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Gilbert & Sullivan & ... the Marx Brothers? (Part II)

When artists argue about money, the argument's really about art.

This is part II of Michael Feingold's latest "Thinking About Theater" column.
Click here to read part I.

Jim Broadbent (left) as W.S. Gilbert and Allan Corduner as Sir Arthur Sullivan in the 1999 film Topsy-Turvy.

W.S. Gilbert's gifts, as librettist, were ironic and satiric. His composing partner, Arthur Sullivan, while relishing Gilbert's theatricality and his wit, had a far more conventional outlook, as well as a much wider sentimental streak. (Gilbert had one too, but he always encased it in irony.) Their decades of close collaboration never ripened into personal friendship. Gilbert had a social circle of theatrical and literary colleagues; Sullivan preferred hobnobbing with aristocrats and the ultrarich. Gilbert built himself a country estate, and financed, as an investment, the erection of a new West End theater (the Garrick, still in operation). Sullivan traveled, mostly to Paris and Monte Carlo, where he indulged his addiction to gambling. (After conducting opening-night performances at the Savoy Theatre, he customarily went to his club and played cards till 4am.)

Gilbert had a stable, conventional marriage (though apparently a sad one, if you believe Mike Leigh's depiction of it in his film Topsy-Turvy); Sullivan's long-term affair with a married woman, Fanny Ronalds, an American high-society belle, required elaborate circumspection. It also meant that he was required to maintain two households — in addition to which he was supporting the eight children of his brother Fred, whose widow had remarried and taken her brood to California. (Sullivan raised the eldest boy, Herbert, in London as his surrogate son.)

But most of all, where Gilbert only demanded professional respect, Sullivan yearned for artistic prestige. He dreamed of being the great classical composer whose operas would make English music a world force. Unlike Gilbert, he bonded readily with D'Oyly Carte, whose own lavish dreams had expanded, beyond the elegant theater he had built to house the G&S operas the trio produced, to erect London's first luxury hotel, also called the Savoy — the first to be all electric-powered, and to equip every bedroom with its own private bath.

When the "carpet quarrel" occurred, Carte had bought into Sullivan's dream so totally that he had embarked on one of the most misguided plans in music-theater history: He was building a "Royal English Opera House," which would open with the world premiere of a sung-through "grand opera" by Sullivan — not a mere dialogue-laden "comic opera" of the Savoy kind. Foolhardily, Carte imagined that he could operate such a house on a for-profit basis, starting with only one work in its repertoire and running that (with alternating casts) till it had made back its costs. The subject he and Sullivan chose was Sir Walter Scott's beloved novel Ivanhoe.

Gilbert, invited to contribute the libretto, had the foresight to decline. He knew his own artistic limitations — and also had no desire to subordinate his healthy ego to the composer's, in an art form where music always takes precedence. He had spent years in mutual push-and-pull with Sullivan, rewriting and restructuring his texts to provide enhanced musical opportunities, putting his foot down firmly when music threatened to overwhelm the story. Perhaps because he had no dreams of grandeur, he bore the constraints of the Savoy's working situation more easily than Sullivan.

That may seem improbable, but their correspondence, excerpted in many biographies, makes clear that the notoriously ill-tempered Gilbert — feared, like many stage directors then and now, for his harsh rehearsal manner — was generally the quicker of the two to apologize, to supply a requested rewrite, or to propose a needed cut. Though he joked about his ignorance of music, his sense of its theatrical possibilities was remarkable: We owe to his suggestion some of the peaks of Sullivan's art, including the brilliantly funny setting of the quartet, "In a contemplative fashion" in The Gondoliers. The librettist Sullivan ultimately chose for Ivanhoe, Julian Sturgis, was Gilbert's recommendation.

Groucho Marx with Thelma Todd in the 1931 film Monkey Business.

But both Ivanhoe and the new opera house that sheltered it misfired. Though its initial run (160 performances) probably set a world's record for grand opera, Ivanhoe made no money for Carte, who had no English opera to follow it once its box office ran down. He ultimately sold the house, at a substantial loss. Remodeled, with its huge seating capacity cut down, it became a music hall; it functions today as London's Palace Theatre. Ivanhoe, which soon dropped into near-oblivion, had revealed the irony of Sullivan's aspirations: He lacked the dramatic temperament that grand opera demands. Without a Gilbert text to provoke dynamic contrast, he could supply mainly bland, prettily illustrative music.

His late brother's second son, Frederic Richard ("Dickie") Sullivan, having spent his childhood in Los Angeles, wound up in the movie business. After working steadily in silent film as an actor and director, when sound came in he moved into small "character" roles, mostly in comedy. He made two films with the Marx Brothers: You can see him catch Harpo attempting to pick his pocket in Monkey Business (1931). Groucho, who revered Gilbert and Sullivan, stands nearby. One wonders if he realized that the florid little man with the faint Irish lilt in his voice was the nephew of the great composer whose tunes he, Groucho, would later croak in a TV production of The Mikado — or that the man's father had created the role of The Learned Judge in Trial by Jury, back when Gilbert, Sullivan, and D'Oyly Carte first worked together. Maybe Groucho did know: In Duck Soup (1933), "Dickie" Sullivan has a bit role as a judge.

Michael Feingold's next two-part "Thinking About Theater" column will appear on consecutive Fridays June 20 and June 27.