W.S. Gilbert was born in London on 18 November 1836. His father William was a naval surgeon who later wrote novels and short stories, some of which included illustrations by his son. In 1861, the younger Gilbert began to write illustrated stories, poems and articles of his own to supplement his income. Many of these would later be mined as a source of ideas for his plays and operas, particularly his series of illustrated poems called the Bab Ballads.
In the Bab Ballads and his early plays, Gilbert developed a unique “topsy-turvy” style, where the humour was derived by setting up a ridiculous premise and working out its logical consequences, however absurd. Mike Leigh describes the “Gilbertian” style as follows:
“With great fluidity and freedom, [Gilbert] continually challenges our natural expectations. First, within the framework of the story, he makes bizarre things happen, and turns the world on its head. Thus the Learned Judge marries the Plaintiff, the soldiers metamorphose into aesthetes, and so on, and nearly every opera is resolved by a deft moving of the goalposts… His genius is to fuse opposites with an imperceptible sleight of hand, to blend the surreal with the real, and the caricature with the natural. In other words, to tell a perfectly outrageous story in a completely deadpan way.”
Gilbert developed his innovative theories on the art of stage direction, following theatrical reformer Tom Robertson. At the time Gilbert began writing, theatre in Britain was in disrepute. Gilbert helped to reform and elevate the respectability of the theatre, especially beginning with his six short family-friendly comic operas, or “entertainments,” for Thomas German Reed.
At a rehearsal for one of these entertainments, Ages Ago (1869), the composer Frederic Clay introduced Gilbert to his friend, the young composer Arthur Sullivan. Two years later, Gilbert and Sullivan would write their first work together. Those two intervening years continued to shape Gilbert’s theatrical style. He continued to write humorous verse, stories and plays, including the comic operas Our Island Home (1870) and A Sensation Novel (1871), and the blank verse comedies The Princess (1870), The Palace of Truth (1870), and Pygmalion and Galatea.