Thursday, 7 March 2013

Penguin no. 791: Gilbert and Sullivan
by Hesketh Pearson

It would be no doubt true to say that, while Gilbert was the more remarkable personality, Sullivan was the rarer artist; but it would also be true to say that, while neither can be described as great without the other, together they are unique. And here we perceive the futility of comparing their individual merits and the cause of their inseparable gift. The strength was Gilbert's, the sweetness was Sullivan's, each providing his partner with something he lacked. Gilbert kindled the fire of genius in Sullivan, whose flame irradiated Gilbert.

Their names are permanently associated, and yet it seems that in life W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan had very little in common. According to Pearson's biography of the two men, they shared little more than a desire to create a new, wholesome form of light entertainment for a London stage they believed to be dominated at the time by bawdy French burlesques. It was Sullivan's view that music was superior to all other art forms because it could not be used to suggest anything immoral, and Gilbert was determined to never 'let an evil word escape [his] characters, and never to allow a man to appear as a woman, and vice versa.' Cruelty and mockery were clearly fine, but lewdness they staunchly opposed.

Gilbert and Sullivan were contrasts, differing in appearance, temperament, and personality, and Pearson contends there was no possibility of such dissimilar individuals ever becoming friends (although rather curiously he ventures the opinion that had one been female, such a partnership would probably have formed the basis of a successful marriage). Gilbert was controlling and bullying, extremely litigious, sensitive to criticism, and inclined to hold grudges for years; Sullivan was well-liked and charming, and drew great pleasure from socialising, although he frequently neglected his work for months to pursue royalty-chasing and gambling, alternating his periods of idleness with short episodes of creativity during which he worked day and night, at a cost to his health, in order to meet his obligations. And yet while Gilbert may have possessed the more difficult personality, it is clear that Pearson felt considerable sympathy for him, and I finished the book believing that he was the more interesting of the pair.

The other member of their collaboration was Richard D'Oyly Carte, and while he may have been principally motivated by the accumulation of wealth, he also shared this vision of an alternative 'clean' form of comic entertainment.  He introduced Gilbert and Sullivan to each other, raised the capital to form a company producing their works, and established the Savoy Theatre in London as a dedicated venue for their comic operas. He bound them in a contract which ensured they would produce a new work at six months' notice whenever he required it. Gilbert provided the plots and librettos, Sullivan set Gilbert's words to music, and D'Oyly Carte seems to have applied the pressure which brought into being 15 successful Gilbert and Sullivan productions.

Gilbert described the partnership he shared with Sullivan as one between master and master, and it was therefore probably inevitable that it would be marked by frequent episodes of discord and disharmony. Gilbert is presented here as taking a leading role: he had a vision for how he wanted each libretto presented, and he would tolerate no deviation from his plan, involving himself in every aspect of the production. He would insist that every pronunciation, every inflection, and every movement corresponded with his wishes. No actor was allowed to improvise or interpret, and this meant he preferred to employ novice actors who were less inclined to argue with his views. Pearson implies it was having to withstand the rigours of the Gilbert-supervised rehearsals which in part lead George Grossman, the leading man in many of the productions (and co-author of Diary of a Nobody), to take to injecting morphine.

Pearson's biography dates from 1935 and he acknowledges that the contemporary view at that time downplayed Gilbert's contribution, giving the greater share of the credit for their success to Sullivan, and perhaps reflecting a bias against playwrights and towards musicians, or possibly an example of the establishment taking care of one of their own. But Pearson argues that Gilbert's influence on Sullivan was akin to that of a muse, in that Gilbert brought out the best in him; nothing either one of them produced outside the partnership was as successful as the works they produced together. He also argues that Sullivan resented his dependence upon Gilbert, and found himself increasingly subject to pressure from friends within the musical establishment who were concerned that he was wasting his talent on trivialities. Gilbert and Sullivan were both affected to some extent by the Victorian belief that earnest works were of far more value than popular ones, but while Gilbert sensed that the public weren't able to appreciate his more serious works, Sullivan continued to aspire to produce worthier works.

 As a biographer, Pearson seems to sit in judgement upon his subjects, not only describing the details of their lives and personalities, but also inferring their motives and characters from their actions, and delivering his assessments without hedging or hesitation. He presents his conclusions as though they were unequivocal facts, rather than the conjectures they must be. In this biography he casts D'Oyly Carte as a Napoleonic figure, Sullivan as a feminine man, and Gilbert as a typically belligerent Englishman of the time. At times it read as if his narrative had been established in advance, and the facts were being shoehorned into the story he wanted to tell, and not always matching. But his style was engaging, and I found it a lively and interesting story, even though I knew very little about their comic operas.

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