Gilbert and Sullivan


The “entirely new and original Aesthetic opera,” Patience, by the lyricist W.S. Gilbert and the composer Arthur Sullivan, was first performed at the Savoy Theatre, London, in 1881. It parodies the affectations of the poets and artists of the Aesthetic Movement and the gullibility of their admirers. The “fleshly poet” Bunthorne, has won over the affections of a group of “rapturous maidens,” who had previously been betrothed to honest, manly soldiers from a regiment of Dragoon Guards. Bunthorne’s soliloquies (with phrases like “Quivering on amaranthine asphodel”) parody the works of the Aesethetic poet Algernon Swinburne. But the figure of Bunthorne alluded particularly to the young Oscar Wilde, already known for the lily in his buttonhole, and the painter James McNeill Whistler. Bunthorne also describes himself as “a greenery-yallery Grosvenor Gallery / Foot in the grave young man.” Edward Burne-Jones’s painting Chant d’Amour, was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery exhibition of 1878. Green and yellow were favored colors for Aesthetic women’s dresses. 

Gilbert’s sparkling libretto also hits many other targets. The Gothic Revival of the 1840s and Pre-Raphaelite movement of the 1850s held up the medieval period as purer and more beautiful than the present, a belief shared by Burne-Jones and his friend William Morris. Many lines in Patience debunk this belief. As Bunthorne says:

Though the Philistines may jostle, you will rank as an apostle in the high Aesthetic band If you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your medieval hand. Above all, however, human pretensions are targeted, and Bunthorne admits “I’m an Aesthetic sham…my medievalism’s an affectation / Born of a morbid love of admiration.”

Gilbert and Sullivan would continue to engage with one of the preoccupations of the Aesthetic movement in their following operetta, The Mikado, which played on Japonisme, the popular enthusiasm for all things Japanese embodied in John Lavery’s painting Woman in a Japanese Dress. The Mikado adopts a fantastical Japanese setting not only to parody the such contemporary fashions, but also to expose the foibles of figures of authority (such as the grand Pooh-Bah). Some decried its disrespectful depiction of Japan as a land of tyranny but G.K. Chesterton argued that ‘there is not a single joke [in The Mikado] against Japan; they are all … jokes against England’. Whereas the costumes did allude very generally to Japanese styles, the music betrays not a trace of Japanese influence, but rather balances rhythmic patter-songs with sentimental ballads in Sullivan’s accustomed style.