Image of W. S. Gilbert


Lifetime: 1836 - 1911 Passed: ≈ 112 years ago


English Dramatist, Librettist, Poet



W. S. Gilbert

Sir William Schwenck Gilbert was an English dramatist, librettist, poet and illustrator best known for his collaboration with composer Arthur Sullivan, which produced fourteen comic operas. The most famous of these include H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and one of the most frequently performed works in the history of musical theatre, The Mikado. The popularity of these works was supported for over a century by year-round performances of them, in Britain and abroad, by the repertory company that Gilbert, Sullivan and their producer Richard D'Oyly Carte founded, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. These Savoy operas are still frequently performed in the English-speaking world and beyond.

Gilbert's creative output included over 75 plays and libretti, and numerous short stories, poems and lyrics, both comic and serious. After brief careers as a government clerk and a lawyer, Gilbert began to focus, in the 1860s, on writing light verse, including his Bab Ballads, short stories, theatre reviews and illustrations, often for Fun magazine. He also began to write burlesques and his first comic plays, developing a unique absurdist, inverted style that would later be known as his "topsy-turvy" style. He also developed a realistic method of stage direction and a reputation as a strict theatre director. In the 1870s, Gilbert wrote 40 plays and libretti, including his German Reed Entertainments, several blank-verse "fairy comedies", some serious plays, and his first five collaborations with Sullivan: Thespis, Trial by Jury, The Sorcerer, H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance. In the 1880s, Gilbert focused on the Savoy operas, including Patience, Iolanthe, The Mikado, The Yeomen of the Guard and The Gondoliers.

In 1890, after this long and profitable creative partnership, Gilbert quarrelled with Sullivan and Carte concerning expenses at the Savoy Theatre; the dispute is referred to as the "carpet quarrel". Gilbert won the ensuing lawsuit, but the argument caused hurt feelings among the partnership. Although Gilbert and Sullivan were persuaded to collaborate on two last operas, they were not as successful as the previous ones. In later years, Gilbert wrote several plays, and a few operas with other collaborators. He retired, with his wife Lucy, and their ward, Nancy McIntosh, to a country estate, Grim's Dyke. He was knighted in 1907. Gilbert died of a heart attack while attempting to rescue a young woman to whom he was giving a swimming lesson in the lake at his home.

Gilbert's plays inspired other dramatists, including Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, and his comic operas with Sullivan inspired the later development of American musical theatre, especially influencing Broadway librettists and lyricists. According to The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Gilbert's "lyrical facility and his mastery of metre raised the poetical quality of comic opera to a position that it had never reached before and has not reached since".

Books by W. S. Gilbert

The Pirates of Penzance Cover image

The Pirates of Penzance

Comedy Fiction
Play Courage Honor Duty

The Pirates of Penzance; or, The Slave of Duty is a comic opera in two acts, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert. The opera's official premiere was at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York City on 31 December 1879, where the sh...

The Story of the Mikado Cover image

The Story of the Mikado

Comedy Fiction
Death Children's Literature Cruelty

The Mikado; or, The Town of Titipu is a comic opera in two acts, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert, their ninth of fourteen operatic collaborations. It opened on 14 March 1885, in London, where it ran at the Savoy Theatre fo...

The Bab Ballads Cover image

The Bab Ballads

Poetry Humour
Comics Opera Ballads

The Bab Ballads is a collection of light verses by W. S. Gilbert, illustrated with his own comic drawings. The book takes its title from Gilbert's childhood nickname. He later began to sign his illustrations "Bab". Gilbert wrote the "ballads" collect...

More Bab Ballads Cover image

More Bab Ballads

Poetry Humour
Comics Opera Ballads

This is a subset of the second collection of Gilbert’s “Bab Ballads” – light verses poking fun at the life and people of his time in Gilbert’s unique “topsy-turvey” style. The epitaph on his memorial on the Victoria Embankment in London is “HIS FOE W...

The Story of H.M.S. Pinafore Cover image

The Story of H.M.S. Pinafore

Fiction Drama
Comics Opera

H.M.S. Pinafore; or, The Lass That Loved a Sailor is a comic opera in two acts, with music by Arthur Sullivan and a libretto by W. S. Gilbert. It opened at the Opera Comique in London, on 25 May 1878 and ran for 571 performances, which was the second...

Sweethearts Cover image


Fiction Drama

Sweethearts is a comic play billed as a "dramatic contrast" in two acts by W. S. Gilbert. The play tells a sentimental and ironic story of the differing recollections of a man and a woman about their last meeting together before being separated and r...

Tom Cobb; or Fortune's Toy Cover image

Tom Cobb; or Fortune's Toy

Family Marriage Comics Fortune Act Wealth Misery Fun

Tom Cobb or, Fortune's Toy is a farce in three-acts (styled "An Entirely Original Farcical Comedy") by W. S. Gilbert. The story concerns Tom, a young debtor who pretends to be a recently deceased man to avoid his debts. A family claims to inherit the...

Etiquette Cover image


Exploration Poems Honesty Emotion Verses Hypocrisy

Amidst Victorian airs and poised façades, "Etiquette" unfurls a tale where honesty invades. Lord Lavender, a mirthful disruptor of norms, shatters decorum's confines, revealing social swarms. Misconceptions spiral, comedy takes the lead, as Gilbert's...