[The following essay first appeared in “Gilbert and Sullivan,” in Greenwood Encyclopedia of Love, Courtship, and Sexuality Through History: Vol. 5 The Nineteenth Century (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008), ed. Susan Mumm. 93–94. It is also available on Academia.edu. George P. Landow created this web version in February 2017.]

It may be a widespread assumption that nothing could be more foreign to the comic operas of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan than references to sexual relationships, but it is possible that certain members of the audience may have detected a lewd innuendo at times. Did nobody ever smile during Iolanthe when the Fairy Queen wonders if Captain Shaw (Head of London’s Metropolitan Fire Brigade) possesses a hose capable of quenching her great love, or when Strephon confesses he is a fairy down to the waist? Is it only a later, sophisticated, perhaps decadent audience that could hear a double entendre in Grosvenor’s cautionary rhyme “Teasing Tom was a very bad boy, / A great big squirt was his favourite toy” (Patience, Act 2)? In this last example, a sexual insinuation seems confirmed by the poem’s moral: “The consequence was he was lost totally, / And married a girl in the corps de bally.” There is no doubt, surely, that the popularity of St. James’s Park as a haunt for prostitutes would have added spice to Lord Tolloller’s comment on Iolanthe’s assignation with an unidentified man:

I heard the minx remark,
She’d meet him after dark,
Inside St. James’s Park,
And give him one!

There are a number of occasions when a decidedly sexual interest is shown by one character in another. Indicating the sentry, Private Willis, the Fairy Queen cries, “Do you suppose that I am insensible to the effect of manly beauty? Look at that man!” However, she lays great stress upon her crushing of these feelings—in other words, in displaying her sexual self-control. The song in which she invokes the real-life Captain Shaw movingly describes a “type of true love kept under.” Ironically, Captain Shaw was himself keeping true love under, as was revealed in court two years after the premiere of Iolanthe when Lord Colin Campbell accused him of having had an affair with his wife. Shaw admitted he had burned with love for her, but never declared himself.

Characters are aware of social contexts in which the erotic can intrude. In Ruddigore, Mad Margaret and Sir Despard Murgatroyd reassure the audience: “This is one of our blameless dances.” In the Mikado, Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum are fully aware of the moral dangers of kissing and, in their duet, kiss each other merely to make absolutely clear, by concrete example, that this is what they will never do in future. Of course, this duet is a tease; it is inevitably sexually loaded, and is one of the features of operetta that marks out new possibilities—here, humorous flirtation—for the musical stage. The Japanese setting should fool nobody; wherever they are set, the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas are always about the social and political condition of Britain.

Gilbert’s young heroines are often conscious of their allure, as Yum-Yum makes clear in her song “The Sun Whose Rays.” On the other hand, many have deplored his use of spinsters as figures of fun. However, Jane Stedman has argued that Gilbert’s corpulent dames are used to satirize the value placed on youth and beauty in women as a conventional requisite for marriage, and they usually possess a strength of character denied to his leading soprano characters. Moreover, they also have a part to play as sexual beings. When, in the context of the satire of artistic pretensions in Patience, Lady Jane announces, “I am limp and I cling,” the sexual dimension of the images of women in Pre-Raphaelite paintings is made suddenly blatant by the thought of a clinging, fleshly Lady Jane. In the same opera, the actions of the poet Reginald Bunthorne can be related directly to his sexual drive. He reveals to the audience that he has been playing the role of an aesthete merely in order to be attractive to the women of the neighbourhood who have fallen under the spell of the Aesthetic Movement. Yet, for Bunthorne, the aesthetic realm is opposed to the real world of flesh and blood and human desire, and he only occupies a place in the former domain so as to acquire a means of attaining the fleshly satisfaction for which he yearns. In such a manner, high-minded artifice and the realities of everyday life are bluntly juxtaposed.

In general, a non-romantic, even anti-romantic, ethos prevails in these comic operas. Bunthorne, accepting that Jane will never leave him, comments that, after all, she’s “a fine figure of a woman.” Marriage is often a solution to a problem: Private Willis, realizing that the Fairy Queen needs to marry to remain immortal, declares, “I don’t think much of the British soldier who wouldn’t ill-convenience himself to save a female in distress.” This is not to say that more conventional love pairs do not exist. We have only to think of Strephon and Phyllis, who are also given a love duet with conventional melodic intertwining. Nevertheless, such characters are rarely the focus point—and though Jack Point’s death from love is moving in Yeomen of the Guard, so, in its own remarkable way, is that of the lovesick little bird in the deliberately ridiculous “Tit Willow” from Mikado.

The anti-romantic qualities, with their masculine connotations, may account for the numbers of men attracted to Gilbert and Sullivan. It is not difficult, either, to find a masculinity that resonates with ideas of camp behaviour in the operas. Gay admirers are many, and Mark Savage staged a highly successful gay version of H.M.S. Pinafore in 2001. Gilbert himself was a contentedly married if undemonstrative husband, and very much a man’s man—though he died as a consequence of rescuing a woman from drowning. Sullivan was the philanderer. He was closest to Mrs. Mary Frances Ronalds, who was living in London separated from her husband. Before this, there is evidence in the form of love letters to show Sullivan was conducting affairs with two sisters simultaneously.

Suggested Reading

Bradley, Ian, ed., The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan. Oxford University Press, 1996, 2nd edn 2001.

Stedman, Jane W., W. S. Gilbert: A Classic Victorian and His Theatre. Oxford University Press, 1996.


Last modified 23 February 2017