Gilbert and Sullivan

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"I have a song to sing, O!"
"To end on a happy note, one can always count on Gilbert and Sullivan for a rousing finale, full of words and music and signifying -- nothing."

Sir William Schwenck Gilbert and Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan were a Victorian duo who together wrote a number of hugely popular and influential comic operas, which served as forerunners of The Musical (most people today think of them as musicals), Gilbert writing the book and lyrics (what's known as a librettist, because he writes the libretto), and Sullivan the scores. Their most famous works are the so-called Savoy operas (from the Savoy Theatre where their operas were produced by entrepreneur Richard D'Oyly Carte), stretching from Trial By Jury in 1871 to The Gondoliers in 1889. The partnership then broke up, partly because of the legendary irascibility of Gilbert, partly because Sullivan (encouraged by none other than Queen Victoria (!)), wished to devote himself to serious music, mostly over a carpet. Two later works, Utopia, Ltd. and The Grand Duke, came after the reunion of the team; they have not generally been considered successes.

The Savoy operas are characterised by the topsy-turvy logic of their plots, which often achieve their dénouement on the basis of some paradoxical ("Gilbertian") legalistic quibble (Gilbert had trained as a lawyer), as well as by their satire of English institutions. Gilbert's lyrics are masterpieces of complicated and difficult rhymes, often employing obscure and topical allusions, as well as three or four foreign languages; Sullivan's serious and romantic music adds emotional depth and tenderness to their often cynical frivolity.

The operas tend to include a number of characters intended to show of what might be called the Savoy's "stock company": a light baritone playing a (generally not very pleasant) character who wishes (usually without success) to marry the heroine and who will almost certainly at some point sing a Patter Song; a soprano heroine, sometimes sympathetic, but often selfish and scheming; a pompous bass-baritone; and a contralto (with, as the great Anna Russell described her, "a voice like a foghorn"), whose attempts to marry a man who desperately does not want to marry her form the basis of quite a few of Gilbert's jokes. However, these roles are also regularly subverted: For example, in half the operas,[1] the contralto's love interest is in love with her from the start, and in Ruddigore, she has two men after her.

Though both of the pair were eventually knighted, Queen Victoria refused the honour to Gilbert (possibly having been offended by one of his works, but more likely simply because she thought knighthood more suitable for Serious Business like Sullivan's (now mostly forgotten) serious works such as Ivanhoe). This was likely a contributory cause to their quarrel. The honours would eventually be evened by King Edward VII. Their royal patronage was not restricted to Britain, either; reportedly Kaiser Wilhelm II knew The Mikado off by heart, and on the one occasion Sullivan met him, he regarded him as a Loony Fan.

If you want see how the team was in action, see the film, Topsy Turvy, which depicts how they almost broke up until they are inspired to create The Mikado.


A complete list of their works together:

  • Thespis, or, the Gods Grown Old (1871; score lost, except for one chorus ("Climbing over Rocky Mountains") re-used in The Pirates of Penzance), one solo ("Little Maid of Arcadee"), and some ballet music)
  • Trial by Jury (1876; in one act)
  • The Sorcerer (1877; slightly revised 1884)
  • HMS Pinafore, or, The Lass that Loved a Sailor (1878)
  • The Pirates of Penzance, or, the Slave of Duty (1880) (which includes the Patter Song "I am the very model of a Modern Major-General," one of the most parodied songs ever written.)
  • Patience, or, Bunthorne's Bride (1881) (a parody of the æsthetic movement of which Oscar Wilde was a high-profile devotee)
  • Iolanthe, or, the Peer and the Peri (1882)
  • Princess Ida; or, Castle Adamant (1884) (described by Gilbert as "A respectful operatic perversion of [Tennyson's poem] 'The Princess'" )
  • The Mikado, or, the Town of Titipu (1885)
  • Ruddigore, or, the Witch's Curse (1887)
  • The Yeomen of the Guard, or, the Merryman and His Maid (1888) (the pair's only serious opera, and still not that serious)
  • The Gondoliers, or, the King of Barataria (1889)
  • Utopia, Limited, or, the Flowers of Progress (1893)
  • The Grand Duke, or, the Statutory Duel (1896)

There are also three parlour ballads:

  • The Distant Shore (1874)
  • The Love that Loves Me Not (1875)
  • Sweethearts (1875)

Arguably, The Martyr of Antioch (1880, sacred cantata), Sullivan's setting of a poem by Millman, could also be included in this list, as Gilbert abridged and rearranged it, wrote some new material (including a couple of songs) to replace what was cut and simplify over-long scenes, and generally worked to make the libretto to count as a good example of Adaptation Distillation.


Only a few of their solo works are regularly read or performed; the most often performed (or read) of these are:

Gilbert

  • The Bab Ballads: Collection of illustrated comic poetry largely written between 1861 and 1871. Many of the poems can be seen as first drafts of plots, incidents, or characters in his work with Sullivan.
  • Engaged (1877, three act farce without music. Has had several professional productions in recent years. Inspired Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest)

Gilbert also wrote about a hundred or two hundred other works, mainly plays and short stories, not counting ephemera for magazines (e.g. brief satire of current events, a lengthy Troperiffic series of parodies of bad plays, and so on).


Sullivan

  • Cox and Box; or, the Long Lost Brothers (1866, Sullivan's first successful comic opera, with lyrics by F. C. Barnard. One act)
  • Onward, Christian Soldiers (hymn, 1871)
  • The Zoo (1875, one-act comic opera with B. C. Stephenson, thought lost until 1966)
  • The Lost Chord (song, 1877)

Sullivan also wrote several symphonies, song cycles, cantatas, incidental music, hymns, and other short pieces.


Gilbert and Sullivan provides examples of the following tropes:
  • Abhorrent Admirer: Gilbert used this trope repeatedly, with both genders.
  • Adaptation Distillation: The Martyr of Antioch, one of Sullivan's attempts to be the great "serious" composer everyone wanted him to be, had Millman's poem expertly trimmed, adjusted, and tweaked into a viable libretto by Gilbert.
  • Adaptation Expansion: Gilbert tended to try out ideas with a short story, poem, or the like, sell that, then expand it out into a longer work if he liked the result. Later, he began actively mining his early poems for ideas as well. Looking just at the Gilbert and Sullivan works, and including only the most obvious cases:
    • Trial by Jury was originally a one-page filler for a comic magazine. It did contain lyrics, some of which appear in the final version, but it jumps from Angelina's arrival straight to the twist ending, eliminating all the build-up. It works much better in the final form.
    • The Sorcerer started life as a short story. In which the love potion is never reversed. The names are different, but, using the names from the opera to keep it simple: Aline tastes the potion, falls in love with Dr. Daly. Alexis is upset about this—so far, pretty much as in the opera. However, the potion can't be reversed, so Alexis gets bought off with a valuable living (basically, a guaranteed income), and the story ends with Aline praising Alexis' wonderful love potion idea.
    • H.M.S. Pinafore is based on several of Gilbert's poems. Of course, he added a lot more realism, and toned down the Comedic Sociopathy: For instance, Corcoran and Ralph having been switched as babies, and thus switching positions. -- Have a look at the original.
      • Or this one, which has an even harsher ending.
    • The Pirates of Penzance: Possibly an expansion from a work begun on a one-act follow-up to Trial by Jury which never materialized due to funding falling short.
    • Patience: Pretty much a MAJOR expansion of The Rival Curates, though Gilbert knew that, as much as he might want to poke fun of clerics on the stage, he'd cause every cleric out there -- who were already, many of them, railing against the wicked stage from the pulpit—to think they'd been proven right.
    • Iolanthe: "The Fairy Curate", another of Gilbert's poems, again stripped of its religious overtones, and with a new second act.
    • The Yeomen of the Guard: Based on Annie Protheroe, with some truly epic expansion, turning a fairly trivial little comic poem into easily the most serious and realistic of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas.
    • The Mikado uses dialogue almost verbatim from Gilbert's earlier play Fogerty's Fairy, in which the Abhorrent Admirer asks the Romantic Leads to act familiar around him, "by degrees," so that he may become accustomed to it. The former play also, like The Mikado includes an elderly woman betrothed to the romantic tenor, on her way to wreck the wedding night festivities, but such is not rare for Gilbert.
  • Affably Evil: The Mikado of Japan, who isn't a bit angry that three of the main characters killed his son (or claimed to) on accident, but is still going to immerse them in boiling oil. Also Wilfred Shadbolt, head jailer and assistant tormentor, but wants to be more affable by becoming a jester.
    • Parodied by King Paramount in Utopia, Limited. "A king of autocratic power we"
    • "We will hang you, never fear, most politely." Said by King Hildebrand in Princess Ida.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: In Patience, the heavy dragoons love the twenty lovesick maidens, the twenty lovesick maidens love Bunthorne, who loves the eponymous milkmaid—none of whom returns their love.
    • And Patience loves Archibald, and Archibald loves Patience, but that turns into a muddle (naturally) resulting in Patience attaching herself to Bunthorne and the twenty lovesick maidens (except the tragic Lady Jane, still attached to Bunthorne) chasing Archibald. The dragoons, alas, get no one. Until the end.
  • All There in the Script: Some characters are given names for no apparent reason, which appear only in the dramatis personae. They aren't even in the script half the time, because they have more intuitive titles. For instance, HMS Pinafore has Bill Bobstay and Bob Becket, one of whom is the Boatswain's Mate and the other is the Carpenter's Mate (which is which varies depending on which libretto you read) and appear in the script as "Boatswain" and "Carpenter" respectively. The fact that the Carpenter's Mate is the Carpenter's Mate at all also qualifies as an example, as to the audience he's just a part in a trio.
    • Of course, that's when the character appears in the script at all; for instance, Ruddigore has a long list of named ghosts in the dramatis personae. The script itself refers only to Roderick by name, and list the others as "1st ghost," "2nd ghost," and so on. The numbers never get high enough to include half the ghosts listed; the rest are presumably just ordinary choristers. Early libretti also often include characters that got edited out in rehearsals.
    • Also comes up in The Pirates of Penzance, where the Pirate King and the Sergeant of Police have their names given in the dramatis personae as Richard and Edward, respectively. At no point in the opera are these names mentioned. And four of the Major General's daughters have names but only Mabel's is mentioned.
    • In The Mikado Pish-Tush, Pitti-Sing and Peep-Bo's names are never mentioned (and, though Nanki-Poo is the romantic lead and the first principal character to appear, his name isn't stated until halfway through the show).
      • Not to mention Go-To who gets 8 words in the entire show and sometimes isn't even mentioned in the cast list (or is simply A Noble) since he was only introduced to sing the bass part in "Brightly dawns our wedding day"; it was written for Pish-Tush (who often sings it nowadays) but the original actor couldn't sing low enough.
    • Happens to a lot of the minor (and some less minor) characters—Celia, Leila, and Fleta in Iolanthe, Zorah and Ruth in Ruddigore, and lots in The Gondoliers.
  • Anachronism Stew: Not frequently in the originals, but there is a proud tradition of rewriting parts of the (now public domain) dialog to include jokes that are relevant to modern audiences, even if they make no sense for the time period. For example, there have been performances of The Mikado in which Pooh-Bah listed "Secretary of Homeland Security" and "Husband of Elizabeth Taylor" among his titles.
    • The reference to a telephone in HMS Pinafore is anachronistic, as are a few other odd references. Truth in Television since HMS Pinafore was written in 1878, a few years after Bell's invention. Gilbert couldn't have written about something that didn't exist, after all, but he most likely used it just because it fit his rhyming scheme.
    • Contemporary cracks at the contemporary Liberal Party are often updated to be aimed at the modern Liberal Democrats—which works surprisingly well as both have a reputation of accepting members regardless of political principles, or not possessing any.
  • Antiquated Linguistics: Granted, Gilbert was writing in the Victorian Era, which this trope usually parodies. However, much of Gilbert's dialogue and lyrics were designed to sound humorously overblown and antiquated even by Victorian standards. Lampshaded in the film version of The Pirates of Penzance:

Mabel: Oh, Frederic, cannot you, in the calm excellence of your wisdom, reconcile it with your conscience to say something that will relieve my father's sorrow?
Frederic: (Beat) What?
Mabel: Can't you cheer him up?

  • Arranged Marriage: In The Gondoliers, Casilda has been betrothed at birth to the King of Barataria—whoever he may be.
    • And of course in Princess Ida, "A bride's a bride tho' the knot were tied at the early age of one!"
    • Also, the eponymous Grand Duke is engaged to the princess of Monaco, (specifically, Monte-Carlo) whom he's never met.
    • Let's not forget The Mikado where for once it's the man, Nanki-Poo fleeing an arranged marriage to a loathsome older woman, Katisha.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Parodied in Ruddigore.
    • Parodied by King Paramount in Utopia, Limited. "A king of autocratic power we"
  • Back for the Finale: Rackstraw returns in Utopia, Limited as Captain Sir Edward Corcoran, K.C.B. (of the Royal Navy)
    • But with a noticeably lower voice. (Perhaps Josephine's father had his name changed, and worked his way back up?)
      • And the signature song—which Ralph never sings, even after the switch.
    • Alternatively, it could be the Peer to whom he was purportedly related.
    • On a similar note, it's been seriously proposed that Dick Dauntless grew up into... Dick Deadeye!
  • Black Comedy: The Mikado is chock-full of it.
  • Blatant Lies: Nearly anything the Flowers of Progress, and to a lesser degree Lady Sophy, say about England in Utopia Limited. Examples (particularly in "Society has quite forsaken") include the imminent abolition of hunger and the absence of slums.
  • Blue Blood: When virtuous love is sought, its pow'r is naught.
  • Book Ends: the finale of The Grand Duke is a reprise of the opening number.
  • Bowdlerization: Passages that used to contain the N-word have been altered. (They were written a long time before the word was offensive.)
    • Also, Bowdlerization itself is mentioned in Princess Ida and alluded to in Thespis.
    • Amazingly enough, played straight in Ruddigore, which had its very title changed due to the apparent offensiveness of the original title, Ruddygore (since "ruddy" means "bloody," which was apparently the F-Bomb (B-Bomb?) of the 19th and early 20th century in Britain—as in Shaw's Pygmalion.) Gilbert found this just as absurd as anyone, and suggested re-titling it Kensington Gore, or, Not So Good As The Mikado.
      • Also in Ruddigore, all the ghosts coming back to life to marry the professional bridesmaids was deemed too shocking, so Sir Despard's former retinue returns for no apparent reason and marries them instead. (Though they seemed to be able to get away with one resurrection.)
      • Possibly because Sir Roderick had died recently enough that it seemed reasonable that he should still be alive, if he had not been killed, whereas the idea of, say, Zorah, paired off with a 300-year-old Sir Rupert was just too squicky. Yeah, the Victorians were odd.
    • from Pinafore, "Two tender babes I nuss'd" (nursed) is usually changed to "Two tender babes I raised," simply because we don't nurse other people's children any more.
    • When the defendant (accused of breach of promise of marriage) enters the court in Trial by Jury, he sings "Is this the Court of the Exchequer?" and then aside Be firm, be firm, my pecker, as in British slang "pecker" meant "courage". This has been altered in some modern productions to "Of many a man the wrecker"
  • British Royal Guards: In Iolanthe, Private Willis is one of these, and he sings a solo while no one's looking.
  • Burn the Witch: How Sir Rupert Murgatroyd got his line into the mess he did in Ruddigore.
  • Catch Phrase: Catchphrases are common in the operas.
  • Christmas Cake: For instance, Katisha in The Mikado pursues the much younger Nanki-Poo. Unmarried elderly ladies pursuing younger men is Gilbert's favourite joke, though they're usually treated with a level of sympathy.
  • Cleaning Up Romantic Loose Ends: Constantly. Except for Bunthorne.
    • And Jack Point.
    • And Ruth, though that's probably down to The Pirates of Penzance showing very obvious signs of being the rush job it was: Hell, in the first published scripts,[2] she never appeared again after "Away, Away, my Heart's on Fire" in the middle of the second act, her tiny role in the finale being given to a random pirate named James. Most directors pair her with Stanley or the Pirate King.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Several examples
    • The Sorcerer: Alexis Pointidexter
    • Prates of Penzance: everybody except Mabel and possibly General Stanley's other daughters
    • Patience: Patience and Archibald Grosvenor
    • Iolanthe: Chorus of Faries Chorus of Peers
    • Princess Ida: Princess Ida and King Gamma
    • The Mikado: Pooh Bah
    • Ruddigore: Mad Margret
      • It is safe to assume Gilbert loved this trope
  • Completely Missing the Point: Ruddigore, has Richard Dauntless's "I shipped d'ye see" which sent French newspapers into such an uproar over the perceived attack on the French that Sullivan was never able to get his works performed in Paris from then on. The song is actually about a British sailor talking about their kindness when their sloop turned tail and fled from a formidable French frigate, which of course they could have taken on... but... um... decided not to, just now. Because fighting them would be mean. Yeah, that's it.
    • Similarly, The Mikado—which uses the mania for all things Oriental that was going on at the time to poke fun of modified British institutions—was briefly banned in 1907 for the visit of a Japanese prince—who was rather annoyed, as he'd wanted to see it.
    • Rose Maybud from Ruddigore follows etiquette to an excruciating degree, but doesn't seem to understand that the point of etiquette is to keep everyone comfortable. For further details refer to her song, "If somebody there chanced to be."
      • Note that Rose's dependence on her book of etiquette is itself a parody of the melodramatic trope of a character left a Bible by a dead parent and regarding it as a moral guide to be obeyed to the letter. This may be Gilbert's extremely subtle Take That at the Nonconformists in Britain who were noted both for their Biblical literalism and for their opposition to the theatre.
  • Compliment Backfire
  • Cool and Unusual Punishment: In The Mikado the song "My object all sublime" is completely devoted to this trope. Also in Princess Ida King Hildebrand punishing King Gama with nothing whatever to grumble at
    • The Wisemen in Utopia, Ltd.'s use of a pound of dynamite exploding in your ears, according to "In every mental lore". As they say, "It's not a pleasant sight-- We'll spare you the particulars."
    • What King Gama complains about being subject to in the by act III of "Princess Ida", as he's in a misanthrope's hell: a place where there is never anything to complain about and everything suits him.
  • Crowd Song: All their works have them, and the fact is lampshaded by Mad Margaret in Ruddigore.
  • Crossdresser: Princess Ida. Just Princess Ida.
  • Curse: Threatened in Patience; sets up the situation in Ruddigore.
  • Darker and Edgier: The Yeomen of the Guard. Sullivan was fed up with frivolous "topsy-turvydom", so Gilbert wrote a much more serious libretto. Even though it was a hit (and remained Sullivan's favourite and probably Gilbert's), they went Lighter and Softer again with The Gondoliers.
  • Dastardly Whiplash: The Murgatroyd family of Ruddigore, especially Sir Ruthven, parody this character, which was still played straight in the "Transpontine" theatres of the time.)
  • Deadpan Snarker: King Gama in Princess Ida (who was Gilbert's parody of himself!)
    • For example, when asked casually by a theatre-goer how "Bloodygore" (see Bowdlerization, above) was doing, Gilbert replied, "The name is Ruddigore." "Well, it's the same thing, what?" said the man, to which Gilbert replied, "Then I suppose that if I say, 'I admire your ruddy countenance,' it's the same thing as, 'I like your bloody cheek.' Well, it isn't -- and I don't!
  • Designated Villain: The Murgatroyds in Ruddigore (actually designated In-Universe by a Curse).
    • John Wellington Wells in The Sorcerer is also designated as the villain In-Universe. When Wells says that the only way for his spell to be reversed is for either himself or Alexis to sacrifice his life, Alexis, whose fault it all is, volunteers -- but Aline protests, so the villagers vote on who should die and unanimously choose Mr. Wells. Justified because Alexis is a parody of the stock romantic hero and therefore the Designated Hero.
  • Deus Ex Machina: There is usually a twist or revelation at the end of the story that allows all to live happily ever after (barring The Yeomen of the Guard)
  • Does Not Like Shoes: Mad Margaret is often played this way in Ruddigore.
  • Either or Title: All but two of the operas have one.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: Most of the roles played by Richard Temple -- The Pirate King, Sir Roderick, The Mikado of Japan, etc.
  • Fainting: Happens to Elsie Maynard in The Yeoman of the Guard.
    • And to Jack Point. That, or he dies.
    • And to Robin Oakapple at the end of Act I of Ruddigore.
  • For Doom the Bell Tolls
    • In The Yeoman of the Guard the song "The prisoner comes to meet his doom" features a tolling bell.
    • In The Sorcerer the title character's Deus Ex Machina death sentence is marked by a gong.
    • In The Mikado the chorus sings, "If true her tale thy knell is rung. Thy knell is rung," stipulated to be sung as deep, ringing bells.
  • Foreign Language Tirade
  • Forgot I Could Change the Rules: The Chancellor in Iolanthe eventually realizes that he can give himself permission to marry Phyllis. A scene or two later, the Queen of the Fairies realizes that she can avoid having to execute Iolanthe by changing the law that requires it.
  • Fridge Logic:
    • In HMS Pinafore, just how old is Ralph Rackstraw supposed to be, anyway?
      • To clarify - Captain Corcoran has a grown, marriageable daughter. Buttercup claims (Unreliable Narrator, perhaps, to help sort out the mess?) to have raised both Rackstraw and Corcoran as babies and switched them.
      • In fact, if one is paying attention, the three pairings at the end of Pinafore are all disturbing by modern standards. Ralph marries a woman literally young enough to be his daughter, Porter marries his own cousin, and Corcoran marries his own wet-nurse. Ick.
    • Also, "Major-General Stanley is no orphan (and never was one)" implies that both his parents are still alive. People, the man has already attained the rank of Major-General, retired and has an entire chorus of daughters of which even the youngest is of age to be married; his parents might well be both over a hundred.
      • Assuming he retired at 65, and that both his parents observed the proprieties of English society at the time of his conception, they only need to be in their mid-eighties. With nineteenth-century medicine, this is improbable but not all that far-fetched. Besides, only one of his parents needs to be alive for him not to be considered an orphan.
      • Plus, the girls are not his biological daughters. They introduce themselves "We are wards in chancery, and father is a Major-General"; that is, he is their legal guardian.
        • But then, one would think that his "daughters" or wards in chancery would have to be orphans for them to have been made his wards in the first place.
          • Plus if they're celebrating Frederick's birthday which happens to be in February wouldn't that mean all of this lovely seaside action is taking place in the winter?
  • Fun with Acronyms: The reason Arthur Seymour Sullivan stopped using his middle name: A German friend poked gentle fun of him for it.
  • Funetik Aksent: A chorus of country bumpkins in The Sorcerer is helpfully indicated this way. "Eh, but oi du loike you!"
  • Grande Dame: Gilbert was extremely fond of this type, as, for instance Lady Sangazure in The Sorcerer, Lady Jane in Patience, Lady Blanche in Princess Ida, Katisha in The Mikado, and the Duchess of Plaza-Toro in The Gondoliers. This is the most likely character to turn into the Abhorrent Admirer (see above).
  • Gratuitous Iambic Pentameter: The dialogue in Princess Ida, owing to its origin as a parody of a Tennyson poem.
  • Greed: Pooh-Bah claims he took on all the positions in the state to mortify his pride—and accepts the salaries.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: Iolanthe's son Strephon, who laments that only half of him is immortal while the other will waste away. (Guess which half isn't.)
  • Happily Ever After
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Particularly in a certain scene from Princess Ida, when the three sons of King Gama are removing their armour, and sing about "this tight-fitting cuirass."
    • How about Tolloler and Mountararat in Iolanthe?
    • "We never molest an orphan!" It feels like every five seconds they repeat themselves in case someone didn't hear.
    • And the defendant in Trial by Jury says "Be Firm Be Firm My Pecker" which meant keep a stiff upper lip at the time
  • High-Class Glass: At least three major characters, along with Sullivan himself!
  • Ho Yay: The only woman Frederic has seen in all his years of piratical service is Ruth. Think about that for a second.
    • Or think about poor Ruth instead!
  • Hypocritical Humour: More than one rewrite of "If Someday It May Happen" (wherein Ko-Ko lists people he feels should be executed) includes "All people who write different words to Mr. Gilbert's songs!"
    • Ruddigore's "If you wish in the world to advance":

Now take for example my case. I've a bright intellectual brain.
In all London city there's no-one so witty, I've thought so again and again.
I've a highly intelligent face, my features cannot be denied,
but whatever I try, sir, I fail it and why, sir? I'm modesty personified...

    • The Usher's Song in Trial by Jury:

And when amid the Plaintiff's shrieks
The ruffianly Defendant speaks
Upon the other side,
What he may say you needn't mind.
From bias free of ev'ry kind
This trial must be tried!

  • "I Am" Song: "I am the very model of a modern Major General." by General Stanley, The Pirates of Penzance. And lots and lots more.
    • "Oh, Better Far to Live and Die" ("For I Am a Pirate King!") from the same.
    • "If you want to know who we are" from The Mikado
    • "A wandering minstrel I", sung by Nanki-Poo in The Mikado
    • "I'm Called Little Buttercup", sung by Buttercup in HMS Pinafore
    • "I Am the Captain of the Pinafore" by Captain Cocoran, also from HMS Pinafore
    • "If You Give Me Your Attention" from Princess Ida
    • "I'm A Waterloo House Young Man" from Patience
    • "Twenty Lovesick Maidens We" from Patience
    • "My name is John Wellington Wells" from The Sorcerer
    • "When I, good friends, was call'd to the bar" from Trial by Jury
    • "The Law is the True Embodiment" from Iolanthe
    • "From the Sunny Spanish Shore" from The Gondoliers
  • The Igor: After Robin Oakapple is transformed into Dastardly Whiplash-type Sir Ruthven in Ruddigore, his servant, Adam Goodheart (aka "Gideon Crawle"), spontaneously acquires a hump.
    • Not according to the libretto, although he could well have been played that way in Savoy performance tradition.
  • I Have This Friend: Robin and Rose make use of this trope in the song "I know a youth" in Ruddigore.
  • Impoverished Patrician: The Duke of Plaza-Toro from The Gondoliers.
  • The Ingenue: Rose Maybud in Ruddigore is a parody of the type; in The Yeoman of the Guard, Elsie Maynard is a somewhat more serious depiction.
  • Inter Class Romance: In The HMS Pinafore, a double version of this appears. A middle class woman loves a low class man but at the same time a upper class man is in love with her.
  • It's Probably Nothing: In HMS Pinafore it was that cat.
  • Kangaroo Court: Trial By Jury
  • Lampshade Hanging: Fairly widespread, if you know what to look for. However, the most obvious ones are in Pinafore and Pirates of Penzance, in which the sailors and pirates explain, respectively, why they don't swear (What, never? No, never! What, never? Well hardly ever!), and why they are The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything. Also Real Life Writes the Plot: Gilbert and Sullivan were aiming for good, clean, family-friendly fun (an underserved market in 1870s British theatre).
  • Large Ham: Almost everyone.
  • Last-Minute Hookup: In most of the operas.
  • Lawful Stupid: The Pirates of Penzance, the eponymous buccaneers are so bound by their pirate rules that they fail utterly at piracy.
  • List Song: Many, as this is a great way to write a Patter Song. Notable examples include, "If you want a receipt for that popular mystery" from Iolanthe, the Major-General Song from The Pirates of Penzance, and of course "I've Got a Little List" from The Mikado.
  • Major-General Song: Major-General Stanley's song, from The Pirates of Penzance, is the Trope Maker.
  • Medieval Japan: The Mikado
    • This is debateable, as reference is made to the Knightsbridge "Japanese village" exhibition of 1885.
    • Word of Gilbert explains that setting the show in an admittedly fictional version of Medieval Japan (namely, the version popularized in the Knightsbridge exhibition) enables it to more freely satirize contemporary British institutions.
  • Melodrama: Parodied incessantly.
  • Missing Episode: The score for Thespis is all but gone.
  • Modern Major-General: Major-General Stanley, from The Pirates of Penzance, is the Trope Namer.
    • Sir Joseph Porter in Pinafore is much the same, with allusions to massive corruption [3] on top of his incompetence.
  • My Card: Jupiter presents it in Thespis
  • New Media Are Evil: Sullivan was recorded on Thomas Edison's early phonograph at a demonstration in 1888. He joked that recorded music could put artists out of business (Older Than They Think) and also that it would lead to the recordings of dreadful musicians being preserved forever rather than forgotten.
  • Nightmare Sequence: The Lord Chancellor in Iolanthe describes his nightmare in a memorable Patter Song. Played for Laughs, naturally.
  • No Fourth Wall
  • Not What It Looks Like: Iolanthe -- "This lady's his what?"
  • Oblivious to Love: Dr. Daly to Constance in The Sorcerer; Sir Joseph to Hebe in Pinafore; Robin and Rose to each other in Ruddigore; Fairfax to Phoebe in Yeomen (unless the director decides that he notices but doesn't care).
  • Opening Chorus: With the single exception of The Yeomen of the Guard, this is a staple of every G & S collaboration.
  • Overly Long Gag: In The Mikado, Pooh-Bah's wedding toast to Nanki-Poo is often performed as this.

Pooh-Bah: Loooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooong life to you...till then!

    • As are some of Mabel's ridiculously high notes in Penzance.
    • Also the "orphan/often" joke in the same.
  • Pair the Spares: Patience, Ruddigore...and even in the ones where Gilbert doesn't, there's a good chance the director will. This is basically three-quarters of the plot of "The Sorcerer". Yeomen of the Guard, on the other hand, is largely famous for not doing this.
    • Not so often as people think, though:
      • Thespis: None: No pairing off happens outside of the Sparkeion/Nicemis/Daphne Love Triangle.
      • Trial by Jury: None Resolved by the Judge agreeing to marry Angela, which is the only pairing-off in the entire opera.
      • The Sorcerer: Handwaved -- Everyone's paired off at the end, though the pairings are supposedly the ones that existed before the love potion caused everyone to pair up randomly, but they were too shy to admit to them before. Mind, The Sorcerer is considered one of the weakest in terms of plot.
      • H.M.S. Pinafore: No The plot is about class prejudice and issues related to it preventing people who love each other from getting together. Once the Captain is demoted and Ralph raised, they immediately pair off with the people they selected. Hebe becomes the Victorious Childhood Friend, in the only pairing that might be considered Pair the Spares The chorus do not pair off, as that would go against every single aspect of the plot: after an entire opera on the difficulty of marrying across class lines, resolved by redefining the class lines, an entire ship of lower-class sailors are not going to pair off with a nobleman's entire family, even if that did happen in one of Gilbert's less realistic satirical poems.
      • The Pirates of Penzance Yes: When the Pirates are revealed to be noblemen, Major General Stanley immediately encourages the whole chorus to pair off. The whole thing is a parody of opera tropes, though.
      • Patience: Not exactly: The soldiers and the women were engaged before the opera, but the women broke it off so they can Fan Girl Bunthorne. In the end, everyone pairs off (except Bunthorne), but one of the jokes is that noone in the cast has the faintest understanding of what love really is, so there's a sort of rapid-fire fiancée-swapping set to music ("If Saphir I choose to marry..."), and the Duke chooses to marry the Christmas Cake because she's the only woman there who isn't drop-dead gorgeous, and he's quite aware he's completely dull and average.
    • Iolanthe: No: We see the growing relationship between the male and female choruses throughout most of an entire act, and it's part of the main plot. Further, every main cast pairing has at least one entire song setting them up, most far more.
    • Princess Ida: The girl scholars have been kept completely isolated from men. Ooh, look, men have appeared! They decide to further their education.
    • The Mikado: No: In most of the G&S operas, the chorus has a distinct personality and plays a major role in the plot. Not here. As such, it only pairs up in the hands of a fairly strange director. Half the main cast is unpaired in the end too. (Koko and Katisha pairing off is important to the plot, so doesn't really apply)
    • Ruddigore: Yes: The female chorus is paired off with either the revivified ghosts, or the visiting gentlemen from the city, depending on version. It's kind of set up in Act I, where the women gush over the visiting gentlemen because "The sons of the tillage / Who dwell in this village" ... "Though honest and active, / They're most unattractive". Also, Richard and Zorah, who he's had no lines with before then. Mind, the opera's a deconstruction of bad melodrama plots, so...
    • The Yeomen of the Guard: No. There's some pairing off near the end, but most of it's portrayed as a huge mistake. The resolution of the Love Triangle results in tragedy for the unpaired one.
    • The Gondoliers: Not at the end -- but the female and male choruses do decide to Pair the Spares in the opening chorus.
    • Utopia, Limited: No. The chorus doesn't pair, and, despite Loads and Loads of Characters, only a tiny handful pair off.
    • The Grand Duke: Not the Chorus: The chorus doesn't Pair the Spares. However, Prince of Monte Carlo / Baroness Krakenfeldt? Only the Prince's ability to make money, and Krakenfeldt's love of money excuses that.
  • Pardon My Klingon: Utopia, Limited
  • Patter Song: In every show. Lampshaded in the Ruddigore Patter Song. (See Self-Deprecation below.)
  • Pirates: As in, of Penzance.
  • The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: The Pirates of Penzance, obviously, but Major General Stanley in the same opera counts as well—and in The Mikado Ko-Ko never does his job as executioner, nor do we ever see Pooh Bah performing any of his various capacities. Similarly the Royal Navy in HMS Pinafore is never engaged in battle. Gilbert actually Lampshades this Trope in Iolanthe, when he has Lord Mountararat proclaim:

When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte,
As ev'ry child can tell,
The House of Peers, throughout the war,
Did nothing in particular,
And did it very well!

  • Poke the Poodle: The crimes of Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd in Ruddigore (except, of course, when he shot a fox. Oh, horror!).
  • Police Are Useless: In The Pirates of Penzance the constables sing: "When the foeman bares his steel, (Tarantara, tarantara)/We uncomfortable feel..."
    • The origin of the phrase "A policeman's lot is not a happy one"
  • Power of Friendship: Parodied in Iolanthe with Lords Tolloler and Mountararat, with heavy doses of both Jerkass and What an Idiot!, not to mention so much Have a Gay Old Time, it verges on Ho Yay.
  • Precision D Strike: Captain Corcoran in HMS Pinafore, though saying he "never swears a big, big, D" in Act 1, is driven to swear in Act 2 when he learns that his daughter Josephine and crewman Ralph mean to elope. The use of this trope at all is itself a parody, given that the Captain (and in fact all but one of the male characters) are sailors who never swear (well, hardly ever).
    • "In uttering a reprobation/ To any British tar/ I've tried to speak with moderation,/ But you have gone too far./ I'm very sorry to disparage/ A humble foremast lad,/ But to seek your captain's child in marriage,/ Why, damme, it's too bad! Luckily, there is indeed a consequence for ill-advised asperity.
  • Pride: Pooh-Bah accuses himself of this because of his Blue Blood.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack
  • Punch Clock Villain: The Pirates of Penzance, particularly the song "A Policeman's Lot is Not a Happy One." Also a source of Memetic Mutation.
    • Even more so in Ruddigore.
  • Punny Name: Most productions, especially notable in The Mikado
  • Purple Prose: One of Gilbert's favorite targets for satire, since he had plenty of contemporary examples to draw on in Victorian Britain. A particularly purpurescent example can be found in Act 1 of Iolanthe:

Strephon: My Lord, I know no Courts of Chancery; I go by Nature's Acts of Parliament. The bees — the breeze — the seas — the rooks — the brooks — the gales — the vales — the fountains and the mountains cry, "You love this maiden — take her, we command you!" 'Tis writ in heaven by the bright barbed dart that leaps forth into lurid light from each grim thundercloud. The very rain pours forth her sad and sodden sympathy! When chorused Nature bids me take my love, shall I reply, "Nay, but a certain Chancellor forbids it"? Sir, you are England's Lord High Chancellor, but are you Chancellor of birds and trees, King of the winds and Prince of thunderclouds?
Lord Chancellor: No. It's a nice point. I don't know that I ever met it before.

  • Rags to Royalty
  • Really Gets Around: Richard Dauntless, according to Robin.
    • Pretteia, according to Nicemis
  • Really Seven Hundred Years Old: The fairies in Iolanthe.
  • Redemption Equals Death: subverted in The Sorcerer; see Designated Villain, above.
  • Rightful King Returns: the driver of the plot in The Gondoliers.
  • Royal Blood
  • Rule of Funny: Everything. You can bet if any of these tropes is invoked, it's likely just because it's funny.
    • Maaaayybe in terms of the libretto and music. As far as stage business goes, Word of God explicitly bars Rule of Funny. George Grossmith, the original Ko-Ko in The Mikado, protested having a gag cut because he got a big laugh - Gilbert replied "So you would if you sat on a pork pie."
  • Runaway Fiance: Nanki-Poo in The Mikado
  • Saying Sound Effects Out Loud: The policemen sing the nonsense word "tarantara" which is the onomatopoeia for a blaring trumpet, the Peers sing its variant, "tantantara" in Iolanthe, and Princess Zara sings "tantantarara-rara-rara!" in Utopia, Ltd.. (The Peers add onomatopoetic percussion with "tzing, boom!")
  • Self-Deprecation: Mocked their own style in Ruddigore:

This particularly rapid unintelligible patter
Isn’t generally heard and if it is it doesn’t matter!

Mad Margaret: You pity me? Then be my mother! The squirrel had a mother, but she drank and the squirrel fled! Hush! They sing a brave song in these parts -- it runs somewhat thus: (sings)
'The cat and the dog and the little puppee
Sat down in a -- down in a -- in a --'
I forget what they sat down in, but so the song goes!

  • Shout-Out:
    • In The Gondoliers, the name of the Kingdom of Barataria is borrowed from that of the "island" governed by Sancho Panza in Don Quixote.
    • An almost literal one occurred on the first night of Iolanthe; when Big Name Fan Sir Eyre Massey Shaw, head of London's fire department, who was an inveterate first-nighter, attended the première, the Fairy Queen (Alice Barnett) stretched out her arms to him as she sang, "Oh, Captain Shaw, type of true love kept under!" (Four years later, ironically, Shaw was involved in a messy adultery case.)
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Bunthorne and Grosvenor in Patience
  • So Beautiful It's a Curse: Archibald Grosvenor in Patience
  • Spiritual Successor: The Doctor Who Big Finish audio play Doctor Who and the Pirates, Or The Lass that Lost A Sailor is one long Gilbert and Sullivan pastiche. Especially in Act 3, where it turns into a musical, with music ripped straight from Penzance, Mikado, and Pinafore.
  • Spoof Aesop: Stick close to your desk/And never go to sea/And you too may be ruler of the Queen's Navee!
  • Straw Feminist: The mainspring of the plot of Princess Ida.
  • Stylistic Suck: parodied with Bunthorne's poetry in Patience
  • Take That Us: "That infernal nonsense Pinafore!" — quite a bit of Pirates was blatant sucking up to Royal Meddling.
    • Also:

Mad Margaret: But see, they come – Sir Despard and his evil crew! Hide, hide – they are all mad – quite mad!
Rose: What makes you think that?
Margaret: Hush! They sing choruses in public. That's mad enough, I think.

  1. Sorcerer, Pinafore, Iolanthe, Ruddigore, Utopia, The Grand Duke, and, arguably, Gondoliers
  2. Technically, scripts for musicals and operas are called "libretti", but that's a pretty obscure word.
  3. The "pocket borough" that sent him into Parliament refers to a district that had all of its votes subverted by wealthy family.