It is 1894. Shaw and Carte are promenading before a backdrop of The Strand in London. They are reminiscing about the last two decades. Members of the chorus act as the passers-by. The two principals doff their hats to several of the female passers-by and acknowledge several others.
Carte (Carte brings them both to a halt) My dear Shaw, just pause for a moment, can you not feel the magic of the road that has passed along here for more than a thousand years, transporting the dreams and ambitions for forty or fifty generations?
Shaw No D’Oyly, I feel only the daily drudgery of serfs and servants trudging this way, exploited by greedy employers and landlords. Trying to be charitable in its defence, I am aware that in recent times famous thinkers have congregated here, Dickens and Thackeray, Mill and Spencer – (with a twinkle in his eye) and I do believe that you have your offices here!
Carte (Unaware of the humour) Gilbert was born just off this thoroughfare, up there (he points). The word Strand is the Old English word for ‘shore’, in this case the shore of the Thames running from Westminster to the City. (He points to the West) Freedom furnished at one end with the Charing Cross boat-train service transporting us to the Continent, (he points to the East) and freedoms fettered at the other end by the Royal Courts of Justice.
Shaw But weren’t the Courts in the transportation business too – to Australia – until it all became too expensive.
Carte But don’t you feel it? All of life is on display here.
Shaw It certainly is! Up there on Holywell Street (points to the East), they carry out a lucrative publishing trade in ‘French’ photographs, distributing moral decadence in plain envelopes wherever the postal system can reach.
Carte (ignoring him) It always inspires me to try to imagine just what business arrangements and assignations have been forged and broken asunder along this route.
Shaw Ah, but it is the on-and-off arrangements between Gilbert and Sullivan’s that has lately proven of much prurient interest. I confess that it has routinely exercised my thinking.
Carte Let us be quite clear, we have agreed that this conversation is to provide you with background for your writings and it will never be attributed to me? Anything I might inspire will need to be sourced from elsewhere before any publication? I have only just last year managed to get them writing together again after four years of argument and inaction!
Shaw My dear fellow, most assuredly this conversation will not be crudely reported. You saw my piece in ‘The World’ last year, praising the pictorial treatment of the fabrics and colors on your stage, the cultivation and intelligence of your choristers, the quality of your orchestra, and the degree of artistic good breeding you expect from your principals. That it is these innovations that contribute to the great advances you personally have brought to the theatre.
Carte Yes, I did appreciate the piece and that is precisely why I agreed to this meeting.
Shaw I always presumed that the quality of their collaborations implied they must have had a strong friendship – at the beginning at least? Carte you have a unique position to elucidate upon this?
Carte Of course I was not there at the very outset. I have however spent much time pondering the complex chemistry of their relationship. At the start they certainly respected and inspired each other professionally but they never appeared to achieve anything that I would term as a friendship. It appeared to me that they were brought together only by their art.
Shaw Ah, (intones a quote of his) without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable. I believe that it was you who created and maintained that relationship?
Carte Created? Not guilty! I had certainly met with them both and they had both been aware and even seen each other’s work; though apparently neither was particularly impressed with the other. Gilbert, attending as a critic for Fun magazine, suggested that Sullivan’s work was too high a class for the absurd plot that he had orchestrated. I believe Sullivan was invited to see Gilbert’s ‘Robert the Devil’ when produced by John Hollingshead. But they did not actually meet on either of these occasions.
Shaw What was it that brought them together?
Carte They began to have many acquaintances in common. The German Reeds as early as Easter 1869 placed works by the two side by side, Gilbert’s ‘No Cards’ and Sullivan’s ‘Cox and Box’. Yet I do not believe that they met even there. Thomas German Reed proposed that Sullivan might wish to provide music for Gilbert’s ‘Our Island Home’, but he politely declined.
Shaw Didn’t ‘Our Island Home’ first introduce us to the Pirate King character and that implausible plot that a silly nurse misheard her instructions and enrolled her charge as a ‘pirate’ and not a ‘pilot’ as intended?
Carte Yes, that’s the one. It was German Reed who did eventually effect their introduction when Sullivan attended another Gilbert piece at the ‘Gallery of Illustration’.
Shaw It was ‘Ages Ago’ if I’m not mistaken? Providing yet another of Gilbert’s standard themes, where portraits are magically brought to life.
Carte It seems that Gilbert was a little nervous at their meeting because he framed some complicated question about composition on meeting Sullivan, whether to try to claim some knowledge or as a joke is not clear. Sullivan asked for time to consider the query, but to my knowledge has never answered it directly.
Shaw Not a particularly propitious meeting then!
Carte It fell to Hollingshead to arrange their first collaboration at the Gaiety Theatre, this was ‘Thespis’ of course. Gilbert was prolific at the time and so a fairly natural choice, but at the time Sullivan had few credentials to be its composer, he was more famous for cantatas and religious choral works.
Shaw But he had written two comic operas by then, with F C Burnard, ‘Cox and Box’, that you mentioned, and the ‘Contrabandista’.
Carte Those pieces had not been particularly successful and by that time had been largely forgotten. I too had considered the two might become useful collaborators but had no established vehicle for them at that time. I believe the reason he was inspired to work with Gilbert was due to Hollingshead’s promise that his brother Fred would receive a role in the piece.
Shaw As I understand it, the play is set on Mount Olympus, where the ageing gods swap places with a troupe of players. But the original libretto and score of Thespis is lost to us, was it so bad?
Carte It was rushed to the boards, though this would prove to be rather normal for the two of them. But it was also under-rehearsed, which was extremely unusual for Gilbert. It was because Hollingshead had gathered the players, some who had prior engagements during rehearsals, some had obligations during the run, including performing a pantomime for him at the Crystal Palace. Gilbert would never allow such lack of direct control again.
At its opening Sullivan started the tradition of conducting their first nights, but it ran on so late that the audience became restless. The programme had declared ‘Carriages at 11pm’, yet it ran on well after midnight.
Shaw Is that why they did not follow up immediately and took four years until their next collaboration?
Carte Some suggested that ‘Thespis’ was too sophisticated for its audience. It had some success, running for over sixty performances, but both of them were already busy with other works. Gilbert was providing pieces for The Haymarket and his ‘Randall’s Thumb’, ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘On Guard’ had each been exported to America. Following ‘Thespis’ his most successful pre-Sullivan piece, ‘Pygmalion and Galatea’, was taken to New York too. It was clear he was on the brink of some really important work.
Shaw Perhaps, but wasn’t his next big piece ‘The Wicked World’ the one which the ‘Pall Mall Gazette’ took such great exception? I have found reference to Gilbert agreeing with Mr Field of the Boston Museum Theatre for it to be performed there. Apparently the libretto used there bore the inscription, ‘Caution to American Pirates.—The Copyright of the Dialogue and Music of this Piece, for the United States and Canada, has been assigned to Mr. Field, of the Boston Museum, by agreement, dated 7th December, 1871.’ Even back then he was exercised by American copyright law.
Carte (Clearly not wishing to go further with the thought) Nonetheless he was much occupied. Sullivan was of course being feted by the rich and powerful, his friendship with the Duke of Edinburgh led to his composition of the much-lauded ‘Te Deum’ celebrating the Prince of Wales recovery from typhoid. He was heavily committed with greater things, as for example his oratorio ‘The Light of the World’.
Shaw ‘Wicked World’ and ‘Light of the World’ – you might say they were operating in two very different worlds!
Carte That was always the case, their worlds only collided during their collaborative work, in between they appeared to want little if anything to do with each other.
(Curtain drops as they exit)