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Overview (3)

Born in Strand, London, England, UK
Died in Harrow Weald, Middlesex, England, UK  (drowned)
Birth NameWilliam Schwenck Gilbert

Mini Bio (1)

William Schwenck Gilbert was born in London on November 18, 1836, to William Gilbert, a retired naval surgeon, and his wife Anne. The Gilberts would add three younger girls to the brood: Jane, Maud and Florence. His parents were cold and distant, with prickly characters. Stern and unyielding, they did not show affection for their son, who absorbed their inflexibility and emotional frigidity. His parents' relationship was strained, and they separated in 1876. Gilbert cared more for his father than his mother, but his biographers are mute on his feelings towards his father's death, or indeed, about his relations with his parents at all . Gilbert remained detached from life, regarding its triumphs and defeats with a reserve, a sense of atomization likely inherited from his parents.

Young William spent his formative years touring Europe with his parents before they returned to London in 1847. He was sent to the Great Ealing School and completed his education at King's College, London. He did not go on to Oxford as he was determined to join the Army to fight in Crimea. He failed to obtain a commission, and turned his attention towards making a career as a government clerk and barrister in the years 1857-66.

His interest in the theater seems to have come to him at an early age. Circa 1861, he began making submissions of prose, verse and drawings to the comic magazine "Fun," writing "The Bab Ballads" for the wag rag. He turned to playwriting, and his first legitimate production, "Uncle Baby," debuted at London's Royal Lyceum Theatre ion the October 31, 1863. The play ran seven weeks, but he was not produced again until 1866, when his pantomime "Hush-a-Bye Baby" and his burlesque "Dulcamara" were produced in December. He continued to work in burlesques for the next three years , making a reputation for himself as a tasteful and intelligent writer. Burlesque in the 19th century was akin to vaudeville, with star turns, ballet, and spectacle. Gilbert had no control over his work as in burlesque, as the stars were the thing, a position of powerlessness he resented.

Gilbert married Lucy Agnes Turner on of August 6, 1867. Little is known of her, although most biographers speculated that her personality was soothing and conciliatory, a fitting counterpoint to Gilbert's own abrasive and confrontational personality. She likely dominated her household, and Gilbert even may have been afraid of her anger lest he trespass her in her domestic fiefdom.

Gilbert's last burlesque, "The Pretty Druidess," debuted on June 19, 1869. He had already began writing for the Gallery of Illustration, a small, sophisticated theater that produced his "No Cards" on March 29th, earlier that year. Freed from the interference of stage-managers of the more vulgar, commercial theater, Gilbert was able to develop his personal style while writing for the Gallery. The Gallery presented six Gilbert musicals in which his unique tone of voice began to emerge.

Adopting a more restrained style, he produced "fairy comedies" in blank verse for the Haymarket Theatre. The fairy comedies presented a more tasteful and popular entertainment than the farce and burlesque that dominated the theater. He became a theatrical director in this period, and began directing his own plays so as to exert artistic control over them and fully realize their potential. In 1867, he directed the Liverpool production of "La Vivandiere" and the London production of "Thespis" in 1871, a year that saw six other Gilbert productions on the boards. As a director, he aimed to introduce subtlety into the English theater. "Thespis," though not a hit, is significant in that it is his first collaboration with Arthur Sullivan. Their first hit would come with their second collaboration, four years later, with "Trial by Jury."

His output for the theater included farces, operetta librettos, adaptations of novels such as Dickens' "Great Expectations," and translations of French drama. He even dabbled in writing serious drama, though he was not notably successful in that genre. The strain of so much work led to his leaving "Fun."

Gilbert's reputation was waxing, and he was positioning himself as one of the major forces on the English stage. He collaborated with Gilbert a Beckett on the political satire "The Happy Land" in 1873. The play, which lampooned prime minister Gladstone and two of his ministers, was banned briefly. This was the beginning of Gilbert pushing the parameters of what could be presented on the English stage. While Gilbert did tend to be iconoclastic, he worked in the popular theater and needed success to continue to work. Drama was then the least respected of the literary professions, and in his career, he attempted to make it more respectable, succeeding to the degree that the next generation's leading lights, Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw, were able to tackle more sensitive subjects while being respected as major authors.

Up until Gilbert decided to publish his oeuvre, plays were published very cheaply, as pamphlets for the use of actors rather than readers. Gilbert wanted his plays published as real books, proofread and attractive so they could find a place in the home libraries of gentlemen. The first volume of Gilbert's plays was published in 1875 by the respectable house Chatto and Windus in a an attractively-bound, well-printed volume that eliminated stage jargon intended for actors. Such a well-published book was unheard of for a new, relatively controversial dramatist like Gilbert, as it typically was the province of older, for long-established dramatists to be published in respectable volumes. Gilbert eventually published three more volumes of his original plays, and his popularity was such that he even made a profit from them.

After the success of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Trial by Jury," Richard D'Oyly Carte became the duo's producer. The third Gilbert and Sullivan collaboration, "The Sorcerer," was presented in 1877, as was his masterpiece "Engaged," a cynical and ironic work that was very funny. Critics attacked the play as debasing the human spirit. However, critics and audiences eventually would accept Gilbert's cynicism when he wrote in tandem with Sullivan due to the ameliorating affect of the latter's music. The audience also began to get used to Gilbert's cynical voice.

"The Sorcerer" was a success, but their next production, "H.M.S. Pinafore" (1878) was a blockbuster hit that engendered multiple pirate productions in the United States. The next year, they had an equivalent hit with their "The Pirates of Penzance." To stymie the American pirates, D'Oyly Carte presented its own "H.M.S. Pinafore" production in New York City in 1879, then introduced Gilbert and Sullivan's as-yet-unpirated "Pirates of Penzance" to the New York audience.

Gilbert continued to write plays without the participation of Sullivan, but they were not successes. His serious drama "The Ne'er-Do-Weel" (1878) flopped after opening to awful reviews, and the rewritten version, "The Vagabond," also proved a flop. Gilbert's blank-verse tragedy "Gretchen" (1879) lasted but three weeks on the boards, as did his farce "Foggerty's Fairy" (1881). The 1881, Gilbert and Sullivan's satire on Oscar Wilde and his circle, "Patience" was a success. ("Patience" eventually was transferred to the new Savoy Theatre, which Gilbert's personal company also made its home.) Coming after the failure of "Foggerty's Fairy," Gilbert decided to focus his writing to his collaboration with Sullivan. His production slowed down, partly due to his economic success obviating a need to continually turn out new plays like clockwork, but mostly due to the new careful and systematic writing methods he adopted.

In an 1885 interview, he admitted to laboriously developing his plots, in consultation with Sullivan in multiple drafts. He would create a skeleton libretto using the fewest words possible to sketch out the actions of the piece. Songs and dialog would be slowly developed and polished. This new process was time-intensive, and produced but one operetta per year, and while it produced many masterpieces, it took the risk out of Gilbert's work. He started settling into formula, which betrayed his iconoclastic nature.

For the rest of the decade, Gilbert-and-Sullivan produced "Iolanthe" (1882), "Princess Ida" (1884), "The Mikado" (1885), "Ruddigore" (1887) and "The Yeomen of the Guard" (1888). Despite its success, the collaboration became tenuous, and after "Princess Ida," Sullivan refused to write anything more for D'Oyly Carte's theater, The Savoy, and departed for a five-week-long European. When he returned to London, both Gilbert and D'Oyly Carte tried to persuade him to continue the collaboration, but Sullivan was tired of the contrived plots and balked at Gilbert's insistence that the plot of their next work involve a magic pill. Finally, Sullivan relented when Gilbert, aware of the vogue for Japanese culture then current in Europe, developed the plot for what became "The Mikado."

After "The Gondoliers," the Gilbert and Sullivan collaboration broke up permanently. The split-up was triggered by the expenses incurred by the Savoy Theater, which were shared equally by Gilbert, Sullivan and D'Oyly Carte. Gilbert objected when D'Oyly Carte bought a very expensive carpet for the theater. Sullivan tried to remain neutral in the feud between Gilbert and D'Oyly Carte, but when he came down on the side of the latter, Gilbert bolted the partnership, though he remained friends with his collaborator. Neither Gilbert or Sullivan would prove as successful as when they collaborated, and Sir Arthur Sullivan eventually would become a morphine addict due to his attempts to assuage the pain from his declining health. He died on November 22, 1900 in London. D'Oyly Carte joined him in death a few months later.

There were many reasons for the break-up of the collaboration other than the expensive carpet. By the time of the premiere of "The Gondoliers" (1889), Gilbert's creative powers were in decline. His wit, once so concise, was replaced by a verbosity, which became more pronounced with "Utopia, Limited" (1893) and "The Grand Duke" (1896). The audiences demanded that Gilbert hew to the formula that had made him a huge success, but he had grown weary of it. "The Grand Duke" is a tired riff on the old formula, so much so that it is almost a parody.

Gilbert went into semi-retirement at his home in Grim's Dyke Harrow Weald after "The Grand Duke," where he played the country squire. He continued to write and finished four more plays in his lifetime. He turned out the serious melodrama "The Fortune Hunter" (1897) but returned to his lighter style with "The Fairy's Dilemma" (1904). After being knighted in 1907, he rewrote "The Wicked World" as "Fallen Fairies" (1909), with music provided by Edward German. His last produced work was the short piece "The Hooligan" (1911), which hit the boards four months before his death. "The Hooligan" represented a departure for Gilbert into serious drama, and might have been the direction his career would have taken had he lived.

Sir William S. Gilbert died on of May 29, 1911, while teaching two young women how to swim in his lake at Grim's Dyke. One the women, out of her depth, called out for help and Gilbert tried to rescue her. Accounts are conflicting, and he died of heart failure either in the middle of the lake during the attempted rescue or shortly thereafter.

One of his epigrams could serve as his epitaph, tongue-in-cheek: "Did nothing in particular, and did it very well."

- IMDb Mini Biography By: Jon C. Hopwood

Spouse (1)

Lucy Agnes Turner (6 August 1867 - 29 May 1911) (his death)

Trivia (14)

Contemporary reports state he drowned as a result of heart failure.
Long time collaborator with Arthur Sullivan.
Died attemting to save a drowning woman
Further investigation in the exact cause of WSG's death leads to confusion, not clarity. Andrew Crowther wrote in "The Life of W. S. Gilbert" that Gilbert "was giving swimming lessons to two young women in his lake at Grim's Dyke, when one of the women, getting out of her depth, as she thought, called out for help. Gilbert dived in to help her, but died of heart failure in the middle of the lake." The King's College London Gilbert & Sullivan Society says otherwise: "Aged 75, he rescued a young girl from drowning on his estate. He died hours later of heart failure." X. J. Kennedy's review of Jane W. Stedman's monograph, "W. S. Gilbert: A Classic Victorian and His Theatre", mentions only in passing (well, it IS only a book review) "Gilbert's untimely death by drowning while trying to rescue a screaming but not really endangered teenage girl." The Potted History website plays its cards close to its chest, saying, rather coyly, "Sir William Gilbert dies on May 29th while trying to save to a young girl from drowning." Perhaps the most convincing account is the undramatic report to be found in a "Newspaper News Item: London May 30th", also found at Potted History. The journalist wrote: "Death occurred from heart failure while bathing. Sir W.S. Gilbert, who had spent the day in London, returned to Harrowweald in the afternoon. A few minutes later friends found him lying dead in an open-air swimming bath in the grounds of his house, Grimsdyke, where he was teaching two children to swim." Two women, or two children, or teenagers? It sounds rather a boisterous afternoon. Gilbert would have appreciated our Heisenbergian uncertainty about where he was, and when, and in what condition, these puzzles having left him rather in the same state of uncertainty as Schroedinger's Cat!
H.M.S. Pinafore performed at the Savoy Theatre was nominated for Outstanding Musical Production in 2001 (2000 season) at the Laurence Oliiver Theatre Awards.
H.M.S. Pinafore and The Mikado both performed at the Savoy Theatre was nominated for Outstanding Musical Production in 2001 (2000 season) at the Laurence Oliiver Theatre Awards.
In 2000, H.M.S. Pinafore and The Mikado were performed at the Savoy in original format. In 2000,The Pirates of Penzeance had a new version by Joseph Papp which was presented on Broadway by the New York Shakespeare Festival and in London.
H.M.S. Pinafore was nominated for Outstanding Musical Production in 2001 (2000 season) at the Laurence Oliiver Theatre Awards.
In 2000, three Gilbert & Sullivan musical productions, H.M.S. Pinafore, The Mikado, and The Pirates of Penzeance were all nominated for Outstanding Musical Production in 2001 at the Laurence Olivier Theatre Awards.
Was trained in the law; this training flavored many Gilbert & Sullivan works.
Arthur Sullivan and his musical, "The Pirates of Penzance," was nominated for the 2011 Non-Equity Joseph Jefferson Award for Production of a Musical.
Arthur Sullivan and his musical, "The Pirates of Penzance," at the Marriott Theatre in Chicago, Illinois was nominated for a 2012 Equity Joseph Jefferson Award for Large Musical Production.
His musical, "The Mikado" at The Hypocrites Theatre in Chicago, Illinois was nominated for the 2013 Non-Equity Joseph Jefferson Award for Musical Production.
Arthur Sullivan and his musical, "Hot Mikado" at the Marriott Theatre in Chicago, Illinois was nominated for a 1993 Joseph Jefferson Equity Award for Musical Production.

Personal Quotes (1)

To resolve the controversy over who wrote Shakespeare's works, simply have Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree read from Shakespeare over the top contenders and the true author will surely turn over in his grave.

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