W.S. Gilbert’s Dulcamara

Samantha PillingHistory

comedy and tragedy masks old background

Dulcamara, otherwise known as The Little Duck and the Great Quack, was W.S. Gilbert’s first piece of stage-work. It came about through a chance conversation between Tom Robertson and Miss Herbert, lessee of Saint James’s Theatre in London. Miss Herbert was after a Christmas piece – the only downside was she needed it written in a fortnight! 

Dulcamara, or The Little Duck and the Great Quack, was the end result. Robertson had always believed that Gilbert should write for the stage and persuaded him to take the plunge. Gilbert wrote it in ten days and it was rehearsed in a week. Dulcamara opened at the St. James’s Theatre on 29th December 1866 and subsequently ran for a total of 120 nights. It also led to further commissions for burlesque operas from Gilbert – effectively starting his stage-work career. 

According to a printed extract of W.S. Gilbert’s autobiography in the ‘Theatre’ magazine, as reiterated in Sidney Dark and Rowland Grey’s book ‘W.S. Gilbert: His Life and Letters’, Gilbert had no qualms of the piece being a success, so had no anxiety over how it would be received. He pre-invited several friends to an after-performance supper, to celebrate and also attended the first night himself. Since then, Gilbert learnt to never underplay the risks around first nights, subsequently stating ‘I would as soon invite friends to supper after a forthcoming amputation at the hip-joint.’ 

W.S. Gilbert’s first stage-work also taught him a valuable lesson – always value your work. According to W.S. Gilbert’s autobiography in the ‘Theatre’ magazine, there wasn’t time to discuss terms prior to the launch of Dulcamara. It had been well received and met with some success, so when Miss Herbert’s acting manager, Mr Emden, asked how much Gilbert wanted for the piece, he stated a modest £30. According to an extract in Sidney Dark and Rowland Grey’s book ‘W.S. Gilbert: His Life and Letters’, Mr Emden looked rather surprised, but wrote the cheque and asked for a receipt. When he got it, he said: 

‘Now take a bit of advice from an old stager who knows what he is talking about: never sell so good a piece as this for £30 again.’  

And from that day onward, Gilbert never did!

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