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Who are Gilbert and Sullivan?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 25 November 2016
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Sir William Schwenck Gilbert (1836–1911) was an English librettist and dramatist who also directed his own plays. Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan (1842–1900) was an English composer and conductor. Together, they are known as Gilbert and Sullivan, and are responsible for a group of operettas that enjoyed great success during their lifetimes and are still popular today.

Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are rife with parody, sarcasm, irony, and satire. Their first collaboration was Thespis, which was presented in the Christmas season of 1871. Gilbert returned to blank-verse plays for four years, and when Gilbert and Sullivan next rejoined, it was for Trial by Jury in 1875, their first joint success. It was commissioned and produced by Richard D’Oyly Carte, who went on to producing the 12 Gilbert and Sullivan operettas that followed, bringing the total works of Gilbert and Sullivan to fourteen.

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The complete list of Gilbert and Sullivan follows:

Thespis, or the Gods Grown Old — 1871
Trial by Jury — 1875
The Sorcerer — 1877
HMS Pinafore, or The Lass that loved a Sailor — 1878
The Pirates of Penzance, or The Slave of Duty — 1879
Patience, or Bunthorne’s Bride — 1881
Iolanthe, or The Peer and the Peri — 1882
Princess Ida, or Castle Adamant — 1884
The Mikado, or The Town of Titipu — 1885
Ruddigore, or The Witch’s Curse — 1887
The Yeoman of the Guard, or The Merryman and his Maid — 1888
The Gondoliers, or The King of Barataria — 1889
Utopia (Limited), or The Flowers of Progress — 1893
The Grand Duke, or The Statutory Duel — 1896

The operas from 1875 to 1889 are the ones most closely identified with the pairing of Gilbert and Sullivan. They satirize culture, education, the genre of melodrama, and human nature in general.

The relationship between the partners was not always easy. Gilbert and Sullivan quarreled, and Gilbert and Carte quarreled, and Gilbert ended up suing Carte after The Gondoliers had been staged. The threesome made up, leading to the last two joint efforts in the collaboration of Gilbert and Sullivan.

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