followed the libretto in the sense that he recognized the importance of having the words heard and, given the precision and virtuosity of Gilbert’s versification; he accepted the need for ‘syllable-setting”. One of Gilbert’s greatest talents lay in his versification: his use of rhyme, internal and line end, in his triple rhymes, his patter songs and his use of alliteration and assonance. The music had to serve the virtuosity of this verse; a point Sullivan would never dispute. (The importance of the words in the Savoy Operas is reflected in the practice of making copies of the libretti available so that the audiences might follow the early performances.) Richard D’Oyly Carte’s duties were those of the business manager, putting into effect the wills of both the librettist (Gilbert) and the conductor/composer (Sullivan). But there was ample room for friction between the two artists. Differences of temperament were a starting point. Gilbert was recognized as a remarkable wit and wordsmith, a meticulous stage director, even a martinet in his dealings with the cast, the stage hands, and every detail of the performance. He would brook not the smallest alteration to his text (a detail covered in the film as he rehearses the three male actors); and he was well known for creating a model stage set in his house and moving blocks around to plot every stage entry, movement, and placement. His care over every detail in the presentation of Japanese culture is well illustrated in the film in the rehearsal of “the three little maids” scene. Leigh’s scene shows well the lengths that Gilbert would go to get authenticity into the performance, even using some visiting Japanese girls to illustrate the employment of the fan and the effect of their shuffling walk. Gilbert, despite his characteristically autocratic temperament, and dictatorial manner, could on rare occasions yield to the appeals of his cast members: Leigh shows Gilbert deciding to delete the Mikado’s song, “My object all sublime/I shall achieve in time-/To let the punishment fit the crime/The punishment fit the crime.” The actor is crushed; the cast aghast. The song became one of the most popular of the Opera’s songs. It is suggested in Topsy Turvy that Gilbert’s motive in deleting it stemmed from a desire to control every aspect of the performance and to discourage any show of individualism amongst the cast. But in the face of a concerted appeal from the company of actors, Gilbert yielded and reinstated the number.

Gilbert was a family man in the sense that he had to deal with difficult parents who were separated from the time Gilbert was nineteen. The situation was one of painful recriminations; of the three younger sisters, Jane, Florence, and Maud, the two unmarried sisters lived with their mother, and the one married sister, Jane Weigall, later took in her ailing father to live with her in Salisbury. This family situation provides Mike Leigh with some sharp moments early in the film when Gilbert’s father visits and his derangement and paranoia about his wife Ann blossom out (but are perhaps not sufficiently explained). Gilbert was married but childless; a poignant moment late in the film suggest that this childlessness was a matter of grief for his wife but also hints that her loss was not fully shared by him. It is relevant perhaps that the Gilberts virtually adopted Nancy McIntosh, a young American soprano whose career Gilbert fostered and whose company as an adopted daughter both Gilberts enjoyed, especially later in their lives after they settled in their country house, Grims Dyke, in 1890.

As Mike Leigh illustrates in the film, it seems that Sullivan could still, at the time of the writing of The Mikado, relish the sheer fun in a Gilbert libretto, before any musical setting was added. It is time for a look at the nature of Gilbert’s humor and briefly to consider the targets of his satire within the burlesque tradition.

Many of Gilbert’s stories draw on folk tales, with star crossed young lovers, mistaken identity, and frequently a reversal of fortune hinging on the discovery that the lowly maid or lover is in fact high born and an heir to a title. Even though Gilbert declared himself opposed to cross dressing roles (“On artistic principles, no man should play a woman’s part and no woman a man’s”), many of his characters are the ones that are also familiar in pantomime, in which the Principal Boy is played by a female, a soprano, and the old Dame, the butt of many jibes, by a man. He used the device of this stock character of the older woman in the character of Katisha “the daughter in law elect” in The Mikado, (a contralto role), the restoration of the heir theme with Nanki Poo. The perennial youth-versus-age theme turns up in Katisha’s rivalry with Yum Yum. The innocence and “simplicity” of the three little maids is undercut with the irony of Yum Yum’s “Child of Nature” song about her beauty: “sometimes I sit and wonder in my artless Japanese way why I am so much more attractive than anyone else.” The self importance of Pooh Bah, the macabre details of the execution protocols, the logic chopping (“A is happy – B is not”), and the details of court etiquette are also elements that suggest the range of the libretto’s targets.

The spirit and humor of the operas clearly reflect Victorian interests and tastes; links to the works of Thackeray, Dickens, and later George Bernard Shaw are not difficult to find. Gilbert’s upbringing, his legal training, his brief foray into a military career in 1856, (at the end of the Crimean War, just too late for action), his apprentice journalism, and publications such as The Bab Ballads helped to plant the seeds of many of his settings and his satirical plot developments. He strictly avoided any overt sexual themes; topical events, however, were fair game.

As his epitaph sums up, “His foe was folly and his weapon wit”. Prime targets for his humor are the excesses in society rather than Victorian life itself. His songs neatly skewer the absurd lengths to which rules of etiquette will drive the conventional, the complexities and obfuscations of the law, the abuses of office holders and sinecures (illustrated in Pooh Bah, “Lord High Everything Else” holding the multiple offices of “first Lord of the Treasury, Lord Chamberlain, Attorney General, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Privy Purse, or Private Secretary”), the pomposities of Cabinet office holders (The Yeomen of the Guard) and the importance of rank in the armed services, (The Pirates of Penzance). Gilbert was cautious about drawing too close to a direct satirical portrait of important personages but it is likely that in 1878 audiences recognized First Lord of the Admiraly W.H. Smith in the character of Sir Joseph Porter in H.M.S. Pinafore. In the operas the humor was often sharp, the meaning dependent on close attention being paid to every word and clever rhyme; the libretti did hold up to ridicule the follies of mankind but the mood was not one of the reform of society. Both Gilbert and Sullivan by the eighties were men in comfortable positions, prominent in society, and the latter especially the protégé of royalty and the aristocracy, so the use of biting Juvenalian satire – with its saeva indignatio – would have been unexpected and uncharacteristic and perhaps unsympathetic to the lyrical tone of the music Sullivan characteristically provided; and The Mikado would perhaps not have had its remarkable opening run of 672 performances.

Sullivan’s settings were usually produced at high speed just in time for rehearsals to begin. At the time of The Mikado rehearsals Sullivan was also fulfilling a rigorous regime of rehearsing and conducting the Philharmonic concerts; (he customarily used a collaborator when working on the major orchestral parts of the operas.) His Mikado music did have certain Japanese elements: not only for the entrance of the Mikado where Sullivan’s setting uses the words and music of a patriotic Japanese song, but also in subtle ways throughout the opera. (The point is well discussed and illustrated in the Beckerman article mentioned above.) But for the most part the music, like the humour, seemed to audiences to be English and “home grown.” The melodies matched the folk tale elements well. Nanki Poo’s “A wandering minstrel I…” a great favorite with audiences then and now, was in the English folksong tradition and seemed hardly inspired by Japanese musical forms. Nor do the Willow song, “The flowers that bloom in the spring” and the madrigals “Brightly dawns the wedding day” seem anything other than the products of native musical inspiration.

As pointed out, the men were remarkable partners, not least because of the flexibility of the composer. The musical setting of the operettas followed the writing of the verses and dialogue; it is not surprising, then, that Sullivan yielded to Gilbert’s strict observance of the text: every word needed to be heard, the order of words within every line must be exact; the music faithfully pointed up such remarkable triple rhymes as those in the “tutelary/seminary/all unwary” lines of the three little maids’ song and caught the drumming alliteration of Koko’s “frightful, frantic, fearful frown” and the assonance of the chip-chop execution song. In Leigh’s film Sullivan rehearses the men’s trio to highlight a triple rhythm every bit as painstakingly as Gilbert refines the shuffle and the fan use in the three little maids’ scene. However, artistically they were not just two sides of the same coin: Sullivan had worked with other librettists (such as F.C. Burnand on Contrabandista); he had used sacred and biblical texts for his great output of hymns and oratorios and had worked with established classics of literature. And Gilbert had used other composers for his stage productions; in his early years of pantomime and burlesque he had supplied words for already existing songs and had adapted airs from French and Italian light opera for La Vivandiere in 1867. While the Savoy triumphs were distinctive, they were never the only string to the composer’s bow. Sullivan, a more easy going personality than Gilbert, could adapt with great sensitivity to the primacy of Gilbert’s words; however, he certainly had a reputation as a composer beyond the Savoy, and he had other, higher musical ambitions. He wished to be remembered for his more serious classical compositions, and he said so explicitly. The Savoy partnership was not lifelong – but it did generate the successes for which the two men are best remembered over one hundred years later.

The casting of Topsy Turvy is one of its particular felicities. The two major characters are brought to most convincing life by Jim Broadbent as Gilbert and Arthur Corduner as Sullivan; further than that, the film is peopled with actors who remarkably resemble the originals they represent, stars and cast members such as Durward Lely, Rutland Barrington, Jessie Bond, and George Grossmith and others illustrated in many of the printed sources for the Savoy Operas. And verisimilitude is enhanced by the snatches of conversation exchanged between the players: their negotiations over salary, their reactions to current topics such as the death of General Gordon at Khartoum (26 January 1885), Lord Randolph Churchill and his attitude to Irish Home Rule, Fenian activities. The pressures of life on the boards are inescapable, no less then than now: we see Jessie Bond performing with an ulcerated leg, Leonora Braham with her liking for alcohol and her concern for her “little problem”, an unacknowledged child, and George Grossmith with his stage fright allayed by the use of drugs.

The film Topsy Turvy has been likened in structure to the turning of the pages of a photographic album or scrap-book of Victorian times. It does not appear to strain towards a dramatic story line but allows the actors to live their characters’ lives for a few months in 1885. It does not compromise the complexity of the characters in the interests of easy sentimentality, and it throws light on the mechanics of staging a comic opera. In so doing, it opens up a window on a genre and an age.

As Philip Dillard’s annotated bibliography How Quaint the Ways of Paradox illustrates, printed works devoted to the two protagonists in this paper and to the world of the Savoy operas in the last one hundred and twenty five years are legion. Four recent works that are comprehensive, balanced, and enlightening are: David Eden, Gilbert and Sullivan, The Creative Conflict (Rutherford N, Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1986); Michael Finch, Gilbert and Sullivan (London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1992); Arthur Jacobs, Arthur Sullivan: A Victorian Musician, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1984); and Janet Stedham, W.S. Gilbert. A Classic Victorian and His Theatre (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1996).