The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 15. W. S. Gilbert
One other dramatist demands notice, perhaps the most brilliant of his century, but almost wholly unrelated, in his mature work, to the drama of his age. The earlier pieces of William Schwenck Gilbert were burlesques and other such trifles. In 1870 he began a second period with The Palace of Truth, a poetical fantasy, adapted from a story by Madame de Genlis and undoubtedly influenced by the fairy-work of Planche. This period included other plays in verse: The Wicked World (1873); Pygmalion and Galatea (1871); and Broken Hearts (1875). These plays and others of their kind are all founded upon a single idea, that of self-revelation by characters who are unaware of it, under the influence of some magic or some supernatural interference. The satire is shrewd, but not profound; the young author is apt to sneer, and he has by no means learned to make the best use of his curiously logical fancy. That he occasionally degrades high and beautiful themes is not surprising. To do so had been the regular proceeding in burlesque, and the age almost expected it; but Gilbert’s is not the then usual hearty cockney vulgarity. In Pygmalion and Galatea, and, still more, in Gretchen (1879), a perversion of part of the story of Faust, the vulgarity is cynical and bitter. And, in Gilbert’s prose plays, the same spirit may be found in greater degree. He could be pleasantly sentimental, as in Sweethearts (1874), without sacrificing his cynicism altogether; but Engaged (1877), a farcical comedy, compels the reader to laugh in spite of an exceedingly low conception of human nature. Gilbert was not at his ease in prose. He writes it pompously and with an inartistic display, which was inherited, to some extent, from his predecessors in dramatic writing. His true province was verse, and especially light verse; and, in the third period of his activity, he found the perfect medium for his genius in comic opera of an original kind. In The Bab Ballads, he had already shown his skill in metre; and, when all is said, an extraordinary skill in the writing of songs is the most remarkable feature of the comic operas which began with Trial by Jury in 1875 and ended with The Grand Duke in 1896. Gilbert was a metrical humourist of the first water. His 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. Moreover, the skill was used in the expression of truly humorous ideas. The base of Gilbert’s humour is a logical and wholly unpoetical use of fantasy. It carries out absurd ideas, with exact logic, from premiss to conclusion; or it takes what passes in daily life for a matter of fact or of right and shows what would happen if this were pushed to an extreme without regard to contrary influences and considerations. The difference between the shrewd, neat satire and fine workmanship of Gilbert’s operas and the vulgar inanities of the comic opera of his early days was, unfortunately, too wide for any contact to be established. Gilbert remains alone, a brilliant and original genius, whom it is obviously hopeless to imitate, and on whose example no school could be founded.