scene from Princess Ida

That Infernal Nonsense
Savoy Operas and more
by W. S. Gilbert

Near the end of W. S. Gilbert’s life, the publisher George Bell put out illustrated editions of eight of the central ten operas. Words by Gilbert, pictures by W. Russell Flint (1880–1969), music by . . . well, you can’t have everything. Originally there were two volumes, containing four operas each; within a few years these were reissued as single-title “uniform editions”. As far as I can tell, the two versions are page-for-page identical, probably set from the same plates. Sometimes not even the page numbers were changed.

Around the same time, the same publisher was working with Gilbert on prose inter­preta­tions of H.M.S. Pinafore and The Mikado, to be illustrated by Alice Woodward (1862–1951). If you’ve always wondered how “I’ve got a little list” would read if edited for children, Gilbert has got you covered.

The Author(s)

Before Lerner and Loewe or Rodgers and Hammerstein—even before Rodgers and Hart—there was Gilbert and Sullivan. Before Gilbert and Sullivan, there was . . . well, nobody. Operas were identified with the composer of the music; the librettist is a matter for musico­logical trivia. (Dredging my memory, I come up with one name: Schikaneder. Don’t ask me to think of a second.) This held true even when the opera had spoken dialogue—making it technically an operetta, if you want to be snooty about it. The person who wrote all those words simply didn’t matter. Unless his name was William Schwenck Gilbert.

There are, without exaggeration, thousands if not millions of sources of information on Gilbert and Sullivan, jointly and severally. My current one-stop shop is The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive (formerly housed at Boise State).

Short version: Although Gilbert (1836–1911) was older than Sullivan (1842–1900), he outlived him by more than ten years—and even then, Gilbert had a sudden and dramatic death while Sullivan died of natural causes. Their first joint effort was Thespis in 1871. It is now mostly lost, except for one number that was repurposed for The Pirates of Penzanze, but it showed that the pair could work well together, which is the important thing. A few years later, the one-act Trial by Jury similarly did its job—and continues to do so. The Sorcerer, Gilbert and Sullivan’s earliest surviving full-length work, was a respectable success. And then came 1878 and H.M.S. Pinafore. From there on, there was no looking back—at least not until the Great Carpet Quarrel of 1890. For details, see any of those thousands-to-millions of sources. (Short version, again: Technically Gilbert was in the right, but let’s be reasonable.)

Predictably, both men longed to be known for their “serious” work. In Arthur Sullivan’s case, the wish seems to have been granted—at least in the short term. He was knighted pretty exactly halfway through his career, in 1883, while W. S. Gilbert had to wait another quarter-century. That’s the thanks you get for “With all our faults, we love our Queen”.

In the long term, history had other ideas. To quote—fittingly enough—Sullivan’s Travels: There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh.

Savoy Operas

The volume contains The Pirates of Penzance, Patience, Princess Ida . . . at which point the publisher ran out of initial P’s and had to fill out the collection with The Yeomen of the Guard. There’s also a short introduction by W. S. Gilbert, offering details of the respective operas’ history and production.

Introduction and Contents

The Pirates of Penzance


Princess Ida

Yeomen of the Guard

Iolanthe and Other Operas

The “others” are The Mikado, Ruddigore and The Gondoliers. This time there’s no W. S. Gilbert introduction, so you’ll have to make up your own backstage stories.



The Mikado


The Gondoliers

But what about . . .?

You would expect to see a matching third volume containing The Sorcerer, H.M.S. Pinafore, Utopia, Limited and The Grand Duke. But it doesn’t seem to exist. I don’t know the story behind its absence; probably there’s a boring legal explanation. Happily we do have one illustrator’s take on Pinafore; read on.

Picture Books and More

The Pinafore Picture Book

The Story of the Mikado

The Bab Ballads

More Bab Ballads

It is not every day that you find a book published fully ten years after the death of its author. But that is the case with The Story of the Mikado. The publisher’s introduction explains briefly. Among other things, a war intervened, making it hard to come up with luxuries such as full-color plates. Even in 1921, the budget only ran to six plates (and sixteen line drawings); The Pinafore Picture Book, published in W. S. Gilbert’s lifetime, had sixteen (and twelve drawings)—along with nine snippets of musical notation. Aside from these details, Mikado is a close match with Pinafore.

The Bab Ballads—both collections—feature simple drawings by . . . Bab himself, otherwise known as William Schwenck Gilbert, writing in the 1860s. At that stage of his career, editors were happy to get a twofer: text and illustrations for one modest payment. Pay close attention and you’ll find names, ideas and throwaway lines that later grew into full operas.


Russell Flint signature

The cold-blooded reader may observe that Russell Flint’s lush and lyrical style doesn’t really have a lot to do with Gilbert and Sullivan. It’s more suited to his best-known work, the 1910–11 edition of Le Morte d’Arthur. Granted, there’s room for overlap. The picture at the top of this page is from Princess Ida: “Though I am but a girl, Defiance thus I hurl”. But before you get too excited, note that Flint died in 1969. That means the pictures are still under copyright almost everywhere outside the U.S. And if the TransPacific Party Pooper (I forget its exact name) is enacted, they will go right back into copyright for another twenty-odd years, even here. So you can look but don’t touch.

The two picture books—Pinafore and Mikado—were illustrated by Alice B. Woodward, whose style is a bit sharper-edged than Flint’s. That’s not surprising when you learn that she wore two professional hats; the other was as a scientific illus­trator, where detail is everything. She wasn’t without her own sense of fun, though. Her monogram (AWB) is typically hidden somewhere in the picture: the border of a skirt worn by one of Joseph Porter’s female relations, a sailor’s ice-cream tub, Little Buttercup’s basket.

Alice B. Woodward monogram   Alice B. Woodward monogram   Alice B. Woodward monogram

Some plays’ preliminary information includes the name of the set designer, Henry Hawes Craven (1837–1910) or Henry Emden (1852–1930). I don’t know whether Flint or Wood­ward ever saw any of their productions, and if so, whether they were influenced by their designs.


The etexts are based on scans from several different sources, all at the Internet Archive unless otherwise noted. Pirates, Patience and Yeomen are from Savoy Operas, while Princess Ida is from the single-title edition. Conversely, in the second volume, Mikado, Ruddigore and Gondoliers are each from single-title editions, while for Iolanthe . . . I bought the book. Everyone should own some­thing that isn’t a Terry Pratchett paperback. In any case it wasn’t very expensive—and having access to the physical book let me make more decisions about color values in the scanned illustrations.

Although the texts are based on the George Bell illustrated editions, I checked most songs against the published libretti (London: Chappell) and some­times even the vocal scores. Differences are most striking in The Pirates of Penzance, maybe because of its unusual production history. Some plays seem to have been typeset directly from the libretto, so you’ll find the same errors in both places.

For details about other titles, such as the prose retellings and Bab Ballads, see the individual texts.

Layout, Spelling and Punctuation

Ensemble songs may have as many as six or eight distinct vocal lines. Text-only editions—whether George Bell’s illustrated version or the official libretto—didn’t have room for more than three verses side by side, and even then they had to use smaller type. The more complicated songs were printed two by two in successive blocks. I’ve put a box around any ensemble piece (two or more vocal lines) so you’ll recognize them regardless of how wide your screen is:

First voice

Second voice

Third voice

Fourth voice

In the text accompanying the cast lists, it’s always “reproduced” where you might expect “re-produced” (that is, produced again). Stage directions and scene descriptions were normally printed without final period. All -ize spellings and double quotation marks are in the original.

Typographical errors are marked with mouse-hover popups and are listed again at the end of each play. The word “invisible” means that the letter or punctuation mark is missing, but there is an appropriately sized blank space. Aside from clear-cut mechanical errors such as missing punctuation in abbreviations, errors were only corrected if I found the expected form in another source (libretto or vocal score).