W.S. GILBERT by Jane W. Stedman


A Classic Victorian and His Theatre
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 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. (16 pages b&w illustrations)

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-19-816174-3
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 1996