He won fame as the librettist of numerous popular operettas, written in collaboration with the composer Sir Arthur Sullivan. While on the staff of the magazine Fun, he first became known as the author of Bab Ballads, amusing but often bitter and cynical poems, published in that magazine and collected in 1869. His first play Dulcamara was produced in 1866. It was followed by several fairly successful comedies, dramas, and burlesques. In 1871, Gilbert began his collaboration with Arthur Sullivan, lasting about 20 years, which resulted in the popular operettas for which they are famous. The first of their joint works was Thespis (1871) and the last was The Grand Duke (1896). Their most famous operettas are Trial by Jury (1875), H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1879), Patience (1881), Iolanthe (1882), Princess Ida (1884), The Mikado (1885), Ruddigore (1887), The Yeoman of the Guard (1888), and The Gondoliers (1889). Gilbert's lyrics are those of a metrical craftsman. In his songs he satirized various aspects of Victorian life: aesthetes, the navy, the law, and women's education. The Savoy Theatre, built by Richard D'Oyly Carte in 1881 to house Gilbert and Sullivan operas, gave them the name Savoy operas. About 1896 a quarrel between Gilbert and Sullivan concerning a business arrangement with Carte terminated their collaboration. Thereafter neither of them produced anything to equal their joint works.
See Gilbert's collected poems and plays (1947); his life and letters by Sidney Dark and Rowland Grey (1923, repr. 1972); study by Hesketh Pearson (1957); bibliography by Townley Searle (1931, repr. 1967); Leslie Ayre, The Gilbert and Sullivan Companion (1972).
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