Gilbert and Sullivan Archive


by Andrew Crowther

Everyone knows that Gilbert and Sullivan "quarrelled over a carpet". How ridiculous, how foolish for one of the great artistic partnerships to split up because of something so trivial! But of course the real point of their argument was something much more important: the carpet just happened to be the small irritant which set off the reaction. The Quarrel began in 1890; but if we are to understand its root causes, we must look back over the previous fifteen years and examine the edgy relationships between Gilbert, Sullivan and Richard D'Oyly Carte.

The Story So Far

When the three started working together in 1875, each was already a successful man in his sphere. Gilbert was acknowledged to be the most original dramatist of his generation, and he had managed to secure for himself an unusual degree of artistic autonomy, as director, as well as writer, of his plays. Everything he wrote for the stage was to be performed according to his own ideas - a degree of authority very rare in dramatists of that era. This fact must be remembered in considering his relationship with Sullivan, because in their collaborations the overall artistic vision is always Gilbert's, not Sullivan's: everything, acting, costumes, sets, had to conform to Gilbert's ideas, and the same is true, in a sense, of the music. It is fairly clear that Gilbert thought a Savoy opera should be what Sullivan later complained Ruddigore was: "a play with a few songs and some concerted music". Gilbert would have simply refused to play a role subordinate to that of the composer, on the plan of Lorenzo da Ponte's relationship with Mozart, or Meilhac and Halevy's with Offenbach.

In 1875, Sullivan was established as being of the top rank of English composers, a reputation based on his symphony, his incidental music to Shakespeare plays, and his choral works, rather than on his few excursions into the frivolities of operetta. He seems to have found working on Trial by Jury a genuine joy; but later arguments show that he slowly became frustrated at the role he had to play in the partnership, which he felt was subordinate to Gilbert. For the most part Gilbert did not interfere in the purely musical matters which were Sullivan's province; but it must have been painfully clear to Sullivan that this province was small indeed when compared to Gilbert's. When Sullivan complained to Gilbert in 1889 about the artistic sacrifices which he had to make for the good of the operas, Gilbert replied: "You are an adept in your profession, and I am an adept in mine. If we meet, it must be as master and master - not as master and servant." But it is a very moot point whether "master and master" can meet in that sense.

Richard D'Oyly Carte, too, was a successful man in 1875, though not as conspicuously as the other two. A concert agent and theatrical impresario, he had nurtured in his mind for several years a great idea: "The starting of English comic opera in a theatre devoted to that alone." His role in the story is secondary, in that he did not create the operas himself but facilitated their creation: he created the circumstances in which the Savoy series could develop. Secondary in that sense, maybe, but of vital importance: for his vision of English comic opera shaped the course of the lives of Gilbert and Sullivan.

If Carte had not existed, it is probable that the two would have collaborated, but most likely in a desultory, off-and-on sort of way, on the pattern of Gilbert's collaborations with Frederic Clay. But Carte turned Gilbert-and-Sullivan into a business. The success of Trial by Jury led to the creation of a regular opera company which would produce their works: immediately Gilbert and Sullivan were committed to working together regularly in the future. This commitment was formally recognised in an agreement signed on the 8th February 1883, in which Gilbert and Sullivan undertook in the future to provide Carte with a new opera at six months' notice.

It is not, I believe, fanciful to suppose that this agreement added to the strains within the partnership. It emphasised their commitment to each other, their role as cogs in a commercial machine. Effectively, it made them Carte's employees - a situation which created its own resentments. Their first really serious argument occurred the very next year, starting in March 1884 when Sullivan told Carte that "it is impossible for me to do another piece of the character of those already written by Gilbert and myself." He then told Gilbert: "I have come to the end of my tether [in the Savoy style]", adding that his music was of necessity "syllable-setting", and that "the music is never allowed to rise and speak for itself". He seemed suddenly appalled at his contractual obligation to collaborate with Gilbert for a further five years. After several letters and meetings with Gilbert, in which he pleaded for a change of direction away from topsyturvydom and mechanical plots, and towards a more "human" style, a compromise was reached, and the result was The Mikado.

But that was not the end of the argument - merely a truce. When Ruddigore proved less than a smash hit in 1887, Gilbert said the music was too serious, and Sullivan said the libretto was too mechanical and there were too few opportunities for the music. A serious dispute took place in 1888 over The Yeomen of the Guard when Sullivan said that he needed some "rather important alterations" in Act Two, which Gilbert took offence at providing. And in 1889 the grievance of 1884 re-emerged, with Sullivan complaining: "I am a cipher in the theatre".

The main source of these artistic conflicts was Sullivan, who became more and more convinced that his commitment to the Savoy was stifling his artistic growth. And, indeed, I believe he may have been justified in his complaints. Gilbert had an almost completely free hand to produce what he wanted on the stage at the Savoy - provided that it was broadly in the accepted style, and had a reasonable chance of commercial success. But this meant that it was Gilbert who set the tone of the piece, and Sullivan was only free to work within the parameters which Gilbert had thus set. Sullivan may have felt in these later years that he was doing nothing more than adding interesting details to Gilbert's vision - an unsatisfactory state of affairs for any creative artist.

Little wonder, then, that Sullivan should have been eager to support Carte's plans to build a new opera house in which a grand opera by Sullivan would be premiered. Here was a chance to strike out in a new direction, to create an opera in which the music would be, as operatic tradition dictates, more important than the words. (Sullivan initially approached Gilbert to be his librettist on this opera, but, significantly, Gilbert refused on the grounds that "the librettist of a grand opera is always swamped in the composer.") The hope which Carte was offering Sullivan was to play an important part in the forming of allegiances in the Carpet Quarrel.

Gilbert had always looked on Carte with a distrustful eye: as early as 1875, when Carte's proposed revival of Thespis fell through, Gilbert wrote sardonically to Sullivan: "It's astonishing how quickly these capitalists dry up under the magic influence of the words 'cash down'." He was always aware that Carte had earned his wealth essentially by exploiting the creative abilities of the other two: not a role to be ashamed of, but one which Gilbert felt gave Carte an unfairly large proportion of the profits. This probably led to Gilbert keeping an unusually close eye on the accounts of the D'Oyly Carte Company: he was ever on the alert for financial trickery.

To summarise, then: Gilbert distrusted Carte's financial dealings; Sullivan resented Gilbert's artistic dominance at the Savoy; Carte's project to present a Sullivan grand opera at his new opera house created a bond between Carte and Sullivan. These were the underlying factors which affected the way the Carpet Quarrel developed.

The Quarrel

On 22 April 1890, Gilbert wrote to Sullivan:

"I have had a difficulty with Carte.

"I was appalled to learn from him that the preliminary expenses of the Gondoliers amounted to the stupendous sum of £4,500!!! This seemed so utterly unaccountable that I asked to see the details and last night I received a resumé of them.... [Costume and set expenses enumerated.] But the most surprising item was £500 for new carpets for the front of the house!"

The significance of this was that, according to the 1883 contract mentioned above, "all expenses and charges of producing the... operas and all the performances of the same, including... repairs incidental to the performance", were to be deducted from the profits of the operas, the remainder then being distributed equally between Gilbert, Sullivan and Carte. Gilbert contended that new carpets for the front of the house could not be called "repairs incidental to the performance", and that their cost should not have been taken out of the profits. Gilbert noted to Sullivan that the quoted phrase "would be wholly superfluous if it were intended to include everything belonging to the theatre, whether in the lobbies, staircases, auditorium or stage."

In the same letter, Gilbert describes a blazing row which he had with Carte over these expenses. Though the carpet was only one of the items to which Gilbert took exception, it was clearly the one which angered him most. Gilbert describes Carte as refusing to reconsider the disputed items, and the row escalating to the point where Carte said that Gilbert would write no longer for the Savoy. (Helen Carte, who was also present, later insisted that it was Gilbert who first proposed the break.) Gilbert then adds in his account that "I left him with the remark that it was a mistake to kick down the ladder by which he had risen...." His deeper resentments about Carte show through in this comment, which implies that Carte's wealth derived not from his own industry but from those of his collaborators. Carte had written to Gilbert in June 1885: "What is my position compared to yours? I envy you your position, but I could never attain it. If I could be an author like you I would certainly not be the manager. I am simply the tradesman who sells your creations of art." It must have been very hurtful to Carte to have this argument thus flung back in his face.

Sullivan was from the start doubtful about the validity of Gilbert's claims, but he agreed to go into the matter. Gilbert wanted a new contract with Carte, one which would be "fairer" in his eyes; the others seem to have agreed to this course of action, but Sullivan seemed anxious to delay this, saying that the existing dispute over expenses should be settled first. Sullivan was certainly anxious to keep on good terms with Carte, for whom he was about to write his Grand Opera Ivanhoe. But he was also trying desperately to stay in Gilbert's good books - though this could only be done by a wholehearted declaration of support. Sullivan seems to have been profoundly uninterested in such financial matters, and could not understand why Gilbert should make such a fuss over what Sullivan later described as "a few miserable pounds".

It is important to realise Gilbert's attitude to the dispute. It was not simply a dispute over a few miserable pounds: it was a matter of proving what Gilbert had long suspected, that Carte was not honest in his business dealings. The famous carpet was merely a symbol of this perceived dishonesty. This is less easy to show, but it may also have been in part a power struggle, the question in dispute being: Who is to run the Savoy? By this time Gilbert was in almost complete artistic control of the Savoy, as I have already mentioned; yet he was still merely Carte's employee, and always there was that lurking question: Do we actually need Carte? On more than one occasion Gilbert expressed the conviction that Carte was not necessary to their success: in 1885 Gilbert wrote to Sullivan: "When we manage the theatre for him he succeeds splendidly. When he manages for himself, he fails."

(It should be mentioned here that Carte himself insisted that Gilbert had mistaken the cost of the carpet: it was not £500, but only £140. This is important, considering Gilbert's own insistence on the importance of financial accuracy. If he could be mistaken on this, the most harped-on element of his case against Carte, then his entire position begins to look decidedly shaky.)

Sullivan was never likely to side with Gilbert when it came to the crunch. He resented Gilbert's overbearing attitude, and not only professionally: he smarted under Gilbert's humiliating barbs of wit. In the early years of their collaboration they had worked together with genuine pleasure; but as the years passed the hopeless differences between their personalities made the smash inevitable. And, as I have mentioned, Sullivan had a bond of loyalty to Carte because of his proposed Grand Opera, which Carte was to produce at his Royal English Opera House.

Gilbert was not slow to realise Sullivan's lack of sympathy with his arguments about the Gondoliers expenses. On May 5th 1890 he wrote to Sullivan expressing the following momentous decision: "The time for putting an end to our collaboration has at last arrived." There was no more talk, for the moment at least, of renewing their contract at the Savoy. Gilbert had broken with both Carte and Sullivan.

This was bad enough; but the dispute was, at least, kept reasonably private, despite the pryings of journalists. But at this point another factor came in which brought the matter out into the glare of publicity. The Savoy profits were distributed quarterly: the dispute had so far concerned only the April account, but, when the next payment became due in July, Carte's solicitors decided that these profits could not be paid until the dispute over the April account had been settled. Gilbert issued a writ for the profits from the July account; Carte sent him £2,000, but Gilbert calculated his share to be at least £3,000, and on his solicitor's advice applied for a receiver to deal with the Gondoliers accounts.

After two adjournments, the case came before the court on 3 September 1890, and was settled the same day. Carte was to pay Gilbert a further £1,000, but Gilbert's application for a receiver was refused.

When the case was over, Gilbert feeling that his attitude had been vindicated in the court of law, he tried to organise a reconciliation with Carte and Sullivan. Not surprisingly, the others were not feeling as amiable as he was; Richard D'Oyly Carte refused to meet him, though his wife Helen Carte agreed to do so. In this meeting Gilbert retracted some statements made in anger, but added that he wanted all the Savoy accounts from 1883 on re-examined. He soon dropped this suggestion, but it was a clear indication that mutual trust had not been restored.

As for Sullivan, he wanted to be reconciled to Gilbert, but Gilbert would only consent to this if Sullivan retracted an affidavit which he had made in the court case, which had effectively accused Gilbert of perjury. Sullivan, heartily sick of the whole business, refused to do so.

Post Mortem

It would be foolish to suggest that Gilbert comes out well from all this. Whatever the rights and wrongs of his argument, he was the aggressor in this case, and a very aggressive aggressor, too. From a purely practical point of view, he had very little to complain at in his association with Carte. It was revealed in the court case that in the previous eleven years Carte had paid Gilbert £90,000 - in the light of which this endless wrangling over a £140 carpet might seem foolishly trivial.

But at the same time, Carte was scarcely blameless himself. After all, the carpet was only one of a number of disputed items, and the real issue lay not in the mere money value of these things, but in whether Carte could be trusted with the financial affairs of Gilbert and Sullivan. Gilbert contended that Carte had at best made a series of serious blunders in the accounts, and at worst deliberately attempted to swindle the others. It is not easy to settle the rights and wrongs of the issue at this distance, but it does seem fairly clear that there was something very wrong with the accounts at this time. Gilbert wrote to Sullivan on 28 May, 1891, a year after the end of the "Quarrel", that Carte had admitted "an unintentional overcharge of nearly £1000 in the electric lighting accounts alone."

For fifteen years Gilbert, Sullivan and Carte had worked together to produce a series of eleven operettas, each of which was an outstanding commercial success by the standards of the day. They had started out in a spirit of genuine amity, but as the years passed the incompatibility of their temperaments became more and more obvious, and the commercial pressures to sustain this sequence of triumph must have added to the strain. The only reason they worked together at all was because of the strange alchemical reaction that happened when Gilbert's words were allied to Sullivan's music. The 1883 contract with Carte, which bound Gilbert and Sullivan to provide him with a new opera at six months' notice, seems to have affected Sullivan with a sense of imprisonment, since a mere year later he started hinting that he could no longer write with Gilbert.

The Carpet Quarrel was the almost inevitable culmination of years of strain and tension in the partnership. The most surprising thing is not that it happened, nor that it was as destructive as it was, but that the three were ever able to work together again. Despite their mutual distrust, they produced Utopia, Limited in 1893 and The Grand Duke in 1896. Neither of these even approached the best of the Savoy series - though both have their points of interest. Gilbert was getting old and verbose, and Sullivan had lost his enthusiasm for setting Gilbert's words. It is the operas of the earlier period, when Gilbert and Sullivan were able to work together with some degree of mutual trust, that remain as their great artistic achievement. We should be thankful that the partnership lasted as long as it did.

Page created 28 June 1997