Long Live Gilbert & Sullivan

I first came across Gilbert & Sullivan operas when I was about 17 when I went to live with my aunt Dolly, who was not only a Communist, ‘Nobody’s red enough for me, dear!’ but also a commercial artist with a lot of interesting, arty friends, including Dennis, a film cameraman. Dennis and his wife were very involved with their local G & S Opera Society. Every year, my aunt and I would go to see whichever G & S opera the society were performing.

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Savoy Operas, first published in 1926. I inherited this from Aunt Dolly and very useful it is.  

For me, G & S was a very happy discovery. When you’re 17, it’s all too easy to dismiss Gilbert & Sullivan operas as pathetically uncool but my reaction was one of delight. I enjoyed Gilbert’s clever lyrics; I was a bookworm and I loved history, so coming across a song where ‘Babylonian cuneiform’ was rhymed with ‘Caractacus’s uniform’, gave me huge pleasure. Not only was Sullivan’s music very catchy, I actually understood the jokes!

I understood instinctively that, in order to enjoy Gilbert & Sullivan operas, you had to buy into their world – at least for the duration of the performance.

Richard D’Oyly Carte (1844-1901), theatre impresario. Without him, the operas would not exist; he commissioned them and built the Savoy Theatre to stage them. Photo courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Until 1982, when Bridget D’Oyly Carte, the last member of the family, to own and run the family business, handed it over to the D’Oyly Carte Trust, all productions of the Gilbert & Sullivan operas were strictly regulated. D’Oyly Carte’s meticulous standards of staging and dresses extended, not only to the supporting companies which he sent to tour the repertory in the provinces, but also to any amateur productions. Innovation was not allowed. The ‘continuity of style’ at the specially-built Savoy theatre was an essential part of the D’Oyly Carte trademark. In this way, his monopoly of the works was reaffirmed, and this created a national taste for the operas. The audience knew what they were getting.

Poster for Iolanthe, the Savoy Theatre, 1882

Of course, some of the lyrics became old-fashioned and poked fun at things which were out of date. Even at 17, I felt a bit uncomfortable about laughing at ‘old maids’, like Katisha in The Mikado, for example, but I allowed myself to suspend my disapproval. I’d read enough 19th century novels to know that that’s how things were, then; and I’d been brought up in a way which any late Victorian would have recognised, anyway.


Costume for Mad Meg, Ruddigore, Savoy Theatre, 1887, revived, 1920

So, when I learnt from the British Library’s autumn What’s On booklet that the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery (which displays treasures like Magna Carta, Shakespeare’s First Folio, and Captain Scott’s last letter from the Antarctic) that their new temporary display was The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company Staging Gilbert and Sullivan, naturally, I went to see it.


  1. W. S. Gilbert (1836-1911) on left and Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) on right, plus fan

I learnt that, back in 2015, the British Library had acquired the entire D’Oyly Carte Opera’s Gilbert & Sullivan archive, together with sufficient funding to catalogue and preserve it, and to make it available for research purposes to the general public.

Pirates of Penzance badge: a souvenir of your evening out

The D’Oyly Carte archive is remarkable in its extent, its continuity and the range of material it contains. Between 1875 and 1896, Gilbert and Sullivan produced 13 operas, all written for the D’Oyly Carte theatre, which itself was owned and run by a single family with a very specific repertoire and identity. The operas are both unmistakeably British, and they also became known and loved, not only throughout the Empire, but in Europe (in translation) and in the United States, often in pirated versions. They give a unique glimpse into British society and culture during the late Victorian period. If you want a satirical look at issues of the day, such as Women’s Suffrage, the British legal system, the House of Lords, and so on, you could do a lot worse than make the Gilbert & Sullivan operas your first port of call.


Mikado poster in German, 1890. The opera was translated into German; heaven knows how the rhymes worked in German in the Mikado’s ‘My object all sublime’ song in Act II

The British Library press office describes the D’Oyly Carte archive:

The archive includes extensive correspondence with agents and artistes, relating to auditions, casting, personnel, theatres and tours (around the UK and throughout the English-speaking world); programmes, press cuttings, band parts, libretti, prompt books, papers and photographs of the D’Oyly Carte family, contracts, stage managers’ reports, illustrative materials including sketches for costumes and props, cigarette cards, extensive photographs of artistes, productions and special occasions, posters, recordings on various media including discs, reel-to-reel tape, and sound and video cassette and optical disc. A star item in the archive is Arthur Sullivan’s autograph score for Iolanthe, which until its acquisition was the last Sullivan score in private hands, along with William Gilbert’s working prompt copy for the same opera.

Wax cylinder of Harry Dearth’s recording of the Englishman’s song from H. M. S. Pinafore, 1907

I was interested to see the Russell Hunting Company’s wax cylinder on which, in 1907, Harry Dearth recorded the Englishman’s song from H. M. S. Pinafore. It comes from one of the first sets of a complete Gilbert & Sullivan opera, and Gilbert himself had supervised the recording. I wish I could have heard it, too, though I expect it’s very crackly.

Gilbert & Sullivan badge for The Gondoliers: why not collect them all?

The D’Oyly Carte Company was involved in selling G & S merchandise from the beginning: theatre programmes, of course, but also other souvenirs, such as badges, which not only helped to create the G & S brand, but also encourage the theatre-goers to return.

Costume designs for The Gondoliers, 1968

There are also a number of costume designs, for example, from the 1968 production of The Gondoliers, designed by the acclaimed Luciana Arrighi, whose art direction for the film of Howard’s End (1992) won her an Oscar.

Gilbert & Sullivan programme 17th September, 2019

In 2019, the thousands of items in the D’Oyly Carte archive had finally been conserved and were ready to meet the public. In celebration, the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company joined Scottish Opera for an evening of Gilbert & Sullivan songs and readings in a week or so’s time. I shot down to the Ticket Office, where I must have got the last ticket, or nearly, because the Conference Hall was, as far as I could see, absolutely full.

Mrs Jo Adnam’s peg dolls in detailed costumes, representing characters from Yeomen of the Guard and H. M. S. Pinafore, late 1970s. Photo courtesy of the British Library.

I have seen a number of Gilbert & Sullivan operas since 1982, updated and re-imagined, with various degrees of success with regard to costume, the chosen period setting, and the director’s take on the opera. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But, all the same, I think I was very lucky to have first met the G & S opera productions as they were originally intended to be seen.

All photos by Elizabeth Hawksley, unless otherwise indicated.

Elizabeth Hawksley


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6 thoughts on “Long Live Gilbert & Sullivan”

  1. Oh, this is memory lane! We had records of several productions when I was a child, and I knew most of the Mikado songs by heart. I remember from Pirates of Penzance now only The Major General’s song and I am a Little Boy of Five. The local amateur groups were prone to do them, and I recall Iolanthe which was (ashamed to say now) amusing because the “fairies” were all ladies of a certain age and girth! I would love that now, of course – I remember the Roly-Polys with much pleasure.

    I think G&S were in the same league, though very different, as Rogers & Hammerstein or Lerner & Loewe. I wonder if they would have achieved similar status and had films made of their work if they had been going in a later era?

    1. Thank you for your interesting comments, Elizabeth. I’m not sure of the answer to your last question. G & S operas are, above all, very British. In theory, they shouldn’t ‘cross the Atlantic’ as publishers have it. But all the G & S operas were pirated by the USA as soon as they premiered at the Savoy Theatre in London, which seems to indicate that they did ‘cross the Atlantic’ very successfully. The law of copyright was not recognised in the States, so D’Oyly Carte took his new G & S opera productions over as soon as they came out, in order to capitalise on ‘authentic’ Gilbert & Sullivan opera. Financially, He did very well, but it was a strain.

  2. I don’t believe that I’ve ever seen any G&S operas, but I believe that Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is heavily influenced by The Pirates of Penzance.

    1. I think you are right about ‘The Pirates of the Caribbean’, Huon. If you ever get the chance to see G & S’s ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ I would grab it. It’s not to everyone’s taste nowadays, but, if you are prepared to suspend your disbelief, I think you’d enjoy it. The tunes are very catchy and the lyrics very clever. Their best opera (although, it’s really better described as ‘light opera’ or ‘operetta’) is The Mikado. Personally, I prefer my G & S done traditionally, I don’t think it really works given a more modern setting.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if Berlin has a G & S Society where they do a production every year.

  3. Just read this blog rather belatedly and it brought back memories of my childhood in Waterbury, Connecticut (claimed to be the brass capital of the universe!) where my father was the rector of St John’s Episcopal (Anglican) Church. Every year – or was it every 2 years – he had the parish put on a Gilbert & Sullivan opera and despite his unmusical voice he was always in the chorus. This meant that he “rehearsed” Pirates of Penzance, Mikado, The Gondoliers, etc for months before the performance while shaving or wandering around the house. I loved it.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Jess, which I enjoyed. There’s something very singable about G & S. My father, who had a good voice, used to come out with bits of ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ every now and then.

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