Thursday, 15 October 2015

Writing - Being a word-smith #wsgilbert

As an amateur singer I have dabbled in various genres, religious, comic opera, concert singing and so on. One of the best word-smiths who, in my opinion was way before his time, was William Schwenck Gilbert, the 'Gilbert' half of Gilbert and Sullivan.

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W S Gilbert (1836 - 1911)

One of the reasons I took to this man's writing was down to his personality. He was certainly an artist and never could have been described as 'easy' and could be summed up in a quote from the man himself,

'My family pride is something inconceivable. I can't help it. I was born sneering.'

In fact like many writers he was prolific at writing, as well as 14 vocal scores with Sullivan, collections of poetry which he illustrated himself, and numerous plays which are said to have inspired Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. 

After beginning his working life in the civil service and part-time militia man, Gilbert received a bequest that enabled him to ditch the civil service and write more articles. His first success was a pantomime come parody, The Little Duck and the Great Quack, and it led to many other burlesque which was rich in bad puns as was the fashion, and satire.

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Pirates of Penzance

As with writers throughout the ages Gilbert took many a stab at the establishment. Perhaps it is our lot to be the ruling classes conscience. 

In Pirates,

'Frederic is a boy who was apprenticed to pirates by accident because his nurse, Ruth, misheard his father. The father had wanted him to be apprenticed to a pilot, but she thought he said pirate. She joined the pirate band as a maid to help bring him up. The story begins at the end of Frederic term of apprenticeship, when he is twenty-one. He has been planning to marry Ruth, because she is the only woman he has ever seen, and she told him she was beautiful. Then he sees a group of young girls who are the adopted daughters of a Major-General. He wants to marry one of them, but most refuse him. One of them, Mabel, falls in love with him. Since he is no longer bound to be a pirate, Frederic plans to become a policeman who catches pirates and to betray his old band. Meanwhile, the pirates have discovered that since Frederic was born on the twenty-ninth of February, his apprenticeship is not over and, indeed, will not be over until 1940. There is a battle between the pirates and the police, and the pirates almost win, but then the Sergeant of the police tells them "to yield, in Queen Victoria's name!" The pirates do, because, as the king explains, "because with all our faults we love our queen." In the end the pirates are forgiven, because, as Ruth reveals, they are not commoners, rather they were noblemen who went wrong. The General says that "with all our faults, we love our House of Peers." So the pirates marry the adopted daughters of the Major-General, and all is well.'

Similarly in HMS Pinafore there is a love mismatch between the daughter of a noble and a commoner until a wet nurse reveals that the two babies were exchanged at birth and all ended well!!!!

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Gilbert was a clever writer and one can imagine him with a twinkle in his eye as he penned his quips but some had him down as a difficult man. He certainly had a rather severe countenance, didn't suffer fools of either sex gladly, but in fact he was unfailingly kind. When taking rehearsals for his play if he over ran he would pay for taxis for his cast to get home safely. This was just one of the generosities he was known for.

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Grim's Dyke - Gilbert's house.

W S Gilbert died in 1911 while teaching two young ladies how to swim in his lake at Grim's Dyke. One of the ladies got out of her depth and called for help. Gilbert tried to rescue her but died of heart failure but it is not clear whether it was out in the lake or shortly afterwards.

I leave you with some of his quotes which, in some cases, are as relevant today as when written 150 years ago.

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'When everyone is somebody then no one is anybody'

'And I always voted at my parties call. 
And I never thought of thinking for myself a all'


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God Bless