The house was full for our March speaker, an expert on the social and political satire of WS Gilbert and the music of Arthur Sullivan, writes Charmian Corner
Bernard Lockett, author and trustee of the International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival held over three weeks every year in Harrogate, was our speaker in March. He began by confessing that G&S were a bit like Marmite: you either loved them or loathed them.
From the large audience who turned up to hear his talk it would seem a majority of our members are in favour. What were these theatrical compositions? We always think of them as the Savoy Operas or ‘comic operas’ but Gilbert and Sullivan themselves never claimed they were operas. Bernard classed them as the forerunners of the modern musical. G&S composed 14 of them in the years they worked together, which remains a record in the musical theatre.
WS (William Schwenck) Gilbert came from a wealthy family and was destined for the law, but after two years as a barrister he scorned the law, seeing it as favouring those rich enough to bribe their way out of it. He became a playwright.
Arthur Sullivan was a chorister from the age of 10, studied at the Royal Academy of Music and in Leipzig and became a composer of church music. It was the writer FC Burnand who tempted him to write for the musical stage when he asked Sullivan to compose the music for Cox And Box, his adaptation of a stage farce.
Luckily Gilbert, in his role as theatre critic, saw the show and when he thought of putting one of his plays to music approached Sullivan – and the magical partnership was launched. Although their first attempt, a show called Thespis, was not a success and they then went their separate ways, Richard D’Oyly Carte, a theatrical impresario, persuaded them to work together again and the highly successful Trial By Jury was the result.
In it, Gilbert sent up the British legal system, and in their next collaboration, The Sorcerer, had a go at the social classes – which show, apparently, is very popular in America.