"Kitty Gilbert was a most difficult person to research, as there was almost nothing written about her," Leigh has said. "The only quote we have for certain was after Gilbert had died, someone asked her if it would be difficult living without him, and she replied, 'Not half as difficult as it was living with him,' or words to that effect. We had some information to base our characterization on, but ... that scene in the bedroom where Kitty says about the empty perambulators and so on, was all fiction."
"The Mikado" was just the right work for Leigh to dramatize. While the partners had their moments after that, notably Sullivan's scores for "The Yeomen of the Guard" and "The Gondoliers," their careers declined. Gilbert quarreled with Carte in 1890 over expenses; Sullivan was drawn in on Carte's side, and the partners broke up.
While they were separated, Sullivan produced his grand opera, "Ivanhoe"; it wasn't good enough to get into the standard repertory (Sir Thomas Beecham revived it before World War I, but no professional company has tried since). The two operas Gilbert and Sullivan produced after their reconciliation in 1893, "Utopia Limited" and "The Grand Duke," are comparatively anticlimactic.
Giving and taking
Despite their disdain for the collaborations, each partner gave the other what he lacked most. Gilbert's sense of fun gave Sullivan a chance to maximize his talents, and the "syllable-setting" Sullivan resented supplied a sense of structure and kept him, as Andrew Lamb writes in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, from going "beyond the limits of his inspiration."
In turn, Sullivan's musical wit helped keep Gilbert from collapsing into heavy mid-Victorian facetiousness, and when real feeling was needed -- as in the climaxes of "Yeomen" or "Iolanthe" -- Sullivan could supply it better than Gilbert could.
Success allowed the partners to maintain a high lifestyle. At the height of his career in 1881, biographer Arthur Jacobs writes, Sullivan was making nearly 10,000 pounds a year, a huge sum for anyone in the arts (William Gladstone made 7,500 pounds as Britain's prime minister).
Both Gilbert and Sullivan did plenty of other work, but almost none of it has lasted. Sullivan's only significant non-Gilbert works are the one-act, three-character "Cox and Box" (written with F.C. Burnand before the partnership with Gilbert began), the "Di Ballo" overture and the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers."
Gilbert has the wild, almost cartoonlike "Bab Ballads" to his credit and a couple of prose comedies ("Engaged" and "Tom Cobb"). He grumbled about the public's failure to take to "serious" works, but he admitted in a letter not quite five years after Sullivan's death: "A Gilbert is of no use without a Sullivan -- & I can't find one."
And if Sullivan hadn't found Gilbert, we'd have had a string of dead-earnest exercises in piety instead of works that, as George Bernard Shaw wrote, "[made] London and New York laugh and whistle."
Pub Date: 02/27/00