Review: The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan

The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan: 20th Anniversary Edition
Introduced and Edited by Ian Bradley
New York: Oxford University Press, 2016
xvi+1267 pages

“If at first . . . .” The old proverb usually ends with, “. . . you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

With Ian Bradley’s Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan, the opposite is true. His success as an annotator of the Savoy operas has granted him the rare opportunity to improve on the first volume of five operas published by Penguin in 1982. This was followed by six more operas in 1984.

In 1996, the first Oxford edition included the contents of the two Penguin volumes (with substantial corrections) and added two operas: Utopia, Limited, and The Grand Duke. A 2001 paperback re-issue “incorporated several further corrections and amendments.”

This new edition, on the twentieth anniversary of the first Oxford edition, incorporates additional corrections and adds Thespis, the last opera missing from the earlier volumes. It was issued simultaneously in hardback and paperback, costing (as I write this) $75.00 and $39.95 respectively on Amazon.

Bradley’s first two volumes contained a multitude of errors that I imagine would embarrass him now. At the time, I thought, “that was that.” And if this were the typical Gilbert and Sullivan book, that would be that. But because those volumes enjoyed some success, the Oxford edition of 1996 followed, and then the paperback reprint of 2001, and now this presumably final edition, each better than the last.

I cannot be entirely objective about these books. Michael Walters and I have recently published the first volume of The Variorum Gilbert and Sullivan, which covers some of the same ground as Bradley does—particularly, variant and deleted passages in the Savoy operas. In our general introduction, Walters and I subjected Bradley to harsh critique, particularly for his failure to clearly state his sources.

But I certainly think that every G&S fan ought to have a copy of Bradley in at least one of his iterations, if not all of them. Bradley covers considerable ground that the Variorum does not—especially, definitions of obscure terms and phrases. Besides that, the Variorum is a five-volume project whose completion is still years away. And despite Bradley’s omissions and occasional mistakes, I think there are many readers for whom he provides just the right amount of detail. He has sold more books in the last 35 years, and deservedly so, than Walters and I ever will.

Bradley has added an almost entirely new seven-page Introduction that serves as a “state of the union” for G&S aficionados, circa 2016. He concludes, as he has been saying in other forums for quite some time, that the Savoy operas are very much alive and well, despite those who would condemn them as relics of the past.

If you already have an earlier Bradley, you probably don’t need this one, unless you’re a completist like me. On a spot check, the 13 operas carried over from the last edition are lightly edited, but not altered very significantly. The book is set in a completely different typeface that feels, on the whole, a bit more “roomy” and easier to read than the setting of the 1996 edition, despite taking up less space.

A few years ago, I offered a list of the ten best Gilbert & Sullivan books. I cannot remember the other nine, but Bradley was on the list, and I stand by that. With this new edition, an indispensable work has become even better.

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