Gilbert, Sir William Schwenck (W. S. Gilbert)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Gilbert, Sir William Schwenck (W. S. Gilbert)

Gilbert, Sir William Schwenck (W. S. Gilbert) (1836-1911) English satirist and librettist

A powerful satirist of the imperialist establishment, Sir William Schwenck Gilbert, the self-proclaimed “doggerel bard,” teamed with the composer Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) to create comic operas that dominated the British musical stage at home and abroad. A Londoner trained at Great Ealing School and King's College, Gilbert began formulating witty patter and burlesque in late childhood. He contemplated behind-the-lines military chaos during his army service. He was clerking for the Privy Council when a legacy of £300 set him free from a mediocre civil service post in 1863. In Fun, Piccadilly Annual, and Punch, he published extravagant satires on railway moguls, magistrates, the clergy, and frivolous, overly decorated officers, as well as spoofs of legal pettifoggers and tedious, ineffective bureaucracy, all of which he knew firsthand.

In collaboration with Frederic Clay and, later, Arthur Sullivan, Gilbert leveled jest and puns against the British establishment with light fare that found favor with Queen Victoria and King Edward VII. Supplying books and lyrics set to his collaborator's music, he produced four works with Clay over seven years before his partnership with Sullivan at the Savoy Operas established their fame. In Princess Toto (1876), his last work with Clay, he chuckles at King Portico, an absurd stickler for protocol who fears making a fool of himself in front of his subjects. His comic opera H.M.S. Pinafore, or The Lass That Loved a Sailor (1878) ridicules the Royal Navy and the promotion of political boobs and bumblers intent on easy money to positions of authority.

Gilbert grew bolder with The Mikado, or The Town of Titipu (1885), in which he ridiculed the British penal system by writing of torture and capital punishment, using Japan as his setting. For self-important ministers, he created the Noble Lord Pish-Tush and Pooh-Bah, Lord High Everything Else, a title that journalists found irresistible. The opening chorus chides the British for stereotyping Asians as “queer and quaint” and turns the jest on England's stiff courtesies with the reminder, “If you think we are worked by strings … It is simply Court etiquette” (Gilbert and Sullivan 1996, 559). Another sharp poke at imperial superiority occurs in the song of Nanki-Poo, the prince in disguise who charges, “Wher'er our country's banner may be planted, / All other local banners are defied!” (561). Despite Gilbert's intent to ridicule the British, Japanese court officials took umbrage at implied slurs against Meiji the Great, the emperor of Japan.

Gilbert lobbed more incisive witticisms in Utopia, Limited, or The Flowers of Progress (1893), a native opera that turns into farce the acquisition of colonies through capitalism and through the privilege of limited liability. By having Princess Zara spearhead the anglicization of her South Sea island home, the text mocks the aspects of England that colonists chose to emulate, particularly complacency and cultural smugness at appointments of “an Earl of Thackeray and p'r'aps a Duke of Dickens” to the peerage (1051). Gilbert concludes that his island utopia has reached its goal: “She is England—with improvements, / Which we dutifully offer to our mother-land!” (1051).

Gilbert's 14th and final opera with Sullivan was The Grand Duke, a failure produced in 1896. He went on to write three more plays, the last being The Hooligan (1911), a grim, one-act account of a prisoner awaiting execution that strayed from his satirical, lighthearted works with Sullivan. Gilbert died four months after its production, on May 29, 1911. His exuberant jabs at snobbery and racism combined with serious biography in the film Topsy Turvy (1999), an Oscar winner for costume and makeup, starring Jim Broadbent as England's best comic librettist.


Crowther, Andrew. Contradiction Contradicted: The Plays of W. S. Gilbert. Cranbury, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000.

Gilbert, William, and Arthur Sullivan. The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.