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The Ampersand Goes


Librettist William S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan had collaborated off and on since 1871, but, after twenty-five years, the magic had begun to wear off, and they went their separate ways.

The separation had been in the making for a long time. Changes to Gilbert’s words had begun to unravel the partnership, but a quarrel over a carpet split it apart.

In April 1890 Gilbert refused to pay a share of expenses for new carpet in the lobby of the Savoy Theatre. He and theater manager Richard D’Oyly Carte got into a red-faced argument that ended when Gilbert stormed from the theater, saying that Carte was “kicking down the ladder by which he had risen.”

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A flurry of angry letters followed. Gilbert wrote to Sullivan, who was not entirely sympathetic, but suggested a calm reassessment of their arrangement with the theater.

Further inflamed by a failure to get a meeting with Carte to discuss the matter, Gilbert sent a letter to Carte and Sullivan, withdrawing the rights to his librettos and saying that after the retirement of their current production, The Gondoliers, “our united work will be heard in public no more.”

In his diary, Sullivan wrote, “Felt ill all day; received letter from Gilbert…breaking off finally our collaboration—nothing would induce me to write again with him. How have I stood him so long!! I can’t understand.”

And yet, grudgingly, they collaborated twice more, in 1893 for Utopia Limited, and three years later for the disappointment of The Grand Duke.

When Sullivan’s musical drama The Beauty Stone opened, for unknown reasons, Gilbert was not invited to attend.

The postscript came on November 17, 1898, after a twenty-first anniversary revival of their comic opera The Sorcerer. “Call for Gilbert & Self,” Sullivan wrote in his diary description of the enthusiastic audience response. “We went on together, but did not speak to each other.”

It was the last time they appeared as partners.

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