William Schwenck Gilbert: an Autobiography

  • William Schwenck Gilbert


I have been asked by the editor of this Magazine to give an account of myself. I was born on the 18th of November, 1836, at 17, Southampton Street, Strand. I was educated privately at Great Ealing and at King’s College, intending to finish up at Oxford. But in 1855, when I was nineteen years old, the Crimean war was at its height, and commissions in the Royal Artillery were thrown open to competitive examination. So I gave up all idea of Oxford, took my B.A. degree at the University of London, and read for the examination for direct commissions, which was to be held at Christmas, 1856. The limit of age was twenty, and as at the date of examination I should have been six weeks over that age I applied for and obtained from Lord Panmure, the then Secretary of State for War, a dispensation for this excess, and worked away with a will. But the war came to a rather abrupt and unexpected end, and no more officers being required, the examination was indefinitely postponed. Among the blessings of peace may be reckoned certain comedies, operas, farces, and extravaganzas which, if the war had lasted another six weeks, would in all probability never have been written. I had no taste for a little regiment, so I obtained, by competitive examination, an assistant clerkship in the Education Department of the Privy Council Office, in which ill-organised and ill-governed office I spent four uncomfortable years.


Friendly Character Direct Commission Privy Council Competitive Examination Comic Role 
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  1. 3.
    Henry James Byron (1834–84), though unsuccessful at law, soon compiled a long list of successful productions of his own comedies. He was the editor of Fun and the short-lived Comic Times. His Dearer than Love was staged at the Gaiety Theatre in 1871, with Gilbert’s Thespis as an after-piece.Google Scholar
  2. His only role in a play by another author — that of Cheviot Hill in Gilbert’s Engaged (1877) — proved to be his last stage performance.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Thomas Hood the Younger, better known as Tom Hood (1835–74), was talented in several directions: as a humourist who took over Fun in May 1865 when it was four years old and who was responsible for Tom Hood’s Comic Annual from 1867 on; as an artist-engraver; and as a novelist (Captain Masters’s Children, 1865, was perhaps his most popular novel).Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Thomas William (Tom) Robertson (1829–71), actor and dramatist, is associated in literary histories with the ‘teacup and saucer school’, and his name is often paired with that of James Albery. A reliable manufacturer of witty dialogue, he wrote David Garrick (1864), which was produced after a number of false starts; Society (1865), which ran for 26 weeks and ensured the financial success of the Prince of Wales’s Theatre, then in Tottenham Street; and Caste (1867), regarded during his lifetime (and after) as his best play. His comedy, A Dream of Venice, was produced by the Gallery of Illustration. Gilbert generously credited Robertson with having ‘invented’ stage management, and he learned much from him about production values in the theatre.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Dulcamara was produced on 29 December 1866, at the Theatre Royal, St James (known later as the St James’s Theatre) and was described in the programme as an ‘Eccentricity’. It was, as Gilbert pointed out, a mild burlesque of Gaetano Donizetti’s comic opera, L’Elisir d’amore (1832), and introduced Adina as the first of a series of mercenary women in Gilbert’s plays. Uncle Baby, produced three years earlier at the Lyceum, must be accounted Gilbert’s first play, but it is likely that, almost two decades later, Gilbert was reluctant to acknowledge its chronological precedence or even to remember his authorship.Google Scholar
  6. 16.
    A Sensation Novel was produced at the Gallery of Illustration on 30 January 1871. German Reed contributed the score. Essentially the play is a satire of a literary genre that was rapidly losing its appeal; for that matter, similar parodies had already appeared in Punch and Fun and Watts Phillips’s The Woman in Mauve (1866) had enjoyed a modest success.Google Scholar
  7. A full analysis of the interlocking identities of the characters — which in their complexity inevitably remind theatre historians of Pirandello — may be found in Jane W. Stedman’s Gilbert before Sullivan: Six Comic Plays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967) pp. 34–9.Google Scholar
  8. 18.
    John Bush Jones, in W. S. Gilbert: A Century of Scholarship and Commentary (New York: New York University Press, 1970), writes: ‘A single extract from this daintiest of skits serves to remind us how immeasurably superior in calibre and aim it is to the popular burlesque of the period’ (p. 12).Google Scholar
  9. 19.
    John Baldwin Buckstone (1802–79) wrote more than 160 dramatic pieces between 1825 and 1850. As a ‘low comedian’, he entertained audiences with farces, burletta and domestic melodramas, many of which he wrote himself. Luke the Labourer (1826) was particularly influential as a treatment of homely but dignified subject-matter. Buckstone played Box in Cox and Box, written originally by F. C. Burnand and Arthur Sullivan for amateur performance. He managed the Haymarket company (1853–76), and actively encouraged such playwrights as Tom Taylor, Westland Marston and (after 1870) Gilbert to write for his players.Google Scholar
  10. 27.
    See Edward Righton’s article, ‘A Suppressed Burlesque — The Happy Land’, in The Theatre, XXVIII (1 August 1896) pp. 63–6, for an amusing account of the contretemps. (It was more amusing 23 years later than at the time of production, however.)Google Scholar
  11. 33.
    Richard D’Oyly Carte (1844–1901) raised, and effectively promoted, the cause of opera in England. He began his career with the writing of one-act operettas and soon went on to the management of a successful concert agency. He produced Trial by Jury in 1875, and thus began a long and financially lucrative relationship with Gilbert and Sullivan.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1994

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  • William Schwenck Gilbert

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