(All the photos on this page are
thumbnails click on them to see larger versions.)
The Mikado: "Object All
D'Oyly Carte Company's 1936 film version of The Mikado, with Martyn
Green (center, in black robe) as KoKo.
As a follow-up to Princess Ida, Gilbert offered yet another plot
involving a love potion, and when
Sullivan balked at this blatant throwback to The Sorcerer, the disagreement
soon turned ugly. Sullivan
declared that it was time for him to concentrate on more serious compositions, and Gilbert
resented the suggestion that their collaboration was somehow holding Sullivan back. D'Oyly
Carte staged a revival of The Sorcerer to keep the company going. The partnership
was on the brink of collapse when a decorative Japanese sword fell from the wall of Gilbert's
study, nearly landing on his head and inspiring the plot for the most popular show in
the G&S canon.
The Mikado (1885 - 672) reflected an
1880s British craze for all things Japanese. The complicated plot centers on
what happens when a fictional Emperor of Japan decrees that flirting is punishable by death.
Because no one in the town of Titipu is willing to enforce this horrible law, a condemned
tailor (Koko) is appointed Lord High Executioner the reasoning being that he cannot
behead anyone until he beheads himself. When it turns out he has to execute someone after
all, he selects Nanki-Poo, a handsome traveling minstrel. Nanki-Poo will only agree to the scheme
if he can first marry the executioner's ward and finance, the lovely Yum-Yum. This
allow the minstrel a month of marital bliss, after which the Executioner can behead
the lad and marry his ward as originally planned. However, an aged woman (Katisha) from the royal court appears, announcing that
Nanki-poo is actually the crown prince who has been in hiding since toying with her
affections! The Mikado himself soon arrives to proclaim that his "object all
sublime" is "to let the punishment fit the crime." After a series of
deceptions and misunderstandings, no one dies and everything is
The Mikado's Japanese setting and costumes masked the
fact that it was a send-up of British social customs and pretensions. Three Little Maids
From School, A Wand'ring Minstrel I and Titwillow
were sung everywhere. In the United States, The Mikado was the only G&S
operetta to repeat the impact of H.M.S. Pinafore, as "Mikado-mania"
fed a new American passion for all things Japanese.
has been widely performed
in languages other than English -- including French, German and even
Yiddish. It is also one of the few stage musicals that ever caused a
diplomatic fracas. When the Crown Prince of Japan made a state visit to
England in 1907, the work was temporarily banned by the British government --
a maneuver that backfired when the prince complained
that he had hoped to see The Mikado during his stay. After more than
120 years, it remains one
of the most frequently produced musicals of all time, and still receives
frequent amateur and professional stagings worldwide.
Living up to The Mikado
Few things are more difficult than trying to follow a success, especially
if it's your own.
Gilbert and Sullivan's melodramatic spoof Ruddigore (1887 - 288) had its
charm, with a fine score and a well crafted story
but many complained that it was not another Mikado. (As if anything could be?)
Sullivan once again grumbled that he should be working on more serious compositions,
and made it clear that he was ready to abandon operetta altogether. Gilbert enticed
him with a libretto unlike any other in the series. Set in the Tower of
London during the reign of Henry VIII,
The Yeomen of the Guard (1888 - 423) had political intrigue and the threat
of execution overshadowing the tale of a jester competing with a nobleman
for the love of a lovely girl. Yeoman gave Sullivan the
opportunity to compose his most melodically ambitious Savoy score, and Gilbert's script had little
trace of his usual "topsy-turvy" humor. The most serious of Gilbert
and Sullivan's works, it was Sullivan's personal favorite.
The team resumed their comic ways with The
Gondoliers (1889 - 554), the story of two anti-royalist Venetian gondoliers
who find themselves the jointly-reigning kings of a revolution-torn country. G&S had tremendous fun with the
comparative foibles of monarchy and democracy, and the show became a massive hit on both sides of the
Atlantic. The reclusive Queen Victoria invited the
D'Oyly Carte company to give several private performances of this hit,
including a memorable Gondoliers at Windsor Castle (pictured in the thumbnail at
left). These performances confirmed the new respectability Gilbert and Sullivan had
brought to the musical theatre. No doubt Her Majesty particularly enjoyed a quartet in
which the gondoliers and their fiancées sing of what a glorious thing it is
a regular royal queen." It was a blatantly affectionate comic tribute
to the woman who had ruled Britain for more than half a century.
just when it seemed Gilbert and Sullivan's collaboration was at its peak, it
fell apart over several trivial disputes including an infamous quarrel over the
price of some new carpeting in the Savoy Theatre. When Gilbert furiously
claimed that he had been overcharged for his share, Sullivan sided with D'Oyly Carte.
Carte then produced Sullivan's long awaited grand opera Ivanhoe, which
Gilbert had no hand in -- and which proved to be a costly failure. Gilbert, who
most scholars feel had made a huge fuss
over nothing, resumed writing plays -- which didn't fare much better.
After several years, the Savoy trio effected a reconciliation, but things were never quite the same.
Utopia Limited (1893 - 245) made fun of Britain's attempts to
take over distant nations and remake them in its own image, and The Grand Duke (1896 -123) had a
theatrical troupe trying to seize power in a tottering German principality. While both
works were melodic and entertaining, the public felt these works were just
more of what they had seen from the team before. As a result, neither show ran long enough to cover
high production costs. It seemed that Gilbert and Sullivan
were losing the fresh creative edge that had enlivened their previous works.
Curtain CallsGilbert reading the libretto of Utopia Limited to the cast on the
first day of rehearsal at The Savoy Theatre in London.
Gilbert and Sullivan remained on cordial terms in their
final years, and ongoing revivals of their hits brought them fresh acclaim. Sullivan received a
knighthood in 1888, and the old
collaborators shared curtain
calls whenever revivals of their hits opened at the Savoy. Sullivan
continued to write comic operas with new librettists, including the well-received
Emerald Isle (1900), but none matched the popularity of the Savoy
classics. Weakened by years of
kidney trouble and other chronic ailments, he succumbed to a severe case of bronchitis in 1900, dying at age 58.
Gilbert enjoyed renewed health
and popularity in the new century, writing plays and musical librettos, receiving
his knighthood in 1907. He even had the satisfaction of living long
enough to be acclaimed as what he was a British national treasure. In
late May 1911, Gilbert (at age 74) suffered a fatal heart attack while saving a young
woman from drowning on his country estate.
After many years of illness, Richard D'Oyly Carte died in
1901. The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company continued under the management
of his wife Helen, then later his son Rupert and granddaughter Bridget,
reviving the best of G&S through most of the 20th century. Financial
woes forced the company to shut down in 1983, but thanks to seed money left
by Bridget, a "new" D'Oyly
Carte organization was soon formed. Although the founding family is no
longer in charge, the company continues to stage popular revivals of the
G&S cannon in Britain.
The G&S Legacy in Britain
Morley as Gilbert and Maurice Evans as Sullivan in the British screen bio The
Gilbert & Sullivan Story.
The works of G&S have remained popular with all levels of British society for more
than a hundred years an extraordinary achievement in one of the world's most
openly class-conscious cultures. Professional and amateur groups still
perform the canon
throughout the British Empire and the United States.
Thanks in large part to the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, the British public's
affection for popular music became stronger than ever. Noel Coward gives us a sense of
what it was like to grow up in Britain at the start of the 20th century
"I was born into a generation that still
took light music seriously. The lyrics and melodies of Gilbert and Sullivan were hummed
and strummed into my consciousness at an early age. My father sang them, my mother
played them, my nurse, Emma, breathed them through her teeth while she was washing me,
dressing me and undressing me and putting me to bed. My aunts and uncles, who were legion,
sang them singly and in unison at the slightest provocation."
- The introduction to The Noel Coward Song Book (London: Methuen,
The D'Oyly Carte family retained exclusive British
production rights to all the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas through the
1950s. While this
arrangement encouraged ongoing interest in the works and helped to develop a
solid G&S "tradition," it also limited the ways in which these
musical could be produced and performed.
What can be confidently said is that
the combination of the "tradition" and D'Oyly Carte exclusivity
kept several generations of performers, conductors and directors from
bringing their gifts to Gilbert and Sullivan. We will never know what Noel
Coward might have brought to the role of Sir Joseph Porter, for example,
or how Charles Laughton might have played Wilfred Shadbolt. Julie Andrews
never sang Josephine or Mabel. Sir Thomas Beecham never conducted Yeomen
of the Guard . . . we can only speculate on what was lost.
- Gayden Wren, A Most Ingenious Paradox: The Art of Gilbert and Sullivan
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 292-293.
It is almost impossible to estimate the influence G&S had
on the development of musical theatre, both as a business and as an art form, in
Britain and the United States. Thanks to them, the musical theatre was redefined
forever. The changes were many . . .
Next: After Gilbert and