Stedman, editor of a collection of Gilbert's non-G&S; works (Gilbert Before Sullivan, 1967), now offers a solid, stylish,...


W.S. GILBERT: A Classic Victorian and His Theatre

Stedman, editor of a collection of Gilbert's non-G&S works (Gilbert Before Sullivan, 1967), now offers a solid, stylish, well-researched critical biography--which effectively emphasizes the Victorian-theater context of Gilbert's writings but fails to pay proper attention to his genius as a lyricist. Unlike most Gilbert biographers, Stedman gives as much weight to his straight plays and non-Sullivan collaborations as to the Savoy operas. She examines his early journalism, his farces, burlesques, pantomimes, and ""fairy plays,"" offering sturdy background information on each of these particularly Victorian genres. Stedman emphasizes Gilbert's role as a socio-political satirist, his mockery of double standards (sexual, class-based), his odd blend of iconoclasm and conservatism, and his determination to upgrade the level of late-19th-century theater writing and performance. While wryly recounting Gilbert's unhappy first romance (before a long happy marriage) and his many feuds and lawsuits, she firmly rejects the familiar portrait of a misogynistic curmudgeon. Stedman's treatment of the Gilbert & Sullivan classics, however, is seriously lopsided. Avoiding the oft-told anecdotes, she persuasively relates the themes and plots of Pinafore, Mikado, etc., to earlier works by Gilbert and others; provides welcome detail on less familiar works like Utopia, Ltd.; and sketches in the stormy Gilbert/Sullivan/Carte dynamic neatly enough. However, she shows relatively little interest in the art of Gilbert's lyric-writing--which is largely responsible (along with Sullivan's music) for the G&S phenomenon and which became a major inspiration (unmentioned here) for Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, and other musical theater pioneers. Not the definitive biography, then, and certainly not for casual G&S fans--but the most authoritative effort of its kind thus far, and, particularly considering the often-academic content, crisply readable.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1996


Page Count: 384

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1996

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