A Most Ingenious Paradox: The Art of Gilbert and Sullivan

A Most Ingenious Paradox: The Art of Gilbert and Sullivan

A Most Ingenious Paradox: The Art of Gilbert and Sullivan

A Most Ingenious Paradox: The Art of Gilbert and Sullivan


Written more than a century ago, and initially regarded even by their creators as nothing more than light entertainment, the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan emerged over the course of the 20th century as the world's most popular body of musical-theatre works. Despite the works' resounding popularity and proven longevity however, most books written on Gilbert and Sullivan have focused on the authors, rather than their work. Examining all fourteen operas in detail, Gayden Wren offers a fresh look at the works themselves. He argues that the key to the operas' longevity lies not primarily in their clever lyrics, witty dialogue, or catchy music, but in the central themes underlying the characters and stories.


I hope this book will be useful to a wide variety of readers, from hardcore Gilbert & Sullivan aficionados to performers and directors looking for insights into a particular show—not to mention devotees of musical theater, more casual Gilbert & Sullivan fans, and anyone else.

Accordingly, I've attempted to organize the book in such a way that each of these constituencies will be able to find what they're looking for in it.

To begin with, the chapters themselves assume basic familiarity with the story and characters of the opera in question—plot information seemed to be cluttering up the chapters unnecessarily, and I decided it was fair to assume in most cases that a reader wouldn't be reading a chapter about an opera that he or she hadn't seen, heard, or at least read.

However, my first appendix consists of plot summaries of all 14 Gilbert & Sullivan operas; anyone reading a chapter on an unfamiliar opera should start with the appendix so as to have the basic information necessary to make sense of the chapter.

Similar considerations led me to provide a detailed examination of the post-opening revisions of Ruddigore in the second appendix, rather than in chapter 12, where it might otherwise belong. Again, it will help to read the appendix before tackling the chapter itself.

On numerous occasions, I discuss Gilbert's use of rhyme schemes in the overall context of his work. Several different formats are conventionally used for such material. I have chosen the A/B format, as being the clearest—if occasionally the most initially intimidating—of the lot.

In this scheme, the final sound in the last syllable of each line is awarded a letter—the first one A, the second B, and so forth. If, however, a line rhymes with a preceding one, the same letter is used.

Thus, the familiar “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” would be an AABB song, with “star” rhymes tagged Aand “high” rhymes B:

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