Getting Gilbert Unmarried

The famous librettist, sans Sullivan, is most engaging with a play that's so old it's new again

For many, the most anticipated treat on this spring's roster of theater events is a totally homegrown rendering of a foreign import, a play so old that it's new, and so quaint that its attitude may seem totally up-to-date. Even more surprising, it's a solo performance by an artist who's normally viewed as chained for life to his partner. Just say "Gilbert," and if you're referring to William Schwenck Gilbert (1836-1911), the automatic reply will always be "and Sullivan." After all, even movie fans know, thanks to Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy, that these two guys wrote The Mikado, not to mention H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and nearly a dozen other pieces of light music-theater that for more than a century have cropped up everywhere from community sings to major opera houses, and show no signs of disappearing, even if the clutch of websites devoted to them doesn't exactly outnumber those fixated on same-sex marriage.

But what even some of the dedicated posters at savoy.org and its ilk don't realize is that Gilbert had a career, in the theater and out, that went well beyond the 14 comic operas he wrote with Sullivan. Trained as a lawyer, he began by writing light verse (still read today), graduated to scripts for Christmas "pantos" and the spoofs of grand opera that Victorian England called "burlesques," and from that popular base launched, over the next four decades, a cascade of plays and libretti that ranged from music-hall satirical sketches to blank-verse tragedy, in a style induplicable by anyone else. A meld of thick, mock-pompous prose, slyly sniping wit, and airy lunacy, Gilbert's writing is as delicious to quote as it is easy to recognize, which is why he's bred generations of die-hard fans.

And which is also, presumably, why Off-Broadway's enterprising Theater for a New Audience (TFANA) is presenting, as its spring show, this millennium's first major revival of the one non-Sullivan work by Gilbert that ranks as a perennial: Engaged. Written and produced in 1877, not long after Gilbert turned 40, it's a mordant vision of young love and marriage in a money-centered society, distinctly by a man entering middle life without an ounce of compassion to spare for the plush life around him. (Ironically, Gilbert himself was about to enter that life through the giant worldwide success of his collaborations with Sullivan.) Scholars often rank Engaged as Gilbert's masterpiece—a major stepping-stone on the glorious path of English social comedy from The Rivals to The Importance of Being Earnest. (Bernard Shaw, another practitioner, was the first of many critics to accuse Wilde's masterpiece of borrowing its inspiration from Gilbert.)

Like midlife crisis, TFANA's production is touched by a somber shadow: The director originally engaged to reawaken Gilbert's opus, Gerald Gutierrez, died suddenly in December. His successor, Douglas Hughes—fresh from the bumptious horseplay of last fall's The Beard of Avon—has retained Gutierrez's stellar design team (sets by John Lee Beatty, costumes by Catherine Zuber), and TFANA will dedicate the resulting production to the memory of double Tony winner Gutierrez (whose forays into high comedy included Lincoln Center's A Delicate Balance and Ring Round the Moon). Hughes, best known for darker works like his Obie-winning The Grey Zone, may turn out a production that matches Gilbert for bite. With a cast of accomplished drolls that includes Danielle Ferland, John Horton, Maggie Lacey, and Sloane Shelton, he may even be able to free Gilbert from the mental chain in which his name always brings up "and Sullivan." Footnote: Most tickets are reasonably priced, but the press rep tells us there's a special rate for divorce lawyers: $375 per billable act. Those who want to follow Gilbert in ditching the legal profession can save a bundle.

Engaged, by W.S. Gilbert, previews begin April 20, opens April 29, through May 16, Theater for a New Audience at the Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street, 212.229.2819


Comments by Charles McNulty


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