"I have a pretty wit - a light, airy, joysome wit, spiced with anecdotes of prison cells and the torture chamber"
Few men can have left such a widely different impression on their contemporaries than Gilbert did on his. Women thought him pleasant, kind and affectionate. Men thought him overbearing, intolerant and offensive. He was, in fact, irritated by self-important folk, who thought a lot of themselves and gave themselves airs. He hated anything in the nature of a pose. His manner was abrupt and direct and he never went out of his way to make people feel comfortable. He saw a great deal of absurdity in everybody and everything. The only people who got on well with him were those who had no exalted opinion of themselves.
His wit, which came like quick lightning, usually consisted of a play on words. His facility in this particular medium was unique and gained him a reputation for acidity that made people nervous in his presence.
The following are a few of his famous one-liners which have now gone into history.
Socialising | Actresses | Actors | Chorus | People | In Public
While Gilbert and Sullivan were in New York performing "Pirates", a lady gushingly informed Gilbert that his friend Sullivan's music was really "too delightful". It reminded her of "dear Bach".
"Do tell me," she asked, "what is Bach doing just now? Is he still composing?"
"Well no, Madam," Gilbert replied sardonically, "just now as a matter of fact dear Bach is by way of decomposing."
At one of his frequent visits to his club Gilbert was asked if he had happened to have seen a member with one eye called Matthews.
"H'm, don't know that I have." replied Gilbert. "What's his other eye called?"
When invited to attend a concert in aid of the Soldiers' Daughters' Home, Gilbert regretted that he could not be present:
"However, I would be delighted to see one of the soldiers' daughters home after the entertainment."
Someone once took Gilbert to task for using the word "coyful" in one of his operas.
"How can anyone be full of coy?" he was asked.
"I don't know," came the reply, "but for that matter how can anyone be full of bash."
Gilbert once caught a bad chill from sitting on a damp lawn with a lovely young lady. However, after-reflection made him wonder whether he had caught it from eating a melon.
"What will you have?" he asked another attractive woman at supper. "Whatever you have, I shall have. That way I will know exactly how you are feeling in the morning."
Gilbert once confided in a friend that he thought Shakespeare a very obscure writer.
"What do you think of this passage?" he asked. "'I would as lief be thrust through a quicket hedge as cry Pooh to a callow throstle.'"
"That is perfectly plain," said the friend. "A great lover of feathered songsters, rather than disturb the little warbler, would prefer to go through a thorny hedge. But I can't, for the moment, recall the passage. Where does it occur?"
"I have just invented it," said Gilbert, "and jolly good Shakespeare too!"
Gilbert did not think much of his fellow dramatists.
At a dinner party shortly before the production of a new play by Henry Arthur Jones, someone asked him:
"What do you think of Jones's new title?"
"Don't know what it is," replied Gilbert.
"It's quaint, to say the least; he's going to call his piece The Princess's Nose."
"Hm," grunted Gilbert; "I hope it'll run."
To a young actress who complained to him that a dresser had insulted her by telling her that she was "no better than she should be," he comfortingly replied, "Well, you are not, my dear, are you?"
"Why, of course not," the girl responded.
"Ah, well," said Gilbert, "then that's all right."
A young actress complained to Gilbert that an actor had put his arm around her waist and called her a "pretty dear,"
He sent her away happily with the reassuring words, "Never mind, my dear, never mind; he couldn't have meant it."
To an actress who had to cry "Stay! let me speak" at a certain point in a play, but who kept crying "Stay! Stay! Let me speak," he said:
"It isn't 'Stay! Stay!; It's 'Stay!' - one stay, not a pair of stays."
Asked whether he had recently seen much of a certain actress, Gilbert replied:
"Not much. Only her face and hands!"
"Where's Miss ---?" enquired Gilbert at the conclusion of an act.
Barrington, who was sitting with him in the stalls, pointed to the door leading through to the stage and said: "She's round behind."
"I know," said Gilbert, "but where is she?"
To an attractive actress who was going to give a special performance at Brighton and who said that she would have to take her mother with her as chaperon, Gilbert remarked:
"Couldn't you trust the old lady in town for one evening by herself."
During rehearsals for Thespis one of the principals became quite indignant.
"Really, Mr Gilbert, why should I stand here?" she asked. "I am not a chorus girl!"
"No, madam", Gilbert replied, "your voice isn't strong enough, or you would be!"
During rehearsals for H.M.S. Pinafore Gilbert called out to one of the lady singers:
"Miss ------, why are you taking the centre of the stage? Did I not tell you to stand over there?"
The actress indignantly replied, "Indeed, Mr. Gilbert - I always took centre-stage in Italian opera."
"Madam", storms Gilbert, "This is not Italian opera. It is only a low burlesque of the worst possible kind."
One Savoyard, George Grossmith, was grumbling at one rehearsal. "We've been over this twenty times at least."
"What's that I hear, Mr Grossmith?" asked Gilbert.
"I was saying, Mr Gilbert, that I've rehearsed this confounded business until I feel the perfect fool."
"Humm...now we can talk on equal terms," snorted Gilbert.
"I beg your pardon?"
"I accept your apology."
George Grossmith, anxious to score a "laugh" during one of his scenes, fell over and rolled on the floor.
"Kindly omit that," said Gilbert sternly
"Certainly, if you wish it," replied Grossmith, "but I get an enormous laugh by it."
"So you would if you sat on a pork-pie," was Gilbert's comment.
At one rehearsal Grossmith was made to go over one scene no less than twenty times and when told to do so again he exploded:
"I've rehearsed this confounded business until I feel a perfect fool!"
"Ah," said Gilbert, "now we can talk on equal terms."
During a rehearsal of Pinafore Rutland Barrington was asked to cross left and sit on the skylight over the saloon, pensively.
The actor did so, but the stage carpenter had sewn the skylight with packthread and it collapsed under Barrington's fourteen stone.
"That's expensively," remarked Gilbert.
After the first performance of one of the Operas someone pointed out to Gilbert that Barrington had, for a wonder, sung all his songs in tune.
"Oh, I know that first night nervousness," said Gilbert, "it soon wears off."
One day Grossmith brought Gilbert a message from a young actor who was anxious to play the leading part in a forthcoming revival.
"He only wants you to give him the first refusal of the part," added Grossmith hurriedly.
"With the greatest pleasure," came the unexpected reply.
"That's very kind of you," murmured Grossmith gratefully.
"Not at all," said Gilbert; "I refuse him at once."
At the rehearsals of Pinafore a player of the older school refused to repeat for, perhaps, the fiftieth time a piece of "business" which Gilbert was patiently instructing him to do.
"No, sir, I object," said the actor warmly. "I have been on the stage quite long enough."
"Quite," agreed Gilbert, and dismissed him on the spot.
An actor who had a high opinion of himself did not escape the dramatist's unfavourable notice.
When it was announced that Arthur Bourchier was going to play Hamlet, Gilbert declared:
"At last we can settle whether Bacon or Shakespeare wrote the plays. Have both the coffins opened and whichever has turned in his grave is the author."
During the rehearsals for Princess Ida an actor rebelled against the author's inexorable demands with, "Lookhere, sir, I will not be bullied! I know my lines!"
"That may be so," rejoined Gilbert, "but you don't know mine."
A well-known amateur named H. Such Granville once accosted Gilbert in the foyer of a theatre:
"Excuse me for speaking to you without an introduction, Mr Gilbert, You may have heard of me. My name is Such, but I act as Granville."
"Oh, do you?" came the curt reply. "Then I wish your name was Granville and you acted as such!"
In a revival of The Yeomen of the Guard Gilbert complained that the actor, who was playing Jack Point, was caressing Elsie and Phoebe with unnecessary warmth.
"Ah, yes I see," retorted the actor, "you would not kiss them more than once?"
"Oh, indeed I would!" exclaimed Gilbert, "but I must ask you not to."
Walter Passmore was rehearsing the role of Sir Joseph Porter for a revival of Pinafore when he suggested to Gilbert that he might walk around with his nose in the air, as though raising it above an unpleasant smell.
"Unpleasant smell?" said Gilbert. "Well, you're the best judge of that, Passmore."
When a member of the male chorus, who persisted in raising his left hand instead of his right in unison with the others, was checked by Gilbert with the words, "My good fellow, if you don't know your right, ask the gentleman on your left."
Once, while directing a dress-rehearsal of The Mikado from the centre of the stalls, Gilbert suddenly called out:
"There's a gentleman in the left group not holding his fan correctly."
The stage-manager at once came forward to say that the offender was a temporary substitute: "One gentleman is absent though illness, sir," he explained.
"Ah, that is not the gentleman I am referring to," replied Gilbert.
An innuendo from a member of the company would have produced an explosion, and probably an expulsion, from Gilbert.
It was a black-letter day in the annals of the Savoy when Gilbert, explaining to the chorus how the word "politely" should be accented in a song, said:
"The ladies must go down on the 'po'."
The tittering that followed his order was sternly checked.
Gilbert never cared for 'New Women'. When he read that certain Suffragettes had chained themselves to the railings in Downing Street and shouted "Votes for Women", he remarked:
"I shall follow suit. I shall chain myself to the railings outside Queen Charlotte's Maternity Hospital and yell 'Beds for Men'."
Fussy women got on Gilbert's nerves. When one such lady noticed a wasp on his sleeve and screamed out that he must watch it as he would surely be stung.
"I have no great opinion of the intellect of the insect," came the dry reply, "but if it is not such a fool as to take me for a flower."
Gilbert could be rude to women who adopted artificial methods of rejuvenation.
"I fell on the back of my head and was only saved from concussion by my thick hair." said one of them.
"Now you will never grudge that last five pounds you paid for it" retorted Gilbert.
Gilbert once received a letter from a young man in Australia asking him if he would provide the libretto for a comic opera which the correspondent proposed to set to music.
The correspondent said that he felt he was a born musician, though he had been educated as a chemist.
Gilbert replied that he felt he would rather work with a born chemist who had been educated as a musician.
An old trombone player shut up a fly in his music-book. The next night, when he came to the smudge, he ran down the scale. He explained afterwards:
"I don't know vot dat big note vos, but I blayed it."
"Are you sure it was a fly?" asked Gilbert. "It might have been a bee flat."
Jessie Bond, standing next to Gilbert, observed a messenger dodging the actors and crew to deliver a parcel to an actress. She exclaimed "Look, Mr. Gilbert, at that agile creature. One would think he were dancing a pas-seul." "Yes," came the reply, "a brown paper pas-seul, obviously."
When Sullivan was knighted, Gilbert sent him a short telegrah:
"My Dear Sir!"
One evening while leaving the Haymarket Theatre after a play a stranger mistook Gilbert for an attendant.
"Hey, you. You!" called the stranger.
"Eh? You talking to me, sir?" asked Gilbert.
"Yes, you. Call me a cab."
"H'm. Certainly. You're a four-wheeler."
"How dare you, sir. What d'you mean?"
"Well, you asked me to call you a cab - and I couldn't call you 'hansom'."
One evening, soon after the opening of 'Ruddygore', Gilbert ran into a friend.
"How is Bloodygore going on?" asked the friend.
"It isn't Bloodygore", replied Gilbert, "it's Ruddygore."
"Oh, it's the same thing." stated the friend.
"Is it?" retorted Gilbert. "Then I suppose you'll take it that if I say 'I admire your ruddy countenance,' I mean 'I like your bloody cheek!'"