"There are few greater pleasures in life than a really good performance of Gilbert and Sullivan." So begins a review (by Rodney Mills, in The Times) of a production of the Victorian comic opera duo's "Iolanthe" at London's Savoy Theatre. Nothing unusual about that except that it was written in February 2002. G&S live on, it seems.
"Iolanthe," poking fun at the British House of Lords (and fairies), was first performed in 1882. It was one of some 14 operas, most of which have become equally durable classics, by William Schwenck Gilbert (words) and Arthur Seymour Sullivan (music). This was a partnership of squabbles and reconciliations, but finally it proved to be symbiotic. Gilbert said G&S was "as much an institution as Westminster Abbey."
In a book published in 1973, "Gilbert and Sullivan, Their Lives and Times," Leslie Baily wrote: "Nothing that Gilbert and Sullivan wrote without the other has lived." While some fastidious cognoscenti might mutter about Gilbert's "Bab Ballads" and Sullivan's "Onward Christian Soldiers" or "The Lost Chord," Mr. Baily's remark is essentially correct.
Baily's book treated G&S's achievements with the respect they deserved. Between them, for all the light-heartedness of their operettas, they had significantly upped the standards of British theater. Their operas were preceded by such continental inventions as Jacques Offenbach's "Orpheus in the Underworld" and Johann Strauss Jr.'s "Die Fledermaus." But the Savoy Operas (named after the theater) were quintessentially English in character, wit, morality, and silliness.
The "cartoons" of G&S shown here are characteristic of the work of two artists, nicknamed respectively "Ape" and "Spy," who contributed for many years to the Victorian magazine Vanity Fair. Their real names were Carlo Pelligrini and Leslie Ward. Vanity Fair, which ran from 1868 to 1914, described itself as "a weekly show of political, social, literary and financial wares." Its cartoons were lithographs of statesmen or (as in this case) "Men of the Day." These G&S images are in between portraits and caricatures; G&S would have seen them not as satire, but kudos.