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Gilbert before Sullivan

21 February 2018
Gilbert before Sullivan

Dramatist William Schwenk Gilbert is among the remarkable range of authors connected with King’s, from Virginia Woolf to Arthur C Clarke and Thomas Hardy to Hanif Kureishi.

Gilbert studied for a London general degree at King’s between 1853 and 1855. He passed exams in a plethora of subjects that must have been useful to him when writing his famous opera librettos on subjects ranging from pirates to the House of Lords, and fairies to the Emperor of Japan.

King’s archives show that Gilbert passed in divinity; Grecian, Roman and English history; animal physiology; logic and moral philosophy; French, and mathematics and natural philosophy, which included arithmetic and algebra; geometry; plane trigonometry; mechanics; hydrostatics, hydraulics and pneumatics, and astronomy.

The son of a surgeon-turned-author Dr William Gilbert, he was educated at the Great Ealing School where he was Head Boy. At King’s, his divinity performance was described as ‘indifferent’, and in French he was ‘frequently absent’ and ‘inattentive’; but in classics his work was ‘much improved’, and his marks for English composition ranged from ‘Good’ to ‘Very good’.

Gilbert’s future career in drama was prefigured when on 31 October 1854 he supported a motion that the King’s Engineering Society should be dissolved and replaced with a Shakespearean Reading Society, and he proposed that the Society ‘be called a Dramatic as well as a Shakespearean Reading Society.’ Gilbert became secretary of this society, but in November 1857, ‘as soon as was decently possible’ after Gilbert’s graduation, the Engineering Society reassumed its proper title.

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After leaving King’s, Gilbert worked as an assistant clerk in the education department of the Privy Council Office. He subsequently became a barrister, practising in London and the northern circuit until 1866. From 1861 he also worked as a journalist, critic, translator, short-story writer, occasional war correspondent, illustrator, dramatist and librettist.

He began collaborating on what were known as the Savoy operas with the composer Arthur Sullivan in 1875 with Trial by Jury, and their partnership endured, through works including HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, Patience, Iolanthe, The Mikado, The Yeoman of the Guard and The Gondoliers, until the early 1890s. In 1907 Gilbert became the first dramatist to receive a knighthood.

The English National Opera’s production of Iolanthe is now on at the Coliseum in St Martin’s Lane. King’s Gilbert and Sullivan Society is presenting the same opera on 28 February. Find out more information here.

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