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Creator / Gilbert and Sullivan
aka: William Gilbert

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"I have a song to sing, O!"

"To end on a happy note, one can always count on Gilbert and Sullivan for a rousing finale, full of words and music and signifying — nothing."

Sir William Schwenck Gilbert (18 November 1836 - 29 May 1911) and Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan (13 May 1842 - 22 November 1900) were a Victorian duo who together wrote a number of hugely popular and influential comic operas, which served as forerunners of The Musical (most people today think of them as musicals), Gilbert writing the book and lyrics (what's known as a librettist, because he writes the libretto, or "little book" in English), and Sullivan the scores. Their most famous works are the so-called Savoy operas (from the Savoy Theatre where their operas were produced by entrepreneur Richard D'Oyly Carte), stretching from Thespis in 1871 to The Gondoliers in 1889. The partnership then broke up, partly because of the legendary irascibility of Gilbert, partly because Sullivan (encouraged by none other than Queen Victoria!), wished to devote himself to serious music, mostly over a carpet. Two later works, Utopia, Ltd. and The Grand Duke, came after the reunion of the team; they have not generally been considered successes.


The Savoy operas were a reaction, in part, to the scandalous operettas popular in mid-19th century Europe, particularly France (as most famously done by Jacques Offenbach). Gilbert and Sullivan wanted to write family-friendly light operas that were just as uproariously funny and deliciously satirical as the raunchier productions that preceded them. They succeeded.

The Savoy operas are characterised by the topsy-turvy logic of their plots, which often achieve their dénouement on the basis of some paradoxical ("Gilbertian") legalistic quibble (Gilbert had trained as a lawyer), as well as by their satire of English institutions. Gilbert's lyrics are masterpieces of complicated and difficult rhymes, often employing obscure and topical allusions, as well as three or four foreign languages; Sullivan's serious and romantic music adds emotional depth and tenderness to their often cynical frivolity.


The operas tend to include a number of characters intended to show off what might be called the Savoy's "stock company": a light baritone playing a (generally not very pleasant) character who wishes (usually without success) to marry the heroine and who will almost certainly at some point sing a Patter Song; a soprano heroine, sometimes sympathetic, but often selfish and scheming; a pompous bass-baritone; and a contralto (with, as the great Anna Russell described her, "a voice like a foghorn"), whose attempts to marry a man who desperately does not want to marry her form the basis of quite a few of Gilbert's jokes. However, these roles are also regularly subverted: For example, in half the operas note , the contralto's love interest is in love with her from the start, and in Ruddigore, she has two men after her.

Though both of the pair were eventually knighted, Queen Victoria refused the honour to Gilbert (possibly having been offended by one of his works, but more likely simply because she thought knighthood more suitable for Serious Business like Sullivan's (now mostly forgotten) serious works such as Ivanhoe). This was likely a contributory cause to their quarrel. The honours would eventually be evened by King Edward VII, who made Gilbert the first playwright ever to be knightednote . Their royal patronage was not restricted to Britain, either; reportedly Kaiser Wilhelm II knew The Mikado by heart, and on the one occasion Sullivan met him, he regarded him as a Loony Fan.

If you want see how the team was in action, see the film Topsy-Turvy, which depicts how they almost broke up until they were inspired to create The Mikado.

A complete list of their works together:

There are also three parlour ballads:

  • "The Distant Shore" (1874)
  • "The Love that Loves Me Not" (1875)
  • "Sweethearts" (1875)

Arguably, The Martyr of Antioch (1880, sacred cantata), Sullivan's setting of a poem by Millman, could also be included in this list, as Gilbert abridged and rearranged it, wrote some new material (including a couple of songs) to replace what was cut and simplify over-long scenes, and generally worked to make the libretto count as a good example of Adaptation Distillation.

Added to the canon is Pineapple Poll, a lovely comic ballet scored in 1950-51 by Sir Charles Mackerras. Mackerras wove melodies from the first twelve G+S collaborations with a bit of Cox and Box and some of Sullivan's "Overture di Ballo" to the story of Gilbert's Bab Ballad "The Bumboat Woman's Tale" to create a delightful work of nautical silliness that pays loving tribute to the duo's best work.

Solo Works

Only a few of their solo works are regularly read or performed; the most often performed (or read) of these are:


  • The Bab Ballads: Collection of illustrated comic poetry largely written between 1861 and 1871. Many of the poems can be seen as first drafts of plots, incidents, or characters in his work with Sullivan.
  • Engaged (1877, three act farce without music. Has had several professional productions in recent years. Inspired Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest)

Gilbert also wrote about one or two hundred other works, mainly plays and short stories, not counting ephemera for magazines (e.g. brief satire of current events, a lengthy troperiffic series of parodies of bad plays, and so on). Many of these works—including ephemera—were actually trial balloons for his collaborations with Sullivan, seeing how certain ideas would play with the public and so on.


  • Cox and Box; or, the Long Lost Brothers (1866, Sullivan's first successful comic opera, with lyrics by F. C. Barnard. One act)
  • Onward, Christian Soldiers (hymn, 1871)
  • The Zoo (1875, one-act comic opera with B. C. Stephenson, thought lost until 1966)
  • The Lost Chord (song, 1877)
  • The Prodigal Son (oratorio, 1869) was the first sacred music setting of the Biblical parable.

Sullivan also wrote several symphonies, song cycles, cantatas, incidental music, hymns, and other short pieces.

Tropes used by Gilbert and Sullivan include:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: Gilbert used this trope repeatedly, with both genders.
  • Adaptation Distillation: The Martyr of Antioch, one of Sullivan's attempts to be the great "serious" composer everyone wanted him to be, had Millman's poem expertly trimmed, adjusted, and tweaked into a viable libretto by Gilbert.
  • Adaptation Expansion: Gilbert tended to try out ideas with a short story, poem, or the like, sell that, then expand it out into a longer work if he liked the result. Later, he began actively mining his early poems for ideas as well. Looking just at the Gilbert and Sullivan works, and including only the most obvious cases:
    • Trial by Jury was originally a one-page filler for a comic magazine. It did contain lyrics, some of which appear in the final version, but it jumps from Angelina's arrival straight to the twist ending, eliminating all the build-up. It works much better in the final form.
    • The Sorcerer started life as a short story. In which the love potion is never reversed. The names are different, but, using the names from the opera to keep it simple: Aline tastes the potion, falls in love with Dr. Daly. Alexis is upset about this — so far, pretty much as in the opera. However, the potion can't be reversed, so Alexis gets bought off with a valuable living (basically, a guaranteed income), and the story ends with Aline praising Alexis' wonderful love potion idea.
    • H.M.S. Pinafore is based on several of Gilbert's poems. Of course, he added a lot more realism, and toned down the Comedic Sociopathy: For instance, Corcoran and Ralph having been switched as babies, and thus switching positions. — Have a look at the original.
      • Or this one, which has an even harsher ending.
    • The Pirates of Penzance: Possibly an expansion from a work begun on a one-act follow-up to Trial by Jury which never materialized due to funding falling short.
    • Patience: Pretty much a MAJOR expansion of The Rival Curates, though Gilbert knew that, as much as he might want to poke fun of clerics on the stage, he'd cause every cleric out there -- who were already, many of them, railing against the wicked stage from the pulpit — to think they'd been proven right.
    • Iolanthe: "The Fairy Curate", another of Gilbert's poems, again stripped of its religious overtones, and with a new second act.
    • The Yeomen of the Guard: Based on Annie Protheroe, with some truly epic expansion, turning a fairly trivial little comic poem into easily the most serious and realistic of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas.
  • Affably Evil: The Mikado of Japan, who isn't a bit angry that three of the main characters killed his son (or claimed to) on accident, but is still going to immerse them in boiling oil. Also Wilfred Shadbolt, head jailer and assistant tormentor, but wants to be more affable by becoming a jester.
    • Parodied by King Paramount in Utopia, Limited. "A king of autocratic power we"
    • "We will hang you, never fear, most politely." Said by King Hildebrand in Princess Ida.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: In Patience, the heavy dragoons love the twenty lovesick maidens, the twenty lovesick maidens love Bunthorne, who loves the eponymous milkmaid — none of whom returns their love.
    • And Patience loves Archibald, and Archibald loves Patience, but that turns into a muddle (naturally) resulting in Patience attaching herself to Bunthorne and the twenty lovesick maidens (except the tragic Lady Jane, still attached to Bunthorne) chasing Archibald. The dragoons, alas, get no one. Until the end.
  • All There in the Script: Some characters are given names for no apparent reason, which appear only in the dramatis personae. They aren't even in the script half the time, because they have more intuitive titles. For instance, HMS Pinafore has Bill Bobstay and Bob Becket, one of whom is the Boatswain's Mate and the other is the Carpenter's Mate (which is which varies depending on which libretto you read) and appear in the script as "Boatswain" and "Carpenter" respectively. The fact that the Carpenter's Mate is the Carpenter's Mate at all also qualifies as an example, as to the audience he's just a part in a trio.
    • Of course, that's when the character appears in the script at all; for instance, Ruddigore has a long list of named ghosts in the dramatis personae. The script itself refers only to Roderick by name, and list the others as "1st ghost," "2nd ghost," and so on. The numbers never get high enough to include half the ghosts listed; the rest are presumably just ordinary choristers. Early libretti also often include characters that got edited out in rehearsals.
    • Also comes up in The Pirates of Penzance, where the Pirate King and the Sergeant of Police have their names given in the dramatis personae as Richard and Edward, respectively. At no point in the opera are these names mentioned. And four of the Major General's daughters have names but only Mabel's is mentioned.
    • In The Mikado Pish-Tush, Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo's names are never mentioned (and, though Nanki-Poo is the romantic lead and the first principal character to appear, his name isn't stated until halfway through the show).
      • Not to mention Go-To who gets 8 words in the entire show and sometimes isn't even mentioned in the cast list (or is simply A Noble) since he was only introduced to sing the bass part in "Brightly dawns our wedding day"; it was written for Pish-Tush (who often sings it nowadays) but the original actor couldn't sing low enough.
      • Actually, Pitti-Sing's name is mentioned once. Toward the end, when Katisha asks the Mikado for mercy for Ko-Ko and his two "accomplices", she names Pitti-Sing.
    • Happens to a lot of the minor (and some less minor) characters — Celia, Leila, and Fleta in Iolanthe, Zorah and Ruth in Ruddigore, and lots in The Gondoliers.
  • Anachronism Stew: Not frequently in the originals, but there is a proud tradition of rewriting parts of the (now public domain) dialog to include jokes that are relevant to modern audiences, even if they make no sense for the time period. For example, there have been performances of The Mikado in which Pooh-Bah listed "Secretary of Homeland Security" and "Husband of Elizabeth Taylor" among his titles. The "Little List" song from The Mikado is particularly ripe for this, as it contained a series of then-contemporary references that would make less sense to modern audiences. G&S would probably be happy to see the updates—so long as you don't mess with the music!
    • Audiences may assume the reference to a telephone in HMS Pinafore is such an anachronism, but it's in the original libretto—HMS Pinafore was written in 1878, a few years after Bell's invention.
    • Contemporary cracks at the contemporary Liberal Party are often updated to be aimed at the modern Liberal Democrats — which works surprisingly well as both have a reputation of accepting members regardless of political principles, or not possessing any.
    • At least once this was combined with Product Placement during an Australian performance of "The Gondoliers". The Duke and Duchess of Plaza Toro sing about the numerous advertising deals they've made and mention the bank that sponsored the production.
  • The Annotated Edition: One was written by Isaac Asimov, no less, covering all fourteen of the musicals and going very deep into Gilbert's literary references and allusions.
  • Antiquated Linguistics: Granted, Gilbert was writing in the Victorian Era, which this trope usually parodies. However, much of Gilbert's dialogue and lyrics were designed to sound humorously overblown and antiquated even by Victorian standards. Lampshaded in the film version of The Pirates of Penzance:
    Mabel: Oh, Frederic, cannot you, in the calm excellence of your wisdom, reconcile it with your conscience to say something that will relieve my father's sorrow?
    Frederic: (Beat) What?
    Mabel: Can't you cheer him up?
    • Played straight with Frederic's first appearance to the ladies, delivered as a recitative, which was in antiquated musical form:
    "I had not intended to intrude upon your notice in this effective but alarming costume, but under these peculiar circumstance, I find it is my bounden duty to inform you that these proceedings shall not be unwitness'd!"
  • Arranged Marriage: In The Gondoliers, Casilda has been betrothed at birth to the King of Barataria — whoever he may be.
    • And of course in Princess Ida, "A bride's a bride tho' the knot were tied at the early age of one!"
    • Also, the eponymous Grand Duke is engaged to the princess of Monaco (specifically Monte-Carlo) whom he's never met.
    • Let's not forget The Mikado where for once it's the man, Nanki-Poo, fleeing an arranged marriage to a loathsome older woman, Katisha.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Parodied in Ruddigore.
    • Parodied by King Paramount in Utopia, Limited. "A king of autocratic power we"
  • Back for the Finale: Rackstraw returns in Utopia, Limited as Captain Sir Edward Corcoran, K.C.B. (of the Royal Navy).
    • But with a noticeably lower voice. (Perhaps Josephine's father had his name changed, and worked his way back up?)
      • And the signature song — which Ralph never sings, even after the switch.
    • Alternatively, it could be the Peer to whom he was purportedly related.
    • On a similar note, it's been seriously proposed that Dick Dauntless grew up into... Dick Deadeye!
  • Bilingual Bonus: The grand duchy that The Grand Duke' takes place in is called Pfennig Halbpfenig, German for "Penny Ha'penny".
  • Black Comedy: The Mikado is chock-full of it.
  • Blatant Lies: Nearly anything the Flowers of Progress, and to a lesser degree Lady Sophy, say about England in Utopia Limited. Examples (particularly in "Society has quite forsaken") include the imminent abolition of hunger and the absence of slums.
  • Blue Blood: When virtuous love is sought, its pow'r is naught.
  • Book-Ends: The finale of The Grand Duke is a reprise of the opening number.
  • Bowdlerization:
    • Passages that originally contained "the N-word"note  are usually altered for modern productions.
    • Bowdlerization itself is mentioned in Princess Ida and alluded to in Thespis.
    • Played straight in Ruddigore, which had its very title changed due to the apparent offensiveness of the original title, Ruddygore (since ruddy is a synonym for bloody, which was tremendously offensive at the time). Gilbert found this just as absurd as anyone, and suggested re-titling it Kensington Gore, or, Not So Good As The Mikado. He responded to one critic who brought this up, saying: "that would mean that if I said that I admired your ruddy countenance, which I do, I would be saying that I liked your bloody cheek, which I don't."
      • Also in Ruddigore, all the ghosts coming back to life to marry the professional bridesmaids was deemed too shocking, so Sir Despard's former retinue returns for no apparent reason and marries them instead. (Though they seemed to be able to get away with one resurrection.)
      • Possibly because Sir Roderic had died recently enough that it seemed reasonable that he should still be alive, if he had not been killed, whereas the idea of, say, Zorah, paired off with a 300-year-old Sir Rupert was just too squicky. Yeah, the Victorians were odd.
    • When the defendant (accused of Breach of Promise of Marriage) enters the court in Trial by Jury, he sings "Is this the Court of the Exchequer?" and then aside Be firm, be firm, my pecker, as in British slang "pecker" meant "courage". This has been altered in some modern productions to "Of many a man the wrecker".
  • British Royal Guards:
    • In Iolanthe, Private Willis, who sings a solo to open the second act, is one of the First Grenadier Guards.
    • In Utopia Limited, Princess Zara's escort identifies itself as "First Life Guards".
  • Burn the Witch!: How Sir Rupert Murgatroyd got his line into the mess he did in Ruddigore.
  • Bus Crash: Depending on the performance of Utopia, Limited. If Ralph, now under his birth name of Corcoran, is part of the Pair the Spares, it means (given that he's supposed to be respectable) that Josephine has died.
  • Catchphrase: Catchphrases are common in the operas.
  • Christmas Cake: For instance, Katisha in The Mikado pursues the much younger Nanki-Poo. Unmarried elderly ladies pursuing younger men is Gilbert's favourite joke, though they're usually treated with a level of sympathy.
  • Cleaning Up Romantic Loose Ends: Constantly. Except for Bunthorne.
    • And Jack Point.
    • And Ruth, though that's probably down to The Pirates of Penzance showing very obvious signs of being the rush job it was: Hell, in the first published scripts,note  she never appeared again after "Away, Away, my Heart's on Fire" in the middle of the second act, her tiny role in the finale being given to a random pirate named James. Most directors pair her with Stanley or the Pirate King.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Several examples.
    • The Sorcerer: Alexis Pointidexter.
    • The Pirates of Penzance: everybody except Mabel and possibly General Stanley's other daughters.
    • Patience: Patience and Archibald Grosvenor.
    • Iolanthe: Chorus of Faries Chorus of Peers.
    • Princess Ida: Princess Ida and King Gamma.
    • The Mikado: Pooh Bah.
    • Ruddigore: Mad Margret.
      • It is safe to assume Gilbert loved this trope.
  • Comically Missing the Point: Ruddigore has Richard Dauntless's "I shipped d'ye see", which sent French newspapers into such an uproar over the perceived attack on the French that Sullivan was never able to get his works performed in Paris from then on. The song is actually about a British sailor talking about their kindness when their sloop turned tail and fled from a formidable French frigate, which of course they could have taken on... but... um... decided not to, just now. Because fighting them would be mean. Yeah, that's it.
    • Similarly, The Mikado, which uses the mania for all things Oriental that was going on at the time to poke fun of modified British institutions, was briefly banned in 1907 for fear of offending a visiting Japanese prince — who was rather annoyed, as he'd wanted to see it.
    • Rose Maybud from Ruddigore follows etiquette to an excruciating degree, but doesn't seem to understand that the point of etiquette is to keep everyone comfortable. For further details refer to her song, "If somebody there chanced to be." Rose's dependence on her book of etiquette is itself a parody of the melodramatic trope of a character left a Bible by a dead parent and regarding it as a moral guide to be obeyed to the letter. This may be Gilbert's extremely subtle Take That! at the Nonconformists in Britain who were noted both for their Biblical literalism and for their opposition to the theatre.
  • Cool and Unusual Punishment: In The Mikado the song "My object all sublime" is completely devoted to this trope.
    • The Wise Men in Utopia, Ltd.'s use of a pound of dynamite exploding in your ears, according to "In every mental lore". As they say, "It's not a pleasant sight— We'll spare you the particulars."
    • In act III of "Princess Ida", King Hildebrand subjects King Gama to a misanthrope's hell: a place where there is never anything to complain about and everything suits him. So he grumbles about having nothing whatever to grumble at.
  • Crowd Song: All their works have them, and the fact is lampshaded by Mad Margaret in Ruddigore.
  • Crossdresser: Hilarion and his friends dress as women to infiltrate Ida's all-female university.
  • Curse: Threatened in Patience; sets up the situation in Ruddigore.
    • The most popular item sold at Wells' magic shop in Sorcerer is the Penny Curse.
  • Darker and Edgier: The Yeomen of the Guard. Sullivan was fed up with frivolous "topsy-turvydom", so Gilbert wrote a much more serious libretto. Even though it was a hit (and remained Sullivan's favourite and probably Gilbert's), they went Lighter and Softer again with The Gondoliers.
  • Dastardly Whiplash: The Murgatroyd family of Ruddigore, especially Sir Ruthven, parody this character, which was still played straight in the "Transpontine" theatres of the time.
  • Deadpan Snarker: King Gama in Princess Ida (who was Gilbert's parody of himself!) For example, when asked casually by a theatre-goer how "Bloodygore" (see Bowdlerization, above) was doing, Gilbert replied, "The name is Ruddigore." "Well, it's the same thing, what?" said the man, to which Gilbert replied, "Then I suppose that if I say, 'I admire your ruddy countenance,' it's the same thing as, 'I like your bloody cheek.' Well, it isn't — and I don't!
  • Designated Villain:
    • The Murgatroyds in Ruddigore (actually designated In-Universe by a curse).
    • John Wellington Wells in The Sorcerer is also designated as the villain In-Universe. When Wells says that the only way for his spell to be reversed is for either himself or Alexis to sacrifice his life, Alexis, whose fault it all is, volunteers — but Aline protests, so the villagers vote on who should die and unanimouslynote  choose Mr. Wells. Justified because Alexis is a parody of the stock romantic hero and therefore the Designated Hero.
  • Deus ex Machina: There is usually a twist or revelation at the end of the story that allows all to live happily ever after (barring The Yeomen of the Guard).
  • Does Not Like Shoes: Mad Margaret is often played this way in Ruddigore.
  • Either/Or Title: All but two of the operas have one.note  In most cases, the alternate title is more informative than the primary, although Princess Ida's alternate title is just as cryptic as the primary.
  • Everyone Must Be Paired: Gilbert paired off the entire cast, including the male and female choruses, in about half of the operas, enough times that even in the ones where Gilbert doesn't, there's a good chance the director will.
    • The Sorcerer is an example, and possibly set the expectation. Everyone's paired off at the end; the pairings are supposedly the ones that existed before the love potion caused everyone to pair up randomly, but they were too shy to admit to them before. Mrs Partlet and the Notary don't get any Ship Tease in the libretto; as such, their pairing off for the finale pretty much counts as pairing the only remotely age-appropriate spares.
    • The Pirates of Penzance: When the Pirates are revealed to be noblemen, Major General Stanley immediately encourages the whole chorus to pair off.
    • Patience: The soldiers and the women were engaged before the opera, but the women broke it off so they can Fangirl Bunthorne. In the end, everyone pairs off (except Bunthorne), but one of the jokes is that no-one in the cast has the faintest understanding of what love really is, so there's a sort of rapid-fire fiancée-swapping set to music ("If Saphir I choose to marry..."), and the Duke chooses to marry the Christmas Cake because she's the only woman there who isn't drop-dead gorgeous, and he's quite aware he's completely dull and average.
    • Iolanthe: Unlike many examples, it's not just a last-minute thing. We see the growing relationship between the male and female choruses throughout most of an entire act, and it's part of the main plot. Further, every main cast pairing has at least one entire song setting them up, most far more.
    • Princess Ida: The girl scholars have been kept completely isolated from men. Ooh, look, men have appeared! They decide to further their education.
    • Ruddigore: The female chorus is paired off with either the revivified ghosts, or the visiting gentlemen from the city, depending on version. It's kind of set up in Act I, where the women gush over the visiting gentlemen because "The sons of the tillage / Who dwell in this village" ... "Though honest and active, / They're most unattractive".
    • The Gondoliers: Played with — all the romantic pairing-off, including the matching up of the female and male choruses, happens in the very first scene. (Other complications then separate the lovers until the end.)
    • H.M.S. Pinafore, in particular, is definitely not an example. The entire plot revolves around class prejudice and issues related to it preventing people who love each other (such as a lowly sailor and an upper-class lady) from getting together; the divide remains fixed to the end, with the hero and heroine only getting together after it's revealed he's really upper-class after all. Casually pairing off the male chorus (lowly sailors) and the female chorus (upper-class ladies) would go against the entire point of the story.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: Most of the roles played by Richard Temple — The Pirate King, Sir Roderick, The Mikado of Japan, etc. Some of their Villain Songs have been very effectively covered by Christopher Lee, which should tell you quite a bit. In one case, however, in Yeomen, the principal tenor, Colonel Fairfax, is considered the villain by at least some critics. Or at least, when he shaves his beard and disguises himself as Leonard Meryll, he becomes a SOB. (Could that be one reason why both of Fairfax's solos were cut from the Brent-Walker video of Yeomen?)
  • Evolving Music: It's somewhat traditional for certain songs to be updated to poke fun of current topical references. Ko-Ko's "I've Got a Little List" from The Mikado and "The Major General Song" from The Pirates of Penzance are particularly vulnerable. Gilbert himself sanctioned some of this when he realized that "the lady novelist" on Ko-Ko's list wouldn't always be seen as "a singular anomaly" and let singers suggest their own alternatives. The lyrics explicitly give permission to fill out the list as they wish.note  The most popular replacement? "The girl who's not been kissed" and "the Prohibitionist, although more recently, lady novelists have come back into range, either "the vampire novelist" or "the fetish novelist", under the belief that Sir William would find the abilities of both rather lacking.
  • Fainting:
    • Happens to Elsie Maynard in The Yeoman of the Guard.
    • And to Jack Point. That, or he dies.
    • And to Robin Oakapple at the end of Act I of Ruddigore.
  • For Doom the Bell Tolls
    • In The Yeoman of the Guard the song "The prisoner comes to meet his doom" features a tolling bell.
    • In The Sorcerer the title character's Deus ex Machina death sentence is marked by a gong.
    • In The Mikado the chorus sings, "If true her tale thy knell is rung. Thy knell is rung," stipulated to be sung as deep, ringing bells.
  • Forgot I Could Change the Rules: The Chancellor in Iolanthe eventually realizes that he can give himself permission to marry Phyllis. A scene or two later, the Queen of the Fairies realizes that she can avoid having to execute Iolanthe by changing the law that requires it.
    • In The Mikado, the titular character acknowledges that it was a complete mistake that his son was beheaded (they were Just Following Orders that somebody be put to death, and Nanki-Poo was in disguise, and entirely despondent on losing the love of his life to Ko-Ko). Still, the law is the law, and there's nothing he can do, despite being The Emperor of all Japan, whose word is law.
      • Well, he is going to have it altered - too late to save the unfortunate trio, though. Hey, he's The Emperor - you can't expect him to rush off in a panic just for the sake of a few witless underlings.
  • Funetik Aksent: A chorus of country bumpkins in The Sorcerer is helpfully indicated this way. "Eh, but oi du loike you!" Then they affect The Queens English when they're a little more wakeful.
  • Grande Dame: Gilbert was extremely fond of this type, as, for instance Lady Sangazure in The Sorcerer, Lady Jane in Patience, Lady Blanche in Princess Ida, Katisha in The Mikado, and the Duchess of Plaza-Toro in The Gondoliers. This is the most likely character to turn into the Abhorrent Admirer (see above).
  • Gratuitous Iambic Pentameter: The dialogue in Princess Ida, owing to its origin as a parody of a Tennyson poem. Also some passages in The Sorcerer, Iolanthe and Utopia.
  • Greed: Pooh-Bah claims he took on all the positions in the state to mortify his pride — and accepts the salaries.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: Iolanthe's son Strephon, who laments that only half of him is immortal while the other will waste away.
  • Happily Ever After
  • Have a Gay Old Time:
    • Particularly in a certain scene from Princess Ida, when the three sons of King Gama are removing their armour, and sing about "this tight-fitting cuirass."
  • "We never molest an orphan!" It feels like every five seconds they repeat themselves in case someone didn't hear.
  • And the defendant in Trial by Jury says "Be Firm Be Firm My Pecker" which meant keep a stiff upper lip at the time
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Real Life example - Gilbert died saving a girl from drowning.
  • Hesitant Sacrifice:
    • The Sorcerer: Wells explains to the community that at either he or Alexis must die, followed by:
      Wells to Alexis: I would rather it were you.
    • The Mikado: Ko-Ko, reluctant to execute himself, appoints Pooh-Bah "Lord High Substitute" as executionee.
      Pooh-Bah: Such an appointment would realize my fondest dreams. But no, at any sacrifice, I must set bounds to my insatiable ambition!
  • High-Class Glass: At least three major characters, along with Sullivan himself!
  • Humans Are Bastards: J. W. Wells & Co's most popular item is the penny curse. They have sold exactly one blessing, which was returned.
  • Hypocritical Humour: More than one rewrite of "If Someday It May Happen" (wherein Ko-Ko lists people he feels should be executed) includes "All people who write different words to Mr. Gilbert's songs!"
    • Ruddigore's "If you wish in the world to advance":
    Now take for example my case. I've a bright intellectual brain.
    In all London city there's no-one so witty, I've thought so again and again.
    I've a highly intelligent face, my features cannot be denied,
    but whatever I try, sir, I fail it and why, sir? I'm modesty personified...
    • The Usher's Song in Trial by Jury:
    And when amid the Plaintiff's shrieks
    The ruffianly Defendant speaks
    Upon the other side,
    What he may say you needn't mind.
    From bias free of ev'ry kind
    This trial must be tried!
  • "I Am" Song: "I am the very model of a modern Major General." by General Stanley, The Pirates of Penzance. And lots and lots more.
    • "Oh, Better Far to Live and Die" ("For I Am a Pirate King!") from the same.
    • "If you want to know who we are" from The Mikado
    • "A wandering minstrel I", sung by Nanki-Poo in The Mikado
    • "I'm Called Little Buttercup", sung by Buttercup in HMS Pinafore
    • "I Am the Captain of the Pinafore" by Captain Cocoran, also from HMS Pinafore
    • "If You Give Me Your Attention" from Princess Ida
    • "I'm A Waterloo House Young Man" from Patience
    • "Twenty Lovesick Maidens We" from Patience
    • "My name is John Wellington Wells" from The Sorcerer
    • "When I, good friends, was call'd to the bar" from Trial by Jury
    • "The Law is the True Embodiment" from Iolanthe
    • "From the Sunny Spanish Shore" from The Gondoliers
  • The Igor: After Robin Oakapple is transformed into Dastardly Whiplash-type Sir Ruthven in Ruddigore, his servant, Adam Goodheart (aka "Gideon Crawle"), spontaneously acquires a hump.
    • Not according to the libretto, although he could well have been played that way in Savoy performance tradition.
  • I Have This Friend...: Robin and Rose make use of this trope in the song "I know a youth" in Ruddigore.
  • Impoverished Patrician: The Duke of Plaza-Toro from The Gondoliers.
  • The Ingenue: Rose Maybud in Ruddigore is a parody of the type; in The Yeoman of the Guard, Elsie Maynard is a somewhat more serious depiction.
  • It's Probably Nothing: In HMS Pinafore it was that cat.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Lots of Gilbert's misanthropic characters are at least well-intentioned.
  • Kangaroo Court: Trial By Jury
  • Lampshade Hanging: Fairly widespread, if you know what to look for. However, the most obvious ones are in Pinafore and Pirates of Penzance, in which the sailors and pirates explain, respectively, why they don't swear (What, never? No, never! What, never? Well hardly ever!), and why they are The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything. Also Real Life Writes the Plot: Gilbert and Sullivan were aiming for good, clean, family-friendly fun (an underserved market in 1870s British theatre).
  • Large Ham: Almost everyone.
  • Last Minute Hookup: In most of the operas.
  • Lawful Stupid: The Pirates of Penzance, the eponymous buccaneers are so bound by their pirate rules that they fail utterly at piracy.
  • List Song: Many, as this is a great way to write a Patter Song. Notable examples include, "If you want a receipt for that popular mystery" from Patience, the Major General Song from The Pirates of Penzance, and of course "I've Got a Little List" from The Mikado.
  • Major General Song: Major-General Stanley's song, from The Pirates of Penzance, is the Trope Maker.
  • The Mel Brooks Number: Arguably could be considered the Gilbert and Sullivan Number, with their combination of straight music and hilarious lyrics.
  • Melodrama: Parodied incessantly.
  • Miles Gloriosus: Often poked fun at:
    • In The Gondoliers, the Duke of Plaza-Toro boasts about how valiantly he was the first in front of his regiment as they ran away from battle and hid. In fact, he hid the most bravely of all of them, and remained in hiding for the entire war!
    • In Ruddigore, the song "I Shipped D'ye See" is about a British warship gallantly turning tail and fleeing from a French frigate since, um, they didn't want to hurt them or anything like that.
    • According to the Major General Song, the model major-general is absurdly qualified in every way, except that he has no military knowledge whatever and can't even "tell a Mauser rifle from a javelin."
    • Sir Joseph Porter in HMS Pinafore "snaps his fingers at a foeman's taunts" but later admits that he has no nautical experience whatsoever, and also that he gets seasick in bad weather.
  • Missing Episode: The score for Thespis is all but gone.
  • Modern Major General:
    • Major-General Stanley, from The Pirates of Penzance, is the Trope Namer.
    • Sir Joseph Porter in Pinafore is much the same, with allusions to massive corruption note  on top of his incompetence.
      And that Junior Partnership, I ween, Was the only ship I ever had seen!
  • Motor Mouth: Any character who sings a Patter Song! (Many of these roles were written for comic actor George Grossmith, a famous Patter-song performer.)
  • My Card: Jupiter presents it in Thespis
  • New Media Are Evil: Sullivan was recorded on Thomas Edison's early phonograph at a demonstration in 1888. He joked that recorded music could put artists out of business (Older Than They Think) and also that it would lead to the recordings of dreadful musicians being preserved forever rather than forgotten.
  • Nightmare Sequence: The Lord Chancellor in Iolanthe describes his nightmare in a memorable Patter Song. Played for Laughs, naturally.
  • No Fourth Wall
  • Not What It Looks Like: Iolanthe — "This lady's his what?"
  • Off with His Head!: The penalty for flirting in Mikado, although Ko-Ko never does get around to chopping off anybody's head, because he's first in line to go to the block.
    • Fairfax is to be executed on a false charge of sorcery in Yeomen.
  • Oblivious to Love: Dr. Daly to Constance in The Sorcerer; Sir Joseph to Hebe in Pinafore; Robin and Rose to each other in Ruddigore; Fairfax to Phoebe in Yeomen (unless the director decides that he notices but doesn't care).
  • Opening Chorus: With the single exception of The Yeomen of the Guard, this is a staple of every G & S collaboration.
  • Overly Long Gag: In The Mikado, Pooh-Bah's wedding toast to Nanki-Poo is often performed as this.
    Pooh-Bah: Loooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooong life to you...till then!
    • As are some of Mabel's ridiculously high notes in Penzance.
    • Also the "orphan/often" joke in the same.
    • Also the overused fad of encoring songs in a show just to get audience applause... OVER AND OVER AGAIN.
  • Pair the Spares:
    • The Mikado: Played with. The hero and heroine each start off facing an incipient Arranged Marriage before meeting and falling in love. Rather than the two left-over parties to the arranged marriages just happening to hook up, the hero and heroine actively orchestrate it so that neither will be able to insist on the arrangement going ahead as planned.
    • Ruddigore: After Rose and Robin get together at the end, Richard hooks up with Zorah, who he's had no lines with before then.
    • The Yeomen of the Guard: Subverted. After Elsie and Fairfax get together, the spares are Phoebe (who had pursued Fairfax) and Jack Point (who had pursued Elsie). They don't pair up; Phoebe marries someone else — not for love, but to protect Fairfax — and Jack Point doesn't marry anybody, but drops dead on the spot.
    • The Grand Duke: At the end, the protagonists marry their respective love interests and the Grand Duke marries one of his two fiancées, the Princess of Monte Carlo, leaving the other, the Baroness von Krakenfeldt, out in the cold. She hooks up with the Princess's father for his money.
  • Pardon My Klingon: Utopia, Limited
  • Patter Song: In every show. Lampshaded in the Ruddigore Patter Song. (See Self-Deprecation below.)
  • Pirates: As in, of Penzance.
  • The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: The Pirates of Penzance, obviously, but Major General Stanley in the same opera counts as well — and in The Mikado Ko-Ko never does his job as executioner, nor do we ever see Pooh Bah performing any of his various capacities. Similarly the Royal Navy in HMS Pinafore is never engaged in battle. Gilbert actually lampshades this Trope in Iolanthe, when he has Lord Mountararat proclaim:
    When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte,
    As ev'ry child can tell,
    The House of Peers, throughout the war,
    Did nothing in particular,
    And did it very well!
  • Poke the Poodle: The crimes of Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd in Ruddigore (except, of course, when he shot a fox. Oh, horror!).
  • Police Are Useless: In The Pirates of Penzance the constables sing: "When the foeman bares his steel, (Tarantara, tarantara)/We uncomfortable feel..."
    • The origin of the phrase "A policeman's lot is not a happy one"
  • Power of Friendship: Parodied in Iolanthe with Lords Tolloler and Mountararat, with heavy doses of both Jerkass and What an Idiot!, not to mention so much Have a Gay Old Time, it verges on Ho Yay.
  • Precision F-Strike: Or D-Strike, to be more precise.
    • Captain Corcoran in HMS Pinafore, though saying he "never swears a big, big, D" in Act 1, is driven to swear in Act 2 when he learns that his daughter Josephine and crewman Ralph mean to elope. The use of this trope at all is itself a parody, given that the Captain (and in fact all but one of the male characters) are sailors who never swear (well, hardly ever).
      In uttering a reprobation/ To any British tar/ I've tried to speak with moderation,/ But you have gone too far./ I'm very sorry to disparage/ A humble foremast lad,/ But to seek your captain's child in marriage,/ Why, damme, it's too bad!
    • Although not in the original libretto, many Pirates productions, including the 1968 D'oyly Carte recording, have General Stanley exclaim, "Damme, you don't go!" at the end of "When the Foeman Bares His Steel".
  • Pride: Pooh-Bah accuses himself of this because of his Blue Blood.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: All the Gilbert & Sullivan operettas entered the public domain in the 1950s.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: The Pirates of Penzance, particularly the song "When A Felon's Not Engaged In His Employment." Also a source of Memetic Mutation.
    • Even more so in Ruddigore.
  • Punny Name: Most productions, especially notable in The Mikado
  • Purple Prose: One of Gilbert's favorite targets for satire, since he had plenty of contemporary examples to draw on in Victorian Britain. A particularly purpurescent example can be found in Act 1 of Iolanthe:
    Strephon: My Lord, I know no Courts of Chancery; I go by Nature's Acts of Parliament. The bees — the breeze — the seas — the rooks — the brooks — the gales — the vales — the fountains and the mountains cry, "You love this maiden — take her, we command you!" 'Tis writ in heaven by the bright barbed dart that leaps forth into lurid light from each grim thundercloud. The very rain pours forth her sad and sodden sympathy! When chorused Nature bids me take my love, shall I reply, "Nay, but a certain Chancellor forbids it"? Sir, you are England's Lord High Chancellor, but are you Chancellor of birds and trees, King of the winds and Prince of thunderclouds?
    Lord Chancellor: No. It's a nice point. I don't know that I ever met it before.
  • Quarreling Song: The Act 1 finale in The Grand Duke centers around a staged quarrel and subsequent nonlethal duel, sung in duet with chorus, between the titular Grand Duke and a man who is scheming to overthrow him.
  • Rags to Royalty: Luiz in The Gondoliers is the Duke of Plaza Toro's lowly private drum or suite; then just before the end, he is revealed to be the true King of Barataria.
  • Really Gets Around: Richard Dauntless, according to Robin.
    • Pretteia, according to Nicemis
  • Really 700 Years Old: The fairies in Iolanthe.
  • Redemption Equals Death: subverted in The Sorcerer; see Designated Villain, above.
  • Refrain from Assuming: As was common at the time, effectively every song is named after its first line, not its refrain. The only exceptions are the ones where the refrain doubles as the first line (such as "I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major General").
  • Rightful King Returns: the driver of the plot in The Gondoliers.
  • Royal Blood
  • Rule of Funny: Everything. You can bet if any of these tropes is invoked, it's likely just because it's funny.
    • Maaaayybe in terms of the libretto and music. As far as stage business goes, Word of God explicitly bars Rule of Funny. George Grossmith, the original Ko-Ko in The Mikado, protested having a gag cut because he got a big laugh - Gilbert replied "So you would if you sat on a pork pie."
  • Runaway Fiancé: Nanki-Poo in The Mikado
  • Saying Sound Effects Out Loud: The policemen sing the nonsense word "tarantara" which is the onomatopoeia for a blaring trumpet, the Peers sing its variant, "tantantara" in Iolanthe, and Princess Zara sings "tantantarara-rara-rara!" in Utopia, Ltd.. (The Peers add onomatopoetic percussion with "tzing, boom!")
  • Self-Deprecation: Mocked their own style in Ruddigore:
    This particularly rapid unintelligible patter
    Isn’t generally heard and if it is it doesn’t matter!
    • The grouchy and misanthropic King Gama in Princess Ida is a self-parody of none other than W. S. Gilbert, who had a rather curmudgeonly persona. At one dinner given in his honor, Gilbert concluded a speech by quoting Gama's Catchphrase: "But everybody says I'm such a disagreeable man! And I can't think why!"
    • The Major General in Pirates brags that he "can whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore!" — quite a bit of Pirates was blatant sucking up to Royal Meddling.
    • Also:
    Mad Margaret: But see, they come – Sir Despard and his evil crew! Hide, hide – they are all mad – quite mad!
    Rose: What makes you think that?
    Margaret: Hush! They sing choruses in public. That's mad enough, I think.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Gilbert employs it in fine style, and even makes it rhyme. (The Major General Song is an obvious example.)
  • "Shaggy Frog" Story: From Ruddigore:
    Mad Margaret: You pity me? Then be my mother! The squirrel had a mother, but she drank and the squirrel fled! Hush! They sing a brave song in these parts — it runs somewhat thus: (sings)
    'The cat and the dog and the little puppee
    Sat down in a — down in a — in a —'
    I forget what they sat down in, but so the song goes!
  • Shout-Out:
    • In The Gondoliers, the name of the Kingdom of Barataria is borrowed from that of the "island" governed by Sancho Panza in Don Quixote.
    • An almost literal one occurred on the first night of Iolanthe; when Sir Eyre Massey Shaw, head of London's fire department and a big fan who was an inveterate first-nighter, attended the première, the Fairy Queen (Alice Barnett) stretched out her arms to him as she sang, "Oh, Captain Shaw, type of true love kept under!" (Four years later, ironically, Shaw was involved in a messy adultery case.)
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Bunthorne and Grosvenor in Patience
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Archibald Grosvenor in Patience is irresistible to women and so can have any woman he wants—except for the one he does want.
  • Spiritual Successor: The Doctor Who Big Finish audio play Doctor Who and the Pirates, Or The Lass that Lost A Sailor is one long Gilbert and Sullivan pastiche. Especially in Act 3, where it turns into a musical, with music ripped straight from Penzance, Mikado, and Pinafore, complete with Colin Baker singing "I Am the Very Model of a Gallifreyan Buccaneer".
  • Spoof Aesop: Stick close to your desk/And never go to sea/And you too may be ruler of the Queen's Navee!
  • Straw Feminist: The mainspring of the plot of Princess Ida.
  • Stealth Pun: In Utopia Limited, the "Public Exploder" note  is named Tarara. A popular song of the day was, "Ta-ra-ra BOOM-de-ay!"
  • Stylistic Suck: parodied with Bunthorne's poetry in Patience
  • Tenor Boy: Invoked in most, averted in Iolanthe, Patience, and sort of in Ruddigore, lampshaded like hell in Utopia Limited.
  • That Reminds Me of a Song: G&S are notable for usually averting this trope, putting them solidly ahead of their time for musical theatre, as the majority of their songs serve to move along the plot or character development. There are occasional exceptions, though, such as "Hail, Poetry" in The Pirates of Penzance, which comes out of nowhere, extols the virtues of poetry with an A Cappella anthem, and then moves along. They get away with it in this case because the music is freaking awesome.
  • Tsundere: The fairies in Iolanthe, especially in "In vain to us you plead", which is practically the Tsundere anthem.
  • Twice Shy: Ruddigore
  • Unwanted Harem: Many of the operettas have some version of it, though often played with or subverted.
    Grosvenor: They love me! Horror! Horror! Horror!
  • Upper-Class Twit: Alexis in The Sorcerer.
  • Uptown Girl: In The HMS Pinafore, a double version of this appears (one played straight, the other gender-inverted). A middle class woman loves a low class man but at the same time a upper class man is in love with her.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: Assumed to a sometimes surprising degree. For instance, a throwaway line in Princess Ida, in which a character mentions that the words "'are men' stuck in her throat," is a pun on an obscure line from Macbeth, "Amen stuck in my throat." One wonders how many of the original audience caught the joke.
  • Villains Out Shopping: "When a felon's not engaged in his employment" from The Pirates of Penzance.
  • Villain Song: Subverted in Ruddigore with "Oh, why am I moody and sad?" — Despard is complaining about being the Designated Villain because of his curse. Also "When the night wind howls" and "Henceforth all the crimes" (er, sort of).
    • Nearly all 'villains' in G&S are actually subversions, parodies and the like, but the only real or 'straight' villains, Scaphio and Phantis in Utopia Limited, do get a villain duet. The titular Mikado from The Mikado also gets one with "A More Humane Mikado".
  • What Is This Thing You Call "Love"?: the title character in Patience has never loved, and is perplexed by its traumatic effects on the other characters. Her being told a very Byronic version of what love is (see, for instance, ), and that she's a horrible person for not experiencing it right then and right now, pretty much forms the basis for a big chunk of the plot. Luckily, she manages to get around it in the end, and marry the person she loves, but who didn't require sacrifices of her.
  • With Catlike Tread: The Pirates of Penzance are the Trope Namers.
  • Wooden Ships and Iron Men: Parodied without mercy in HMS Pinafore, and again in Richard's song "The Darned Mounseer" from Ruddigore.
  • Write What You Know: Gilbert began his career studying law before he made it big as a writer, and his courtroom experience is evident in a lot of his satire (most notably Trial by Jury).

Alternative Title(s): Arthur Sullivan, William Gilbert, WS Gilbert, Gilbert And Sullivan


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