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Opposite Ends of the Spectrum: Shaw and Sullivan

 By Jeff S. Dailey


            George Bernard Shaw and Arthur Sullivan were both born into lower-middle class households and both attained considerable influence in the field of music, Sullivan as a composer and Shaw as a critic.  As they matured, their lives went in different directions.  Sullivan became a member of the upper class, while Shaw became a revolutionary, seeking to restructure the level of society that Sullivan now inhabited.

          How did this affect Shaw’s criticism?  Shaw was unlike any other music or theatre critic of his time.  Far wittier and more insightful than his colleagues, he wrote entertaining critiques that often betray his social concerns and his own artistic frustrations.  He also used his position as a critic to belittle those writers he thought had an unfair advantage over him, so that one must read his critiques critically. 

          Although Sullivan wrote many different types of music, during the period when Shaw was a critic, most of his compositions were dramatic in nature, so even when Shaw was a music critic, his reviews of Sullivan’s music are, in reality, theatre critiques.  At this point in his life, Sullivan was wealthy and moved in social circles that included the royalty of several countries, as well as leaders of the British government.  The presence of these people in the audience sometimes affected what Shaw wrote, as did his health and his own personal relationships.

          My paper begins by examining Shaw’s qualifications as a music and theatre critic.  Much of his criticism predates his earliest theatrical successes, so it is informative to see a developing aesthetic in his reviews.  Next, I compare Shaw’s theatrical and critical career with that of Sullivan’s, and, to a lesser extent, Gilbert’s.  Then I examine what Shaw wrote about Sullivan’s stage works (not all of which were written in collaboration with Gilbert), and check the reviews for contradictions and political influences.  Lastly, I show how Shaw left some quasi-hidden references to Sullivan in his own works and examine how Shaw’s critiques of Sullivan have affected the composer’s subsequent reputation and his acceptance among audiences even today. 

          Because Shaw’s music and theatre criticism has been anthologized and reprinted over the past century, his comments on the arts of the Victorian age have become, in many cases, the main surviving records of that period.  Inasmuch as Shaw was often a biased reviewer, his comments have significantly affected many subsequent writers on Victorian arts.  A critical review of Shaw’s criticism is well overdue, and my presentation, by focusing on the works of Victorian England’s most prominent composer, will reveal patterns in Shaw’s critiques that are often not based on the artistic merits of the works being reviewed, but on the social status of their creators and audiences.