gilbert and sullivan and the savoy -- 1/26/24

Today's selection -- from The Secret Life of the Savoy by Olivia Williams.The modern musical—or light opera—theater was revolutionized by the impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte in his Savoy Theatre in London from the 1870s forward. The musicals he featured were new works by the dramatist W.S. Gilbert and the composer Arthur Sullivan:  

“For all the pleasure of his eponymous Opera Company, the opening night of the Savoy Theatre gave D'Oyly an even firmer new grip on the future, and the 'permanent abode' he had wanted for so long. His sturdy red-brick and Portland-stone theatre on the Strand was a source of great personal satisfaction. The building was his independent financial venture, and it tipped the balance of power from Gilbert and Sullivan in his direction. The fact that Gilbert had not appeared this evening at all, followed by many bad-tempered letters, hinted that he begrudged it. D'Oyly's plan was to let his theatre to their partnership, but Gilbert had immediately made a caustic remark about the rent of £4,000 (£40,000) a year, which D'Oyly insisted was well below the market race. D'Oyly confided to Sullivan that he was 'boiling over' with Gilbert's ingratitude after he had built a home for his work: 'Money is not everything co me, and I feel more about this tone he has taken than I care to say'. He rarely told Gilbert anything personal, but often shared his emotions with Sullivan: 'I have worked like a slave for four or five years [in the run-up to opening the theatre]. The overwork and worry have tired me out physically and mentally'.

“The balance of their partnership was a problem even from the beginning. D'Oyly did not think it meant a partnership when it came to decision-making. Gilbert and Sullivan had veto power over casting and free rein during rehearsals, and to D'Oyly that was enough. After a contract that the three signed for Patience, this eventually led to Gilbert's complaint that he felt like a 'hack author' at D'Oyly's commissioning beck and call, there to provide lyrics to order. Sullivan, who only wanted to write one more after Patience, had a similar complaint towards the end 'I shall never consider myself anything more than a paid piecework composer'. 

“D'Oyly had his own unhappiness within the trio. As he wrote to Gilbert, over a decade later: 'If I could be an author like you, I would certainly not be a manager. I am simply the tradesman who sells your works of art'." All three were uneasy about their status in the partnership: Gilbert and Sullivan had the nagging feeling that they were there to serve D'Oyly's light opera ambitions, and D'Oyly had the nagging feeling that the others did not appreciate his work. He was regularly hurt by Gilbert's dismissive attitude, as he felt it, towards him. He felt compelled to point out to Gilbert during one argument that he had 'devoted the greater portion of my time and energies during the best years of my life' to their venture. Two days later he was still upset enough to send an addendum: 'if you do not know — or have forgotten — what I have done, the first passerby in the street could probably tell you.' The relationship between D'Oyly and Gilbert was the most fraught. He wrote to Sullivan that Gilbert was 'almost impossible' during their flare-up over the Savoy Theatre rent. He then crossed it out. The crossed out phrase encapsulated how frustrated but co-dependent they were. Dealing with Gilbert was hard, but D'Oyly could not quite bring himself to say that it was impossible. 

“Whether or not D'Oyly enjoyed a disproportionate amount of profit, as Gilbert often felt, there was no doubt that the theatre was his pet project. To modern eyes it would no doubt look de trop, but it was complimented by contemporaries as sumptuous but restrained homage to the Italian Renaissance. D'Oyly was keen to claim credit in the programme for having discarded the standard motifs of 'cherubim, muses, angels and mythical deities'," and the change was received with relief by critics. As Reynolds's Newspaper reflected, it was: 'spacious, and with a noble depth and frontage [. . .] a wonderful improvement on those antiquated, fusty, and most uncomfortable portions of the older theatres.’ Unusually, windows were discreetly embedded at the back of the auditorium for natural light and traditional heavy colours were avoided. D'Oyly loved black-and-white marble chequered floors, which he used for the box office and would use again in his hotels. He lauded his own taste as 'rich, but not in the least garish or vulgar'.

Original interior of Savoy Theatre, 1881

“A fine building was not enough for D'Oyly — he wanted to refine the entire experience. Following close observation of where other proprietors were falling short, he did away with badly paid attendants angling for tips or charging for services, as he felt it 'a fertile source of annoyance to the public’ and paid them properly himself. His programmes were artistically presented mementos, often printed on silk, rather than the standard cheap playbills, and were free of charge, as were the cloakrooms. His 'refreshment-saloons' were not sublet to a contractor in whose interest it was, D'Oyly pointed out, to get every possible penny out of the public. He ran his bars himself, to give 'the most careful attention to procuring everything of the very best quality'.  As a whisky connoisseur, he chose unadulterated malts, and instead of the standard acrid chicory, there was proper coffee. He placed great emphasis on showing customers that nothing was spared when it came to hosting them. 

“The hurly burly outside other theatres for the best seats upset his sensibilities, so he instigated a now-familiar 'queue' system, with tea and cake for the wait.  Tickets were printed with seating plans on the back to encourage order. One of his programmes explained that 'disgraceful scenes of battle and hooliganism were to be witnessed all over the West-End'. The Savoy would be different. 

“Inside, the auditorium was cool and airy. This negated the need for ladies to carry fans. However, he saw them as a way to catch the attention of potential theatregoers, so he gave away souvenir Japanese-style fans to celebrate an anniversary of The Mikado, long after they would have offered practical use. The programme details, printed on fine paper, were attached to the Liberty fabric of the fans, which matched that on stage. 

“He left the auditorium spacious, rather than packing in seats for the highest returns. The embossed peacock-blue velvet armchairs left plenty of room for 'promenading between rows',  as one critic appreciated. Most theatres used hardwearing, easy-to-clean wooden or leather-covered seats, but the atmosphere was so cool, compared to normal theatres, that the audience could sit in velvet chairs without overheating. D'Oyly cut out and kept advice from a trade magazine, which warned: 'do not crowd or crush them [the audience] in their places; remember they have to occupy them for three or four hours and if they go away suffering from cramped limbs, they will not be likely to come again'.  The article also noted contemporary audiences' regular grumbles about having their chair kicked because of the pokiness of the rows, and there being nowhere for smart patrons to keep hats and coats uncrumpled.  D'Oyly took care of these annoyances too. 

“Theatres were noisy, and stages and auditoriums were lit from one great chandelier, making the audience as visible as the performers throughout. Audiences would chat, walk around and play games, leaving the performers competing for their attention. Aisles in the pit were known as 'Fops Alley', as young men would cruise up and down, flirting with women. In the Savoy there would be stillness and silence. Although keen to encourage the theatres as a place to socialise, the Savoy's dark auditorium, once a show began, was a statement of intent that the performances themselves were to receive undivided attention. One critic, unused to such reverence, likened it to being in church. 

“For refined socialising, at an appropriate time and away from the performances, there were the 'refreshment-saloons', here D'Oyly displayed portraits and busts of actors, the smoking room, and retiring and cloak rooms. D'Oyly was keen to attract unchaperoned women out to respectable matinees, which was helped along by a 'boudoir lounge' for ladies.”



Olivia Williams


The Secret Life of the Savoy: Glamour and Intrigue at the World's Most Famous Hotel


Pegasus Books


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment