The great Victorian musical duo, Gilbert and Sullivan, were both active Freemasons, as Yasha Beresiner discovered
Of the 14 Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas only one has allusions to Freemasonry - an amusing parody in the opening act to The Grand Duke, first performed in March 1896.
The scene is set in 1750 in the marketplace at Speisesaal in the Grand Duchy of Pfennig Halbpfennig. Members of a theatrical company, of which Ernest Dummkopf is the manager, are celebrating the forthcoming marriage of Lisa to Ludwig.
Several complications come to light. There appears to be a conspiracy to depose the Grand Duke and put Ernest Dummkopf in his place. Those involved with the conspiracy have a secret sign... (see right)
William S Gilbert, the librettist, dramatist and critic and Arthur Sullivan, a musical child prodigy, composer and conductor, had enjoyed separate successful careers before they first teamed in 1871 to produce the burlesque Thespis or The Gods Grown Old.
Their Masonic careers had a parallel development. They were made Freemasons separately and unaware of each other's pending interest in the Craft when they were introduced in 1868 by Frederic Clay (1838-1889) the English singer and composer, who had been initiated with Sullivan in 1865. After meeting as fellow Masons, however, they jointly progressed and enjoyed several degrees beyond the Craft.
Sir William Schwenck Gilbert was born in the Strand in London on 18 November 1836 and died 29 May 1911 (while attempting to save what he thought to be a drowning adolescent), having established himself as England's leading playwright, critic, humorist and satirist.
He had early ambitions to become a lawyer, and was a justice of the Peace in Middlesex in 1891. He was the son of a retired naval surgeon and his otherwise ordinary youth was sensationally interrupted when he was two - he was kidnapped by Italian brigands.
Well, we shall soon be freed from his tyranny. To-morrow the Despot is to be dethroned!
Hush, rash girl! You know not what you say.
Don't be absurd! We're all in it - we're all tiled, here.
That has nothing to do with it. Know ye not that in alluding to our conspiracy without having first given and received the secret sign, you are violating a fundamental principle of our Association?
By the mystic regulation
Of our dark Association,
Ere you open conversation
With another kindred soul,
You must eat a sausage-roll!
You must eat a sausage-roll!
If, in turn, he eats another,
That's a sign that he's a brother
Each may fully trust the other.
It is quaint and it is droll,
But it's bilious on the whole.
Very bilious on the whole.
The parody on the ritual continues with the members of the company - in conversation:
Oh, bother the secret sign! I've eaten it until I'm quite uncomfortable! I've given it six times already to-day- and I can't eat any breakfast!
And it's so unwholesome. Why, we should all be as yellow as frogs if it wasn't for the make-up!
All this is rank treason to the cause.
I suffer as much as any of you. I loathe the repulsive thing - I can't contemplate it without a shudder - but I'm a conscientious conspirator, and if you won't give the sign I will.
(Eats sausage-roll with an effort.)
Poor martyr! He's always at it, and it's a wonder where he puts it!
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