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GILBERT & SULLIVAN - A DUAL BIOGRAPHY

by Michael Ainger

Oxford University Press, New York & Oxford, 504pp ISBN 0-19-514769-3 £35


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For those familiar with the Gilbert & Sullivan story this book will be a fascinating read, for not only does it put situations in proper context, but it gives fresh insight into the way the Gilbert-Sullivan-Carte triumvirate functioned.

With meticulous research access to more letters and a closer scrutiny of the diaries Mr Ainger has revealed fresh information. He knits the facts together convincingly and provides a much clearer picture of how theatres in the nineteenth century operated. He also provides a logical flow and an enjoyable read: one feels one is actually breathing the Victorian air, witnessing the action and hearing the hooves of horses on the cobbles outside. Where previous biographers have left the reader to juggle mentally the background situations by isolating Gilbert, Sullivan, D'Oyly Carte and Helen D'Oyly the integration of material as here is cogently done. Where Ainger does score is in using facts from the seemingly less important diary entries to give a much clearer understanding of the progression of activity that surrounded the Savoy.

For the first time one is conscious of the frequency Gilbert & Sullivan met, that they regularly invited each other to birthday parties and festival dinners, and that the Gilberts, even after the first large-scale row, continued to invite Sullivan to Grim's Dyke for dinner. It becomes clear that a large amount of activity on writing and composing went on during the winter months, with both parties interrupting each other over Christmas and on Christmas Day. We begin to understand that Gilbert & Kitty doted on each other, enjoyed France to the same extent that Sullivan enjoyed Germany and Monte Carlo, and that Gilbert often used his wife as a scout in the audience to check on the quality of staging as a Savoy run progressed.

It is often stated that Gilbert knew little about music, based on a comment,

"There are only two tunes I know, one is 'God Save the Queen' and the other one isn't." This book now makes me think differently. There are many hints that Gilbert was critical and interested in the music he heard. He was happy to sit through 'Ivanhoe', though not on the first night, remarking that he felt the work might improve by shortening it. When watching a Savoy rehearsal he could comment on the why or why not a reprise would or would not work.

The Carpet Quarrel that took place during the run of The Gondoliers is well known to G&S followers, yet here we find there are corners other biographers have missed. Gilbert's shrewd business sense also comes across to reveal how nit-picking he could be over costs, yet when the opening of 'The Mountebanks' was delayed (Cellier's music was not ready) he paid the chorus their lost wage out of his own pocket. Fresh facts found in letters and Ainger's extrapolation give insight into the regular leaking of confidential notes to the 'other side', and how Gilbert continued to pester Sullivan to retract his affidavit long after a court case collapsed. We also find a stronger personality in Sullivan, from the one previously painted, who actually extracted an apology from Gilbert in relation to his libel case.

Icing could have been put on this Ainger cake with a few explanations. It shouldn't be taken for granted that the reader knows about Lord Chamberlain's libretti, or the subject matter on lesser known works (e.g. Haste to the Wedding/Mountebanks). But then one can argue: why repeat what most readers already know. Such a book provides a good read for the G&S enthusiast and of those there are many; it is less a book for those new to the Savoy operas and singers. A few minor errors exist but these do not deter from a very enjoyable read.

Michael Ainger lives in London and has been associated with the Guildhall School of Music and the Savoy Theatre in Bridget D'Oyly Carte's time. This is an American OUP publication with different grammatical rules from the British. British readers can accept spellings like 'color' perhaps, but may be less understanding of 'theater' and 'check' - each occur with unfamiliar regularity. Proper nouns do not always appear as such – The prince of Wales (Prince of Wales) may well irritate some British readers.

A detailed Index is included along with 36 pages of Notes.

Raymond Walker

 



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