The Pocket Guide to Gilbert and Sullivan
By Diane Canwell and Jonathan Sutherland
Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2011
To the Mikado’s list of punishments can be added a new horror: being forced to read The Pocket Guide to Gilbert and Sullivan by Diane Canwell and Jonathan Sutherland. This is an abominable, pointless book, poorly written and full of errors. At 5 3/8 by 8 1/2 inches, it is not really pocket-sized, either.
The publisher, Pen & Sword, specializes in military, maritime, and aviation history. Canwell and Sutherland are house authors, having written such classics as Air War East Africa 1940–1941, Farming Industry, Zulu Kings and their Armies, and Unsolved East Anglian Murders. In all, I count 22 titles for the pair, none of which have anything to do with theatre history—except this one.
The book jacket tells us that the husband-and-wife team “are passionate about musical theatre and Jon worked for London Sadler’s Wells when D’Oyly Carte performed Gilbert & Sullivan for five months each season.” Sutherland’s recollection of his own biography is incorrect. The D’Oyly Carte never had a five-month season at Sadler’s Wells: seasons there varied from eight to fourteen weeks.
I frequently considered giving up on this book, and finally did so around page 160, by which time I had noted 140 errors, and I didn’t write down every one I saw. Perhaps the book’s only virtue is that a lengthy first-night press review (usually that of The Times) is quoted for each opera. These are practically the only well written pages that are free of factual error.
It would be pointless to list all of their mistakes, but I’ll quote a few illustrative examples:
On pp. 1–2: “Although [Richard] D’Oyly Carte died in 1901, his name would also live on . . . as The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, which continues to exist and to perform Gilbert and Sullivan works to this day.” Where can I book tickets?
On p. 5: “Gilbert went to King’s College . . . to study law.” He did not study law there.
On p. 6: “By the time [Gilbert] was 24 he had written 15 theatrical works; each time they were rejected.” What works? Rejected by whom?
On p. 22: “Gilbert and D’Oyly Carte went to Sullivan’s house and Gilbert read the libretto [of Trial by Jury] to him.” Carte did not go to Sullivan’s house.
On p. 27: “As soon as Trial by Jury was up and running D’Oyly Carte tried to get Gilbert and Sullivan together again to write a full-length comic opera.” No, he tried to revive Thespis, and then suggested another one-act piece.
On p. 27: “Trial by Jury’s end did not come as a result of lack of interest, but in the illness of Fred Sullivan.” It continued to be performed, both with and without Fred Sullivan.
On p. 30: “Sullivan had also struck up a friendship with Mary Frances Ronalds. . . . In fact it is almost certain that she was his mistress.” Almost??
On p. 31: “Mrs Howard Paul was selected to play Lady Sangazur [sic]. . . Many of the other members of the cast were students. . . .” Huh?
On p. 38: “Soon Richard Temple . . . would join the company in time for HMS Pinafore.” He was in The Sorcerer too.
I could go on for hours, but I will not.
There is an astounding quantity of typographical and mechanical errors, such as:
- The London landmark “Charring [sic] Cross”
- The American city of “Lewisville” (they mean Louisville)
- Sullivan’s friend “George Groves” (they mean Grove)
- The G&S characters “Council,” “Munthorne,” “Gianett,” and “Ph?be” (I am not making this up)
- “Frederick,” rather than “Frederic,” in Pirates
- Fred Sullivan was to have had a “principle” [sic] part in The Sorcerer
- Gilbert and Sullivan “complimented [sic] one another very well.”
- Hilarion is to “woe” (not woo) Princess Ida
- “The Witches [not Witch’s] Curse”
- The Yeoman of the Guard (throughout the book)
- In the plot summary of The Gondoliers, the “Palmieris [sic] family”
- “Blind man’s bluff” (should be “buff”)
- In The Grand Duke, the Baroness is Rudolph’s “fiancé” (with one ‘e’)
- “pompons” (where “pompous” is meant)
- “National Training School of Music” (should be for Music)
The first-night reviews seem to have been lifted from the G&S Archive site. This would explain why the word “Yeomen” is spelled correctly in the review, but everywhere else in the book, they use “Yeoman.” It would also explain the repeated misspelling “Ph?be,” which on the Archive site is “Phœbe.” Apparently their software could not translate the ‘œ’ digraph.
The writing is extremely pedestrian. If it were the work of a child, perhaps you would be impressed. Here is a typical paragraph:
Gilbert and Sullivan would become the fathers of the modern blockbuster musical. They created a formula that almost guaranteed theatrical success. Their musicals were melodic and funny and they would continue to attract literally millions of fans to this very day. It was one of the first musical marriages; an artistic partnership, a testing one for the pair of them, and one that was often punctuated with disputes and quarrels. Yet their partnership would become the blueprint for the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Lloyd Webber and Rice, to name but a few. Gilbert and Sullivan created 14 light operas and so popular would they become that they have been, and continue to be, performed by professional and amateur groups across the world.
Consecutive statements are often linked with “and,” “but,” or “in fact,” when they are unrelated to one another. An example comes on pp. 86–7: “Gladstone was amongst those who thoroughly enjoyed the performance of Iolanthe and in the spring of 1883 he would write to Sullivan, offering him a knighthood.” Both facts are true, but they were unrelated: the composer was knighted for his serious music, not his comic operas.
A similar example comes on p. 155: “Sullivan completed the Te Deum in July; this was his last piece of finished work, but it incorporated the tune of Onward Christian Soldiers in the last chorus.” Although both are true, the use of “but” suggests a non-existent relationship.
There are numerous misstatements about their works. Sullivan’s “In Memoriam” and The Golden Legend (called Longfellow’s Golden Legend, italicized thus, on a later page) are both described as oratorios. Gilbert apparently wrote a hitherto undiscovered play called The Sentimental Sweethearts. Sullivan wrote a hitherto unknown comedy called The Wicked World. His first opera, Cox and Box, was written in the 1870s. Later in his career, he managed to write The Gondoliers and Ivanhoe simultaneously. Sullivan did not just find Schubert’s Rosamunde; he completed it, as well.
I am sure that scholars will be delighted to discover Mrs. Ronalds’ recording of The Lost Chord, which we learn (on p. 30) was “one of the first ever recordings made in England.”
There is a chapter per opera, with a brief historical overview, a lengthy first-night review, the opening night cast, and a plot synopsis, the latter invariably incorrect. I could give many examples; for instance, in Trial by Jury: “Edwin . . . suggests that he will marry Angelina and then his new girlfriend the following day. The judge tells him that this is unlawful.” Actually, the judge says the idea is reasonable; it’s the counsel who points out that it is unlawful.
One will search in vain for the passage in The Mikado where Ko-Ko seeks to change the law against flirting, or the scene in Yeomen where Leonard helps to steal the keys from Shadbolt. In Ruddigore, we learn that in Act II Despard and Margaret have “rekindled their relationship,” not that they are married.
The book ends with twenty or so pages of biographies of Savoyards, but the selection is very eccentric. Why a bio for William Lugg (creator of Scynthius) but not Blanche Roosevelt (creator of Mabel)? Why Henry Lytton but not Bertha Lewis? The biographies are, of course, full of mistakes, just like everything else.
The book ends with a brief bibliography and a four-page chronology. There is no index.
There is a generous quantity of illustrations (all in black and white), many taken from the Library of Congress collection. I cannot imagine what prompted them to use this source, but it does at least mean that a good number of the illustrations aren’t the commonly seen ones. And every illustration included is a half-page where the authors cannot make any more errors.