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Guest contributor Gayden Wren is back with more music books for your reading lists. This time, with a selection on Gilbert & Sullivan.
Guest contributor Gayden Wren is back with more music books for your reading lists. This time, with a selection on Gilbert & Sullivan.

Gilbert & Sullivan: Off the Stage and On the Page

Our latest book recommendations article features another appearance from guest contributor Gayden Wren. A couple of months ago, Gayden highlighted books on American country music in the Library's collection, and now he's back with a selection of books on Gilbert & Sullivan. It's a pleasure to again welcome an authority whose erudition spans the gamut from "opera" to "Opry."

Since the first Gilbert & Sullivan opera premiered in 1871, the Victorian team’s work has become the heart of the musical-theater tradition in the English-speaking world, and spawned a vast literature of books about Gilbert, Sullivan, and their work.  The Library’s collection includes many of these books. Here is a sampling.

The Gilbert & Sullivan Book, by Leslie Baily (Coward McCann, 1957).

One of the true classics in the G&S literature has aged well over the course of 60 years. Baily doesn’t analyze the operas, but he tells his story well and benefits from having talked to many then-elderly people who had seen or performed in the original productions. He’s unabashedly partisan to producer Richard D’Oyly Carte (no doubt because Carte’s granddaughter, Bridget D’Oyly Carte, gave him unprecedented access to the company archives), but this is still the best joint biography of Gilbert & Sullivan. It also has plenty of intriguing illustrations.

Gilbert and Sullivan: Their Lives and Times, by Leslie Baily (Viking Press, 1974).

The pictures are the high point of this little book, as you’d expect from a 118-page volume that, on its cover, promises “with 143 illustrations.” There’s no attempt at a substantive biographical approach, but there’s some good stuff on the Victorian era—aided by those illustrations, many of which are unfamiliar and intriguing.

How to Present the Gilbert and Sullivan Operas, by Albert Oliver Bassuk (Bass, 1934).

This how-to book is 85 years old, and remains largely applicable. It does have some weaknesses, though, partly because of its age but mostly because it’s British and angled toward school productions, meaning that it assumes a considerable level of familiarity with the operas which may not be the case for a contemporary director. There’s nothing new here for a veteran director, but someone planning to tackle a G&S opera for the first time can still learn some useful tricks of the trade.

Oh Joy! Oh Rapture!: The Enduring Phenomenon of Gilbert and Sullivan, by Ian Bradley (Oxford University Press, 2005).

Bradley has a great subject here, the worldwide Gilbert & Sullivan phenomenon and the people and companies that sustain it, well over a century after the last of the operas opened. His book offers lots of interesting new information on this important, virtually unexplored topic.  Unfortunately, he is thoroughly grounded in the traditions of English amateur Gilbert & Sullivan and, while his summary may be accurate as far as his native country is concerned, it doesn’t apply much beyond its borders. American Savoyards—and, I daresay, their analogues in Canada, Australia and further afield—will be surprised to learn that most G&S companies rehearse in the basement of Methodist churches and perform in the church hall, and puzzled by the absence of any reference to Jewish or gay performers and audience members, who are mainstays of many American companies. A vexing book to read, then, because of the missed opportunity for something more comprehensive, but still worth a look.

Gilbert, Sullivan and D’Oyly Carte: Reminiscences of the Savoy and the Savoyards, by Francois Cellier and Cunningham Bridgeman (Pittman, 1914).

This is an exercise in all-but-hagiography by two longtime Sullivan associates (Cellier was for many years the music director at the Savoy, conducting every night after Sullivan did the first one or two performances) who have no interest in revealing character flaws or messy behind-the-scenes business. It’s also written in a florid Victorian style that can be hard going at times. Even so, it’s interesting because of the unique up-close-and-personal perspective of Cellier (he wrote most of the book, with Bridgeman picking up after Cellier’s death), and there are many amusing or interesting anecdotes.

W.S. Gilbert: His Life and Letters, by Sidney Dark and Rowland Grey (Methuen, 1923). 

This book has been supplanted several times over—first by Goldberg, then by Pearson and finally by Stedman—and is based on scholarship that has been widely expanded during the intervening century. That said, it’s an engaging read, especially in its quotes from Gilbert’s letters.  In person Gilbert was rarely funny, too caught up in his own dignity and insistence on getting his way, but in his correspondence the wit of his published work often comes through. By no means essential, but a pleasant read even now.

Gilbert & Sullivan: A Critical Appreciation of the Savoy Opera, by A.H. Godwin (J.M. Dent, 1926).

More a collection of essays than a book as such, Godwin’s book is nonetheless a rare entry in the field of the operas themselves, rather than the people involved in their creation. And his 1926 perspective offers some fascinating angles (for example, how G&S acting compares to silent-film acting). Unfortunately Godwin doesn’t know much about the operas, and his book is filled with errors and misquotes, as well as pointless lists (“The Six Best Lyrics,” “The Six Best Airs”). There are better, more recent books in this line.

The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan, or, The Compleat Savoyard, by Isaac Goldberg (Simon, 1928).

By a good ways the best-written book on Gilbert & Sullivan ever—going on a century old, it’s still one of the best available. Goldberg’s writing is witty but not self-indulgent, learned but not pedantic and marked by a great sense of balance, between biography and commentary, between Gilbert and Sullivan, between conflict and cooperation. Basically a biography, the book nevertheless includes some very pithy analysis of the operas. At 550-plus pages it looks long, but it’s so well written that one hates to see it end.

The Gilbert and Sullivan Operas: A Concordance, by Frederick Joseph Halton (Bass, 1935).

The first glossary-style approach to the operas, and by far the weakest. Halton’s organization is confusing and time-consuming, and his explanations are badly proofread (Ovid’s Metamorphoses are described as “mythic stories about transportation”), based on misquotes (“for yam I should get toko” becomes “for jam I should get toko”) or simply wrong. The best entry in this field is Ian Bradley’s The Complete Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan (Oxford University Press, 1996).

Gilbert & Sullivan and Their Victorian World, by Christopher Hibbert (Putnam, 1976).

This overview is best on the Victorian context for the operas, especially on English theater prior to Gilbert & Sullivan, and on American productions of the operas. Some nice pictures as well, but the core information about the two men and their operas is readily available elsewhere.

Arthur Sullivan: A Victorian Musician, by Arthur Jacobs (Oxford University Press, 1984).

This is pure biography, with no criticism or analysis except in quotes from contemporary reviews, and it provides a portrait of Sullivan that’s stood as definitive for 35 years and likely will for much longer. Drawing on uncensored excerpts from Sullivan’s diaries and letters, Jacobs places the composer squarely in the context of Victorian music. His Sullivan is a discreet womanizer and an indiscreet gambler, an instinctively generous man who can defend his territory fiercely, and a musician of depth and scope—no previous writer has treated Sullivan’s career as a conductor and music-festival director with anything like Jacobs' insight and clarity. Read Stedman and Jacobs, and you know everything you need to know about W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.

The Complete Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Guide, by Alan Jefferson (Facts on File, 1984).

There are occasional insights in Jefferson’s book of libretti, plot summaries, and brief analytic/critical introductions to each opera, but most of his contributions are full of absurd opinions (he sees homosexuality everywhere, for example), misunderstood facts and blatant errors.  The libretti and plot summaries are filled with mistakes, as are the photo captions. Neither complete, in short, nor a Gilbert & Sullivan opera guide.

Sir Arthur Sullivan: Life Story, Letters and Reminiscences, by Arthur Lawrence (Stone, 1900).

This is an authorized biography verging on autobiography, published in the year of Sullivan’s death and based on extensive conversations between Sullivan and Lawrence, a writer and personal friend. Clearly thinking about his legacy, the composer paints a noble picture of his struggle to save English music (as a composer, but also as a conductor and music-festival director) and directs some gentlemanly barbs at his critics, sometimes including W.S. Gilbert. There’s no pretense of objectivity—Lawrence writes firmly in the “great man” school—but it’s useful to have the perspective of Sullivan, a man who lacked his partner’s flair for words and was generally discreet about his own life and feelings. That said, Arthur Jacobs’ 1984 book is still the gold standard in this area.

Gilbert and Sullivan: Interviews and Recollections, by Harold Orel, ed.  (University of Iowa Press, 1994).

An essential source for anyone studying the operas seriously. Orel’s notes are haphazard and often erroneous, but his selections—from sources ranging from well-known books by Lawrence, Cellier and William Archer to the hard-to-find biographies of actors Rutland Barrington and Henry Lytton, producer John Hollingshead and some other real rarities—offer a unique view of Gilbert and of Sullivan as people doing the real work of creating entertainments that turned out to be enduring classics.

Gilbert and Sullivan: A Biography, by Hesketh Pearson (Hamilton, 1935).

Pearson was an immensely successful English biographer from the 1920s through the 1960s, publishing some 40 books in that time, and specialized in the Victorians: Besides this book, his oeuvre includes works on Dickens, Disraeli, Doyle, Gilbert, Shaw, Tree, Whistler and Wilde. His biographies are workmanlike works of synthesis, seldom inspired, and this one is largely a rehash of earlier books on the subject, smoothly but not grippingly written.

Gilbert: His Life and Strife, by Hesketh Pearson (Harcourt, Brace, 1957).

Pearson’s solo biography of Gilbert is much stronger than his joint biography of the Savoy partners, written 22 years earlier. In the interim his writing has become sharper, clearer and less ornate, and his Gilbert emerges as a brilliant but tempestuous writer and theatrical innovator who was at his happiest when in a fight, alert for any slight and always willing to escalate a quarrel into a battle … but also a surprisingly sentimental man, especially when it came to children, young women and anyone in need of help. Stedman’s biography is far more thorough and rounded, and has been the definitive Gilbert study since its publication, 39 years after Pearson’s, but Pearson is still worth reading.

W.S. Gilbert: A Classic Victorian and His Theatre, by Jane W. Stedman (Oxford University Press, 1996).

Easily the definitive biography of Gilbert, and likely to remain so indefinitely. Stedman has an encyclopedic knowledge of Victorian theater, and she places Gilbert in the context of his world brilliantly.  She’s particularly good on his pre-Sullivan work and on his later years, drawing on interviews from the 1950s with people who had known Gilbert first- or secondhand in the 1900s. Her scholarship allows her to casually demolish apocryphal stories (of which Gilbert told many), accepted generalizations and easy categorizations. Insightful, illuminating and essential to anyone interested in the subject.

Sir Arthur Sullivan: His Life, Letters and Diaries, by Herbert Sullivan and Newman Flower (Doran, 1927). 

Entirely superseded by Arthur Jacobs’ biography, this a fine example of early-20th-century hagiography. This Sullivan, as painted by his nephew and heir, has no warts at all:  He hardly gambles, never disagrees with anyone (everyone knows he’s always right), has “resigned himself to celibacy” at an early age and barely knows his mistress of 25 years, Fannie Ronalds (who is mentioned only three times in the book, with their relationship described only as “frequently misunderstood”). Herbert Sullivan’s main contribution to Sullivan scholarship was his diligent censorship of Sullivan’s letters and diaries; he understood the life very well—he got on famously with Mrs. Ronalds, whom he called “Auntie”—but has no interest in telling his readers about it.

The Last Pirate: Tales from the Gilbert and Sullivan Operas, by Louis Untermeyer (Harcourt, Brace, 1934).

Seven prose renditions of the stories of Gilbert & Sullivan operas, written for young readers—preteen to 15 or 16, I’d guess. It’s intended to provide young people with an introduction to the operas, hopefully drawing them to see the shows onstage and perhaps perform in them. This seems backward to me, because I got into the operas by seeing them onstage, but perhaps it would work. In any case, an Arabian Nights approach (an elderly postman spins tales at a pub) is told in very readable, often entertaining, prose that has some appeal even to those who already know how the stories will come out.

A Most Ingenious Paradox: The Art of Gilbert & Sullivan, by Gayden Wren (Oxford University Press, 2001).

I can’t objectively evaluate this critical assessment of the operas, being its author, so let me welcome guest commentator Tim Page of The Washington Post, who—on the book’s initial release—wrote:  "Wren explores ... with authority and brilliance." If you find these summaries useful, you’ll enjoy the extensive annotated bibliography.

Gayden Wren, entertainment editor for the New York Times Syndicate, is also the author of A Most Ingenious Paradox: The Art of Gilbert & Sullivan and the upcoming Only in Theatrical Performances: The Art of ‘The Mikado.’”