Early life and career
|"No sooner had the learned judge pronounced this sentence than the poor soul stooped down, and taking off a heavy boot, flung it at my head, as a reward for my eloquence on her behalf; accompanying the assault with a torrent of invective against my abilities as a counsel, and my line of defence."
|— My Maiden Brief
(Gilbert claimed this incident was autobiographical.)
Gilbert was born at 17 Southampton Street, Strand, London. His father, also named William, was briefly a naval surgeon, who later became a writer of novels and short stories, some of which were illustrated by his son. Gilbert's mother was the former Anne Mary Bye Morris (1812–1888), the daughter of Thomas Morris, an apothecary. Gilbert's parents were distant and stern, and he did not have a particularly close relationship with either of them. They quarrelled increasingly, and following the break-up of their marriage in 1876, his relationships with them, especially his mother, became even more strained. Gilbert had three younger sisters, two of whom were born outside England because of the family's travels during these years: Jane Morris (b. 1838 in Milan, Italy – 1906), who married Alfred Weigall, a miniatures painter; Anne Maude (1845–1932) and Mary Florence (b. 1843 in Boulogne, France – 1911), neither of whom married. Gilbert was nicknamed "Bab" as a baby, and then "Schwenck", after his father's godparents.
As a child, Gilbert travelled to Italy in 1838 and then France for two years with his parents, who finally returned to settle in London in 1847. He was educated at Boulogne, France, from the age of seven (he later kept his diary in French so that the servants could not read it), then at Western Grammar School, Brompton, London, and then at the Great Ealing School, where he became head boy and wrote plays for school performances and painted scenery. He then attended King's College London, graduating in 1856. He intended to take the examinations for a commission in the Royal Artillery, but with the end of the Crimean War, fewer recruits were needed, and the only commission available to Gilbert would have been in a line regiment. Instead he joined the Civil Service: he was an assistant clerk in the Privy Council Office for four years and hated it. In 1859 he joined the Militia, a part-time volunteer force formed for the defence of Britain, with which he served until 1878 (in between writing and other work), reaching the rank of Captain.[n 2] In 1863 he received a bequest of £300 that he used to leave the civil service and take up a brief career as a barrister (he had already entered the Inner Temple as a student), but his legal practice was not successful, averaging just five clients a year.
One of Gilbert's illustrations for his Bab Ballad
"Gentle Alice Brown"
To supplement his income from 1861 on, Gilbert wrote a variety of stories, comic rants, grotesque illustrations, theatre reviews (many in the form of a parody of the play being reviewed), and, under the pseudonym "Bab" (his childhood nickname), illustrated poems for several comic magazines, primarily Fun, started in 1861 by H. J. Byron. He published stories, articles, and reviews in papers such as the Cornhill Magazine, London Society, Tinsley's Magazine and Temple Bar. In addition, Gilbert was the London correspondent for L'Invalide Russe and a drama critic for the Illustrated London Times. In the 1860s he also contributed to Tom Hood's Christmas annuals, to Saturday Night, the Comic News and the Savage Club Papers. The Observer newspaper in 1870 sent him to France as a war correspondent reporting on the Franco-Prussian War.
Gilbert and his wife, Lucy, in 1867
The poems, illustrated humorously by Gilbert, proved immensely popular and were reprinted in book form as the Bab Ballads. [n 3] He would later return to many of these as source material for his plays and comic operas. Gilbert and his colleagues from Fun, including Tom Robertson, Tom Hood, Clement Scott and F. C. Burnand (who defected to Punch in 1862) frequented the Arundel Club, the Savage Club, and especially Evans's café, where they had a table in competition with the Punch 'Round table'.[n 4]
After a relationship in the mid-1860s with the novelist Annie Thomas, Gilbert married Lucy Agnes Turner, whom he called "Kitty", in 1867; she was 11 years his junior. He wrote many affectionate letters to her over the years. Gilbert and Lucy were socially active both in London and later at Grim's Dyke, often holding dinner parties and being invited to others' homes for dinner, in contrast to the picture painted by fictionalisations such as the film Topsy-Turvy. The Gilberts had no children, but they had many pets, including some exotic ones.
Gilbert wrote and directed a number of plays at school, but his first professionally produced play was Uncle Baby, which ran for seven weeks in the autumn of 1863.[n 5]
Hush-a-Bye Baby, On the Tree Top
– an 1866 pantomime by Gilbert and Charles Millward
In 1865–66, Gilbert collaborated with Charles Millward on several pantomimes, including one called Hush-a-Bye, Baby, On the Tree Top, or, Harlequin Fortunia, King Frog of Frog Island, and the Magic Toys of Lowther Arcade (1866). Gilbert's first solo success came a few days after Hush-a-Bye Baby premiered. His friend and mentor, Tom Robertson, was asked to write a pantomime but did not think he could do it in the two weeks available, and so he recommended Gilbert instead. Written and rushed to the stage in 10 days, Dulcamara, or the Little Duck and the Great Quack, a burlesque of Gaetano Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore, proved extremely popular. This led to a long series of further Gilbert opera burlesques, pantomimes and farces, full of awful puns (traditional in burlesques of the period), though showing, at times, signs of the satire that would later be a defining part of Gilbert's work.[n 6] For instance:
||That men were monkeys once—to that I bow;
(looking at Lord Margate) I know one who's less man than monkey, now;
That monkeys once were men, peers, statesmen, flunkies—
That's rather hard on unoffending monkeys!
This was followed by Gilbert's penultimate operatic parody, Robert the Devil, a burlesque of Giacomo Meyerbeer's opera, Robert le diable, which was part of a triple bill that opened the Gaiety Theatre, London, in 1868. The piece was Gilbert's biggest success to date, running for over 100 nights and being frequently revived and played continuously in the provinces for three years thereafter.
In Victorian theatre, "[to degrade] high and beautiful themes ... had been the regular proceeding in burlesque, and the age almost expected it" However, Gilbert's burlesques were considered unusually tasteful compared to the others on the London stage. Isaac Goldberg wrote that these pieces "reveal how a playwright may begin by making burlesque of opera and end by making opera of burlesque." Gilbert would depart even further from the burlesque style from about 1869 with plays containing original plots and fewer puns. His first full-length prose comedy was An Old Score (1869).
German Reed entertainments and other plays of the early 1870s
|CHRYSAL: This hound abused me!
ZORAM: He insulted me;
BOTH: Our honour must be satisfied!
(They cross swords.)
GÉLANOR: No, no—
- Attend to me. Within these crystal walls
- A strange mysterious influence prevails:
- All men are bound to speak the plainest truth!
- And this they do, without suspecting it.
- When Chrysal spoke the words that angered you
- He did not mean to speak them. He believed
- That he was paying you a compliment.
- When Zoram said that he considered you
- A systematic liar, mean, poor, base,
- Selfish, and sordid, cruel, tyrannical,
- 'Twas what he thought—not what he would have said!
CHRYSAL: I see—if that was only what he thought,
- It makes a difference.
GÉLANOR: What could he say?
- He was compelled, you know, to speak the truth.
CHRYSAL: Of course, I understand. Zoram, your hand!
ZORAM: With pleasure. (Shaking hands with Chrysal.)
|— The Palace of Truth (1870)
Theatre, at the time Gilbert began writing, had fallen into disrepute. Badly translated and adapted French operettas and poorly written, prurient Victorian burlesques dominated the London stage. As Jessie Bond vividly described it, "stilted tragedy and vulgar farce were all the would-be playgoer had to choose from, and the theatre had become a place of evil repute to the righteous British householder." Bond created the mezzo-soprano roles in most of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, and is here leading into a description of Gilbert's role reforming the Victorian theatre. 
From 1869 to 1875, Gilbert joined with one of the leading figures in theatrical reform, Thomas German Reed (and his wife Priscilla), whose Gallery of Illustration sought to regain some of theatre's lost respectability by offering family entertainments in London. So successful were they that by 1885 Gilbert stated that original British plays were appropriate for an innocent 15-year-old girl in the audience.[n 7] Three months before the opening of Gilbert's last burlesque (The Pretty Druidess), the first of his pieces for the Gallery of Illustration, No Cards, was produced. Gilbert created six musical entertainments for the German Reeds, some with music composed by Thomas German Reed.
The environment of the German Reeds' intimate theatre allowed Gilbert quickly to develop a personal style and freedom to control all aspects of production, including set, costumes, direction and stage management. These works were a success, with Gilbert's first big hit at the Gallery of Illustration, Ages Ago, opening in 1869. Ages Ago was also the beginning of a collaboration with the composer Frederic Clay that would last seven years and produce four works. It was at a rehearsal for Ages Ago that Clay formally introduced Gilbert to his friend, Arthur Sullivan.[n 8] The Bab Ballads and Gilbert's many early musical works gave him much practice as a lyricist even before his collaboration with Sullivan.
Many of the plot elements of the German Reed Entertainments (as well as some from his earlier plays and Bab Ballads) would be reused by Gilbert later in the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. These elements include paintings coming to life (Ages Ago, used again in Ruddigore), a deaf nursemaid binding a respectable man's son to a "pirate" instead of to a "pilot" by mistake (Our Island Home, 1870, reused in The Pirates of Penzance), and the forceful mature lady who is "an acquired taste" (Eyes and No Eyes, 1875, reused in The Mikado). During this time, Gilbert perfected the 'topsy-turvy' style that he had been developing in his Bab Ballads, where the humour was derived by setting up a ridiculous premise and working out its logical consequences, however absurd. Mike Leigh describes the "Gilbertian" style as follows: "With great fluidity and freedom, [Gilbert] continually challenges our natural expectations. First, within the framework of the story, he makes bizarre things happen, and turns the world on its head. Thus the Learned Judge marries the Plaintiff, the soldiers metamorphose into aesthetes, and so on, and nearly every opera is resolved by a deft moving of the goalposts ... His genius is to fuse opposites with an imperceptible sleight of hand, to blend the surreal with the real, and the caricature with the natural. In other words, to tell a perfectly outrageous story in a completely deadpan way."
At the same time, Gilbert created several "fairy comedies" at the Haymarket Theatre. This series of plays was founded upon the idea of self-revelation by characters under the influence of some magic or some supernatural interference. The first was The Palace of Truth (1870), based partly on a story by Madame de Genlis. In 1871, with Pygmalion and Galatea, one of seven plays that he produced that year, Gilbert scored his greatest hit to date. Together, these plays and their successors such as The Wicked World (1873), Sweethearts (1874), and Broken Hearts (1875), did for Gilbert on the dramatic stage what the German Reed entertainments had done for him on the musical stage: they established that his capabilities extended far beyond burlesque, won him artistic credentials, and demonstrated that he was a writer of wide range, as comfortable with human drama as with farcical humour. The success of these plays, especially Pygmalion and Galatea, gave Gilbert a prestige that would be crucial to his later collaboration with as respected a musician as Sullivan.
During this period, Gilbert also pushed the boundaries of how far satire could go in the theatre. He collaborated with Gilbert Arthur à Beckett on The Happy Land (1873), a political satire (in part, a parody of his own The Wicked World), which was briefly banned because of its unflattering caricatures of Gladstone and his ministers. Similarly, The Realm of Joy (1873) was set in the lobby of a theatre performing a scandalous play (implied to be the Happy Land), with many jokes at the expense of the Lord Chamberlain (the "Lord High Disinfectant", as he's referred to in the play). In Charity (1874), however, Gilbert uses the freedom of the stage in a different way: to provide a tightly written critique of the contrasting ways in which Victorian society treated men and women who had sex outside of marriage, which anticipated the 'problem plays' of Shaw and Ibsen.
|"It is absolutely essential to the success of this piece that it should be played with the most perfect earnestness and gravity throughout. There should be no exaggeration in costume, makeup or demeanour; and the characters, one and all, should appear to believe, throughout, in the perfect sincerity of their words and actions. Directly the actors show that they are conscious of the absurdity of their utterances the piece begins to drag."
|– Preface to Engaged
Once he became established, Gilbert was the stage director for his plays and operas and had strong opinions on how they should best be performed. He was strongly influenced by the innovations in "stagecraft", now called stage direction, by the playwrights James Planché and especially Tom Robertson. Gilbert attended rehearsals directed by Robertson to learn this art first-hand from the older director, and he began to apply it in some of his earliest plays. He sought realism in acting, settings, costumes and movement, if not in content of his plays (although he did write a romantic comedy in the "naturalist" style, as a tribute to Robertson, Sweethearts), shunned self-conscious interaction with the audience, and insisted on a style of portrayal in which the characters were never aware of their own absurdity, but were coherent internal wholes.
"The Ironmaster at the Savoy" (1884): Gilbert with the mallet of discipline; Carte
In Gilbert's 1874 burlesque, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the character Hamlet, in his speech to the players, sums up Gilbert's theory of comic acting: "I hold that there is no such antick fellow as your bombastical hero who doth so earnestly spout forth his folly as to make his hearers believe that he is unconscious of all incongruity". Robertson "introduced Gilbert both to the revolutionary notion of disciplined rehearsals and to mise-en-scène or unity of style in the whole presentation – direction, design, music, acting." Like Robertson, Gilbert demanded discipline in his actors. He required that his actors know their words perfectly, enunciate them clearly and obey his stage directions, which was something quite new to many actors of the day. A major innovation was the replacement of the star actor with the disciplined ensemble, "raising the director to a new position of dominance" in the theatre. "That Gilbert was a good director is not in doubt. He was able to extract from his actors natural, clear performances, which served the Gilbertian requirements of outrageousness delivered straight."
Gilbert prepared meticulously for each new work, making models of the stage, actors and set pieces, and designing every action and bit of business in advance. Gilbert would not work with actors who challenged his authority. George Grossmith wrote that, at least sometime, "Mr. Gilbert is a perfect autocrat, insisting that his words should be delivered, even to an inflection of the voice, as he dictates. He will stand on the stage beside the actor or actress, and repeat the words with appropriate action over and over again, until they are delivered as he desires them to be." Even during long runs and revivals, Gilbert closely supervised the performances of his plays, making sure that the actors did not make unauthorised additions, deletions or paraphrases. Gilbert was famous for demonstrating the action himself, even as he grew older.[n 9] Gilbert himself went on stage in a number of productions throughout his lifetime, including several performances as the Associate in Trial by Jury, as substitute for an ailing actor in his play Broken Hearts, and in charity matinees of his one-act plays, such as King Claudius in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.