Skim milk masquerades as cream;
Highlows pass as patent leathers;
Jackdaws strut in peacock's feathers.”— “Things Are Seldom What They Seem," in H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), libretto by W.S. Gilbert, music by Arthur Sullivan
In an environment that has recently been called “post-truth,” it’s nice to know that some things don’t change. One person who might have chuckled at that recognition was English librettist-director W.S. Gilbert (pictured), born in London on this date in 1836.
Together with his creative partner, Arthur Sullivan, he produced 14 comic operas that continue to be performed worldwide—and a raft of some of the most bitingly amusing verses in the English language, including these from “The Judge’s Song” in their first success, Trial by Jury:
“You’ll soon get used to her looks, said he,
and a very nice girl you’ll find her;
She may very well pass for 43,
in the dusk with the light behind her.”
Mike Leigh’s 1999 film, Topsy-Turvy, recounts how the creative partnership between Gilbert and Sullivan almost foundered before they scored with one of their career highlights, The Mikado.
Gilbert’s comic sensibility proved hugely influential to Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and Stephen Sondheim. But his imprint might have been most noticeable on Noel Coward. It’s difficult not to think of Gilbert when reading the lyrics to Coward’s “Why Do the Worst People Travel?”, for instance.
A blog associated with the radio station WQXR offers a nice summary of Gilbert and Sullivan's virtues: "What's So Special About Gilbert and Sullivan? We've Got a Little List."