Gilbert served in the military, earning the rank of captain, before beginning a short-lived career as a barrister (lawyer). As he didn't normally have more than five clients in a year's time, Gilbert needed an extra source of income. So he began writing. Using his nickname Bab as a pseudonym, Gilbert wrote and illustrated poems for comic magazines. These gained such popularity that they were printed in a book called The Bab Ballads. Gilbert later used this material in his plays and comic operas.
The first play to gain Gilbert fame was Dulcamara. His sense of humor through farces and puns intrigued many playgoers. Then when Thomas German Reed opened his theatre called Gallery of Illustration, Gilbert's career took off. As one of the main playwrights and a stickler about acting and stage direction, Gilbert took charge of the whole production of his musical comedies. He required that each performer give his character an air of complete unawareness of his own folly. His work allowed George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde to later gain immense popularity on the English stage. Gilbert's attention to detail remains part of his legacy.
The plays Gilbert wrote and directed for the Haymarket Theatre showed his successful dramatic side. Thus Gilbert was well-rounded and popular of his own accord before he began collaborating with Sir Arthur Sullivan. The Bab Ballads and his first musicals gave Gilbert the practice he'd need as a lyricist with Sullivan.
Gilbert and Sullivan's first piece together called Thespis was a Christmas production. Though somewhat well-received, Thespis, Or the Gods Grown Old never became published and the music is now lost. After separating for about four years, Gilbert and Sullivan worked together for Richard D'Oyly Carte's Comedy Opera Company. Their most successful comedy was Engaged which is still performed today. From H.M.S. Pinafore to The Gondoliers, the comic operas garnered the duo much fame. A few of their operas ran longer than any other musical stage productions in history at that time. Their series of operas became known as the Savoy Operas for the theatre where they performed.
Plays for the most part were only published for the actors use. In order to gain more credibility among the general reading public, Gilbert had his plays printed in clear type and bound appealingly. Financially successful, Gilbert focused on his work with Sullivan, and only wrote plays once in a while for other theatres.
Eventually the collaboration came to a permanent end. Perhaps it was because Gilbert and Sullivan had two distinct temperaments—Gilbert was confrontational at times and Sullivan avoided conflict or perhaps because both were a touch too egotistical. Financial issues often also played a part in their disagreements. However, only four years after their partnership ended, Sullivan died.
Gilbert went on in life to build the Garrick Theatre and two years later he was named a Justice of the Peace in Harrow Weald. Though he and his wife Lucy had no children of their own, Gilbert loved being around youngsters, and the couple unofficially adopted an actress as their daughter. Gilbert acted on stage himself, produced plays until his death, and oversaw revivals of his own works. In 1907 Gilbert was knighted in recognition for the contributions he'd made to drama. This made him the first British writer to gain knighthood only for writing and producing plays.
A heart attack took Gilbert's life while he was teaching two young women how to swim in the lake at his home. He was 75 years old.
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