Gilbert & Sullivan and
If our Pirate King had been able to meet Sir William S.
Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan, his taste for a “curious
paradox” would surely have been stimulated. For in spite of
their representing probably the most successful theatrical
collaboration of all time, the two partners differed in almost
every aspect of behaviour and temperament, and if they achieved so
perfect a wedding of words and music that their popularity has
continued undiminished for more than a century, their personal
relationship was at best one of mutual tolerance. Indeed, they
were at odds more often than not, and after producing The Gondoliers (1889), Sullivan was even obliged to defend himself
against Gilbert in a court of law.
librettist, was crusty and cantankerous, famous for his lightning
with and sharp tongue, and ready to live up to his reputation at
the slightest provocation. Sullivan on the other hand, was gentle
and amiable, and went out of his way to get along with people,
particularly “the best people”. While Gilbert regarded himself
almost exclusively as a comic dramatist, Sullivan saw “serious
music” as his real calling, and collaborated with Gilbert only
as a means of making money so that his social position would
continue to match his prestige as England’s foremost serious
composer. Luckily for posterity, classical music has never been a
very lucrative business, and Sullivan’s gambling parties at
Monte Carlo with his royal friends were often cut short by the
necessity of returning to London to compose another comic opera.
Sullivan opening nights, whether at the Savoy Theatre or the Opera
Comique, were glittering social events in London. Sullivan rarely
missed conducting the orchestra himself in spite of his lifelong
ill health, which was such that on one occasion (Princess
Ida, 1884) he had to be given injections and “copious
draughts of black coffee” (according to his own diary) in order
to conduct, and fainted immediately after the final curtain.
Gilbert, by contrast, invariably spent his opening nights pacing
the Victoria Embankment by the Thames. He once said that as soon
as attend the opening of one of his own operas he would “gladly
face an amputation at the hip joint”. Somehow, however, he
always seemed to find his way back to the theatre in time for the
curtain calls, in which he was always all too willing to take his
share of the glory.
Gilbert and Sullivan had written four operas together before The Pirates of Penzance, they did not achieve widespread popularity
until the production of the last of these, HMS
Pinafore. This piece, however, became so popular that in the
United States, where it was not protected by copyright, dozens of
productions were mounted, none of
which paid so much as a penny in royalties to the authors.
It is not known whether this “piracy” suggested the title of
their next work, but in any case The
Pirates of Penzance or The Slave of Duty, having been
rehearsed in great secrecy, opened at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in
New York on 31 December, 1879. The London opening took place the
following April, and the show ran for 363 consecutive performances.
Pirates, Gilbert aimed his satirical barbs at numerous
hallowed British institutions such as the Army, the police (Britain’s
famous “Bobbies”), upper class respectability, the nouveau
riche, and even popular reverence for Queen Victoria. His
principal target, however, was the Englishman’s fundamental
Sense of Duty, that bulwark of the 19th century British
character which had won the Empire, and which clearly dominates
the mind and actions of young Frederic, the hero of
The Pirates, very
much at the expense of his safety and comfort, personal morality,
feelings of affection, and even his common sense.