Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Gilbert, [Sir] W S

(1836-1911) UK dramatist, librettist, poet and author of some short fiction. Almost all of his writings are ostensibly comic, much being Parody of other authors' works. His Bab Ballads sequence of narrative poems – including The "Bab" Ballads: Much Sound and Little Sense (coll 1867) and More "Bab" Ballads (coll 1873), both assembled with other work in The Bab Ballads: With Which are Included Songs of a Savoyard (coll 1898), plus Lost Bab Ballads (coll 1932) – is a thorough conspectus of logical absurdities and fantastic rigmaroles of plot and circumstance (see Topsy-Turvy) amounting to a sometimes nightmarish vision of a world subject to fantasy mechanisms gone haywire. These ballads are far more cruel than any of the famous Savoy Operas (see Opera) he wrote, with music by Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900), some of which are of fantasy interest – notably the pre-Savoy Theatre Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old (1871 chap), which mocks the Thinning of the ancient world; Iolanthe, or The Peer and the Peri (performed 1882; 1885 chap), a Satire in which Faerie is invaded by the House of Lords and vice versa; and Ruddigore, or The Witch's Curse! (1887 chap), about a haunted castle and a Curse. The first third of Marvin Kaye's The Incredible Umbrella (1979) and part of The Amorous Umbrella (1981) are set in a topsy-turvy world where characters from the Savoy Operas jostle, as the tale continues, with other figures from a Gaslight-Romance version of Victorian England.

WSG's other work is less known, but is of a piece with the Bab Ballads and generally more scathing than the Savoy Operas about human nature, which he deemed irretrievably selfish. His favourite dramatic turn, which became known as the "lozenge plot", was the utilization of some sort of Magic device which seems to change people utterly but which (in his early work at least) reveals them to retain, no matter how radically they seem to have been transformed, their essential selfish nature; in the grip of their essential being, humans are – for WSG – like puppets. In Dulcamara, or The Little Duck and the Great Quack (1866 chap) – his first play, based on the Opera L'elisir d'amore (1832) by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) – the "lozenge" is an Elixir. The eponymous magic building in the verse play The Palace of Truth: A Fairy Comedy (1871 chap) – based on the fairy plays of James Robinson Planché – makes it possible for the protagonists to hear what sycophants really wish to say. The characters in A Sensation Novel in Three Volumes (1871 chap), driven by demonic compulsions, search for a plot which will satisfy them. Happy Arcadia (1872 chap) features an Identity Exchange. The Wicked World: An Entirely Original Fairy Comedy (1873 chap) and The Happy Land: A Burlesque Version of "The Wicked World" (1873 chap), the latter by WSG writing as F Tomline with Gilbert Arthur À Beckett, are political Satires. Eyes and No Eyes (1875 chap) is a harlequinade (see Commedia dell'Arte) based on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes".

WSG wrote little prose fiction of interest, though Foggerty's Fairy and Other Tales (coll 1890) attempts to deflate various Fairytales through exorbitance and absurdity; as Foggerty's Fairy (1881 chap) the title story was presented on the stage. Some uncollected stories were assembled as The Lost Stories of W.S. Gilbert (coll 1982) ed Peter Haining. [JC]

other works: Harlequin, Cock-Robin and Jenny Wren, or Fortunatus and the Water of Life, the Three Bears, the Three Gifts, the Three Wishes, and the Little Man Who Woo'd the Little Maid: Grand Christmas Pantomime (1867 chap), a musical; Ages Ago: A Musical Legend (performed 1869; 1895 chap); The Gentleman in Black (1870 chap), a musical; Pygmalion and Galatea (1871 chap); Topsyturvydom (performed 1874; 1931 chap); Broken Hearts: An Entirely Original Fairy Play (1876 chap), set on a magic Island; The Mountebanks (1892 chap), a "lozenge" musical; The Fairy's Dilemma (1904 chap); Fallen Fairies (1909 chap), a musical; Gilbert Before Sullivan (coll 1969).

[Sir] William Schwenck Gilbert


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.