1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gilbert, Sir William Schwenk
GILBERT, SIR WILLIAM SCHWENK (1836–), English playwright and humorist, son of William Gilbert (a descendant of Sir Humphrey Gilbert), was born in London on the 18th of November 1836. His father was the author of a number of novels, the best-known of which were Shirley Hall Asylum (1863) and Dr Austin’s Guests (1866). Several of these novels—which were characterized by a singular acuteness and lucidity of style, by a dry, subacid humour, by a fund of humanitarian feeling and by a considerable medical knowledge, especially in regard to the psychology of lunatics and monomaniacs—were illustrated by his son, who developed a talent for whimsical draughtsmanship. W. S. Gilbert was educated at Boulogne, at Ealing and at King’s College, graduating B.A. from the university of London in 1856. The termination of the Crimean War was fatal to his project of competing for a commission in the Royal Artillery, but he obtained a post in the education department of the privy council office (1857–1861). Disliking the routine work, he left the Civil Service, entered the Inner Temple, was called to the bar in November 1864, and joined the northern circuit. His practice was inconsiderable, and his military and legal ambitions were eventually satisfied by a captaincy in the volunteers and appointment as a magistrate for Middlesex (June 1891). In 1861 the comic journal Fun was started by H. J. Byron, and Gilbert became from the first a valued contributor. Failing to obtain an entrée to Punch, he continued sending excellent comic verse to Fun, with humorous illustrations, the work of his own pen, over the signature of “Bab.” A collection of these lyrics, in which deft craftsmanship unites a titillating satire on the deceptiveness of appearances with the irrepressible nonsense of a Lewis Carroll, was issued separately in 1869 under the title of Bab Ballads, and was followed by More Bab Ballads. The two collections and Songs of a Savoyard were united in a volume issued in 1898, with many new illustrations. The best of the old cuts, such as those depicting the “Bishop of Rum-ti-Foo” and the “Discontented Sugar Broker,” were preserved intact.
While remaining a staunch supporter of Fun, Gilbert was soon immersed in other journalistic work, and his position as dramatic critic to the Illustrated Times turned his attention to the stage. He had not to wait long for an opportunity. Early in December 1866 T. W. Robertson was asked by Miss Herbert, lessee of the St James’s theatre, to find some one who could turn out a bright Christmas piece in a fortnight, and suggested Gilbert; the latter promptly produced Dulcamara, a burlesque of L’Elisire d’amore, written in ten days, rehearsed in a week, and duly performed at Christmas. He sold the piece outright for £30, a piece of rashness which he had cause to regret, for it turned out a commercial success. In 1870 he was commissioned by Buckstone to write a blank verse fairy comedy, based upon Le Palais de la vérité, the novel by Madame de Genlis. The result was The Palace of Truth, a fairy drama, poor in structure but clever in workmanship, which served the purpose of Mr and Mrs Kendal in 1870 at the Haymarket. This was followed in 1871 by Pygmalion and Galatea, another three-act “mythological comedy,” a clever and effective but artificial piece. Another fairy comedy, The Wicked World, written for Buckstone and the Kendals, was followed in March 1873 by a burlesque version, in collaboration with Gilbert à Beckett, entitled The Happy Land. Gilbert’s next dramatic ventures inclined more to the conventional pattern, combining sentiment and a cynical humour in a manner strongly reminiscent of his father’s style. Of these pieces, Sweethearts was given at the Prince of Wales’s theatre, 7th November 1874; Tom Cobb at the St James’s, 24th April 1875; Broken Hearts at the Court, 9th December 1875; Dan’l Druce (a drama in darker vein, suggested to some extent by Silas Marner) at the Haymarket, 11th September 1876; and Engaged at the Haymarket, 3rd October 1877. The first and last of these proved decidedly popular. Gretchen, a verse drama in four acts, appeared in 1879. A one-act piece, called Comedy and Tragedy, was produced at the Lyceum, 26th January, 1884. Two dramatic trifles of later date were Foggerty’s Fairy and Rozenkrantz and Guildenstern, a travesty of Hamlet, performed at the Vaudeville in June 1891. Several of these dramas were based upon short stories by Gilbert, a number of which had appeared from time to time in the Christmas numbers of various periodicals. The best of them have been collected in the volume entitled Foggerty’s Fairy, and other Stories. In the autumn of 1871 Gilbert commenced his memorable collaboration (which lasted over twenty years) with Sir Arthur Sullivan. The first two comic operas, Thespis; or The Gods grown Old (26th September 1871) and Trial by Jury (Royalty, 25th March 1875) were merely essays. Like one or two of their successors, they were, as regards plot, little more than extended “Bab Ballads.” Later (especially in the Yeomen of the Guard), much more elaboration was attempted. The next piece was produced at the Opera Comique (17th November 1877) as The Sorcerer. At the same theatre were successfully given H.M.S. Pinafore (25th May 1878), The Pirates of Penzance; or The Slave of Duty (3rd April 1880), and Patience; or Bunthorne’s Bride (23rd April 1881). In October 1881 the successful Patience was removed to a new theatre, the Savoy, specially built for the Gilbert and Sullivan operas by Richard D’Oyly Carte. Patience was followed, on 25th November 1882, by Iolanthe; or The Peer and the Peri; and then came, on 5th January 1884, Princess Ida; or Castle Adamant, a re-cast of a charming and witty fantasia which Gilbert had written some years previously, and had then described as a “respectful perversion of Mr. Tennyson’s exquisite poem.” The impulse reached its fullest development in the operas that followed next in order—The Mikado; or The Town of Titipu (14th March 1885); Ruddigore (22nd January 1887); The Yeomen of the Guard (3rd October 1888); and The Gondoliers (7th December 1889). After the appearance of The Gondoliers a coolness occurred between the composer and librettist, owing to Gilbert’s considering that Sullivan had not supported him in a business disagreement with D’Oyly Carte. But the estrangement was only temporary. Gilbert wrote several more librettos, and of these Utopia Limited (1893) and the exceptionally witty Grand Duke (1896) were written in conjunction with Sullivan. As a master of metre Gilbert had shown himself consummate, as a dealer in quips and paradoxes and ludicrous dilemmas, unrivalled. Even for the music of the operas he deserves some credit, for the rhythms were frequently his own (as in “I have a Song to Sing, O”), and the metres were in many cases invented by himself. One or two of his librettos, such as that of Patience, are virtually flawless. Enthusiasts are divided only as to the comparative merit of the operas. Princess Ida and Patience are in some respects the daintiest. There is a genuine vein of poetry in The Yeomen of the Guard. Some of the drollest songs are in Pinafore and Ruddigore. The Gondoliers shows the most charming lightness of touch, while with the general public The Mikado proved the favourite. The enduring popularity of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas was abundantly proved by later revivals. Among the birthday honours in June 1907 Gilbert was given a knighthood. In 1909 his Fallen Fairies (music by Edward German) was produced at the Savoy. (T. Se.)