The cultural influences of Gilbert & Sullivan

Samantha PillingEntertainment, History


Gilbert & Sullivan were well-known for their comedy operas, with the likes of ‘Pirates of Penzance’ and ‘Iolanthe’. They appealed to the audiences of their time, due in part, to the successful partnership of Gilbert’s lyrical genius & the musical composition of Sullivan. However, their operas were more than great shows – they also influenced our culture, from politics through to advertising.

Gilbert & Sullivan addressed gender stereotyping in their operas, with characters such as Katisha of ‘The Mikado’ and the fairy queen from ‘Iolanthe’, blurring the lines between masculine and feminine gender conventions of the time. Lines and quotes from Gilbert & Sullivan operas have made their way into everyday usage. Phrases such as ‘short, sharp shock’ and ‘let the punishment fit the crime’ are used today, along with ‘Pooh-bah’, a phrase used to describe someone who is self-important or high-ranking, who either exhibits inflated self-importance or has a position and title, but with no real authority.

Musical theatre and comedy

Gilbert & Sullivan changed both the content and form of musical theatre. They showed that subjects like politics and social issues could be addressed in a witty way, without sacrificing entertainment values. They influenced all manner of modern comedy greats from the stage, media and TV – including ‘Monty Python’, ‘Private Eye’ and ‘Yes, Minister…’ all poking fun at the establishment and social rankings.

The also showed that both amateur theatre and actors shouldn’t be sneered at or looked down on. They provide a useful training experience for those wishing to progress onto the bigger stage.

Lyricists such as Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin and Oscar Hammerstein II copied the rhyme schemes and satirical lyrics Gilbert had popularised. Whilst modern composers such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Ivor Novello and George Gershwin, took their inspiration from Sullivan – contributing to the important part both Gilbert & Sullivan played on modern culture.

Even Sesame Street has featured Gilbert & Sullivan – with our very own dramatists teaching Oscar The Groush all about the letter B!

Politics and law

Popular phrases from Gilbert & Sullivan operas have been used in legal rulings and political manifestos. At the 1992 Tory conference, Peter Lilley’s speech included a pastiche of ‘I’ve got a little list’ from ‘The Mikado’, and included phrases such as ‘young ladies who get pregnant to jump the housing queue and sponging socialists’.

Advertising and novels

The reach and influence of Gilbert & Sullivan even stretched as far as the advertising world, with product giants such as Terry’s Chocolate Orange, Guinness and Campbell’s soups have all used or parodied Gilbert & Sullivan’s operas, lyrics and tunes. Novelists have also used Gilbert & Sullivan for inspiration, with novels being written around fictional characters from the play or using these fictional names as names for racehorses and comic book superheroes. There’s even novels using the Savoy Theatre and the different operas, as a backdrop for murder/detective novels.

Gilbert & Sullivan made a massive impact on the culture of today and, thanks to their innovative approach, witty banter and unforgettable melodies, I’m sure they’ll continue to do so for years to come.

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