“I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;
I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
About binomial theorem I’m teeming with a lot o’ news,
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.”
That’s Sir W S Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. The two of them wrote 14 comic operas; Gilbert was the librettist, and Sir Arthur Sullivan composed the music. The operas, which lampooned hot topics of the Victorian era, are still widely popular even though the barbs are dated and modern audiences miss most of the references; Sir Gilbert’s wordplay is so skillful that no greater knowledge of context is necessary.
Gilbert and Sullivan met in 1870, and they began collaborating the following year. Their working relationship was often strained because they had very different personalities and different ambitions. Gilbert, who was often contentious and prickly, poked fun at the upper classes. Sullivan, who avoided conflict whenever possible, longed to be accepted by them.
They also argued because they each felt the other’s work was given more prominence. Gilbert favored absurd stories where Sullivan preferred more genuine emotion and realism. They nevertheless managed to produce such enduring favorites as H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1879), and The Mikado (1885).